"There was a history. There had been trouble before, Hutu and Tutsi trouble. There had been big killing in Burundi. That is part of the story, but in a way it is also another story. When trouble comes, it happens to you alone."by Damon Galgut / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
Some years ago, a young man was travelling on the train between Pretoria and Cape Town. He had recently been ordained as a minister in the church, and he was moving to a small town on the west coast, to his congregation there.
When he got on the train an old white man was already in the carriage, drinking wine, which he poured surreptitiously from a bottle into a plastic cup. He offered some to the young man, who shook his head. The old man looked worried, and when the train started to move he said, “I hope there won’t be blacks in this compartment.”
The young man said, “Sorry?”
“I’m not a racist, but I hope we don’t have to share with blacks. I’ve never been on the train before. Do you think there will be blacks?”
The young man said he didn’t know. He didn’t say any more to the old man, but when the train reached Johannesburg and a black man entered their compartment, he was glad. The Lord worked in complex ways, and he felt that this might be a lesson for the old man.
The black man was of an indeterminate age, perhaps forty or fifty. He was neat, with a thin, fine face behind gold-rimmed spectacles. Yet there was something tormented about him. He didn’t sit still, even after he had stowed his one tiny suitcase. He twisted on his seat, got up and sat down again and avoided the eyes of the other two men.
After what the old man had said, the young man wanted to make a point. He got up and held out his hand to the black man. “My name is Douglas Clarke,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.”
The black man was startled. He froze for an instant before shaking the hand. “Leonard Sagatwa,” he said, his voice very soft.
The old man looked stricken. This was the moment for him to introduce himself, but the moment passed. The train started to move.
Soon they were sliding through a brown landscape, dotted with little towns, under a haze of heat. The old man looked out of the window, furtively drinking his wine. Douglas had a sermon to work on. He took out his notebook and doodled thoughtfully in it, but his eyes kept going over to the restless black man. After a while, to make conversation, he asked him, “Do you live in Cape Town?”
“Not yet. I hope to settle there.”
It was a strange answer. The man himself was strange, travelling with his one little suitcase to settle in Cape Town. Douglas said, “Where do you come from?”
“I take it, from your accent, that you come from somewhere else. What is your country?”
He sighed unhappily. “I am from Rwanda.”
“Ah,” Douglas said. “Yes. Yes. I would like to see Africa.”
There was an awkward pause, then the old man said suddenly, “Rwanda! That was a bad business.”
A shadow passed over Leonard Sagatwa’s face. It was like a subterranean tremor, quickly stifled, and then he got to his feet. “Excuse me please,” he said, “I must go to eat,” and he left the compartment.
Douglas was perturbed. He didn’t know what had upset Mr Sagatwa, but he could see there was a story there. In his training for the ministry he’d been an outstanding counsellor, and he’d been told this was because he was sensitive to people’s stories.
The old man said, “He’s all right. No trouble. Some of them can make trouble, but that guy is foreign.”
Douglas went out, down the rocking corridor, to the dining car. Mr Sagatwa was sitting alone at a table for two. Although other places were available, Douglas said to him, “May I join you?”
He looked startled again, but he nodded. Douglas sat. Then he didn’t know how to proceed. He wanted to draw Mr Sagatwa’s story out of him, but he could tell that he shouldn’t approach him too directly. So Douglas decided on an indirect route; he decided to talk about himself.
After ordering a fishburger and chips – the least repellent item on the menu – Douglas started to tell Mr Sagatwa about his move down to the western Cape. He spoke with apparent spontaneity, though it was a story he’d told many times already: about finding the Lord, about the job that lay in front of him now. He was going to be the minister at a so-called “coloured” church, in a fishing village three hours from
Cape Town. It was a hard calling. He was leaving an elderly mother in Pretoria, and all his friends, and heading into the unknown. But there was a design to events, a plan, which would unfold regardless of his own will, so he was letting himself go, accepting the power of the Lord.
“My trouble is,” he said, “I don’t really know Africa. I’ve had a very sheltered life so far. But the Lord wants me to learn, I think, which is why he’s given me this particular job.”
Douglas was young enough to see things outlined in certainties, in bright stories with a clear moral theme. He hadn’t yet realised that other people saw things differently. He said to Mr Sagatwa:
“I bet you could tell me a thing or two about Africa. I bet you could teach me something.”
He had meant this to prompt the other man into talking. He’d told his story openly; now they could both be open. But the shadow passed again over Mr Sagatwa’s face. He stood up quickly, dabbing at his mouth with a serviette, and said, “Excuse me please. I have a bad headache. I am going to lie down.”
Douglas sat at the table for a long time, baffled and a little hurt. He hadn’t meant any harm – quite the opposite. But he knew now that any friendly overtures would be rebuffed. Mr Sagatwa just didn’t want to talk. Well, it was like that sometimes; people only opened up when they were ready to.
Most of the other diners had left, and a melancholy waiter was wiping the tables. Outside, the landscape of brown grass had given way to bareness and stones, punctuated by flat koppies; they were in the Karoo.
He went back to the compartment. Mr Sagatwa was reclining against the back-rest, his eyes closed. The old man was slumped blearily in his corner. Douglas returned to his problematic sermon.
He was due to give it on Sunday, just four days from now. It was to be his introduction; the congregation would be seeing and hearing him for the first time. He couldn’t afford to fail. But the words wouldn’t come. Or rather, the words wouldn’t cluster together to form ideas; they washed all over the page. He needed some central theme to bind it together.
Usually, in the sermons he’d had to give while studying, he liked to build his lesson around a story. Jesus Himself had liked parables. But Jesus always knew what He wanted to say. Douglas – although he had some notion that he wanted to talk about Africa – didn’t have an African story to tell.
So he scratched and scribbled and crossed out and, in the end, snapped the notebook shut in irritation.
In the evening, when Mr Sagatwa went out to the dining car, Douglas didn’t follow him. He deliberately waited for him to get back before he himself went to eat. It was late; the train had started to wear a frayed, unhappy look. Under the yellow lights the stains on the floors and walls were very black. Douglas took a long time to eat, chewing slowly while he looked at his reflection in the glass and thought about the future.
When he got back to the compartment, the other two had gone to bed. The drunk man had taken the top bunk, his heavy snores rolling down. Mr Sagatwa was in the bed below, but in the blue glow of the night-light Douglas could see that he wasn’t asleep; his small frame lay tensely on its back, hands under his head.
But Douglas didn’t feel like sleeping. His mind was electric and alive. All sorts of anxious images coursed through him. He sat near the window, looking out. The landscape in the moonlight had the vast, sculpted look of the sea; it gave him a hollow, excited feeling to think of it rolling on and on like that: a whole continent, covered by night. But in his little car, moving insignificantly across the surface of things, he did not feel connected to what he saw outside. That is Africa, he thought, and I am here. We are not the same.
Then the train stopped at a little station, an almost nameless siding, no different to thirty others at which they had stopped and started all day. But now the train didn’t move again. After ten minutes Douglas went out onto the platform.
The heat of the day had gone; it was cold outside. A few other
people had got off the train and were wandering around. Near the engine at the front Douglas saw the conductor and the driver watching two other men in overalls, who were crouched down, working on something. He went over.
The conductor seemed to take mournful delight in giving bad news. “There is a technical problem, sir,” he said. “It could take a few hours.”
A few hours! It seemed inconceivable that they would not move for so long. In every direction the hard blue land spread out, under a thick bed of stars. There were no houses, no bright little windows anywhere. Douglas walked to the edge of the platform and stood, looking. But there was nothing to see. He was about to go back to the compartment and to bed, when he became aware of somebody next to him.
It was Mr Sagatwa. He seemed full of intense urgency, though he didn’t move at first. Then he said to Douglas, “I want to talk to you.”
“I want to tell you my story.”
“Yes,” Douglas said, “yes.”
He felt a relief and release inside. He realised that he’d been waiting all day for this.
They walked up and down the platform. It was too cold to sit still, and neither of them wanted to go back to the compartment. So they kept moving, pressing in towards each other, for warmth or company.
“Let me be clear,” Mr Sagatwa said. “I am not trying to befriend you. The opposite is true. I want to tell you my story because I know that I will never see you again. I have been carrying this story with me every day, all the way down from Rwanda. I would like to tell one person, just one other person, what happened to me. I want to tell my story and then walk away. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Douglas said, though he thought that it might work out differently. In his experience, when people had told him their story they tended to be tied to him afterwards. It was a way of drawing them in, bringing them closer to the Truth.
“My story is simple,” Mr Sagatwa said. “It is a story of two brothers. My brother, Pascal, and me.”
“Very biblical,” Douglas said approvingly.
“What can I tell you about my childhood?” Mr Sagatwa said. “It was a happy, simple time. We lived in a small village. We were ordinary people.
“Pascal was a year older than me. Although we grew up together, I didn’t know him well. He had his own friends, his own life. He was not very academic; he didn’t finish school. But he got an office job in Kigali, working for the government. He did well.
“When I left school I started a small business, selling seeds and fertiliser. I borrowed money from Pascal to get my business going. I was successful and I was able to pay him back with interest, a small sum every month. Life was good.
“Pascal got married in Kigali, to a Hutu girl. They had two children and in a few years they moved back to the village. He was still working for the government, as an agricultural inspector. He lived in a big house, not far from me.
“I was also married by then, to a Tutsi woman. I had one child. I did not care that my brother had a Hutu wife, though she was rude sometimes to our family. She would say, ‘You Tutsis are like this, you Tutsis are like that.’ My mother disliked her, but I didn’t care. When his wife talked in that rude way, my brother would laugh. It was like a joke to him.
“I don’t know what you have heard about that time. But the trouble didn’t come suddenly. First there was talk, a lot of hateful talk, on the radio and in the newspapers. And then this talk came into the street too. People were saying terrible things.
“Of course, there was a history. There had been trouble before, Hutu and Tutsi trouble. There had been big killing in Burundi. That is part of the story, but in a way it is also another story. When trouble comes, it happens to you alone.”
“Very true,” Douglas said. He had learned that little encouraging interjections could help people to talk. But Mr Sagatwa didn’t even look at him; he seemed consumed in what he was remembering.
“By now people were warning me that it would be better for us to go. I went to Pascal and said, ‘Let us take our families and run away. We can go to Tanzania until this trouble is past.’ But he said, ‘I am Hutu now, it will be all right.’ I asked him what he meant by this.
“Then my brother shocked me. He took out his identity card and showed me. And his card had been changed. It did not say ‘Tutsi’ any more, it said ‘Hutu.’
“I knew how he had done this. The father of Agnes, his wife, was a powerful man in the village. It was he who had arranged it. I asked my brother, ‘Is it not possible for us to get new identity cards too? Will Agnes’s father protect us?’ My brother laughed. He said, ‘I am a Hutu now, I will look after you.’
“I believed him. I thought it would be all right. I didn’t want to leave. When you have been in one place your whole life, you know nothing else. So I waited. Many people were going. But I stayed.”
“I can understand that,” Douglas said. He felt bold enough to take Mr Sagatwa’s arm. They paced the length of the platform and turned. They were almost the only passengers left outside by now.
“In the end I decided to leave too. But by then it was too late. They were closing the roads, they were checking papers. The interahamwe, the militias, were marching and singing in the streets. They were shouting, ‘Kill the cockroaches.’ That is what they called the Tutsis – cockroaches.
“The night the president’s plane was shot down, we knew, everybody knew: it will start now. There was no power that night, the lights went out. And there was silence everywhere. Deep quiet. Then Pascal came to me. He said, ‘It is not safe here. Not safe in your house. You must come with me.’ So we went with him to his house, my family, my mother and father too.
“He hid us in a special place, a room under the house. We spent many days there. Outside, the killing had started. My brother told us, ‘It is very bad.’ But under the house it was dark and we couldn’t hear anything. We were afraid.
“Then Pascal came to me. He said, ‘Where is the money you owe me?’ I said, ‘But my brother, what money is that?’ He said, ‘You know what money I am talking about. I lent money to you, for your business. Now we are taking care of you, we are hiding you. It is expensive for us. You must pay what you owe.’
“I had paid him everything, all the money, a long time ago. But what choice did I have? So I gave him more money, all the money that I had. It was my life savings. But he was angry; he said it wasn’t enough.
“And then I knew. He was not my brother any more. He was not with me, he was with them. I knew, but I could do nothing.”
Douglas opened his mouth to speak, but shut it again.
“My wife started to cry. She said, ‘It is finished with us.’ I told her it was not my brother’s fault, it was his wife who made him do it. I said this, but I knew inside that she was right, it was finished with us.
“Not long after that, they came. Maybe Pascal had been waiting for them, giving them time. Or maybe he had not been sure what he would do. I don’t know. But when the killing outside had been going on a long time, when it was quiet again, they came.
“Agnes was there. Her father was there. And others, many people that I knew.
“My brother was with them. His face was changed, there was some demon in him. He was shouting with them, ‘Kill the cockroaches!’ He said, ‘Come out, come out of your hole.’ I called to him, ‘Brother, my brother!’ He said, ‘I do not know you.'”
Mr Sagatwa’s voice changed. He had been speaking slowly, with deep feeling, but now his tone went flat. It was as if he were reading out a shopping list.
“First they raped my wife. Then they cut off her feet, her hands. Then they killed her. They forced us to watch. They used pangas and knives. It took a long time, longer than you can imagine.
“Then my mother. The same thing. My brother took part in everything, the raping and the killing. She was his mother too, but he was like an animal.
“Then they killed my father. He died quickly, he was very old. But the blood, the blood that came out of his body. I thought it would never end.
“Then my son. They dragged us both outside, to the well. They were going to kill my son with stones, but my brother sai
d, ‘No, let us throw him in the well.’ So they took him, a six-year-old boy, and they threw him down the hole. I could hear him screaming from far down, inside the ground.
“These were people that I knew, my neighbours, my friends. One was a man I bought bread from every day. One was my brother.”
Douglas had gone pale. They had stopped walking now, but they weren’t looking at each other. They were facing out over the empty landscape to where the moon was going down.
“And then, before they could kill me, I got away. I don’t know how I did this. It was as if some power from what I had seen came into me.
“There was a white light, like the sun, in my head, and then I was running, running. Through bushes and stones. I got away.”
Douglas cleared his throat. “You got away?”
“Yes. I do not remember very well. There was a river near that place, with a cave. Some people were hiding there. I stayed with them for a long time, until the Rwandan Patriotic Front came. But I don’t remember well.”
He made an abrupt gesture and went silent. The stream of words had stopped. Douglas would think, much later, of questions he should have asked. He did not know, for example, how Mr Sagatwa had left Rwanda, how he had come down to South Africa. But in that moment it didn’t seem to matter. The gesture he had made was like a chopping and a throwing away at the same time, as if he was tossing aside the rest of his life. It was as if he had died, along with his family, and what followed on had happened to a ghost.
“What I think about, more than anything, is my brother. How he could have done that. To me, to my mother and father. I thought I knew him, but I didn’t.”
Douglas said, “Maybe he was afraid.”
“Of what? Of being killed? That would have been a better choice.” He said it tonelessly – an observation. “Afterwards, I heard, he murdered many people. He was famous for it. He was one of the militia leaders, a big man. We were just the start for him. He taught himself, with us, what he could do.”
“What happened to him?”
“He disappeared.” Mr Sagatwa shrugged. “Maybe he is hiding. Maybe he is dead.”
“Do you want to see him again?”
“To understand. To try to forgive?”
“Forgive?” He gave a short laugh and looked at Douglas with sudden interest. It was only now, with that deep, dark stare on him, that Douglas realised: Mr Sagatwa had never made eye contact before. “Tell me,” he said, “is there forgiveness for such a man?”
“Leonard. Mr Sagatwa. Listen.” But when he tried to speak there were no words. He was too heavy with the story he’d just heard. Except it wasn’t a story. All of it had actually happened to this man. It was real. He had seen things that Douglas’s life had never shown him. And he hoped he never would be shown.
“God forgives everything?” Mr Sagatwa said with bitter irony.
“Yes? Yes! God forgives, if He is asked.”
“He has not been asked.”
“Not by your brother, maybe. But, Mr Sagatwa, you can ask on his behalf.”
“I do not forgive him.”
“Not yet. Forgiveness is a long journey. Maybe that’s why you were spared?”
As he started speaking, he sensed the old rhetoric rising, and immediately he felt better. The Lord was giving him the words.
But Mr Sagatwa made that same gesture again, chopping and throwing away. He cut off Douglas’s speech in mid-air.
“Never,” he said. “Never, never, never.”
A whistle blew. Surfacing from a dream, Douglas heard the conductor calling. The few people who were still hanging around stirred themselves and went back to the train. They were about to depart.
“Oh,” Douglas said. “Look there? So soon? I thought a few hours?”
It was a relief to be hurrying away.
In the compartment, the drunk man slept on. He had missed it all: the breakdown, the waiting, the story. The train moved forward. The lights of the little platform outside moved backwards, out of view.
Mr Sagatwa didn’t look at Douglas now. It was as if something shameful had happened between them. He undressed quickly and got into his bed and rolled on his side, facing the wall.
But Douglas still couldn’t sleep. He sat at the window, pressing his face to a crack where he could feel cool air coming in. He wanted to be sick. Outside the moonlight had gone. The landscape was like a river of darkness, rushing endlessly past.
In the morning they were all very formal and polite with each other again. Even the old man was polite. He sat, ashamed and hungover, in his corner, smelling of stale wine.
Mr Sagatwa and Douglas nodded to each other, but they didn’t speak. They busied themselves with dressing and folding up the bedding and the bunks, and then Douglas went out to the dining car and didn’t come back until they were almost in Cape Town, Table Mountain looming overhead.
Before they stopped, Mr Sagatwa had taken up his little suitcase and said goodbye. He shook hands with both of them, Douglas and the old man, as if there were no difference between them.
“Be in touch,” Douglas said, “if you want to. You know where to find me.”
Mr Sagatwa nodded, but it was as if he was shaking his head. Then he was gone. Douglas took his time about leaving the carriage, to let him disappear in the crowd. He was glad when the old man asked if he could give him a hand with his luggage, it was so heavy.
So he had his sermon. It was all there: the initial awkwardness and hostility, followed by the midnight confession, the terrible story of two brothers (like Cain and Abel), even the old man with his bigotry. It was an authentic African sermon.
And it went down very well. Douglas had an in-built sense, a speaker’s intuition, of how his words were being received. At first, when he began talking, the rows of weathered faces looking up at him – fisherfolk with tough, inscrutable lives – seemed bemused. But then he felt it: they were listening.
His confidence grew. He found his voice. He spoke very simply, but with passion. And afterwards, when he stood outside the door of the little wooden church, and they filed past to say hello to their new minister, he could feel in the way they smiled and squeezed his hand how warm they were towards him.
He’d had to change certain things, of course. No story is exactly like real life. So the old white man, for instance – Douglas gave him a change of heart in the end. He made him so impressed with the fine manners of Mr Sagatwa that he threw his racism aside.
And Mr Sagatwa couldn’t be left hard-hearted and full of hate: it was the wrong message. So in Douglas’s version, Mr Sagatwa melted. He heard what Douglas had to say and then – unwillingly, painfully – he accepted it. He went down on his knees and wept. He said that he forgave his brother. It wasn’t easy for him, but he knew that he had to do so.
Then Douglas spoke about himself. He told them how he had always looked at Africa as something outside him and apart. But after Mr Sagatwa’s moment of truth, Douglas said that he himself had changed. When he went back to the train and watched the countryside go past the window, he suddenly realised that he carried Africa inside him.
It was a tale of triple redemption, and Douglas delivered it ringingly. “Anything can be forgiven,” he told them. “There is no crime, no sin, no deed, that God – or we – cannot forgive. We have that choice.”
Although Douglas knew that he’d adjusted reality a little, in his heart he believed that what he’d described might come to pass. However vehement he’d been at the time, Mr Sagatwa might still change his mind. A seed had been planted. By the grace of God, all pride and injury could be overcome.
For himself, Douglas did feel closer to Africa. He’d been afraid of his new posting at first. But he went out among the little houses and shacks, he talked to the people, he ate with them, he heard their stories. He started to bond with them. Africa had taken him in, or the other way around. His faith grew stronger.
So it came as a shock, a tremor in the foundations, when, months after he’d arrived, he saw Mr Sagatwa again. He was busy making supper for himself in his little kitchen, with the news flickering on the television in the background, when he looked at the screen and there he was. Mr Sagatwa was in handcuff
s, being pushed into a car. The voice of the newsreader said that Pascal Sagatwa, a genocide suspect from Rwanda, had been traced to Cape Town and arrested. It was likely that he would be sent back to stand trial.
It was wrong; it was all wrong. Douglas stood limply in the kitchen, the vegetable knife in his hand. He said, “no, no,” to himself, and had to sit down.
For a few moments he was full of outrage at the mess and confusion of it, the injustice of what had happened. They had got it the wrong way around, it was a grotesque mistake, and perhaps only he knew the real story. He wondered whether it was incumbent on him now to be a witness, to go to Cape Town and tell them everything.
Then something turned in Douglas, something fell away – and he knew. He realised that he had always known, even as Mr Sagatwa had told the story.
It was true. What they said about him was true. He had done those things, those unthinkable things. The certainty hit him like somebody punching his skull. He leaned his head against the back of the chair until the dizziness cleared from his eyes.
He left his half-prepared supper and went out, wandering aimlessly through the streets. In the warm dusk people were sitting outside, talking, and some of his congregation called to him as he went past. He waved back automatically, but his thoughts were elsewhere: on the train journey down to Cape Town. He could remember it all vividly, almost word for word. And his mind kept going to the sensation of Mr Sagatwa’s thin arm when he’d held it, and what that arm, that hand, had done.
The question that kept rising was why. Not why Mr Sagatwa had committed those deeds – there is always a reason for evil – but why he had lied about it afterwards. Why had he changed places with his brother? Douglas didn’t know the answer. There was no clear moral theme, no uplifting lesson to be learned. There were only shadowy motives and more questions, one behind the other, receding back into darkness – a darkness he couldn’t penetrate, in which no grace was present.
He slept very little that night. Sometime in the small hours, he realised what he wanted to do. When the sun came up he was already on the road, driving down to Cape Town, to the court. On the television last night they had said there was to be a hearing this morning on Mr Sagatwa’s extradition. Douglas did not know why exactly, but he wanted to be there. He felt that it was necessary. Although he couldn’t define it for himself, it seemed to him that if he could talk to Mr Sagatwa, if he could stand in front of him and look into his eyes, things might be better afterwards. Maybe for both of them.
But it didn’t work out like that. He did see Mr Sagatwa, but it was from a distance, in passing. There was heavy traffic leading into Cape Town, and then he spent nearly an hour looking for parking. By the time he got to the court it was too late. The hearing was over and Mr Sagatwa had lost. He was being sent back to stand trial.
Douglas found himself in a press of spectators, journalists and cameramen, in a narrow corridor outside the court as Mr Sagatwa was hustled by. His hands were chained behind him. He was neatly dressed, as he had been in the train, and he wore his little, round gold-rimmed spectacles.
Their eyes met for a second as he went past. It was fleeting, an accidental glance. But it seemed to Doug-las that there was that same infinitesimal change in Mr Sagatwa’s expression: a shadow that passed across his face, before the crowd closed behind him.
Just that; just the one look. And Douglas had to drive home. He took the longer, less used route, on the lonely coastal road. It was a still autumn day, the light pale and clear, seagulls wheeling and calling overhead. Normally he would have been caught up in the beauty of it, but not today. The world was inverted and strange. He didn’t know where he was.
He was thinking now of what Mr Sagatwa had said to him before he told the story. He’d said that he wanted to tell it just once, and then walk away. And now it seemed to Douglas that perhaps it was a way for Mr Sagatwa to be innocent again. Just briefly, in the mind of one other person, he wanted to undo what he’d done. You couldn’t lie to God, but you could lie to people. And he’d chosen Douglas.
When he got back, he parked outside the church and sat in the car for a long time. He didn’t feel like going in; it was easier not to move. He could see the hard little steeple with its surmounting cross against the sky, but they brought him no comfort today. They looked like curious symbols, signs from an old, lost language, separate to him and far away.