Belonging by Christine Warugaba
Published by Furaha Publishers, based in Kigali, Rwanda. This book is available in March 2022. I received an Advanced Review Copy from C. Warugaba.
Belonging by Christine Warugaba is about Keza Rugamba, who was born in Kampala, Uganda to parents originating from Rwanda. Their tribe is Tutsi and her parents fled Rwanda to escape the genocide of the Tutsi in the early 1960s. Keza grows up in Kampala, Uganda amidst the background of a military regime marked by raids in their home, and deadly robberies that stole her uncle’s life. Despite the chaos, Keza’s family lives a relatively peaceful life and she completes her primary and high school education.
Two years before Keza’s high school graduation, Rwanda endures a tumultuous period, and soon after welcomes the restoration of peace. A peaceful Rwanda has Keza’s father thinking of a return to their homeland. However, Keza’s mother is traumatized by the loss of their extended family and is unwilling to return, so they remain in Kampala. In contrast, Keza’s Aunt Stella, her mother’s sister, makes the decision to return to Kigali, Rwanda.
Fresh out of high school, Keza begs her mother’s permission to go along with her Aunt Stella to see their homeland. To her mother’s surprise, Keza insists on attending university in Rwanda. Keza arrives in Kigali to live with her Aunt Stella and attend med school at the National University of Rwanda.
Rwanda soon becomes Keza’s second home. In a reflective moment, between holiday visits to see her parents in Kampala, Keza wonders, “Where is home?”
When Keza completes her university, she applies for and wins a green card. A new adventure in a foreign country begins when Keza lands in New York. She finds herself working to survive a fast-paced, alien-biased world. She is a qualified doctor in Rwanda, but in the United States, she needs to return to school and qualify for an American Medical License.
She works odd jobs to help meet basic needs and afford her new life in New York. Keza almost drowns in the tedium of shift jobs, paying rent and upkeep, while studying for her medical license examinations. She catches a break when she lands a job working at a weight-loss clinic in New York and gains a Kenyan friend and boss who does understand her struggle. Keza strikes a work/school life balance as she works at the Makena Clinic. She remains at the clinic for six years before she is disillusioned by the American Dream, and she finally decides to return to Kigali with a new dream, starting her own business.
The moment Keza lands in Kigali, her cousin Ivan warns her that Aunt Stella will make it a mission to get Keza married. True to Ivan’s prediction, Aunt Stella embarks on a full campaign to get Keza married, which includes prayers and fasting. Despite Aunt Stella’s obvious efforts, Keza starts a sincere journey to solidify her roots and create something belonging to her.
Belonging as a novel illustrates a quest to find a home.
Keza is in search of a place she can truly call hers. She carries on her shoulders a difficult past faced by her ancestors: her parents, grandparents, and relatives in her Tutsi tribe. Because of this past, and an initial loss of her homeland, Keza becomes a woman forged by three distinct cultures from three different countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Western world.
She is highly educated. Thanks to the experiences she faced in each world, she becomes intensely hardworking and independent. By the time she is landing in Kigali, her mind is set on a specific goal, that is, building a successful business. A goal she finds difficult to push aside to accommodate her aunt’s search for a husband for her.
At every step, Keza’s family remains supportive. From her steadfast Aunt Stella who gives Keza unconditional love and support, marriage plans aside. To her cousins and nieces who help Keza when she is at her lowest and in grief. They also celebrate with her during her highest moments.
Belonging does showcase impact points meant to start a larger conversation. The most prominent point speaks on the weight of traditional expectations concerning marriage beset on African women’s shoulders. No matter the extent of their education or accomplishment.
Aunt Stella’s quest to get Keza married before she turns forty serves as a perfect example of this expectation. In sharp contrast, Aunt Stella does not show the same desperate concern for her own son. Her quest climaxes in a party with a house full of bachelors so that Keza may try to find someone who sparks her interests. Aunt Stella’s desperation and concern for Keza’s marriage leads to health problems caused by constant fasting. Concern for her aunt’s health forces Keza to the extreme idea of getting a fake boyfriend.
It was probably the only way Keza was going to meet someone. The experiences Keza lives through forge her character and her ultimate goals. The events of her life give her the strength to build a successful business in Kigali. They also make her opinion on marriage different from Aunt Stella’s. I do appreciate the fact that in the end, these life experiences help Keza choose a partner who is right for her, on her own terms.
Belonging unfolds in the form of flashbacks at the start. Much of the first part of the novel is told in a memory stream. Keza remembers her past as she packs to return to Kigali. It is not a fast romance read. The story needs time to assimilate, as Keza works to find her place in the many worlds she encounters.