“I don’t think if it weren’t for the genocide I would be here,” said Dr. Hadidja Nyiransekuye of Metropolitan State College of Denver. She shared from her memoir of personal experiences entitled “The Lances Were Looking Down: One Woman’s Path through the Rwandan Genocide to Life in the States” in a fascinating entry in the Hennebach Program in Humanities lecture series.
The title of the book is the inverse of a Rwandan proverb “for when someone, esp. someone in power, has given orders to kill a group of people…when you want to ask for mercy….[you say] ‘Unbend the lance.'” She said the title came from her reactions to the tragic events of the genocide, “As I am there listening to the cries of the neighbor that is being killed and I’m thinking about praying and I can’t remember which language I’m praying into, then all of a sudden I found myself asking God to unbend the lance because the lances are looking down.”
Nyiransekuye shared a detailed account of her experiences at the beginning of the genocide. Her family awoke on the morning of April 6, 1994 to what seemed like a normal morning, but from the time they realized the president was dead, they knew they were in trouble. Her husband, a member of the Tutsi ethnic group which was massacred in the genocide, immediately grasp that tragedy was coming. The whole first day was brutal chaos, and it only continued. Upon discovering killers were looking for her husband, Nyiransekuye said, “a saying of my mother’s now made sense to me – My head felt bald, as if someone had just uncovered it of its hair.”
She also recounted harrowing and poignant stories of her acquaintances. There was the story of her coworker, lying dead in the street with his tongue cut out, and of her neighbor Christine, beaten to death in front of her two babies. “That nursing mother’s…call haunts me to this day,” said Nyiransekuye. One young acquaintance of hers sent the entire family into the attic and sat and waited for the killers to come. She probably intended to talk the killers out of the way, but if that was her plan it failed. She was tortured to death, but never shared where her family was hidden.
After the genocide, when her family were returning, they met a young boy reentering the country who had no memory of anything. He did not know where he was or who he was or who his parents were. He had apparently repressed all those memories. Nyiransekuye’s family cared for him as long as they could, until he became too ill and had to go to an orphanage. Near the end of the boy’s time with the family, a friend found the boy at their house when they were all out and worried they had been massacred. This shook Nyiransekuye because “How could someone think of a six year old or even an eight year old as part of the militia? In other words, if you’re a Hutu or even look like one, then you were a killer.”
Though the events of the genocide were important to the presentation, events afterward were also influential. Nyiransekuye was optimistic immediately after the genocide, “The after-genocide was a time when I was thinking…we’d have a chance to be rehabilitated…I was very proud to come back from Zaire and the Congo and rebuild Rwanda.” However, her attitude quickly soured. She found that she was suspected of belonging to the wrong group purely for being a Hutu. By 1996, she found herself questioning home, facing suspicions but reluctant to leave.
Eventually, she decided to leave Rwanda and come to the U.S. Of her choice to leave she said, “It was not an easy decision…I think God just took that decision out of my hands.” She earned a Ph.D. in social work from the University of Denver and now teaches in the department of African and African-American studies at Metropolitan State College of Denver. This journey led to her writing “The Lances Were Looking Down.”
“Writing this book has not been easy,” stated Nyiransekuye. She explained the journey of the book from her actual experiences until today. The book began as a paper for a class, and continued through her Ph.D. research as she spoke to people with similar backgrounds and had extremely strong reactions. She said, “I could not keep on interviewing these women because these African women could not tell me exactly what I was asking without putting that into context…They all kept taking me back to time of war…and the next thing I knew I couldn’t sleep. I was having nightmares. I was reliving the situation as if it were happening once again.” Nyiransekuye was then convinced she could not research the topic, until her advisor noted that her reactions were to be field notes. These field notes eventually became “The Lances Were Looking Down.”