In this excerpt, we flashback to Seraphin’s mother’s youth, when she was a free woman in Paris and Brussels. She meets Guillome her future husband and their lives take an unexpected turn as they return to Rwanda with their dreams in tow.
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They were in Guillome’s apartment in Brussels, listening to jazz records, lying on a bent sofa with cushions rubbed shiny and smooth by a hundred anonymous buttocks. Therése always liked how his massive frame encompassed her smaller one when they lay next to each other, as they were doing just then. She would run her hands over his chest and listen to him talk about the future when a whole generation of intellectuals would call Rwanda home.
“They are all returning home,” he said, “even the ones who have married abazungu. My mother said there are whole villages of grandmothers trying to teach white women how to pound flour. Imagine.”
“And you want to go back too, Gui?” She was the only one he allowed to call him that. He despised nicknames.
“I don’t know, maybe.” He stroked the top of her head, his hand pulling the tufts of tough hair. “What will you do when you finish here?”
“Go back home. I have to work off the scholarship. But I am not sure if I can adjust to Rwanda after”—her left hand swept in a wide arc of generality—“all of this.”
Guillome followed the sweep of her hand and said playfully, “You came all the way to Europe and all you are going to miss is this apartment? My god, you really are a village girl. If I had known I would have impressed you with my two-plate stove and a train ticket or something. Now I have wasted all of my time on you. I could have had umzungu too. We would make caramel kids with soft hair that would not make them cry when they have to comb it.” He pulled at her hair again. Therése smacked his hand.
“Your white wife would not have to squeeze their heads between her thighs to wrestle the knots in their hair, that is true. But you would be a widower within a year because she would not be able to eat anything in Rwanda. O-ho, you think butter and croissants are being sold by the roadside or what?”
He laughed, a deep laugh which made his chest reverberate and her body vibrate in resonance. “But at least we would still have interesting conversations and we would miss Europe together.”
“Is that what you want?” she asked, raising her head and turning to look at him. “You want someone to miss this time with you?” There was no humour in her voice. Some sort of fork in their lives had been reached.
“No,” he said, looking at her straight. “I want someone who wants what I want for myself.”
She raised her eyebrows. Guillome had a way of drawing out conversations, speaking in segments. “And what is that, Gui?” she asked softly.
“I want to go back to Rwanda but I don’t want to go back to be Rwandan—I don’t think I can fit in. I don’t want the cultural stuff, not all of it. I don’t want to sit on the porch of my farmhouse and drink with all of the other banana farmers and talk about the past like it isn’t dead. I don’t want to be in Rwanda forever. My children should see the world. I cannot have my boys circumcised by someone high on powders and invented spirits.” He looked away from her, into the wide expanse of generality her hand had just encompassed. His right arm reached out and traversed the same arc as he said, “I want an unscripted future.”
Therése was moved by his desire for a life unlike the one he had grown up in, the one she had grown up in too. He had the pale scars of a hundred little cuts on his back and stomach from a fever bloodletting and since she had known him he seemed to hate sitting around in bars drinking and talking and talking about drinking. He would suggest cafés and cinemas and art galleries instead. He was determined in his studies and outspoken in classes, unlike other foreign black students who were cowed in lectures, yielding to their supposed betters. Even in his skirt-chasing days he said he had always pursued women who seemed to be out of his league, smart women. “Because,” Guillome said, “if you wanted to fuck their brains out it would take more than one night.” Even his crassness was different, Therése decided. She was secretly pleased that after a year of lovemaking she could still excite him, that they could still have debates about politics and literature and films and listen to his jazz records together. She did not want it to end.
“And do you want that future alone or with someone, Gui? If that is what you want, then we can get it together. I am not going back to Rwanda to cook and clean and be beaten and be the person who is talked about sadly to a mistress who does not know the pain of giving birth to five children. I also want my future. We have fun here, Gui, but we could have this and more”—another wave at the infinite unknown—“and we can get it together. There is more for us, no?”
A short silence alighted between them before Guillome said, “I agree.”
He said “I agree” in the same way he said it when she said something clever, when he heard the sound of reason in an argument. To hear him say those two words meant he had thought something over, had dedicated time and thought to it, evaluating its shortcomings and its merits, and had come to the conclusion that he could, indeed, add his assent to its veracity.
Therése looked at him pointedly, looked at him like the man from her application flyer and said, “If you give me my life, I will give you yours.”
It was Therése who proposed the marriage, and Guillome who accepted. They lay on the couch for the rest of the evening, the rest of their lives unfolding in fantastical and heartfelt plans for the future.
Therése was the first to graduate. She extended her student visa to keep Guillome company in the final months of his studies. They would return to Rwanda together and announce their intention to marry to their parents, circumvent the longwinded traditions of courtship, and defy their ancestors and customs by having a quiet church wedding. On their Air France flight back from Europe the air hostess had more makeup than face, and she lingered a bit too long by Guillome’s seat, offering him the small comforts of a drink. Therése’s unimpressed stare eventually drove her away, and as she retreated, Guillome patted her hand gently and whispered to her, “Don’t worry. She would last all of five minutes. But you, you are going to take a lifetime.”
Therése blushed in her seat. She was returning to Rwanda, qualified, travelled, loved, and determined to bring the world home with her.
Guillome and Therése secured work in Kigali immediately, he as a pharmacist at a new hospital, and she as an office administrator for the United Nations Development Programme. They decided to postpone their marriage while they made a foothold in the city. Therése’s pregnancy, though, pushed up their plans. It would be easier for them and the baby, she said, when she gave the news to Guillome, if they were married. “But we don’t have to do it now. We can wait a bit. There is no rush.”
Their postponement lasted all the way through Therése’s pregnancy, scandalising their parents. When a fat baby boy with big eyes was pulled from her womb they both looked at him and agreed to call him Séraphin, the angel, for his calmness, and Turihamwe—“we are together”—as a sly reprimand for their parents and social circle. When Séraphin turned one, though, they married, to their displeasure, in a big traditional ceremony.
With the wedding done, their lives resumed their patterns of co-ordinated career moves and promotions. Guillome moved on from the state hospital to work in the administrative arm of the nascent pharmaceutical industry, allowing them to move out of their one-bedroom flat to a spacious two-bedroom house. Two years later, Yves was born. Both having secured promotions, Guillome and Therése moved to a roomy mansion in Kiyovu which required a maid and a gardener to maintain it. They looked at their new home with pride—their lives were indeed blessed. To Yves they gave the name Mugisha—“a blessing”—for they seemed to be the recipients of unending beneficence.
Perhaps they tempted fate with that naming. Rwanda began changing, and tensions around the country grew. Everyone was on tenterhooks. The politics of ethnicity were becoming all consuming, enraging, and dangerous. Therése and Guillome trusted in education, the development, the foreign banks which operated in the country, and the healthy community of well-intentioned investors and volunteers to discourage the backwards slip into regression and factionalism. Plus, things were not too bad in their lives. Guillome was in the process of securing funds to start a pharmaceutical supply company and Therése had secured another promotion. They could see no end to their rise.
Two more years passed. Séraphin was six, Yves was four, Guillome was putting ink to the final paperwork of the country’s first independent medicines distributor, and Therése was managing the communications of the entire United Nations mission in Kigali. Their prosperity was equally praised and envied. Their lounge had real china plates, a large cuboid Sony television with colour display and a video cassette player. Their fridge was filled with milk, rare custard, cold fruit juices, and imported beer. They entertained generously and offered aid to family, friends, and enemies alike. The passage of time did little to calm down the country’s seething grudges and grievances. It did, however, bring Guillome and Therése’s last-born into a country living in fear. Éric Uwituze was named as a blind hope for calmness. They looked at the situation in Rwanda and hoped for peace.
“Things are not really bad yet,” Therése whispered in bed late at night. “We can wait. Things will get better.”
It calmed her on nights when the air was hot and pressed, when ravenous mosquitoes made the darkness sing with their bloodthirsty hunger. The country seemed ready to spark. Each passing day brought news of tension, and each night their lovemaking was rushed and anxious, fading into whispers of plans that they still wanted to see through. The schools Séraphin and Yves would attend, the need for another house girl to help with the bouncy Éric, and the money which had to be sent to their parents and delinquent siblings.
The night the mortars and gunfire could be
heard through Kigali, Therése awoke in a panic. Her dreams had been filled with
gaping chasms into which she tumbled endlessly. When they heard the first loud
boom she thought surely the house had slipped into such a fissure. Guillome had
already leapt out of bed, scrambling to the living room to peek through the curtains,
making sure windows and doors were locked. She made a dash for Séraphin, Yves,
and Eric’s shared nursery. She imagined opening the door and finding the room
destroyed, the debris of their dreams crushed beyond recognition. She could
hear Yves and Éric crying. When she opened the door her fear was only
marginally abated. The boys were alive. She rushed to Éric’s cot and picked him
up before going to Yves’s bed. He was sitting up and crying and she pulled him
close to her. While she murmured soothing phrases to the two crying children
Therése looked around for Séraphin.