The Africa In My House is the debut collection from Andrea Mbarushimana, a Coventry-based (shout out to a West Midlands homie, holler holler holler!!!) writer, artist and community worker. This book – published by the exciting indie publishers Silhouette Press – contains prose, poetry and visual art, all of which are linked to Mbarushimana’s autobiographical experience having lived as a “muzungu” (white foreigner) in Rwanda, before returning to the UK with an African husband and then raising a mixed-race child.
Mbarushimana – as she sets out in a brief, but important, dedication – is aware of the risks of colonial readings of her text, and she is keen to acknowledge the potentially problematic issues raised by her writing. This acknowledgement of privilege is something that women and POC keep telling me is important, even though white men (especially ones over forty) scream at me every time they see me doing it. (If this recent article I wrote makes you angry, I’m pretty certain we can guess your gender, race and age.) Anyway, Mbarushimana acknowledges the potential for offence in her work in a way that is almost over-generous, because the stories and poems that follow her dedication are nuanced, moving, sharp and often beautiful.
Stories of life in rural Rwanda sit alongside poems about life in the UK, and contrasts between her life in Africa and her life afterwards are made stark. Mbarushimana’s status is changed in Rwanda once she marries a local, but likewise her status is changed once she returns to England. The poem that explores this most directly is ‘Muzungu’, where she starts off as a “Porn-star/lottery-win-white-girl” before finding eventual Rwandan acceptance. However, this causes a change back in England, no longer “Middle-class-white-girl”:
She is now trashy/easy/benefits-class-white-girl
She is nigger-loving-traitor-white girl
Not least is it quite shocking to see the “n” word in a text written by a white person, this evocation of casual racism and its associations with an English obsession with class is especially striking. What Mbarushimana evokes in this particular poem is the ways in which attitudes to race have not shifted as much as [us] liberals would like to claim. There is still prevalent societal racism here in the UK, and Mbarushimana’s personal experience shows that miscegenation continues to flirt with the edges of taboo. What The Africa In My House lacks, really, is any exploration of romance – although Mbarushimana directly considers the effects on her life of this relationship, this marriage, she doesn’t look with as much detail at the way in which the relationship began, or even how it came to be a serious one. The marriage is treated as a fact, as something essential and undebatable, which is obviously quite a sweet, a romantic, sentiment, but one which means that the collection fails to address any of the stereotypes that exist around white sexualisation of the black male. However, this is a short collection of less than 25 written pieces, so to focus on what is absent is disingenuous, especially considering the rich value of what is here.
There is a deeply moving short story (‘God of Shadows’) about a young woman taking a knife to her shadow in the hope of performing a spiritual abortion on herself, and the poem that immediately follows this evokes the thrill and confusion of travel with incredible clarity (‘Out of Water (1999)’). It is the stories and poems that discuss and dramatise contrast, however, that I found most engaging, such as ‘Healing’, where Mbarushimana compares the first reactions to fireworks of her husband (who was reminded of his country’s bloody civil war) and her daughter’s, which was awe. She discusses the necessary loss of innocence that will arrive as soon as her daughter engages with the recent history of her father’s country and she laments the inevitability of this. It is a short poem, but with real emotional heft. Similar, but lighter, is ‘Power Cuts, 2001’, a poem in two parts, each relaying the experience of being in a power cut, once in Rwanda, once in the UK. This poem – which compares the triviality of tills not working in a British petrol station and the interruption of planned TV watching with the normalcy and unremarkability of a power cut in Rwanda. The final lines bring us, again, to the other recurring topic of the collection, which is, inevitably, the war.
And somewhere, in the darkness –
Rwanda’s still at war in Congo.
The collection opens with a short story called ‘Hyena’, about a person encountering, after the war, a man who had – when a soldier – threatened the narrator at gunpoint. Their encounter touches on fear, but a diminished one, there is an acceptance that the war is over, despite an acknowledgement that what occurred while it raged will never be forgotten or forgiven. ‘Murambi Genocide Site’ is a poem about seeing masses of the dead, while ‘History Lesson’ describes a man grieving for his dead daughter. There is a violence in these images from the recent part, a violence that is only ever enacted by a narrator (the narratorial voice is not constant, sometimes it is Mbarushimana (or someone like her), other times the voice is Rwandan) when killing a rabbit to eat. This minor violence evokes the darker, more serious, violence that occurs elsewhere.
As a collection, it is quite refreshing, actually, to see poetry, image and prose by the same individual in the same space. Lots of writers/artists do experiment with different forms, but these are often things that end up getting separated. To read them together – to get a fair snapshot of someone’s oeuvre – is pleasing. There is a coherent theme throughout, this deeply personal interest in Africa and this new understanding of race and colonialism due to Mbarushimana’s relationship with both her daughter and her [daughter’s] father. This is an often powerful collection, one that offers insight into an individual’s life, as well as the lives of other people whose stories are less-often-heard and more important because of this. Worth a look.