Immaculée Ilibagiza was born in Rwanda in a village that she thought was a peaceful paradise. Her village was called Mataba and was in the western province of Kibuye, right on the border of The Congo. Her parents, Leonard and Rose, were both teachers and farmers.
She had three brothers: Aimable was five years older than her, then Damascene, her best friend, was three years older, and Vianney was three years younger. Her parents were devout Catholics and she was raised with prayer, church, and compassion for others.
The first time she heard about the division of Hutus and Tutsis was in fourth grade. Her teacher took a roll call and asked students to identify themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, and she did not know which she was. Her teacher Buhuro made her leave the classroom until she could identify herself.
Immaculée explains that her parents never told them the history of Rwanda: German and Belgian colonialists favored the ruling Tutsi class and set up a system where they were socially and politically dominant over the Hutu. After 1962 when the Belgians left, the Hutus gained control and made Tutsis second-class citizens. The 1959 Hutu revolt against the Belgians and 1973 coup resulted in the death and expulsion of many Tutsis. But in Immaculée’s limited experience, everyone seemed to get along, with Hutus and Tutsis frequently marrying, befriending, and otherwise associating with each other.
Her first encounter with this prejudice came when she was 15 and taking entrance examinations to enter prestigious government-funded public schools. Despite scoring second-best in her school, she was passed over because of her Tutsi heritage. After spending two years at a substandard private school, however, she was admitted to the Lycée de Notre Dame d’Afrique, an all-girls school that was the top of the country. She made good friends at the prestigious school, which was located in an area of the country hostile to Tutsis, but the students were well protected.
In 1990 the first stirrings of a war come into her life. Tutsi rebels from Uganda have banded with the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) and are trying to regain their rights and power in Uganda after being expelled in the ethnic tensions of 1959 and 1973. Immaculée is threatened with violence when outside school and experiences hatred from within when she frightens her roommate at night and her roommate screams that an RPF rebel is trying to break in. Immaculée’s friend Clementine, also a Tutsi, shows her an electrical box where they can kill themselves if the Hutus break in.
When Immaculée goes home for Christmas she learns that an old friend, Kabayi, the district burgomaster with great political power, jailed her father. He was released and Immaculée urges her father to see the danger all around them, since his old friend betrayed him, but her father refuses and says she is overreacting and everyone is safe.
In 1991 Immaculée earns a scholarship to the National University in Butare, which she did not think would happen because she was Tutsi, despite her very good test scores. Many of her good female friends were admitted as well, and she enjoys her newfound freedom, including a generous stipend. She begins dating John, a Hutu. Her life at university is exciting and socially active despite the fierce fighting in the north, which now includes the Interhamwe: a youth movement organized by the president’s political party that becomes the extremist Hutu militia.
The country begins to descend into chaos as Immaculée witnesses the lawless violence and intimidation that the Interhamwe are able to inflict upon the country. Peace talks in Tanzania between President Habyarimana and the Tutsi rebels leads to a peace agreement. Once the agreement is signed, though, powerful military colonel Theoneste Bagosora says he will never agree to peace with the Tutsis and will “prepare an apocalypse” (36) in Rwanda.
The first half of Part I: The Gathering Storm lays the groundwork for the rest of Immaculée’s memoir in several important ways. Rwandan political and tribal histories are explained to the reader so that there is context for the novel’s historical setting. Additionally Immaculée describes her life from early childhood so that the reader will be able to see how drastically the country changed in the genocide.
Immaculée explains the country’s political history in Chapter 2, page 15. She explains how the Germans and Belgians favored the Tutsi because they were already in power in the region when those colonial powers took over. She describes two rebellions that involved mass Tutsi killings and expulsions: one when the Tutsis tries to get more power from the Belgians in 1959 and the Belgians encouraged the Hutus to violently overthrow the Tutsi monarchy. Then in 1973, when Immaculée was three years old, many Tutsis were murdered and driven from the country.
This explanation of the country’s ethnic conflict history gives useful context to the conflict that Immaculée’s memoir mainly focuses on. The fact that the Germans and Belgians pitted the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups against each other gives important context to the ethnic conflict.
The second important aspect of context given in this chapter is that of Immaculée’s childhood, especially how her parents never told her the ethnic conflict history of their country. This lends the horror that unfolds an especially horrifying aspect because for so much of Immaculée’s life, up until she was asked to identify herself as Hutu or Tutsi in primary school, she was unaware that such divisions even existed.
Immaculée shows how as she grew up she became more aware of the ethnic tensions, which was tied to the increase in tensions in the years building up to the genocide. She uses specific examples like her high school roommate being frightened in the night that she was an RPF rebel breaking in, or the men harassing her when she went out on a picnic. Then the most violent scene is when she and John are on the bus and see a woman being beaten and he tells her not to do anything.