Friday, December 06, 2019

Nonfiction Review: An Ordinary Man

I just finished reading An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Resesabagina, with Tom Zoellner, for Nonfiction November and was blown away by this powerful, moving story. I've wanted to read this memoir about the Rwandan genocide (it inspired the movie, Hotel Rwanda) for about eight years, ever since my son read it for World Lit in high school and told me how good it was. It was worth the wait!

Paul begins his story by describing his childhood in beautiful, mountainous Rwanda. He grew up in a close-knit rural community, as do most citizens of his country, where disputes were mostly handled by a group of elder residents in quiet way focused on forgiveness and healing. But, he also summarizes Rwanda's tumultuous and often violent history, from an ancient royal bloodline of mwami ruling the country to the years when it was a Belgian colony with Tutsis in positions of power to its rocky independence. While most people know that the genocide in 1994 involved two groups of people, the Hutus and the Tutsis, Paul explains that historical evidence suggests these are not actually different races, as commonly reported, but two groups of people formed from an artificial political distinction. Against the backdrop of the history lesson, Paul continues his life story: his education, his brief foray into ministry, and his eventual hiring by a luxury hotel in Kigali, Rwanda's capital city. Paul worked his way up in the Belgian corporation until he was manager, first of the Milles Collines and later of the Diplomates, where he worked when the violence began in 1994. Both were luxury hotels mostly used by foreigners visiting the city. In 1994, as horrific acts were carried out in the streets and neighbors attacked each other with machetes, Paul gathered a group of family and friends at the Milles Collines, along with its current guests, to keep them safe. As other people--both Hutu and Tutsi--ran to the hotel for sanctuary, Paul welcomed them all. He was determined to keep the hotel and all of the people in it (more than 1200 during the 90-day siege) safe from harm. He used his upbringing, charisma, and negotiating skills to call in favors and keep the hotel from being attacked, as it was threatened again and again. Throughout this remarkable story, Paul insists he is just an ordinary man who was doing his job, protecting the hotel and its people.

I was completely blown away by this stunning true story. The history was enlightening, since I knew almost nothing about Rwanda or the genocide (my first baby was born in 1994, so I was apparently distracted from world news). In addition, Paul's personal story and the extraordinary things he did to keep so many people safe was gripping and compelling, as he recounts what happened week by week. I was glad that my son had read the book so that I had someone to talk to about it last week! He also recommended the movie, Hotel Rwanda, to me, which he watched in class after reading the book. Besides simply relating the events that occurred in 1994, Paul also muses about what led to such a bloody climax and how regular people were whipped into such a frenzy that they dismembered their friends and neighbors. He has some thought-provoking insights, like this one:
"There is no greater gift to an insecure leader that quite matches a vague "enemy" who can be used to whip up fear and hatred among the population. It is a cheap way to consolidate one's hold on power."
This powerful and thoughtful book recounts an episode of history that is absolutely horrific, though the author also brings an element of hope to the story. After reading about what this "ordinary man" did to save so many people, the reader can't help but to share his hope for humanity and a better future.

204 pages, Penguin Books

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Listen to this sample from the audiobook (or order on Audible), with narrator Dominic Hoffman reading Paul Resesabagina's words, as he explains about the artificial line between Hutus and Tutsis and the impact of the genocide, from the Introduction of the book.

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  1. I feel like the Rwandan genocide is one that many people don't know much about. And it is having reverberations throughout the region still today.

    1. I completely agree, Helen. His description of the US's and other countries' intentional inaction was chilling.