Eighteen Years After

Traditional Wedding in Rwanda (photo credit – un.org)

Eighteen years after that Day, tears of joy like cow’s urine spurted from my eyes. Imbabazi. Forgiveness. The word that started the journey to today. Mbabazi. The name we will give our first child. Whether boy or girl, Bizimana and I know that the first fruit of our love will be called Mbabazi. The singularity of events that brought us together demands nothing short of an uncommon response.

Eighteen years ago, nobody would have thought or imagined that a day like this would be possible. I stared at Bizimana my beloved, and the tears flowed even more.

“We are here on a journey that has taken us several generations to make,” declared Nkurunziza, the eldest man from Bizimana’s family.

Eeeeehhh welcome.” My ‘uncle,’ Mzee said. “He who has traveled alone for long can easily summarize his needs. Please tell us about your journey of several generations. How many years have you been traveling? What is the purpose of the journey? Please talk, our ears are thoroughly cleaned of wax.”

Several of Bizimana’s family accompanied him; parents, uncles, aunties, cousins, nephews, and nieces. It was a most joyful day for them. They all come from the people who did the unthinkable eighteen years ago. The men were most elegantly dressed, wearing their stately imikenyero with much swagger. Most of the ladies were gracefully clad in beautifully patterned chiffon imikenyero, although some wore pant or skirt suits, or well-sown richly embroided brocade gowns.

My ‘family’ was well represented as well. My ‘father’ sat smiling like the saint he is, Reverend Dieudonne, the man who held my one month old head and poured water over it 28 years ago, as Papa held my screaming body in his arms. Reverend Dieudonne has held my head and my hand, and guided my feet for the past eighteen years. Papa could not have wished for a better replacement for him on a day like this. My ‘uncle’ Mzee, the messenger from the office where I have worked for the past 8 years sat besides Reverend Diedonne. Beside Mzee sat my family barber, the man who cut Papa’s hair from the time he was born until he was no more.

Epiphanie led the women who sat on the row behind the men. A better mother I could not have wished for. Ma brought me into the world the first time; Epiphanie brought me into the world the second time. I remember the look in Epiphanie’s eyes on that fateful day as she snatched me from the trembling hands of my father. At ten years, I stood at about 5 feet and 5 inches tall, but Epiphanie’s slight frame did not shake one bit when she heaved me unto her shoulders. I cried out in pain as my legs were pierced by the broken bottles that laced the fence dividing her compound and mine. I felt the rush and wetness of blood from my legs down to my toes. “Papa! Papa!” I screamed “Shhhhhhh. Papa will come for you later.” Epiphanie hushed as the sound of the Interahamwe breaking down the gates of my compound drowned her pleas. “Papa my leg, my feet,” I was uncontrollable. Epiphanie covered my mouth with her hand, but I pushed it away and screamed even more. “Papa my leg! Papa, Ma, Seminage, Agathe!” I shouted even louder. I cried from the searing pain of the wound, and for my family as their blood-curling screams filled the air.

Courtesy of un.org

“I am a grey haired man,” Nkurunziza responded to Mzee’s question. “Only a matter of grave importance could have dragged me away from under my Mango tree shade. My young son has been crying for a very long time and pointing at your compound. He has been seeing something from this compound in his dreams, he says. Sometime ago, he came to me in the company of all his elder ones to say that his dreams make him sick and he can only be cured if he should possess that precious thing in broad daylight.” Nkurunziza’s hands were spread as in supplication. He adjusted his umukerenyo as he spoke. His dark, rough looking and wrinkled elbows rested on the plain white satin fabric that covered the table.

“I heard your words, Nkurunziza.” Mzee said. “But they darken my knowledge more than they clarify it. Your son has been pointing at this compound, you say?”

“Yes, Mzee. I have never heard him talk of any other compound this way since I placed him in his mother’s womb.”

“Nkurunziza?” Mzee called out, staring at the floor of the vast compound and avoiding the eyes of the one he called. There was nothing admirable to hold his gaze, except for the bits of green, dark brown and light brown colored grasses, surrounded by stretches of red earth. Across the compound, the grass grew in patches, like the hair on my brother, Seminage’s head.

Seminage suffered from an acute case of ringworm. For long, Papa and Ma pleaded with him to shave his head to allow for proper treatment of the infection, but he refused. One Sunday evening, Papa and Ma dragged Seminage to the barber, and pinning him to the old, brown, leather covered chair, asked that his head be shaved. Papa and Ma were later to regret their action. Seminage refused to eat or talk to anybody for days afterwards. He went to school without food and watched television during lunch. In the evenings, he sat at the table but pushed his dinner plate aside and fetching the family Bible, would open to the book of Job and stare at it until end of dinner. Intermittently, he would read some verses aloud, pretending to be memorizing them, but they were usually verses warning of the wrath of God that awaited all oppressors of His children. Mama pleaded, cajoled, and even cried by the second week, but Seminage would not budge. Papa threatened about three times and seeing his threats met with cold stares ignored Seminage. Seminage’s hair grew back quickly, and only then did he start eating. From then on, nobody raised questions about how he chose to wear his hair. He shaved off only the areas affected by the ringworm, and left the hair around to grow to a sizeable length. Hilarious Seminage – I still miss him sorely.

“Nkurunziza” Mzee repeated, still staring at the unsightly patch before him.

“Kalame” Nkurunziza answered.

Mzee continud, “I try to be modest about my blessings, but the fact is that there is so much about my compound for a young man to dream about. My stalls are full of cows. My backyard stretches with acres of banana trees bursting with harvests. The chests of my young girls are heavy with breasts. Which one of these keeps your son restless in his sleeping and waking moments?”

My love, Bizimana smiled at the mention of breasts. He loves the fact that I am heavy in the upper area. It makes my tall thin frame balanced, he says. Bizimana is the youngest of six brothers none of who could make it to the wedding. The prison would not allow four of them to come, even with extra warders that we had offered to pay for. The eldest is still on the run. He has been sighted in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and even Belgium. For three months he wielded the panga – machete, the Ishoka – axe, the ubuhiri -those hideous looking wooden clubs with nails, and threw the grenade. Ruharwa – the notorious one – was the name given to him by fellow Interahamwe. Even when the rebel forces advanced into the city, he kept cutting, and in shirt and pants soaked with blood that was not his, he cut his way for miles into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“You have spoken well, Mzee” Nkurunziza responded. “But from the time his mother removed the breast from his mouth, my son has known no idleness. He does not have eyes for your cows, and neither does his mind think about your banana fields. The heavy chests of your virgins perturb him not, for he is known to have his manhood tightly girded with the Ishabure. It is the heart and happiness of one of your daughters that has troubled him from the first day he made acquaintance with her. Gaju is her name.”

At the mention of my name, the musicians who accompanied Bizimana’s family began to sing:

Gaju, Gaju, the name of beauty

Gaju is the chaste lady we want

She comes beautiful, inside and outside

Gaju, the woman whose soul is clean and whose body bears no scars.

A genuine and long lasting round of applause came from everybody. The elated lead singer barred all her teeth in delight at the warm reception from the audience. Great music, but a little exaggeration right there. Apart from the marks I sustained from the glass cuts that Day, I do have another – bigger, more unsightly – mark on my left upper thigh.

“Have you come to lure us away from reason with your soul-stirring music?” I heard Mzee ask Nkurunziza in response to the music.

Mzee and his words. He was with me the day I sustained the huge scar on my thigh. We had gone to the bank to make some deposits and process some drafts. His motorcycle followed closely behind mine, as he would often insist when we had to go anywhere together. “You are too beautiful to be left alone with a man, rubbing your body against his, and breathing down his neck.” Mzee would often say. Mzee. He says things as they are. My conclusion is that the operator of the motorcycle I took that day could have only come straight from the deep interiors of the village that morning. Sighting his relative’s motorcycle for the first time, he must have asked for the keys to go try out the machine. How else can one explain the way he drove zig-zag as his hands shook on the neatly asphalted road? I remember Mzee saying something loudly from his motorcycle and as I turned to hear him, I found myself in a ditch, with the motorcycle exhaust pipe on top of my thighs. It turned out Mzee was calling on the motorcycle rider to stop, he saw the accident coming. What Mzee did next confounded me and all the passersby there that day. With one hand, the almost 67 year old man held the motorcycle operator’s pants and with the other he singlehandedly lifted the motorcycle from my body. There were tears in his tired eyes as he violently shook the cyclist, shouting, “what did she do to you that you have sought to kill her?”

“Even if you had brought Kairebwa Cecile to sing until she fears to loose her prized voice, we shall not be moved.” Mzee continued. Everybody in the audience laughed heartily.

“When has good music become bribery, Mzee?” Nkurunziza asked feigning anger at being so accused. “Mzee, you indict me of no light a charge and we might have to halt this event to go to the court of law, for I must defend my untainted family name of your dreadful indictment.”

Mzee acted along by soft-pedaling his stance and showing signs of being afraid of a court case. “What else do you want me to say, my dear Nkurunziza. You have been the one talking all these while and referring to an imaginary son. I am left with the suspicion that you wish to take my precious daughter for yourself, to warm your old blood. If not, may you identify clearly to us, the young and fresh blood who has been spending mindless days and fitful nights over Gaju?”

At these words, The Itorero dancers emerged from behind the small white tent where Bizimana’s family sat and began to dance.

Who else could have brought us here

We the renowned dancers of Cyangugu

We do not accompany any flimsy person Or attend flimsy occasions

We have brought the true son of his father

The man who speaks and keeps his word

The heaviest cows from Cyangugu we have brought with us Because Bizimana goes with the very best

From my vintage observation point inside the house I could see Bizimana marching out slowly with four other young men. Those could have been his brothers with him, I thought sadly. At the Gacaca, Bizimana’s four brothers had lied about everything. Despite the overwhelming evidence against them from several witnesses, they refused to acknowledge their acts. “I was sick during the Cutting,” lied the one with HIV. It was a lie. He only got to know his status after the Cutting, while he was detained and awaiting trial. Doctors Without Borders

Gacaca in session (www.pri.org)

offered to test all suspects, and started the confirmed cases on anti-retroviral, depending on their viral load. “May the Lord forgive my accusers and grant them a place in heaven” responded his other brother the Catechist, when asked to confess to his crimes. Clutching his huge black leather Bible, a songbook and a book of catechism, he lifted his eyes to heaven and sang a Christian dirge, mentioning the names of his “beloved neighbors” who he lost to demon possessed people. “You need to partake of the communion right now, that the joy of the Lord may fill your soul” he said to the middle aged woman crying bitterly and testifying of how she watched from her hiding place as he cut her husband and three children to pieces. The other two brothers did not bother to defend themselves. “They are horrible people and deserved what they got” one said of his victims. The other kept quiet all through the trials and stared at the hills and landscape, far beyond where his accusers sat, fixing his gaze on no one and saying nothing to anybody.

“We have fulfilled our side of the bargain” began Nkurunziza. See the handsome young man that we brought to you.” Nkurunziza pointed at Bizimana proudly, smiling widely. His dentition, perfect for a man of his age, was displayed in its entirety. “Mzee, do you now agree that we are not cheats?”

“We have seen him.” Mzee responded in a nonchalant manner, as if he was not impressed by Bizimana in all his splendor.

“Is it now fair that we ask to see the reason for which we came here?” asked Nkurunziza.

“Why are you in such a hurry?” Mzee responded feigning surprise and agitation. “Are you afraid of the choice of your son? Do you fear that it is one of these women behind me that he has an eye for? Mzee pointed at the women who sat in the row behind him, his own wife, his wife’s elder sister, Epiphanie, Epiphanie’s two elder sisters, my family barber’s wife, an older reverend sister that came with Reverend Dieudonne and two other older women.

“The women I see behind you are all young and very beautiful,” responded Nkurunziza tactfully. “It shall be our pleasure to welcome any one of them into our family.”

I saw Epiphanie smile slightly for the first time that day. Yet, her anguish was obvious. Not that she did not want me to get married, she did, but insisted that I must marry one of my own people. “A Tutsi, you must marry,” she said severally to me. “My people do not like your people, my daughter” she would often warn me. “I will not sleep well at night to know that you are in the arms of one of my people, we do not like your people and anything can happen tomorrow.” “But Ma, things are changing. The past is over and together we have to build a new future.” I would then give her examples of several of my friends who had survived the Cutting, and who went on to marry men from her people. “Ma everybody is not bad. You saved my life. And there are other people like you among your people too.” “You are a child, my dear. How will you know the good and bad ones?” “I will know Ma. I am not that young anymore. We are one people. We speak the same language, we eat the same food, we have the same culture, we are all mostly Christians, Let the past be in the past, Ma, and let us try to build a new future for ourselves.” “Gaju, listen to me.” On and on Epiphanie would go.

The day I told her about Bizimana, she screamed and screamed until she began to pant for air. I had to take her to the hospital where she spent one week on admission. A week after her hospital stay, Epiphanie woke me up one night and asked that I come to the sitting room.

“Did you say that you have decided to marry Bizimana son of Ngoga?” She asked. I kept quiet.

“Gaju did I ask you a question or not?” I kept quiet.

“Has it reached the point of treating me with scorn and disrespect,” she began to say.

“Ma it is not that. You know I will never disrespect you. It is just that you are not yet well enough to hold this discussion. May we please leave this talk until you are strong enough?”

“Gaju, I can never be strong enough to hold the kind of conversation you have in mind.” Epiphanie began to say, her eyes assuming that wild look I saw last on the day she took me from Papa. She reached under the basket styled table and produced a brand new thinly sharpened machete. “Complete the job now” she said, forcing the machete handle into my right hand. “Finish up what you started. Do it quickly, please do not delay. There is no point waiting. I beg you to make it quick and fast, my daughter.” Her voice was thick with sorrow. Tears drenched the top of the red T-shirt that serves as her nightwear. The hand that forced the machete into mine shook with suppressed rage.

Killer Machete (www.nytimes.com)

That was the second worst day of my life.

It was to take another three years of pleading, explaining, bringing friends that were happily inter-married, and giving gifts, for Epiphanie to most grudgingly allow today to happen. I could never have proceeded without her approval, no matter how begrudgingly given. Reverend Dieudonne came almost every weekend to counsel and to pray. The day she accepted Bizimana, she simply said “Do what is in your heart, Gaju. I will support you and pray for you every day I live. But no matter what, never forget what happened to your family.”

Epiphanie and her words; how could I ever forget? How could I forget that day, 12 years ago, when at the Gacaca, details of the murder of Papa, Ma, Seminage and Agathe came to light. It was the day I met Bizimana. Bizimana eyes were red with tears from crying. He was 13 years old during the Cuttings. The day the cuttings began, he did not really understand what was going on. However, not wanting to be at home alone, he had tagged along his brothers. He followed closely behind as his brothers and others went from house to house, killing and killing and killing. Disgusted, Bizimana threw up severally. He fell sick and had to be carried home. After the first day, he refused to go on the second and third days. By the fourth day, his brothers insisted; they were going to do a lot of cutting and would need him. He dared not disobey his brothers; at the age of six when he dared, they had beat him into a coma.

It was in the early morning of that fourth day that they came to my house.

After my house, Bizimana refused to participate in any more killings. He still limps from the beatings he received from his brothers. Across his forehead, back, upper right arm and lower left leg are huge unsightly scars of machete cuts he obtained from his brothers that day. He spent the rest of the three months the killings lasted recuperating in the hospital. That day at the Gacaca, Bizimana begged his other brothers to come clean. He confessed to everything the way it happened. Not holding a thing back. He begged to be sentenced to life imprisonment. No, first, he begged for exceptions to the death penalty to be made in his case. He did not deserve to live, he said. “I cannot die by my own hands, please take my life” he pleaded over and over again.

Finally, Mzee called for me to come and identify my husband. I had chosen a red and gold Indian Saree for the occasion. My neck held the heavy gold plaited necklace adorned with layers of red colored fake diamonds. Matching earrings dangled from my ear lobes, almost touching my neck. My forehead held a similar chain with a long pendant that dropped close to the bridge of my nose.

“Eheeeeee. I know my son. I know my son. Look at the beauty he is bringing into our home” Nkurunziza said with delight, as if that was his first time of seeing me.

I wore a solemn, almost sad look. It is unbecoming of a bride to give the slightest inclination at being excited about leaving her family.

Before Mzee and Nkurunziza, we knelt for prayers. Both men laid hands on our heads and began to bless the union, our new family, our extended families, our friends, our jobs; everything imaginable was blessed that day. Finally, we had to exchange rings. I could not hold myself any longer. Huge balls of tears dropped on my chest. I watched as the same hands that cut my family, yes, the very same fingers that lifted the metal machete, lifted a platinum and diamond ring of everlasting love.

The above is a work of fiction, but deeply reflects the healing and social reconstruction efforts taking place in Rwanda. Lest We Forget. 

 

 

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