Sometimes in mid-February if you look around for just a second you see that the sunflowers are dying.
They rise to the sky with a beaming yellow in America’s winter—December—but by the time the rain is ready to control the road, crops, and sleeping habits of our people (we call this our rainy season), they are wilting, no longer glowing, no longer living. They are dying. The petals look sad, the leaves become holey from bug infestations, and their backs arch in a curve, much like my grandmother’s back as she climbs up our dirt road with her right hand holding herself up, and her left hand clutching tightly to her walking stick. Every umuchechuru (‘old woman’) has one. How else could you get around the land of 1000 hills? It’s Rwanda, after all.
Life is a mixture (invyange) of reliable beauty (like the height and shine of our sunflowers) and of inevitable difficulty, like when they die to give way to sorghum, a significantly less appealing crop. It’s brown, you know. Why would you want a field of brown staring at you if you could have fields of green banana and yellow sunflowers? At least sorghum makes for good porridge, I suppose.
Sometimes I drink this in the morning before I leave for school. My pot may have a scratched, old, and black surface from everyday use over the fire, but it sure does make good porridge (igikoma). The sugar laces itself between the sorghum grains and slowly you can mix in grounded up corn. Slowly, that’s the secret. If you put it all together at once you don’t give it a chance to exist as separate elements—you don’t honor their identities. If you go slowly, they thrive, and with time, unite, to become a somehow delicious combination of many things that are good in Rwanda. It’s a wonderful way to start my mornings.
I say sometimes because sometimes I have to fetch water before the sun cracks in the sky and gives us light. I say sometimes because if the rain has come and we have caught God’s tears in my cracked, old basin, then there is often something else to do. Occasionally, I’ll find the grass (the food for cow) for Mama Sifa’s calf (a present last year from Sifa’s new husband’s family; it was the gift for our family at the dowry ceremony) or maybe I’ll help Zahara study for a quiz she has that morning. When I arrive to school after my usual 47 minute walk you can be sure that I’ve already had a decently productive day. But, porridge or not, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I help my family because that’s what we do. It’s not my job, really. It’s just my life.
My family is Zahara (my sister), my mother, my grandmother, my brother, my younger sister, my cousins, my aunts, my uncle, my great-aunt, and that’s just the beginning. My family is big. Some of us are Christians, some of us are Muslims. Some of us live in bigger cities, but most of us, like me, live in the village. I like the rural area, though. It would be better if my house had electricity, but we do the best we can. It’s hard to study, but if we have enough money, my mother buys me a candle that I use after the sun has left the Earth. This is usually a special occasion—the candle, I mean. But no matter. I’ve learned in my life that some days are more difficult than others. I try to smile every day because I have power in my heart. If I study, I can find knowledge, and maybe my future will be full of open doors. At school, I often look across the field, across the campus, and notice how most of the classroom doors are open, even if teachers are in the middle of teaching. I think that maybe my future could be like that. Should be like that. Full of open doors. If I have the chance, maybe I can even choose which one I enter. I try to not think about this too much (paying attention during the lesson is very important and good culture) but I remind myself every day why I come to school in the first place.
My family is good. My mother has a strong will and I’m pretty confident that my grandmother can do anything. I wouldn’t just say that, either. It’s true.
But you remember, don’t you? Life is a mixture of things that you know will be beautiful each and every time (like mother, for example) with some things that are evil. Evil, like the way the mud permeates the lines in my shoes after rainfall and can find its way into anything. Even if you’re careful, some things are just bad in the world. That’s why we need God. That’s why I pray every day. Because even some people. They can be evil.
My family is good.
But my family is no exception to this rule.
My father is evil.
I’m 18 years old. Nearly 19 years ago my country fell victim to itself. I was a small baby then. Zahara, my little sister, would be later born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. But, my mother was a woman in her prime. My father was there too. Mother doesn’t always say exactly how, when, or why (when we talk about it, her eyes become misty and heavy and it’s like she goes to visit another place while I sit there waiting for some kind of explanation) but I know what he did. My father was a Genocidaire. Which makes me the Genocidaire’s daughter. My father killed people. My father killed our people.
Last week in biology, we studied about what happens when a mother has her baby. We drew a diagram of where the baby comes from, but what I remember most is studying how that little, tiny baby is able to breathe from its mother’s own breath. More than that, it’s a mixture of the ones who created it. It has that blood of both mother and father.
I am the blood of my mother and father. If I press hard on my arm for more than 5 seconds, let go, and watch my skin, it quickly becomes white and changes back to the light brown skin that I have. I can try and navigate the blue veins in my body and then I remember again: it’s that blood. This blood is evil, isn’t it? What if it goes into my heart, and evil spills out from my nose, mouth, and eyes? What if I’m my father’s daughter but I don’t want to be?
My father killed people in 1994. My father killed people in our family in 1994. After it was all over, he was in prison for 12 years. He served his sentence, they say. He came back. But he was not okay. He was never okay.
He always liked the machete. I was happy that when came back he chose other objects to beat us with. He would hit mother. I would close my ears, praying it would go away. The beatings continued. Once, he threw a basin at me as I was getting ready to go to school. I told you already, I like to help my family, even if it is early in the morning. But if I did something that was wrong in the eyes of my father, I would pay. I went to school, running, forgetting my favorite blue pen, because I wanted to escape as fast as I could. School was my safe place. He came there once too. Drunk, I’m sure. He wanted to report to our school administration that Zahara and I were bad children. They took him away. But I knew I would have to answer to him later. There would be no escape when the lessons finished.
Did I tell you mother is strong? Well, she is. My mother, who lost 6 of her siblings during the Genocide, decided we couldn’t stay. We left our village to go and live with my grandmother. It wasn’t very far from our home, but it was a change. And it represented so much more, perhaps. She was leaving my father. Women don’t usually do this. But she did.
We changed our homes, our villages, and our places to fetch water so that we could be safe.
Our walk to school was shortened even, a little anyway. From grandmother’s home we walk about 38 minutes as opposed to 47, a small but sizeable change. Plus, we saw more sunflowers on the way to school. They are tucked neatly between large plantations of banana trees and immediately, I fell in love with those small, secret trails. The crisp smell of morning was best under those trees. Maybe that’s where I am most happy. Perhaps. I love laughing, by the way. That, and smiling. Every day, I remember to do these things. I remember because I know if I can enjoy my life, even under difficult circumstances, then maybe I can do anything.
It’s not like this is easy. On top of the upheaval of changing homes and finding temporary safety, my father found ways to continue to bring fear into my family. At night at maybe 7:00, right around the time the stars and moon would rule the sky, we would hear banging on our door. His scuffled steps were heard easily because we have to cook outside. The smoke from the fire wood is far too intense and dirty to even think of bringing our kitchen indoors. But I heard him. Mother knows this sound and she moves quickly to grab grandmother’s stick. We try not to be afraid. Don’t fear. No fear. I say this over. And over. And over. I don’t want to forget.
He occasionally brings a machete. He threatens us. He hits us. He tries to find us. If I can, I hide. Mother is our front line of protection, and so far, it’s worked out okay for us. He hasn’t killed us yet. He hasn’t even beaten us yet since the big move. I told you. Mother is strong. But he comes, he wants us, and Mother stops him. I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know if I really want to know. I know he hits grandmother. At night, I lie awake thinking that if someone can hurt an old person, than surely, their heart is dark. Where is God in this person?, I wonder.
It’s like the sunflowers; my family is strong and close and I love them. They are beautiful. But for every flower that shines and becomes one with the booming clouds, there is one that wilts, dies, and wallows in the soil back to the deep edges of Earth. In our wonderful, good family we have a man that is bad. He’s like a dying sunflower, with no life, no compassion, and certainly no brightness. Maybe it was there, once, a long time ago, but I have never seen it. This man is my very own father.
I’m the blending of two people—mother and father. And of course, I like to think there’s a bit of God’s love in me too. But, maybe the influence of my father ended the minute I came into Earth. My mother and grandmother took over, and so maybe biology is important because while it’s the study of life and how things work, when it comes to humans and who we are, you have the biological factors yes, but you also have the soul. The soul has nothing to do with who impregnated who. The soul is about your human experience and the way you contribute and take from the world. I want to be like a growing sunflower; shining, growing from the good roots of mother, sharing the joys of life with my friends and family. I am a daughter of a Genocidaire, but this does not define me. In fact, it has nothing to do with me. It’s my history, but I take the active choice to separate, to be me, on my very own terms.
I’m Maisara. I’m beautiful, I’m confident, I’m intelligent, and I will be somebody someday. I want to be a journalist, I want to help my family, and no matter what, I love to play football. Love is the most important thing in the world and though I’m a young woman I’ve been able to figure out that much. Most importantly, nothing is impossible. No fear. In all things, no fear.