Living: 'A decision of faith and optimism'

Allison Burden is aware that, to some, having a child with her Tutsi husband and raising it in Rwanda may be irresponsible. But it's the only thing she has ever felt completely certain about. By Angela Neustatter
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Allison Burden shuffles in her seat trying to get comfortable; she rubs her hand over the enormous dome that her stomach has become and talks of how like a basking hippopotamus she feels in these final days of pregnancy. There is chatter about the mysterious world of nappies and cotton-wool buds and of her husband's eagerness to be in at the birth, even though he has been warned she may scream obscenities at him in the throes of labour. She gives a charming, bubbly laugh that echoes her very English style of blonde prettiness: "It all seems so unreal."

Caught up as she is in the universality of childbirth, sharing preoccupations with just about any expectant mum she might meet, Allison, 29, appears to be fulfilling the archetype of today's educated, ambitious middle-class girl who allots a space for the experience of motherhood. The daughter of a primary school teacher and RAF pilot, she grew up in rural England, went to a Bristol boarding school and graduated in European languages. She spent her twenties building a career before getting married, and, having found a suitable husband, is getting the first child in before she reaches 30.

But there the ordinariness of her experience ends. The baby Allison is carrying is a Tutsi, the child of Joseph (Jeff) Bazambanza, a Rwandan restaurant owner whom Allison met and married when she went to work for Christian Aid in Kigali, the capital. Soon after the baby has been delivered at St Thomas's in London, she intends to return to make her home in Rwanda. And this in the wake of the second anniversary of the horrendous genocide in which Hutu militias massacred thousands of Tutsis, including children, and as the Hutu refugees, who fled when it became clear the Tutsis would gain power, return to their country.

Allison acknowledges that the choices she has made may seem curious, even irresponsible, to others. She has thought long and hard about how vulnerable she will be bringing up a child whose caste [?] will define her - she knows the sex of her baby from a scan, and that the risk of a new massacre is all too real. On top of that there will always be fear for Jeff. His own father was killed and he witnessed Hutu militia killings by people who would not want to be identified. Allison is aware of the understatement when she says: "There will be those who would like to silence him."

For all this she is both clear and happy about what she has done. She produces an envelope full of wedding portraits in which she and Jeff make a striking pair. Other photos show 600 wedding guests making merry at what was clearly an uproarious occasion. Allison smiles at this: "I had envisaged a fairly small wedding but Jeff insisted we must invite all these people who are friends, otherwise we would be sure to offend someone. Then he insisted on buying three new sofas for the sitting-room and making everything very smart because that is considered an essential way of showing you are welcoming guests in Rwanda." This year there will be a wedding in Britain and Allison laughs: "Jeff will see how very different our weddings are, but one of the pleasures of a mixed marriage is that you experience different ways of doing things."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Allison's mother, with whom she grew up after her parents' divorce, was worried when the phone call came from Kigali telling her that her daughter intended to marry Jeff. Allison explains: "My mother knew nothing about Rwanda except what she had read in the papers and obviously she felt worried. She could see the risks and she hadn't met Jeff so she didn't have the faith in him that I do. But now that he's here they've met. She thinks he's wonderful and she's so excited about the baby." Then, remembering earlier tensions, she says: "The tremendous thing about children is that they are the great link between cultures and generations, and I think the baby will get so much from having my mother and Jeff's mother as very different grandmothers, showing her very different ways of living in the world."

The decision to marry Jeff was, Allison says, less a choice than a decision she felt made itself: "I fell in love with Jeff and knew I wanted to be with him for life. We are so happy together, we talk about everything. Different backgrounds make that interesting rather than difficult. It is the only thing I have ever felt 100 per cent certain about. Isn't this a good enough reason for making a choice?"

But what made her decide to have a child, knowing that the baby takes ethnicity from the father and will always be at risk in a country where anger and hostility is still a powerful force and where the brutality of civil war will never be forgotten? It was a hard decision, Allison acknowledges, but she explains: "I thought very hard about the implications of getting pregnant by someone who is a Tutsi. I am not foolish. I knew that it would mean my child, and I as its mother, would live with a particular fear that you don't normally expect to have. But it wasn't a decision about having a child with a Tutsi but with Jeff, and it seems the most natural thing in the world. We talked about it and made a decision which is about faith and optimism. Imagine how it would be to marry a man you love, to both want to express that love in the most natural way by giving birth to your own child, but never to do that because of what might happen. I do not feel that this is the way to live."

Yet Allison has heard over and over the dreadful stories of children being slaughtered, tales like that of Marie, a social worker, whose three youngest children were hacked to death after the Hutu neighbourhood militia had killed her husband. And Jeff knows it too. His father was killed in 1994 and he and the five other siblings, growing up as Tutsis under a Hutu regime, saw attacks on their kind in the parks in Kigali and knew of the youth groups of the militia chanting and shouting in the streets. Allison explains: "Their father always had the children prepared and when the trouble began he gave them - even the youngest who was 10 - their passports and told them to carry these, their address books and documents with them at all times and to be prepared to escape however they could if necessary. They were a family who learnt about living with fear and they have strong survival skills. I trust Jeff to know what to do if things get bad."

Since the day of genocide in 1994 and the three months of fighting and massacres which followed as the ruling Hutu regime attempted to eradicate the Tutsis fleeing over the border, Rwanda has been attempting to rebuild normal life. But although there is a Tutsi government that has international backing, there is also talk in the world's press of the Hutu militias returning, and worries about what this will mean. When it happens, no matter what safeguards are built in, Allison acknowledges, there will be fear...

Allison says: "Things are calm just now but the people have seen how quickly that can change, and of course when the Hutu extremists return there will be a lot of anger and pain at what has been done. But there are many moderate Hutus who opposed the genocide and suffered for it, and they feel as strongly as we do that we must not let the same thing happen again. But of course there are nights when I wake up and feel very alone and panic stricken."

The other choice for Allison and Jeff would be to live in Britain, but although he is here on his first visit and she has enjoyed showing him her place and introducing him to family and friends, she has no wish to live here. She left Britain soon after university to do VSO in Sudan and later Gambia and developed a passion for Africa. She says: "I feel I belong in Africa. I love the beauty of it and the sense of well- being it gives me. There is suffering but the people have a way of finding joy in things, of living each day as it comes and of truly caring for each other right through life. I come back to England and see people working all the hours they can, in a state of anxiety about everything, worrying about their old age, their pensions, what will become of them, and I see families that have lost their closeness. For all the risks there are, and I don't underestimate them, I believe my baby will have a better quality of life in Rwanda than here."

And this brings her on to what she wants to talk about, which is the pleasure of being welcomed into Jeff's extended family where everyone lives close and the "grandmothers" willing to help with the baby are lining up. She is excited about learning mothering the African way, the challenge of teaching her child English, French and Kinyarwanda - the local language - and sharing the parenting business with Jeff, "who I suspect will be more hands on than a lot of English fathers". But, she is asked back home, won't her child miss out on many things growing up in a developing country? Yes, Allison says with a huge smile: "My child will probably never know who Lion King is..."