Review: Yolande Mukagasana’s ‘Not My Time to Die’

AiW Guests: Inês Martinho Ferreira and Kiera Fields

Kwibuka means ‘to remember’ and describes the annual commemoration of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Last year, as part of Kwibuka 25, Rwandan publisher Huza Press published Yolande Mukagasana’s Not My Time to Die. This deeply moving and compelling survivor testimony has been described by Gaël Faye as rendering the genocide, which killed over a million people, ‘no longer just a historical event’ but ‘the story of a woman, a mother, a Tutsi’. Mukagasana’s testimony was originally released in 1997 as La mort ne veut pas de moi and was one of the very first accounts of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. It is available for the first time to English readers through this translation by Dr Zoe Norridge

As part of Kwibuka 26, we are publishing two reader responses that highlight the power and importance of this book. This year Rwanda remembers those who died during the 1994 genocide while also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic: this means communities no longer able to come together physically for the commemoration and survivors, who lost their families and support networks during the genocide, facing new extreme challenges through these times.

Inês Martinho Ferreira

Yolande Mukagasana wrote her first memoir, Not My Time to Die, to testify in the name of those who couldn’t. When the genocide against the Tutsi starts in April 1994, Yolande, a nurse and an important figure in her community, goes into hiding with her family. As they move from one hiding spot to the next, Yolande tells the reader about the past relationships she and her family had with the people who are now trying to kill them. She explains how only yesterday those who were friendly neighbours are now the enemies you must hide from, and how this unbelievable, horrific situation came into being.

The unbearable acts of violence committed against the Tutsi made me wonder how humanity can ever reach such levels of self-destruction. I was shocked, and moved, by the tale I was reading. Yolande Mukagasana shows a strong will to bear witness and tell the story of the injustices the victims of the genocide against the Tutsi experienced. As a survivor, she feels that she needs to tell the world about how this genocide came about, because if not her, who will? Her writing is blunt when describing the violence she and other Tutsi suffered, emotional when remembering her lost family, and political when condemning those who organised the genocide, as well as condemning the UN for having let the genocide unfold without intervening. She shows perhaps surprising compassion for the men who did most of the killing: many of them were acting out of fear for their lives. But she doesn’t spare us on the cruelty of the acts committed by those men who seemed to be controlled by an almost personified genocide.

This memoir is one of those books you start and can’t put down. Yolande’s love transpires through the text: love for her children, her country, her people. The narration is broken up by Rwandan myths, songs and tales, giving the reader a breather, before the writer takes you back into her experience of the genocide: hiding, negotiating, pretending to be someone else to save her life. After being forced to split up from her children in order to protect them, she becomes obsessed with knowing where they are, and if they’re still alive. The question ‘Where are my children?’ is repeated throughout the book and shows a mother whose quest is to survive and find her family. Her strength and resilience are extraordinary and inspiring; the events she narrates made me shed more than a few tears.

Reading Not My Time to Die was an unsettling experience. I both loved and hated following Yolande in her excruciatingly long journey to safety in this beautifully written memoir. As someone who knew too little about the genocide against the Tutsi, reading it made me want to understand how such an abhorrent event could ever come about. This text is an intense, but exceptional, introduction to the history of the genocide, and I would recommend it to everyone. The 2019 English translation is skillfully executed and finally gives the English-speaking world access to Yolande Mukagasana’s memoir, originally published in French more than two decades ago.

Kiera Fields

Yolande Mukagasana and Zoe Norridge at the launch of ‘Not My Time to Die’ in Kigali

By 1997, less than three years after President Habyarimana was assassinated, Yolande Mukagasana had written and published her first-hand account of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.  La mort ne veut pas de moi, originally written in French with the help of Patrick May, became the first book length testimony following a single experience of the of the genocide. In the translator’s note, Zoe Norridge marvels at the time-frame in which Mukagasana was able to produce her testimonial, considering her work translating the book took the same amount of time. Norridge spent three years working closely with Mukagasana in order to translate the original French to the English version published by Huza Press in 2019 on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the genocide. Both editions function as platforms for remembering, memorializing, healing, and for history-making.

The 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda lasted for approximately 100 days and in that time over 800,000 people were murdered. Mukagasana recounts in her final chapter the list of family members and friends she lost. Mukagasana’s claim that ‘the world will not cease to be violent if it doesn’t examine its need for violence’ implicates both internal and international audiences in the task of bearing witness. Mukagasana rejects the racialized politics of her country left over from colonialization, her anger is directed to governments and unequal systems of power. Early in the testimony she interacts with a solider describing how ‘His machete shines. It’s brand new, perhaps one of those bought recently by Habyarimana’s regime with money from the French government, and distributed free of charge to the Hutu population’. She maintains the critical focus, not on the demonization of the soldier who holds the machete, but the means by which the machete came into his hands. In this case, the soldier assists the family in escaping, revealing how glimpses of humanity could not be completely eradicated, even in the face of such horrific events. Mukagasana weds individual narratives of hope and humanity with overarching criticisms of the Western world, for their silence and embroilment leading up to, and during, the killings. She writes for the people of Rwanda who must confront the personal and individual nature of the genocide and resist homogenising narratives, particularly in the face of genocide denial, while also directing this need for confrontation further afield to an international audience.

Mukagasana emphasises storytelling as the vehicle for this reckoning. When Emmanuelle travels to Kigali and witnesses the extent of the violence there she is in shock, ‘She tells me about the thousands of horrors she saw on the road. She seems to take pleasure in describing the corpses, she needs to talk about the corpses’. Storytelling, as a mode of processing trauma, is returned to repeatedly. The act of listening and absorbing the depth of pain held in Yolande’s story is how she asks us to bear witness; it is only through storytelling that this can be accomplished. By presenting her narrative as dialogically dense, rather than an internal monologue, we as readers  are  forced to come  face-to-face with the victims of the genocide further — strengthening the reader’s connection to the narrative. Her daughter Nadine’s final calls of ‘I’m scared. I want to dance’ reveal an oxymoron that is central to Mukagasana’s testimony: in the moments when we are most terrified, when we are suffering from the most extreme subjection, we can also feel the intense need for the freedom of personal expression. For Nadine, that is the freedom to dance, for Yolande, it is the freedom to write.

Mukagasana recalls in her Afterword, after successfully being liberated by the RPF, ‘Everyone looked for food to eat. Of course. We were all dying of hunger. […] But I didn’t search for food, I was looking for something else, probably unimportant to the others: a pen and a notebook.’ These creative acts, which confirm individual humanity and agency, are performed in the hope that someone is listening, someone is bearing witness to this crime, and with that comes the hope for justice. Norridge writes critically in her translator’s note about the act of bearing witness and personal testimonies of Rwandan survivors, ‘It reminds the world of the past they did not want to see, it forms part of the study of violence that may potentially prevent further brutality and it plays a role in restoring the humanity of the person who speaks and the person who listens’. Yolande ends her testimonial in the subjunctive tense, ‘I want to live. I want to fall in love, get pregnant, and have a beautiful child to treasure. I want to live.’ She leaves her readers with an open ending: the act of writing her story down, of personally bearing witness to the deaths of her loved ones, is not enough for her to be able to ‘live’ again. Others must listen.

Yolande Mukagasana’s Not My Time to Die is available to buy through Huza Press in Africa and through African Books Collective outside Africa.

Yolande Mukagasana is a renowned Rwandan writer, public figure and campaigner for the remembrance of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.  She has authored four books about genocide and its aftermath, performed her testimony in the iconic Rwanda 94 touring theatre production and has received numerous international prizes for her work, including the Alexander Langer Foundation Prize for Testimony and Solidarity, the American Jewish Committee Moral Courage Award and an Honourable Mention for the UNESCO Education for Peace Prize. Her first book, La mort ne veut pas de moi, has been translated into Italian, Turkish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Hebrew and now English.

Inês Martinho Ferreira is currently an MA student in Comparative Literatures and Cultures at the University of Bristol. Her areas of interest include postcolonial theory and indigenous activism in Latin America. In her current research, she is exploring the representation of Mozambican culture in Portuguese written media.


Kiera Fields is currently in the midst of an MA in Comparative Literature and Cultures at the University of Bristol, where she graduated last year with a BA in English Literature. Her research has focused on postcolonial studies, African American literature and the literature of enslavement.

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