Ssekandi R Ssuguja’s Walls and Borders has been shortlisted for this year’s Writivism Short Story Prize. Read other stories here and vote your favorite by commenting beneath it. The most voted story will win the Third Place Writivism Short Story Prize announced on the 21 June 2014 at The Writivism Festival in Kampala.
The Jaguar Bus pulled up by the sides of Immigration offices at Katuna border post in Kabale District. Nancy, who was seated at the rear, got up from her seat as the bus turn-boy ordered everyone to make haste. She was now closer to home. She had replayed this scene in her mind countless times in the past months. As she stepped outside the bus, she felt her heels dig into the damp wet mud. Kabale was a cold place and she felt the cold bite to the bone.
“Next please,” the immigration officer called out to an absented-minded Nancy. The man right behind her shoveled her out of the way and took to the clearing desk. She heard a lady behind her chant some words in Kinyarwanda; she did not understand what she was saying but she could sense impatience and irritation in her tone. Kinyarwanda was supposed to be her language, it hurt to know that she could not understand it.
Nancy headed towards the Rwandan side. She was a few metres away from crossing over – home. In her mind, she toyed with the feeling of being on the other side. The border, like a point of transformation, ceased to be just a yellow line separating two sovereignties. It was the difference between home and that place back there, a place she had decided to leave.
Nancy and her family left Rwanda in 1994 during the genocide. Her mother had told her on several occasions how their family had been separated and some of her relatives killed. She had told her of their old family home in Nyamirambo. She always said it was cozier than the little shack where they lived in South Western Uganda. A place where Nancy had never felt at home because of the way her people were treated.
From as far back as she could remember, life had been different for her, haunted by the past of her people. In school, people would always ask once they knew that she was of Rwandan descent, which of the two tribes she belonged to. She had to be either Hutu or Tutsi. This made her feel like a subject of study most times. It hurt to be associated with a culture and tradition she knew little about.
Now on the Rwandan side, Nancy got back into the bus and began the last drive to Kigali city. She had heard so much about Kigali; tales of how it was probably the cleanest city in Africa. Some people even said that Kigali was like Europe. She was told that in Kigali boda boda, the famous crazy motorcyclists, were not allowed to carry more than one passenger and this was something she could not imagine!
Through her window, she could see the steep terrain of the countryside. Farmed hills of green, and livestock, symbolizing the peace that now reigned in this land. Her mother had told her of their big farmland in Bugesera. She was told that as a child, she used to like going to the farm to eat guavas. She now smiled to herself as she felt the sensation of nostalgia. Being here had always been her dream and she was elated the day had finally come.
Nyabugogo Bus Park is the place where all buses coming from Uganda stop. Nancy was finally home! As passengers dismounted, she took the opportunity to take in her environment. The quiet, calm landscape of Kigali at night. Numerous streetlights shone with a deep yellow richness, giving the city a romantic disposition.
At this moment, right there in the safety of the cozy bus, she felt the whole world pause as she spiritually connected to this place that for generations had harbored her ancestors.Deep down, she felt butterflies flutter and she smiled. How good it felt to be home.
Uri gusohoka muri bus mada?
Nancy was brought back to reality by the turn-boy’s call. From the look on his face, she could tell he had been standing there for a long time. Reluctantly, she gathered her bag and headed out. She was immediately swarmed by a fleet of motorcyclists chanting phrases in Kinyarwanda. Fear gripped her as she realised that she was going to have trouble communicating with her people. Yet again, she felt the shame of not knowing her language. For some reason, she felt that this was the missing link to her home dream.
Before Nancy set off from Uganda, she had had a bitter argument with her mother who was against her desire to go home. That morning, Nancy had pressed her for the reason.
“You should just listen to me!” she had replied, throwing her hands in the air frantically and pacing around the compound.
“If you cannot tell me, then I am going to find out by myself”
She could tell that her mother was not comfortable discussing the topic, but she had her mind made up and she set off.
“Please do not go Nancy!” she pleaded amidst wails and tears.
Nancy hated hurting her mother but in that moment, she felt she had to break through from the confines of her mother’s supposed protection.
Where to Madam?
For the first time, Nancy felt the hopelessness of her adventure. Truthfully, she did not know where exactly she was going.
The cyclist began the ride while muttering more words in Kinyarwanda. Nancy told him in English that she did not understand Kinyarwanda. He asked her if she spoke French and she shook her head. The cyclists smiled shyly and shrugged his shoulders. Nancy knew that he wanted to know where exactly in Nyamirambo she was going. Deep down she wished he knew her story.
They took the first turn after the Bus Park and the motorcycle puffed as they climbed a hill. Along the way, they bypassed heavily armed soldiers patrolling the streets. Nancy wondered why this peaceful place should be heavily guarded. The motorbike reached a busy area; a street of bars and numerous people out on the streets at that time of the night. Nancy watched in amusement as the cyclist went a little slower, as if reading her mind.
The cyclist stopped. Nancy could barely understand him but knew that this had to be the end point for Nyamirambo. She got off and handed him some Rwandan Francs. She then walked off as though she knew where she was going. She heard the cyclist call her back and she turned to see him following her. He muttered some words and handed her money as he smiled. She was amazed by his kindness. Back where she lived, such an act of kindness to an ignorant traveller would not be done. Were all the people here this nice?
Now that she was in Nyamirambo, Nancy felt the futility of her actions. Where was she going next? She had no idea where their big house was. She did not know whom to ask at this time of the morning. Fear began to creep in as she imagined the worst. She decided to find lodging for the remainder of the early morning as she waited for people to start the day.
Rwanda was an hour behind Ugandan time and she was surprised that it was bright outside even though it was supposedly 4am! She walked towards a neon sign. Dreams Guest House. Nancy walked in, her body weighed down by the fatigue of the long journey. Luckily for her, the receptionist knew a little English and she was able to check herself into a room. Once inside, she locked her door and collapsed onto the bed.
Nancy must have slept for hours. She woke up to the sound of loud music outside. As she attempted to open her eyes, the sun glared through her window, blinding her. Her mind fumbled as she tried to remember where she was. She then instinctively jumped out of the bed as though she had seen a snake in it. She rushed for her handbag, got out her phone and checked the time. It was midday! She had no idea she would sleep for this long. She felt a sudden desire to rush. Her plan was to get to her home as soon as she could. After her shower, she was now fresh and ready to go.
Luckily, the girl who had checked her in was still at the reception. Nancy paid her and then asked to be directed to her home. The girl asked where exactly her home was and Nancy fumbled with her bag, got out a rough paper on which she had written a name.
That was the name of her father or, at least the name her mother had always used to refer to the man who supposedly fathered her. Growing up, it had always been taboo to ask her mum about this part of her life. She always changed moods when Nancy attempted to ask questions about her origins. The receptionist was now talking to her …
Sibomana? Which Sibomana?
Nancy was startled by her tone. Why was she sounding alarmed? She got out her piece of paper and read the name again, making sure she made no mistake.
‘Why are you asking about Felicitus Sibomana?’ The girl asked, making Nancy really uncomfortable. From the look on her face, Nancy could tell there was some mystery about the name. The receptionist asked to be excused as she went to call her manager. Nancy sat down and waited uncomfortably.
After what seemed like the longest wait in her life, the receptionist returned with two men. She watched them conferring in hushed tones. The receptionist stole glances at Nancy and occasionally pointed towards her. The two men finally approached.
Come with us …
From the way they spoke, Nancy knew that she had no choice. She got up and followed them to the truck outside. They sped her through the city until they reached a house with a high gate. It was heavily guarded and Nancy now began to shiver. Was this a kidnapping? She motioned towards one of the men to ask him but one glance at his face and she remained silent. They led her inside the house and ordered her to sit down.
How do you know Sibomana?
Sibomana is my father.
Where is he?
Now this was getting scary because the men were getting increasingly aggressive.
I do not know where he is.
Nancy was told that Sibomana was a hunted fugitive in the country. That her father was one of the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in which thousands of innocent people had been massacred. She was asked to state his whereabouts or else face the consequences.
I do not know where he is.
Nancy was crying. This was too much information for her. She now understood why her mother hated talking about the subject. She could not believe that the blood of a murderer flowed through her. She pleaded with the men and told them of how she had grown up with her mother and did not know anything about her father.
Captain, put her in the cells. When she is ready to talk, she will be brought out.
The captain dragged her down a long dark corridor and then turned left. She was hit by a nasty stench as she was led to what appeared to be a stretch of metallic doors. He stopped at one of them and pulled out a bunch of keys. He then opened it and tossed Nancy inside. She landed on something long and hard, heard the door close and then broke into sobs.
Shut up you bitch!
Nancy got up defensively, startled to hear another voice inside the cell. Her eyes now accustomed to the dark, she noticed a sea of faces looking at her. She saw five tired faces of women who from their physical appearance seemed to have been in the cell for a while. They looked hopeless and in pain. The stench inside was so strong that Nancy held her nose.
Do not worry, you will get used to it after days.
The voice came from an old woman in the corner. She looked calm and more composed than the rest of the inhabitants.
Locked up in this cell with strange faces, Nancy felt trapped. Her dream of a good homecoming suddenly vanished as she realized that she was now a prisoner. She thought of her mother back in Uganda and the grave look on her face as she left that morning. Why had she not told her the truth? Nancy began weeping silently, her body rocking with both fatigue and fear.
Trapped in the strong cell walls, she felt that feeling again; the feeling she always felt when people in Uganda pointed at her and said, “Banyarwanda!”
Was she meant to forever live in walls?
Ssekandi Ssegujja Ronald is a writer, poet and law student. He is also the Executive Director of Writing Our World, a youth-run NGO in Uganda working with and empowering young writers to contribute to positive change in their communities. He has a keen interest in spoken word and the power of the arts in changing our world. He is also a Peace Fellow of The DO School in Germany and a member of the Ugandan Youth Advisors to Washington. His shortlisted story is titled Walls and Borders.