By Conor O’Neill
Belfast author and peacebuilder Tony Macaulay can surely pull a crowd. It’s a dreary morning at the 174 Trust on Belfast’s once notorious ‘Murder Mile’ aka the Antrim Road. About 100 hundred of us are gathered at The Duncairn, a community arts and cultural centre situated in the buildings and grounds of a former Presbyterian Church.
I recognise a few faces: the ponytailed Ulster Tatler photographer, Rachael Harriot who along with Tony invited me along, and the journalist Amanda Ferguson who is to interview Tony, his co-author Juvens Nsabimana and Rwandan peace advocate and CEO of CARSA (Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance) Chistophe Mbonyingbo.
The mood is jovial as we drink complimentary tea and coffee and munch on free biscuits. But this is a serious affair. The novel co-authored by Macaulay and Juvens Nsabimana Kill The Devil details the impact of 100 days and nights of murder and rape that was the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
As technical problems are being sorted we listen to Ugandan Gospel singer Levixone’s Exodus before the 174 Trust’s CEO Bill Shaw welcomes us and business gets underway. With a three-way Zoom video link this a book launch like no other. Tony begins by reading the first chapter of Kill The Devil. No spoilers from me, but as expected it’s beautifully written yet the words reveal this book is not going to be a walk-in-the-park of a read.
Amanda Ferguson then leads the conversation asking Macaulay, Nasbiamana and Mbonyingbo questions on the writing of book, the genocide and how those of us in Northern Ireland, as we fast approach the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, can learn from the reconciliation that has occurred in Rwanda since those torturous 100 days back in 1994.
Juvens Nsabimana (pictured above) describes how he got the idea for a screenplay and sent the idea scene-by-scene to Tony and Macaulay tells of how the two of them worked on the book chapter-by-chapter, ironing out little cultural details of Rwandan life only a local would be aware of. When asked by Ferguson does he have any advice for younger writers, Nsabimana replies: “It’s simple, just write, you will learn more about it along the way.” Hard work, it seems can’t be avoided.
Chistophe Mbonyingbo tells of his charity’s work, detailing how victims and perpetrators work jowl-to-jowl in the Cow For Peace initiative, explaining how the ‘cow is a bridge’, a common denominator, as the people work together they tell of each other’s experiences and common bonds are formed, and from that conciliation grows. He adds: “When perpetrators are behind bars forever the victims will never know the truth.”
*Tony Macaulay and CARSA CEO and founder Christophe Mbonyingbo*
On why he felt compelled to co-author the book Macaulay says: “Rwanda is like no other country I’ve worked in. I co-wrote this book to show what we [Northern Ireland] can do. We forget how much we’ve achieved. Our children are the children of peace. This place used to be called ‘Murder Mile’, it had the highest concentration of murders in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.
“Rwanda has its day of reconciliation. We don’t talk about forgiveness. We have a lot to learn from Rwanda.”
After a question and answer session from the audience, Tony meets and greets before the obligatory book signing begins. I mull around waiting for a chance of a quick interview but time doesn’t allow it. We agree on a phone interview a couple days later. In the meantime I settle in to begin reading Kill The Devil.
It’s a fascinating read, very cinematic, with the obvious input of a screenwriter. Tony and I have our phone conversation.
CultureCrush: Hi Tony, I assume you chose The Duncairn for the book launch because of your former work in that area and the community during the height of The Troubles?
Tony Macaulay: “I thought it was the right place, the most obvious place for me. We had the launch for Little House On The Peace Line there, that was a no-brainer. For this I thought, ‘this is about reconciliation again’. The 174 Trust is celebrating its 40th anniversary next year. That’s 40 years of building peace in North Belfast, so it was an appropriate place for the launch of this book.
“It’s a beautiful place. Back in the day when I worked there it was an old, ageing Presbyterian Church and it was about to close. It was the minister there who initiated the 174 Trust. It’s a very different place compared to what I worked in back in the day. The transformation is amazing. It’s an achievement for the organisation and a symbol of the progress of Northern Ireland.”
CC: I’ve read enough of your books to recognise your writing style, this one is more cinematic. I assume this comes from working with Juvens? Writing is usually a solitary endeavour, what was it like collaborating for the first time?
TM: “It was very different, particularly with the start of the book. Juvens wrote the synopsis of it and the whole storyline, and once we’d did a bit of work with that and we’d agreed the storyline, Juvens went on to write it as a screenplay. It’s interesting you noticed that’s it’s cinematic because what I did was I took it scene by scene and I turned each scene into a chapter.
“It’s a different type of writing. Some scenes needed more details at times, sometimes a bit more dialogue or a bit more explanation than the screenplay. I sent the chapters to Juvens and he would comment on something cultural from a Rwandan point of view. Sometimes we would have a conversation about a character. Would the character be like that? Or is that consistent with what the character is going to do in chapter 10? Juvens is brilliant, he’s a brilliant storyteller and it was great working with him.”
CC: Why was Gisenji chosen as the home town for Patricia [the book’s main protagonist]? Was that part of the country particularly gruesome during the genocide, or is it just a typical farming and fishing community?
TM: “It wasn’t any more gruesome than anywhere else. That’s the thing about Rwanda, everywhere was gruesome. When I travelled through Rwanda I asked the same question, were there areas that were more affected, but it was absolutely everywhere. Every town and village you go through there’s a memorial. They’re still finding mass graves in some of the more remote places.
“The reason we chose Gisenji and Lake Kivu is because the first time I went to Rwanda I went there. Lake Kivu is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. I made that connection to that part of Rwanda because it’s such a beautiful part of the world.”
CC: Are the characters in the book 100% fictional, or are they based on the stories of people you’ve met on your travels through Rwanda?
TM: They’re based on true stories from the people that I’ve met. They’re from people who told me their stories from Storytelling Workshops where people stand up, survivors and perpetrators, who share their stories. The characters and the processes they go through, they’re based on a mix of those.
“You know one of the things I loved about the book launch, and it meant a lot to me, was when Christophe said, ‘This feels like our lives in Rwanda. This is our lives.’. Christophe knows that from his own family and it was important to me that I was reflecting that as a co-author. I was absolutely thrilled that he said that. If Chrsitophe is happy with it then I’m happy with it.”
CC: Today is an appropriate day to be talking about the book as it’s the International Day of Reconciliation in Rwanda. Have you ever been there before at this time? What will the mood of the country be like? Will there be a minute’s silence, will the church bells toll?
TM: “I haven’t actually been there in April but I know what happens. There are different events where people remember. There will be big national events. In the book it mentions the big walk to remember and it’s a big public vocation in Rwanda today, and in the Rwandan diaspora around the world it’s a big day.
“It’s actually 100 days that finishes on July 15th. Today is the big day if you like, but they continue the remembrance for the 100 days. At the end of the 100 days we’re [Tony and Juvens] going to launch the book in the capital city Kigali on July 14th.”
*Co-authors of Kill The Devil Tony Macaulay and Juvens Nsabimana*
CC: Rwanda has its 100 days of reflection and remembrance, South Africa back in 1996 had its Truth and Reconciliation hearings. We in Northern Ireland are approaching 25 years since the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement on April 10th, what can we learn as a society from other nations of conflict, particularly Rwanda?
TM: “I think we could learn a lot in terms of reconciliation initiatives. There is a charity in Northern Ireland that organises a day of reflection in June, but it’s not official. It’s not from the government. That would be a start. Even if our politicians could agree that we have a day of reflection, just a day to remember all the people who lost their lives.
“As for truth telling processes, we haven’t got those either. I think the reason we keep getting stuck politically is because we haven’t done that. It wouldn’t be the same as South Africa or Rwanda, I think we could develop our own version of it. It’s about providing a space where people could tell their stories and people could try to find out the truth. We still need to do that.
“As long as we fail to do something like that I think The Troubles will always be an open sore.”
CC: Do you think something like CARSA would be a good scheme where victims and perpetrators could work together or do you think we need a tailor-made approach for the country?
TM: “I think there’s something interesting about storytelling is a way of doing something; storytelling is part of our culture and tradition. They use storytelling in CARSA in its workshops. Perpetrators and victims telling their stories in a safe environment and it is an opportunity to see the humanity in one another. That does happen here to some degree. I have been involved in some of that work.
“It does happen, but it happens very quietly, which is fine, but it needs to happen on a large scale for it to make a real difference. I think our conflict was very different and we would need to work out a way of bringing people together.
“People here who were involved in the paramilitaries wouldn’t call themselves perpetrators, they might see themselves as combatants. It almost doesn’t matter what you call people, the most important thing is that people who inflicted pain on others and people who feel hurt by others have an opportunity to come together and talk and find some meaning.”
CC: You’ve been a peacebuilder since the 1980s and you’ve done that around the world. With the estimated dead in Rwanda somewhere between 500,000 people and one million people, do you think we here in Northern Ireland can even begin to comprehend that when Northern Ireland lost a relatively small number of people, is our conflict even comparable?
TM: “It’s very different. Our conflict is tiny in comparison. I’ve done work in the Balkans where a quarter of a million people were killed. The scale of what happened here, and it happened over longer period of time and in a smaller population, I wouldn’t underestimate the trauma of what we experienced here, but the scale of things and what I think is remarkable about Rwanda is that it’s almost incomprehensible when you’re there to believe that it actually happened because it’s so beautiful and so peaceful now.
“If they have been able to achieve reconciliation there after one million people died, why can’t we achieve it here after 3500 people lost their lives. I think maybe the scale of it [the Rwandan genocide] is what has driven that extreme forgiveness. Otherwise the country wouldn’t function. They had to find a way or the country would have just collapsed.
“We’re a wealthy western country and are cushioned from somethings, we’re not struggling to survive on a day to day basis the same way as somebody in Rwanda would be. And maybe that focuses the change on wanting to just live in peace with your neighbours.”
CC: Do you think culturally here in Northern Ireland we have some sort of masochistic way of almost enjoying picking at the old wounds?
TM: “I think there’s a humility in Rwanda, and indeed in Africa, that’s different to us Europeans, I do think the Irish people have more humility than some other European countries, but in comparison to Africa, especially the places I’ve been in Africa, I think there’s a humility that we need to have.
“We also need to go through some pain in order to have some reconciliation and get out of our comfort zone. I don’t think they can afford that comfort zone in Rwanda.
“I see Rwanda as a beacon of hope. I’ve never seen the like of it before in the world where there has been conflict. It’s a beacon for us in Northern Ireland. It’s a beacon for anywhere that’s suffered conflict. I shows what human being are capable of . It’s an example of what people are capable of in the worst sense, but on the other hand it’s a shining light of what people are capable of in the positive sense.”
CC: Finally, is there anything I haven’t had the presence of mind to ask or anything you would like to add?
TM: “I really believe in the story of Rwanda and in Christophe establishing the reconciliation centre. The purpose of that centre is to gather those stories and share them with the rest of the world for future generations. I’m committed to that project with Christophe.
“We’re going to be launching Kill The Devil in the United States later on in the year. Christophe is coming with me, we’re going to be doing some fundraising for the centre there, so I’m really Committed to that!”
Kill The Devil is available from all good bookshops now. For further information on CARSA visit https://www.carsaministry.org/
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