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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the July 2015 issue

From “Baho!”

Nkunda kurya yariye igifyera kimumena amatama
The glutton ate the snail; it made his cheeks explode

By the time the sun’s luminous fingers had come to rest on Hariho’s fields, his neck was already sore. Undeniably, nights are cold in these parts. This morning he had come down to this trickle of water to rest, like a mosquito sated after a night pumping blood from the depths of fatigued and world-weary veins. He was calm, brimming with images from last night and the mouthfuls he had swiped here and there during his social calls.

All in all, he was quite pleased with himself, for his hunger was appeased. That is wisdom itself, he mused. In the peacefulness of the morning, he thought back to the evenings of his childhood. They were long gone, ten years at least. The sights and sounds had remained with him—the fresh wood, the banana tree’s moist leaves covering the fields nestled right up next to the hills, bulls bellowing their greatness, and cows reflecting the sunset’s soft orange light. He recalled the arrival of those childhood nights. He could narrate it as if by sight.

When the sun had departed, evening would sweep in. Then, the biting cold breezes that crouched in the valley’s depths would climb the hills and skim the houses preparing for night. They would catch the smoke rising from chimneys, and then, in passing, greet the youths returning home with water jugs on their heads.

Everyone was climbing back up to the hamlets perched on the hills. Slowly, in fits and starts, in the company of good friends.

He remembered how the wind and a hint of cold would join with the moon to enter the courtyards encircling the Harihais’ homes and slyly set about tickling the peaceful country’s children. The little rug rats were far from scared of such provocations: they were safeguarded by a short-sleeved shirt or a light sweater, paired with shorts here or a skirt there. The children played with elements of nature, for they were nature. Umwana si uwumwe, tradition reminded them: “A child does not belong to any one person exclusively,” even its father or mother. That was how the elders explained that all families were linked and that everything was but one: the community of life. Life was transferred during and by birth, it fed on nature and gave off its substance through it. Umwana si uwumwe. The child—that bit of humanity, that bud of life—belonged to none except nature. To its fellow creatures and to its cradle, earth. And it was with joy then that Hariho’s children entrusted their weak bellies to the evening’s cold. Trust and courage.

His right foot is folded beneath his buttock. His vision is hazy. On one side lies a shepherd's crook he has skillfully decorated with interlacing black lines. Sometimes he nods gently. Those all-nighters.

At ten years of age, he began escaping the family seclusion to go play in the neighboring households. He heard new stories. He ate new dishes. He was content when he returned home later, often around eight in the evening. Sometimes he supplemented his previous meal with a second one, prepared this time by his mother's thin fingers. A strange idiosyncrasy of hers was that from a very young age she had refused to wear sandals. She maintained that they were uncomfortable, that the soles of her babouches distanced her from the nourishing earth. His mother would clean out the impressive crevices in her feet, black with dust, before each neighborhood party.

As for his father, in accordance with his time and his age, he wore an ikoti, a long black jacket that he alternated with a baggy gray sweater reeking of tobacco. His father spoke little and drank much. Always in silence. He would take stock of the day buried in a cloud of pungent smoke, incessantly supplemented by emissions escaping his smooth dark lips. These fluids swept across his teary and vivacious eyes, yellowing the enamel of his teeth, once white as milk, and climbed back up the black walls of the house. For a long while his father would remain crouched before the fire, his son imitating him. In that family, words were rare, laughter even more so.

His memories flow peacefully as the stream's water. Other men—elsewhere, not those in this noiseless abode—those men had their fields, their cows, their goats, and some hogs to yield a profit, and bottles to finish off with one another each evening. His father had known those men only a little. In the last few months preceding his parents' “departure,” his father had burrowed deeper and deeper into his jacket. Was it fear of the cold perhaps? A sign of fragility, his limbs forgetting how to warm themselves? He would return home early, only to busy himself by stubbornly wandering the fields encircling his rugo. Then, with the sun's departure, he would go in quest of banana beer. Returning home, he would sit back down beside the hearth to sip alcohol he would never finish.

His father rarely spoke to him. He had never seen him wash his jacket. Eventually the thick material had become an extension of his skin. Nyamuragi had come to believe that his father suffered, but, in the reverie that pervaded their dwelling place, suffering was grounded in silence and so, unencumbered, the world pressed on.

His eyes still riveted to the stream, Nyamuragi lets a sigh escape. Life went on.

He stretches his neck toward the lapping water of the Tuzi, a stream that timidly runs along the southern edge of Kanya. Nyamuragi has just washed his face, calm and serene. The reflection in the earth’s sap mirrors back a light complexion, a rather short but full beard, very black and very thick hair standing on end, dark eyes, and a nose that was a little too large, a little too pointed, and all too human.

Nyamuragi, the mute, has spent a good quarter hour asking himself where the water comes from. But to this weighty question he has found no response. He is superstitious: he believes in man. And since one should seek meaning only in the comprehensible, he endeavors to come to terms with his fears of man. Man dismantles, creates, destroys again. That much is apparent.

Behold the master of this world.

*

On the bank of the Tuzi, not far from the mute, women—or rather, girls—converse. They have come to draw water. It is cold. Some phrases to spice up the morning won’t hurt anyone, especially not the birds recounting their dreams in the distance.

Mahoro, Kige. Peace, girl.”

They respond, “And peace to you!”

“Have you found your aunt's chicken?”

“No, sadly. And I can’t possibly imagine where she might have spent the night! Perhaps someone stole her?” It was inconceivable that a chicken could get lost.

“Nyamuragi seems to be lost in thought!” adds Kigeme.

Hearing his name, he turns his hairy body toward the two conversing adolescents. With a smile. His name often bothers him. He knows what it means, but he doesn’t believe that he belongs to the category of mutes. Nyamuragi is well aware that the mouth’s sounds come from oscillating jaws and a deft tongue quivering in the palate. Both parts function marvelously for him. His dental musculature is particularly renowned in these parts: it serves as an impromptu bottle-opener.

He dismantles dishes of chicken and of other meats with force, gleefully cleaving beef and pork apart with no discrimination whatsoever. His tongue is trustworthy in the great battle to which he has been summoned: he loves to eat.

Nyamuragi is often hungry. His convex belly sticks out so much that he can barely manage to cover it all up with his ochre sweater. It sticks up just above a black pair of pants, which are rolled up to the ankles and held together here and there by pins and two multicolored buttons. The ensemble is covered by a jacket that is also black with orange stripes. His habits correspond with his six-foot-one-inch frame.

He eats much and with gusto, drinking beer as well. He rarely gets drunk, preferring instead to laugh at the spectacle of others who do. It entertains him: their vice is drink. His is gluttony.

On the Tuzi, one of the young girls leaves the area. Her container full of water, she says, “Well, I’m off to look for some sweet potatoes to cook for lunch. And then this afternoon, you know my aunt is expecting guests . . . ”

Kigeme responds, “Ah! Nshmi, remind your little brother to bring back the toy top he took. In any case, we’ll see each other this evening. I’ll be staying a little longer to wash my jumper.”

 

Nyamuragi doesn’t understand that he is mute! His jaw works. His tongue works. Everything produces a clear and audible sound. There are sensible words and phrases. Words and phrases create meaning.

When he was still very little, four years old, his mother took him to see a relative of immense wisdom in order to diagnose his sickness. The verdict returned: the boy is in good health, he simply doesn’t want to speak! There was nothing more to say. It was clear. He wasn’t sick, it was all a masquerade. His father had grumbled that evening, before plunging his thin straw into the calabash full of urwarwa, banana beer.

Nyamuragi had learned too early, and at his own expense, that life is composed of dualities. Coming and going. Rising high and falling down. Left, then right. Before, after. Crying and laughing. Working and sleeping. Fatigue and rest. Hunger, then a meal. Drinking, then thirst. The tree that grows and the axe that lays it low. The cow’s udder swells, and tugging fingers empty it. The snake bites, and a club smashes its head. To give and to receive. Here and there. Above, below. Sow and reap. Youth running all over, old age running to its end. The fat muscle, the bare bone. Living and dying. Cries of joy, laughs of pain. No! Or perhaps crying and laughing. Joy and laughter. As long as that duality is crossing his mind at every breath, life is taken away so easily: there is the right to compare everything, between this and that. Take the two phases of the cycle: mix them and you will get lost—pain, joy, crying, laughing. Nothing is certain any more . . .The circumstances, the other life, the complexity of this place. Stop! Everything’s getting mixed up! Land of men, domain of gods!

Early on, Nyamuragi had learned the relativity of things and the infinite richness of reality. He was born an artist.

 

Just now, his stomach’s rumbling has torn Nyamuragi from his soliloquy. He seeks a way to relieve it. Honestly, he doesn’t like when it shouts down there, in the depths of himself. It foretells the troublesome effort of relieving oneself. And hunger, of course.

Nyamuragi the mute knows that he drank too much water this morning. That’s why it has come back to him in such a rage and disorder beneath his jacket.

It is impossible to relieve himself at this stream: it’s a public place. But down in his intestines it is boiling. He has to go now! Where to do it? To rid himself of this thing? If only he were on the other side of the hill, nearer to his place.

His stomach’s rumbling has become more insistent. His look becomes more imploring: a place! Just a small one! The urgency of his need deforms the features of his face. All of a sudden he rushes toward the young Kigeme, just as she places the ten-liter container on her head to take home.

Kigeme sees the man bearing down on her. Steadily, silently. Alone.

Suddenly, the young girl recalls the descriptions of the rape of her young friend a few weeks ago. Her friend had spoken of a fixed and burning gaze, of the folds in his forehead, the hands that seized her in violence and desire and without warning. She had told Kigeme to yell if she was ever assaulted.

She is fourteen years old, a full twelve years younger than Nyamuragi. She drops the container from her head, preparing for a struggle, compulsively pulling her things to herself. Her back is bent. She is scared: a terrified, lost girl. She struggles, while these thoughts rush through her head. She resists the domineering grip that pulls her from the stream to cart her off to who knows where . . .

Ni ibiki?” she asks. “What is it?” She sees the mute holding his crotch and hears an active gurgling.

And then suddenly, in the morning silence that colors the struggle, a scream escapes. A strident, loud, and terrified scream: “Mfasha! Help me!”

The mute tries to smother her screams with his palm. She must calm down, shut up. He doesn’t want anything bad. He simply wants her to show him the latrines.

With her fist clasped and her mouth stuffed, the young girl assumes that she will soon be suffocated. Her judgment is clouded by the violence of these acts. She knows that she may soon be dead.

From the depth of her lungs she screams, bites the palm that is smothering her, and then screams again.

For two months, the obsessive fear of rape has haunted this country’s women. Mothers take the trouble of slipping panties under the little girls’ wraps when they go to draw water and under their skirts when they go to school. Girls are required to go everywhere in groups.

In two months there have been six girls raped: two on the hill and four nearby. In two months, the rage of Hariho has simmered against potential rapists. Three men have been seized, taken hurriedly to the police as suspects. It was eleven days before they saw their freedom again. Two skipped town to Bujumbura. One stayed, but he is not in hiding. Perhaps he feels protected. The rapes come as no surprise, as there are still those who believe that young flesh cures AIDS . . .

The girl still is screaming. Nyamuragi has not managed to shut her up despite almost two minutes of vigorous attempts. To defend herself, the girl is doing everything possible to stay in the Tuzi. She knows that the mute will find it more difficult to rape her in water than on solid ground.

Suddenly, above them, a stone whistles by. Men are running to save Kigeme, who screams all the more forcefully. Nyamuragi instinctively senses that the projectile’s target is his back. He abruptly pulls the girl from the stream and heads toward the hills’ heights. The rumblings from his stomach surge again. Nyamuragi knows that he should save himself. He sees a dozen people coming toward him, mouths and eyes bent with rage.

To run, to relieve his intestines, and then to explain himself! The plan is hastily established.

He abandons the young girl who had refused to help him, then runs off ahead of her. Coffee plants scrape against his stomach. Rocks fly by his ears. A large stick is thrown, hitting his side. He stays strong. He runs. He trusts in his shepherd’s calves. He isn’t scared. He knows how to explain himself as soon as the first task is complete. First, he must just run to hide, to relieve himself, and then afterward to return to his pursuers. To calmly explain himself.

But while running he remembers: He doesn’t know how to talk! How will he explain himself? As soon as he winds up before them, he will have to be swift and precise in order to contain the people’s fury. But how?        

No words, no reprieve: he is guilty! His silence condemns him more than his acts. Before he ran out of instinct. Now he runs in fear.

Nyamuragi knows for certain that he should not rely too much on his mute mimicry to clear up the misunderstanding with these ladies and gentlemen. Ah! If he had only known he would experience such misfortune, he would have learned to speak! His heart is beating quickly. He sees the young girl from the stream again: she thought he was going to rape her.

The world is a complicated, crazy, and dangerous place, says the mute Nyamuragi to himself as he flees, swearing by all the devils and all the gods in a language that he alone understands.

From Baho! © Roland Rugero. Forthcoming from Phoneme. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2015 by Chris Schaefer. All rights reserved.

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