Everyone deserves a chance to be happy. Mine had come and gone years before.
The breeze caught my dress and twisted the thin fabric about my knees. I turned from Benimana’s smile and ivory white teeth. I balanced the water urn on my head and stepped onto the path. Rwandan dust, red and fine, clung to the sweat that peppered my body.
He called after me. “Vestina, don’t leave like this.”
My stomach knotted. There hadn’t been a man in my life since my father disappeared during the night ten years before. Many people vanished in the genocide.
I moved between the shanties toward home where my mother struggled in our garden of beans and cassava. We’d stopped growing sweet potatoes.
“Vestina, when you’re not with me all I can think about is seeing you.” He followed me, near behind. I could hear him breathing hard, leaning into the slope of the hill. “In the city they celebrate this day in honor of St. Valentine. He reminds us to love each other.”
I’d known Benimana before he moved to Kigali. There were many children in our village then. Hutu and Tutsi. It didn’t matter. We worked together and prayed in the same church. I longed for those days. We were all happy.
“I can’t live if there is no chance to touch you. You are beautiful. Your skin is smooth and black as midnight. I’ve never belonged anywhere, Vestina. But I belong with you.”
When we were six, our families had traveled to Kibuye to sell our goats. Benimana and I played along the shores of Lake Kivu while the sun cracked the mud flats beneath our feet. The water was chilled on our shaved heads and soaked our clothes. We chased fingerlings in the shallows and watched the barges inch towards Congo. Our parents ate mangos and roasted tilapia while resting together in the shade of the banana trees. That was another lifetime, a different world.
He touched my shoulder. His hand felt cool. “You’re in my thoughts all the time.”
I pulled away from him, and from the images he caused to resurface in my mind.
I had woken during the night to the sound of running and desperation. Screams tore the village and the light from many fires scorched the shutters on my window. I was afraid. I heard my father yelling in the street and I ran to find him.
I wish I hadn’t.
Neighborhood Hutu men had become drunk on urwarwa and beer. They dragged my father into the shadows, beating him with clubs. He cried out, his desperate gape moving from me to my brother who lay dying in the dirt, pools of blood where arms should have been.
My mother’s voice, terrified and broken had echoed from the garden. Familiar hands waved torches about her. Benimana’s father held her down among the sweet potato plants. I watched as she was violated.
I was grabbed from behind and dragged into my home. Wide eyes stared at me, unsure and frightened, just as I was. Benimana pushed me behind the water urns. He covered me with a blanket and told me to keep still.
I didn’t move for two days until my mother had found her way home.
Benimana stopped at the top of the hill. “Will you not even talk to me, Vestina?”
I turned towards him and stared at the friend from my youth. His face seemed expectant. My throat constricted and I couldn’t speak.
The corners of his mouth began to droop. His eyes moved from me to the dirt at our feet. “Then it’s true.” He returned his stare to me. “You hate me because I’m Hutu.” Wetness seeped onto his cheeks and his lip began to tremble.
I set the urn onto the path and watched him. I could see his father’s face beneath his youthful features. How could I not hate the man I had seen illuminated by torches in our darkened garden?
Yet, how could I help but love the one who risked himself to save me?
I swallowed and blinked away the memories. “We remember St. Valentine because he taught us to love even those who persecute us. I’m not a saint, Benimana. I am Tutsi. I still hear screams in my sleep.” I stepped closer and touched his hand. “Maybe if you’ll pray with me I’ll learn to love as he did.”
Hope flickered in his eyes. He lifted the urn and walked me home.
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