The sound of his bedroom door being opened woke Katulo. “What is it?”
“It’s Chama, he’s dying.” Eyo’s voice was an agitated whisper.
“Get the clinic ready.”
Eyo hurried off and Katulo dressed. He snatched his walking stick and stepped into the humid night. This had been the hottest summer Burundi had seen since 2072. In the last two weeks, Katulo had treated a record number of patients for dehydration and angazi fever. As he walked, he tried to call up a mental image of Chama. He could vaguely recall a loud boy with mud-brown skin who had been terrified of syringes. Chama’s father was the chief of village police.
When Katulo neared the clinic, he heard shouting: “We can’t wait for that stupid old man.” He recognised the voice.
“Just wait. He’s coming,” Eyo replied firmly.
It made him proud that his apprentice was standing up to someone twice his size— especially a person as intimidating as Osati. Osati’s nickname since his teens had been “the leopard”. It suited him. He was tightly muscled, and his motions gave the impression he might lash out at any moment. Eyo, on the other hand, had a body that looked like a collection of twigs.
Osati swallowed his response when he saw Katulo enter.
The clinic was a circular hovel with little space. In the daytime, patients were received in the yard outside. Eyo and Osati stood between two unpolished wood cabinets and the sleeping cot. Lying on it, Chama’s body looked like slaughtered game.
“Fill a basin with water,” Katulo ordered. Eyo scrambled to do as he had been instructed. Katulo turned to Osati. “Bring me bandages and my operating kit. You remember the layout of the clinic?”
Osati nodded. He had been an apprentice five years earlier but had left prematurely. Katulo still felt anger at his decision. He had shown so much potential. His memory had been impeccable, and he had been able to make terrified patients relax with only a few words. He would have been a gifted healer.
Katulo worked intently for the next twenty minutes. He cleaned and sterilised the wound in Chama’s side before stitching it closed. The boy’s breathing went from shallow sporadic bursts to a smoother, though still uncertain, rhythm.
“Will he live?” Osati asked.
“Maybe, I have done all I can. How did this happen? This wound was not caused by an animal.” It was a single, deep, horizontal slash. A machete?
“It was those Hutu bastards,” Osati spat. “I swear by my ancestors they will pay for this.”
The oath made Katulo flinch. “What happened?”
“They attacked us for no reason. We were at a rally in Bujumbura.” It was because his passion lay in politics that Osati had left Katulo’s tutelage. “Some Hutus were watching us and laughing. We ignored them. After the rally Chama, Dengo and I were walking back here alone and they attacked us.”
“Where is Dengo?”
“He is coming. I ran here carrying Chama. “
“You ran here all the way from Bujumbura?”
“We were about half way.”
Still, that was a two-hour walk without carrying a wounded man in your arms. Katulo now noticed that Osati was covered in sweat and blood. His lips were parched and his breathing was irregular.
“Sit, I will bring you some mango juice.”
“I have no time. The people of the village must be awoken.”
“They nearly killed him. You said he may die.”
“And rousing the village will do what? Impress the ancestors so much they will help Chama?”
“You joke about this?” Osati’s disgust was unconcealed.
“If your friend lives it will be because of me. Do me a favour in return. Let your anger cool. There is nothing you can say tonight that you can’t say tomorrow. After the wedding…”
“After this, the wedding will be cancelled.”
“Love is a good reason to postpone anger. The opposite is not true.” His words were just aggravating Osati. “Please, hold off. After the wedding I will go to Bujumbura and speak to Minister Kalé. With his help we shall apprehend the ones who attacked you and deal with them. You, Dengo and Chama will all testify.”
“Kalé is one of them; it’s a waste of time.”
“Kalé and I have been friends three times as long as you have been alive. Kalé is wise and his word is respected among the Hutus.”
Osati dipped his head but he was clearly insincere.
Katulo sighed. “I’ll tell you how he’s doing at the wedding.”
Osati left without a word of thanks.
“This is called an anaesthetic,” Katulo said as he put the half-empty bottle back into his operating bag. “It dulls the body’s responses to pain.”
“You want to teach me now?” Eyo was flustered. He was looking out of the window.
“What better time is there to teach?”
Eyo pursed his lips. He shifted uncomfortably. “It…it’s late. I’m tired.”
“What is the truth?”
“I told you…”
“The truth might change my mind.”
“I want to see what Osati does. I think he will wake up some people and they’ll talk about this.”
“I should have known. Learning is more important. Long ago healers used to have to rely on—”
“You can teach me any time.”
As good as he had been at soothing people, Osati was better at working people up into a frenzy. Katulo didn’t want Eyo to be exposed to that. He tried a different approach. “Have you ever seen a Waking?”
The question took Eyo by surprise. “No, of course not. I am not yet sixteen.”
“I will let you go now, no teaching, and if you go straight to bed, then tomorrow, when all the other children are sent away, I will make sure you can stay and watch.”
“Really?” The idea of watching a secret meeting paled in comparison to the chance to see a mystical ceremony.
“Do you promise?”
“I promise.” Eyo’s index finger mapped out a cross shape over his chest.
Katulo knew that Eyo had no idea what the origin of that gesture was. The worship of that tortured white saviour had faded from Burundi. “Good. You may leave.”
Katulo continued cleaning up. He got out an old rag and mopped up the blood. When he was finished, he threw it and Chama’s rent shirt into the dustbin. Finally, he blew out the gas lamp and returned to his house. It took a long time for him to get back to sleep. When he finally managed, he dreamt.
As with most young boys, obedience did not come naturally to Katulo. When his father had told him to stay behind with the women and other children, he immediately chose to do the opposite. He was too clever to be fooled by his father’s placatory, “They need you to protect them.” Katulo was fourteen, two years away from his initiation ceremony. He was too old to stay where it was safe. When he asked about the fighting, his father always told him, “You’re too young to understand.” This angered him. He knew this was about those Hutus. Fenke at school was a Hutu. He was stupid and Katulo knew it wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t be blamed for being born that way. The fighting is because the Hutus are stupid. What was so hard to understand about that?
When his father and the other men had left, Katulo sneaked out of the village and followed them. He stayed distant enough that he was not seen. He was a good tracker. He shadowed them for over three hours until they reached a small primary school. Its faded sign depicted a laurel wreath wrapped around a shield and words that were too rain-washed to read. Katulo hid amongst some bushes and watched the adults go into the school.
Waiting was boring. This entire escapade had been far less exciting than Katulo had hoped.
He waited for twenty minutes, passing the time by counting how many bugs and birds he saw. He created an imaginary conflict—birds against bugs. Every bug he saw gave the bugs ten points and every bird he saw gave their side the same. A clumsy ladybird that had tumbled from a leaf had just put the bugs sixty points ahead when he heard a loud bang. He heard three more abrasive explosions and knew they were gunshots. His father and the others had probably been ambushed. Katulo ran forwards instinctively. He advanced with no thought for how he planned to defend his father. He just couldn’t let it happen. When he reached the school, he pushed open a set of double doors and ran in. Inside, he heard terrible sounds.
The noise woke him up. This was the point where the nightmare usually ended. Sometimes it would be later. He had not had the dream in a long time, but Osati’s rage had brought the memories back. It was those Hutu bastards. I swear by my ancestors they will pay for this. “It cannot happen again,” Katulo said aloud. Afterwards, he was unsure whether he’d said this to reassure himself, or as a prayer.
Weddings in Azamé village were huge. Even poor families slaughtered at least two goats. The Gomozis were a wealthy family so the wedding was even grander. Celebration began at sun up and would keep going through the night. There was loud music, hot-blooded dancing, and the smell of roasting meats saturated the air. Freshly baked pastries and honey-dipped treats were pulled out of ovens and children’s faces were soon coated in sticky syrup. There was much laughter and boisterous jesting. The most acclaimed storyteller in Burundi told a wild tale of Hyena the trickster. It had no moral; it was simply for enjoyment. The couple wore costumes that were dyed in multiple colours. Dozens of well-wishers surrounded them.
Normally, Katulo was in the midst of any celebration, pushing his antique body to the limit by asking pretty young girls to dance. If necessary, he would dance using his walking stick for balance. But today, even with all the pomp and energy, it was impossible for him to relax and enjoy himself. His mind was with the wounded youth in his clinic and his eyes were drawn to things he would not normally have noticed. The Marulas, a family with Hutu blood, sat separately from the rest of the guests and nobody approached them to give greetings. Also, Osati, Dengo and a group of their friends walked around pulling people aside and talking in whispers. After the whispers, nods of agreement would follow. Even people who usually had no time to listen to Osati’s denunciations of the Hutus were moved by his words. Chama’s injury had made his solicitations much more persuasive.
Katulo was tempted to leave but he was the last person in the village, in all Burundi, actually, who could perform the Waking ceremony. He had tried to teach many of his apprentices how to do it but had been unsuccessful. Even when his father had taught him, the skill was almost forgotten.
Eyo approached Katulo twice to make sure he would not change his mind about letting him watch. This, at least, amused Katulo. He had to admit that he drove Eyo harder than his previous apprentices. Katulo was increasingly aware that he did not have much longer to live. With his previous apprentices, he had stuck to teaching medicines and physiology, but there were other things Katulo wished to pass on. He had seen so many amazing things. He had been there when Burundi won the 10,000 metres in the Olympics, beating the Kenyans and Ethiopians. He had listened to Wana Maisu’s final concert. He had survived two droughts and one epidemic. He had also seen Africa become fully independent as Europe and America were torn apart in a succession of wars. He had been part of the Second Revolution and treated President Peneka himself for gout. He had listened to the visionary president blabber to conceal his nervousness. There were so many memories, small things as well—some that he esteemed more than the things worthy of history books: how good it felt to run naked in the forest, the unique taste of roasted groundnuts when eaten after love making, the amazing things he’d learnt about his mother when she finally spoke to him as an equal.
Every morning, as he and Eyo ate breakfast, he would begin. He would tell the boy the history of Burundi, myths, proverbs, and stories. He told Eyo dirty jokes—oral tradition that would be a crime to forget—with the same passion that he taught the boy herbal remedies and anatomy. Eyo never complained. It was hard for him to absorb a lot of what Katulo taught, but he tried. He deserved the privilege of seeing a Waking ceremony.
After the wedding vows, the father of the bride called Katulo. The young boys and girls were taken away to eat boiled sweets and spiced cassava. “Not him,” Katulo objected when they tried to take Eyo. He winked at his apprentice, which elicited a huge grin.
Katulo took out his ceremonial mask, put aside his walking staff, and walked unsteadily to the bride and groom. The mask was not actually needed for Waking, but it was tradition. The mask depicted a buffalo’s head. The horns were brass and the face was carved out of wood. There were gaps for the eyes and the mouth. When he was standing a few steps in front of the married couple, Katulo spoke loudly. His voice was richer and more musical when he performed the role of Waker. “A river is a droplet of water; a mountain is a tiny pebble; and the two of you are all of Burundi. This union is not only between two people but between two souls and two families. Your love will forever change the community. It will enrich us when we are frightened, sustain us when we are lost, and our community will continue to grow. You will bring us the future but never forget that you are connected always to the past.”
The bride and groom had been told what to do when he said these words. The groom cradled his new wife’s head between his palms and leant forwards. Katulo lifted his arms in the air and opened his senses to their kiss. He let himself feel the moment. At the same time he thought of his marriage to Owuro when he was twenty-six. He let himself relive the rush of adrenaline and the tremble in his lips before he kissed her. He pictured Owuro’s light olive skin and long braids. He thought of her crooked smile and mischievous eyes. He remembered the taste of her wedding kiss—light cinnamon and cloves. His flesh tingled. He felt the earth around him as if it were part of his body. He let his memories seep into the ground.
Between the wedding guests, wispy figures appeared. The mirages were all embracing and kissing. They were misty at first and then gradually became fully visible. There were twelve couples in total. Some were barefoot and almost naked, while others were adorned with tinted cloths, beads and bangles. Most of them were young but there was a grey-haired couple hugging each other near the bride and groom. It was not only images that were Wakened. The air was suddenly full with the sound of lovers’ giggles and frenzied exhalations. Scents of perfume, coconut and crushed flower petals tickled every nostril
One or two of the guests began to weep. Wakings were intense because everyone watching experienced a measure of the action. That is why young boys and girls were chased away. Every guest, for a minute, felt the passion and desire of the distant past. Katulo’s gaze focused on one couple. The woman was wearing an elaborate headdress that denoted her as a storyteller, and the young man with her had a proud, regal face and a thick moustache. It was strange to see the younger version of himself. No matter how many times he performed Wakings, it was the hardest part to get used to. His younger self was smirking with self-confidence. Owuro looked so young and so beautiful. Katulo wished he could step forwards and touch her. She looked so real.
And then, in a breath, she and the rest of the spectres were gone.
The father of the bride was the first to snap out of the silent awe that enshrouded everyone in the grove. He bowed deeply. “Thank you, Waker.”
Katulo did not stay for the rest of the reception. He wanted to get to Bujumbura by nightfall. He said his good-byes and summoned Eyo. If the boy was disappointed at having to leave the festivities, it did not show. He obeyed immediately and a little nervously. He seemed frightened. At first Katulo was sure he was imagining it but, as they walked, Eyo continued to glance at him from time to time. He would look away whenever Katulo looked back. At first Katulo ignored it but, after they had been walking for an hour, he lost his patience. “I am the same person I was yesterday?”
“I know,” was the timid reply.
“You are looking at me like I am not human.”
“I’m not angry with you, Eyo. What is on your mind?”
Nothing? This from the boy who usually asked “why” with irritating consistency after every statement Katulo made. “If the Waking is bothering you, you can ask me about it.”
Eyo hesitated. Katulo did not insist. He waited.
“Th… Those were g…ghosts?”
“Yes,” Katulo replied. “But they were not ghosts of dead people. They were ghosts of past moments. Everything is changed by the passage of time. When a river passes over rocks it wears them down in a unique pattern. A man who knows how to look can tell you many things about the river and the rocks because the mark they leave is unique. It is the same for actions. Everything we do changes the land. When we sang at the wedding, when we danced, even now as we walk, our steps are changing the earth. The land remembers.”
“So they were not real ghosts?”
“They were echoes of the past.”
“It was amazing.”
Katulo smiled and then felt a tide of sadness. “Yes it was. But I may be the last Waker in Burundi.”
“How can that be?”
“Waking is not a skill that is easy to pass on. A person can only be taught to bring the past back to life if they can already feel the echoes left in the land.”
“How did you learn?”
“I learnt in secret, back in the days of the white outsiders. Worse than the things they did to our governments were the things they did to our beliefs. They forced our people to worship their God and learn their ceremonies. They called our ways devilry and superstition. My father was a spirit speaker. There had once been many like him, but the white outsiders killed many of them. My father kept the old ways alive by hiding, and people would travel far to ask him for advice or to see him when they were sick. He taught me how to Wake and begged me to pass on the skill.”
Shame threaded through Katulo. He and Owuro had never been able to have children and he had not remarried after she’d died. The failure of every apprentice he’d tried to teach Waking to, made him suspect that sensitivity to the land was hereditary. His determination not to betray Owuro’s memory might have doomed the ancient skill. So much of the old knowledge was already gone. Most of the medicines Katulo used were European, taken out of glass bottles and plastic vials instead of the earth and trees. They were purchased in what little trade still occurred between Burundi and Europe. The white outsiders no longer had concrete interests in Africa. They were too busy rebuilding to care about much else.
Whatever nostalgia Katulo might have, he had to admit the medicines they sent worked better than the saps and herbs his father had taught him to use. His father had considered it a betrayal when he chose to learn white medicine, but he had needed to make a living. The only way to get a job at hospitals in Bujumbura had been with a degree in Western medicine. His father had raged and called him a disgrace. Long ago, Katulo had promised himself that when he had children, he would be more understanding but the closest he had ever had to children were his apprentices.
They arrived in Bujumbura in the early evening. It was still hot but winds from the north brought temporary relief. The city streets were full of filth and litter. Broken glass, crumpled papers, rotting food and empty plastic bottles clogged the drainpipes. Every time Katulo visited the city it looked worse. Eyo and Katulo passed many rickety beggars and malnourished prostitutes. Why do people want to live here?Katulo pondered. The answer was bright in Eyo’s eyes. The boy was staring at the buildings with delight. In his mind, he was surely concocting a fantasy life in the city. The city had large stores with diverse wares and water that sprang from taps at the turn of a knob—much more enticing than dreary village life.
It had been a long time since Katulo had last seen Kalé. They had become friends when Katulo had lived in the city, working for a private clinic. Back then, the wounds Burundi had suffered at the turn of the century seemed to have healed. Things had progressed to the point that a friendship between a Hutu and a Tutsi was no big thing. How had the old resentments come back? Was it because they were left alone and not consciously minded?
The central city was almost entirely populated by Hutus. The Tutsis lived in outlying ghettos. It had not always been that way. The Tutsis had once been the majority. Katulo still remembered the way to Kalé’s home. They walked from the poor to the rich district. The buildings looked just as decayed and the streets were just as squalid. In some of the windows though, electric lights were on. They passed one house in which music was playing. To be able to use electricity for entertainment was an indicator of great wealth.
When they reached Kalé’s home, a security guard told them, “The Minister is not here. He is at a party.” The guard refused to give them directions but Katulo remembered the house that had been playing music. He backtracked with Eyo until they reached it. The door was open. They walked upstairs. The house was crammed with people. A servant handed them both bottles of beer. Eyo looked from the bottle in his hand to Katulo.
“It’s all right. I won’t tell anybody.” Eyo smiled and took a big gulp. His face contorted at the bad taste.
“It gets better,” Katulo assured him.
He looked around the room. It would be hard to find Kalé. He wove through the tightly packed group. At the end of the room he saw two young men who were seated at a table that seemed to be the epicentre of the celebration. One of them had probably got married, or maybe they had both won some sport? Faces Katulo could recognise surrounded them. He had seen them in newspapers though he wasn’t sure of their names. Someone at that table would surely know where Kalé was. As he went to the table, Katulo realised he should probably congratulate the two youths being honoured. He stopped a staggering man with a pimpled nose. “What is this party for?” he asked.
The man laughed and Katulo inhaled the stench of beer. “You don’t know, Old Father? Yesterday, some of those Tutsi animals were making trouble. Those boys there beat them down good. Made them run like the cowards they are.”
Katulo suddenly could not breathe. The man was still talking but he could not hear it. Shock filled him with a sensation like panic. No. No. No. No. It couldn’t be. Out of the corner of his eye Katulo saw someone approaching him. It was Kalé. He had a thick grey beard and the curls on his head were white. His facial expression was taut with urgency. “What are you doing here?”
Katulo could not answer. Eyo answered for him. “We came to see you?”
“You can’t be here. I’ll talk to you outside.” Kalé was a large-bodied man. What was once a boxer’s frame of heavy muscle was now composed of layers of fat, but he still looked menacing. Once outside, Kalé instructed Eyo, “Wait here? We need to talk alone.” He grabbed Katulo by the collar and dragged him into the darkness of an alley. “Do you know how foolish it was of you to come here? You know what might have happened if you were recognised?” Kalé paused. The concern gave way to a smirk. “Still, it’s good to see you.”
“What would have happened? Would I have been beaten for being a Tutsi, too?”
“I know you are angry, but that in there is just politics. The anti-Tutsi groups are very popular. Those boys are guests of honour and for show. They don’t have any real power.”
“They have to be punished.” Katulo’s voice had risen in volume. “That’s why I came here. They nearly killed someone.”
“Nonsense, it was just immature childishness.”
“Right now he’s in my clinic.”
“I am sorry, Katulo.”
“You should not be the one saying it. There is a lot of anger and it could escalate into disaster. Those two have to be put on trial.”
“Chama may die?”
“I told you, it’s political.”
“They are savages.”
“They did not start it. Those Tutsi boys were causing trouble.”
“Those “Tutsi” boys?”
Kalé looked down, embarrassed. “It’s complicated. You live in the rural areas. It’s simpler there. Here, there has been unrest. Tutsi labourers refusing to work, demonstrations, things like that. People are fed up.”
“That gives them the right to assault people who are protesting peacefully?”
“Peacefully? They were throwing stones, breaking windows.”
“Did they hurt anyone?”
“They could have.”
“They will, Kalé.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Think, Kalé. The ones from my village who were attacked are thinking “revenge” now. They will do something, something very stupid, and they will make someone else start thinking revenge. It will keep going like that until it loses control.”
“Then stop them.”
“How? They were the ones attacked. It has to be those boys in there.”
“Then we will leave it alone and hope it passes.”
“How can you say that, Kalé? You and I are maybe the only people old enough to remember what it was like.”
“This is nothing like that.”
“Maybe it started like this and if people had just tried to take control of it…”
“You’re just fantasising, Katulo. You were also a boy. You had no idea of the political and social forces that caused the fighting. You only saw the results. Burundi was a child then. We are older now and things will not lose control.”
“Two boys who almost killed another are being congratulated instead of punished. I say it’s already out of control.”
Kalé was now visibly irate. “Look, I’ve already said…” He started to leave.
“Wait.” Katulo placed his palm on Kalé’s ribs. “I understand there are a lot of political things at work. You aren’t in charge of the policies your party makes, but what if I could get the boys who were protesting to apologise? Could you get those boys, if not to stand trial, to at least apologise? That would not pacify everyone, but it might be enough.”
Kalé thought for a moment. “I don’t know.”
“Can you at least try?”
The two old friends exited the alley and parted ways.
“Did it work?” Eyo asked.
“I don’t know. We need to return home immediately.”
“You said we would stay here tonight?”
“I thought we would, but not anymore.” Katulo remembered Kalé’s words: You know what might have happened if you had been recognised?
“It is late,” the boy pleaded.
“It took us five hours to get here. It’s what, seven now. We can make it before midnight. If we get tired we can make camp on the way and walk the rest of the way tomorrow.”
“Why can’t we—”
“We have nowhere to stay.”
In Siranja forest, Katulo saw Eyo was lagging behind. “All right, we’ll stop here.”
Relieved, Eyo let his pack drop to the floor.
Katulo began picking up fallen branches. “I’ll get a fire started and set up camp.”
“A fire?” The gaze Eyo gave Katulo was one that suspected him of insanity. In the heat it was an understandable reaction.
“All I have is dried fruit. I thought you might try and catch some game.”
Eyo agreed. “I am hungry.”
“We should have taken food from that party before we left.”
“Why do people like beer anyway?”
“You get used to it.”
“Why would you do something so unpleasant over and over again until you got used to it?”
Eyo took out a hand spear and went off in search of game. Katulo set up the tent. He realised now that he had placed too much hope in Kalé. He had thought it would be so easy: Kalé would use his influence, the boys would be tried, and then everything would calm down. “Even an eighty-nine-year-old man can be naïve,” he mumbled.
Eyo returned after half an hour. In his hands he carried a dead rabbit. He tossed it beside the fire Katulo had roused, and then sat. “There is something about this forest?”
“What do you mean?”
“The trees don’t look right. They’re so pale, thin, and tall. They seem like they are moving even when there is no wind. Also, when I was hunting, I felt something… I don’t know…sort of…sad.”
Katulo was instantly more attentive. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. What is it about this place?”
“There is a story that says that long ago when the gods still walked the earth there was a great divide between them. The gods split into two groups and fought a terrible war for a hundred years. The continents were torn apart. The war ended with a great battle right here. Thousands of gods were slain. After the battle, the blood and rotting flesh of the dead germinated the earth and trees sprouted that had trunks of bone.”
“They do look like bones.” Eyo reached out and touched the bark of one of the towering trees. “Do you believe the story?”
“All stories have some truth in them, but also some that is not true. You said you felt sadness?”
“It’s less now that I’ve stopped hunting, but it’s still there. I feel like I want to cry but I don’t know why.”
“I feel that, too, whenever I enter this forest.”
“What does it mean?”
“Something terrible did happen in this forest once. I do not know whether it was between gods or between men but the land here is weeping. I told you that the land remembers everything. Something left a stain here.”
Eyo nodded and quietly reached through his bundle. He took out a knife.
Katulo debated whether to say what was on his mind. Part of him told him not to hope—not to dare hope… “It means something that you can sense the sadness in the land.”
“Maybe you can learn to Wake?”
“Me?” Eyo’s body was a string pulled taut.
“It is a small chance,” Katulo said firmly. He did not want Eyo to get his hopes up.
“Can I try now?”
“What better time is there to learn?”
Katulo laughed. “All right, you can try, but do not expect anything.”
“What do I do?”
“You were about to skin the rabbit. Go ahead.”
Eyo’s left eyebrow perked up.
“I am not trying to trick you. All Wakings need two things to make them happen. One is an action. The other is a memory. You cannot Wake anything you have not done. It is not enough just to have watched. I could not, for example, Wake a birth because I have never given birth. Do you remember the first time you skinned an animal?”
“Tell me about it. Tell me everything you remember.”
“It was at my uncle’s farm. It was just a chicken. My brother lopped off its head with a machete. I knew chickens did not die immediately but it was something else to see it. It wriggled and flapped its wings. Blood poured out of its head; it should have been red but I remember it being dark—nearly black—and smelly. I wanted to run away but my brother was watching. He wanted me to run so he could laugh at me…” Eyo broke off. “Oh, I just realised. I plucked the chicken; it’s not like a rabbit.”
“It’s close enough. Think of as many details as you can about that chicken. Think of what the feathers felt like and how slippery the blood made your fingers. Remember what your saliva tasted like. Think of that moment as though you were reliving it, and as you do so, begin to skin the rabbit. It is hard to do but to Wake, your mind must be totally in the past and totally in the present. The old memories in the land want to live again but you have to be a conduit.”
It was hard for Katulo to try to describe what he did when Waking. So many things were happening in his body when he performed a ceremony that it was impossible to break them down. Katulo saw Eyo close his eyes in an effort to concentrate harder. “No. If you close your eyes you are blocking one of your senses and focusing too much on your memories. The present moment is just as important. You must see the rabbit in front of you and everything you are doing.
Eyo opened his eyes and the knife slit the rabbit’s throat. He cut a line across its abdomen. Katulo watched intently, and he felt with his other senses. He felt in the land for any shift. Of course it won’t happen,he warned himself. Eyo, stuck his finger into the rabbit’s lacerated belly and pulled, at the same time he pushed the blade right under the fur. Eyo continued through the motions of skinning and Katulo realised nothing was going to happen.
“It’s…” he began but then stopped. He felt a slight shift. Nothing large, but for a moment he felt a burst of nausea.
Eyo stopped. “I guess I can’t do it.”
“You just did,” Katulo said. He was winded.
“You don’t have to say that.”
“I’m not lying. You did it. I can’t believe it.”
“I didn’t see a ghost.”
“That comes much later. You Woke an echo of the revulsion either you or some other boy felt the first time that they skinned an animal. I could feel it.” He was now shouting with joy. He embraced Eyo hard. He had passed on every other skill he knew in one form or other, but he had never been able to find an apprentice for the most valuable. He realised now just how much he had underestimated Eyo because he had not seemed naturally bright. It took him longer to grasp simple concepts than other apprentices. Katulo had tested each for their capacities to Wake but he had not even considered testing Eyo.
Katulo began planning to cancel all other instruction for Eyo. Every lesson would now be about Waking. The rest could wait. Tomorrow, they could… And then Katulo stopped dreaming. Tomorrow he had a more important task. Tomorrow he had to try and use reason to stop violence from returning to Burundi. Harsh memories slipped back into his conscious mind. No, he thought, reaching forwards and taking the now skinned and skewered rabbit from Eyo. He thrust it into the fire. There was a spark and a sizzle. Right now, he decided, he would just celebrate; he would laugh and eat well with Eyo. Let all the pain and tears come tomorrow.
When they got back to the village, the first thing Katulo did was check on Chama. He still was not conscious, but his breathing was easier. He let Eyo sleep—the boy had found it difficult to sleep in the forest—and went looking for Osati. He expected him to be at the market. It was the place where most people would be gathered on a Saturday morning. When he reached the market kiosks, his theory was confirmed.
Osati stood on a makeshift podium of six upturned crates. He shouted loudly and his arm gestures punctuated his every word. “Too long we have been pushed down,” he yelled. There was a chorus of assent. Some listened to him as they shopped but most of the people stood still and listened closely. “Because of history we have stayed quiet. Over and over we are reminded of what our fathers did to their fathers as an excuse. They forget what their fathers did to ours. But why should I expect anything to be fair. That is childish of me. After all, there have been no free elections in twelve years. After all, the high positions of the government are all occupied by Hutus. After all, when there is a drought their families get relief while ours have to struggle.
“We have not always been weak and subjugated. We once had influence and Tutsi children could walk with pride. Our children…”
Osati continued on the theme of children for a few minutes and then ended by promising that a new future for Burundi could be shaped. There was clapping and chanting when he finished. Katulo had to admit Osati’s words were stirring. Osati walked through the crowd shaking hands. People looked at him with the reverence they would give a prophet.
When Osati saw Katulo he smiled. “I would not have expected to see you here. You’ve never come to see me speak before.”
“I didn’t want to encourage you.”
“You’ve finally given up hope that I’ll give it all up and decide to be a healer?”
“How is Chama?”
“He’s recovering. Not conscious yet.”
“I must apologise to you,” there was a fervour in Osati’s voice. “When I brought Chama to you, I was tired and angry. I did not treat you with respect.”
“I have been angry with you for a long time. At the wedding, when you did the Waking, I realised part of me resented that you never could teach me that skill.”
“I pushed you too hard.”
“You were right when you said the wedding should go on,” Osati admitted. “We needed that beauty in this time of struggle.”
Katulo felt bothered by Osati’s use of the word “struggle”. His former apprentice fancied himself as a hero, leading Burundi boldly to a Third Revolution. “There are some things that I also have to admit you are right about,” Katulo conceded. “There have been no elections, and the government is mostly Hutu. You are right that changes are needed, but this is not the right way.”
“What way do you think this is?”
“Did you hear me say one word about violence?”
“You were throwing stones in the city.”
“We hurt nobody. Chama is the one lying in your clinic.”
“I went to see Minister Kalé.”
“And what did he say?” Osati’s voice was rich with contempt.
“He will get the boys who attacked you to apologise publicly, if you apologise publicly for the vandalism.”
Osati laughed raucously.
“It would just be to calm things down.”
“Things don’t need to be calmed down. I can’t believe you expected me to agree to this. Maybe if they are put on trial.”
“Go away, Katulo. Stick to tending patients in your clinic.”
Osati started to turn away.
“If you had only been alive during the massacres.”
Osati whirled, filled with rage. “It always comes back to that with you old people. Oh, oh, our terrible past. Oh, the lives lost in the massacres. It’s the past. What? We should be docile and let ourselves be ground under the boot of the Hutus because of a memory? “
“You can’t know how bad it was. When I was fourteen I followed my father and some men to a school…”
“I mourn for all the dead but I am not dead. These people here are not dead. Right now, right here, we are being oppressed.” A woman standing nearby clapped her hands at Osati’s words. Osati turned and delivered her all his attention.
Katulo leant heavily on his walking stick. What did I expect when I came here? That he would agree? No. I knew this is what would happen, but I had to try anyway. Katulo walked away from the market slowly. His body felt more exhausted than it had in a long time.
When Katulo walked into the clinic, he knew with just one look at Chama. He walked forwards and pressed a finger against his pulse. It was as he had feared. Chama was dead.
How could it have happened? He had been recovering, but Katulo knew as he thought this that nothing was certain after a wound like Chama’s. A sudden seizure or a spasm could change everything. If I had only been here, he cursed himself. Why did I have to go to that bloody market? Maybe I could have…
The thoughts faded away and Katulo let go of his walking staff. He crumpled to the floor. His eyes were focused on Chama’s corpse. He knew what he was meant to do next. Contact the family, tell them what had happened, say those empty words of condolence, and then…what? Osati would find out. The rage of the villagers would be at a peak. And then…what? Suddenly, he was fourteen years old again, standing in the corridor of the primary school. He felt dizzy. He wished he could hide somewhere no-one could find him. If only he could disappear with Chama’s body and if no-one knew, if it had never happened, if he went into a dark cave far away, if no-one ever found out, if he never told anyone, if maybe…
The door opened. “…I thought I heard you. I didn’t know where you…” Eyo saw Katulo on the floor. He crouched beside him. “Are you all right? Did you fall?”
Katulo spoke slowly. “Go to the home of Chama’s family. You must tell them…”
Eyo looked at the corpse. “When… How?”
Eyo grabbed hold of Katulo’s arms and tried to pull him up.
“Just go.” He said the words harshly.
The wind blew the door shut after Eyo had left.
Katulo sat there for a long time. His only movement was the rise and fall of his chest. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. His mind was only partly in the clinic. The rest drifted into the past as it did when he was performing a Waking. His muscles sagged, pulling down his bones with their weight. Sweat made his clothes stick to him. His head span. An hour passed.
The door flew open. Eyo ran in. He was gasping. “You have to come.” He saw Katulo was still on the ground and his face filled with shock. He repeated himself. “You have to come. Osati was at Chama’s father’s house. When he found out, he started shouting and people came to listen. Then… They are going to Bujumbura.”
Katulo was still not responding.
“Chama’s father. He opened the police station. He gave them guns.”
Katulo looked up now.
“They said they will take Chama’s killers by force.”
Katulo could see it as clearly as if it had already happened. There would be shouting and screaming. The police would be called. The mob would be angry, scared, and carrying guns. The police would be nervous, angry, and carry guns. Someone would shoot first. It wouldn’t matter which side. There would be a death, Hutu or Tutsi. And that would just be the beginning. It would begin in Bujumbura and spread to the rest of the country. Rage, beatings, killings, accusations, running, hiding, homes being burnt down…things that people swore would never happen again. And he could do nothing.
“You have to come,” Eyo said for a third time. “Please.”
And what can I do? Eyo was looking at him with so much hope. Eyo, who symbolised his own hopes to pass on the skill of Waking. “I will come,” he said at last. His skills as a healer would be needed.
He got up. “How long ago did they go?”
“I ran here. They were on the way to the police station.”
“We won’t be able to catch them but if we hurry we will arrive in Bujumbura just after them.”
Katulo wished there was a car they could take but the only car in the village had no gasoline. Burundi’s petrol reserves had run dry over a decade ago. Katulo accepted Eyo’s help to stand up. He and Eyo collected up his medical supplies and stuffed them into a leather bag. Katulo went to his house and packed the extra bandages he kept underneath a closet. Beside the boxes of medicines, he saw a machete. He used it occasionally to garden behind his house. It made him think of Chama’s wound, the catalyst for the violence that was sure to happen later. He picked up the machete and stuffed it into the bag.
Osati and four hundred and seventeen men and women from Azamé village were shouting in Bujumbura’s streets by the time Katulo and Eyo arrived. They were demanding the killers of Chama be brought in front of them. Twenty of them were carrying guns and the rest had rakes, machetes, spades and broom handles. Osati was standing on top of a cart shouting, “We want them. Bring them out.”
There were hundreds of other people there, too. “Go away, you Tutsi scum,” Katulo heard someone shout. There was a group of Bujumbura citizens facing the villagers. Many of them were also carrying makeshift weapons. Osati tried to make his way through the entropy. His walking stick was knocked from under him. He started to fall but Eyo caught him and the wooden staff. They continued through.
A shrill whistle sounded. It announced the arrival of a third group. The police. They were wearing riot gear and holding up batons. A few were holding up guns. One of them spoke through a megaphone. “Go home, go home now.”
The presence of the police added more volatility to the already tense masses. Unease rippled through the mob. Eyo shouted something but Katulo could not hear him through the din. Katulo saw a woman whose son he had treated for tonsillitis, crouch. She had two sons, a six-year-old and a ten-year-old. When she stood up, she was holding a stone. She flung it and it struck the side of a face. In response, a wooden pole rose and was brought down on the head of a Tutsi villager. Beside the man the pole had struck stood a man with a gun. He pointed it. The trigger was squeezed. The bullet tore through the shoulder of the man holding the pole.
Katulo reached into his medical bag. He had wished it would not be necessary but this was only the beginning of the bloodshed. Soon, people would begin to die. There was only one thing Katulo could do. His hand was trembling. He grabbed the hilt of the machete and he pulled it out. He opened himself to the land. He felt the streets around him and reached into them. He pulled out the past. In his mind, he was fourteen years old again, out of breath and desperately afraid his father was dead. He was sprinting down that school corridor again, with every step getting closer to those terrible sounds: shrieks and gurgles and wails. At the end of the corridor, opposite a sign that said “EMERGENCY EXIT”, there was a half-open door. Katulo looked in and he saw a pile of bodies. They were tiny, frail children’s bodies stacked up like bricks of flesh and bone. The children who were still alive were standing in a line and clutching each other. Katulo saw his father and the other men walking down the line. He saw his father push a uniform-clad six-year-old Hutu to the floor and swing his machete. He did not slash her only once. He lifted it again and then brought it down over and over again. Hacking.
The revulsion and confusion Katulo had felt returned to him. He had run away. He had hidden in the forest, wept alone, and then returned home before nightfall. He did not mention what he had seen. When he saw his father again, he hugged him and pretended he had not been there. He had never mentioned that day. He had decided never to let that memory control him but now he had to let it. It suffused him. But the memory was not enough. Katulo had never killed so the land could not Wake unless…
His fingers tensed against the machete’s hilt and with an abrupt swipe he brought the blade down against Eyo’s neck. He saw shock in Eyo’s eyes for a split-second and then the blade crushed his apprentice’s throat. Blood sprayed and dripped down the blade onto his clenched fingers.
All around Katulo, people gasped. Suddenly, smoky figures had appeared in their midst. Most Wakings called a few. Forty or fifty spirits was the most Katulo had seen at a Waking. But the streets of Bujumbura were deeply scarred. Wounds that had been closed and ignored for seven decades ripped open. Screams deafened Katulo and all around, echoes of viciousness were reanimated. Hundreds of spectral men appeared in the streets strangling each other, lashing bare backs with vine whips, stabbing, shooting and rejoicing. Near one wall, a vague figure lifted a baby and smashed its head against the wall. On the floor in front of some Azamé villagers, a man in a soldier’s uniform raped a woman with the sharp end of a kitchen knife. The living watched with horror.
The Waking was not restricted to the streets. Throughout Bujumbura men and women saw monstrosities. In a bar, laughing patrons were choked into silence when six figures materialised in front of them. Five of them stood around a single man and were beating him mercilessly. In one house, a couple’s conversation was interrupted by the appearance of a man kneeling on the floor with his face in a mound of dung. Behind him, another man was laughing and pressing a gun against his temple. There was a loud bang and the kneeling man died.
There was blood, so much blood. The living could smell it so strongly they could taste it. They felt the rage and desperate lust for revenge consuming the awakened spirits. Some of the living ran to escape the horrors they were witnessing, but in every street they ran into there was more. Old pain and old death celebrated at being rekindled. Forgotten cruelty ran rampant.
Katulo stood looking, not at the spirits around him, but at the broken body of Eyo. The corpse lay in front of him, eyes and mouth still open. His neck bone was exposed. Somewhere in Bujumbura, a group of terrified people watched an echo of Katulo’s father murder fifteen schoolchildren. Katulo did not care about that memory any more. What he had done was the only thing in his mind. His body quaked and his voice cracked. He howled like an infant, hating every person in Bujumbura, but none as much as he loathed himself. The rampage of the spirits continued for an hour. Katulo was blind to them. When they finally disappeared, he, too, was gone.
The murderers of Chama were never punished. There was no trial, but there was also no slaughter. The Azamé villagers returned home.
Katulo was never seen again. Some said he had died but no body was found. At marriages, harvests and initiations there was no longer a Waking ceremony. Waking was now a part of legend like rainmaking and giants.
If Katulo had lived on, it cannot have been for long. There were occasional rumours that he had been seen walking alone in the streets or by a river in ragged clothes. One of his ex-apprentices said that he had seen Katulo one morning, bent over the place where Eyo had died. He could not be sure. The old man he had seen rushed off. Where the old man had been, between gravel and weeds, a slender white sapling had been planted.