About the Book
About the Author
Title Page

About the Book

Burundi, 1992. For ten-year-old Gabriel, life in his comfortable expat neighbourhood of Bujumbura with his French father, Rwandan mother and little sister, Ana, is something close to paradise. These are happy, carefree days spent with his friends sneaking cigarettes and stealing mangoes, swimming in the lake and riding bikes in the streets they have turned into their kingdom. But dark clouds are gathering over this small country, and soon their peaceful idyll will shatter when Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda are brutally hit by war and genocide.

A haunting and luminous novel of extraordinary power, Small Country describes a devastating end of innocence as seen through the eyes of a young child caught in the maelstrom of history. It is a stirring tribute not only to a time of tragedy, but also to the bright days that came before it.

About the Author

French-Rwandan Gaël Faye is an author, composer and hip hop artist. He was born in 1982 in Burundi, and has a Rwandan mother and French father. In 1995, after the outbreak of the civil war and the Rwandan genocide, the family moved to France. Gaël studied finance and worked in London for two years for an investment fund, then he left London to embark on a career of writing and music.

He is as influenced by Creole literature as he is by hip hop culture, and released an album in 2010 with the group Milk Coffee & Sugar. In 2013, his first solo album, Pili Pili sur un Croissant au Beurre, appeared. It was recorded between Bujumbura and Paris, and is filled with a plethora of musical influences: rap laced with soul and jazz, semba, Congolese rumba … In 2018 he received the prestigious Victoires de la Musique Award.

Small Country is his first novel. It was a huge bestseller in France, winning the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens 2016, and is being published in thirty territories worldwide.

For Jacqueline

Title page for Small Country


I REALLY DON’T know how this story began.

Papa tried explaining it to us one day in the pick-up truck.

‘In Burundi, you see, it’s like in Rwanda. There are three different ethnic groups. The Hutu form the biggest group, and they’re short with wide noses.’

‘Like Donatien?’ I asked.

‘No, he’s from Zaire, that’s different. Like our cook, Prothé, for instance. There are also the Twa pygmies. But we won’t worry about them, there are so few they hardly count. And then there are the Tutsi, like your mother. The Tutsi make up a much smaller group than the Hutu, they’re tall and skinny with long noses and you can never tell what’s going on inside their heads. Take you, Gabriel,’ he said, pointing at me, ‘you’re a proper Tutsi: we can never tell what you’re thinking.’

I had no idea what I was thinking, either. What was anyone supposed to make of all that? So I asked a question instead:

‘The war between Tutsis and Hutus … is it because they don’t have the same land?’

‘No, they have the same country.’

‘So … they don’t have the same language?’

‘No, they speak the same language.’

‘So, they don’t have the same God?’

‘No, they have the same God.’

‘So … why are they at war?’

‘Because they don’t have the same nose.’

And that was the end of the discussion. It was all very odd. I’m not sure Papa really understood it, either. From that day on, I started noticing people’s noses in the street, as well as how tall they were. When my little sister Ana and I went shopping in town, we tried to be subtle about guessing who was Hutu and who was Tutsi.

‘The guy in white trousers is a Hutu,’ we would whisper, ‘he’s short with a wide nose.’

‘Right, and the one towering over everybody in a hat, he’s extra-skinny with a long nose, so he must be a Tutsi.’

‘See that man over there, in the striped shirt? He’s a Hutu.’

‘No, he’s not – look, he’s tall and skinny.’

‘Yes, but he’s got a wide nose!’

That’s when we began to have our suspicions about this whole ethnic story. Anyway, Papa didn’t want us talking about it. He thought children should stay out of politics. But we couldn’t help it. The atmosphere was becoming stranger by the day. At school, fights broke out at the slightest provocation, with friends calling each other ‘Hutu’ or ‘Tutsi’ as an insult. When we were all watching Cyrano de Bergerac, one student was even overheard saying: ‘Look, with a nose like that he’s got to be Tutsi.’ Something in the air had changed. And you could smell it, no matter what kind of nose you had.

I am haunted by the idea of returning. Not a day goes by without the country calling to me. A secret sound, a scent on the breeze, a certain afternoon light, a gesture, sometimes silence is enough to stir my childhood memories. ‘You won’t find anything there, apart from ghosts and a pile of ruins,’ Ana keeps telling me. She refuses to hear another word about that ‘cursed country’. I listen and I believe her. She’s always been more clear-headed than me. So I put it out of my mind. I decide, once and for all, that I’m never going back. My life is here. In France.

Except that I no longer live anywhere. Living somewhere involves a physical merging with its landscape, with every crevice of its environment. There’s none of that here. I’m passing through. I rent. I crash. I squat. My town is a dormitory that serves its purpose. My apartment smells of fresh paint and new linoleum. My neighbours are perfect strangers, we avoid each other politely in the stairwell.

I live and work just outside Paris. In Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. RER line C. This new town is like a life without a past. It took me years to feel ‘integrated’. To hold down a stable job, an apartment, hobbies, friendships.

I enjoy connecting with people online. Encounters that last an evening or a few weeks. The girls who date me are all different, each one beautiful in her own way. I feel intoxicated listening to them, inhaling the fragrance of their hair, before surrendering to the warm oblivion of their arms, their legs, their bodies. Not one of them fails to ask me the same nagging question, and it’s always on our first date: ‘So, where are you from?’ A question as mundane as it is predictable. It feels like an obligatory rite of passage, before the relationship can develop any further. My skin – the colour of caramel – must explain itself by offering up its pedigree. ‘I’m a human being.’ My answer rankles with them. It’s not that I’m trying to be provocative. Any more than I want to appear pedantic or philosophical. But when I was just knee-high to a locust, I had already made up my mind never to define myself again.

The evening progresses. My technique is smooth. They talk. They enjoy being listened to. I am drunk. Deep in my cups. Drowning in alcohol, I shrug off sincerity. I become a fearsome hunter. I make them laugh. I seduce them. Just for fun, I return to the question of my roots, deliberately keeping the mystery alive. We play at cat-and-mouse. I inform them, with cold cynicism, that my identity can be weighed in corpses. They don’t react. They try to keep things light. They stare at me with doe-like eyes. I want them. Sometimes, they give themselves up. They take me for a bit of a character. But I can entertain them for only so long.

I am haunted by the idea of returning but I keep putting it off, indefinitely. There’s the fear of buried truths, of nightmares left on the threshold of my native land. For twenty years I’ve been going back there – in my dreams at night, in the magical thinking of my days – back to my neighbourhood, to our street where I lived happily with my family and friends. My childhood has left its marks, and I don’t know what to do about this. On good days, I tell myself it has made me strong and sensitive. But when I’m staring at the bottom of a bottle, I blame my childhood for my failure to adapt to the world.

My life is one long meandering. Everything interests me. Nothing ignites my passion. There’s no fire in my belly. I belong to the race of slouchers, of averagely inert citizens. Every now and again I have to pinch myself. I notice the way I behave in company, at work, with my office colleagues. Is that guy in the lift mirror really me? The young man forcing a laugh by the coffee machine? I don’t recognise him. I have come from so far that I still feel astonished to be here. My colleagues talk about the weather or what’s on TV. I can’t listen to them any more. I’m having trouble breathing. I loosen my shirt collar. My clothes restrict me. I stare at my polished shoes: they gleam, offering a disappointing reflection. What has become of my feet? They’re in hiding. I never walk barefoot outdoors these days. I wander over to the window. Under the low-hanging sky, through the grey sticky drizzle, there’s not a single mango tree in the tiny park wedged between the shopping centre and the railway lines.

This particular evening, on leaving work, I run for refuge to the nearest bar, opposite the station. I sit down by the table football and order a whisky to celebrate my thirty-third birthday. I try ringing Ana, but she’s not answering her mobile. I refuse to give up, redialling her number several times, until I remember she’s on a business trip in London. I want to talk to her, to tell her about the phone call I received this morning. It must be a sign. I have to return, if only to be clear in my own mind. To bring this obsessive story to an end, once and for all. To close the door behind me. I order another whisky. The noise from the television above the bar temporarily drowns out my thoughts. A 24-hour news channel is broadcasting images of people fleeing war. I witness their makeshift boats washing up on European soil. The children who disembark are frozen, starving, dehydrated. Their lives played out on the global football pitch of insanity. Whisky in hand, I watch them from the comfort of my VIP box. Public opinion holds that they’ve fled hell to find El Dorado. Bullshit! What about the country inside them? – nobody ever mentions that. Poetry may not be news. But it is all that human beings retain from their journey on this earth. I avert my gaze from images that capture reality, if not the truth. Perhaps those children will write the truth, one day. I’m as gloomy as a motorway service station in winter. Every birthday it’s the same: this intense melancholy that comes crashing down on me, like a tropical downpour, when I think about Papa, Maman, my friends, and that never-ending party with the crocodile at the bottom of our garden …


I’LL NEVER KNOW the true cause of my parents’ separation. There must have been some fundamental misunderstanding from the outset – a manufacturing flaw in their encounter, an asterisk nobody saw or wanted to see. Back then, my parents were young and good-looking. Their hearts puffed up with hope, like the sun that shone on African independence. What a sight! On their wedding day, Papa was astonished to have slipped a ring onto his beloved’s finger. My father didn’t lack charm, of course, with his piercing green eyes, his chestnut hair streaked with blond and his Viking stature. But Maman was head and shoulders above him – even her ankles were legendary! They hinted at long, lithe limbs that turned women’s stares into daggers and made men dream of half-open shutters. Papa was a young Frenchman from the Jura who had arrived in Africa by accident, for his voluntary service, and who came from a village set in mountains that bore a striking resemblance to the Burundian countryside. Except that, back where he came from, none of the women could compete with Maman’s elegance, there were no slender freshwater reeds, no beauties slim as skyscrapers with ebony skin and eyes as wide as those of the Ankole cattle. What music! On their wedding day, a careless rumba escaped some out-of-tune guitars as happiness crooned cha-cha-cha numbers beneath a sky pricked with stars. They could see it all. What mattered was this: Loving. Living. Laughing. Being. Forging ahead, never faltering, to the ends of the earth, and even beyond.

The trouble was that my parents were two lost teenagers suddenly asked to grow into responsible adults. Scarcely had they left behind the hormones and sleepless nights of puberty than it was time to clear away the drained bottles, empty the ashtrays of joint butts, put the psychedelic rock records back into their sleeves and fold up their bell-bottomed trousers and Indian shirts. A bell had tolled, signalling the arrival – too sudden, too soon – of children, taxes, worries and responsibilities. Alongside these came growing uncertainty, rampant banditry, dictators and military coups, Structural Adjustment Programmes, forgotten ideals and mornings that struggled to break, the sun lingering in bed a little longer each day. Reality had struck. And it was a cruel blow. Their carefree beginnings transformed into a rhythm as tyrannical as the relentless ticking of a clock. What had come so naturally at first was now backfiring on my parents, as it dawned on them that they had confused desire with love, and that each of them had invented qualities in the other. It turned out they hadn’t shared dreams, merely illusions. True, each of them had nurtured a dream, but it amounted to nothing more than their own selfish hopes, with neither of them ready to fulfil the other’s expectations.

Still, back then, before all that, before this story I’m about to tell, ours was a happy, uncomplicated existence. Life was the way it was, the way it had always been, the way I wanted it to stay. A gentle, peaceful slumber, no mosquito dancing in my ear, no deluge of questions drumming on the corrugated iron of my head. In those happy times, if anyone asked me, ‘Life’s good?’ I would always answer: ‘Life’s good!’ Wham-bam. When you’re happy, you don’t think twice about it. It was only afterwards that I began to consider the question. Weighing up the pros and cons. Being evasive, as I nodded vaguely. And it wasn’t just me – the whole country was at it. People only ever replied with: ‘Not bad.’ Because life could no longer be altogether good, after everything that had happened to us.


THE BEGINNING OF the end of our happy days goes back, I think, to that Feast of Saint-Nicholas, out on Jacques’s large terrace in Bukavu, Zaire. Once a month we paid old Jacques a visit, it had become our tradition. Maman joined us that day, although she had barely said a word to Papa in several weeks. Before setting off, we went to the bank to pick up some local currency. ‘We’re millionaires!’ said Papa as we left the building. In Mobutu’s Zaire, hyperinflation meant paying for a glass of water with banknotes of five million zaires.

The border checkpoint marked our entry into another world. Burundian restraint gave way to Zairean commotion. In the unruly crowd, people greeted one another, heckled or hurled abuse as if at a cattle market. Dirty, noisy kids eyed up wing mirrors, windscreen wipers and hubcaps splattered from stagnant puddles, calculating their street value; grilled goat-meat skewers – brochettes – were up for grabs in exchange for a few wheelbarrows of cash; young mothers, zigzagging between the tailbacks of goods vehicles and minibuses jammed bumper to bumper, hawked bags of spicy peanuts, and hard-boiled eggs for dipping in coarse salt; beggars, with legs corkscrewed by polio, pleaded for a few million zaires to help them survive the unfortunate consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall; and a preacher standing on the bonnet of his battered Mercedes, wielding a Swahili Bible bound in royal python skin, announced the end of the world at the top of his voice. Inside his rusty sentry box, a dozing soldier waved a fly-swatter in desultory fashion, the stench of diesel combining with hot air to parch the throat of one more long-term unpaid functionary. On the roads, vast craters spawned from old potholes gave the cars a bumpy ride. Not that this prevented the customs officer from meticulously inspecting each vehicle, checking tyre tread depth or engine water levels, as well as ensuring that the indicators were in good working order. In the event of the car or truck failing to produce any of these desired shortcomings, the customs officer would insist on a certificate of baptism or first communion to qualify for entry into the country.

Papa was battle-weary that afternoon and in the end paid the bribe all those ludicrous checks had really been about. The barrier rose at last and we drove on through the steam from the hot-water springs dotted along the side of the road.

After the small town of Uvira and before Bukavu we stopped off at some roadside gargotes to buy banana doughnuts and paper cones of fried ants. There were all kinds of fantastical signs advertising these cheap eateries: Au Fouquet’s des Champs-ElyséesSnack-bar Giscard d’EstaingRestaurant fête comme chez vous … When Papa took out his Polaroid camera to capture the local spirit of inventiveness, Maman sucked her teeth and berated him for marvelling at an exoticism concocted for whites.

After nearly running over a multitude of roosters, ducks and children, we arrived in Bukavu – a sort of Garden of Eden on the banks of Lake Kivu and an art deco relic of a town that had once been Futurist. At Jacques’s house the table had already been laid to welcome us. He had ordered in fresh prawns from Mombasa.

‘They’re no match for oysters,’ declared Papa, in his element, ‘but it’s good to eat something decent every once in a while!’

‘What are you complaining about, Michel? Do we feed you badly at home?’ Maman asked coldly.

‘Yes! That idiot Prothé makes me swallow his starchy African cooking every lunchtime. If only he knew the correct way to grill entrecôte!’

‘Don’t get me started, Michel!’ said Jacques, taking up the theme. ‘My baboon in the kitchen grills everything to death, with the excuse that it kills off parasites. I’ve forgotten what rare steak tastes like. I’ll be glad to get back to Brussels and dose myself up on amoeba!’

Everyone burst out laughing except for Ana and me, at the far end of the table. I was ten, and she was seven, which probably explains why we didn’t appreciate Jacques’s sense of humour. In any case, we were strictly forbidden to speak unless spoken to. This was the golden rule when we were taken somewhere. Papa couldn’t abide children joining in grown-up conversations. Especially not when we were visiting Jacques, who was like a second father to him: a role-model to the point that, without even realising it, Papa would often copy Jacques’s expressions, his body language and even the cadence of his voice. ‘He’s the one who taught me everything I know about Africa!’ Papa would often tell Maman.

Ducking his head under the table to get out of the wind, Jacques lit a cigarette with his silver Zippo that was engraved with two stags. Then he stood up and stared at Lake Kivu for a moment, a few curls of smoke escaping his nostrils. From his terrace, you could make out a string of tiny islets in the distance. Beyond them, on another of the lake’s shores, was the city of Cyangugu in Rwanda. Maman’s gaze was set in that direction. Her thoughts must have weighed her down every time we ate at Jacques’s place. Rwanda, her country, which she had left in 1963 during a night of massacres, by the light of the flames that had set her family home ablaze, the country where she had never again set foot since the age of four, was right there, a few cable lengths away, almost within reach.

Jacques’s lawn was immaculately maintained by an elderly gardener who wielded his machete in great pendulum strokes, as if executing a golf swing. In front of us, in a stunning choreography, metallic-green hummingbirds gathered nectar from the red hibiscus flowers. A pair of crowned cranes strolled in the shade of the lemon and guava trees. Teeming with life and bursting with colours, Jacques’s garden gave off a gentle scent of lemongrass. His house, which had been built using porous black rock from the volcano of Mount Nyiragongo and rare wood from the Nyungwe forest, resembled a Swiss chalet.

Jacques rang the small bell on the table and the cook appeared instantly, his uniform of a chef’s toque and white apron clashing with his bare cracked feet.

‘Bring us three bottles of Primus and clear up this goddam mess!’ Jacques ordered.

‘How are you, Evariste?’ Maman asked the cook.

‘Thanks be to God, not too bad, Madame!’

‘Leave God out of it!’ Jacques retorted. ‘Things aren’t too bad because there are still a few whites left in Zaire to keep the wheels turning. Without me, you’d be begging on the streets like the rest of your kind!’

‘When I say God, I mean you, Boss!’ the cook replied mischievously.

‘Don’t make fun of me, you baboon!’

The pair of them cackled.

‘And to think I couldn’t hold onto a good woman for more than three days,’ Jacques went on, ‘but I’ve been lumbered with this chimpanzee for thirty-five years!’

‘You should have married me, Boss!’

Funga kimwa! Go and find us those beers instead of talking goddam rubbish!’ Jacques guffawed again, before producing a hawking that made me want to bring my prawns back up.

The cook set off, humming something liturgical. Jacques blew his nose vigorously into a handkerchief embroidered with his initials, picked up his cigarette once more, dropped some ash on the polished parquet floor and turned to Papa.

‘The last time I was in Belgium, the docs told me to give up the smokes or I was done for. There’s nothing I haven’t been through here: wars, looting, shortages, Bob Denard and Kolwezi, thirty years of bloody “Zairinisation”, and it’s the cigarettes that’ll get me in the end! Goddam it!’

Age-spots flecked his hands and balding head. It was the first time I’d seen him wearing shorts. His hairless, milky-white legs contrasted with the burnt skin of his forearms and his sun-etched face; it was as if his body had been assembled from ill-assorted pieces.

‘Those doctors might have a point, you know, you should slow down,’ said Maman, sounding worried. ‘Three packets a day is a lot, Jacques.’

‘Don’t you start as well,’ Jacques directed his words at Papa as if Maman weren’t there. ‘My father smoked like a trooper and he lived to ninety-five. You don’t know the half of the life he led. Back in the days of Leopold II, the Congo was a whole different story! A great strapping man, my father! He built the Kabalo–Kalemi railway line. It hasn’t worked in a long time, by the way, that line, like the rest of this messed-up country. What a goddam shambles!’

‘Why don’t you sell up? Come and settle in Bujumbura. You could have yourself a nice life over there,’ said Papa, with an enthusiasm he reserved for spur-of-the-moment ideas. ‘I’ve got plenty of construction sites, and I’m being asked to tender for more contracts than I can keep track of. Right now, there’s money for the making!’

‘Sell up? Stop talking bullshit! My sister keeps phoning me about joining her in Belgium. “Come back home, Jacques,” she says, “it’ll turn out badly for you. When it comes to Zaireans, the whites always end up getting robbed and lynched.” Can you picture me in an apartment in Ixelles? I’ve never lived over there, so what the hell would I do in some boring rich suburb of Brussels, at my age? The first time I set foot in Belgium, I was twenty-five with two bullets in my belly, sustained in an ambush while we were chasing the communists out of Katanga. I went under the surgeon’s knife, they stitched me up and I was back here double-quick. I’m more Zairean than any of those darkies. I was born here and I’ll die here! I can handle Bujumbura for a few weeks, I sign two or three contracts, help out some big bwanas, do the rounds, catch up with old friends and then I head home. Truth is, the Burundians don’t do it for me. At least with the Zaireans, they’re easy to understand: you just pay the bribe. One matabish-bakshish and things get moving! With the Burundians? Those people! They scratch their left ear with their right hand …’

‘That’s what I’m always telling Michel,’ said Maman. ‘I’m sick of Burundi, too.’

‘It’s not the same, Yvonne,’ Papa snapped. ‘You dream of living in Paris, you’re obsessed with the idea.’

‘Too right I am; it would suit you, it would suit me, and it would suit the children. What kind of future do we have in Bujumbura, apart from this lousy existence? Can you tell me that?’

‘Give it a rest! It’s your country you’re talking about.’

‘Oh no, no, no, no, no … My country is Rwanda! Over there, right in front of you. Rwanda. I’m a refugee, Michel. And I always have been, in Burundian eyes. They make it very clear, with their insults and insinuations, their quotas for foreigners and restricted intakes in schools. So allow me to have my own opinion on Burundi!’

‘Listen, darling,’ said Papa, trying to sound conciliatory. ‘Take a look around you. The mountains, the lakes, the nature. We live in a nice house, we have staff, we have space for the children, we enjoy a decent climate and business is good. What else d’you want? You’d never have this kind of lifestyle in Europe. Trust me, it’s far from the paradise you imagine. Why d’you think I’ve spent the last twenty years building my life here? Why d’you think Jacques would rather stay on than go home to Belgium? Here, we’re privileged. There, we’d be nobodies. Why won’t you hear that?’

‘Talk all you like, Michel, but I know the other side of the story. Where you see gently undulating hills, I see the poverty of the people who live there. Where you marvel at the beautiful lakes, I’m already breathing in the methane that sleeps below those waters. You fled the peace and quiet of your France to seek out adventure in Africa. Good for you! I want the security I never had, the comfort of raising my children in a country where I’m not afraid of dying just because I’m—’

‘Stop right there, Yvonne, I’ve had enough of your anxieties and your persecution complex. You always have to make a drama out of everything. You’ve got a French passport now, so what are you afraid of? You live in a villa in Bujumbura, not in a refugee camp, so please, cut it out!’

‘I couldn’t care less about your passport, it doesn’t change anything, least of all the threats that are all around us. You’ve never been interested in my version of the story, Michel … You came here from Europe in search of a playground where you could eke out the dreams of your spoilt childhood in the West …’

‘What are you talking about? You drive me crazy! Plenty of African women would give their eye teeth for what you have …’

Maman fixed Papa with such a hard look he didn’t dare finish his sentence.

‘Poor Michel,’ she went on calmly, ‘you don’t even realise what you’re saying any more. A word of advice: don’t try your hand at racism when you’re an old hippy at heart, it doesn’t suit you. Leave that to Jacques and the real settlers.’

Jacques choked on his cigarette. But Maman, who was beyond caring, stood up, flung her napkin in Papa’s face and stormed off. Just then the cook appeared, with a cheeky smile on his lips and the bottles of Primus on a plastic tray.

‘Yvonne! Come back right now! Apologise to Jacques this minute!’ bellowed my father, hovering over his seat with his fists clenched on the table.

‘Leave it, Michel,’ said Jacques. ‘That’s women for you …’