Karabo was a young girl during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and saw her Tutsi father and sisters murdered, and was left for dead herself. Her mother, who was Hutu, fled the massacres, and Karabo was left an orphan, and taken in by her paternal uncle Kamanzi, who raised her as her own. Hearts Among Ourselves is a novel, but reads as a memoir, in such a way that Karabo feels like a real person. And while she is fictional, she IS also real, taken from pieces of everyone who survived the genocide, and lived on to face life after genocide amidst survivors and perpetrators and those in between.
A. Happy Umwagarwa has created a profound novel that is a love story, a coming of age story, but also a deep look into the effects of war and genocide on a population, and how ethnicity designations, hatred, and confusion don’t just go away because the massacres and/or wars are over. The author uses Karabo’s mixed ethnicity as a way to show the reader that there are no just good or just bad sides in Rwandan history and people, but deep beliefs that need to be fully erased before the country can really move on. I thoroughly appreciated this dinsight into Rwanda post 1994, as the country is often celebrated as having performed amazing feats in terms of reconciliation, and I think many of us outside of the country have never thought much about how much effort, pain, and courage this must have taken on the part of an entire population.
It took me quite a long time to read Hearts Among Ourselves. There were some areas that I found were too drawn out, especially in terms of the never-ending love triangle between Karabo, Shema, and Sugira. There were times when I wanted to tell Karabo to stop hiding, and then I realized I needed to put myself in her shoes, and imagine growing up having seen most of my family murdered by people who had previously been friends, and navigating life and love thinking that her mother had abandoned her to her fate. I really appreciated the insight into how the genocide didn’t come out of nowhere and hasn’t disappeared into the past either, as well as the constant reminder that everyone has had to deal with the consequences in some way or another.
So while the general narrative left me a little bored or perplexed at times, I still feel like the main takeaway from the story as a whole is that we cannot ignore history if we want to move forward, but that we cannot rest stuck to the past either. But that in the end, with hard work and an open heart, reconciliation is possible. And I learnt a lot about life in Rwanda and Rwandan culture, because A. Happy Umwagarwa has a great way of threading everyday life into each page.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the copy of this book!