Bisangwa was closer than a friend, he was a brother. I knew him well before I was wise enough to call names, and his was one of the first names I called. We grew up together as children. We played with and ate the same sand, dirtied our clothes, and cried together as our mothers laid their hands on our buttocks for the same offense. Both our mothers would say, “Do you not know that it is with hands that clothes are washed, ehn?” They would then laugh at our innocence.
When we grew up enough to start attending school, it was my mother who suggested, “Don’t you think these boys should start leaving the house? Now that they can talk, they should learn to read and write, too.” His mother gladly agreed to this, saying, “See o, I have also been thinking about it. I discussed it just yesterday with Bisangwa’s father.”
The next Monday we were dressed in our uniforms – a blue checkered button shirt with blank identical blue shorts – and we were sent off to school. We didn’t even cry, with our baskets in hand, similar ones, and our bags on our backs, Spiderman kind of popping out of them, we bounced to school. Our school was just four blocks away. We were just four, the next month Bisangwa was going to clock five. He was a year older than me.
Our first day in school was both good and bad, as we met with teachers who didn’t smile and teachers who showed their teeth too often. One of the latter was Mrs. Uwase, our teacher in Algebra, who smiled as she said we were both cute kids, after she asked, “Comments t’appele tu?” and we both said our names. We later gave her a new name – Neza – because she was good. She, unlike Mrs. Kigin, never touched us, and when any teacher called us bad boys because we were reported by a pupil, she would make a good comment about us.
This was because Bisangwa was very good at Algebra; I was good too, but not like him. I was good at French, unlike him. This was the way it was with all the other subjects, Bisangwa and I won all the prizes and left only two for Kachili to boast in.
Kachili was a very small, richly charcoal-black-skinned boy. He was so black that, in the dark of night, his blackness was well-seen; his blackness was deeper and darker than the night.
“If I am Kachili do you know what I will do to my skin?” I would ask Bisangwa, who sat next to me on the left in class.
“I don’t know. What will you do to it?” he would ask, and I would laugh wryly.
“So, you don’t know?”
He would shake his head in answer, sideways.
“Really, if I am Kachili,” more silently, “I will scrub my body so hard with iron sponge until my black skin clears up and becomes at least a bit light. If it doesn’t, I won’t leave the bathroom.”
At these words Bisangwa and I would burst out in laughter and quickly cover up our mouths to muffle it. But it would have been too late.
“Who are those?” the teacher would turn from the blackboard and ask.
We would sit upright like serious students, heads and eyes moving from board to paper as we hurriedly copied the note.
There would be no answer. There was a very high level of cooperation in our class and getting punished for an offence one knew nothing about was preferred to telling who had done this or that. For that reason, no one answered the teacher. She would then turn back and face the board.
I would continue: “Imagine, is that blackboard not fairer than your brother? Ehn, Bisangwa?”
Most times too, after school hours, on our way home, we would climb over Mr. Rebada’s fence, from the back of the house where the orange tree was. I would climb the tree to pluck, Bisangwa picking and dropping the oranges in our bags. This was our last year in primary school. We never got caught. Thanks to Bisangwa whose ears were perfectly tuned to the yawning but sharp sound Mr. Rebada’s gate made whenever he came back from work. No one knew what work Mr. Rebada did, only that he left home in the morning and returned home in the evening with a sack alleged to contain watches.
As soon as Bisangwa heard the yawning of the rust-eaten gate, he would whistle with two of his fingers in his mouth. There was never a need for me to come all the way down – with Bisangwa already on the other side with our bags, I would take the long branch that stretched out over the fence. And we were gone. With smiles on our faces we thought of how smart we were.
When we got home, we would settle down to our food, do our homework, revise the day’s work and then sit under the shade of the small guava tree in our compound to go through our pack. We would eat the oranges until our bellies were like the tight faces of hand-beaten drums, thick and stretched.
More than once or twice our mothers asked us where we got so much oranges from. Bisangwa was a talented liar, he would shout: “Mrs. Uwase, she gave it to us after we helped her do some chores!” And that one especially was a good lie, it helped to cover up for the hours we spent playing football after school, and once in a while going to the beach to see hot asses slightly covered by thin triangular pants turned upside down.
Our mothers always believed us. “May the good Lord bless her and her family,” my mother would pray. Bisangwa’s mother too would add: “May her children also find helpers.”
At a point, we started peeling the oranges neatly and dropping them in a stainless tray we got from Bisangwa’s mother, using the two knives we borrowed from our mothers, until we had saved enough money to buy ours. We placed the tray on a stool outside our compound, under the shade of the guava tree. Or, sometimes, we hawked it: with the tray placed on my head or Bisangwa’s, we went through streets and, sometimes we reached the motor park. Bisangwa knew how to call people so well, I always envied him. He would cry: “Buy your oraaaange. Sweet, sweet orange.”
We made so much money from selling that we later bought a kolo and started dropping some of the profit we made in there. We spent the remainder on petty things, since we did not buy what we sold.
Later, there came a huge request for the oranges we sold. Unfortunately, at this time the orange tree in Mr. Rebada’s compound was already cut down. Mr. Rebada had died of an unknown and unnamed illness and new faces had moved into his house. Unlike Mr. Rebada, who had but a bag of watches, these new faces had a bulldog with a drooping jaw and mad teeth.
We feared dogs. But we still believed we could pluck the oranges without alerting the dog, until one day we got there to realize the tree had been sawn. It was then that Bisangwa’s lie stopped paying off. We were now already in secondary school.
To meet the demands of our customers we purchased oranges at a very cheap rate from market women or farmers. And, Bisangwa and I decided to plant another orange tree in our compound – though we knew we would never eat of its fruit. We also started selling a special kind of chocolate ball sold only on the way to our school, where only few children around attended.
Keza was one of the few who attended our school – St. Paule’s Methodist College. She was a sweet girl. Just looking at her made one desire her. There was a kind of glowing light in her fair face and her trim eyes with those long mermaid lashes and bow-like lips. And her behind, the way it went when she lifted her legs as if to music – those things that made one forget one was looking. Once, a boy had looked at her so long he became lost in his own daydream. She had to tap him and ask: “What are you looking at?” The boy said “Sorry” in a hurry and ran away. But she wasn’t mine. She was Bisangwa’s.
Though she attended the same school with us, Bisangwa did not notice her in school; she was in Class Four while Bisangwa was in Class Six. They met each other one day at the motor park where Bisangwa went to sell oranges. That day I was having fever, lying under my mom’s wrapper, shivering, so I didn’t go hawking with him. He told me about her when he got back, and as he spoke about her, I could feel his heart bursting with love, even though he told me, “I don’t love her; I admire her.” He told me they did not talk, but that their eyes made four. He said that the girl, Keza, escorted one of her cousins or aunts, he said he wasn’t sure who really, but that the person was definitely one of her relatives who stayed in the city, in rich boys’ and girls’ Kigali. She had escorted the person to the motor park.
A day did not go by that Bisangwa did not talk about the girl, in the twelve days before he came across her in the market. And, that day, I still don’t understand why, but Bisangwa ran away when he saw her. I asked him why when he told me about it, and he said: “I don’t know, Gahiji. But I don’t deserve her. I don’t.” It was after that day that the love became fierier. Bisangwa would go to the motor park immediately he got back from school, without taking off his uniform, without having lunch, without waiting for me – there he would sell oranges and let his eyes drop on everyone who entered and left the park with the hope that his dream girl would be one of them. Or, he would go to the market and do the same. He was lucky once; he saw her when she was leaving the market and he followed her without her knowing until she got inside the gate of a big house. Going to this house one day, he saw her dressed in our uniform, and that was how he started the search for her in school. But he had found out somewhere, too, that, she, his dream girl was Hutu. At first, there was the fear that she would never want him, but she began to hang out with him. And at some point, both were lovebirds, flying together.
Bisangwa loved Keza too much. There were days we fought and rained words on each other because of her. These were days when he dug his hands in the money we saved of our profit, all because: “I have to get this for Keza, she needs it badly,” and, “I have to get that for Keza, she really needs it.”
But Keza stopped loving him the moment Manuel, the Minister’s son, started attending our school. At first it was a gradual drift, like not joining us when we were going home from school, and little lies or illegitimate talks like saying she didn’t have time, or that she needed enough time to prepare for exams – and, space. The stupid statement she always made: “I don’t want distractions, and jumping after boys is one.” Though we both saw her not once, not twice, or even thrice, hooking up with Manuel Manuel. And she talked about him, about their outings together, to anyone who had ears to listen.
Time and time again, Bisangwa pleaded, tried to ask her what it was he might have done wrong to deserve all she was doing to him, but his words always fell on her deaf ears. Each time, she called him names that made him cry and cry and cry. In the morning when I saw him, there were always these teary lines on his face; he always wept to bed.
It was from Manuel’s mouth that we first heard that we were goats. “Tutsis are goats,” he would say whenever we passed by. It was his words that led us to reading the paper, Kangura, like those old men on our street.
It was on one of our visits to the paper stall on a cold Saturday evening that we saw them beating Nana, a brother that we knew well. The mob said he had come into their compound to steal and rape their daughter. They beat him until his last breath escaped his lungs. And nothing was done about this – his death was the death of a slave, a property of its master.
We later heard elders whisper that Uncle Nana didn’t steal anything, he had just broken the Hutu law when he started seeking their daughter.
Bisangwa’s mother, at this time, had fallen very ill, and there was not enough to take care of her.
Bisangwa’s father murmured every time: “They will not give us jobs because we, they say, are bastards. They will only leave us and our children to cut grass, make mounds and plant yams and grow corn. Is that not our use?” At the time Bisangwa’s mother fell ill, the harvests were bad.
This was a very hard time in our lives. The hospitals said she is Tutsi, and free medical care was not available to Tutsis. We would go into the bush and cut leaves to make her concoction, especially the leaves of the dongoyaro tree. We would cook these leaves and give her to drink. We would whisper a few words under our breath, call it prayer. But all our efforts were to no avail: a week before those hundred days, Bisangwa’s mother left us here.
We mourned and comforted. But it was a big blow that altered everything about Bisangwa, filling him with a sharp hatred and bitterness for the other people. He swore to kill as many Hutus as he could. We were in our final year in secondary school then.
It was the next week that we heard that Habyarimana’s plane crashed, and for that reason, we had to run.
I watched my father hurriedly tell my mother to take the little she could and move out. She put my little sister on her back, my father carried my younger brother, I followed with a few belongings packed in buckets and tied in a wrapper – and we hurried on legs to a far-far village. This was before the madness had contaminated every mind. In fact, one night, we were hidden by a Hutu family. After the men with machetes in hand had gone, we continued on our way. This family gave us food and water and sent us forth with farewells.
As we journeyed, narrowly escaping the interhamwe and men and women with fine screwdrivers, with caked blood on them, ready to dig them in the eyes of the enemy, I did not think of where we were going, I thought of home, where we were coming from. I thought of Bisangwa and his family.
My father had gone to them that day with these words: “Brother, they have begun the fire, and before it burns us, let us find our way out of here.” His father answered that, “Only cowards run from the fire started by other men, my brother. Only men who do not have a heart. We will go nowhere, if it is to die, let us die here.” My father tried many other words but Bisangwa’s father had a heart of stone. I hugged Bisangwa for the last time, and as I left, his words were: “I hope we live through it.” He saw the look in my eyes, and he added – “This fire.” I shook my head and hugged him tighter.
The last time I went to the place that used to be home, after the smoke from guns had cleared and the caked blood on screwdrivers had been wiped clean (though the image of blood is all that we have) – I met new faces. These new faces led me to Bisangwa.
Bisangwa was different now. He was not the same Bisangwa who wore a checkered shirt and blue shorts, not the same Bisangwa who picked the oranges while I plucked them. The Bisangwa I met now was a grown Bisangwa. A long scar ran from his left eye-side over his nose, to the other side of his face, and stopped at the edge of his jaw. Bisangwa now had a beautiful wife – her name was Mpalozi – and two gorgeous daughters, Nawaru (This Calm Wind After the Storm) and Maloika (It Did Not Swallow Us).
He led me to a grave not very far from his house and told me: “We buried him here.” I knew he was referring to his father. “We buried him, headless, faceless, here.” He tightened his face, not wanting to cry. “Where did you bury him?”
I don’t know where, I wanted to say. I couldn’t. I remembered the day they took him, my father, away, after they, four of them, entered my mother, his wife, before our eyes. They gave him a fan and asked him to fan them as they touched and rolled inside his wife. He said he couldn’t. So, when they were done with his wife, they took him away. No one knows what they did to him, where they buried him. Maybe he wasn’t even buried. I wanted to tell Bisangwa all of that, but I could not find my mouth.
All I was able to say was: “She is well.” Though well only meant she was not dead yet. She was strong enough to live through it, but, not with it. She died calling names, reaching for bodies that were gone, that had become dust. There was a day she said,
“Gahiji, bring me his body, let me bury him in my veins. Please. Bring them to me. There. There is Mpatulu’s body. Bring it to me. Please. Let me bury it here. Let me be the grave that homes them. Write on my body their names. Here. Here. Write. If you won’t help me, I shall go on and do it myself.”
That day, she walked out of the house to go in search of bodies that were no longer there. We rushed after her and brought her body back to her bed, but her spirit left seven days later.
Bisangwa could not make the funeral, for ‘many reasons’, according to him, which he didn’t state. But he sent me the tray and knife we used in selling oranges when we were younger, and a note that read: “Remember the days that came before the days that took away all that was beautiful? Those are the only good ones.”