Octobre 2019 Theme: A million cracks in my immaterial walls

Oct 2019 posting.jpg

Everything about this photo is so beautiful, so serene, wouldn’t you say? Except the broken glass, of course!

This young woman, so elegantly dressed, her hair neatly combed, her posture, the way she is holding the child, probably trying to get him to remain still long enough for the photographer to immortalize the moment. And the magnificent backdrop with the flowers, the lush vegetation, the green grass! Picture perfect!

Unfortunately, while this is one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen in my life, I have to say that the underlying story is also one of the saddest tales I’ve ever heard. You see, it wasn’t long after that picture was taken that the lives of these two people were abruptly and mercilessly torn apart.

This is a painting based on the picture of a mother and her child, taken somewhere in Rwanda, in the 1940s or 1950s. What makes it sad, is that the picture was taken a short while before her child was taken away from her by the authorities and placed in an orphanage!

Why, you might be wondering? Why was that child taken away from his mother? Was she an unfit parent? Did she not have the means to raise her child?

No. The child was taken away from her for one reason and one reason alone: the father was a white man, a Belgian, and she was a black woman, a Rwandese. And in those days, before our country’s independence from the Belgian colonial rule, it was illegal for a citizen of the occupying state to have children with a woman from the colonies, Rwanda, Urundi and the Congo.

You’ll forgive me if I add more sad details to this already distressing account. Not only did they take away the beautiful baby featured on this picture, they also took the other five kids she had with the baby’s father! Six kids in total taken away from their mother for the sole reason that they were bi-racial! ‘Mulattos’, as they pejoratively called them.

I often ask my self if, in that moment when they took the picture, she already knew that her child would be taken away from her? More so at an age when he might never remember her?

And did she have this picture taken so she could remember the child she once had?

And how was the separation? How were the goodbyes?

And what happened of her? Did she psychologically survive that separation?

Knowing me, you know I tried to find out more. Regrettably, I could only find a couple things about them: the name of the child and what he grew up to become. Nothing about the mother.

I was left with so many interrogations: what was the name of this woman? Where did she come from? Who were her parents? What was the name of the hill where she was born? What did she love in life? What did she aspire to become, when she was younger? What were her passions? Her favorite song? Her favorite book? Did she even know how to read and write?

I was however relieved to read somewhere, and I hope it is true, that she was later able to reunite with her kids! I can only dream that they were able to rebuild the bond that was once severed and resume the family life that was once interrupted.

I imagine you’ve guessed why I couldn’t find out more about her. Because the people who ruled us in those days considered her life to be so irrelevant, no one bothered to record it. If it wasn’t for this picture and for her child’s efforts to search justice for the victims of this horrendous law, we might not even know that she ever existed and what she looked like.

Rwanda’s History is paved with so many dark chapters and mishaps, but I think this is one of the darkest. And for a long time, it was also one of our best kept secrets. Could you imagine that it wasn’t taught in any of the schools I attended? I only found about it through the news, in my forties. Maybe some of you might be finding out about it today, on October 1st, 2019, as you are reading my blog.

From all the pictures of that period of our history, this is the one that spoke to me the most. It made me think about a lot of things, not only what happened before independence, but also about all the tragedies that took place since. It made me think at the indifference of the masses, and how people who are not directly affected by a tragedy continue to live their blissful lives as though nothing happened.

It made me think how omitting these stories from the History books that were written post-independence was in a way complicit to the past deed.

I learned to value more our family albums. These precious memorabilia that seem static to the external eye but that are so full of magic, scenes of happiness that make us sad, people smiling that bring tears to our eyes and nostalgia in our hearts.

Family albums, the unknowing holders of our untold stories.

It also made me think at all the people who left without a trace, without a snapshot we could cling on as a souvenir.

Irrelevant, a word charged with so much hatred, so much contempt, so much ignorance!


Sadly, this word did not leave the country with our former colonizers. They might have even found it there. It stayed and it withstood every regime change we had since our independence.

A succession of triumphalist eras where the brightest brains are used to destroy their peers, gladly and aptly replacing the colonizer in this game of ‘let’s see who ruin the most and split the biggest numbers of families’. Decades of mothers being separated from their kids, kids losing their parents, leaving being all these perfect pictures as only proof that they had not always been alone, even though no one ever talks about them, even though no one ever acknowledges them.

It took 60 years for Belgium – after the independence – to recognize and apologize for these family separations. 60 years of denial, of minimization, of forced abandonments, of misery, of tears, of trauma.

And you know why they had no choice but to finally give in? Because the children of these hundreds of women who were wronged in the cruelest way possible never gave up. They spoke and spoke, even when they were tired of speaking to def ears.

Though they were loud, I feel ashamed that I did not hear their voices, wherever I was, that I was for so long oblivious to their plight. I am ashamed that I never knew all that these kins of ours who suffered so much then, before I was born, and who are still suffering today.

So, us too, let’s talk, and talk and talk, so our stories will never be said to be irrelevant.

I know I will, tirelessly.

On April 6th, 2019, I made a pledge, one that I am about to fulfil today. Yes, the time has come. After 15 months of sharing the stories of exceptional men and women from almost all the countries on the continent and abroad, the time has come to bring to you stories from my birth country, and tell you whom, amongst my peers and my kins, inspires me the most.

Many awaited this moment, wondering what was going on, why Rwanda was underrepresented on my walls. The answer is that I was busy breaking out of my immaterial walls so not only I could see you, but you could see me better than you ever did.

I am not done breaking them, but I am proud to say that there are already a million cracks in my immaterial walls, and it is only a matter of time before they all fall apart. And that day, it’s not 25 stories that we will share with the world, but a million, or better, 10 million more.

I know the April 6th essay sent chills across the thousand hills. Strategies have been devised to stop my words from reaching the masses; resources have been dedicated to building fences around me, I am told.

Irrelevant walls for no one can stop this train anymore.

If April 6th sent chills, I have no doubt that today’s announcement will have the effect of an Earthquake that will destroy all those walls being constructed the same way the previous walls fell apart.

I will not ruin the surprise and tell you who the 25 features will be. Where would be the fun of I did?

All I can say is that I’ve chosen 25 stories that inspire me, ME, people whose story make me feel so humble and ever proud of being Umunyarwanda.

So, stay tuned.

And stay away from your own walls, this Earthquake might shutter them as well.


Um’Khonde Patrick Habamenshi