The waters only hear the sound of the oars

A story about a boy amidst the conflict in lake kivu  The evening darkened without notice while the fishermen were still at large. Clouds concealed the sunset for the last evening hour and the ceasing of light came abruptly, forcing Moshen to forgo his attempts of tilapia-fishing, which had not provided a good catch, with only three palm-long fish.
Lake Kivu Illustration. Photo Vlad Dandu.
Lake Kivu Illustration. Photo Vlad Dandu.

A story about a boy amidst the conflict in lake kivu

The evening darkened without notice while the fishermen were still at large. Clouds concealed the sunset for the last evening hour and the ceasing of light came abruptly, forcing Moshen to forgo his attempts of tilapia-fishing, which had not provided a good catch, with only three palm-long fish.

The heat of the dry season had driven the fish to the deeper, cooler waters, and one needed several rolls of line in order to even attempt matching the rainy season capture. The shift between seasons had taken place the prior week, during the last days of May, when it rained until thursday and then friday the bitter sun came out and branded tan-lines on the dark canvas of worn fisherman’s skin.

As he rowed into the dimly lit bay, he could see the wealthier fishermen unfastening their small motor boats from the bamboo docks. He left the other fishermen at large and headed toward the small hill that clouded the horizon and shaded his shack during the morning hours. As he drew near the shoreline, he heard the distant grind of a thunderstorm.

“This can’t be, not this time a year,” he whispered to himself.

He rowed harder now, digging both oars a meter into the water and splashing ripples onto the surface when he harshly drew them out. He drew the boat onto the shore and strode past his shack at the base of the hill. At the top some the farmers had gathered to hear the sporadic, muffled gunshots. They exchanged whispers and unfinished sentences; their voices trembled as if they spoke already under water. More farmers gathered while a few left down the hill, wiping the gathering tears with their dirty hands.

Moshen ran down the dirt path. Inside Jean sat quietly in the dark hall.

-”What is that father?” said Jean as soon as he entered.
-”I think there’s fighting in Goma. The rebels will be here by morning.”
-”They will leave us alone. It’s only us and we don’t have a boda or a motor boat.”
-”Everyone with a boda or a motorboat is leaving.”
-”Can we leave too? We can walk the night.”
-”We have nowhere to go.”
Jean sat down on the tree-trunk stool while his father filled a sack with dry fish and sweet bread.
-”Get a blanket and come.”
Jean followed his father to the edge of the lake. The moon had come out clear of the clouds that had smothered the sunset, and it lit the shoreline a dull shade of white.
-”Get in the boat and row all the way to Kibuye. Then go to Kigali to find your aunt”
-”I’ve never been past the fishing islands”
-”It’s not much, if you row well you will be there in the morning.”
-”We can both fit together if we balance.”
-”I can’t go son, they will send a motor boat to find the ones missing. I will tell the village that you’ve gone for school.”
-”When will you get out?”
-”But I don’t want to go without you.”

Moshen unfastened the canoe and placed the small bag of food inside. He looked up at the hill again and though the sun had set, there was enough light to see the crowd that had gathered at it’s peak. They all looked worn from the storms of the rainy season, brittle from the sights of war; they had yielded Christ to the rumors of war.

-”And until then how will you fish?”
-”I will make a raft for myself, go now.”
-”How will I find my way?”
-”Keep the sunset at your back and ask Mungu for lights.”

-Jean got inside the boat and started rowing out of the obscure bay. At a distance, he heard the subsiding sound of half a dozen motorboats, and soon after he only heard the dipping of the oars. He felt a boyish excitement as it was the first time he rowed at night, but soon he looked back at the distant blurry lights that marked the coast and stopped paddling. The wooden boat kept cutting through the water making a smooth constant splash and forming a trail that soon dissipated into the darkening waters. It had been one hour since the sunset and though the moonlight was dull, it was enough to light up the contour of the islands, which he followed to keep in the same direction. At times, he overcompensated one side and lost sight of the vague curves ahead. He then stopped rowing and closed his eyes until his eyelids grew an impenetrable shade of black. He then opened his eyes to look around him and as if waking up from mindless meditation and found the elusive curvature of that fraternal volcano that guided him. He whispered the number of strokes and when he reached one hundred, he paused to rest. Every time he stopped he felt the soft cold breeze against his cheeks, and he’d start to cry.

“No no, I can’t cry now.” He’d whisper to himself. “But I don’t see any lights and those lines in front of me, what are they? Am I following clouds?”

The outline of the islands ahead was not getting larger while the land that lay behind was not getting smaller. He was caught at the abstruse point between two solid stretches of land, both surreal and distant, with only a tottering carved tree trunk to sit upon. He seemed to be motionless as he paddled tiresomely into the nothings of the night. After an exhausting set of a hundred deep rows, he breathed hard as tears flowed down his cheeks again, this time overtaking any efforts to resist.

He laid flat on the bed of the canoe and listened to the flutters of scattered wind that combed ripples in the water. He squinted his eyes and imagined the dim light of the moon to be a Sunday morning dawn break next to father’s mat.

He would bring chapati for breakfast and warm up milk every Sunday before they walked the dirt path to the lake-side church. After they would lay under the shade of banana trees and talk about the fish, volcanoes, and sometimes about the little that Jean could remember about his mother.

Jean had been asleep for two hours when the he woke wet, chilled, and afraid. He stood straight and reached for the oars that were hanging outside the boat in the water. His palms ached at the touch of the wet splintered wood that had blistered the inside of his thumbs. This time he did not see the contour of distant volcanoes because of the thick fog that had settled about him. In the distance there was the low susurration of an idling boat engine.

Shimmers of light erupted sporadically around him lighting up the fog a calm shade of green, like a drum circle they sparked around him rhythmically. He could hear the faint flickering of their wings, as dozens flew with the wind leaving their seafaring regards on their way towards land. Jean lifted the oars out of the boat and paddled hard with the wind, straightening his body, a thin naked sail.

The fog shifted with the wind until he got a glance at the horizon that was coming alive with shades of azure and magenta. Soon the crescent of the sun lit up the cloud and a few rays spilled onto the small canoe and evoked the palpable memory of warmth after such a night.

The tree-line emerged out of the fog less than a hundred meters away. Some fishermen were starting their motor boats on the coast while others already drew their nets from the canoes. Jean stepped out of the boat and slowly walked the canoe onto the bay. Two fishermen who smelled of gin were tying knots in an old net.

“Take my canoe, but please do not say anything.”

“Come, there are women making chapati.”


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