Hanna Jansen

Over A Thousand Hills I Walk With You

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Over A Thousand Hills I Walk With You Summary

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Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You (2002), a young adult historical novel by Hanna Jansen, tells the story of a girl who survived the horrors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Nominated for various awards, the book won the German 2002 Buxtehuder Bulle Award. It is the first of Jansen’s numerous young adult books to be translated from German into English. Before writing full-time, Jansen worked as an arts and languages teacher for twenty years. She is the mother to numerous adopted African children, including the young girl featured in this novel.

Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You is based on the true story of Jeanne d’Arc Umubyeyi. Her family calls her Dédé. Dédé is only eight years old when the events of the novel unfold. She is the only member of her family who survives the Rwandan genocide, and she describes the horrors through a child’s eyes. After hearing Dédé’s story, Jansen knew people deserved to know what happened to Dédé and why we can’t afford to forget this international tragedy.

When the book opens, Dédé is living a normal childhood. She spends her free time climbing trees with her friends and playing games with her older brother, Jando. Although she loves being a child and living a carefree life, she can’t wait to grow up. She is always eavesdropping on adult conversations and her family worries that she is trying to grow up too fast. Her mother, a teacher, doesn’t want her worrying about adult problems like money or politics just yet.

Dédé shares other memories with Jansen, such as the time when she contracts malaria and her family worries that she will die. She overhears the adults talking about her condition and, for the first time, she truly comprehends her own mortality. While she is recovering, her grandmother and her cousins tell her lots of stories and folktales, and soon she feels much better. Everyone knows she is healthy again when she returns to her old eavesdropping ways.

Although Dédé overhears her parents and grandparents talking about the political problems spreading through Rwanda, she doesn’t understand how serious the situation is. Dédé, like any child, simply assumes that everything will turn out fine in the end. She doesn’t comprehend the difference between racial, religious, and political groups, and she doesn’t understand that being part of the wrong group marks her out for genocide.

Jansen explains the difference between the two major groups in Rwanda—the Hutus and the Tutsis—and she touches on what happened in 1994. She describes how the Hutus use a plane crash as an excuse to slaughter the rival Tutsis, whom they believe to have been responsible for shooting down a plan carrying important Hutu figures. Unfortunately for Dédé and her family, they are part of the Tutsi community; her parents know it is only a matter of time before the Hutus come for them.

One day, the Hutus sack Dédé’s village. Dédé’s father tries to hide the family somewhere safe, but it is too late. Dédé is the only one who makes it to safety. She is forced to watch as the Hutu extremists murder her mother and brother before turning on her neighbors. Dédé’s father and sister run, and she never sees them again. She assumes that, like most of the villagers, they are dead.

Jansen likens the Rwandan genocide to the Holocaust because of its targeted, vicious, and relentless focus on wiping out an entire community. Like many Jewish children during the Holocaust, Dédé is left to fend for herself to find food, shelter, and safety. She doesn’t have time to mourn her dead family, and she doesn’t mourn the life she leaves behind. All Dédé can think about is moving forward. She must do the thing she has always wanted—she must grow up far too soon.

The world soon hears about what has happened in Rwanda. Images of children starving and dying on the streets become an international travesty. Families like Jansen’s family do everything they can to support these children, including adopting them. Jansen travels to Rwanda to meet Dédé; she instantly wants to be her mother.

Although Dédé leaves Rwanda and poverty behind when she travels to Germany, she cannot forget what happened to her family. She suffers from flashbacks, panic attacks, and nightmares for many years, but she gets through it all with the love and support of Jansen’s family. It takes some time, but Dédé makes new friends and finally feels able to talk about what happened to her.

Interestingly, Dédé suffers from survivor’s guilt. Jansen explains how heart breaking it is for her to see Dédé doubting her right to survive when so many others died. Dédé wishes she had been old enough to do something to help her family; she knows she will never forget what it felt like to watch her family die trying to protect her.

Jansen notes that she, too, feels guilt about her own heritage. As a German growing up in post-WWII Germany, she feels a strong sense of anger over what happened to so many innocent people in her homeland. Although Jansen obviously had nothing to do with the Holocaust, she can’t help feeling responsible, and she knows that Germans will bear scars like her own for many generations to come.