Mahoro, Natacha Karambizi’s debut novella is a uniquely told story about growing up amidst a collapsing state, family and sense of reality. Told by a nameless narrator, ‘Mahoro’ which borrows its title from the protagonist’s name, paints a scene in which the 9-year old protagonist watches innocently as the maternal side of her family who are Hutu gradually become murderous opposition to the paternal side of her family who are Tutsi, for reasons yet unknown to her.

This murderous rage comes as if by the change of the season. “By the time she was 9 years old”, the author writes, “the clouds above Mahoro’s home and life had grayed!” Set in 1994, Rwanda, this novella is a mature portrayal of a child’s perception of hate, violence and war. A war that although not actively involving the child, returns when the child, given the circumstances in which she grows up, is a child no longer; and it returns clothed in the fierce attacks on her recollection of the past, completely changing the truth she thought she knew about her family.

Natacha’s protagonist struggles to make sense of her reality, a reality that soon after is indistinguishable from nightmares. When it is announced on the radio that the president’s plane was shot down by Inyenzi(a term whose literal meaning in Kinyarwanda is ‘cockroaches’ but which the 1994 government used to refer to the then Rwanda Patriotic Army), Mahoro can not bring herself to grasp the odds of that ever happening. Natasha juxtaposes the nine year old epitome of innocence by a context so filled with hate and ignorance; the result is strikingly moving.

Loss is a recurring motif in this story and it comes, to begin with, with the rushed departure from home. Mahoro, her sister Rumuri, her brothers Nshuti, Sano and Rugwiro must leave their home in Gitarama and move to Kigali under the threatening pressure of their maternal family. The children are accompanied by their alcoholic father and leave behind their home and their mother. They soon rediscover joy in the form of play, a joy that is interrupted every now and then by the horrific sights of the corpses of brutally murdered Tutsi on the road to Kigali.

The war ends abruptly and anticlimactically, taking with it the childhood Mahoro and Rumuri had once known. What follows is the efforts to rebuild and to heal. Efforts that for the father come in the form of thoughtlessly depending on religion for comfort and are soon short-lived. For Mahoro, the life she leads at her boarding school helps her cope.

Mahoro suffers one final blow that comes at her severely. It is the untold truths about her past, about the role of her mother in the genocide.

“The once tall and slender Mahoro now shrunk in confidence and her joy became bitter shame”

Natacha’s novella bears resemblance to Gael Faye’s novel ‘Petit Pays’ in that the complex, senseless dynamics of a genocide are portrayed through the eyes of a child. This accomplishes two things: the reader is filled with an almost protective empathy for the protagonist, and the story has none of the bias and ill-conceived beliefs that can easily characterize an adult protagonist.

‘Mahoro’, despite being so well-written could have explored further the crumbling worlds within some of the characters, especially the protagonist’s father who plays a passive role in the story but whose intimate perception of their circumstances could have so richly complemented the narrative. Granted, it is perhaps this absence of words that best captures the characters’ experiences. Holding Rugwiro’s infant corpse in his arms, the father can not find the words that could reconcile his deep-rooted belief in peace with the never-ending pain that continues to scar his life. “Papa silently carried his lifeless body the rest of the way”, the author writes, “Mahoro and Rumuri followed behind holding on to each other. All that was left was silence”

Natacha writes a story filled with confusion, pain and irreversible tragedies. But it is not a story of despair. The author begins and ends her story with the physical manifestation of hope: giving birth!

When I came in, Mahoro called for her baby and handed her to me with tears in her eyes. “Look what God made!” She said. It was a little girl. They named her Gihozo — a gift from God that would wipe away all their tears. And in that moment I knew I had to tell you this story. The story of a journey with much to bear and the courage to overcome. My friend Mahoro, was back but more importantly, peace had found its home again, in the center of her heart.

Book Details

  • Author: Natacha Karambizi
  • Published in: 2017
  • Pages: Hardcover, 60pages

Mahoro contains illustrative monochrome photography by Eric Murinzi.