Whenever the hour hand of the clock struck 1 pm, we sang the cherished farewell song, and started on the way home. The school, which was adjacent to the local Anglican Church, was at the common foot of the village hills, and there were tracks going up each of the hills, as well as a feeder road that led to the local trading center, which hugged the Kigali – Mombasa highway. Any traveller that happened to be on any of the tracks or the feeder road between 1pm and a quarter past the hour was sure to meet tens of us, buoyantly marching, chatting and frolicking as we approached our homes in anticipation of lunch, reunion with pampering parents and afternoons of adventure. Sometimes, on those homeward journeys, we plotted the afternoon adventures – decided which mango or guava trees to invade, or which insects to hunt for in the shrubberies, or which games to play.
For my siblings and I, the bliss of the homeward walk was often cut short by the pleas of Zakamwita. Zakamwita was the oldest woman in the village. She was so frail and bent over by dotage that when she walked, you would think she had three legs – the walking stick appeared like the third. To say that her skin was furrowed, especially about the face, may be to understate matters; she was all depressions and knobs, and there was no pattern to them. She lived alone, in a round hut that seemed as vulnerable as her person. This hut was set in a banana plantation, about 50m away from the village feeder road, and about 100m away from the nearest homestead. Zakamwita was Rwandese, and any sympathy with that tribe could, in those days, be interpreted as treason.
About two years before, machete–bearing youth wingers of the ruling party had gone about chasing or butchering Rwandese, razing their homesteads, and grabbing the cattle and other property accumulated over two decades of taking refuge. The government, persuaded that all Rwandese were as dangerous as their compatriots who had joined Museveni in the jungles of Luwero, had issued a directive that they leave the country with immediate effect. Somehow, Zakamwita had stayed behind. It seems her relatives had calculated that taking along someone so frail would slow them down and lessen their chances of escape. And it seems the youth wingers had decided that she wasn't worth their diabolical energies.
She had survived, but she had been left destitute, since her erstwhile home had been razed and the property grabbed. Moreover she was without kin, and anyone that aided her risked being perceived as a sympathizer of insurgency. Yet, Zakamwita, authorized by my father to send my siblings and me on errands, sought my aid whenever she espied me or sensed my footsteps. As if she didn't care how the security agencies perceived me!
While dotage had sapped her physical strength, it seems the vulnerability it had brought along had sharpened her ears. For she had a way of sensing the lunch hour home-ward footsteps of my siblings and I, even across a distance of 50m, and whenever she did, she would crawl to the entrance of her hut, look towards the direction of the footsteps, and, in a piteously feeble voice, cry: “eimwe banamwe mundeetere amaizi.” “Children, bring me some water.”
I hated those words. Yes, I did. No, it wasn't about security agencies. It was about the afternoon adventures. The plea meant that, instead of going on such adventures after lunch, I would have to first go to the well to fetch water for the old woman. In hindsight, I realize of course that it was wicked to so put recreation above duty and charity. But a six-year old is a six-year old, and I can understand why I felt the way I did.
Then a certain three or four days passed without the usual interruption of the bliss of the homeward walk. Zakamwita went quiet, as if she had found an alternative solution to the water problem. It was a sweet relief, but the explanation for the relief, it turned out, was anything but sweet. I don't recall who discovered it, or how they did so, but the poor, frail, long-suffering woman had been invaded by red ants which had not only killed her but also reduced her to a bloodcurdling spectacle over a week of enveloping her body, biting without rest or resistance.
I have seen terrible spectacles in my time. I have seen the grisly images that came from Rwanda during the genocide, and those that came from Somalia during the civil war. But I have never seen anything as chilling as what remained of Zakamwita after that week-long attack of red ants.
No coffin was bought. There was none of the usual night of keeping vigil while singing hymns. As soon as Zakamwita's death was discovered, some youths tried their best, using spades and sticks, to disentangle her body from the hard bites of red ants; some shallow grave was hurriedly dug; the villagers who had quickly gathered sang a few hymns as the chilling body, together with the ants that were unwilling to let go, was dragged out of the hut and lowered into the grave. The backfilling of the soil was done, the round hut was razed, and the villagers returned to their homes and resumed their normal routines, but the events stuck in my mind and still turn my eyes damp when I look back upon them.
As the quick, unceremonious burial was conducted, I thought about the cruelty of red ants, but what I should have really thought about is the cruelty of man, including my own attitude towards the poor, deceased woman, who would never again ask me to fetch her some water.