“At last we rounded the bend and descended into Gisenyi, on the shores of Lake Kivu. That’s where Mother slowed down. The town moved slowly past the window of our pickup, like film through Father’s home projector. We drove past the lake, sparkling and blue, in the direction of the border with Zaire. We passed the children in their khaki shorts, the foam-mattress shops and the decaying colonial buildings in every colour of ice-cream.” – p37 of The Flower Plantation by Nora Anne Brown
I suspect it is almost impossible to write a novel set in Rwanda without it being overshadowed by the country’s horrendous genocide of 1994, but in her debut novel The Flower Plantation Nora Anne Brown does an excellent job in giving us at least a little bit of time to enjoy the beauty of the country before the atrocities inevitably force themselves on the characters and their lives.
This is the story of Arthur Baptiste, the child of an English mother and a half-Belgian, half-Tutsi father who grows up on a flower plantation run by his mother. Just five years old when the novel’s action really starts, Arthur is an unusual child. He find himself unable to speak and is obsessed by butterflies and other forms of wildlife. Always conscious of his differences from other children, he is uncomfortable around them, and rather than go to the local school his haphazard education takes place on the plantation.
I enjoyed learning to love this Rwanda that Arthur’s mother chooses to make her home. Despite the many challenges and setbacks she faces on the plantation, Martha is determined to stay, even when events from the outside intervene. And while the novel is told through Arthur’s eyes, his mother emerges as a fascinating character; she drives too fast and drinks too much, but is a fierce and passionate woman who somehow creates her own reality despite all the evidence contradicting it.
There is a definite undercurrent of violence throughout the novel, but at its center we are experiencing Arthur’s world; one of family, childhood friendship and nature. There is a light and gentleness which defies the growing tension.
You will certainly come away from this novel knowing more about Rwanda and its history. Through the stories Arthur’s father tells him, we learn about villainous kings and wicked queen mothers, of power struggles and bloody battles. But while they might sound like ancient fairy stories, they eventually lead us to 1994 and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by their Hutu countrymen.
Lakes, mountains and forests…
“It was more of a meadowy path with silver eucalyptus leaves shimmering above us. There were hypericum trees with bright-yellow flowers and veronicas too, in lavender and white. It felt like a magical glade – as if it was our secret – and that felt good.” – p100
Brown’s Rwanda takes us to Gisenyi on the shores of Lake Kivu which borders Zaire, or Democratic Republic of Congo, as it is known today.
Arthur and his friend Beni spend many hours exploring nearby forest which is home to mountain gorillas and a string of volcanoes. Think Gorillas in the Mist here, and in fact, there is a female character who is inspired by the late zoologist Dian Fossey.
Gisenyi itself is described with all its colonial quirkiness; the overly bureaucratic post office, the chaotic market and the relative luxury of the lakeside hotel adopted by tourists in safari jackets and long socks. Much of this remains, and to tell us more about it, Brown has kindly answered some of the many questions I had after reading this novel….
Rwanda is a mysterious place for many people, the genocide perhaps being the only thing many are familiar with – what are you hoping this book will add to people’s understanding of the country?
That it’s a place of great beauty and grace that has a rich history that goes far beyond the genocide. And also to show that the west played a big part in the making of the genocide, that it wasn’t simply ‘tribal warfare’.
Tell us a little bit about your own history with Rwanda?
My first visit was with friends who worked for the UN. I fell utterly in love with the country. When I returned home I read as much as I could about Rwanda and wrote the first chapter of The Flower Plantation. My second visit was to the Imbabazi orphanage/flower plantation where I worked as a writer in residence and teacher, and began the novel in earnest. My third trip was cancelled due to being late on in my pregnancy. I hope to return with my son as soon as I can.
You certainly bring about some of the beauty of the country in the book – what advice would you give to people wanting to visit the area in which the novel is set ?
Do as the locals do – take the buses, eat from street vendors, shop at the market, try a bit of the language, swim in the lake and, if you’re able, visit someone’s home.
How would you describe Gisenyi as it is today?
Gisenyi is making the most of its beauty and the nearby gorilla population. There was quite a bit of building work going on when I was last there and an increasing number of nice hotels. It’s a place where politicians congregate as well as tourists, so money is trickling in. Having said that, the heart of Gisenyi remains the same and many of the places in the book are there to be seen: the post office, the market and the shop.
Tell me about the forest where Arthur and Beni explore…
The forest that Beni and Arthur explore is imagined but the research came from the opening chapters of Gorillas in the Mist so its accurate in terms of vegetation. The inspiration for the forest, cave and crater came from someone I met on my second trip who told me about a walk you can do that took in all of these sights – sadly I never got to do the walk due to a bad back.
If you could suggest three things for people to do on a visit to the area – what would they be?
- Atelier de Poupees, Avenue du Marche, Gisenyi – a project set up for widows of the genocide. They make beautiful dolls, bags and dresses, all of which can be bought in their little shop or ordered and made for collection the next day.
- Maison St Benoit – a convent about fifteen minutes south of Gisenyi where you can stay in perfect peace for a donation.
- Ubumwe Community Centre – a centre for the disabled. They do great work and they have products for sale that have been made by those who attend. All profits are fed back into the centre.
Is there somewhere very specifically related to the novel that people could visit? Perhaps somewhere the characters themselves have been?
The Imbabazi Orphanage/Flower Plantation, 7km from Kabali (approx 30km from Gisenyi) – the place that inspired Arthur’s home.
Do you have a favourite cafe, bar or restaurant to recommend?
- White Rocks Bistro in town.
- Hotel Malahide – a short drive out of Gisenyi but absolutely stunning.
- Peaceland Hotel – for crepes and great views
Is the Hotel Kivu based on a real place? Could we stay there?
The Hotel Kivu is an amalgamation of several hotels in Gisenyi but it is perhaps most like the Gorillas Hotel on the shores of Lake Kivu.
What about a favourite place to sit and read while on our visit?
Serena Hotel bar and beach – not an authentic Rwandan experience but a great place to rest weary feet.
Will you be remaining in Africa for your next novel?
I hope to write a novel set in 1950s Kenya based around the Happy Valley Set and the Mau Mau uprising.
Anything else you’d like to add for people interested in visiting this part of Rwanda?
Gisenyi borders the DRC and the city of Goma. When I was there the cost of crossing the border was minimal. It’s rather more expensive now, and of course Goma has its troubles, but if you can stretch to it I’d definitely recommend a trip into the city with a guide. The comparison is a good way of seeing just how rapidly Rwanda has developed, how ordered it is and how fecund it is too.
If you do decide to visit this area of Rwanda, you will be right near to the the Volcanoes National Park, the base for Dian Fossey’s groundbreaking work with gorillas and her fight against poachers. The park runs limited gorilla tours as well as trips to the lakes and volcanoes. It is heartening to see that Rwanda’s beautiful landscape and natural habitat are attracting people from all over the world. Reading The Flower Plantation is bound to get those feet itching to make the journey yourself.
A big thank you to Nora Anne Brown for taking the time to tell us more and to Alma Books for their complimentary copy of the novel.
I highly recommend it,
MORE IDEAS ON THINGS TO DO IN GISENYI:
One family’s experience of Gisenyi and staying at Maison St Benoit
A travel blogger’s suggestions for things to do in Rwanda, including Gisenyi
Another blogger’s perfect day in Gisenyi with some great photographs!
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