Turning Japanese: The Kigali Remix

The fixer needed the bathroom, and also to be able to ask questions without a camera-wielding white girl hanging in the background.

He pointed to a bright yellow shop wall radiating afternoon heat.

“Wait here,” he said.

There was a small ledge next to the wall and I sat down, withering into a ball under the sun. I buried my face in my hands.

“Are you ill?” said a voice.

I squinted up from under the hand-shield.

“I’m fine, thanks – I’m just waiting for somebody.”

“You don’t have malaria?” asked the voice.

“What?” I said.

“You look like you have malaria.”

“No, the sun is just very hot,” I said.

“Then you must move,” said the voice.

Fair point. I got up and stood in the shade of a bus. I felt something brush my hand and looked down. A little girl was standing there, staring up at me. She placed her hand in mine.

“Hello,” I said. She stared.

“One race, the human race,” sang a passing drunk. The fixer came out of the bathroom and shooed him away. I looked back down. The kid was gone.

We headed in the direction of one of the station entrances. The fixer needed to ask around some more.

“Stay here,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

This time I looked for shade. The drunk had followed and kept shaking my hand. The sentry at the entry glared as if it was my fault.

“You are American?” asked a man next to me.

“South African,” I said.

He liked that and grabbed my hand and introduced himself and told the drunk to move on.

“I apologise for my English,” he said. “It’s not very good, it’s only my fourth language.”

My mouth dropped. “You speak four languages?”

“Well, five,” he said. “First, Kinyarwanda, then French, then Swahili, then English… and then a little Japanese.”

His name was Leopold. In another life, years ago, he had worked in the Japanese embassy, he said.

“You need to teach me. How do I say ‘hello’?”

He skrewed up his eyes and fired up the neurons in the Japanese corner of his brain.

“Before noon, you say, ohayō gozaimasu. And after noon, you say, konnichiwa.”

“And ‘goodbye’?” “Sayōnara.”  But if you’re going to see someone again, you say, dewa mata.” Three days later, the words are running in a loop in my head as I pack my bag to head home. You have an open invitation to visit, I tell everyone – not sayōnara, but dewa mata, dewa mata, dewa mata. 

I repeat it to myself, willing it to be true, that the idea-swapping and day-sharing and story-planning and journey-making days with the Women of IWMF will go on and on and on.

Leopold looked at his watch. He had someone to meet.

“I must go,” he said, skipping off into the bus station. “Dewa mata!”

It was the last I saw of him.