Jean-Baptiste was running. He had been running for a long time for different reasons. He would run to the market to buy tomatoes. He would run to the football pitch to play with his friends. He would run against cars in the streets. Then one day his father told him to run and his legs took off faster than he thought they could. He continued to run past trees, past bullet shots, and past borders.
That morning he was running because he was late for school. When he did eventually stand outside the door of his classroom, he couldn’t breathe fast enough. There was sweat dripping from his face and his white shirt was soaked in patches— armpits, chest and back, they looked like islands on a sea of white. He shut his eyes when he heard the teacher’s voice behind the door. He had been praying that she would not be there when he arrived.
He knocked on the door and entered before waiting for a response.
“Je suis désolé,” he said before remembering his error when the class erupted in laughter. “I am sorry.”
“John you are late again.” Mrs. Manda looked at him just right above the spectacles that had dipped to the bridge of her nose. After three failed attempts to pronounce Jean-Baptiste, she had resorted to calling him John instead. Everyone followed suit. Jean-Baptiste hated it but did not know the words he could use in English to let them know.
“I am so much sorry,” Jean-Baptiste said in his heavy French accent.
The teacher shooed him away and he rushed to take his seat to avoid any further attention. He went to the back of the classroom where his existence would be forgotten. For the rest of the day he would not comprehend what the teacher said. He estimated that his English vocabulary was restricted to less than 200 words. He always thought in French before attempting to translate what he had to say in English, and it often came out wrong. He had decided it was best if he remained silent and only spoke when it was absolutely necessary.
Jean-Baptiste was called John in the classroom, but outside he had come to embrace another name, Refugee. The word sounded heavier in English than it die in French; it was also spelt differently— Réfugié. Each time he heard the word, it was a reminder that that he did not belong. His family and himself were strangers among the people they lived with. They had left the place where their feet touched the earth and confirmed they belonged. The air they breathed was fresh and brought forth life. The hills a testament to the wonders the land held. For Jean-Baptiste, he called it home for the first ten years of his life and no one called him a Refugee there. It was also the place they abandoned when his father came and told them to run.
The images of that day were still vivid in Jean-Baptiste’s mind like a recently printed photograph. It was dusk and he heard a car slide into the yard with the screeching sound of burnt brake pads complaining at the pressure. His father, with sweat pouring from his forehead and eyes alert, slammed the door.
“Where is your mother?” he asked Jean-Baptiste, who was seated on the carpet playing with his twin sisters, Clementine and Claudine. Their eyes widened at the sight of their father.
He pointed and said, “In the bedroom.” Jean-Baptiste watched his father disappear while he continued to play with his sisters.
It was only when his parents came back into the sitting room arguing that he realised that something was wrong but he did not want to ask what it was.
He heard his father say, “They are coming. They are coming.” He kept shoving the curtain to the side while he peeked, as if he was expectant of guests who were bringing something nice.
“Let’s go together,” his mother said, tagging at his father’s shirt. His father was still by the window not paying any attention to his mother’s pleas.
“I can’t. I need to stay here. I need to take care of this place,” he said.
“We shall find this stuff. Please let’s go as a family. I heard on the radio that—” his mother said, before being stopped mid-sentence by a gunshot that had gone off in the distance. Jean-Baptiste’s mother screamed while his father closed the curtain and backed away from the window as if the guests he had been expecting had arrived. His sisters had their palms over their ears and had started to cry. He was afraid that something was about to happen to his family. They began to hear faint screams followed by a rapid succession of more gun shots like rain drops.
“Listen to me Marie, you have to go now. Just like I have been telling you. Please go now,” his father said, firmly holding Jean-Baptiste’s mother in his arms. He had only heard him call his mother by her first name twice before and on both those occasions he was upset.
Tears streaming down her eyes, she reached for the twins and yanked them up from the floor. Their delicate bodies obeyed the strength of his mother’s arms. Jean-Baptiste’s father gave his money-thick wallet to her, but before he did so he pulled out a passport-sized photo. He got down on his knees to be level with his son. Jean-Baptiste saw his reflection in the glassy eyes of his father. He felt the warmth of his father’s thick hands against his arms. Jean-Baptiste felt his own eyes begin to well up even before his father spoke a word.
“Jean-Baptiste,” he said, pausing to collect himself, “you need to go with your mother and sisters.”
“I do not have time to explain it now. But take this,” he said and placed the passport-sized photo into his son’s palm. “I will find you. Until then when you look at that picture remember that you are the son of Pierre Ndasingwa. You are my son. Take care of your mother and sisters.”
Jean-Baptiste tucked the picture of the serious looking face of his father into his pocket. His father then grabbed his shaking hands, and let the palms trace his face starting from the hair down to his forehead, over the cheekbones and the rough texture of the beard.
“Do not forget me Jean-Baptiste. Do not forget your papa.” There was a strain in the voice as if each word was a desperate plea.
“I won’t forget you, papa,” Jean-Baptiste promised, and wrapped himself around his father’s neck.
The moment was interrupted by another string of gunshots.
“Run!” his father shouted, as he unlocked Jean-Baptiste’s arms from his neck.
The force too strong for him to continue holding on to his father, he was pulled away. A face covered in tears, Jean-Baptiste stretched out his hand and brushed over his papa’s face one last time.
Out the kitchen door they ran into the night. They ran into the bush. They heard more rapid gunshots accompanied by agonising screams of desperation, anguish and pain but they kept running and did not look back.
It had been three years since his fingers touched the face of his father. Jean-Baptiste had expected that he would lose the feel of his father’s face, but he had never expected he would forget what he looked like too. He had begun to notice that his father’s face had become blurry and his features where not sharp each time he tried to remember him. He would shut his eyes and attempt to summon every memory he could piece together of his father’s face. The left lazy eye, broad nose, full dark lips and medium afro. When he shut his eyes the face came together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It was only in his dreams that he would have conversations with his father, and even those often ended abruptly. However, Jean-Baptiste was afraid, he did not know how long he could continue relying on his memory to form the image of his father. Sometimes he would feel his pockets for the photo of his father, but it was not there. It never would be.
When they left Rwanda, Jean-Baptiste and his family found safety at a refugee camp in Goma for two years. Each day they saw new families enter the camp and Jean-Baptiste saw the space in the camp shrink as new tents went up. Officials in sky-blue United Nation vests came and counted them like they were counting herds of cattle, they asked questions about their health, took inventory of what they left behind and if they remembered the names of any of the perpetrators. The Red Cross would also distribute bags of rice and beans just enough that they would not starve to death and in some instances, they put vaccination droplets into Claudine’s and Clementine’s mouths. All of Jean-Baptiste’s family at one point or the other had malaria, or diarrhoea. They were fortunate it was not fatal as it had been for some other members of the camp who had had to be wrapped up in sheets and taken to be buried in a cemetery that was nothing more than a couple of holes in the ground. There was no tombstone by which they would be remembered.
The refugee camp did not remain home for long because after two years they heard that trouble was brewing in the centre of Zaire. The rebels were headed their direction on their way to Kinshasa to get rid of Mobutu Sese Seko. Kabila had given instructions to destroy everything that came in their path. Unless they left, they would find themselves in the middle of the fighting and would not be able to make it out in time. It was still not safe to go back home. They had to continue running.
Jean-Baptiste’s mother made the decision that they should head for Zambia because it was safer, calmer and they would decide what to do when they got there. They were able to walk for four days with no trouble before they met a band of soldiers in their path. The four soldiers pointed their AK 47 rifles at them. They demanded money. Jean-Baptiste’s mother gave them the last bits of Zaire she had saved on her. Pleaded with them to let them go so they could continue on their journey. However, the soldiers did not believe that was all they had. They began to search everyone to see if they had any money hidden somewhere or anything valuable they could sell.
By the time they got to Jean-Baptiste they had unearthed a substantial sum already. One of the soldier’s wanted to dig into Jean-Baptiste pocket but he blocked him with his palm.
“There is nothing,” he said.
“Take out your hand,” the soldier said angrily. Jean-Baptiste resisted despite his mother urging him to obey everything the soldiers said. It was only when they pointed the rifle to his head that he removed his hand from the pocket. The soldier threatened to blow up his head and feed his pieces to the hyenas.
The soldier then put his thick fingers into his pockets and fished out the passport-sized photo. The soldier held it up to the sun as if to take a closer look and to show his friends.
“This is what you were hiding, you prick,” the soldier said staring at Jean-Baptiste but his face had loosened.
The soldier took out a lighter from his pocket and lit it. He then took the passport-sized photo of Jean-Baptiste’s father and placed it against the fire. The flame engulfed the small paper as the image that was on it was decimated to ash and flew with the wind. The soldiers laughed afterwards as Jean-Baptiste felt a lump growing in his throat. He felt the tears trickle down his face. He did not do anything else because he knew his father was gone. He had kept him close to him for two years and he had been turned to ash in seconds.
The next day after being late for class, Jean-Baptiste was returning from school. Out of curiosity, he walked over to a man who sold paintings by the roadside. A lanky dreadlocked man puffed his cigarette as he looked at the canvas. The canvas had what appeared to be an incomplete painting of a celebrity that Jean-Baptiste had seen on television. He could not remember his name because it was complicated, all he could recall was that it began with a K. Jean-Baptiste watched the man delicately hold the paint brush and dip the tip into ink. He placed the brush on the canvas and the second eyebrow of the man he was painting appeared. Jean-Baptiste watched the man’s intricate movement of the paint brush as it kissed the canvas. The strokes went from left to right, left to right, left to right with the flick of his right wrist. The man put the paint brush down and put the cigarette to his lips. He stepped back to admire the work he had done.
He then turned around and saw Jean-Baptiste holding on to his backpack and gazing at the painting.
“You shouldn’t be looking at it. It is not finished,” he said and pulled the cigarette once again, released the smoke first through his nose then in bursts through his parted dark lips.
“Je suis désolé,” Jean-Baptiste apologised. It had become his default response to anything someone said that he did not understand.
The man either pretended he understood what Jean-Baptiste had said or he decided to ignore it altogether. “What is your name?”
“Jean-Baptiste… John,” he said after remembering the right name to use.
“You are the refugee right?”
“Oui… yes,” Jean-Baptiste said, lowering his eyes as if he had been asked something too shameful to be uttered.
“My name is Wycliff,” he said, tossing three strands of locks over his shoulder as he stretched out his hand to Jean-Baptiste.
Jean-Baptiste took his hand and realised that his palm was harder than he imagined it would be. He had expected a warm, soft palm.
Jean-Baptiste looked around and saw the other paintings that Wycliff had done. There were more paintings of portraits, landscapes, animals in the wilderness, and the occasional buildings. It was a painting of a mother with her children that reminded him of his own family. He reached out to feel the paint.
“Don’t touch!” Wycliff shouted.
He pulled his hand back before it touched the painting.
“Sorry… Sorry… Sorry,” Jean-Baptiste said, accent rolling over the double R.
“Paintings are like babies. They are fragile, you need to handle them with care.”
Jean-Baptiste continued to move from one painting to the next as if they were communicating something inaudible to him. They were drawing him in by how real they looked.
“Teach me,” he finally said.
“Teach you what?” Wycliff said.
“Draw this,” Jean-Baptiste said pointing at an incomplete painting.
Wycliff laughed before he said, “I do not have time to teach you my friend.”
There was a prolonged silence between them.
“I am sorry my friend. This is not a school where I teach people, I am very busy,” Wycliff said, waving his hands.
Jean-Baptiste wanted to continue pleading but did not know what more to say beyond the please he already said. Instead he lowered his head and shoulders. Downcast, he decided it was time to walk back home. He turned around and began to be on his way. Then he felt himself immobile. Wycliff’s strong grip was holding his shoulder.
“Listen, I don’t have the time to teach you, but the best way to learn is to watch me paint,” he said, while flicking the paint brush in his hand.
Jean-Baptiste nodded, then smiled.
For the next month, Jean-Baptiste went to Wycliff’s by the roadside after school. He watched him work his magic with the paint brush and colour on a blank canvas. He marvelled at how Wycliff was able to draw these vivid, intricate images from his memory. When he was done he would stand back, light a cigarette and when he was finished with the last puff, move on to the next blank canvas. Jean-Baptiste would also listen to the stories Wycliff would tell him as he painted, as if the two blended well together.
“If you are here every day, what time do have to do your homework?” Wycliff asked him one day.
“At home,” Jean-Baptiste replied.
Wycliff stopped painting for a moment and turned around to face the boy. The red paint was still dripping from the tip of his paint brush.
Then he said, “You need to get all the education you can, Jean-Baptiste. You do not know when it can be snatched from you. I dreamed of being a doctor in a white lab coat and a stethoscope around my neck, treating patients and healing those who are almost dying. Then death snatched my father and before I finished mourning, death came back for my mother too. But it snatched more than my parents, it got my dreams too. Now all I can do is imagine them on the canvas.”
Jean-Baptiste heard Wycliff’s voice crack towards the end. He also noticed the liquid at the shores of his eyes. Before they could escape, Wycliff brushed the back of his hand over his eyes as if some dust had just caused an irritation. He quickly turned around to face the canvas he was working with.
“You can still be doctor,” Jean-Baptiste said.
Wycliff let out a forced laugh. “My time has long gone. But you can still be anything you want…. You can be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, accountant—”
“Painter,” Jean-Baptiste ended the sentence with a smile.
Wycliff stopped painting once again and turned around to see Jean-Baptiste’s face beaming. He smiled. “Yes, Jean-Baptiste may be a painter too. But that should be last on your list.” Besides his mother, Wycliff was the only one who refused to call him John. He wanted to call him by his name even though he pronounced it incorrectly. He made the last syllables of his name hard and sharp when they should be gentle almost like a whisper.
They continued that way for a while; Jean-Baptiste going to the roadside after school to watch Wycliff paint. They would occasionally share a bottle of Coke or packet of Amigo biscuits, while Wycliff told stories of growing up in a compound Jean-Baptiste could not remember the name of. The relatives who abandoned him when he became an orphan. The Catholic priest who taught him the difference between oil and acrylic paints. How he planned to open up a studio with a large gallery space.
He also taught Jean-Baptiste how to pronounce difficult English words.
“Deef-fer-ren-t,” Wycliff would say slowly.
“Dif-f… Dif-f-erren,” Jean-Baptiste repeated.
“T… You have to stress the T my friend…. Different-T,” Wycliff said.
“Close enough. We shall get there.”
Jean-Baptiste also loved it when Wycliff asked him to wash the paint brushes when he was done painting for the day. He would gaze at the colours mixing with the water as they created coloured streams on the ground. He longed for the texture of the bristles between his thumb and index finger.
Then one day, Wycliff put a paint brush in Jean-Baptiste’s hand and gave him a small blank canvas. Jean-Baptiste was so overwhelmed that he wrapped himself around Wycliff who remained still, unsure how to respond to the gesture. When Jean-Baptiste loosened his grip, he did not know what to do with the gift that he had longed for.
“What do you want to paint?”
“A man,” Jean-Baptiste said with a satisfied smile.
From there, Wycliff showed Jean-Baptiste how to hold the paint brush gently just like he was holding a pin. He told him to grip close to the bristles. He taught him the combination of colours and how to get the subtlety of shade. Wycliff showed him how to work with oil and acrylic paints. He told Jean-Baptiste that oil paints gave a richer and more vivid colour, while acrylic paints dried quicker. He instructed him to start with painting a fruit. An apple or an orange before he could graduate to painting ‘A Man.’
Wycliff often shouted, “You are a natural!” when he passed by a canvas his protégé was working on.
Jean-Baptiste would flash his smile back, “Thank you.” By that time his vocabulary had improved from the limited initial words he had known. He could say more than his default sorry. He could construct questions and he asked many of them. He was also capable of holding an argument.
There was only one thing Jean-Baptiste desired to paint more than anything, portraits. No matter how hard Wycliff enticed him to try landscapes or buildings, he failed to stir him away from portraits and eventually he gave up. Jean-Baptiste took a while to perfect his portraits. The eyes would be disproportionate; the texture of the hair would be off; the facial details too elaborate for a novice to capture. If it wasn’t that, he struggled with the different shades of the African complexion from black to coffee to dust.
Eventually the skill came. The eyes became the right size, he spent hours getting the details of the hair, and he mastered how to get the gradient of the African skin perfectly. He began to believe Wycliff’s words that he was a natural. With each significant improvement that Wycliff saw in Jean-Baptiste’s work, the canvas sizes grew larger.
In the six months after Wycliff first gave Jean-Baptiste a paint brush and blank canvas, he had already painted Michael Jackson, Pele, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela and countless other celebrities. However, there was one portrait he wanted paint because it was not only important but because the person was beginning to fade from his memory. He had no picture to copy from and see if he got the nostrils correct, he had to rely on his often unfaithful memory.
When he decided to begin the portrait, Jean-Baptiste would close his eyes before the brush touched the canvas. He would try to summon his father in the midst of the blank space of his shut eyes. His father’s hair, his forehead, his large eyes, his nose, his lips when he smiled, sometimes his smell. The face came to him in flashes and would fade. It was never a sharp focus but a blurry image that did not want to stay in his mind too long. Sometimes he came in moments and at different stages of his life. From the time he played football with him as a six-year-old to him picking Jean-Baptiste from school to the time fear was on his face and he told them to run to the passport-sized photo that was burnt. Often, he would find himself crying as the rawness of the loss would envelope him. The memory would escape the moment he tried to hold onto it long enough. Despite the frustrations, he was stirred by the ambition that he would finally have an image of his father that he would never forget. He imagined his mother’s look at the painting and remembrance of her husband, the twins would know their father.
After a month of paint brushes, generous tubes of oil paint and one blank canvas, Jean-Baptiste stood back and admired the work of his hands. Right before him was the face of his father. It looked as if the piercing eyes were staring at him and declaring that he was proud of his son. A few portions of the painting were still wet but Jean-Baptiste was done, there would be no additional strokes.
Wycliff came and stood next to him, locked his fingers on his right shoulder.
“Done?” he asked with a smile.
“Done,” Jean-Baptiste replied with a smile on his face and two thumbs up.
“Fine looking man. Fine looking man,” Wycliff said, his approval visible all over his face.
“Aren’t you going to sign it? People need to know you are the next Picasso or Michelangelo. You do not know whose wall it will grace.”
Jean-Baptiste got the paint brush and dipped it in black paint. He then signed it Jean-Baptiste and put the date of completion.
For the next few weeks, Jean-Baptiste did not paint anything else. He waited for the oil painting to dry. He just went to the road side and stared at the portrait after school, sometimes wondering if he could add something to his father’s face, maybe one wrinkle. No one else other than Wycliff had seen his work. So, when a tourist dropped by and began to look at paintings as if he was inspecting for some clue at a crime scene, Jean-Baptiste became anxious. He had studied tourists who came to view Wycliff’s paintings and learnt what their various expressions meant. A bare glance meant the painting was just okay, a quick nod could mean it was interesting, while a couple of minutes’ stare and stroking of the chin symbolised that the painting was interesting and a purchase could be imminent. The blonde tourist in a khaki Safari shirt and shorts with a pouch across his waist went through all the expressions that Jean-Baptiste had learnt as he swept through the paintings on display. Jean-Baptiste was nervous to find out what the verdict of the tourist would be when he saw the portrait he painted. The closer the tourist got to his painting, the faster his heart pounded that he had to breathe through the mouth just to calm it. When the blond man stepped in front of the portrait, he bent his neck slightly to the left and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Then he stroked his chin before he moved on to the painting of a pride of lions Wycliff had done. Jean-Baptiste was relieved. The man had stroked his chin even though he did not inquire any further about his painting.
Once the painting had dried, Jean-Baptiste intended to bring his mother and the twins to the road side. He was yearning to watch their faces light up as they saw the man they once knew. He even expected his mother to shed a few tears and she collected it to pin against the sitting room wall. When they left Rwanda, his mother would talk about their father every day. Telling them how he would find them and they would be a family again. She always said he was not too far and if they remained very silent they could hear him calling their names. But lately, she did not talk about him anymore. The three years were sufficient to snuff out any hope that he would find them as they had drifted far away. It felt like each time she mentioned him, it was peeling a recently healed wound to expose the scab.
Jean-Baptiste had to convince his reluctant mother to visit the road side with the twins by lying that it was part of a school project he was working on. The day he was supposed to take his mother and the twins to the road side, he could not concentrate in class. His imagination kept taking him to his mother, the twins, and the portrait of his father. He imagined his mother dancing and stamping her feet at seeing the painting of her husband. He wanted to show the twins so that they would not forget the face of their father because he was there. Jean-Baptiste did not pay attention to anything the teacher said. He was John the painter. He was the refugee who wanted to paint the rest of his life.
As soon as class was done Jean-Baptiste dashed home to fetch his mother and the twins. They made the three kilometre trek to the road side. His mother was frustrated that he did not tell her what the project was about. He told her that it was a surprise. The twins were just happy to go to a place they had never been before. They thought the word road side sounded grand and important.
When they eventually got to the place, Jean-Baptiste introduced them to Wycliff, who was surprised to meet his protégé’s family. He showed his mother and siblings some of the work that Wycliff had done. They admired them with ohhs and ahhs. Jean-Baptiste warned his sisters not to put their fingers on any of the paintings. The ball in his chest began to beat faster with excitement as he approached the place where he had left his painting. He watched his mother’s face, intently waiting for the reaction. When he got to the area, the painting was gone. It was missing. The stand stood empty. Jean-Baptiste’s heart dropped and the smile faded. He looked around to check if Wycliff had moved it to a different place.
“Wycliff, where is my painting?” he asked in short, sharp bursts.
A broad smile appeared on Wycliff’s face before he said, “You are a real painter my friend. A real painter.”
Jean-Baptiste was confused, he did not know what Wycliff was referring to. He failed to connect the excitement that was radiating from Wycliff with his question.
“I sold your painting. Remember that blond tourist who came yesterday. He returned,” he said handing him crispy five hundred dollar notes.
Jean-Baptiste crumbled to the ground and the notes slipped from his fingers as he buried his head into his hands. He could not believe that he had lost his father once again.
“Papa! Papa! Papa!” he kept saying.
His mother was confused why her son was calling out for his father when Wycliff handed him the money. She watched the twins pick up the notes that had begun to drift away as a result of a slight breeze. She wondered whether the money was for the school project he was working on.
Peter Nawa is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. He is the author of Hired: Find the Job, Keep the Job and Quit the Job, he was shortlisted for the Kalemba Short Story Prize 2018, 2nd Prize in the ZAWWA/Chinese Embassy Short Story competition in 2016 and MISA Zambia Best Blogger in 2014. He is the founder of Write Lake and co-founder of Butali House. He is currently working on a novel. When he is not in the literary world, he is a Startup Coach working with entrepreneurs.
This entry appeared in The Memory Issue
Photo by Tomek Mądry from Pexels