Sandrine Bwiza is a talented storyteller, writer, and blogger. She is the author of After the Bus Left, which is the title of her first publication, and has also won the World Bank Group Blog Award in 2019.
Sandrine is currently the Finance Officer of Imagine We Rwanda, a social enterprise that promotes reading and writing culture among youth and has been part of it since its inception in 2015.
She is a self-taught leader who has greatly contributed to women’s empowerment in Rwanda through several programs including Girl Guides and the Campus; a program she ran for two years through Imagine We Rwanda.
BY TOM PATRICK NZABONIMPA
This conversation took place between a white painted bedroom in Gikondo, somewhere in the heart of Africa’s cleanest city, Kigali and a warm going-into-lockdown neighbourhood of Remera in the same city, via WhatsApp and email.
Tom: A blessed morning to you Sandrine! First of all, I want to pat you on the back for the astounding work you did with your creative non-fiction book, After The Bus Left. Bravo! I am sure that you had a lot of titles that you could have given this book. Why did you choose ‘After The Bus Left’?
Sandrine: Good morning Tom. I want to thank you for having me today. I really appreciate it.
Back to the question, you are absolutely right. I had about ten titles for my book. If there is one thing among the other things that challenge authors, it is to come up with their book’s titles. I had an amazing team of people who helped me come up with the title of my book. After The Bus Left is a title that complies with the content of the book. If you have read the book, you can connect the story with the title.
Tom: That is amazing. Blessed is the team that helped you bring to life this beautiful book along with its enticing title.So, Sandrine, we all have different memories including those that stick in our minds and persuade us to share them with the world. What pushed you to share this particular story with the world and how long did it take you to turn it into a book?
Sandrine: Back in 2015, when I started working with Imagine We Publishers, I would tell my colleagues this story and they would laugh at it. Later on, they encouraged me to turn it into a book—an idea I did not turn down. It took me three years to write this book and two more to publish it. It was a long but worthwhile journey.
Tom: Wow! Such a long journey that birthed this stunning book.This makes me want to dive into the book (laughs). Mulisa, the main character (who represents you) and some of her colleagues loved adventure and would call themselves Rwanda’s youngest explorers. How was this dream back then? As you grew up, did you keep that spirit?
Sandrine: Honestly, back then, it was not fun. We just had to force ourselves to think that it was. Nobody would enjoy getting lost in a big forest of Nyungwe and on top of that, we were trying to find our way back home. However, I admit that we saw numerous interesting things along the way, but, since I was a kid, I did not care much.
Meanwhile, as I grew up, my love for travelling grew. I love traveling so much. Someone said that traveling is the antidote for ignorance. It is fascinating how one can gain plenty of knowledge just from traveling and it goes hand in hand with learning new languages, which is something I adore. In 2016, I had the opportunity to travel around Africa, exploring and learning new cultures. In 2017, I traveled around Europe and saw how beautiful the world is—the well-maintained castles of the 18th century, etc. In 2019, I was also able to travel to the US and in 2020, I traveled to the Middle East.
“Writers get inspiration from different places and things. Some travel to get inspiration, others travel looking for a secluded place to help them focus. For me, since my story is factual, it was an easy process. I would recall the journey and jot it down on paper.”
Tom: I can sense the keenness as you narrate these trips, exploring different cultures and adventures. I too would like to travel in the coming days. Speaking of your travels, did they impact your writing journey? How important do you think traveling is to a writer?
Sandrine: Writers get inspiration from different places and things. Some travel to get inspiration, others travel looking for a secluded place to help them focus. For me, since my story is factual, it was an easy process. I would recall the journey and jot it down on paper. On other days, I could spend sleepless nights thinking about how to make the story flow perfectly. Hopefully soon, my travelling experiences will help me put together my second book.
Tom: That’s fantastic, Sandrine. I cannot wait to read your next book! I also agree that traveling can impact one’s writing inspiration. This reminds me of my creative non-fiction story about my journey from Nairobi back to Kigali with all the fears of catching the coronavirus. When I reached home, I could not help but write about it and eventually it won an award.
Sandrine: Congratulations Patrick! Do share that story with me. I am interested to read it.
Tom: Oh! I will be glad to share it with you once it is published. Moving forward, when your friend, Tetero (the one in this book) reads this story, what do you think she will say?
Sandrine: I honestly have no idea because this happened in 2009. A year later, we lost contact up until now. I once heard that she flew to study in Canada. Some people say that she died. So, I have no idea.
Tom: Oh, poor Tetero! I thought that you two are still in contact. I loved how she was a funny and honest friend to you. There is this moment where she chased away a snake that was about to bite you. It is clear that she even saved your life. So, Sandrine, don’t you miss her? Of all the days you spent with her, what did you learn from her?
Sandrine: Of course I miss Tetero! She was the silliest person I have ever come across. She was also bold, fearless and humorous. With her, I learnt how to be patient and to solve complex mathematical questions because she was so good at Mathematics.
Tom: Oh! I can feel the missing part and how outstanding my favourite character Tetero was. I understand that I have a good reason to have a crush on her (laughs). Still on the lessons learned throughout the journey from Nyungwe forest back to Kigali, what did you learn that still helps you today?
Sandrine: To be fearless, Patrick! Bring all the snakes and I will scare them away! Okay, jokes aside. I learnt to be attentive and patient. l learnt to be hopeful, optimistic and that when you are in a horrible situation, you don’t just give up. If you look harder with an open mind, solutions are just around the corner. There is this quote I like from the movie Paul Blart, which states, “The journey is long and hard, but when you reach the top, the view is amazing.’’ My favourite of all is by Martin Luther King Jr. He said, “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.’’ I live by that rule.
Tom: Those are powerful quotes. It is something I should apply too; nurturing an open mind to be able to perceive solutions to different problems. So, Sandrine, what about the people you met along the way? From Kayiranga and his family who sheltered you after he took you from the forest; Wemba who offered you some water when you were thirsty; and the baby you found and delivered to her father. Did you get any chance to see or hear from them again?
Sandrine: That was it, Patrick. That was the first and last time I saw them. I never went back in those directions again because of fear. It was a long time ago and we were so young. They did not have phones and back then social media was unpopular. I never went back but now, I think I should give it a try. I doubt that I will be able to recognise them, but still, I admit that I had beautiful memories with them.
Tom: You should try to go back and see. Maybe you will recognise someone. Who knows? I want you to tell me more about these two moments:
– Going back to Kigali in a container of the truck; how was the experience? Wasn’t it hot?
– Reaching Kigali at home; how did your family treat you? What and how were their reactions when they saw you again?
Sandrine: No, it wasn’t hot. Or maybe it was, but that was the least of our worries. We cared less about that because we were so excited to go back home. There were many Fantas in the truck. We drank a few until our bellies were full. But we were scared of being caught and get thrown out as well. Luckily, we got caught at the right moment. (Laughs).
My family couldn’t believe their eyes. I was filthy; they had to take a second look to recognise me.
The confusing part is that they did not know I was lost this whole time. They thought I was still at school. After our trip, we were supposed to go back home for two weeks and come back to school to prepare to write the National Examination. Because I wanted to surprise my parents and siblings, I did not tell them that I was coming home. Same thing at school; they thought that all students were home, which is why no-one looked for us. Later, my parents were furious and wanted to sue the school for its irresponsibility, but the school apologised. To date, my parents cannot believe what happened to me. For your information, I aced the National Examination.
Tom: What a journey! Now I understand why they did not look for you. I am glad you made it out healthy and that you aced the National Examination.
I have learned that you won an award from the Development Bank of Africa, what was it about? Also, I noticed in your story that you have used some vernacular terms, what do you think is the importance of that in a story?
Sandrine: Oh, I am a big deal Tom Patrick! (Laughs). I won the World Bank Blog Competition Award in 2019 and had a chance to represent Rwanda in Washington DC. It was an honour to experience that moment. Moving on to the next question, vernacular is a literary term that is hard to define and understand. The vernacular terms that are used by groups of people in everyday life are often reflected in literature for authenticity. The use of vernacular helps an author to show settings and characters. It also helps the reader to feel close and relate to the characters, drawing them into the story. It is very important to use some vernacular terms to feel more connected to your readers. While you write your book, you have a targeted group of people whether teenagers, adults or children.
You need to make sure that the vernacular terms you use are suitable to the targeted readers.
Tom: That is pretty awesome. You did a great job representing Rwanda in Washington DC. I agree with you. I too use vernacular terms in my stories. They mainly help me give my stories a Rwandan flair, hence showcasing my origin. What are you working on nowadays?
Sandrine: Thank you, Patrick. I am sure that sometimes when you write as well, it is hard. You need to get inspiration and gather your ideas, especially when writing fiction. I have not written much recently. However, I have been encouraging youth who are interested in writing to give it a shot. As a person who works in a publishing house, it is my duty to keep encouraging Rwandan youth to love literature. We would like to publish many authors from Rwanda and all over Africa.
Tom: Wow, that is thought-provoking. I like the last sentence the most. I hope you will publish me too if I reach out soon.
Tom: Alright, Sandrine. Thank you so much for having this interview with me. It was fantastic to talk to you.
Sandrine: It is my pleasure, Tom Patrick. Thank you too!
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Tom Patrick Nzabonimpa is a writer from Kigali. He writes creative non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and screenplays. He was a resident at the 2020 Pen Pen African Writers Residency, second edition in Nairobi, and has won the 2020 Empower Africa Now Writing Contest in the short story category. Tom’s works have appeared and are forthcoming in Brittle Paper, Twaweza Anthology, African Autograph, HQAfrica and WSA Magazine, among other places. He is a columnist at The New Times and the Country Coordinator of Writers Space Africa, Rwanda Chapter (WSA-R). He is also working on his debut novel. When he is not writing, you can find him drinking chai.