Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron


Jean Patrick Nkuba is a gifted runner, talented enough to aspire to the Olympics. Unfortunately, this is the late 1980s and early 1990s in Rwanda, and Nkuba is Tutsi1.

With that achievement, he would be able to drag himself out of the morass that is his country and the prejudice the majority population, in control of the government and politics, have used to quash his people. Raised by a father who held firmly to a belief in equality, the child Nkuba is not prepared for the overt hatred of Hutu for Tutsi he encounters after his father’s death. As he grows, his running improves with the training he receives from his coach. He must, however, make compromises with his background and beliefs in order to achieve the freedom of movement necessary to compete in races throughout Rwanda and in neighboring countries, chiefly among them a false identity card listing him as a Hutu. A thread running through the book, not surprisingly, is Nkuba’s struggle with whether he should be clear about his Tutsi heritage in the face of a government which cannot decide whether he should be held up as an example of how open-minded it is about minorities or squash all the groups which it does not wish to allow.

Further complicating matters is Nkuba’s love for a girl whose father is one of the country’s Hutu activists; their relationship deepens and they become lovers. As the Hutu attacks on the Tutsi rise and the country, Nkuba’s dreams of making the Olympics fade. Alas, his beloved Bea is caught in an attack which he believes her dead and he emigrates to the United States, where he continues his college education. Some years later, he discovers that Bea survived, and returned to Rwanda to track her down; they meet, and although he discovers that Bea has their daughter, he returns to the country which he believes will provide him the opportunity he wants rather than remain in the home that he loves with the family and people who’ve supported him.

Running the Rift is worth reading and I’m glad there are such books available; it strikes me as a thoroughly sympathetic novel about what it must have been like for the Tutsi through the 1990s in Rwanda, and it’s well written and researched. I recommend it for Americans, especially those who aren’t familiar with recent Rwandan history, as it includes a fair bit of social commentary woven into the text: the international response to the upheaval in Rwanda was to pull their own nationals out of the country.

Please do not regard this as a criticism of the book; I include it just as a note for any readers who have issues with possible cultural appropriation: the author is a white American2, though (and this is NOT damning with faint praise), she is herself a long distance runner, which I’d bet allowed her to better describe Nkuba’s training. Rather, this is why Americans might want to read Running the Rift; it brings up some uncomfortable points about why the United States didn’t do more to intervene in Rwanda.

1For people who didn’t pay attention, Rwanda went through what I’m going to briefly and euphemistically call a devastating genocide in the early to mid-1990s; during this, the Hutu majority, which at the time held political power, killed a significant portion of the Tutsi minority.
2same goes for Nancy Farmer’s book, A Girl Named Disaster: good book by a knowledgeable and sympathetic author, which I liked, but I wonder what the locals might have to say for themselves.

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