Juliane Okot Bitek is a memory keeper, and the memories she wishes to preserve in her majestic collection of poetry, 100 Days, are of the collapse of the imagination that was the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when more than a million Tutsis were hacked to death by their Hutu kin and countrymen in just a hundred days.
Over the course of a hundred poems, each one a document of the days when Rwandans were engaged in a grotesque actualisation of hell as the world averted its gaze, our collective inertia an act of moral complicity, Okot Bitek reminds us again and again why such memory keeping matters, and why the Rwandan genocide remains a bowel-to-core betrayal of the most elemental notion of what it means to be a human being.
It is this betrayal that Okot Bitek kicks off with, and the first betrayer is the soil in which these seeds of xenophobia have taken root, lending the whole landscape a mephitic dimension.
Okot Bitek layers this landscape with texture and vividity, imbuing the horror of those hundred days with technical adroitness and the kind of wisdom that has to be earned.
A few lines:
'We became other people/we were them/those ones/ who in being slaughtered & reported as slaughtered/ lost any claim to intimacy or self'
'How do the dead declare/ the part of their identity they were killed for'
'as long as we’re caught/ in the neveragainness of things/ we are blinded/ by the hundreddayness of then'
What makes this collection such a pleasure to read is that it’s laced with moments of such grace that you have to pause and re-read the lines again in order to reflect upon each phrase.
'There’s no denying that these haunted days/are not necessarily days of grey/ there are flowers everywhere/ beauty is always undeniable'
100 Days is a masterpiece of uncommon splendour and Juliane Okot Bitek is a virtuoso performing at the height of her powers.
Photography by COLLEEN BUTLER
Graphic illustration by DIRIYE OSMAN
Song to heal psychic wounds: 'Fellowship' by MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO.