The bookseller of Kigali

Posted: April 14, 2011 in Genocide Denial
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By Dominique Elshout 14 April 2011

Ask bookseller and storyteller Chiel Lijdsman a question and he’ll fire away. As he puts it: “My shoes have been in Kigali since 1987. In Mozambique I was shelled out of the country. I cleared off to Rwanda, only to find that the preparations for the genocide had just started.”

Bookseller Lijdsman is telling his story in his brand new shop in one of Kigali’s suburbs. His business is booming. In Goma, just across the Congolese border, the bookseller recently opened a second shop. The first one opened its doors in 1998, four years after the mass murder in Rwanda.

“My sister in the Netherlands used to send me the Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad newspapers every weekend, but that didn’t work out very well,” he says. “That’s why I started to import them myself. The Ikirezi bookshop is a direct result of that business. Although another reason for starting the shop was to spread knowledge.”

He isn’t claiming that books could have prevented the 1994 genocide. “But maybe reading books would have helped a little.” Back then, Lijdsman was still a consultant in the area of healthcare and development. When the violence broke out, he happened to be in the Netherlands for a few months’ visit.

He saw it coming, he says, because the mass murders had been carefully prepared. “I still know the Hutus who were deeply involved in the planning. My name was also on a hit list. One of the reasons was my marriage with a Tutsi woman.”

During the genocide, Lijdsman’s wife, Assumpta, was raped by a Hutu. As a result she caught the HIV virus. She died in 1997. Lijdsman himself is HIV positive too, but he doesn’t seem to worry about it too much: these days there are enough effective drugs available, he reasons.

There are still places in Kigali where he wouldn’t go. He doesn’t want to relive the images of the stacks of bodies after the genocide. If the conservation brings him back to those days in an all too intrusive manner, he switches very quickly to another topic.

His Congolese second wife, Mayaze, for example, who is running the Goma bookshop. Then he talks about the wedding and about the presents he had to bring the relatives, without which they wouldn’t allow him to marry his fiancée. Goats, but also machetes: the large chopping-knives that played such a sinister role during the genocide.

The mass murder is never far away in his bookshop, either. The business bears its owner’s stamp, with a big collection of books about genocides all over the world. Rwandans are very interested in stories about the holocaust, the Armenian genocide and so on.

Lijdsman always reads the books himself, before putting them on the shelf. Reading about the explosion of violence in Rwanda helps him in dealing with the misery he has seen, he says. “Reading makes you understand what has happened. Then you can move on.”

A bookshop in Kigali doesn’t exactly sound like a gold mine: 45 percent of the Rwandans can’t read, be it that in the capital that percentage is lower. But there aren’t any competitors, according to Lijdsman. What’s more, in the last couple of years President Paul Kagame has unintentionally helped him.

Rwanda is trilingual: people speak French and English next to the original national language Kinyarwanda. In 2005, however, President Kagame, an English speaking Tutsi, ordered that English would be the official language.

The English language hasn’t gained much ground so far. “In the afternoon I run into children who greet me with ‘good morning, Sir’ in the English they’ve just learned,” says Lijdsman. The Ikirezi bookshop has books in all three languages.

In the Rwandan conflict, Lijdsman chooses President Kagame’s and the Tutsis’ side, without any doubt. That doesn’t stop him, however, from selling the books of French investigative journalist Pierre Péan, who makes Kagame out to be an enormous jerk. “They go like hot cakes.”


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