Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron is the heart-breaking account of a young man in Rwanda in the 1980s and 90s, who dreams of becoming his country’s first Olympic running champion.
For more than a decade, we follow Tutsi Jean Patrick Nkuba as he devotes himself to his goal; we share his wins and losses on the track, we join him on his pre-dawn training runs and we wish him luck as he pursues the other love of his life, the delightfully feisty Bea.
But all the while we know what’s coming…
An estimated 800,000 Rwandans died in just 100 days during the country’s 1994 genocide. Ethnic tension between Rwanda’s two main ethnic groups – Hutu and Tutsi – had been brewing for years. And with previous episodes of mass violence on both sides and a civil war between Rwanda’s Hutu-led government and the Tutsi rebels, the assassination of president Juvénal Habyarimana was the final straw. It unleashed government-sponsored violence which saw the killing of not only Tutsi men, women and children, but those Hutus who opposed the persecution of their fellow Rwandans. Whipped into a frenzy by a Hutu radio station, civilians were encouraged to join the military and militia in wiping out the Tutsi “cockroaches” – many of whom had taken shelter in schools and churches. Around two million Hutus took part in the killing of 20 percent of the country’s population.
Part of the strength of this novel is that despite the historical backdrop it remains Jean Patrick’s story. We are well aware of the growing tension, and while it invades Jean Patrick’s life on many levels, he is somewhat protected by his talent as he continues his gruelling training schedule and plots to win Bea’s affections. How could he possibly know what was to come? After all, the president himself sees this future champion as a symbol of the country’s unity. The eventual outcome is unimaginable.
While this is a story of conflict and violence, it is also a love story, a coming-of-age story and a story of hope and forgiveness. The characters are engaging and the description of the Rwandan countryside is vivid. Not only will you learn something of Rwanda’s history, you’ll learn a great deal about the experiences of top level athletes as they desperately try to reach their goals.
And now, having put down the book to turn my attention to the television and the plethora of talent on the track in London, there’s a little part of me which so wishes I could see Jean Patrick running there…
Book Source: This novel was kindly provided for review purposes by the publishers.