Marceline's world

2008-12-24 00:00

That morning, when I met Marceline she was smiling. A mutual friend had phoned her to ask if she had been a victim of the recent xenophobic attacks. We laughed together. Although it wasn’t a misplaced concern. She was Rwandan and she was living in Pietermaritzburg.

So why did it seem so strange to me that someone would want to harm her?

Because she spoke softly. Because her eyes always shone brighter than her neatly gelled and parted hair. Because her face was as fresh as her newly ironed clothes.

Because when you said you would pick her up, she walked halfway to your house before you could get there. Because she finished her assignments two weeks before their due date. She was gentleness, cheerfulness, thoughtfulness and diligence.

Who would ever want to hurt her?

Who could ever see her as the enemy?

“I remember everything,” she answered me, smiling as though I had just asked a guide if he could remember his way home. “I remember when I was seven years old my teachers asked the Tutsis to stand up in class. I had to go home and check with my dad what tribe we were from. We were Tutsis.”

The decision was made long ago. Not so much on the way you looked, because all looked the same. Not so much on the way you spoke, because all spoke the same. Not so much on the area in which you lived, because all lived together. But just on the principle of division. There had to be a divide. And you had to know which side you were on. So you asked someone. And they always knew. You were either Hutu or Tutsi.

“The day after the president died, the first Tutsi house in our street was burnt down. The family was killed and we could see the smoke rising. My grandfather was wealthy. He had been a political leader and he owned three houses, a field and many cows. He had had eight children and had raised an orphan boy as his ninth. This boy was a Hutu. He had played with my father and my uncles. But now he was determined to kill them. To kill all of my grandfather’s family. He started with my grandfather. Leading a gang, he found my grandfather on the street and began to beat him. My grandfather offered them money if they would just shoot him. They took the money and then hacked him to death with pangas.

“We lived in a house belonging to my grandfather and this Hutu boy said that it was his. He wanted to kill, and claim, everything that belonged to my grandfather. So my mum packed her Bible and her hymn book and we moved to a church compound. It was a school with a girls’ dormitory that we and three other families lived in. We knew we would be safe there because it belonged to the Anglican church.

“During that first week, my mum’s friend came to take me to her home. She liked me. She said that I looked like her. Five minutes after I left, the compound gates opened and the army trucks drove in. The church’s priest had told the Hutu army that we were there. He had shown them where we were living. He had given them permission to come in and to take us.

“I was not there but my older sister was. There was a bunk-bed piled high with mattresses. She was very slim and so she squeezed between the mattresses and the bed. From there she watched. No one saw her. But she saw them.

“They beat my four-year-old sister. My brother watched them shove a spear through my father. It came out the back of him. He was dead by the time they were all pushed into the trucks. My brother jumped out of the truck as they drove. A soldier chased him into the forest. As he ran, he fell and didn’t move. This is what saved him. The soldier could not find him and returned to the truck. When they got to where they were going, they stood them in front of a deep hole. They killed them. With pangas. Then rolled them into the grave.

“The lady I was staying with was married to a Hutu man. He asked her if he could kill me. She said no. He didn’t ask again. And there I stayed until the genocide was over.

“It was a few months and then my aunt came and found me. She told me that my parents, two sisters and one brother were dead. I was quiet. I was quiet for a few weeks. And sometimes I didn’t believe her. I hadn’t seen the bodies. But I knew it was real when I saw my brother on video, explaining what had happened.

“From there I had to move. From this friend to my aunt. From my aunt to my married sister. But now I was an outsider. This is natural. My parents should have been raising me. But they couldn’t. I did not feel a part of another family. That is right. I was not part of another family. It was no one’s fault. Except the priests. They had taken my family away.

“And I was angry that they were gone. I had lost my family and I did not belong. When I saw a priest in the street I thought: ‘Hypocrite. I hate you.’

“And now I am an outsider.

“It was nine years later that I moved to South Africa, to Pietermaritzburg. I did my last year of schooling at Alexandra High. Once I’d finished, through a series of mistakes, instead of registering to study education at university, I found myself registered to study theology at a local seminary.”

To study with the enemy.

“I was angry.” Marceline laughed, sincerely, politely. As though she was laughing to comfort a friend who had just told a joke that wasn’t funny.

Then, Marceline explained that this final, poor joke turned out to be her rescue.

“I met a new community and it was not what I was expecting. Here the people were different. They did not click their tongue when you answered their Zulu with English. They did not borrow your pen and suggest that you might not see it again. They acted differently from what I had seen before. They listened. They talked. They shared. They shared their community.

“We ate together. We spoke. We laughed. I began to feel that I belonged. That these people were mine. I had lost my one family and here, finally, I had found another. A new family that could give back what had been taken away years ago.”

Marceline told us this story in our home one night. We had spent the evening together, around a meal, talking. Jacob had shared how his father had worked for the Zimbabwean military. How he had to follow orders during the day. But every night he had to explain to his family that what he was doing was not what he believed.

Margaux was concerned about her work. She was sending paraplegics home with no wheelchairs. There had been a budget cut and she needed another 40 wheelchairs. She interspersed her concerns with long Afrikaans expressions that she forgot to translate.

We discussed what family ritual you could replace bedtime reading with when your children could read alone. Lael, aged five, was warning us that she had just learnt to read her seventh book and that she would be independent soon. Anna was surfing her highchair, like a classic seventies longboarder, smiling at Marceline, anxious to get a bit of applause.

Our son, egged on by his dad, was explaining to Marceline how he could wheelie his black plastic motorbike. He thought with a bit of coaching that she could learn to do it on her bicycle too.

Laughing at our baby, reading with our toddler, eating chocolate. Marceline and her friends. This is Marceline’s world now. Her family is from Standerton and Swaziland, Pietermaritzburg and Zimbabwe. They are accountants and mechanics. They are students and teachers.

The people who she had hated for taking her family from her have become the people that she loves as a family now.

Because in Marceline’s world there is neither Jew nor Greek, Zulu nor English, Hutu nor Tutsi.

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