Tom Patrick Nzabonimpa is a Rwandan electromechanical engineer and writer. He writes creative non-fiction, fiction and drama mainly based on the African Identity. He is also a poet and spoken word artist. He was a resident at the 2020 Pen Pen African Writers Residency.
Tom is a member of Aﬄatus Africa, a Rwanda-based literary organization that empowers youth and promotes the culture of reading and writing. He is also the country coordinator of Writers Space Africa – Rwandan Chapter. He works with Ubuntu Publishers as a content creator and editor in their Children’s magazine section.
His works have appeared in Twaweza Anthology and WSA Magazine among other places, while he has performed his spoken word pieces in Spoken Word Rwanda and Reading for Change global events. He also participated in the African Writers Mingle, 2nd Edition, as a panelist. Patrick currently lives in Kigali with his father and sister. He mostly pens in the morning after drinking his black chai. When he is not writing, you can find him playing basketball, watching movies or reciting poems.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation takes place between a white painted bedroom in Africa’s cleanest city, Kigali, and a cold, coming-out-of-lockdown Nairobi, via WhatsApp and email.
Edith: Tom, your latest creative non-fiction pieces have recently been published in the Twaweza Anthology. I really have to commend you for them. I especially loved reading ‘A life with Kaka’. The way you used language to aptly portray your childhood reminisces was so refreshing and delightful. How was the process for you, bringing to life these personal memories of childhood?
Tom: Thank you so much, Edith. Well, writing ‘A life with Kaka’ was easy for me; simply because I was writing about my amazing childhood living with Grandma. I love my grandmother, so that impelled me to write about our life together. I did narrate the story from memories I still keep, and I told the story as I would tell it in Kinyarwanda. That also made it simple for me to bring the memories back to life through storytelling.
Edith: I love this: ‘bringing memories back to life through storytelling.’ It is so accurate. About a month ago, I was writing a story about my childhood nightmares and how for many years I kept dreaming about and seeing the same man night after night. Writing that down almost resurrected the whole ordeal. It felt so real, so alive, almost as if I was a young girl again.
Tom: Wow! I’d love to read that story. It sounds interesting.
Edith: Very. But something else you said, about how writing the story in English as you would write it in Kinyarwanda made the process simpler. Reading through your story, there are words written in Kinyarwanda and even when you use English in the rest of the story, you somewhat localize it to convey your narration, this I found to be such a beautiful way of expression.
Tom: Yes, living with grandma helped me to express myself better in Kinyarwanda because she was so attached to the language and the culture. I was born in Kigali where most young people don’t know much about Rwandan culture and language. They usually just mix it with French or English.
I was 5 when I started living with Grandma. From then on, I learnted how to articulate myself in pure Kinyarwanda and by extension learning about our culture because most of its testimonies are in the village; the cattle keeping, riddles, proverbs, way of life etc.
I usually think in my mother tongue then write in English. It is so effortless when I do this. Keeps my story real to me when I read it. Well, sometimes I struggle with words to use in my story when I can’t find their exact translation in the English language. In that case, I decide to write them down as they are in vernacular.
Edith: I agree. I love this! I totally relate because I’ve had numerous instances when the equivalent of a word in English just doesn’t mean the same or bear the same weight as the original vernacular word. I mean, why bother? Sometimes it’s just better to leave the word as it is because after all, we write to enrich other people’s view on human experiences and to provoke their curiosity. We don’t always have to make every word relevant to them or write like we were born inside the English Dictionary.
I am also trying to imagine how living with your grandmother from the age of 5 must have enriched you. Grandparents are for the most part treasure troves of knowledge. Their beliefs and views on things are always amazing. In your story, the first line reads,
“My grandma tells me she doesn’t drink water. And for the 7 years I lived with her, I never saw her drink. Sometimes I stalked her, but I wouldn’t find her taking even a sip.”
Isn’t this the most intriguing thing ever! Tell me about it? Does she still not take water?
Tom: I know it’s fascinating! When she first told me, I didn’t believe her. When writing the story, I went down memory lane to try and see if there might have been any time that I ever saw her drink water, but I found none. Well, as I said in the story, I never saw her drink water. She told me that water makes her regurgitate.
I remember any time I told her to drink water she would say that water is for cows. She still holds that drinking water is nonsense, especially if there are other drinks you can take. Even to date, she doesn’t drink water.
“Going to the role of writers in language preservation, I believe that we have a big role to play. One is to write in vernacular— If we have many books written in vernacular languages, it’s very hard for that language to disappear. And this can only be done by writers. We have a tough but important job.“
Edith: I hope advocates of 7 glasses of water per day are reading this. And it’s not only her stance on not taking water that I found interesting, but she also believed, as you mention in the story that if you sit on the urusyo, you will cause the death of someone close by.
This reminded me of my grandmother and how she time and time again told us that if someone is sitting down, you shouldn’t stand behind them as you will inhale all their blood and cause them to die. To date, even though I know it’s ridiculous, I don’t like it when someone stands behind me, I always imagine they are inhaling my blood.
Tom: Hahaha, I will be careful to not ever stand behind you Edith. I won’t dare cause your death.
Edith: Fair enough. Tell me, how did living with your grandmother affect your life as it is now? Do you look back at some things she did or said and think, no, that was wrong or are there things you carried from living with her that you still do?
Tom: Growing up and living with my grandma made a big impact in my life, especially in being the person I am today. She was a woman of her words and religiously respected the working hours. If she said that we would go to the farm with her workers at 5 a.m, then that was indeed the time we kept. She didn’t like people who couldn’t comply with the working schedule and neither do I. I don’t like people who don’t keep time.
One of the things I still do, which I got from Grandma, and which people think is weird, is to drink cold Mukaru. Mukaru is almost like black chai. She especially liked to drink it on sunny days. The first time I sipped it, it tasted so splendid. Even today, I love drinking cold Mukaru but with sugar, and yes, on sunny days too.
Edith: You know I’m just amazed at how vividly you remember all this. I especially enjoyed reading about your first day at school. You record:
“The teacher told me to write “i” on the blackboard and instead, I drew a long vertical line. He didn’t correct me. Instead, he instructed me to lie down and he gave me five strokes of kiboko on my buttocks. I cried while the other pupils laughed at me.”
Okay, apart from being funny (sorry) I was amazed at how detailed your descriptions were. Not only in this instance but throughout your story. You also elaborated on being employed as a machine operator at the age of 16. How is it that even over time, the tiniest specifics are still clear to you?
Tom: Yes, the first day at school, that was funny. I can now laugh about it when I remember. Besides, it’s something I can’t forget because whenever my sister and I visit my grandmother in the village, it’s the first thing we, or rather they, will talk about. She always reminds us of how naive and funny we were as children.
Also, the memories are very clear to me because I happen to be that person who can remind you of something that you said ten years ago. Most of my friends know that I don’t forget easily (I’m not sure if that’s a flaw) but I enjoy this. So, it’s easy for me to remember an event and all the intricate little details about it.
About being employed at 16, I wrote about it simply because I was overwhelmed by people’s opinions. They used to say that no one would ever hire me because I was under 18 years. It used to hurt me to the extent that I regretted graduating at a young age. I think I mentioned in the story that my grandma wanted me to start primary schools at age 7, but I insisted and started at the age of 5. I used to follow my elder sister to school then I finally ended up being a pupil too and teachers somewhat accepted to teach me despite being underage. This made me graduate from high school at the age of 15, which was not usual for most students of that time.
Edith: Didn’t you look at it from a place of being an underage worker, given that you were only 16? Didn’t that bother you?
Tom: It didn’t bother me because at work fellows didn’t know I was 16, only the chief knew. I was only bothered by getting used to the work as a new intern.
And another reason I clearly remember my school memories is, the teacher who caned me on my first day of school is now my friend. He sometimes reminds me of how I was in primary school. All this helped me to put into perspective and distinctly remember more about my younger days.
Edith: Memory is a mysterious thing. We may not always remember things as they exactly were, but rather how we felt about it. So, it’s great that you have a reference point to validate that.
And you know your first-day experience reminded me of my primary school days too. Growing up I spoke Luo, but when I went to school, I had to learn Kiswahili and English at the same time, which was challenging for me at my young age. And based on what you said earlier, both the English and the French language are spoken by young people in Rwanda. What does this mean for the future of Kinyarwanda as both language and culture?
Tom: Thank you so much Edith, good question. In Rwanda, Kinyarwanda is being taught alongside foreign languages, especially at young ages. The government is working hard to preserve Kinyarwanda. From primary 1 to 3, pupils take most lessons in Kinyarwanda and not English or French. It has also been introduced in secondary schools and even in universities; even though the module is given for only two hours a week, at least they learn about it.
Besides those initiatives, we have what we call Itorero, it’s like a training program which all high school graduates attend to learn about Rwandan culture, values and language. Itorero has also been introduced in schools. I hope through all these ways, we will be able to preserve our Kinyarwanda.
I must say, however, that preserving Kinyarwanda remains the duty of us Rwandans because it’s the language that the whole of Rwanda speaks. It’s the main language that unites us.
Going to the role of writers in language preservation, I believe that we have a big role to play. One is to write in vernacular— If we have many books written in vernacular languages, it’s very hard for that language to disappear. And this can only be done by writers. We have a tough but important job.
Edith: Wow, this is impressive. I am so glad Rwanda is being deliberate about culture and language preservation. More African countries need to follow suit. Now, more than ever, we face the greatest risk of our native languages becoming extinct. I especially love your answer about the need for writers to write in vernacular. Yes, it makes sense, but we also need publishers to accept those vernacular manuscripts, and readers to read them. Like you’ve said it’s a tough job. But it must be done.
Do you know any publishers in Rwanda or writers who write in vernacular? If yes, what has been the response so far in terms of their book’s reception?
Tom: Of course, I know both publishers and writers who deal with vernacular writings. Mostly those who write school books, short stories and children books. The feedback is surprisingly good because they sell a lot of copies. But novels written in vernacular are few. Most of them are not even known. You will find that the most recent popular books are the ones written in English or French, and later, they can be translated to Kinyarwanda. It is still not the original language of the writing.
Edith: Tell me, you also write poetry. How do you find it different in terms of expression? Are there some freedoms or limitations that you find in the poetry genre that restrict you or enable you to express yourself better?
Tom: Thanks for the question. I may say that poetry is one of the very first genres I chose when I started writing. It was just because I found it interesting and easy to write; short and few lines to express your feelings and thoughts. Later I found poetry as a best friend; it’s the one I talk to when I can’t talk, the one I tell how I feel and then feel like I am being understood. I use it to speak out my soul. But yet I find some limitations when I want to tell a story in depth. It’s boring writing a narrative poem of 2000 words. It may even look weird. That’s why I choose prose when telling a story. But when it’s about writing my feelings, I just write a poem and it feels great, easy and quick.
Edith: What a powerful statement here. This reminds me of the Letters to A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, he writes:
“Think, dear Mr. Kappus, of the world that you carry within you, and call this thinking whatever you like. Whether it is the memory of your own childhood or longing for your own future – just be attentive towards what rises up inside you and place it above everything that you notice round about. What goes on in your innermost being is worth all your love, this is what you must work on.”
And this is what you’ve just described above, poetry coming out from within your soul and giving you words when you don’t have any. As writers, we have the privilege of going into our innermost selves and connecting with feelings and thoughts then turning them into words and worlds. And that’s such a great honour. I can’t wait to read your poetry Tom.
Tom: Thank you!
Edith: As we finish, I’d like to talk about your thoughts on creative non-fiction, especially in the African literary scene. Briefly tell me about the non-fiction residency you attended and how it impacted your writing, especially with regards to creative non-fiction.
Tom: Thank you so much Edith, that’s a good question.
Where do I start? I attended the Pen Pen Writers Residency in Kenya this March. It was my first writer’s residency and I am thankful to AWDT and everyone who made it possible. I learned valuable lessons starting with the importance of culture in literature. Then there were the creative writing classes where I learnt to consciously critique characters and not just write because I got caught up with the flow of the pen. I also learnt that ‘big big English words’ don’t matter. What matters is the story and the language you use. And I learnt about self-editing my works too.
I would say the most important takeaway for me was that as a writer when writing non-fiction stories, it is important that elements of my culture, people, environment and their ways of living are somewhat reflected in the story.
Creative non-fiction is an interesting genre because it allows you to tell your original and facts-based story and still be creative, not fictitious. I personally love this genre and I will keep writing more stories mainly based on my experiences and my environment.
I think more writers need to engage in this genre because who doesn’t have real and interesting stories that have happened to them or their family members? They can tell the world these stories through CNF. And I have figured out that most people (those around me) like it when you narrate true stories as opposed to fiction. Creative non-fiction is an excellent genre because these are our real stories told in our ‘real’ worlds.
Edith: Thank you so much for this insightful answer, Tom, and I completely agree with you. It’s always said that truth is stranger than fiction. So yes, I believe that creative nonfiction is richer and even more alluring than fiction. And this genre is gaining more acceptance so yes, we should embrace it because like you said, we all have stories worth telling.
Lastly, is there anything you are working on currently that we should look forward to?
Tom: I am currently working on two non-fiction stories, one drama, a collection of my poems and also, my novel which is 4 pages now (laughs).
Edith: Hahaha okay. I know for a fact that all published novels were at one time just 4 pages done, so soldier on soldier.
Thank you so much for your time and for having this important and wonderful dialogue with me. I wish you all the best in your endeavours.
Tom: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been my pleasure.
This dialogue was edited by Kylie Kiunguyu.
Edith Knight Magak is a writer and editor living in Nairobi, Kenya.
Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Critical Read, Urban Ivy, Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Jalada, Six Hens, among other places. Edith writes about writing, depression, trauma, family, history and sometimes murder. In 2019 she was longlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Award.
When she isn’t writing or working, she fills her time taking long walks, scribbling poetry, or reading short stories. Edith is a member of the African Writers Development Trust.
Edith believes that the future of African literature is creative nonfiction.