Weight of Whispers – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Kuseremane. Kuseremane. Kuseremane.

The name whose whispers turns friends into strangers, allies into enemies, relatives into snitches.

Weight of Whispers by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a tragic tale of a tall Rwandese prince whose fortunes are changed within five days of the death of two presidents. One can become an exile and refugee in a matter of time it seems.

It is the utmost irony in a narrative we’ve known only one way about the Rwandan genocide, the usual criminal tribe is not the one that commits the original sin in Kuseremane’s story. Or is it?

Boniface Louis Kuseremane is a Rwandan Prince who has enjoyed the high life for as long as he knows. He is used to travelling to European cities with ease and dining with the so and so’s of political, financial and academic influence. A president of a local Bank, he is a man of means. His life is bound with his mother, Agnethe-mama, Chi-Chi his little sister and Lune, his fiancée . However, it is another character, a should-be-ignoble character -Roger, who contributes to Kuseremane’s current circumstances with a weight that is unforeseen for a servant. In fact, Roger, is the one reason that Kuseremane in an instant turns from a travelling prince to a creeping refugee in a country not his.

In terms of tragedies, I have not read a story like this in an African setting since “A Wreath for Udomo” by Peter Abrahams. Yvonne’s writing tugs at the heart with every new phrase, every new circumstance, every new action. The way the story starts and moves is nothing short of gripping.

He spits on my finger, and draws out the ring with his teeth; the ring I have worn for 18 years – from the day I was recognised by the priests as a man and a prince. It was supposed to have been passed on to the son I do not have. The policeman twists my hand this way and that, his tongue caught between his teeth; a study in concentrated avarice.

Kuseremane steals out of his country hoping to find temporary respite in Kenya before continuing to another State outside Africa. Kenya should be a temporary stop. After all he has connections; business and royal connections and getting out of Kenya shouldn’t be a problem. He has to hurriedly leave his home with $3723, which should be enough for transition to the diaspora. However nothing goes as planned for him.

The people he thought would send help, trusted royals, do not send it. When Agnethe-mama asks Kuseremane when they are leaving or whether help has been sent, he has remained with one default response, “Soon”. He is forced to sneak out of the 5 star hotel they were “temporarily” to stay in to find cheaper places to live. He is forced to change into that which he has never experienced to survive.

Even though there are little pockets of hope, it’s a tragedy, the tale. And one cannot miss the disdain Kuseremane and his family have towards the country they are in, the shillings, the culture, even the places they look for hope in, like church. Kuseremane goes to church with the others but he is removed from it perhaps because his lineage talks of a rulership by divinity?

sitting at the back of the church watching people struggling for words and rituals to express allegiance to a God whose face they do not know. The hope peddlers become rich quickly, singing, “Cheeeeessus!”

Kenya is not playing nice either. The police arrest him for having no papers and take all his beloved souvenirs. They take his money as bribes. His mother’s diamond and sapphire necklace is sold at a lower value than it should be and when he goes to complain, he’s threatened. His sister is asked to do some despicable things to get the necessary papers out of the country an act which begets more tragedy.His friends and countrymen turn away from him when they discover the whispers behind his name.

He turned to speak to Pierre, who introduced him to Jean-Luc. I touched his shoulder to remind him of my request. He said in French: I will call you. He forgot to introduce me to Pierre and Jean-Luc. Two hours later, he said, in front of Pierre, Jean-Luc and Michel: “Refresh my memory, who are you?” My heart threatens to pound a way out of my chest.—I am Boniface Kuseremane. Refresh my memory, who are you? There are places within, where a sigh can hide.

He goes from privileged to wretched in a short matter of time.

The book deals with very interesting questions. Human evil, its mystagogy; for example, how do you interact with a Jew who has been through the horrors of the holocaust on terms of forgiveness? How do you tell Cain’s side of the story without causing insult? Fratricide; self preservation and betrayal; all these seem to prove that

…the zenith of existence cannot be human.

Men turn to beasts to preserve themselves. Men do anything to survive. For a man who has to beg for help from people he once helped, people who now act like they don’t know him, it’s rather interesting to see what terrible crimes can do to those they accuse of being its progenitors; how perhaps to say that humanity is on a positive scale of the meter is to fool ourselves.

But to be human is to be intrinsically, totally, resolutely good. Is it not? Nothing entertains the devil as much as this protestation.

What starts as the death of two presidents leads to the end of the life (not literally) of a one Kuseremane, whose interactions with the world around him since the terrible events have washed away his money, his status, his stature, his hope and possibly his family. The manner that Yvonne brings this tragedy to life is nothing short of gifted. The Caine Prize Winner’s words lead you to the cusp of tears and possibly even over. You cannot help but sympathise with Kuseremane as his once glorious life is reduced to knees. One thing is not clear though. Is Kuseremane really not guilty as he tries to convince us or is he actually paying for his crimes?


4/5 stars.

Buy the book now.

One thought on “Weight of Whispers – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

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