This is an excerpt from a 91,100 word memoir of the life of Darlington Nsengiyumva, a man who transcended a life of homelessness and poverty in Rwanda to reach for his dreams.
by Darlington Nsengiyumva and Lynnette Dobberpuhl
The Movie House
“I can’t go in there! I don’t have any money,” I argued. My head ached. I was tired from hauling bananas all day in the marketplace, and my spirits were as low as the dirt beneath my bare, ten-year old feet. At least I wasn’t hungry anymore. I had purchased my dinner of fried fish and cassava from a street vendor with the day’s earnings.
My new friend, Mukasa, looked at me impatiently. “Look, we don’t need money, but we do need a place to be until dark. I’ve done it a million times; just do what I do. Even if you do get caught, he won’t beat you.” Mukasa gestured with his head at the theater owner standing on the corner talking to a tailor who worked on the walkway out front. “He’ll just drag you out by your ear,” Mukasa started to laugh as he teased me. “Maybe you should cover them up, just to be safe!” I threw him a glance to say that I had heard more than enough about my big ears in my life, but I could see he meant no harm—he only wanted me to lighten up. Glancing nervously around, I took a deep breath and followed him into the building.
I was a long way from home. We were in Mukoko, a neighborhood on the outskirts of a large city we called Budongo, in a region known as Akivungo. In my home village in Rwanda, there was no movie theater. I had never even seen a television there. Since coming to Mukoko I had stood on the street with other kids a few times, staring at a black-and-white television through the front window of one of four houses in the neighborhood wealthy enough to have one. The program usually showed adults sitting and talking. This theater, the first I had ever been in, was a room about twenty-five feet long by thirteen feet wide, with cement block walls and a good tin roof. There were wooden benches set close to each other, ten rows of two, each one big enough to seat about five people. At the front of the room was a fourteen-inch television with a VCR up on a stand. There were several people already sitting in the first four rows, silently waiting or chatting with others, and Mukasa led me to seats near the middle where we sat quietly, trying not to draw attention to ourselves. I gingerly felt the side of my face, and kept my gaze down so no one would notice my blood-red eye. Cheerful Indian and African music played from a cassette tape player in the corner, and the conversation level rose as the benches filled. Mukasa signaled for me to make space between us for an adult to sit, and soon we were packed in tightly.
The theater owner, a medium-sized man with a droopy eyelid, walked to the front as though he were very large and important. He began collecting money from the people on the front benches, first our side, then the other. At the second row, he had to squeeze between the knees of the people sitting there and the backs of the people in the front row, but nobody minded. He crossed the aisle between the benches and continued to collect the money, and Mukasa leaned forward to catch my eye. He raised his eyebrows and smiled. “See?” he seemed to say. I did see and breathed a sigh of relief. The owner collected the money from the people on the bench in front of us, smiling and greeting the customers he knew, and then when he turned to the other side of the room, Mukasa gave me a nod and we slipped to the floor and slid under the bench in front of us. As I tucked myself in as far as possible, trying not to disturb the people above me, I glanced up at the men who were sitting on the bench we had just left. The four of them seemed unsurprised; they just adjusted their seating to enjoy the extra space they now had.
Because the benches were so close together, it was unlikely the theater owner could see us, unless someone pointed us out. I held my breath as I watched his feet pass by my face. The dirt floor was swept clean of trash and felt cool beneath my body. I looked at the legs of the patrons sheltering me and wished more women came to the movies. A flowing idjitanje, the colorful fabric women wrapped around themselves, would have concealed us much better than the pants the men wore. A few minutes later a woman offering refreshments for sale walked through the room, trailing the scent of hot sweetened tea and cassava fries. A little bit later we heard the music stop and different music begin. The crowd in the theater shuffled and settled expectantly, and a minute later Mukasa tapped my arm, signaling it was time to come out. The owner was gone, I guessed sitting on his chair outside the theater. Mukasa slipped out from under the bench we’d hidden beneath. We stood with our backs plastered against the cool hardness of the wall, he in the third row, I in the fourth, obstructing no one’s view, able to see over the grown men’s heads. In fascination I watched as “Rambo: First Blood Part II” pulled me into a world I never dreamed existed.
The movie was in English, and I didn’t understand a word. If there had been subtitles in one of the languages I knew, Kinyarwanda, Kikiga or Kiganda, I still wouldn’t have understood because I had never learned to read. I had never been to school. None of that mattered in the Mukoko theater though, because the story was action-filled and easy to follow: Rambo was in prison, then was released and sent into the jungle to rescue prisoners, but his friends betrayed him, and he was beaten horribly. He overcame his captors and freed the prisoners, killing all the bad guys and getting back at the men who betrayed him. Amazing! Leaning against the wall, I became so caught up in the story that I gradually turned toward the screen. The man next to me complained, “You are in my way!” and I quickly flattened myself like paint to the wall, afraid of getting kicked out. All of us watched with excitement. Every time Rambo killed another soldier, the people in the movie theater cheered, especially when he faced the commander of the bad guys at the end. Then the noise was so loud it filled the room, my head, my whole body. Mukasa and I cheered too.
We left the theater in high spirits, talking through and acting out the scenes we had just watched. “Did you see when he was hanging out of the airplane?” “Wasn’t it amazing when he came out of the mud?” Rambo’s victory had made me feel stronger, like the victory was mine, too. It was also disturbing because it had seemed so real. “Do you think it was real? Did Rambo really kill those soldiers?” I wondered out loud.
“Yeah, dummy, you saw him killing them,” Mukasa answered, unconcerned.
As we walked down the dark street, I asked Mukasa, “Are all the movies this good?”
“Not all, some are all talk, talk, talk.” he replied, “But a lot are. You should see the Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies; they have Kung-Fu!” and he jumped and kicked and waved his arms around. I couldn’t wait to see more. For a little while the movie made me forget all about my head and the fact that I was homeless, and everyone I loved was out of reach. Before the full gloom of my situation settled back on me, Mukasa stopped in front of the pork house, a place where people grilled and sold pork. It was closed and dark. Mukasa looked around to make sure no one was watching and motioned for me to follow him behind the building. In the back was an unlocked door that opened to a small room with roughly made benches for people to sit on while they ate, if they weren’t taking the food away with them. All the pork was long gone, but the delicious smell hung in the air. “This is where I sleep,” Mukasa told me, as proud as if he had built the place himself.
“Here?” There were bones and bits of lettuce and tomato strewn about the floor.
“Like this,” Mukasa said, and he grabbed two benches and put them side by side to make a kind of bed. I did the same and then covered it with my large woven bag that held my few possessions: some clay marbles and a second pair of shorts that were more holes than cloth. I settled myself uncertainly on the hard wood; I had never slept above the ground before. It felt precarious, but it was cleaner than the floor, and with the walls around me I felt safer than trying to sleep outdoors.
“What if people come while we are asleep?” I asked.
“It’s fine,” murmured Mukasa sleepily. “When the roosters crow, we’ll wake up and leave. No one will ever see us.”
“What if thieves come?” Thieves were a common problem in Mukoko, and some were dangerous.
“There is nothing to steal, which is why the owners don’t lock the door.” Mukasa’s words slurred. While I tried to think of something else to ask, I heard his breathing change to the deep slow rhythm of a person fast asleep. I laid awake, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood: a husband and wife, or maybe some neighbors arguing, a drunk singing on his way home from the bar, a truck delivering bricks with its hissing air brakes and the hum of hydraulics as it lifted and dumped its load at a building site. I thought of my mother, far away, who believed I was safe, and my father who probably didn’t care. I thought of my cousin who was my best friend, and his father, my uncle, who had turned me out onto the streets.
I thought about Rambo. He had nearly died many times in the movie, suffering and struggling but never giving up. Although he had nearly been killed many times, he stayed strong. He overcame all the obstacles and all the bad guys. I wondered if Rambo was a real person. Maybe overcoming obstacles and surviving difficult times was what made a hero. There were bad guys in the world, I knew. Maybe there were heroes out there as well.
In my home in Rwanda, Africa, mountains covered in green rise like hope to meet the sky. My name, Nsengiyumva (pronounced sen-gi-yoom`-vah), was given to me by my father and means, “I pray and God listens to me.” At different times in my life I have wondered whether this name was a surprisingly good gift from my father or whether my name was given to me by mistake, since surely it seemed God did not always listen to me.
The village I lived in was made up of homes, businesses and a marketplace for shopping. Buildings made of the trunks of young trees, plastered over with dried mud and manure, lined the roads which curved up and down the mountainside. The straightest roads linked villages and cities together and were paved, cutting through miles of jungle. The village roads were made of earth packed hard by the feet of generations of people and their herds. More recently, bicycles and some cars also traveled these local roads.
Some people in my village made their living by selling things they had grown, like cassava, a plant with a starchy root also called emyumbati, white or sweet potatoes, beans (ibishyimbo), bananas, coffee and tea. Other people owned businesses or labored for a living. The people who lived in my village were friendly and generous, with a deep respect for their traditions and happy to spend time with their friends and neighbors. All but the poorest families kept at least some goats and cows. The animals would provide food, but also were a symbol of the family’s wealth and status.
All the homes had a separate cooking hut in the back where food was prepared over fire. They all had roofs of either grass, thick and quiet during the rainstorms, or steel, strong, but deafening in the rain. The wealthiest families had roofs of solid sheets of corrugated steel. My father had patched together our roof out of discarded steel drums which he had pounded flat. He was poor and uneducated, but making a metal roof was his way of demonstrating he could provide a good home for a wife. My mother, beautiful but also uneducated, had limited prospects for marriage, and my grandfather gave her in marriage to my father hoping she would have a good life.
This is where my life started and my story began.
I was about eight years old as I faced a group of five schoolchildren on the dirt road that curved up the hillside through the mud huts of our village. Their leader was a boy about my age, and his eyes flashed with mockery when he spoke to me. “Hey, Garbage,” he laughed, “Why don’t you show us how you can count to one hundred?” His followers giggled as I looked away, trying to pretend his words didn’t hurt me. They were dressed in the crisp, khaki shirts and shorts of their school uniforms, because their parents could afford to buy them and pay the school fees. I was dressed only in a ragged pair of shorts. Their skin was shining clean, and I was filthy from picking up garbage in the streets. School was an everyday fact in their lives; for me it was an unreachable dream. They could read, write and do sums. I did not even know the letters of my own name. Asking me to count to one hundred was like asking me to jump and touch the sky. The children moved past me laughing and talking as I walked on in the other direction. Once they had disappeared around the curve I broke into a run, leaving the village and entering the bush, the green jungle that hid my shame. Hot tears spilled onto my cheeks as I flung the garbage I carried aside. I poured my humiliation into the bush until I could be calm again and then turned back to my home.
I approached the hut I shared with my mother and father. Our home was small compared to others; one room for my parents to sleep in and one room for visiting, where I slept on the floor. The water jar that was nearly as tall as me stood in the corner. I knew I would find my mother in or near the cooking hut behind our home, singing songs as she usually did. Wisps of wood smoke from the fire rose into the air with the smell of potatoes and beans cooking in butter. When she saw me, her wide smile changed to a look of concern as she noted my tearstained face. “Nsengiyumva, why have you been crying?” she asked.
Instead of answering, I asked her a question, “Mama, why can’t I go to school with the other children?”
My mother lowered her eyes to the ground for a moment before she answered. As a girl, her friends had taught her enough Kinyarwanda to read the Bible, but she too, had longed to go to school. Her face was pained as she replied, “Son, we don’t have money like those other families.”
My face must have still shown my misery because she stopped what she was doing and looked me in the eye. “Son, since you are still a young boy, you can’t understand, but someday you will become a big man, and you will. I know you want to go to school like the other children, and I want that for you too, but I tell you that even if you don’t get a chance to be educated, it does not mean you are nothing. In this world, there are a lot of people who never had a chance to go to school, just like you. Some of them have a better life than those who went to school, but it is because they worked hard. So son,” she smiled, “just keep working as hard as you are doing right now, be friendly and honest, and try to make your dreams come true. If you do this, no one will be better than you in this world.” Her words were gentle, her face was kind, and even if what I wanted above all things was still out of reach, at least I knew I was loved. I gave her a small smile to make her feel better, and she turned back to cooking, making up a little song about me to cheer me up.
I grabbed the plastic jugs I used to carry water and walked to the spring outside the village. After washing my face and hands, I filled the jugs and carried them home. Each jug held five liters and it took several trips to refill the water jar we kept to hold all the water for drinking and washing. When I was done with the water, I collected wood for the cooking fire. Some families cooked with charcoal and had ovens fashioned out of bricks. My mother cooked in a pan that rested on three rocks which suspended it over a wood fire. She was a very good cook, but getting enough to eat was a rare thing. She spent the money we did have for food carefully in the village market. Our one meal for the day was usually cassava with beans, some banana, and a soup made from the leaves of cassava. Unlike us, nearly all our neighbors had chickens and goats or even cows. My mouth would water as I breathed in the aromas rising from their cooking huts.
That evening, my mother and I ate our share of dinner alone, as usual, while my father was still either working or at the bar after work. After we ate, we went out to the road to visit with neighbors. Sometimes, I would be able to find some friends who might have a soccer ball and would let me join in their game. Other times we would play with clay marbles or clay figures we had made ourselves. I was grateful for my friends who could look past the fact I didn’t go to school and who never called me “Ears” as other children did, because my ears stuck out from the sides of my head. As the light faded and I headed home, a neighbor called me to her door and gave me a container of cow’s milk to thank me for picking up the garbage from the road earlier in the day. I thanked her and hurried to our hut where I was given a big hug from my mother for helping provide for our family. I washed and lay down to sleep on the floor with a feeling of satisfaction in my heart.
I awoke in the dark as a familiar angry voice broke the quiet. “Woman! Why do you give me cold food for my dinner? I work hard every day, and this is what you give me?” My father’s voice was slurred from drink and very loud. As I lay with my head in my hands, I wondered if the neighbors who, out of pity, sometimes gave us soap, salt or paraffin for our lamps could hear him. I wondered if his abuse tonight would end with his words, his fists, his belt, or with the stick he carried with him everywhere he went.
My father was the unchallenged ruler in our house, though he was hardly ever home. He worked every day at odd jobs, clearing jungle, digging, building, herding animals, guarding a business, or whatever someone would pay him to do. No matter how hard or long he worked, he could still drink away most of his earnings in the bar before he came home. I could always tell if my father had been drinking beer, or if he had been drinking Waragi. Waragi is potent banana liquor, and when he drank it, he became crazy with violence. Those nights were the worst in my young life. I had learned not to interfere. When I had worked up the courage to get between them, he knocked me aside as easily as brushing away a fly.
My father’s face and upper body were badly scarred from frequently crashing his battered, old bicycle on the way home from the bar. Many nights a neighbor would come to our door and tell us to go pick him up from where he lay, passed out on the road. At least those nights were peaceful, but it was just another source of shame for my family. Once, my mother appealed to one of my father’s friends to talk to him. The friend spoke to my father and encouraged him to come home earlier and drink less. Unfortunately, my father immediately knew what my mother had done. That night, between blows, he shouted, “So you are going around the village saying I am the bad husband, when you are a bad wife! You are spreading lies about me behind my back!”
When the beatings got very bad, my mother and I would pack up our things and go to my grandmother’s home. In my homeland, it was common for women to take their young children and leave home for awhile, as part of a way to work out conflict. It was also common for husbands to verbally abuse their wives, and fairly common for physical abuse to occur once in awhile. What was practically unheard of was divorce. A divorced woman in my homeland was regarded as an object of scorn by men and women alike. So after a week or so, when my mother’s bruises had faded, my grandmother would gently tell my mother that my father would be sorry, that he had only been crazy with the Waragi and would treat her better now. “Your place is with your husband,” she reminded her. Burdened with her encouraging lies and our few possessions, we would return home, and my father would smile to see us, and then the drinking and violence would begin again.
Early the next morning, I got up quietly and left the house. I went to the home of a neighbor with whom I had an agreement. Every morning, I took his two goats out to the bush for several hours to graze and exercise. The day we made the arrangement he asked me, “How shall I pay you for tending my goats?”
I thought carefully. It was important to me to provide something valuable for my family. I didn’t want to ask for money, because if I did, my mother would have to give it to my father, who would just buy alcohol. I remembered a time when a neighbor had given me an egg for running an errand for her, and how good it was. I could see, though, that it would be short-sighted to ask for a few eggs. “I would like a chicken,” I told him.
He smiled. “If you do a good job for me for two weeks, you will get a fine chicken,” he promised. He kept his word. After a few weeks, he presented me not only with a chicken, but also with a rooster. My mother danced with happiness when I brought the birds home, and sent me into the jungle to gather sticks to make a pen for them. I wove together a secure little enclosure and found scraps for the birds in the neighbor’s garbage to supplement the insects they caught. Soon our hen began producing eggs. We ate some, but others were allowed to hatch into chicks which were noisy and lively and fun to watch. One day as I was watching the birds, a shadow flashed across our yard. The chicks all scurried to their mother, who stretched her wings and covered them. I looked up and saw an eagle soaring overhead, searching for food. I was amazed that the tiny chicks knew exactly what the shadow meant, and knew what they must do to protect themselves. My heart warmed to the hen for taking good care of her little ones. The next day, when I checked on the birds, I saw one was missing. “The eagle came back,” my mother told me. “One of the chicks was too slow.” My heart felt heavy over the lost chick, and I gathered large leaves from the jungle for a roof to cover part of the pen, to give them a better place to hide. I never liked eagles again after that.
I entered my neighbor’s yard, admiring how it was surrounded by pine trees, breathing in the trees’ clean scent. I guided the goats down the road into the bush. I had favorite areas to take them, clearings where the sunlight was warm and near water for the goats to drink. The goats did not need careful watching, so I sat in the sun and looked at the clouds and made up stories in my head about what I would do at school, if I could go.
One school in my village was near the marketplace, in a clearing close to the center of town. Every day the schoolteacher came to the massive tree in the center of the clearing and hung a chalkboard from a nail. Then, school was in session. The children sat on the ground, or on benches around the chalkboard, sheltered by the tree from the sun or rain. The children’s parents paid a fee to pay the teacher and to buy supplies. They also bought paper and pencils for their children, and uniforms. It was expensive to go, but most parents made the sacrifice. Those of us who couldn’t pay would sometimes linger near the school, but didn’t stay long. I yearned to join them, to learn what the markings on the chalkboard meant. In the bush, I daydreamed happily about raising my hand, being called on, and giving correct answers to the teacher’s questions.
When the sun had passed into the afternoon, I returned the goats and urged them into their pen. A neighbor stopped me on my way home and asked me to fetch her some bananas from the marketplace. When I returned with them, she gave me a few to take home, which I did. As I handed my mother the bananas, I noticed how quiet the yard seemed. I felt a shock run through me, as I realized that the chicks were all gone; only the hen and rooster remained. I turned to my mother, “What happened? Did the eagle return?”
“No, no,” my mother said. “There are other people who need them more than we do. I gave the chicks to another family, to help them improve their lives.”
I stared at my mother in disbelief. She continued, “It is called building a bridge of friendship. We have helped them, and someday they will be able to help us. Don’t worry,” she assured me, “the hen will give us more chicks. Now, go fetch the water.”
As I carried the containers of water back and forth from the spring, I thought it over. I couldn’t believe my mother had given away the chicks. How could she think someone needed them more than we did? Even though I knew that, as my parent, she had the right to do what she wanted with the chickens, I couldn’t help but feel that she had taken something away from me. My resentment grew. When the water jar was filled, my mother asked me to gather more wood. I looked at the pile stacked by the cooking hut. “No,” I said. “We have plenty of wood. I am going to find my friends.”
My mother looked at me in surprise. “Nsengiyumva,” she said, “you must go gather wood before you play, and you must listen to your mother.”
“We don’t need the wood, and I am going now!” I responded angrily, and stomped out of our yard. I found my friends, and we played soccer for awhile, but I was unhappy about the chicks and about fighting with my mother. When I returned home, I was unpleasantly surprised to find that my father had come home in time for dinner. On other occasions when he had come home early, he rarely spoke to me, preferring to eat silently and then go and visit with neighbors. This time, he had something to say to me.
His cold eyes pinned me to the ground. “So, your mother tells me that you refused to do your chores.” He took a step toward me and grabbed my arm in his powerful hand, his scarred face looming over mine.
“W-we had plenty of wood,” I stammered, terrified.
Reaching back, he took a mighty swipe at my head, smacking me hard. “You must do what you are told!” he shouted, striking me again. “Who do you think you are? Are you the parent?” Again he hit me, as I tried to block and dodge his blows.
Now I heard my mother screaming, begging my father to stop, and for some reason, her voice brought my anger out again. “No, let him kill me!” I yelled at her. “This is what you wanted; you knew he would beat me this way when you told on me!” My father must have been surprised by my words, because I was able to pull away and run out of the house, through the neighbors who had gathered to witness the commotion. I stayed away until dark, missing dinner and feeling very sorry for myself.
The next morning as I rose to tend the neighbor’s goats, my mother handed me a little food she had saved from dinner the night before, but nothing more was said until later. To my embarrassment, the whole episode became a kind of a joke, the neighbors and even my father saying, “Nsengiyumva, do you remember when you told your mother, “No, let him kill me, this is what you wanted?” while mimicking my small boy voice. For years, that story brought laughter to whoever told it, but I never found it that amusing.