In her notes recently published by the Editions Scribe under the French title ‘Entre les 4 murs de 1930’, (Between the 4 walls of 1930 – my translation) the Rwandan political prisoner Victoire Ingabire tells among many other moving facts a touching story of her 3 years inmate Cynthia. She explains the circumstances that make her decide to adopt her despite her own carceral conditions.
Men don’t cry. That is what we are taught when we are growing up as young lads. Be tough, boy, never show weakness (as if showing sensibility was a weakness). The last time I failed that principle of manhood was when my elder sister Stephanie Ndayambaje died in the same 1930 prison on September 3rd, 2013. I don’t remember if I cried or screamed. But the truth is I couldn’t hold it back.
Reading the notes of Victoire Ingabire, especially the story of Cynthia, I failed again my peer men. Her humanity is so unsettling that not being touched would be almost troubling for a normal person. Recently I read from the French writer Jean-Luc Seigle that ‘En vieillissant les hommes pleurent’ (While getting old men cry – my translation).
Maybe I am living more and more on the spell of the writer’s talent of storyteller. Who knows! But I do apologize for not being a man enough not to keep those tears inside. Why should I apologize anyway! Isn’t claimed these days that men and women are equals? Nobody seems to hold unique privileges anymore.
Before I get to the story of Cynthia, let me remind the reader that Victoire Ingabire is in prison since October 14th, 2010 for having challenged the Rwandan president Paul Kagame to become the new leader of Rwanda. Nothing less, nothing more.
As someone who has closely followed that Rwandan politician’s story from the very beginning, I can categorically confirm that any other explanation of her imprisonment from the Kagame’s government is pure fabrication by the prosecutor.
It is on a normal cold evening in Leeds – England. The time is 18:59 on a Sunday of an English autumn, where people haven’t started yet covering themselves much into warm clothing. The younger ones are even still only wearing maximum one or two layer of outfits.
I am waiting for my train to get me back to London. It is scheduled to leave the city centre at 20:45. I have spent the day with other Friends of Victoire. Among other things, those who could afford £20 (I pledged to pay the amount as soon as possible) got hold of a copy of the notes of Victoire Ingabire.
Taking a cup of latte in the station hall, I have more than an hour to start flipping through my copy. In the table of contents of the book, I am immediately attracted to the section about inmates of young age. It is on pages 260-264.
In my many readings about incarceral conditions around the world, I don’t recall having noted anywhere where children are so deprived of their normal childhood than in the Rwandan prison system.
The French title of the subheading in question reads: ‘Une prison avec beaucoup d’enfants en bas-age’ – or in English (A prison with many toddlers).
This is the translation of the whole section:
“There is one thing that has puzzled me the first time I went to mass inside the prison. I was surprised by the number of prisoners, including mothers with their little children. I couldn’t hold my tears seeing them. I couldn’t imagine how these toddlers lived in the narrow prison’s spaces. I ended up getting some explanation. During the day, children aged between two and three years old are looked after in a nursery built 400 meters from the location where their mums are incarcerated.
At least there, they have some free space outside the prison environment. Children stay there between eight and eleven hours from Monday to Thursday. They get two meals a day, consisting of rice and beans for lunch, molded maize preparation (kaunga), vegetable and beans for dinner. In the morning they get a sort of porridge the same as their mums. Children older than three years return automatically to live with their extended families outside of prison. On Sunday when I come back from mass, I often stand in front of a kind of balcony of my cell waiting for the guard to open for me. From there I greet other inmates who are returning to the main halls where they are kept and spend most of their days. That is how I came to know Cynthia that I consider to be my fourth child. That charming little creature used each time to make a lot of gestures with her hand greeting me saying, “Hello Auntie.” One day she escaped from her mum’s hand and run towards me. One guard tried to stop her but she managed to pass through his legs, quickly climbed the stairs and came to warmly hug me. I picked her with the same passion she had come with. We were like in a scene of reunion between a mother and her child. Everything happened so quickly that neither my closest guard nor the prison’s supervisors had the time to act preemptly. I told them that nobody had the right to stop a child from greeting an adult. I ask them to allow me to give her some bread and they agreed to that favor. From then on, my balcony has become the meeting point between me and Cynthia, this has almost been happening every Sunday. Each time she passed by, she automatically climbed the stairs; I invited her to come into my cell, I gave her some bread and fruits, and she returned to her mum. One Sunday morning she asked the guard if she could come and see me before going to mass. The guard agreed to her request. Suddenly the electricity went off and we found ourselves, me and my guest, in the dark of my cell (painted with black without any light filtering in from outside – my emphasis). She started crying and begged me to get out. Unfortunately there was not much I could do instantly because the door to my cell had been locked from outside. She cried loudly, so loudly that I banged strongly on my door to alert the guard. The door was then opened, that was also the time to go to mass. Since that day, either it is with me or only to come and pick her bread, Cynthia always asked the guard:
Aren’t you going to close the door again? I don’t want to be stuck inside. It is too dark.
Learning probably from Cynthia, most of the mums who every Sunday pass in front of my cell have adopted the little girl’s greeting: “ Hello auntie or have a nice Sunday auntie.” Cynthia was not only charming, she was also very sharp. She was aware of most of the things which went on in the prison halls reserved to women. She knew those who drank alcohol in hiding, those who sold tobacco clandestinely, food and other accessories such as soap, thread, needles and so on. One Saturday, I was outside having fresh air when the door of the hall reserved to women got opened. Cynthia saw me at my balcony then came running and shouting loudly: ‘Auntie, auntie, you know…’ She didn’t get the time to finish her sentence but came to find refuge in my arms because the female guard wanted to get hold of her. I asked my guard and the female supervisor who was after the child to allow me to stay a moment with her. Both agreed. I then asked Cynthia where was her mum? She told me that she had gone to pray in another church. That meant that she was not in the main hall for women because, on Saturdays, it was reserved to worshipers of the adventist of the 7th day church.
But I know mum didn’t go to pray, she went instead to meet Emmy dad.
Who is Emmy’s dad? Asking her as intrigued by her intuition.
But it is mum’s boyfriend. It is him who gave me these bracelets.
The toddler wore effectively nice bracelets made of wood, small crafts made by prisoners. I looked at her artefacts while paying attention to what she was telling me.
You know auntie, mum has brought a letter she wrote to her boyfriend.
How can such toddler could be aware of all those stories? The female supervisor beside me explained me that often those women spoke of everything in the presence of children without caring about what not to say. While we were in the middle of the subject, a prison staff named Nkaka passed by. This staff had put in isolation an old woman because she smoke and sold tobacco inside prison. The woman’s name was Salome. Then Cynthia started crying suddenly.
The young man looked back, then Cynthia begged him.
– Please, free grandma Salome. Why do you isolate her when others do it?
The toddler asked me to put her down. She run and got Nkaka by the trousers asking his to free the grandma instantly.
– You put her in isolation since yesterday. Don’t you find that it is time to get her out?
Nkaka, without knowing what not to do declared that this was like this since the day before; Cynthia had not stopped from requesting the release of the old lady from her isolation. Her insistence got some result. The one that Cynthia calls lovingly grandma was released. The lady thus continued looking after her protege, each time the mum was busy chatting, washing up clothes, having her bath or simply when she went in the common hall for women. One day I was out discussing with my lawyers when I heard a friendly voice behind me. It was Cynthia who was coming running towards me before jumping into my arms. I also saw her mum who was getting of a vehicle. She wanted to come and talk to me but the guard was blocking her. Then I pleaded with the guard to let her greet me and eventually take her child. Cynthia’s mother told me that both just came from Kigali University Hospital and that the toddler spent there three days because of diarrhea and vomiting. Then, coming close to me, the mum whispered to me that she wanted me to adopt Cynthia. I thought I didn’t get of course what she was saying and asked her clearly.
I am giving you Cynthia because I don’t know what to do with her. Presently she is three years old, age at which they can get out of this prison environment. His father has abandoned us and is married to another woman. I was pregnant when I got imprisoned. My husband never came to see his child. He lives not far from my mum and I have asked her several time to pressure him to visit her daughter, but he has never showed up. Therefore, will that man who didn’t want to know anything about his child, ever care about her? Talking of my mum, she is an old lady who does not have any more energy left. She is not capable of looking after a three years old. Our family is poor and we don’t have the resources to pay a carer. I beg you, help me.
I was still holding Cynthia who, very confidently, continued to nestle against my chest. Without any hesitation, I replied that I was going to help her. The next day, I asked Flora (one of Victoire’s party’s staff who visited her regularly, particularly bringing her food) to tell my husband that I had a child of three years who was obliged to leave prison and that she didn’t have anywhere to go. I explained to Flora that there existed a prison procedure for that. Children imprisoned with their mums were usually taken up by their families once they reached three. In the absence of close relatives, social services of the prison had responsibilities to find where to place the child. Normally, it would be an orphanage. But since the Rwandan government has closed all orphanage centres in the whole country and children who are in centres (like prisons) must be placed with families. Since that closure, the government seeks benefactors to adopt these children. It is a difficult policy to implement given the fact that most of Rwandan families are also deprived. In my case, I could perhaps do something to help. Flora sent the message and three weeks later, I had the reply. My husband was going to do everything so our dear Cynthia could leave the country. My daughter Raissa who always dreamed of having a little sister is very excited, and her sister Cynthia too.”
The notes of Victoire Ingabire relate to the period running from 2010 to 2013. It would be interesting to know the outcome of her decision to adopt Cynthia. Did she manage to get her sent to her family in exile or did the Rwandan government obstruct that benevolent action on her part? Probably by talking to her family, more clarification could be obtained.
The first edition of Victoire Ingabire’s notes has apparently been sold out and the publisher is working hard to respond quickly to the increasing demand of more copies from the general public.