34 pages 1 hour read

Paul Rusesabagina

An Ordinary Man

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2006

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Summary and Study Guide


An Ordinary Man is 2006 the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a Belgian-owned Rwandan hotel. Rusesabagina’s story, written with the aid of journalist Tom Zoellner, centers on the struggles Rusesabagina and his family overcame to survive the inhumane, racially motivated genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994—a story later turned into the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. The narrative uses a conversation tone, unembellished language, and an unostentatious style. After describing Paul's past and what he did to save the people targeted during the conflict, the autobiography explores his thoughts about the genocide.

Plot Summary

Rusesabagina, the son of a Hutu father and Tutsi mother, grows up on a small farm. Eventually, he becomes the first Rwandan general manager of the luxurious Belgian tourist spot, the Hotel Mille Collines. He turns the hotel into one of Africa's most profitable institutions.

In order to explain the relationship between the Hutus and the Tutsis, the author traces the history of Rwanda. When Germany and Belgium colonized the country, white Europeans amplified and manufactured tension and mistrust between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes through a policy of “divide and rule,” hoping to maintain their power and authority over the people of Rwanda by setting one tribe against the other and preventing the colonized from rising up against their white oppressors. Even after independence, animosity between Tutsis and Hutus remains, stoked by the corrupt dictatorship of President Juvénal Habyarimana.

The buildup to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 begins when a local radio station broadcasts an anti-Tutsi message that newspapers pick up and amplify. As tension grows, the Hutu president of Rwanda is murdered. In retaliation, Hutus mount a dehumanizing and degrading propaganda campaign against Tutsis, calling them “cockroaches” the way the Nazis described Jews as “lice” and “vermin.” The hate speech encourages non-Tutsi Rwandans to throw Tutsis out of schools, jobs, and their homes, until they are socially and politically isolated. Finally, violence breaks out. Torture and killings escalate into a rampage, as Hutu killers go from house to house with machetes and guns, gruesomely dismembering, decapitating, stabbing, and shooting Tutsis. Ten weeks later, more than 800,000 Rwandans are dead—their bodies piled up by the roadside or dumped into mass graves. Those who survive the horrific genocide are transported to camps located in neighboring African countries, where they wait for help from the United Nations or America, neither of which assist.

Rusesabagina’s account highlights his resilience, painting him as an ordinary man who refuses to give up his daily rituals despite the mayhem and disorder around him. When the genocide begins, Rusesabagina describes in sobering detail the spectacle of seeing close friends and next-door neighbors being hacked to death.

Meanwhile, he opens his hotel to shelter 1,268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus until order is restored in the city, keeping them safe by any means possible. By communicating with the opposition, resorting to bribes whenever necessary, stalling, delaying, cajoling, flattering, and even supplying machete-wielding thugs with precious food and drink, Rusesabagina saves lives by relying on his knowledge of hotel hospitality.

Along with those he protects, Rusesabagina survives 100 days barricaded inside the hotel, while murderous mobs take over the city. Inside, Hutu and Tutsi strangers, many of whom just saw their families killed, sleep next to one another for the sake of human touch.

Rusesabagina’s narrative underscores the frustration and helplessness he feels when Western nations and the U.N.O. ignore his pleas for aid. After the genocide, Rusesabagina and his family can no longer emotionally connect to their homeland, so they relocate to Belgium. It's clear that Rusesabagina will never forget the atrocities he witnesses, nor completely forgive the West for its inaction. However, rather than engaging in bitterness, he uses the book's final section to fervently insist that the world should never again ignore genocide in any nation or on any continent.