The city reeked like a stinky jungle. Dogs, crows, and black kites had all sucked the blood of our innocent people. There were soldiers everywhere. The Kinyarwanda language had lost its convincing power. If you did speak it perfectly, you could easily be identified as a born-in-Rwanda, if not a Hutu guilty party; you could be a Tutsi survivor of the killings. “Wewe ni mtu wa aina gani?”—which translated as What kind of a person are you?—was the question asked by the soldiers on Kigali streets with guns on their shoulders. I would move my lips and pretend not to understand Swahili. I spoke Biryogo Swahili, or a mixture of different versions of Swahili, despite the fact that my non-Swahili parents never allowed us to speak that language at the dinner table. I couldn’t respond to the soldiers’ question, for I did not know the kind of a person I was. I had no family. I had nobody else but Devota, a woman who used to be just a neighbor and had become the elder sister I had never had.
Living with Devota was equivalent to living with a sentence. She could not stop weeping; she carried in her womb a baby of her Hutu rapist Abdullah. I had to give my ears to Devota as she narrated how Abdullah used to force his dirty, hard-agitated organ in her soft and virgin body during the three months she had spent in his house, when he and other Hutu militants hunted the Tutsis. Maybe it would also have been my fate, if, after surviving the shootings of my family, Devota had not taken me out of the river of the blood of my father and sisters. To persuade Devota, Abdullah had rushed me to Kigali General Hospital, where I spent the months of April, May, and June 1994.
In January 1995, I left Biryogo. My paternal uncle Kamanzi was a colonel in the new army. He took me to live with him in Kiyovu, known as Kiyovu of the rich people. It used to be the elite neighborhood of the previous government officials and Kigali tycoons, but after the war, it had become like a military camp. High-ranking army officers who could not live there had settled their families in the relatively modern houses. Those Rwandans had returned to the country from Uganda, Burundi, Zaire, and other countries where they had lived for many years as refugees. They spoke different languages, with a not-so-perfect Kinyarwanda.
Uncle Kamanzi’s compound was full of dark-skinned Kadogo teen soldiers who proved respect to him with “yes, Afande” salutes. Being the only girl in that compound, my only companions were the ghosts of my father and sisters, who visited me in both my daytime dreams and my nightmares. I had to live. I had to survive. I had to adjust to my new life, if it was life at all.
One Sunday, to get out of the boredom that smelled in the compound, I asked Uncle Kamanzi for permission to go to the Sunday Mass.
“Shema should accompany you,” he said, rushing through the door. Shema was one of the Kadogo soldiers, a favorite of Uncle Kamanzi. From the day I had come to live in that compound, he had been designated by his colonel to be my caretaker, or a protector. But something in Shema’s eyes had prevented me from making him a companion I would converse with. This time around, Colonel Kamanzi had left me with the task to convey his instructions to that tall, dark-skinned Kadogo with long white teeth and a chocolate gum.
“Shema, Uncle Kamanzi said you should accompany me to St Michael Cathedral.” I shyly slipped the words out.
Shema raised his hand and hit the fingertips to the forehead as if he was giving me the same salute he used to give to Colonel Kamanzi. I did not get what he meant by that; he had to obey Colonel Kamanzi’s instructions.
After putting on my red dress, I came out and said, “Let’s go.”
He followed me, and quickly caught my steps. We were so silent. The only sounds that played music to our ears were of the birds that decorated the tall trees of Kiyovu. After about a hundred steps, Shema pretended to cough.
“Would you do me a favor please?” he asked.
Walking the streets with Shema made me bite my nails, and talking to him gave me sweaty palms. Something crossed my heart, but I had to pretend I had everything under control.
“Hmm?” I asked.
“Since the day you came to live with us, I have never seen your teeth,” Shema said as he played his eyes left and right. “Would you please smile? I beg you.”
“Okay, here are my teeth.”