Friendship, A Transformational Narrative
Sociologists have given us pretty accurate stats about the majority of us marrying or having intimate relationships, endogamously—that is, inside of our class, race, religion, and/or economic status. Exogamy is the exception, not the rule. Even if we know someone from another culture in the workplace, most of us still go home to our homogeneous and segregated communities.
The notion of marrying or living inside one’s own heritage and culture was constantly reinforced when I was growing up in the 1950s, an era that was in denial about how deep the racial and ethnic divides actually were.
In my white, blue-collar adolescent world, I grew up surrounded with the phrases, “to jew somebody out of money,” “dumber than a Polack,” “lazy as a nigger,” “cheaper than a Scot.” As a deeply entrenched Catholic kid, I also accepted the then widely held belief among the clergy that there was “no salvation outside of the Church” (Although I knew that all my Protestant friends were all going to Hell, they were still good enough to play spin-the-bottle with).
The dark lesson of all of these epithets was that I was learning quickly that stereotypes have both a facile immediacy and a cruel staying power, at the same time. And like clichés, they are the easiest to draw from when we neither have the experiences to counter them or are just too lazy to think outside-of-the-box of our old, biased assumptions (I taught literature and writing for over thirty-five years and came to the eventual realization that clichés are the first thing students grab for when they’re too busy or too indifferent to think).
Over time, I began to realize that stereotypes, like clichés are not velcroed into our psyches; they are cemented, deeply moored into our brains no matter how liberal we may want to be.
I have also come to realize that the stereotypes begin to deconstruct only when we actually have a personal or intimate relationship with someone from another culture. Those kinds of relationships go beyond reducing cultural diversity to whether or not we believe a grandmother from Athens can make better rice pudding than a great aunt from New Delhi.
Personal relationships also have a kind of transformational power that no text-book could ever teach us. In their sometimes fumbling, gritty intimacy, they can truly soften the hard-core prejudices that have been embedded in us. And when they occur in adolescence, they have a particular poignancy because teenagers are often in that transitional world between superficial prejudices and all of the deeply-fixed, adult hatreds that become ingrained over time (I still maintain that child soldiers recruited during many civil wars are not driven by prejudice as much as they are by their own terror or by a kind of testosterone energy that is oblivious to mortality).
I say all of that having just finished viewing two films, Somers Town and Munyurangabo. I don’t want to give the impression that Somers Town doesn’t have a poignancy in its portrayal of the cross-cultural friendship between an adolescent English runaway and the son of a Polish migrant worker. However, the film doesn’t quite match the multi-layered friendship between a young Hutu and his Tutsi friend in Munyurangabo
After meeting in Kigali and becoming friends, Ngabo (Munyurangabo), a young Tutsi, convinces his friend, Sangwa, a Hutu, to help him avenge his father’s murder during the genocide. Sangwa agrees but asks his friend to go with him to visit his parents after having been gone from his village for three years.
Most of the story takes place in Sangwa’s village, even though the plot to kill the Hutu murderer of Ngabo’s father is always at the center of the plot (Ngabo consistently tries to convince Sangwa to leave the village earlier than Sangwa wants to. It is that anticipated revenge journey which works as focal point of tension throughout the film).
The movie is definitely a kind of road movie mixed in with very vivid anecdotes and images of Sangwa’s village; Sangwa’s nurturing mother; the rolling-hills Rwandan landscape ; a poignant characterization of a local comic and inveterate story-teller; an energetic poet who recites an exquisite poem about Rwanda, “its beautiful rivers, with roads and no famine,” he says, becoming “a cemetery” where “rivers flowed with bodies and corpses covered fields.”
One of the more touchingly complex characterizations is Sangwa’s father as a former bar fly, a lecturing patriarch, the upholder of Hutu rage over his son’s friendship with a Tutsi, and the tough-love, hectoring father always ready to point out his son’s faults.
It is also very clear in the film that the lines between the two ethnic clans, the Hutu and the Tutsi, have been drawn for a very long time. When Gwiza becomes ill and has to be taken to the doctor’s, Swanga’s father blames his son for having brought Ngabo to the village, as he screams at Swanga, “You brought this to my home. Why else is this happening. You have no shame?” The intransigence of the ethnic hatred belies any logic in this scene, in the same way that Ngabo irrationally suspects Swanga’s father, a Hutu, of being personally responsible for his father’s death.
Swanga’s father begins to soften his anger as Swanga, with Ngabo, begins to repair the family hut. In a poignant family bonding scene, Swanga’s father tells him that he will build a house for him and Swanga then seals the bond as he shows his tribal respect to the patriarch: “I’ll get my advice from you.”
In one of the more beautifully filmed portraits in the film (and there are many), Ngabo is standing next to an open window in the dark, a trickle of light covering the side of his face, as he witnesses the entire conversation between Swanga and his father.
The look on his face clearly indicates that Ngabo has lost his friend to the family. The scene’s emotional texture continues when Swanga later tells his friend he cannot go with him; Ngabo tries to compromise by telling him he doesn’t have to help him murder his father’s killer, that he just wants him to be there as a friend.
Swango’s indecision later becomes moot when the father finds out from Ngabo the purpose of the boys’ journey. He beats up his son and throws him out of the hut. Swango walks away and eventually meets up with Ngabo who refuses to accept Swango’s help.
Alone, Ngabo continues on his journey. When he arrives at his family village, he sits outside the hut of the murderer and soon discovers that the man is dying of AIDS and asks for water. Ngabo eventually returns to the hut with the water. He leaves the hut and, in a touchingly allegorical transformation scene, imagines his friend standing next to him.
In the last trek of Ngabo’s journey, the boy recounts the horrors of the ethnic cleansing he witnessed when he and his mother escaped to a refugee camp during the height of the Hutu-Tutsi civil war. “We saw rivers clogged with blood,” he says, “there were babies sucking at their mothers’ breasts, and the blood covered the earth.”
When Ngabo stops for food, a young Rwandan poet recites for him his National Liberation Day poem that becomes a microcosm of the horrors of the Tutsi-Hutu civil war. “Darkness came to Rwanda,” says the poet, “machetes in place of peace.”
Ngabo’s horrific images of river-bearing corpses and the young poet’s exclamations of how he was taught to treat the Tutsi as “roaches,” are stark contrasts to the gentle Rwandan song we hear opening the film: “We love our Rwanda/We love our country/We love the mountains of Rwagusabo/ We love the parents of Rwanda.” In many ways, the film’s narrative is a kind of balancing act between the horrors of the ethnic cleansing stories, the beauty of the Rwanda culture and landscape, and the enduring friendship of the film’s central protagonists
Although the film leaves us with a note of ambivalence because the boys are never really reconciled (Swanga is abandoned on the road as Ngabo pushes him to the ground), Ngabo’s refusal to avenge the murderer of his father and the juxtaposition of Swango’s dream-image at the end of the film all point to a kind of transformation in the young Tutsi avenger. It is the memory of that friendship that has truly changed the boy from a cold-hearted avenger to a gentle friend.
It is crucial to know that the film goes to great lengths to establish the depth of the friendship between the two boys, warts and all. The deep bonds are consistently reinforced and tested.
On their way to the village, Ngabo accuses Swanga of spending money on a shirt. Later on, they get into a spat when Swanga and he are repairing the family hut. Swanga is outraged that Ngabo could be so whimsical about his father’s hard work in building the hut after Ngabo playfully removes a loose brick from the top of the hut. Not one to be undone, Ngabo tells his friend they wouldn’t be doing the work if Swanga’s father had done a better job.
It is very clear that Swanga wants his friend to know his family, friends, and village. Ngabo’s instant friendship with Gwiza as they both reveal their intimate stories about the deaths of their parents attests to his willingness to get inside of Swanga’s personal world.
The intensity of the boys’ relationship becomes even more reinforced after Ngabo accuses Swanga’s father of being part of his own father’s murder. Swanga angrily defends his father against Ngabo’s irrational accusation. Later on, the boys try to reconcile their anger as Ngabo promises his friend that he doesn’t have to actually help him murder his father’s killer but only to be there with him as a friend. Swanga’s generous affection for Ngabo culminates in his benevolent promise to build a house in his village for Ngabo, even though Ngabo knows he can never live there.
Although Ngabo angrily rejects his friend’s help after Swanga is kicked out of the hut by the father, Ngabo’s final choice of not to follow through on what he thought was his tribal “duty” for revenge clearly indicates that the film’s narrative has come full circle.
Back in his own village, Ngabo dreams of returning to the Kimisagara market with his friend. And the final gentle image of Swanga poignantly tells us that we are back to the tender arms-around-the-neck friendship that Ngabo finally surrenders to.
For those who might have an interest in seeing the film, I encourage you to check out the “Special-features” biographies of the two actors who play Sangwa and Ngabo. One of the actors lost his father to the war and the other discovered that his father had survived the war after having been missing in action.
At the time that the movie came out, both actors were porters in the Kimisagara market, living in ghetto-like housing, and trying to financially support their families.
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction