Garuka – Please Come Back by Ernest O. Ogunyemi

Verse 1 – days of innocence.

 Those days are still fresh, they’re all that remain of that time, like bombshells after an explosion, or the remains of a decomposed dead animal. Those days when we chased grasshoppers in the small bush in our backyard. There were basically three types: one had intricate patterns on its body: yellow and black stripes, dotted with white; another had the skin of lush grasses, and it was why we found it on rare occasions. The last appeared only during the dry seasons. It had the body of scorched grasses, dusty brown. We would watch them jump from blade grass to blade grass, leaning the thin grasses. And we would crouch whenever we came close enough to any – I would put my finger across my lips to tell you to be quiet, like they could hear our voices and flee –  and cup our palms closed on them. We didn’t want them to die. We would tie ropes around their legs and watch them jump, making creepy sounds, as far as the rope could get them.

And then we will play Daddy and Mommy, and you’d say, silently, in my ears, I love you. And I’ll say the same. We would then go about running after each other. When we get tired we would sit and start building sand castles, where we would both live. You would heap sand over your small foot, and while trying to bring it out, while trying to show your completed castle, you’d kick it and it’ll come flat on the ground. I always saw the disappointment etched across your face like the birthmark on your neck – deep purple against your fair skin.

And we’ll run to Mama to hear stories. Stories of the woman who lived in a shoe as small as mine. We will laugh at how stupid it was.

I wouldn’t go home to eat, Mama would put your food and my food in the same plate, and we’ll eat together. I’d watch you dig the spoon in the Umutsima and raise it to your mouth, with your palm spread like a cloth under to prevent it from dropping on the rug. It tasted so sweet my mouth watered whenever the smell came swimming into my nose. I never said no anytime Mama offered.

Then one morning when we were alone in the living room, Papa and Mama had gone out, you raised the spoon to my mouth. And I fed you too, and you were about to kiss me when Mama came in.

And when I step in, Papa would have been waiting for me at the door, he would draw at my ears until the blood runs up into them and they turned red. How many times do I have to tell you not to play with an enemy? Ehn, Schema? Answer me, he would say. Do you have oiled balls of wool in your ears?

I would shake my head sideways, with my hands still clasped tight to my ears. He’d tell me you people were enemies, that you were the devil’s friends. And whenever I complain of headache or stomach pain, he would say C’est Tutsi.

And Mama would call me later, whenever we are sitting outside, staring at the hills scattered around us like the hatred we bore in our hearts against each other. She’d tell me the Tutsis aren’t our enemy, that they are our brothers and sisters. That I should never allow hatred blossom in my heart. It destroys the one who allows it a place in his heart, she’d tell me.

***
I remember the first day I kissed your lips in the bush. The softness and intimacy in the screwing of our lips. You said you’d seen it in movies. That you wanted me to be the only one who will kiss your lips. I would never forget your eyes, the colour of pure cow milk.

And I remember that morning your eyes melted.

You rarely cried, Mama always said you’d be a good woman, a good wife and mother. Joy, she said, is the only thing that a woman must possess to win, because things will definitely fall apart. Men would go around using the long thing under them on any woman they like. It is the joy of a woman that keeps her calm, and undisturbed. She would tell me you’re like a small bird sitting on a needle grass by a streamside, when the world is turning dark, undisturbed by the things around.

So that morning you came out crying, I asked you why. You said Father said you were moving. That you were leaving Rwanda.

I don’t want to go, Schema, you said. I don’t want to leave you.

Like a man I said, “Don’t worry, you won’t leave. You hear?”

That was the first time Papa slapped me. He slapped me so hard I tasted my own blood. It is a bastard that would go against his father’s will; even the Jesus we serve didn’t dare disobey his father, he said after hitting me twice. Stupid thing.

So, I kept a distance. All because of fear. Until Mama told me my father would never pay for my actions, that I’m responsible for whatever choices I make.

***

How young and innocent we were, how even when the world around us was growing bitter it didn’t matter. How all that mattered was trapping grasshoppers – the ones with the yellow, black, and white dotted body; the lush ones; and the dust feathered ones. Things started changing, however, when we got into high school, and we were separated. They said you are Tutsi. Change began to draw us different ways when you said we can’t be going to school together again. That I should stop waiting for you at the corner I normally did. I didn’t know why, and I asked you, but you said nothing. With an expressionless face. You rarely smiled these days.

And I remember how bitterness pierced my heart like a fired spear that day I saw you and Jimoh talking. How you laughed. It made me feel like I wasn’t needed, that you could do without me. Our discussion and relationship turned sour when you stopped speaking to me, even at the well, when nobody was there. Jimoh was always there to keep you company.
When you stopped appearing at our backyard at night. Fear, you told me, sometimes might be stronger than love.

Verse 2 – and we loved 

Then we moved to Kigali. They allowed you into the same university as me because they said you were good. She’s an indispensable material, you told me your school director had said.

And in Kigali we loved again. We loved, though not freely like agbada on a thin man. In the shadow of my room we loved, the love we couldn’t love before men. I could run my finger through your hair dark as a night without moon and stars. I could look into your white eyes and call you beautiful. I could look at your full rose-coloured lips and bring my face close to yours. Our hands and bodies could entwine there. In the silence of my room the piano wove its unchallenged harmony.

learning to fear, love conquers all fear

And that day we saw the paper you told me it was better we broke up. I said no. You said it was dangerous, but I said it wasn’t.

Would you attend the lecture with me, Keza? I asked you. You said you would, although I knew you didn’t want to. You knew Johann, a man with a bad mouth that eats into the fabric of people’s hearts and makes them bitter.

You wanted to stand and leave when the man began his words, when he turned the words of Jesus upside down, and said The Tutsis are goats, scapegoats, all they want is to destroy. Do not let yourselves be invaded. You wanted to run from all of it when the people we thought were friends began to clap and shout for joy. For blood. But I held you back, Keza you can’t leave, I said silently in your ears. It’s dangerous. These men are hot blooded.

And that day when we returned from one of the most hateful speeches in the world, you took your traveling bag and started packing your things. I begged you to stay, but you told me you could no longer bear it, that it was high time you left. When moving forward isn’t possible, we return to our holes. The Commandments, and then Don’t be… Did you not read it? you said. We are not right for each other, Schema. We are like pawns in the hand of chess players.

You swept out of my room.

I went to the window to watch your perfect gait, from my room upstairs. I prayed you would return – that you would at least look back. But you didn’t. You went as fast as your legs could go, and when you couldn’t walk again you called a Maruwa. I watched you step in, and watched the Maruwa zoom away, raising dust.

For days after you left I wasn’t myself. Sleep refused to come, and in the stillness of the night I would think of those days. Those days of grasshoppers. Of you and me in the backyard. Of your innocent hearty laughter. Of that time, that love. Of those little things we shared that mattered most. And I sobbed like a baby.

You weren’t yourself too. Because you came knocking at my door one cold night. I wanted to ask questions, but you shushed me up, like my words would chase the peace that came over us after that fight, raw like blood from a just slaughtered Eid el Fitr ram. I couldn’t do the days without you, Schema, you said. It was like torment, nothing could be more terrible, not even hell.

I said nothing; the words weren’t needed, having you close was all that mattered. I ran my hand through your hair, your head resting softly on my chest. And then you raised your head. I looked into your eyes that night as you slipped the blade from your jean pocket and cut yourself and me. What’re you doing? I asked. You told me it was a covenant, a blood covenant. Promise me you’ll never leave me, Schema, you said. Even when it starts? I said yes, even though I believed nothing bad will start.

Verse 3 – Please Come Back 

It came when we didn’t expect it, like the first rains in a planting season. That morning when the sun turned red, fiery red. When the heavens bled. That was the beginning of our woes, that was when we started to run.

That morning when we saw our neighbours, with whom we once devoured cups of tea and water, grasp machetes in death-grapple, looking for men to maim. Market women whose hands were once for grinding pepper and cooking for their husband and children took screwdrivers in each hand. I saw them dig it in the eyes of Musa. The same one that sold cigarette and butter mint in the wooden shop down our street. It was a time when children forgot their playthings, when they fell in love with machetes, like their fathers. Soldiers lined the streets with guns, ready to spray any silly Tutsi, or betraying Hutu, to death.

I could see the fear you wore that night. I remember the fear that held my heart that night too. And when the butchers came banging at the door, asking us to come out patiently, I didn’t open. I hid you in the wardrobe, while I lay under the bed. I remember my heart knocking as they stepped in, as each step brought them closer to us. As they left I could smell burning. But our fate wasn’t to be lost in the war.

We kept running from hole to hole, like ants, and covering ourselves in sand like desert snakes. But you weren’t you, you carried a child – my child. And with each day feeding us dried bones, skulls, eyes popping out of their sockets. Of both young and old. Night had married dawn, and they must both take their leave. You kept drawing close to your time of delivery.

I hated it all. You said you’d told me, but I had simply refused to listen. You said you’d told me our love was illegal, as illegal as all that was happening.

You asked of your father and mother every day and I’d say they are safe. Even though I could see my father bursting into your room, with the clean machete in his firm grip to do what he always desired. How he had bid his time, like a careful hunter. I didn’t tell you I heard them call your parents’ names on radio.

We went due east. Our destination was Tanzania.

Each day’s walk, each day’s fleeing, came heavy on our legs. Too heavy on your legs. And the bloodthirsty brothers were everywhere, and everywhere they left a message of blood.

You asked me where God is? What is he looking at? Is he not seeing this? All these. I said he could see everything, that he was seeing everything, although my heart, like the heart of a child, betrayed me. As I spoke those words I felt emptiness, the emptiness in life itself.

And that morning it was cold, and we folded our bodies under banana leaves. And you started screaming, lightly. You couldn’t shout to the wind – that might have been our end.

The way you went down on your back, the way you couldn’t press too hard on the side of your belly, made me know it was time. I shivered, not for cold but for fear. There was nobody to call, our sisters had almost totally disappeared. And I wasn’t skilled. I knew close to nothing about child delivering.

As I watched you press harder from within and on the side of your stomach, your mouth opened but unable to shout, I knew you were giving everything. Your all for me.

And when you drew her out, the only fruit bore by our love, I felt joy, and the tears started coming.

Then the blood started coming. I saw there was no help, only God could help, and he was silent. So silent I couldn’t hear him in my heart.

Then you held my hand and pressed it to your cheek, raindrops falling on your skin, trickling. You glowed, like the sun that shot out after the rain, and said to me for the last time, I love you, Schema. Goodbye.

I wanted to tell you no, to tell you to stay, to tell you goodbye isn’t what we needed at the time. But you had gone so far when I started shouting Keza, your feet were light now, moving swiftly through the seven clouds, because you didn’t even move your arm when I raised it and dropped it again.

The tears were heavy, but I still had you in my arms – a part of you. And I named her Garuka, because I wanted you to come back to me.

 

Ernest O. Ogunyemi

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

 

 

3 thoughts on “Garuka – Please Come Back by Ernest O. Ogunyemi

  1. Hi Ernest,
    Beautifully constructed, realistic, heartbreaking and poignant.
    This is a story that stays with you.
    All the very best my friend.
    Hugh

    Like

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