You were a displaced little girl like me, sent off to Nyamata for being a Tutsi, so you knew just as I did the implacable enemy who lived deep inside us, the merciless overlord forever demanding a tribute we couldn’t hope to scrape up, the implacable tormentor relentlessly gnawing at our bellies and dimming our eyes, you know who I’m talking about: Igifu, Hunger, given to us at birth like a cruel guardian angel . . . Igifu woke you long before the chattering birds announced the first light of dawn, he stretched out the blazing afternoon hours, he stayed at your side on the mat to bedevil your sleep. He was the heartless magician who conjured up lying mirages: the sight of a heap of steaming beans or a beautiful white ball of manioc paste, the glorious smell of the sauce on a huge dish of bananas, the sound of roast corn crackling over a charcoal fire, and then just when you were about to reach out for that mouthwatering food it would all dissolve like the mist on the swamp, and then you heard Igifu cackling deep in your stomach. Our parents – or rather our grandparents – knew how to keep Igifu quiet. Not that they were gluttons: for a Rwandan there’s no greater sin. No, our parents had no fear of hunger because they had milk to feed Igifu, and Igifu lapped it up in delight and kept still, sated by all the cows of Rwanda. But our cows had been killed, and we’d been abandoned on the sterile soil of the Bugesera, Igifu’s kingdom, and in my case Igifu led me to the gates of death. I don’t hate him for that. In fact I’m sorry those gates didn’t open, sorry I was pulled away from death’s doorstep: the gates of death are so beautiful! All those lights!
I must have been five or six years old. This was in Mayange, in one of those sad little huts they forced the displaced people to live in. Papa had put up mud walls, carved out a field from the bush, cleared the undergrowth, dug up the stumps. Mama was watching for the first rain to come so she could plant seeds. Waiting for a faraway harvest to finally come, my parents worked in the sparse fields of the few local inhabitants, the Bageseras. My mother set off before dawn with my youngest brother on her back. He was lucky: Mama fed him from her breast. I always wondered how that emaciated body of hers could possibly make the milk that kept my brother full. As for Papa, when he wasn’t working in somebody’s field he went to the community center in Nyamata, on the chance that he might get some rice from the missionaries, which didn’t happen often, or earn a few coins for salt by writing a letter or filling out a form for an illiterate policeman or local bigwig. My sister and I eagerly waited for them to come home, hoping they’d bring a few sweet potatoes or a handful of rice or beans for our dinner, the one meal of the day.
That morning, the clamoring birds in the brambles didn’t wake me, and I never heard the piece of sheet metal that served as our door rattle as our parents went off looking for food. Maybe Igifu was drowsing that morning, but as soon as I stood up I knew he was there, I heard him grumble deep in my stomach, burrowing like a mole in its endless underground labyrinth.
I knew where to go to silence Igifu. As you know, it’s bad luck for Rwandans to leave the house in the morning without first having something to eat. We call that gusamura. So at the foot of my parents’ big bed there was a clay pot with a few pieces of leftover sweet potato, saved for us as always by Mama. Our arms were too short to reach the bottom, so she left the pot leaning to one side, propped on the neck of a broken jug. As I did every morning, I felt around for the two little pieces of sweet potato. They were stuck to the burned crust deep down in the pot, and when I tried to get hold of them they crumbled in my hand. I could only dig out a few little crumbs; I gave them to my little sister, who had come to join me. For myself there was nothing to do but scrape at the crust and lick the bitter brown paste off my fingers. I even thought of breaking the pot to get at the coveted crust. But I knew how many long days of work my mother had done to get that pot from the Batwas. I chased that wicked thought from my mind. It could only have come from Igifu.
Every little Rwandan girl’s first job in the morning is to sweep the house and the yard. Like me, you did that job without shirking. You probably liked raising little whirlwinds of dust in the yard, showing your mother and all the visiting neighbor women how hard you could work. But that morning I didn’t have the strength for my daily chore. The bundle of fine grasses for sweeping the inside of the house seemed heavier than the big pestle Mama used to crush manioc in the mortar. And the opposite wall of our tiny hut seemed so far away I thought I’d never reach it. It’s true that I took my time around the cooking hearth, hoping to glean a few grains of sorghum or rice that had fallen from my mother’s wooden ladle. Following me on all fours, my little sister painstakingly searched through the sweepings I gathered together before I put them into the garbage basket. The harvest was not abundant.
For the yard there was another broom, made of twigs. I couldn’t lift it, I could only drag it through the dust. The sun was climbing in the sky, turning hotter and hotter. That sun was no friend of mine, I knew. It kept Igifu awake, kept him groaning and ripping at my stomach with all his claws. Reaching the far end of the yard, I turned around and saw my sister lying next to her little basket. I didn’t have the strength to carry her, so I pulled her up to her feet and we started back to the hut, clutching each other for support. Once we were inside, we lay down on my parents’ bed.
I must have slept for a long time, because when I woke the sun was straight overhead. My little sister was still sleeping. Now and then she let out a weak moan. I put my hand on her chest, and I thought her heart was beating too fast, I thought I could feel it leaping! I had to find her something to eat. The banana grove Papa had just planted was too young to be harvested, but some of the trees were already budding, and inside the flower I hoped I might find a little ubununuzwa, the thick, sugary syrup we use as a substitute for honey. Alas, when I pulled apart the petals the heart of the flower was empty, and the bees buzzing all around, as disappointed as I was, took their fury out on me. I also knew of a bush at the edge of the field, just where the brambles start up, a bush whose branches were dotted with beautiful, bright-red berries. We’d long yearned for a taste of those berries, but Mama strictly forbade it: “I don’t know anything about them, we never had them back home. They can only be poison. Don’t touch them!” Needless to say, Igifu goaded me to disobey my mother’s decree, and I convinced myself that only those forbidden fruits could save my little sister from certain death. So I hurried across the field and picked a handful of berries. I woke up my little sister, and together we ate my harvest. The berries were sweet, not very filling, but at least they weren’t poison.
The afternoon dragged on and on. Occasionally I roused myself to go out and look at the sky. The sun was in no hurry to slide down to the horizon, and the big fig tree’s shadow was too slow to lengthen. But every now and then the sky went dark and filled with sparks brighter than stars. Night wasn’t falling: it was my vision going dim. Sometimes I thought I saw a shadow emerge from the thick veil of the brambles. Was that Mama, coming home with her bindle full of bananas and sweet potatoes? “Mama, Mama!” I shouted. But then the shadow vanished, and a cracking branch betrayed what must have been a fleeing gazelle.
The sun was sinking behind the brambles when I finally saw Mama coming, walking more slowly than usual, or so it seemed to me, with Igifu twisting and writhing in my stomach. My sister woke up and came running toward her, her in whom we’d placed all our hopes, crying “Mama! Mama!”
When she finally reached me, I saw that the torn piece of pagne she kept tied around the end of her hoe to hold the day’s wages (a few sweet potatoes, some bananas, a handful of beans) was hanging empty and limp like the Rwandan flag in front of the local government offices. My mother saw me anxiously eyeing that rag, searching in vain for a promising bulge. “Well, I didn’t get anything today, but tomorrow, they promised, tomorrow there’ll be bananas . . . a big bunch of them.” But in fact there was something after all in the folds of her bindle: little misshapen tubers, hairy and red with dirt. “These are inanka,” said Mama. “I’ve seen the Bageseras eating them, I’ve seen them scratching around in the dirt to look for them. They spend so much time scratching that they’ve lost all their nails, and the tips of their fingers are as hard as hooves. I scratched in the dirt like they did, and I found these. I’m sure we can eat them too.” Mama carefully washed the inanka (I think they were some sort of wild radish, that’s what I was told later), saying over and over, “Now, don’t you go telling people you’ve been eating inanka. It’s no food for Tutsis. We never would have eaten inanka back in Rwanda. Especially don’t tell the neighbors. I’ll bet they’ve eaten them too, but they’d never say so.” To set the example, Mama bit into one of the inanka. She closed her eyes. I tried to eat some too. They were hard, bitter, they stung my tongue. My little sister spit them out, crying. I don’t think I could hold back my tears either.
“Go and sleep,” said Mama, “that’s the best thing you can do. I’ll wake you up if Papa brings something home.”
I must have dozed off for a while, but soon Igifu woke me. He’d dug a deep, dizzying hole in my stomach, like the big Rwabayanga quarry on the border with Burundi, where people said elephant carcasses and dead Tutsis were dumped. I felt myself being sucked into that abyss inside my body, and the walls of the hut spun like leaves in a whirlwind. I got up and struggled to reach the other room, where – like something from far away, from beyond the horizon, from another world – I could hear Mama’s and Papa’s voices. I didn’t get far. I don’t even know if I managed to tie on the little piece of cloth we use for a skirt so I wouldn’t be stark naked in front of my mother and father. I collapsed to the ground. It was a slow, gentle fall, I remember, and it didn’t hurt at all. That was when the lights began to shine. They seemed to be calling me from the end of a long, dark hallway, but no, it wasn’t a hallway, it was like a tornado dragging me toward those lights, and they grew brighter and brighter and there were more and more of them, sparkling like the fireworks I later saw on our national holiday, but even more beautiful, and they didn’t hurt your eyes, no, no, those lights didn’t blind you, they were cool, they were soothing, and I went toward them, nothing could hold me back, I was floating, a wave of happiness pulled me toward the lights, the whirlwind went on and on but at the far end the light was waiting, I was sure it was waiting for me alone, I was so happy, and the colors! oh, so many colors, you’d need the colors of all the flowers on earth and words I don’t know to describe them. I could see myself disappearing into that glittering spiral, and something pulled away from me, like a giant shadow freeing itself from my body, a twin, growing brighter and brighter, strong enough to push on toward that other light, to race forward . . .
I cried out . . .
I opened my eyes and saw my mother’s face close to mine. She was holding me in her arms, saying, “Colomba, Colomba, come back, come back,” in a gentle, lulling murmur.
“Mama, Mama, it was so beautiful!” I whispered.
“Don’t talk,” said Mama, again and again. She slipped a folded piece of banana leaf between my lips, and my mouth filled with a delicious, hot, sweet porridge that after a few swallows seemed to fill the hole Igifu had dug in my stomach. Much later, she told me how she and Papa had heard my cry and found me unconscious on the ground. They’d carried me to their bed. In spite of the shame it would bring her, Mama had gone to wake up the neighbors, the whole village, in the middle of the night. Together they’d filled a little basket with sorghum that Mama ground down to make the nourishing porridge that brought me back to life . . .
Sometimes I think about that light, but I never saw it again. I have only a very vague memory of blissful peace. Maybe that light was calling me, but I don’t know who or what to. Or was it only a tempting mask put on by Nothingness? But why should death be so beautiful? And I think of those who fell to the machetes: was there a light waiting for them at the end of their torments? And then the memory of the light begins to hurt.