In 1998, Abdourahman Waberi, then a 32-year-old novelist and poet, embarked on a mission to Rwanda with 10 African authors and filmmakers. It was just four years after the devastating genocide in which thousands of the country's Hutu ethnic majority unleashed unspeakable violence mostly on the Tutsi minority. In only 100 days, nearly one million people perished.
Waberi, now an assistant professor of French and Francophone literature at Columbian College, went to Rwanda in part to open the eyes of the international community, but mostly to listen to witnesses of the massacre. A native of Djibouti, Waberi felt compelled “to mourn with the Rwandan people, to show them compassion and solidarity,” he said. He visited traumatized survivors in their homes—and unapologetic perpetrators in their prison cells.
But when he sat down to piece through the harrowing notes he’d collected, he was reminded of German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno’s dictum on “the impossibility of writing about Auschwitz.” How do you tell the story of an atrocity, Waberi asked himself, without trivializing peoples’ pain?
“Language remains inadequate in accounting for the world and all its turpitudes, words can never be more than unstable crutches,” Waberi said. “And yet, if we want to hold on to a glimmer of hope in the world, the only miraculous weapons we have at our disposal are these same clumsy supports.”
After another mission to Rwanda in 1999, Waberi was ready to begin his book Harvest of Skulls, a genre-bending mix of fiction, journalism and poetry which he originally wrote in 2000 but was released in English for the first time in 2016. And, despite the passage of time, the voices of the people he met—from grief-stricken mothers to machete-toting teenagers—still resonant in his life and his work. “My trips had a huge impact on me, both artistically and emotionally,” Waberi said. “They made me a better man and a better writer.”
Returns and Departures
Even before traveling to Rwanda, Waberi’s writing was interwoven with Africa and his native Djibouti, a tiny nation nestled in the Horn of Africa between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. He grew up poor in a “shantytown.” Few people in his village were literate. By age 10, Waberi was paid in candy to draft neighbors’ lover letters and job applications. He was just 12 when Djibouti declared its independence from France in 1977.
Critical of Djibouti’s authoritarian regime—President Ismail Omar Guelleh has been cited by Human Rights Watch for abuses such as denying freedom of speech and suppressing political opposition—Waberi today considers himself an exile from his own country. He left in 1985 to study in France and hasn’t returned since 2007. Not all of books are readily available in Djibouti and he worries that if he enters the country to see his mother, he might be jailed for his outspokenness. Still, Waberi felt a literary obligation to write about his homeland. His novels like Transit and Passage of Tears explore his personal feelings of displacement. “My books are filled with returns and departures,” he said.
Waberi had completed a trio of novels about Djibouti when he first traveled to Rwanda with the team of African artists. For two months, he “immersed, shared and mourned” with Rwandans who were willing to talk about the horrors they'd seen. Not everyone was forthcoming. For many, the wounds were too fresh. Others challenged Waberi. “They said to me: ‘Now you want to write my story? Where were you four years ago?’”
In Harvest of Skulls, Waberi set out to represent a full portrait of the genocide, capturing the stories of the victims alongside the murderers. He “lightly fictionalized” his real life encounters, he said. In one chapter, he described an old widowed woman who named her dog Minuar, after the French name for the United Nations peacekeeping mission she said “failed to protect us.” The dog “fattened up on human flesh during the genocide,” Waberi writes, even feasting on the bodies of slaughtered family members. At Rilima prison, Waberi spoke to genocidaires (“those who commit genocide”) who justified their killings as acts of war. “We found them to be accusatory and punctilious in the way an American attorney can be,” he recalled. “They were determined, assured in their position and didn’t sound the slightest bit penitent.”
Since leaving Rwanda, Waberi has received numerous awards and honors. In 2005, he was chosen one of the “50 Writers of the Future” by the French literary magazine Lire. He recently received the prestigious "Chevalier" Order of Arts and Letter Medal from the French Culture Minister. His writing has been translated into 10 languages. Harvest of Skulls is his fifth book to appear in English. His most recent works—a novel about writer and activist Gil Scot Heron and a new volume of poetry—will be translated later this year. Since coming to Columbian College in 2013 to teach Francophone literature, Waberi’s classroom has been a forum for discussions relating to philosophy and the global view. “I have had the privilege of crisscrossing the world and sharing my words, thoughts and emotions with the amazing students of this fabulous institution,” he said. He is encouraged by the recent emergence of African novelists—from Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Americanah) and Chigozie Obioma (The Fisherman) to Ethiopia’s Dinaw Mengestu (All Our Names)—and applauds what he predicts is a shift in the epicenter of the literary world. “Maybe the next great novel isn’t coming from Vienna, Venice or Valencia, but from Nairobi, Lagos or Dakar,” he said.
Still, the legacy of Rwanda weighs on him. Looking back, he continues to worry that his writing didn’t do justice to the emotional gravity of the tragedy. “It’s not only an issue of artistic failure. It's also something you cannot overcome psychologically,” he said. But he’s heartened by Rwandan writers and artists who have since produced their own works about the dark era in their country’s history. “Maybe what I did was only to put down a first layer of ink, but that first layer may have given tools to Rwandans to talk about these events.”