Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Rwanda: The Ethnic Trap (Non-fiction)

Benjamin Sehene
Rwanda: The Ethnic Trap

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.
- L. P. Hartley: The Go-Between

A week passed before I was ready to go back to Rwanda. I was
going with F. And the journey began badly. We were giving a convalescing RPF soldier a lift to the rebel headquarters at Mulindi(Rwanda), but as if that wasn’t enough, we had to look for him and F couldn’t remember his address. So it was not until mid-afternoon that we were able to leave. We left in a hurry, driving as fast as we could in order to reach the Gatuna border post before it shut down for the night. We were driven by a taciturn, nervous and unsteady driver called Juma. I was rather worried by his erratic driving. But the prospect of driving at night through a country at war was even more worrying. It was completely dark when we reached the Rwandan border at Gatuna. And to our horror it was closed. It even seemed useless to bribe the somnolent but compliant guard, because the barrier was fastened with a huge padlock, and the person who had the key had apparently gone to Kabale several kilometres away inside Uganda. But F was a shrewd and dynamic businessman, always prepared to take a gamble. He was not one to brush aside a problem, he would dwell on it. He would brood over it, and become distracted as if doing mental arithmetic even as you talked to him. And soon he would come up with a solution. Soon he was engaged in discussion with the guard. From several minutes of palaver it transpired that the man with the key could be somehow reached. At the sight of money, it turned out that the man had not yet left for Kabale.
We drove into the no-man’s land, across the makeshift bridge which had been erected in place of one blown up by the Rwandan army (FAR) in 1990 to prevent an RPF advance. At the Rwanda border, the RPF guards knew F who for a longtime had put his premises in Kampala at the disposal of the RPF, so they let us through without any hustle. We had intended to spend the night at Mulindi, but we found that the entire RPF administration had already moved to Kigali. So we drove to Byumba. Rwanda seen during the night was silent and featureless. The beams of our headlights cut through the black night like twin tunnels of light streaked with insects and dirt. Beyond the beam of our headlights, at the end of every curve in the road, I fancied an ambush. I remembered James Fenton’s golden rule in Indochina: Never be on the roads after dark. Each time, the roadblocks along the road came as a relie f. I have never felt as safe as I did that night, with African soldiers.
We spent the night at a dark RPF guest house manned by two sleepy soldiers. Byumba at an altitude of about 2,500 metres above sea level is chilly at night. In the darkness the guest house was shrouded in mystery, something, a shape, suggested a grand black mansion set against a luxuriant black garden. But morning revealed a gutted, pockmarked house in a littered, overgrown garden.

Then begun the journey down to Kigali, past reforested hilltops of pine and eucalyptus, past abandoned villages set in banana plantations and a patchwork of well-tended fields rich with crops. The fields were often set upon terraced hills, the work of many years. Now they lay abandoned like fruits of wasted l abour. Rwanda was a nation that had abandoned that had abandoned that had abandoned its land and many years of effort.

All along the road there was a continuous trail of devastation. Roofless houses, their rusted iron roofs caved into burnt out interiors. Collapsed houses lying in piles of overgrown rubble. This was not the indiscriminate destruction of war, but the surgical and systematic destruction of communal violence, destruction among neighbours. In some villages all houses were intact, while in others, particular houses had been destroyed without damage to the ones next door. Tutsi families had been dragged from those houses and hacked to death by their Hutu neighbours. Then they had destroyed the houses, either by burning them to the ground or by blowing them up with grenades, and sometimes they had even levelled the ground where the houses had stood. As if by destroying the Tutsi’s houses, they hoped to erase the memory of their victims and all trace of their crime.

As we approached Kigali I felt elated at the prospect of seeing my place of birth, a place of myth whose name had always made me quick with longing. And like all places of myth I knew it would not quite measure up to expectations. But nothing had prepared me for the ugly, deserted war torn city we drove into that morning. A city of empty, looted shops and houses, and the interminable trails of ragged returning refugees. For the traveller arriving by air, the refugees might have appeared like columns of black ants. They walked in single file, carrying their belongings on the head. We kept passing these lines of ragged returnees, as we tried to figure out our way through the littered streets, strewn with war rubble.

Kigali had been the heart of darkness, the epicentre of a genocidal cataclysm. There were spent ammunition casings, paper, concrete chunks, shards of glass, clothing, carcasses of abandoned, scavenged vehicles, broken furniture, packs of stray dogs and the occasional human skull or femur. When the shards of glass caught the mid-morning sun, they looked like ice. There were dugouts surrounded with sandbags on many street corners or at strategic points throughout the city. The shell-marked streets spoke of the recent drama, of the butchery. Many buildings in Mateus, the commercial centre, were gutted, their iron roofs gnarled and ripped up by exploding shells, the walls bullet-riddled. And those that were intact had been looted clean.

There was little traffic but the numerous RPF roadblocks around t he city managed to create a resemblance of traffic jams. The young soldiers came up to the car and politely asked for papers then asked you where you were coming from and going to. You never told them where you were really coming from or where you were going. You did not say you were coming from Ugandabecause if you did the soldiers would start searching your car. Sometimesthis took ages and cars piled up behind the barricades.

Kigali is a slum, of dust-brown mud-brick houses, scattered over several hills. In most of the residential areas the roads are not tarmaced, they are just dust. There is dust everywhere you look, dust on roofs, dust on trees, dust in the hollow of satellite dishes, dust in your nostrils, dust on your tongue, dust in your spit. Then when it rains the dust coagulates into mud, a viscous brown sludge that has wheels spinning helplessly, digging in deeper and deeper.
On the narrow roads that crisscross Kigali it was hard to find one’s way without a map. We got lost sev era l times trying to find our way to a place called Remera, where the RPF was presently headquartered. And the young soldiers at the roadblocks were of no help to us, because most of them were also newcomers to Kigali, they were either born in Uganda, Burundi or
Zaire(Congo); the sons of Tutsi refugees who fled the violence in 1959. Much of the traffic was comprised of speeding military convoys and other military vehicles or madoadoa (patches)-RPF commandeered vehicles of the former regime, UNAMIR, or ai d agencies that had been painted an impromptu camouflage. Most were dilapidated vehicles full of soldiers and driven by inexperienced drivers. Their brake-lights had been systematically eviscerated to elude sniper fire. And on Kigali’s narrow winding road s, they were cause for some spectacular accidents. All the accident black spots were littered with madoadoas. I think in those initial days, the RPF lost more soldiers to car accidents than it did at the peak of the war.
In Remera, the first person we met was D, an acquaintance of mine from Toronto who had returned to Rwanda to work with the RPF. I was impressed by him, he seemed to know everyone on the street and most of them by name. He was bursting with enthusiasm, and was eager to show us the scenes of massacres, the places where the looting was still taking place, to take me to see my niece S who read the news in English on the RPF radio Muhavura-which was now radio Rwanda. As the morning wore on, the prevailing chaos upon which D seemed to thrive, begun to impress itself on me. Kigali was like a Bujumbura bis. Wherever one looked, there was a crowded car with Burundi number plates. The Tutsis refugees who fled to Burundi in 1959, now driven by mounting insecurity in Burundi had been the first to arrive after the fall of Kigali, those from Uganda would arrive much later. The refugies from Burundi drove around and around the city all day, sightseeing. When they met friends or relatives, they stopped to embrace, "guhobera", in the middle of the road, tying up the traffic. There was a lot of "guhobera" in those days, it was like a form of congratulatory accolade. Even people that had met earlier in the day, would embrace when they met again the same day. The prevailing atmosphere was one of triumphant homecoming. There was a sense of the unreal about being in Kigali. It was as if what was going on around me, was actually happening to someone else. I was completely disoriented, and from time to time, I caught myself turning around at the sound of people speaking Kinyarwanda, just as I had always done in Kampala, Nairobi or in that transit hall at Cairo airport. For the first time in my adult life, I was in a place where everyone spoke Kinyarwanda. It was eerie.

The returnees from Burundi -the Barundi , as they were called-were busy grabbing shops and houses, looting cars, furniture and household appliances left by the dead or those who had fled to Zaire or Tanzania. The facades of many shops and houses carried this notice written in chalk or charcoal letters: Iyinzu yara fashwe -this house has been taken. Kigali was a free-for-all, there was looting, called kubohoza, everywhere at the embassies, government offices, the warehouses, schools, shops. All that had not been looted by t he fle ei ng Hu tus, was now being looted by the returning Tutsis. D had acquired an expensive, black leather set of furniture, and had taken over a beautiful bungalow. And almost everyone was involved in the looting except the RPF soldiers who just stood by and did nothing, since no formal orders had been given. But on the other hand RPF officers drove around in expensive looted cars, occupied opulent mansions or had set up their relatives in one of the appropriated shops. And the RPF civil administration was also busy auctioning off stocks of tea, second hand clothing, cooking oil and other imported goods left by the former administration at the bonded warehouses in Gikondo. At the warehouses, I watched labourers imported from Uganda, grunt under heavy bales of tea, while loading several trucks. There was a shortage of able bodied men in Kigali, many either being dead or in exile. In those days it was almost possible to do anything. Like the absurd case of a returnee family which was squatting th e Swiss embassy.

Contrary to the returnee civilians, the RPF soldiers(Inkotanyi), were very disciplined. They were evidently the most disciplined African army I had ever seen. Inspite of many loosing their entire families in the genocide, they had not carried out th e revenge killings, rape and pillaging many had predicted. The Hutu leadership had for a long time demonized the RPF soldiers ‘the Inkotanyi have fangs, pointed ears and a tail, and they kill wherever they pass,’ they used to tell the poor Hutu peasants. Now at the roadblocks, old men, women and children, seeing the polite young RPF soldiers for the first time, were going up to them with questions. ‘Was it true they had fangs, pointed ears and a tail? Would they gouged people’s eyes out?’ The fact that these peasants had believed this propaganda, goes to show their ignorance and credulity. The same credulity with which they had accepted to gang-rape, pillage and hack their neighbours to death. For the returnees, the Inkotanyi were heroes. In bars people bought them drinks, and no one drove past an Inkotanyi without giving him a lift. And the Inkotanyi were very popular with the girls, there were always several girls lingering around every roadblock.

In Remera th ere was a flurry of act ivity. The RPF civilian administration, now the de facto government was busy trying to set up a coalition government. Faustin Twagiramungu, a Hutu opposition leader who had been designated prime minister by the Arusha peace accords, was mentioned as a likely candidate. There were lots of rumours and intrigue about ministerial appointments, a lot of jockeying for position. Outside each RPF official’s house there were parked cars, madoadoas, armed military escorts and a small crowd of favour seekers waiting for a chance to present their cases; lesser officials, Tutsi businessmen from Uganda or Burundi with favours to ask. The number of cars suggested the official’s importance. These houses stood together across the road fro m the Centre Christus where several catholic monks had been slaughtered by the interahamwe militias. Now the centre was being used to house foreign journalists, who could be seen being led away like a flock of sheep to sites of massacres by cadres from the RP F information department.
It was hard to avoid the atrocities committed by the interahamwe militias. Everywhere there were reminders of massacres and rape. Kite-hawks and vultures circled above the city as if waiting for the massacres to resume.
In the evening, a floral scent-that smell of African dusk- was compounded with the warm humid smell of putrefied bodies, and hung in the air like an invisible curtain. On Gikondo road I saw a stray dog sniffing at the legless shrivelled remains of a man. The man’s skull was still partly covered with patches of hair, his rib cage was sheathed with shreds of what must have been a black jacket. There were hundreds of these stray dogs and some of them were even pedigree. Dogs whose owners were either dead, in exile or evacuated European expatriates. At the height of the genocide, when the streets were still littered with dead bodies, these dogs had eaten and developed a taste for human flesh. Now they moved in fearless packs and would not hesitate to attack people, or moving vehicles. Such that on many streets, it was common to find a dead dog run over by a motorist or shot by UN soldiers.

There were piles of incriminating documents and hate literature strewn about the streets. Official documents were scattered outside looted government offices. The tormented history of Rwanda was piled among the war rubble and dust on Kigali streets. Someone gave me a copy of Kangura (awaken), a Hutu extremist magazine, which contained the notorious ‘Hutu Ten Commandments’.

Later we drove back into the town centre, to look for S at radio Rwanda. She was not at work but everyone knew where she lived and we took on a volunteer guide. She and a colleague from the radio had just been allocated a government house. But they had neither mattresses nor furniture apart from a dinning table and two chairs. They had no water, no electricity and were unable to cook the food rations they received from the RPF.
The house they had been given, used to belong to the former director of radio Rwanda. The house, like Kigali was a looted shell. All over the house,on the veranda and in the garden were scattered clothes, papers, familly photos and other personal effects of the former occupants. Photos of chubby smiling children, a group of adults around a table, a lady in traditional dress, a church wedding in black and white. They lay there waiting to be swept away with the other debris; moments of happiness from shattered lives. The monster of hatred has no patience for personal memories, of happy moment lived and preserved on paper. And it was amidst these episodes from the former director’s life that we improvised a meal of bread and corned beef.


That afternoon, we drove into Nyamirambo in search of, Antoine Mubirigi, the maternal uncle whose name I had got from my sister Helena. Nyamirambo is a vast slum crowded and cramped with back-to-back mud houses on narrow, dusty broken lanes and open stinking sewers. A city within a city. Nyamirambo is also the Muslim neighbourhood complete with two mosques. It is there that Arab traders from the East African coast had settled, and their descendants also called swahilis like those on the coast, are an ethnic group apart in today’s Rwanda. A fact which perhaps explains why most people in Nyamirambo were spared by the genocide.

In Nyamirambo life seemed to thrive unabated inspite of the war, the genocide and the intense afternoon heat. Kite-hawks and vultures circled above. Among the ruins, the litter and war rubble, there were many open bars teeming with people. There were open air vendors, selling the only food; roasted meat. People stood about in small groups. And there were the inevitable hoards of barechested children tripping about in the dust.
Naturally we got lost. Mubirigi lived near the market, Helena had told me. But the market we were directed to was not the right one. We found ourselves near the Islamic cultural centre, a donation of the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. That part of Nyamirambo is close to the Mont Kigali, the highest point in Kigali and up to the last moment a FAR stronghold. And it had come under heavy shelling. The mosque at the Islamic centre was in ruins, its minaret bent at the top and holding on by the flimsy steel reinforcements. Its pillared arches were bullet-riddled and its green dome ripped open. Our car got stuck in a deep rut and we had to get out of the car and push. We also had to tread carefully for there were many unexploded shells and rockets strewn about.

In the vicinity of the second mo sque, we asked a group of idle men wearing skullcaps and kanzu - an East African derivative of the djellaba, for directions to Antoine Mubirigi’s house. One of the men knew Mubirigi. Yes, he wa s alive and well, said the man as he gave us directions. We went down a deeply gullied road which disintegrated into a narrow dusty lane, past a deserted market to the furthesinto a narrow dusty lane, past a deserted market to the furthest point accessible to a car. We left the car behind, went on foot passed a noisy bar, crossed a makeshift bridge over a large stinking water drain and stopped in front of a small shop. The man’s directions were so precise that the first house where we inquired was Mubirigi’s shop. Mubirigi was a thin, prematurely aged, dark, tall man with greying hair. My self introduction was met with astonishment. ‘Benjamin? Coletta’s son?,’ Imana ishimwe (thank be to God) exclaimed Mubirigi, embracing m. And I was veiled in the smell of alcohol on his breath.
Then the young woman standing next to him stepped forward. ‘I am Mubirigi’s daughter, Venancia.’ she said in a tremulous voice, then embraced me and begun to weep. And she would remain hysterical and on the verge of tears during our visit.
We were led from the bare shelved, certainly looted shop, across an inner courtyard and into a sitting room. The leatherette sofa set, their headrests covered with patterned lace cloth, and the family photographs between crossed arrows on the dirty whitewashed walls, reminded me of sitting rooms I had known throught my childhood. And also hanging on the wall was the inevitable coloured poster of the pope leftover from an outdated calendar, a favourite icon in Rwandese homes. And almost as soon as we had sat down, Mubirigi and Venancia started fussing over us. Oh, they lamented, what will we offer you we almost have nothing. Some tea perhaps. Maybe some beer or fanta- for some reason in Rwanda all bottled soft drinks are called fanta. And Venancia still on the verge of tears sent for some beer and fanta from the bar next door.
Mubirigi’s wife was a small woman, with an intense suspicious face. She sat at a distance from us in a manner which seemed to suggest that she did not want to intrude into our conversation: the traditional discretion of an rwandan wife. In the general excitement I had failed to notice her, but once I begun taking photographs she called out to Mubirigi that he was being photographed, as if asking him to strike a pose. People in Rwanda do not like being photographed without putting on their Sunday best.
In relay, father and daughter told us the story of how they had survived the genocide. At the beginning of the massacres, Mubirigi and his wife had sought refuge at Ruberi’s house, Venancia husband, because he was a Hutu and a government soldier. And for months they had hidden there while Ruberi went out to fight every day( and perhaps to participate in the killings). And here father and daughter chose to differ. According to Venancia they had also been forced run behind the interahamwe to bury the bodies. Then when the war had gained most of Kigali, Ruberi and his fellow soldiers had come to use the house as a retreat, and shooting from there. Soon the house had come under fire...
But Mubirigi quickly interrupted her, and asked her why she was telling us that. Then he instead told us his version of the story. Apparently as the RPF had advanced, Ruberi along with his three children and Marie-Therese(my step sister) had fled towards Gisenyi. While Venancia and Mrs. Mubirigi had taken refugee at the Sainte Famille church. Mubirigi had come back to his shop, where the interahamwe had looted his stock, stolen his refrigerator and threatened him with death. Then one afternoon they had tried t o chop off his head with a machete, but he had raised his hand in defence. Here he stopped to show us a scar which run across his left back hand. But he faltered a little when I asked him if they had not force them to kill in order to be spared like many other Tutsis with Hutu relatives. ‘Er, no,’ he said.

About a year and a half later, I would learn that Mubirigi had died after a short illness. But I still wonder why he had prevented Venancia from telling us certain things. On successive visits to Kigali I would often meet Venancia in Nyamirambo dead drunk in broad daylight. I would ask her about her parents. But I could never bring myself to ask her what she had wanted to tell us that afternoon. Up to now I still wonder if she and her father had not been forced to participate in the killings, or about her husband and children languishing in a refugee camp in Goma. I wonder what deal she and her parents may have done to be spared. It was not unusual for Tutsis with Hutu relatives to strike bargains and take up a machete to kill on another hill in order to be spared.


The Barundi were very enterprising and had gone into the only viable business in Kigali at the time, the bar business. With spirits from looted stock, beer imported from Bujumbura, and meat from God knows where; appropriated shops, butcheries, pharmacies, and residential homes were transformed into bars. It was surprising to discover that in a city short of food, some businessmen had managed to import beer. I was able to count at least twenty bars. And business was booming. Prices were astronomical but still the bars were always packed at all hours. As there was no water, no food and nothing else to do, people be gun drinking early in the morning and went on until late in the evening. They had beer and roasted meat for breakfast, beer and roasted meat for lunch, then beer and roasted meat for supper. The meat was tough, leathery, of uncertain origin and you had eat it directly from the sk ewer. D., who was very fastidious about Tutsi food restrictions would later ask; ‘How can you people eat meat whose origin you do not know? Do you realise that you could be eating anything, mutton, or one of the many stray dogs? Who knows you actually ma y be eating human flesh, a Tutsi relative you never met.’ He was right, there was absolutely no way of knowing where the meat came from, the cows had all been looted and eaten by the interahamwe. I never touched that meat again.

Even in those early days, the Barundi exclusively patronised bars run by fellow Barundi and the Bagande -returnees from Uganda-patronised Bagande bars. Burundi francs, Rwandese francs or dollars were accepted at Barundi establishments, but not the Uganda shilling, that was only accepted by Ugandan establishments. Seeds for future division were already being sown...

Copyright © 1999-2005 Benjamin Sehene. All Rights Reserved.

The Scent of African Dusk (Fiction)

The Scent of African Dusk
Benjamin Sehene


And while men had whistled as she swung her hips down the streets, none ever made crude proposals to her. She had that sudden upward curl of the upper lip which portends a rebuff. She never said yes, and men hate begging. There were missed occasions, chance encounters, hints, overbearing men with hairy nostrils. But still no flowers ever came. No suicides were scheduled beneath her window.

Hers was an unusual beauty: particularly when viewed at forty five degrees. She was a high strung pale girl who expelled cigarette smoke through her nostrils most convincingly and painted her lips scarlet red.

Her adolescence had flowed by like the mucky waters of the Seine. She had gone to university; read history, changed her mind; and read letters; but never fell in love. Then she had found a job as a receptionist at a commercial firm.

Her friends had got married, given birth to red wrinkled babies, and indulged in the aesthetics of interior decoration. But for her, happiness had remained elsewhere; in an instant glimpsed in a distant lighted window, in a toothy smile on a billboard, or in the intimate embrace of a young couple kissing on the métro. Her breasts had softened and her hips had spread out. And thus she had set off alone through the interminable corridors of her twenties and down the red-carpeted stairway to old age.

Then presently, a robust African man with a clipped moustache and a crew cut to boot, hurried along ahead of her, snorting through his whiskers. And their itineraries down that stairway of life, might have never converged, if she had not raised her eyes to admire the perfect spiral described by the iron handrail. She had missed a step, lunged forward and slid down a flight of steps to the next landing. The man had stopped and walked back to give her a hand.

‘Are you alright?’ he had asked as he gave her his two hands. And he could not help but notice her momentarily unveiled long and lovely legs.

‘Yes,’ Isabelle had replied.

For a moment they had recoiled into an embarrassed silence while she covered her nudity and put on her

Then perhaps to put her at ease, the man had asked her if she had not hurt herself. ‘Fortunately, no,’ she said. ‘I was admiring the magnificent spiral formed by the staircase. And it gave me vertigo.’

‘Yes, isn’t it beautiful,’ the man said. And they both looked up the winding staircase. ‘It is a pity they don’t build like this anymore,’ he added. ‘Do you live here?’ queried the man stroking his whiskers.

‘No, I work here,' she answered.

They had then resumed their journey down the stairs. They had exchanged a glance of astounded empathy as a heavyset woman lumbered up the staircase, breathing heavily.

He had held open the front door and motioned her out with a sweeping gesture of his right hand.

‘Which way are you going?’ he had asked her outside.

‘To the métro.’

‘I could give you a ride.’

A uniformed chauffeur had fumbled to open doors for them. In the car they had exchanged telephone numbers. For a moment an instinctive sense of decency had refrained her from unveiling herself to a total stranger, but she had been overcome by an irresistible urge to please this kind moustachioed man. The following week they had dined together at an expensive restaurant, where they were tended to by an army
of waiters.


The man’s name was Francis Lutera. He was a minor diplomat posted in Paris, from some english speaking African country. His bearing carried distinction, and he spoke an accented, stilted French, with an occasional lapse into English. At thirty three, he was still a bachelor, inspite of his good looks and that structural solidity so appealing to women. Isabelle loved the way his nose gracefully rolled back at the tip and spread out towards his smooth cheeks. The way his skin gathered beneath his eyes when he smiled. His full lips were very becoming. Didn’t he look like that musician, what’s his name?... Belamonte? Belafonte? Yes, like Harry Belafonte.

At the New year’s gala, they had described concentric circles, spinning like entwined tops around the ballroom floor. At the charity ball a melancholic tango had implored them to bend and spin to its languid rhythm. He in his dinner-jacket, and she in her light evening wear had made such an elegant couple that everyone had found them absolutely charming, well matched. They got married that summer.


Then a few months later, Francis was recalled. They had moved into a peeling colonial, iron roofed bungalow with wire netting shutters and dry water taps. For the morning bath, the houseboy would fetch water in plastic jerrycans from a neighbour’s downhill and fill the tub, in which Francis and Isabelle would take turns bathing in the same water. In the house there was a tiny grey mouse she nicknamed Mickey, which scared the daylights out of her.

Isabelle had discovered with disappointment that Africa was not just the brilliant blue sky and endless savanna myth of the travel agent, but was also the suffocating heat, the pervasive red dust, the invisible mosquitoes whizzing through the dark , and a cacophony of cryptic languages.

Her favourite aspect of Africa, was the dusk. She would sit in a wicker chair on the verandah, with her legs resting on the balustrade to watch the day die a slow crimson death. A floral scent compounded with the warm humid smell of decay, the smell of African dusk, would hung in the air like an invisible curtain. And the distant hills would become giant sepals upon which reposed the celestial flower. Usually, Juma the houseboy, would serve her a glass of lemon juice. And she would sip it very slowly, its acerbic taste tickling her taste buds.

For a moment the celestial flower would waver over the horizon, then wither away into the interminable eulogy of a frog and the chorus of crickets. The distant hills would become gilted with specks of distant street lights. The electric bulb on the verandah would attract a swarm of mosquitoes, an occasional white moth, and motionless, translucent geckos hanging upside down on the cieling. The mosquitoes and the white moth would perform loops around the light under the watchful eye of the gecko. Eventually, if one of the mosquitoes settled down for a rest, a gecko would suddenly flick out its tongue and engulf it.

Towards seven o’clock, Isabelle would hear her husband’s car struggle up the hill in low gear. She would
meet him at the front door, and would quickly press her pursed painted lips against his mouth. In the sitting room, where a gilted chandelier whose glass pendants hang like an immobile rainfall above a large zebra skin drum, Isabelle would leisurely kick off her shoes, cuddle in the corner of a large black chesterfield with buttons like a fat woman’s navel, folding one leg under her, and begin leafing through an outdated illustrated magazine. While her bespectacled husband in the remains of his business suit, dozed into an open newspaper after a harassing day at the office. On his return from Europe, Francis had been appointed to a high position in the ministry of foreign affairs. He had become distracted, detached, and he always seemed to have official business waiting. Sometimes he would spend hours on the telephone. At the dining table he would yawn into his fist, as Juma ladled a spoonful of green peas onto his plate.


Their house was not unlike a public house. There was an incessant stream of guests and relatives; uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nephews of nephews, who just showed up unexpected and uninvited. They arrived with their bare feet shod in a thin layer of red dust. Some just dropped in on the occasion of a visit to town. Others came seeking favours from Francis; a job at the ministry, a government scholarship for a son. There were seldom less than half a dozen people at the dining table. How could one refuse them? They drank their tea from the saucer, ate with their fingers.

And although Francis despised some of these relatives for their countryside manners, Isabelle received them like her own. They were the numerous brothers and sisters she never had. She would preside over the table talk with diligence, rolling and unrolling her rs in her Frenchfied English. But at the slightest neglect, the conversation would veer off into vernacular. Immediately, poor, susceptible Isabelle, would rush to recover control of the conversation and steer it back into English, for fear the cryptic mirth be at her expense.


That Christmas, Francis took Isabelle to his home village. They drove down suburban roads between green hedges, on to the potholed one way streets of the city centre. They bumped past shabby concrete skyscrapers, past the rusty corrugated iron shacks in the slum. Then the bougainvilliers and flower beds along the curb disintegrated into rugged countryside without transition. Speeding lorries and taxis packed with passengers bumped along, raising clouds of red dust.

After a few hours on the motorway, Francis turned off into a dirt road which cut through scrub and banana plantations and led to a village of ochre coloured houses. There were many children tripping about the dusty compounds. Little boys rolled used car tyres along the road. Chicken went about pecking at the ground.

Francis’ widowed mother, lived in a large house with a dusty front yard. She was a tall woman with the stern handsome face that mother-in-laws are often endowed with. It was a delicate matter dealing with her, for she understood neither English nor Isabelle’s impatient gesticulations. There were numerous members of the extended family spending Christmas at the house. That night, Francis was separated from Isabelle, who was put up with her two sister-in-laws and four other girls; he was put with his brothers and a cousin. Isabelle shared a bed with one of her sister-in-laws, a big woman who smelt of wood smoke and took up most of the bed. The inevitable, invisible mosquito whizzing through the dark kept her awake much of the night.

Next day dawned with that limpid hue which portends a stifling day. Here and there, bulbous white cloudlets spotted the blue sky and turned it into a colossal fresco stretching from one end of the horizon to the other. Isabelle was given a large tin basin of water and was shown to an iron shack besides the latrine, for her morning bath.

From early morning the men sat in the yard playing cards and drinking a traditional brew made from fermented bananas. While the women went to fetch water in yellow jerrycans from the well, with babies tucked into cottons on their back. When they came back, they went about the domestic chores in a noisy joviality. They pounded ground nuts in wooden mortars, peeled green plantains and huge purple sweet potatoes for lunch, then lighted charcoal stoves.

Under the oppressive sun, the village was a watery vista. The air was hot and heavy. Vultures drifted in the sky. Isabelle felt lonely and unwelcome, her offers of help went unacknowledged. The fabric in her armpits formed dark round patches of sweat. She found it repugnant to squat over the putrid, fly infested latrine pit. Afterwards, she felt embarrassed to cross the backyard, walk past the men playing cards in the back yard, on her way from the latrine, as if she was coming from doing something unbearably shameful. She became unnecessarily sensitive to the men’s and neighbour’s stares. Her back tingled as though it was being walked over by a line of black ants.


Later, the children kicked up dust as they chased chickens to be slaughtered for lunch. One of the chickens ran into the house through the back door. Bursts of tinkles and shrieks could be heard as the children went from room to room. Then the chicken flew out of a window and landed a few meters from where the men were playing cards. Francis was part of the shouting, laughing commotion which ran about the yard like a single, multi-limbed creature.

When the chickens were caught, Isabelle saw Francis fold his shirt sleeves and accept a knife. She saw him as she had never seen him before; a sturdy, rugged man with plastic sandals strapped between his toes. In his printed cotton shirt and faded jeans, he looked so much like any other villager. He was handed the cackling chicken and he walked over to a corner of the yard. He clasped the bird’s wings beneath his left foot; the feet beneath his right. Someone challenged him to slaughter the hen in a single slash. And he accepted, then he siezed the helpless chicken’s head and started plucking off its neck feathers. His face was set in an expression Isabelle had never seen before. Two deep furrows cut down his brow to the top of his nose and he was biting his lower lip. There was something ritualistic, in the pervading atmosphere not unlike a sacrifice. A primeval, pagan household ritual expurgated from modern life by the cellophane wrapped, supermarket chicken. Francis slit the the chicken’s throat, as Isabelle looked away in horror.

But in the ensuing applause and confusion, the chicken had escaped from Francis’ grasp. Amid the euphoria, it had gone flapping around the yard, its headless bloody neck splashing blood all over the place.


Lunch was served beneath a crackling iron roof. Naturally, Isabelle decline the offer of chicken stew, shuddering to think that perhaps this was the same bird that had flapped around the yard headless. Then later, a big black fly with hairy legs settled on the edge of her plate, rubbed it’s head with the fore legs, smoothened its delicate transparent wings with the hind legs, before darting off to reemerge on the brim of her glass. From then on she had lost appetite to think of whence that fly had come.

‘Darling are you alright?’ asked Francis when he saw that she was not eating and was very pale. But she said nothing; what was there to be said.

From then on, everything changed: she no longer saw Francis in the same glowing light she had always seen him; of the suave diplomat and high-ranking civil servant. Beneath the veneer of his three piece suits and English accent, disguised another man altogether. A man capable of chopping off a chicken's head without second thoughts. A rugged man with plastic sandals strapped between his toes who could spend his days sipping beer and playing cards with his mates without paying the least attention to her. She could not understand this transformation. What could have happened to the man she knew and loved ? She could not explain how one could go from socializing on the parisian cocktail circuit to beheading a chicken in a remote African village ? She had the impression of living with two distinct individuals: one with whom she did the local cocktail circuit and the other with whom she spent weekends and holidays in a dusty village in the middle of nowhere.

She felt trapped behind the high concrete wall around their house. In idleness, the heat and dust were overwhelming. And there was nothing to do in the city: the only cinema showed blood-and-guts or Bollywood movies. The museum was a dusty little joke of tiny clay models under glass cases, the local theatre was not even worth mentioning. The bookshops sold third or forth hand cheap thrillers by James Hardly Chase and vernacular translations of the bible. In the city, the well-to-do lived sequestered lives, they seldom went out. They were like foreigners in their own country. They looked to Europe for inspiration. They worshiped their foreign made cars, punctuated their afternoons with a cup of tea, dressed like Englishmen without the attributes of the dreadful English weather. They professed to revere their country but sent their English speaking children overseas for studies.

Behind their high concrete walls, they were under siege. They lived in a concrete bubble, occasionally emerging in their air conditioned Japanese four wheel drive cars to go to the air conditioned office, to the air conditioned bar at an international hotel. Their lives were at once barren and repetitive.


One evening Isabelle and Francis were invited to a recently opened casino run by a friend. The casino was an air-conditioned, blinded enclave designed to deceive the impressionable client that he was either in Atlantic city or Las Vegas. The management was exclusively white: stout Israelis in tight tuxedos. There were many familiar faces Isabelle often saw around town, faces whose value derived from their proximity to power or wealth- a cousin to a government official, or the son of a rich businessman and their hangers-on. The conversation, in the slanted local English, was facetious and tiresome, its subject the tragic events in a neighbouring country. Certain gruesome atrocities committed by the governement militias were enumerated like the fouls of a rival football team. The militia, drank the blood of their victims after hacking them to death, someone said. They remained on the grisly subject of atrocities for some time. Apparently the militia had forced women to have sex with AIDS patients at a certain hospital, then set them free to go and infect their men. The tragic events in that country having been exhausted, the talk drifted to armed car thefts in the city and other matters.

Isabelle was disgusted, not just at the lewd jokes, but at the general lack of indignation, at very idea that a tragedy of such magnitude and still fresh in peoples’ minds, was already reduced to a handful of locker-room jokes. It was history seen through the eyes of a football fan.

Later they went to the newest discotheque in town, where Isabelle deliberately underestimated the potency of a local brew. Such that the following day she would wake up late, and virtually still drank. But her was made up. She had to go back to Europe…
Copyright © 2004-2005 Benjamin Sehene. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, October 10, 2005


The City you will never know...

About 733 words

by Benjamin Sehene

I am always overcome by a sense of hopelessness when I think of all those things I will never know; the lovely sunsets I will never see; the enigmatic thoughts I will never think. It frustrates me to think that somewhere, there exists a city I will never ever know. Yet, in the life of every man and woman there exists such a city; a city he or she will never know. Lets call it the city of Kans.
Kans is a city which defies all definition, even that of the noun city. For to define Kans is to confine it in place and time; to limit it to the intricate structures evoked by the word. Kans is much more than a city, it is a state of mind; a vast and impossible concept.
Given that someone somewhere will always be ignorant of a certain city, Kans is all cities.
Kans is also the compilation of all those neighbourhoods, in our own cities, we will die without ever knowing. And for he who may pretend to know all the cities in the world; Kans is the sum of all the winding alleys, in all those shabby quarters where he will never set foot; the architecture of all those buildings he will never see; the uncountable cities that fell into ruin long before his birth; the hundreds of inhabitants he will never meet; the odours he will never smell; the happy moments he will never live; the meals he will never savour; the words he will never utter; the melody he will never hear; the dreams he will never dream; the thoughts he will never think; the nostalgia, the melancholy, the grief, the regret, the jealousy, the despair and misery he will never endure.
Kans is the ignorance of being ignorant of Kans. The ignorance of the probable, of that which could be but will never be, the limit of knowledge: the infinite.
The object of travel is not so much the cities or the sights which define it, but the sentiment they inspire. A traveller anticipating the next city along his route wonders what that city will be like. From the elements of his imagination, he constructs the city of his anticipation. Not a sum of arbitrary elements distinguished from each other, but a consistent whole. He fills it up with the fauna and flora, the buildings, the thoroughfares, the history and moments of his desire. But on arriving at his destination, the traveller finds a city entirely detached from the city of its inspiration. That other city, the city of his anticipation however, does not cease to exist, but remains as solid and as vivid in the traveller’s imagination, as the city at his destination. It remains a city he will never see; the city of Kans.
Likewise, the city whose monuments, parks, streets, desires and memories grace the pages of a guide, is never the city a traveller encounters at his destination. A guide to a city, attempts to exhaust all aspects of its subject. However, a city confined to its description is an inevitable temptation for conjecture. In describing a city each aspect described yields an alternative city. If described by the disposition, the shapes, or the proportions of its volumes, an alternative city emerges from the pattern of its voids. And when described by the ruins of its past, a succession of superimposed cities, each with its particular customs, architecture, art, theatre, literature and form of government emerges.
Therefore, to read about Kans, is to simultaneously read about several cities. The reader realises these numerous cities, as he drifts through its various descriptions, he realises that each instant that goes by adds a new Kans to the succession of Kanses he has been accumulating from the beginning.
They say that as one lies on his deathbed, he will think of the many things he has yet to do, of the cities he has yet to visit, the tender words he never said to a loved one, of the hundreds of books he has yet to read, the two hundred pages of Joyce’s Ulysses he was unable to complete, the secret he never confessed, of the promise he never kept, of the millions of men whose hands he will never shake, this is Kans.

Paris, July 1991

Copyright © 1991-2005 Benjamin Sehene. All Rights Reserved.