What a difference a few books makes.
I’ve always been a fan of Will Ferguson’s work – broad, punny humour amuses me, and I like the way he panders to my Canadian-ness. But I would hesitate to recommend, say, ‘Why I Hate Canadians’ to anyone. All the groaners might annoy them.
‘Road Trip Rwanda’, though? Everyone should read this book.
Here’s the premise: Ferguson’s friend, Jean-Claude Munyezamu, narrowly escaped the Rwandan genocide. After volunteering in Somalia and Sudan, Munyezamu settled in Calgary with his family. He and Ferguson met through the soccer league their kids belonged to and, after years of cajoling, Munyezamu finally agreed to guide Ferguson on a trip through Rwanda.
The genocide is addressed. Often. At some length. It’s impossible to ignore, so Ferguson faces it head on. But this isn’t a book about genocide – not even close. Rather, he uses it as infastructure, a starting point. Through Munyezamu’s personal experience, Ferguson examines the political, economic, and social conditions that lead to the genocide, individual stories of horror and healing, and how the country is putting itself back together.
The result is part tragedy, part inspiration. After being torn to shreds by ethnic definitions – which colonial powers drew out of thin air – Rwanda is now one of the safest, most prosperous countries in Africa. It’s improving by almost any measure you care to name. GDP. Infant mortality. Women’s rights. It’s remarkable.
But Ferguson is a thorough researcher and an honest writer. Not all is well. The most serious, and potentially dangerous, issue facing Rwanda is President Paul Kagame. He is seen by many as a saviour, and by others as a dictator. Critics describe Kagame as tyranical and accuse him of assassinating his rivals. Supporters credit him with saving the country. How much of Rwanda’s resurrection, Ferguson asks, is due to the sheer force of Kagame’s personality? And what happens when his last presidential term expires in 2017?
The answer could be ugly.
Heavy stuff, and a far cry from ‘How to be Canadian.’ There’s a maturity, here, a finely-tuned restraint, that I love. Ferguson’s jokes are more precise; his writing is leaner; his plot is more nuanced.
And he’s still funny as hell. Ferguson combines intellect and curiosity with a keen appreciation of the absurd like nobody else. His attempt to cross the Congolese border is one shining example; his adventure with the mountain gorillas is another.
Through it all, Munyezamu is set up as the straight man. Ferguson uses himself to highlight Munyezamu’s bravery, compassion, and common-sense. Munyezamu, meanwhile, underlines Ferguson’s self-deprecating, well-meaning, clumsy Canadian-ness. It’s a terrific bit of comedy in the form of literature.
So, should you read it? I’m not sure. I adored this book, but there’s a lot of disturbing content. There’s an incredible redemption story here, too, shot through with warm, wry humour. Which means, I suppose, that I’m telling you to give it a try. I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed.