Kamanzi, our sub-chief, came to take away our children. The Colonial had paid him to do it. He’d given him a watch, a pair of sunglasses, a bottle of port wine, two jerry cans of gasoline, a swath of fabric for his wife and daughters. He took Gahutu’s children, and Kagabo’s, and Nahimana’s, and many others. Even the ones who weren’t ten yet. He brought them to the Colonial’s field. So they could pick the flowers the Colonial had planted. Flowers with white petals and bright yellow hearts. The sub-chief had said:
“These flowers are for the war. They’ve told us Rwandans that we have to help with the war effort—the Belgian war, the English war, the German war, the war of all the White men. These flowers are medicine for the soldiers fighting the war. They kill off the mosquitos that attack them and give them malaria. We need many flowers. The Administrator said so to the chief, and the chief said so to me: that’s why I need your children. We need children’s small hands, the white Colonial said, to harvest small flowers.”
And the children harvested and harvested the flowers, in the sun and in the rain. The ones who went to school no longer went to school. They were picked up before sunrise and returned home after nightfall. They were too exhausted to eat. And they cried and cried, and they became ill, and when the mothers tried to hide their children, they came for the fathers, who got ibiboko, eight lashes.
That was when the chiefs turned pitiless. These were the Bazungu’s chiefs. They had been to Nyanza, to a school for chiefs. They had shirts, trousers, sunglasses. They hobbled because the Administrator forced them to wear shoes. Behind them followed clerks who knew how to read and write better than they did and who recorded everything in their large notebooks. The chiefs were afraid of the abakarani, because they were the ones the Administrator invited on certain evenings to drink beer on his barza, and how can you hold your tongue when on top of that they offer you port wine, the ubuki of the Bazungu?
The chiefs went to Mass; you had to be baptized to become a chief. Everyone had followed their example: after them, everyone had received baptism; after them, everyone went to Mass; what else could we do but follow them? They went with the sub-chief to the parish assembly, the inama. As for the chiefs, they went to a spiritual retreat at Monsignor’s house, the bishop’s palace in Kabgayi.
But the chiefs were afraid of their white masters and their masters had told them:
“Now we’re at war. We need men to dig the earth in the mines, we need a lot of iron and a lot of copper for our blacksmiths to make rifles and cannons. You have no idea of the riches you have here: there’s Minétain, Somuki, Georouanda, and all the other companies that provide wealth for you and the Congo, where your men have gone off to work. It’s up to Rwanda to feed them, and we need a lot of beans for the men who dig the earth in the mines. More men, and still more beans.”
And the chiefs had said to the sub-chiefs:
“I need men and I need beans, for if I don’t find men, if I don’t supply beans, they’ll ruin me.”
And the sub-chief said to us:
“Men, beans and men, or I’ll be let go.”
That’s how the chiefs turned harsh and the sub-chiefs took the men and beans, and took away our children.
But not even the sub-chiefs were spared, nor were the farmers. Their cattle were taken, or else bought, but for a pittance. So the farmers hid the cattle; they sent herds to Bugesera, Kivu, Tanganyika. And when the Administrator asked, “What happened to your cows?” they wailed and moaned and gripped their heads with their hands: “What, don’t you know? Woe is me! Woe is me! The tsetse fly and the plague decimated my herd. I do nothing all day but weep over
Isine, Rugaju, all my favorites.”
They slaughtered the last cattle: “The Congolese eat only meat, raw meat,” the farmers were told.
As we know too well, one misfortune leads to another. And when the barns had been stripped clean, that’s when Ruzagayura showed up.
Yes, that’s when Ruzagayura, the great famine, came crashing down on the poor Rwandans, on the weakened men, the emaciated women, the sickly children. That year, the long dry season seemed never to want to end. We waited for the rain, which they say is Kibogo’s rain, also called Bweramvura. We waited for it anxiously so we could plant the beans, peas, and sorghum. When it came, it was only to fool the farmers, for as soon as the beans and peas began to sprout, Bweramvura abandoned the hillside, abandoned all of Rwanda, and an even more crushing sun returned to parch our fields. We waited for the heavy rain, the one they call Zina; she came as if in a fury, spitting hail and lightning, then immediately left, content with the devastation she had wrought. The rain of Nyamvura, too feeble, could bring no aid. Dust had buried the now-arid land under a layer of red ash.
Disease afflicted the potatoes and cassava that the Bazungu made us plant. They had said:
“With these vegetables, we can conquer famine. We shall save Rwanda, your country. Plant cassava and potatoes and they will save you from hunger.”
But diseases attacked the plantations. The potatoes were eaten away by rot and rapacious mushrooms, tormented by ravenous flies. And the cassava turned out to be poisonous. The barns remained empty. There was nothing left to eat but banana or fern roots, or wild grasses. We made a porridge out of dried banana leaves. Some people devoured the fruits of thorn bushes.
The infants were the first to perish, their mothers having no more milk. Children with great gaping eyes ate dirt, the elderly went off to die quietly, columns of families wandered the paths, vainly searching for scraps. Someone said, “Over there, on that hill, they’ve still got food.” And the skeletal hordes started up and the vultures followed behind. Soon the path was lined with corpses. And those who survived found at the end of their road only empty barns and abandoned villages. And the sated vultures and hyenas didn’t bother with their stacked bones.
Then the men, women, and children abandoned the hillside. Entire families fled to the Congo. The country became sterile, desolate, deserted by both people and the Imana that provide abundant milk and honey.
Hope returned when Chief Kamanzi came to visit the hillside. His huge automobile that looked like a small truck caused the little children to scatter for their lives and the girls coming back from fetching water to drop their earthen jars, which shattered. The Swahili driver laughed at this. “Our chief is here, he hasn’t abandoned us, he’s going to get us food.” Chief Kamanzi came with his clerk who always followed him around, his briefcase stuffed with papers, and with the sub-chief who had put on his trousers and shirt as if he were going to Mass. Everyone thought, The car is filled with sacks of beans. We’re saved! But the driver took from the back of the car two jerry cans and three crates of Primus. The chief asked for large pitchers in which to pour the contents of the jerry cans. We realized it was sorghum beer. Chief Kamanzi gathered the notables, the catechist, the sages, and the elders. Everyone squatted inside the cabaret hut around the large pitchers. Kamanzi wished the entire assembly peace. The clerk handed him a sheet of paper, for our chief knows how to read and even to write a little. He thrust it back irritably, then addressed the gathering.
“I have not come here to lie to you,” he said. “May I poison our King Mutara if I were to do so! You all know, and especially you elders, how many famines our Rwanda has known. But listen well to what I’m about to tell you: this Ruzagayura famine is not like the other famines. It has ravaged the entire country; it has bypassed not a single chiefdom, not a single sub-chiefdom, not a single hillside. It’s as if it had a map of the country, like all the Whites do. It knows exactly where to go and it spares no one. So listen well and give me your full attention, for I am about to reveal to you a great secret. And this secret was told me by Bwana Ryckmans himself. You all know who Bwana Ryckmans is, he’s the commander-in-chief in Usumbura. He commands all of Rwanda-Urundi, and especially, let us not forget, he is the godfather of our Mwami Mutara Rudahigwa. And this is what he told me: this Ruzagayura famine comes to us from Hitler, the chief of the Germans, who attacked the Belgians and the English, who attacked the whole world. And he attacked us too, us Rwandans, for he could find no other way to beat us than to sabotage the horizon by which the rain comes. He thought that famished Rwandans could no longer tend crops, that there would be no more men for portage or for the Congolese mines. And that the soldiers of every country fighting on the front would have nothing left to eat and nothing left to protect them from the mosquitos that bring malaria, and no more iron and copper to forge cannons and rifles. Hitler thought it would be easy for him to win the battle, but Hitler was wrong, for Bwana Ryckmans has brought many trucks to the Congo, more than you can count, and he has recruited a whole army of drivers. They will come from the Congo to help us. They are loaded with sacks of flour, and rice, and beans. They are loaded with cassava, which cannot harm you. The trucks are coming, prepare your baskets to be filled. Bwana Ryckmans will save Rwanda.”
The people of the hillside clapped their hands as one must for a chief. The fat pitchers of sorghum beer and bottles of Primus were emptied as politeness requires. Everyone went to fetch their baskets and waited by the side of the path for the trucks to come. The trucks didn’t come. Perhaps the hillside was on Ruzagayura’s map but not on Bwana Rikamansi’s. Others said under their breath that maybe Hitler had won the battle after all . . .
And then the priests arrived. At the main mission church and its outposts, this is what they preached:
“The sun, the rain, the clouds, the beans, the bananas, the squash, the sorghum, the millet, and even the cows, all of it was made by our Yezu. Isn’t this what I taught you in catechism? All of it belongs to Him. He can do with it as He wishes. He gives rain when He pleases, and to whom He pleases: such is the merciful God. But if He does not give rain, it means He’s angry. Perhaps He has reasons to be angry with you. And perhaps I can tell you some of His reasons. I know that you proclaim loudly that you’ve been baptized, that you are good Christians, that you are no longer pagans ignorant of the true God, but what do I see concealed under your medallions of Yezu and Maria? What are you trying to hide from me? Gris-gris that the witchdoctors made for you, that’s what, with all their bric-a-brac of leopard claws, warthog tusks, snakeskins, rabbit bones, twisted roots, and feathers from those fortune-telling chickens that you don’t dare eat even though you’re dying of starvation! And you wear other things so shameful that I can’t even name them. And I also know that you go in secret to consult the caster of spells because you wish evil upon your neighbor and, even worse, that you visit the poison-seller to get rid of your hated rival! And do you think I don’t know what you get up to on the hillside where the demon’s grove still stands, which you’ve always been too afraid to cut down? You go to worship the devil beneath those cursed trees! And then I don’t know what spirits possess you, what band of demons, but when they are inside you, when they have repossessed your souls that baptism had wrested from their grasp, you become like maniacs and your mouths foam with horrible blasphemies that would make you writhe in shame if you heard them in broad daylight.
“So now you know why Yezu is holding back the clouds, why He has denied you the rain. And your rain-makers, your abavubyi, and all their theatrics can do nothing about it. They can shake their fetishes all they like, shake the wands that they claim command the rain—Yezu has taken away their power, assuming they ever had any. Now, I tell you true, it’s Yezu, it’s Maria who will bring back the rain. It’s they who command the clouds. We know what prayers are needed to bring back the rain. But we, the benevolent priests, we will not hide them from you, as the witchdoctors do their maledictions. You shall learn them at catechism and we shall recite them and we shall sing them together, every day of the week. And the young girls shall go pick flowers for the statue of Maria. Maria loves flowers and she has a merciful heart, she loves everyone, even black and ungrateful creatures like you. But on Sundays, you shall put Maria on the litter, the ingobyi, not the kind for the sick or the dead, but the one you reserve for brides, the one on which you carried your chiefs and your king before the Belgians gave them automobiles. You’ll have to find youths who are still hale and hearty enough to bear her on their shoulders. We shall carry her throughout the hillside, in every field, every banana plantation, and you will sing the hymns that you have learned to bring the rain, and I shall walk in front of you and bless the enclosures and the fields and the plantations with the holy water of baptism, and we shall go to the top of the mountain, yes, all the way up Mount Runani, which your superstition forbids you from climbing, but Maria will protect us and ward off the evil spirits and we will show her all the thirsting hillsides, the parched fields and plantations, and I shall bless the heavens, four times shall I bless the heavens, and if you pray, if you sing with all your heart, if you sincerely promise to renounce all of Satan’s heathen practices (and you will have to come confess them all to me), then the rains will return.” Not a word was said against the priest’s sermon. Everyone was used to his reprimands, which rose and fell in harshness to suit the occasion. Anyway, these were just the bad manners of uneducated padri, and besides, everyone knew perfectly well that those who consulted witchdoctors would still go see them, that those who were initiated into Kubandwa would still get up in the small hours of the night to celebrate their worship. Regardless, we religiously followed the missionary’s pious directives, which after all just might prove effective at triggering rain. The padri owned so many amazing things! And maybe it was their Yezu and Maria who had brought them all that. You never know!
At the parish assembly, the catechist designated the prayer teams that would take turns night and day at Maria’s statue and entrusted twelve relatively healthy-looking girls with the honor of picking flowers for the statue, the last ones that Ruzagayura hadn’t yet wilted. The relevant hymns were rehearsed endlessly by the women who would sing them in the procession. The catechist went to the mission to deliver his report to the priest; the latter, satisfied, announced that he would come the very next Sunday to lead the procession himself.
Meanwhile, we peered at the sky. Two boys who looked fairly solid were sent to climb a steep nearby hill to watch for the advent of the rainclouds. They waited in vain for the lightning and rumbles of thunder of the first tornado that would open a path in the sky for the rain. They came back dejected, saying that the same reddish fog was hovering over their entire area.
Then some began to mutter. Especially the old men, who said under their breath, “All these misfortunes are the padri’s fault. What are they doing here among us? Who told them they could come? We used to have a king, a mwami, and he commanded the rain, and if it wasn’t him, it was the abavubyi, the rainmakers, and if the rain
From Kibogo by Scholastique Mukasonga (translated by Mark Polizzotti). Used with permission of the publisher, Archipelago. Copyright 2022 by Scholastique Mukasonga. Translation copyright 2022 by Mark Polizzotti.