In this short story by Rwandan author Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse, a mother finds herself caught in the intersection of family battles and ethnic conflict.
Amagara araseseka ntayorwa
Guts spill on the ground but cannot be gathered back up
I stayed kneeling longer than everyone else, pressing all my weight into the wooden slats. My head buried in my hands, I kept whispering, “Don’t betray his name, don’t betray his name, Lord!”
When I got up, my eyes were moist—sweat or bitter tears—and I didn’t notice the little nail that had snagged my pagne, God’s only answer. The children stared at me anxiously. They could tell I was troubled just then, but Félicita alone knew why I was worrying myself sick.
Only twelve, Félicita is my timid shadow, always trailing just behind my pagne, quiet and obedient. Her skin is as dark as mine is light, but we have the same heifer eyes with long, curved lashes. It is she who helps me look after her brothers and sisters, sweeps the courtyard of our rugo early mornings before school, knows where I hide my savings and saw Harerimana—"it is God who raises children"—raise a hand to me last week.
The padiri passes through the congregation, blessing the cut branches we hold out to him. Yohani, my youngest, is wiggling his under his big sister’s nose to tickle her. He’s young still, and he must think this Palm Sunday Mass is taking forever. A mere wrinkle of Félicita’s brow is enough to settle the two children down. I had Yohani and the three other girls between the ages of thirty-one and thirty-seven. My eldest son, Harerimana, and Félicita, the next oldest, are ten years apart. My husband often said, laughing, that he found my way of having children completely incomprehensible.
Harerimana was born a few months after we were married. Then many long years went by before my belly grew round again. Other women on the hill would tease me, implying that my cleaning job at the National Population Office had doubled as birth control. Despite the wicked gossip spread by my mother-in-law, who believed me unable to bear children, I appreciated the years alone with my eldest child. While other mothers my age were drowning in rug rats, I had the luxury of being able to attend Mass without the bitter smell of urine clinging to my clothes.
Kubyara indahekana—that is what we say of a woman who has more babies than she can carry on her back at once. My son had the ingobyi,* that tanned leather carrier, all to himself, and he breastfed till he was two. Less overwhelmed than other mothers, I could devote myself to him, teaching him to speak well, singing him lullabies. I even planted a few feet of strawberries by the banana plantation where he spent his afternoons squatting while I shelled peas or sorted beans in the courtyard. People said, “That boy clings to his mother too much. He’ll never be a real man.”
And then came Félicita, when I was least expecting it. If we make it through this life, she’ll be the staff of my old age. It’s a good thing she’s so clumsy; no man will want to take her from me. Her soul has all the qualities that Harerimana’s lacks, convinced as he is that his size and strength put him above everyone else. Félicita’s birth caused me great pain. I lost my voice from screaming so much during delivery; it was a whole week before I got it back. The wrinkled little mauve creature immediately fell in tune with my silence: she never cried. We stared at each other for a long time; I was weeping, in pain, afraid. That’s why I called her Umuhoza: she who eases tears. Gazing at her, I would often repeat, “You who cause me so much pain, you must be good and obedient, to make me forget the painful way you came into this world.” And yet she wasn’t the one responsible for my fright, the one who sent me into premature labor.
I’m still convinced there’s something odd about that child. A strange power that lets her read people’s thoughts, speak with the dead. A bit like the seers of Kibeho who were gifted with seeing and hearing the Virgin Mary.
I’ve always believed nothing good could come from our lives as women. We are too full of bitterness and stifled sufferings, passed down from generation to generation, an essence mothers unconsciously distill before mixing it in with the butter they smear all over their daughters’ bodies. If only every other generation men could take a turn carrying children around in their bellies and raising them, then the vicious circle would be broken and girls freed from their fate.
The only thing women pass on is suffering. Didn’t the Mother of God Herself, on the day Félicita was born, tell us through the voices of young middle-school girls that the skies would open and rain hell down on our heads?
It was hot that day of Epiphany, and I most definitely shouldn’t have left Butare to visit my sick cousin when my own pregnancy was so advanced. No sooner had I arrived than she asked me to accompany her out on the esplanade of apparitions in Kibeho. There were hundreds of us, clustered together in the sun, spellbound by the singing of the young girl who stood on the platform, eyes bulging and arms outstretched. She sang an ode to Mary, and despite the crackling of static, her voice, borne by the loudspeakers, poured into our ears like a joyous balm. After several canticles, she began to pass on the message of the Lady in White. It was when the Mother of the Word announced that the land would be drowned in a tide of blood that I felt my pagne grow wet, and I lost consciousness.
Men carried me off to the clinic in Kibeho in the ingobyi of a disabled woman who’d come to hear the prophecies in secret hopes of a miraculous cure. Shortly thereafter, they used the same means of transport to take my cousin back to her house. She died not long after.
Despite all these deaths, foretold or unexpected, surrounding Félicita’s birth, her arrival was like an outbreak of life. When I see her so grown-up, so dark, I tell myself she was a stopper of a baby who stayed inside me for years, refusing to come out and confront a world that was too cruel. A ball of clotted blood that dwelled in my uterus while her brother was raised in the exclusivity of my love. After Félicita, I gave birth to four other children, one every two years.
Félicita’s never shown any jealousy over the love I bear Harerimana. She’s always been there, in the shadow of our bond, which even my husband complains about, hiding in a corner of the house just as she once did deep inside me, listening to us sing and laugh.
But the day came when bitter reprimands replaced the murmured nursery rhymes, the riddle games children adore: the “ncira umugani, tell me a story” and “sakwe sakwe—soma.” My son now despises me. He has joined the other bored and aimless boys, and spends his days in training that is both absurd and unsettling. They look like kids with their wooden rifles, but there is nothing childish about their songs. Harerimana doesn’t love me anymore. He is ashamed of me. The only people he cares about are his uncle Arsène, who supervises their training, and his wife, Chantal. Harerimana once told me, “Now she’s a real Rwandan!” Arsène and Chantal are Hutus.
Harerimana was fifteen when his father died. My sister-in-law spread the rumor that I’d poisoned him, that nothing good could come of a serpent born of a family of poisoners. Word reached my boy. Distraught at finding himself the man of the house at too young an age, he believed the rumor. I’d catch him looking at me sideways sometimes, eyes dark, hands shaking. He left school, grew ever more distant. When civil war broke out, his uncle began to fill his head with evil thoughts and it was easy for Arsène to recruit him into the local cell of Interahamwe militiamen—not only Hutus, but extremists—last year. There is no greater shame for a widow than to be renounced by her eldest son. A woman isn’t much of anything without a man to tell everyone, “This is my wife,” “This is my mother,” or “This is my sister.” I’m not much of anything. A bent shadow hugging the hedges of rugos, and hoeing, all by herself, the little patch of land that is all she has left.
Last week, when he came to fetch the last of his father’s things and sell them at market, I clung to his arm, begging him. He freed himself, tossing me violently against the door, where my left breast slammed into the padlock and my head hit the jamb. The sight of blood on my forehead failed to move him. He left without a word. If he could’ve killed me, as he claims I did his father, he’d no doubt have done so. Would he really dare? Of course, by doing so he’d get rid of the Tutsi part of himself he denies among his friends. But I am still his mother. No, he’d never do a thing like that.
I clench my fists till my joints pop and repeat in a whisper, “Keep him from the worst, O Father, do not make his name a lie.” When I come out at last, there’s no one left in front of the church. Félicita has led the little ones to shade beneath the old avocado tree by the presbytery. She has the girls reciting a canticle. Yohani has fallen asleep.
*“Ingobyi” also refers to a kind of stretcher made from a woven mat and two wooden poles, traditionally used to carry sick people, and as the poor man’s ambulance for reaching health clinics.
"Febronie—Maternités." From Ejo. Published 2015 by La Cheminante. By arrangement with the Astier-Pécher Film & Literary Agency. Translation © 2017 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.