Black in Kigali, Grey in Koblenz

Gregor Schürer
Black in Kigali, Grey in Koblenz
He always had the lights on. I could tell by observing the windows. It didn’t matter at what time I looked up to him, the shades were neither down nor were the curtains drawn. And the lights were always burning bright. Regardless if I came back at 5 in the morning after a night shift or in the evening at 9 after a late shift, they were always turned on. And lit in every room; all the windows facing the street were illuminated, weird. Generally, he was a weird fellow.

Although he had been living in our apartment building for a while now, nobody really knew him. He always greeted politely when passing on the staircase, but then he would lower his gaze and walk quickly away. It was as though he felt like something was chasing him. I didn’t even know where he came from. In a way all Africans look the same to us. Until Schwerdtfeger told me that he is native to Rwanda. The people from social services had told him that because he had kept asking them relentlessly. He, being the maintenance supervisor after all, had to know.

As a bus driver one develops an eye for people. Yet with him I had difficulties. I didn’t really know how to gauge him. Until last week. Then I got to know him. And how!

It was late morning and I was about to go shopping. As I opened my flat-door and stepped out into the hallway, he was coming up the stairs with a paper bag under his arm. Startled, he attempted to sidestep me and dropped the bag. It fell on the floor, burst open and in doing so, seven or eight tubes of “Pattex” glue lay on the tile floor.

“One moment, I’ll help you.”

I bent down, picked up the tubes and put them into my cloth bag, while he simply stood there paralyzed. I stood back up and offered him the bag.

“Here you go.”

He took the bag, thanked me, and then ran up the stairs, always two steps at a time.
In the afternoon just as I had finished preparing tea, the doorbell rang. He had come to return the bag to me. To my own surprise, I invited him inside. To further my astonishment, he accepted. We sat down at the kitchen table. I served some steaming tea.

“What is your name actually?” I asked.

“Peter, like the apostle” he answered and pronounced the name with a long I, like the English do. I raised my eyebrows.

“I am Tutsi, from Rwanda, where the majority of people are Catholic,” he added as an explanation. His smooth German surprised me. As though he could read my thoughts from my facial expression he said, “I have been living in Koblenz for many years.”

We drank. My curiosity burst into the silence: “The lights, why do you always keep the lights on?”

He hesitated for a moment before answering:

“I was able to escape back then. First I hid in a hole in the ground and later in a cellar in Kigali. It was always dark, pitch black for days, weeks, I don’t know. Since then I can’t stand darkness at all. When I close my eyes, it can’t be completely dark. The light has to be bright enough for me to see some grey even with my eyelids shut.”

Now I remembered. Naturally I had also read of the massacres back then in the newspapers. Hutu Militia had pillaged the streets for weeks killing people randomly and with unimaginable cruelty. Men, women, children, seniors, whomever as long as they were Tutsi or were thought to be so. 700.000 dead, maybe a million, who could really keep track.

“Can you sleep at all with the lights on?” I wanted to know.

“Whenever my little daughter Kabisa couldn’t sleep, I would always sing her a lullaby. When she was born, she was so beautiful that my wife and I gave her the name Kabisa, which is Swahili and means ‘Perfect’. Nowadays I find myself still singing that song sometimes when I can’t find any peace.”

He started to sing a song in a foreign language, his raspy voice and the calming melody sounded odd, but beautiful and filled with love. I sat and listened. I didn’t want to know how Kabisa was killed, with a machete, an axe or a screwdriver. But I knew that she wasn’t alive, that I could tell by his singing. The last sound of his brittle voice faded.
“And what is up with the glue?” I asked him with tears streaming down my face, because nothing better came to my mind.

“I smell it when the pain becomes unbearable,” he answered.

“You know that’s not healthy, right?” A smile flickered across his face.

“Yeah, yeah, not healthy.”

He thanked me for the tea and left.

Two days later, I was at the hardware store to get some new shelves. I brought back a ten pack of really bright LED lamps. Those I put in front of his door.
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