Holding in a laugh is hard for Mel, and in the middle of a coughing, sniffling, shuffling terminal at five am, it’s practically impossible to mask the snorting giggles and sudden guffaws she’s making. Melbourne Airport pumps dry, cool air throughout the terminal—a strange contrast to the forty-degree day ahead. Mel warms herself by muffled laughter over a video that answers a long-held question: what is gouligoule?
Who knew it meant Google all along? Mel remembers her parents giggling like children over her ignorance of what the term meant. She could never guess it right, and they never brought up the video to explain. It’s typical of her parents to bring up something culturally relevant and let it drop, assuming she doesn’t need to know.
They weren’t always like that. In Lyon they mentioned taking them to Rwanda all the time, how they’d teach them the language. In Florida, they mentioned it less, complaining about how spoiled and Western they’d become. In Australia, they stopped, switching to the subject of how to afford a house after all the moving. Once Mel and her siblings scattered, they moved back to Rwanda, taking none of them along for the ride. They’ve invited them to visit of course, but it’s never worked out until now. Now that their grandfather is dying.
Mel’s flight to Bangkok is at six and she’s filling the hour with videos that relate as closely to her destination as possible. Videos that show the rolling hills, mountain gorillas, videos of a Ugandan comedian she likes. She drinks in the dirt roads, the banana leaves, the lay of shops, the clothes. If she gets those details right, then maybe they’ll seem familiar once she lands.
Adjusting her blazer, she fiddles with her silver watch strap, noting how it’s barely fifteen past now. Moments like these make her tug stray strands of relaxed hair behind her ears. What will her cousins think of her? Will they see her as the rich Western cousin come to shower them with gifts and contacts? Maybe help with immigration forms? The ones her age seem to dress like her—business suits and solemn faces—so maybe they won’t judge her as much. Scrolling through her YouTube feed, she finds a video titled, Pourquoi visiter le Rwanda.
How strange, hearing why she should visit Rwanda from a French guy. Or is he Belgian? If it’s the latter, that would be hot irony. She isn’t surprised by his facts until he gets to the swimming cows. Her parents never told her about them. Why didn’t they tell her about them? Did they assume it was common knowledge? Of all the funny WhatsApp videos they send her, this one is sorely missing. Huffing, Mel decides to look for language tutorials. Her knowledge of Kinyarwanda ends at half a greeting, stuttering to find what to say in response to ‘Muraho’ again.
‘Muraho neza,’ a man enunciates for her. He proceeds to list a thousand different versions of greetings and their responses, talking to the audience as if they’re all white businessmen or tourists looking to enrich themselves with a cultural experience of Africa. Closing YouTube, Mel searches for other resources and comes across a web dictionary called Glosbe. There was a PDF though, a complete language course that her older sister Mamie downloaded years ago, and she can’t find it. How good would it be if she could read it over her flight? She’s no stranger to heavy reading in a short time. God knows her job as policy writer forces her to digest complicated jargon and dish it back in bite-sized pieces.
She’s no language genius like Mamie or Marisol though. Man, if Mel knew a language like Japanese or Spanish, she’d leave monolingual Australia once and for all. As it stands, Mamie flew off to Japan to teach English and Marisol flew off to Florida to be with her husband Miguel, back to the place where she was born.
Where is that PDF though? Mel lets out a dry laugh, opening WhatsApp to message Mamie. She hesitates at the passive aggressive replies her older sister has left her over the past few weeks. What if she’s too grumpy to send her the PDF?
Mamie’s the one who’s been the most reluctant about this pilgrimage. If it hadn’t been for their dying grandfather, who knows how many times she would’ve made an excuse not to go?
Mel asks her about the PDF anyway.
Twelve hours since Mel’s message and Mamie won’t answer. She can answer. Her laptop is perfectly snug in her carry-on bag and the wi-fi at Haneda International Airport allows her to send PDFs with no problem. She just won’t.
She’s spent the last hour marvelling at the illuminations on the ground floor. They’re breathtaking. Pulling on the edges of her too-small coat, it makes her feel like she’s still in the middle of Tokyo, enjoying a lonely woman’s Christmas. A lone woman’s Christmas. This New Year’s resolution is to get rid of the expectation that she’ll ever make friends in this country of frozen smiles. And that’s fine. That’s why she moved here. She needed to be in a place where she clearly did not belong in order to stop feeling like she had to.
Stopping by the one bookstore on the second floor, Mamie picks up a trending novel that recently got a movie adaptation. The first lines are sappy: an older man reflecting back on the love of his youth. She can tell it’s not something she’ll take seriously, but that’s not the point. It’s in a language she can understand. As foreign as it is, she can drink it in, absorb every word and feel something other than frustration.
God knows she tried learning Kinyarwanda. As the eldest she knows the most French, slaved over learning Japanese, and yet, the one language that matters is beyond her reach. She knows exactly what comes after ‘Muraho’ but when the moment of truth comes, she stutters, and the uncles and aunties explode in belittling laughter that makes Mamie shut up for good.
Walking into the bluish light of the observation deck, Mamie stares at the pitch black beyond the windows. There’s nothing there and there’s nothing in Rwanda. A dying grandfather she’s only met once, relatives that’ll treat her like a rich tourist, and her parents, oblivious as always to the pain they inflict upon her every single time they say she’s not really African.
How could her dad laugh, saying such a thing about her every single time a guest snickered into their house? When she confronted him about it, his face hardened.
‘I’m Western, too, now. That’s how they see me over there.’
‘At least you can claim you’re from somewhere!’
She never acknowledged the look on his face, how it mirrored hers perfectly.
Mamie checks her phone, blinking moisture from her mascara. There’s another message, from her sister Marie-Soleil this time, or rather Marisol. She changed her name after settling in Florida. The youngest and most outrageous.
Can you send me a recording of that lullaby Mom and Dad used to sing us?
Yasmin has had trouble sleeping lately…
Mamie fumes. Why doesn’t she ask her damn community? The Rwandan community where she participates in all the traditional dances and all the community picnics and all the community language classes. If Mel wanted to get language learning resources from someone, she should’ve asked Marisol. That cultural savant knows everything there is to know about Rwanda. She’s the only one who’s ever been, even if she was a little baby at the time. Marisol with her light skin and perfect body. She even had the nerve to tell Mamie to be proud of her African curves. African curves on a Not-Really-African! Mamie’s glad her sister is all the way in Florida. Her optimism makes her want to break the window.
Instead, Mamie leans her forehead on the glass. In the rhythm of her evening breaths, the words of the lullaby float through her mind, garbled by memory. She remembers her proud smile, joining along with her parents, so proud of this one part of her that made her more special than any of her white classmates. She had Rwanda.
Mamie raises her phone to her mouth and takes a deep breath. Puzzled murmurs stir at the sound of her voice. She sings, lips trembling.
Only then does she send Mel the PDF.
In Lyon, everyone calls her Marie-Soleil. She can sort of understand French, but not speak a lick of it. Her Spanish is still a bit raw, and her Kinyarwanda is a laughing foreigner’s talk, but all in all, Marisol is happy. She doesn’t obsess and grudge like Mamie. That’s for people intent on ruining their lives. With a loving husband, a wonderful firstborn and a bright future to look forward to, why bend yourself senseless over things you have no control over?
She’s spending a few days layover with her great-aunt before her flight to Nairobi. She wants to say that Lyon is beautiful, but it’s dead winter and the sky is grey as the middle of a hurricane. Her aunt jokes that Marisol is the first sun they’ve seen in weeks. Her daughter’s squealing laughter cuts through the dreary mornings, adding to Marisol’s delight at the journey ahead.
When Marisol was eighteen-months-old like little Yasmin now, her mother took her to Rwanda—the only sibling in her family. Just like that time, Marisol is spending a few days in Lyon, where her great-aunt can’t help gushing at how little she was back then, and how, twenty-seven years later, Yasmin is the spitting image of her young self.
Her mother still sends her pictures from that time along with the occasional WhatsApp video. Whenever Marisol needs help with Kinyarwanda, her mother eagerly answers in paragraphs. It makes Marisol smile until her mom ends with asking why Mamie isn’t answering her messages.
Rocking Yasmin to sleep in her makeshift igitenge sling, Marisol tuts at the recording Mamie sent. Is she for real? If Mamie has a problem like that at her age, she better go see a therapist, or come back from Japan and join Mel in Australia. There are plenty of ESOL jobs there. Marisol doesn’t understand why Mamie has to make a spectacle of her identity crisis.
The evenings are warm in her cousin’s dance studio where the Rwandan dance troupe is practicing for a cultural exhibition. It reminds her of those Urunana videos, that Swiss training camp where dancers perfect their skills. Bathing in gold light, the dancers’ dark skin glisten with the sweat of moving their arms into elegant shapes. Marisol is glad to see women who are lighter-skinned than her. They’re mixed, but Marisol gets her fair tan from her grandfather, the one who’s dying.
Both Mel and Mamie have met him once, briefly, when he came with their grandmother the first time. The second time, their grandmother came alone, fearing for his health. He got healthier, but when they were discussing bringing him over again, he was diagnosed with cancer. Since then it’s been a matter of time.
The days in Lyon rock her to the wet heat of Nairobi. From Nairobi to the cooler clouds of Kigali. Sleek skyscrapers and smooth streets strike her with their freshness. Kigali, the clean city, cleanest in Africa, it’s said. The people parade in colours that stick to the back of her eyelids, make her think it’s one big festival on the stoic faces waddling past. Her skin itches. She tries to blame the humidity, but she knows it’s discomfort. To think she would feel like a tourist. As the last sister to arrive, she doesn’t know what to expect.
Their grandfather’s house is three stories. Her uncle boasts about how he’s thinking of building a fourth floor. One day they’ll all join him there, he proclaims. Bring your husband, he says. Bring your husband’s family. Marisol smiles, imagining dear Miguel in their Floridian home, the Spanish tiles, the palm trees, the endless procession of aunties from the Dominican Republic. How those relatives say they should all come to the island, come stay. She’s never felt so welcomed anywhere else, not even her mother’s arms.
Mamie hugs her, as sisters do. There are tears in her eyes, and a murmured ‘thank you’ on her lips. She wears a turquoise, poolside blue and vibrant green-patterned dress fashioned by a tailor nearby. It makes Marisol think of a mermaid twisting around lush trees. Mamie even utters a few words in Kinyarwanda and answers simple questions without her usual frown. In the kitchen, Mamie samples their mother’s igitoki, ikijumba and isombe, three foods that Marisol never liked and never will like. The relatives praise Mamie. Mamie who belongs now, finally.
Mel talks career paths to some university-age cousins, exchanges business cards with others, laughs at the same jokes, the same videos. Marisol doesn’t get it, but she joins in anyway. The aunties say she’s the spitting image of some great-aunt or other on the grandfather’s side, as well as her grandfather. No one else looks like her. That’s okay. It’s normal. It’s just a family thing, a weird gene that only Marisol and her grandfather got. Everyone calls her Mari, sans soleil or even sol. The nurse clatters down the stairs, says this could be the end.
Mel and Mamie link hands with her. Her dad massages her shoulders. Her mother pats them. They proceed to the top floor, singing a song that Mamie and Mel can mumble the words to now. Mari watches Mamie’s lips and mouths along with a smile. Her sister laughs. The song stops at the sound of coughing. The nurse pushes past and enters first, urging the rest of the family to join. Somehow, they all fit into the room, like a second living room. Baby Yasmin cries on Marisol’s back. A cousin helps her get the child out of her sling and into her arms. She approaches the bed.
A pale face turns to her, paler than it’s supposed to be. Squinted eyes crinkle and a cracked mouth stretches.
‘Muraho namwe,’ she whispers.
He coughs, mutters words she doesn’t understand. She squeezes his hand. For once it looks like she belongs, with this dying man who looks just like her. He blinks, once, twice. His hand slackens in hers. Yasmin builds up a wail. Marisol stands back, rocking her baby. The nurse checks his pulse, shakes her head.
The wail spreads like a yawn. Marisol bounces Yasmin up and down, shushing her, shushing them. Her parents cling to her shoulders. Their hands are warm. Yasmin’s whimpers are warm. Everything is warm in this crowded room, the air too thick to breathe in.
Marisol alone breathes in even hushes, a sun sucked dry. She doesn’t lose the cool rhythm of her breaths. The room’s cries build in her, rumble and pound to the invisible fourth floor her uncle is dreaming of, but she can’t generate a single tear. She looks to her sisters. They stare back, dry-eyed, squeezing hands in the eye of a storm that will never touch them.
How can they cry for a stranger?
Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga is an Australian writer of Rwandan heritage. She has short stories published in Underground Writers and StylusLit. Her work has been shortlisted for the 2018 Monash Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing. Twitter @aniyonsenga