Sandra Nadege is an 18-year-old published author and poetess based in Kigali, Rwanda. She is the author of a collection of poems titled First Creation and a memoir titled Light in the Dark. She has been published in multiple magazines such as WSA Magazine and The Swala Tribe and poetry anthologies such as 60 Seconds Silence and Indelible Moments. She loves to explore other genres of literature such as articles, short stories, children’s literature and creative non-fiction. She has edited multiple literary works including License to Thrill, In a Minute, and others. Moreover, she is a spoken word performer, host, singer, and art enthusiast. She is currently a college student pursuing Business Communication at Southern New Hampshire University through the Kepler program.
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 Kinyinya, a cold neighbourhood near crickets and a frog-inhabited swamp, via WhatsApp and email.
Tom: Hi Sandra. Thank you so much for agreeing to have a conversation with me. I would like to commend you for publishing your book, Light in The Dark. That is a tremendous achievement. As a teenager, how did you come up with the idea of writing a memoir?
Sandra: To be honest, it was not a memoir at first. It was just a novel with 90% of me inside it. Then, my publisher, God bless her soul, looked at me and said, “Tell your story. I can see you are fighting yourself over it.” I took back the manuscript and rewrote it. At the time, I hid from reliving some moments and I deleted and rewrote some. By the time I finished writing the book, I felt like a boulder had been lifted from me. Two years after it was published, I felt like the fog that had obscured my vision of greater things had finally cleared. That made me see another version of me rather than a girl deprived of social validation. To me, that memoir is like a sad storybook I shared with the world to be able to move on.
Tom: Fascinating! Changing your mind and deciding to share your story with the world must have required you to be brave. What did it feel like and what do you mainly address in the book?
Sandra: It was emotionally draining at first, but then it became a bit empowering when I got comfortable with my truth. In the book, I basically talk about my life from age nine to sixteen, with emphasis on the difficulties I had grown up with a different skin pigment and golden hair that was taken as a major difference between me and other children of my age. I also talk about my experiences as a young teenage girl who was also ambitious.
Tom: Well-described! In the book, I have realised that you mention some of the differences you had, but I would like to hear more about them. Are there some specific incidents that still linger in your mind?
“If you cannot accept yourself, you live in a fog forever, trying to figure out who loves you or does not. Self-acceptance is a bittersweet remedy for many mental health issues that people face nowadays.“
Sandra: Talking about incidents is sometimes not easy for me, but I can name a few. There was a time I would not be involved in other games that kids play. Sometimes, those kids could not sit with me in class and they would sometimes (people still do now) call me names or ask weird questions openly about my hair or skin colour. Now that I am grown, I still meet a lot of people who think I am not Rwandan or those kinds of things.
Tom: So sad to hear. It is unpleasant how some people push away others who seem different. Sandra, through those times which I can call ‘tough’, how did you manage to breakthrough?
Sandra: They were hard, Tom, but I decided to be harder. I just realised that I could make a difference through something else instead of loathing myself. I had always loved writing and reading and so I decided to make a change.
Tom: Sometimes, one has to be stronger than an issue to walk through it with success. I would say that was a fantastic move, Sandra! So, how was your writing journey towards publishing this book?
Sandra: I would say that the publication of Light in The Dark was not an easy journey. I was young and telling my story, baring myself. I needed some time to come to terms with the implications of the release of the book. The publication process itself took a long time. Editing and re-editing, designing the cover and the book itself and even finding the papers the publisher and I wished to use, it all took time. So basically, the publication was a tough journey but it was not that bad.
Tom: What skills did you learn throughout the journey?
Sandra: I have learned a lot. The crucial thing I learned is that writing is a process and one may have to do some rewriting and countless edits to get it to the level they want. Also, it is not for the faint-hearted; one should be able to stand by their writing, to be honest. It takes a lot of conviction to release your thoughts and ideas to the world. I learned to be patient and collaborate with others. Publishing a book might seem like a one-man show but it is not. It takes a lot! There are teams of editors, designers, and other people behind it. Lastly, it is a journey that one never ends. I just have to keep on learning and growing in literature.
Tom: I like this: “Writing is not for the faint-hearted; one should be able to stand by their writing.” That compels me to reflect on my “never give up on writing” spirit; the one that wakes me up in the middle of the night and says, “write that story, bro. Do not be a lazy guy.” (Laughs).
In the book, you talk about your school life as a student with differences. What are some of the lessons you learned when you were still in school?
Sandra: Well, given the fact that I was in high school doing sciences that I never wanted to do in the first place, I would say that I learned to be patient and tried to excel at things even when I did not want to. High school life taught me to choose my friends carefully and how to deal with my emotions as a teenager. I sound like an adult from a long time ago (Laughs). There were things that I could not deem worthy of my time, but then with the situation there, there were some things I had to go through.
Tom: Great lessons! This reminds me that in high school, I had ill-disciplined friends who would put me in trouble most of the time. I then learned to distance myself from them and made friends that resembled me. It’s a great move, right?
Sandra: Sure, that was a great one. (Laughs).
Tom: Regarding your journey towards self-acceptance, what can you advise people out there who still have not accepted themselves?
Sandra: There are fewer chances of knowing if someone else truly accepts you. The only thoughts we have control over are our own. If you cannot accept yourself, you live in a fog forever, trying to figure out who loves you or does not. Self-acceptance is a bittersweet remedy for many mental health issues that people face nowadays. It is hard to do, but the best things in the world do not come easily. So my word is, love yourself and if there is something you do not like about yourself, change it.
Tom: I like that advice. Self-love and self-care should be a priority. This compels me to ask you to compare Sandra, a student in high school, with today’s Sandra.
Sandra: Well, that is almost impossible. I have changed in all possible ways. I have improved my writing style and my confidence as a writer. As an individual, I can also say that I am more open to socialising with people, whereas I used to be a soft-spoken and quiet person. I have dramatically changed, to be honest. I wouldn’t recognise myself if I met myself as a high school student. The one thing that never changed is my zeal for writing and my golden hair and red skin.
Tom: You have really changed for the better. Back to your short memoir, I believe there are some people you mentioned in the book who have read it. How did they react to your story?
Sandra: Well, one of them did read the story and it is a delicate matter that I was talking about them. I am glad that they did not really take it in a bad way. They were able to understand that it was just my point of view of the situation. They even happened to know more about why I behaved the way I did. Some of my family members winced when I mentioned it, but then it is nothing worth worrying about. So far, all is well.
Tom: Glad to hear! I hope nobody threw a stone at you. (Laughs).
What are you working on nowadays?
Sandra: I was fortunate to not be stoned! (Laughs). In terms of writing, I am actually in the final stages of working on my second poetry collection. Hopefully, it will be published by the end of March. I have also started an internship in Content Creation and Editing at Kigali Arena. I also do different gigs in transcription, translation, editing, and copywriting just to enhance my experience. Apart from that, I’m in my second year doing Communication with Business at Southern New Hampshire University through the Kepler program.
Tom: Awesome stuff! I hope you will let me know when your collection is published. It was a great pleasure to have this conversation with you.
Sandra: I am hoping it is going to be out before the end of March. I’m really excited about it. It was a pleasure as well.
This dialogue was edited by our Senior 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 reporter 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.