Translated from French (Rwanda) by Zoe Norridge (Huza Press, 2019)
Not my Time to Die is the true story of a woman whose overwhelming courage and tenacity help her survive the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda: it is an anthem to love and compassion, a tribute to those she lost, and a story of survival. Originally published in French in 1997, the English translation was published by Kigali-based Huza Press in 2019.
Rwanda, 1994. Yolande Mukagasana is a nurse working in a medical centre in the Nyamirambo neighbourhood of Kigali. She heals people. She has a passionate relationship with her husband, and is mother to three children. She is well respected in her local community. She is happy. She is Tutsi.
When political events begin to spiral out of control, Yolande’s husband Joseph does not listen to her desperate entreaty that they should try to flee to safety. After all, who expects a massacre? As an incredulous Joseph laments, “Who could imagine that in such a small country, where we speak the same language and have the same traditions…” Faced with the implausibility of their new reality, he is unable to complete his sentence. It is only when it is too late that the family, like so many others, realise that they are trapped, about to be hunted down by the Hutu state-sponsored vigilantes, and slaughtered by their own neighbours, people alongside whom they had lived their whole life, people “who smiled at us just a few days earlier.” The family abandons their home and Yolande ends up separated from Joseph and their children, unable to get news of them. When she does, it brings an image that will change her life forever: her children lined up in front of a ditch and felled in turn by a machete blow to the back of the neck. This memory, given to her by another as she could not even witness it herself from her hiding place, will haunt her always: “Until my dying day, every time I think about the death of my children it will be as if I’ve just found out.” How can a human being bear so much sorrow? How can it even be articulated? With the Tutsi population almost wiped out in 1994, there are few left to tell their story, and Mukagasana steps up to that responsibility with a fortitude and empathy that I can only admire.
Not My Time to Die is a painful and beautiful book that had me holding my breath, fearful of turning the page and yet compulsively wanting to do so. Human brutality is exposed in horrific detail, strewn before us like the decomposing corpses that litter the paths of Mukagasana’s neighbourhood. This is a story of “intolerable cruelty” and indomitable hope: the story of a woman who lost her entire family, her home, her livelihood and her place in the world, and yet finds help, support and hope in surprising places. Though for the most part Mukagasana writes without judgement, her most scathing comments are reserved for the international community: the indecisive UN leadership of Boutros Boutros Ghali, for example, or the western minister who insisted that Rwanda would need to repay its national debt (“Yes, Mister Minister, if a few of us survive this genocide, we’ll pay you back for the weapons that killed us”).
Zoe Norridge has taken great care with the translation – this was evident even before I reached the Translator’s Note at the end, in which she details her meetings with Mukagasana and their discussions about the translation. The result is a translation that shows an intimate understanding of Mukagasana’s story, a retelling in which Norridge never takes over, but harnesses all of her knowledge – of Mukagasana’s life, but also of the Rwandan context, for this is her research area – to render the text in an urgent yet never sensational prose. Norridge has grappled with some significant linguistic challenges, not least in the title. She discusses the decision to render “La mort ne veut pas de moi” (literally, “death doesn’t want me”) as “not my time to die” throughout, reflecting the phrase’s function as both prophecy and talisman throughout the narrative, and reinforcing Mukagasana’s will to survive even if it might lessen the implication about this decision not being hers to make. It is clear throughout how invested Norridge is in telling this story, and this is a story that needed to be told. It is brave, beautiful, and extraordinary in its resilience and compassion. We need to know these stories in the west, to witness the human experience not represented in press coverage of international tragedies, to question our own complicity in the blind eye turned to far-off crises. Mass killings might make for sensational headlines barely remembered decades later, but the eye-witness account of watching a husband’s hand being casually lopped off by a machete, the representation of the abject horror of hiding beneath a sink for eleven days and emerging to the news that your children have been massacred while you survived – these images will remain. They cannot fade into the annals of international historical atrocity, because of the determination of the author, translator and publisher in bringing this book into being. This memoir gives a name to the dead, while refusing to name the living: murderers or survivors, they will, says Mukagasana, recognise themselves. In her hiding, she makes a vow to write down her experience, to bear witness, to write in the name of the Tutsi people, and she lays down a challenge: “May those who don’t have the strength to read it denounce themselves as complicit in the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.” Reading Not My Time To Die is akin to standing up and taking responsibility for knowing, to revoke “the cowardice of the international community who have abandoned us”; it is refusing to look the other way. That Zoe Norridge’s translation makes this book available to English-language readers is a gift, and one we should have the courage to accept.