Nowadays we hear about so many tragedies on a daily basis that we have become almost inured to them. Modern life seems so rushed and pressurised that we don't have time to pause, take a breath and express gratitude for what we have. Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron's first novel, might very well have the power to stop you in your tracks.
Against the backdrop of The Rwandan Genocide of 1994, the author has created a character driven story which somehow highlights the positive attributes of humans in the midst of appalling crimes against humanity. The novel opens ten years before the genocide, with a young Tutsi boy, Jean Patrick Nkuba, dreaming of being the first Rwandan to run in the Olympics. Jean Patrick's parents have tried to shelter their children from Rwanda's troubled history but it is soon impossible to ignore the ethnic divisions which are bubbling over into acts of violence and discrimination and having an impact on their daily lives. Jean Patrick and his siblings have to secure the top marks in scholarship exams or they won't be allowed to attend the secondary school of their choice alongside the Hutu majority. As tensions run high, Jean Patrick finds himself manipulated by the Hutu-led government - it enhances their human-rights profile to have a Tutsi child as an Olympic hopeful, providing a smoke-screen for the increase in ethnic cleansing. He wants to survive, to win a gold medal but he might have to renounce his Tutsi heritage to achieve his goal.
Initially I was rather hesitant about reading this novel as I thought it would be emotionally draining but it turned out the opposite was true. The portrayal of Jean Patrick and his extended family and indeed Rwanda itself is engrossing. We see the strength of family ties, the bonds within communities where Hutu and Tutsi are friends and neighbours with the shared goal of scraping a living, securing a future for their children. Yes, there is the palpable tension that something evil is looming just on the horizon but still, the start of the genocide comes as a total shock, how folk could hack down their neighbours seems so unthinkable even as you are reading it in black and white, yet it seemed to be a case of kill or be killed with a prevailing wind of bloodlust thrown in for good measure. Benaron treads a middle path in presenting the violence, neither sugaring the pill nor salting the wound.
Running the Rift is an extremely readable story about a very difficult subject. The rest of the world stood by and watched as 20% of the population of Rwanda was annihilated in the space of 100 days. Here, Naomi Benaron has opened a window on the lives of the ordinary flesh and blood folk, showing us the human face behind the statistics - a compelling, important, accessible read - highly recommended.