In Plain Sight – Michigan Quarterly Review

In Plain Sight

Published in Spring 2024 Online Folio

It began as a simple ruse: the lie that Jean didn’t understand a word of Kirundi. He wanted to be alone with his marbles, and so had left the sparsely decorated hall, with the soup-and-beer-stained white sheets placed on the formica tables, and clusters of red balloons arranged along the walls. The marbles softly clanked inside his pocket as he walked, and then he sat by himself on the ledge of the parking pavement. It was a month since his ninth birthday, and Jean still had all the nine marbles his mother had got him as a gift. Mugisha had followed him out and began speaking, introducing himself in Kirundi and asking to know Jean’s name. Jean, annoyed and unwilling to share his marbles, pretended he didn’t understand the question and shook his head, even though he could understand most of what was said. He spoke the language terribly—like a Belgian priest, as his mother would say. Mugisha’s face scrunched up, and then, smiling, he told Jean to say words in Kirundi, claiming to help him learn.

“Fuck,” “shit,” “ass,” “dick,” and “pussy,” Mugisha made Jean recite, slowly and carefully, unable to control his laughter, which reverberated past the parked cars. He later called the other older children to hear Jean speak. Although he hadn’t known the words before, it became clear to Jean what they meant and he felt a secret pleasure seeing the others so amused. He repeated every word he was told to, maintaining a questioning look when they all ran squealing. After a while the children got bored and returned to the hall, leaving him alone with his marbles, just as he had wanted. That was how word got around that Jean couldn’t understand a word of Kirundi.

Later that night, Jean sank deep into the stories he created with the help of his marbles. People in dire situations that needed saving, himself the hero, the praise and thanks owed to him, before the quick departure as he left for more acts of valor. Mme Louange and Mme Tresor had stepped out of the hall and were walking towards him.

“We’ll be heard here. Let’s move over there,” Louange said. 

“And the child?” Tresor said.

“He can’t hear a word of Kirundi.”

“Louange, are you sure?”

“Mwiriwe?” Louange said, looking at Jean with warmth.

He blinked at them. The women exchanged a look. Jean was aware that with this inaction a boundary was being crossed, that what he was doing fell in the lines of misbehavior or, worse, treachery, but he continued to look unwittingly at them.

“Hello,” Louange said, this time in English.

“Hello,” Jean said.

“He was born here,” Louange said, turning to Tresor and speaking in Kirundi.

“And doesn’t even know a single word?” Tresor asked.

“Marie only speaks to him in English. This could be the first time he’s been around other Burundians that aren’t his mother and father.”

“That’s a pity.”

“It is.”

They turned from him and began talking about something else. Despite some difficulty in the beginning, Jean slowly pieced the story together. Louange was explaining that Mme. Kwizera, a lady dressed in an orange kikwembe and a glinting gold necklace, whom he had been instructed to greet when they arrived, was running out of money and struggling to keep up appearances. She was pawning the jewelry she had fled Bujumbura with; the armful of ivory bracelets she once jingled proudly had only one pair remaining.

“But why try to convince us? We all know how things are,” Tresor said.

“Well, some people must stay above others,” Louange said.

“Didn’t you say you knew each other in Bujumbura?”

“I had been to that lady’s house in Rohero a year before Ndadaye was killed, but she acted like we had seen each other for the first time in Nairobi.”


“She looked straight into my eyes like she had never seen me, and I thought, It’s not that hard playing the fool, so I took that hand and shook it like we hadn’t met before.”

They stopped talking and looked at Jean as though surprised to find him there. He continued pressing his marbles together and staring at them under the glow of the light emanating from the hall.

“This is what you get when you lock yourself and your child up for five years, clueless to his own language. You’d think someone had been after her. She doesn’t let anyone inside her house. You know she holds onto rubbish, that’s what I heard Pierre say to Arnaud, like she’s trying to make up for what she lost,” Louange said.

“We deal with these things differently,” Tresor said.

“Was the war any different for her than it was for us? Who hasn’t lost someone in that country?”

“She doesn’t seem to be completely well.” 

“Poor Pierre, he has to deal with all of this.”

 For a while it seemed to Jean as though they had understood him to be a sham, and that they spoke to draw him out of his pretense and had decided on this method to punish him. But when he looked up, he saw the women walking away from him and returning to the hall. It was the first time he realized that a life, their lives, could be measured.

He had never thought of the items his mother held onto as rubbish before. The neatly piled empty matchboxes, the chipped flowery mugs with the broken handles and the cracked azure vase in their separate cabinet, the used soda and beer bottles under the kitchen sink, the broken radio set with its silver paint peeling, the television that had stopped working and that was replaced by its newer version, and the shoes he had long outgrown that still collected a fine film of dust underneath his bed. It all took the shape of organized chaos to him now.

Jean returned to the hall, spotted the table his mother was seated at, and remained close to her until Pierre arrived to pick them up. His father insisted he couldn’t stay, despite calls for him to eat and sit with the others. He pulled Jean out to the car and beeped for Marie, who was saying her goodbyes. 

After Pierre went to sleep, Marie and Jean remained in their living room. Marie asked Jean how the night had been and nodded when he said fine. She waited for him to speak but he said nothing.

“Why did you tell those boys you couldn’t speak Kirundi?” she asked.

“I didn’t tell anyone that,” he said.

“So you just let them think that you didn’t, that’s not any better.” She looked at him sweetly, smiling. “Well I didn’t tell anyone either,” she said.

Jean remembered the earlier conversation, how Louange said his mother wasn’t completely well, and he stared at her. She always spoke to him in the same manner she did with the other adults, without the coddling tone that grown-ups used with him. Marie also taught him English by herself when they arrived in Nairobi, although she knew just a few words then. She had been fastidious in her learning, poring over the books she could find, and she insisted on speaking the language whenever she could until she became fluent in nine months. Pierre remarked of the feat, directly to Marie and to others, proudly, and Jean regarded his mother with awe. Now the edges of the awe became tainted with fear as he looked at her as she smiled, slyness dancing in her eyes.

There were more diaspora parties over the next year. Jean sat on his pavement ledge under the red flowering gum tree, marbles in hand, dried leaves and cigarette butts in the empty drain beside him, and listened to the conversations. He would also hear snatches of talk as he encountered people walking the path heading for the washrooms, as they spoke in low tones when lining up to serve food, while they sat in the secluded corners of the hall, and in the dimming daylight as they walked the grounds close to the swings where he languidly pushed himself back and forth. Wherever he went during these parties he found himself readily enveloped in a welcomed intimacy, people speaking as though hardly aware of his presence. He was surprised by what people could divulge when certain of their safety, in the presence of an unwitting audience, and he reported most of it back to his mother. 

Truant teenagers, failing marriages, and abusive spouses. People soon to be resettled in Europe, Canada, or America, but secretive about it for fear of being bewitched and so forced to stay in Nairobi if they spoke openly. 

There were days when the parties ended without the gossip he had grown accustomed to, and he felt a strange sadness he didn’t understand. There were also times when Jean found the information he heard petty and insignificant, but his mother found it vital. Like Tresor’s complaint that Mr. Florian had denied her a loan, followed by a comment about his nose. “With that nose of his__that’s where he hides it,” she said. “I bet I’d find some money in there.” Tresor and Louange had chuckled, and Jean had to restrain himself from doing so too.

When he told his mother about it later, this time laughing unreservedly, Marie was stunned. “So that’s how she thinks,” she muttered.

“What’s wrong?” Jean asked.

“Nothing’s wrong. It’s past time you went to sleep,” Marie said. 

He was sure that something was being hidden from him and went to sleep feeling cheated.

The conspiracy collapsed at Michel’s homecoming party. One Saturday morning, when Mme Kwizera had just woken up, she heard a knock on her door. On opening the door, she uttered a cry that sent the whole household and her Kenyan neighbors coming to her rescue. They found her weeping and embracing a young bearded man. The family soon recognized the young man and made cries of their own while their neighbors became even more confused.

Michel, the young man who mysteriously appeared at Mme. Kwizera’s door that Saturday morning, had been separated from his sister when their family fled Bujumbura. He had followed his neighbors, who were in a group of refugees that went into Congo, and then later Malawi. Mme. Kwizera and her family had assumed that he was dead. 

A family friend, a truck driver called Simon, who transported goods from the port of Mombasa to Bujumbura, Lubumbashi, Lusaka, and Lilongwe, had been the first to see Michel. Simon was good friends with Mme. Kwizera when she lived in Rohero. After she fled to Nairobi, he would bring her mukeke, ndagala, and letters from Bujumbura while he was en route to Mombasa. Simon had seen Michel walking in the streets of Lilongwe selling sweets. Afraid that this might be a phantom, he approached Michel timidly and was relieved when Michel recognized and hugged him. Simon informed Michel that his family was in Nairobi and the boy wanted to leave that same day.

Mme. Kwizera threw a party to commemorate the return. She served sauteed potatoes, crates of soda and beer, egg salad, pilau, and meat gravy; surprisingly, as the guests remarked, she had also sourced dried mukeke and sombe made in palm oil and with powdered groundnuts.

The hall was filled with laughter and song, but Jean still slinked to his spot at the pavement ledge. He had sunk deep into his stories when the sound of footsteps brought his attention to Tresor and Monsieur Cliff walking towards him. “But the child,” Cliff said.

“He understands nothing,” Tresor said.

Jean stared at them. Mr. Cliff was a tall man Jean had regularly seen at the parties. He was dressed in black trousers and a blue kikwembe shirt, made of material similar to the dress his wife, still inside the hall, wore. Tresor greeted him in English and Jean replied. “You Burundians really don’t teach your children their own language,” Cliff said.

“You were born in Kamenge and lived there your whole life. You’re Burundian too,” Tresor said.

“We still spoke Kinyarwanda at home even after my parents had fled Kigali.”

“Kirundi and Kinyarwanda aren’t all that different.”

“Even so, I still can’t believe you would raise your child not knowing a word of their language.”

“My children know theirs, just as yours know theirs. There’s nothing Burundian about that.”

“You’re getting angry. Let’s change topics__this isn’t what you called me out for.”

“I didn’t call you here.”

“No, you kept trying to catch my eye.”

“I’ll leave you here right at this moment and walk back into that hall.”

“Don’t be so serious.”

Their voices softened. They could have been speaking about the weather. Yet at the fringes of their casual language, something else glinted, threatening to flash. It seemed to Jean that Cliff was flirting with Tresor, and some of the words, he remembered, were the dirty words the older children said on the first day.

 Cliff spoke in Kinyarwanda so Jean had to work harder to understand, and some of the words Cliff said didn’t seem to make much sense. Jean wondered what it was on Tresor’s body that could be plucked and chewed as Cliff threatened.

When they heard calls from inside the hall for ijambo, Tresor told Cliff they should go back. She turned towards Jean and told him that he should go as well.

Inside Florian was standing and making his speech, and Mme Kwizera, dressed in a purple boubou with gold embroidery on the neck and bust, was seated at the front table with Michel, in a black suit, next to her. Her head bobbed like a dhow in sea to music only she could hear while she smiled to the room.

After Florian had spoken, Michel stood up for his speech. He thanked everyone for coming and began to narrate his ordeal of being separated from his family. He’d fled with his neighbors to Congo via Tanganyika, at night, on a rickety wooden boat. They walked for days in forests so thick and vast they thought themselves lost into the earth. The trees were so large they couldn’t fit inside the hall. There were streams that had waters so sweet that one drank and drank. But there were also streams that came from mines and were said to be contaminated and deadly. The silence at night was so deep and true, he said, one couldn’t be certain if there ever was sound before or after it.

Transfixed by the tale, it took Jean a while to realize that Tresor had been staring at him, and even longer to understand the questioning look on her face as she gazed at him. Then, understanding and dreading his understanding, he looked down and waited for the speech to end. “You should be sitting here always,” Lievin, the old man seated next to him, said. “You need to practice patience for all the events you’ll have to sit through when you grow older.”

Marie asked whether there was something wrong, and even after Jean affirmed he was fine, he saw her eyes return to him repeatedly throughout the night.

When Pierre arrived, Jean heard the rumbling of the car and left the hall. Instead of his mother following him out, it was Mme Kwizera who trailed after them.

“Vraiment Pierre? Even tonight, you can’t be with us for a while? Why do you hate us so much? What did we do to you?” Mme Kwizera said.

“Now stop with that nonsense, you know how tired I am,” Pierre said.

“Just a moment. Say hello to the young man and a few words at the very least.”

“I would fall from sleeping standing up. Do you want a scene like that?”

“That strong cement floor will wake you up when you do. Get out of the car, Pierre.”

To Jean’s surprise and dismay, Pierre got out of the car. Left with no choice but to hold onto his father’s hand, he returned to the hall to mocking cheers as people congratulated Mme. Kwizera for finally being able to get Pierre inside. A plate loaded with food was placed on the white Formica table in front of Pierre, and Jean watched warily as people crowded their table to greet and speak to his father.

Later in the night, when it seemed that his parents were ready to leave, Tresor appeared. They caught up on their lives in Nairobi and reminisced about their days in Bujumbura. Pierre distractedly turned to Jean and asked if he felt tired.

“Ego,” Jean said.

“Eh, haven’t you made progress with your Kirundi?” Tresor said.

“Indeed he has,” Marie said, returning Tresor’s sweet grin and turning to look at Jean. 

“I’ve been speaking to him in Kirundi the way you’ve all been advising me to.”

“You know, even my own children have started to lose some of the words they knew. They spend most of their time in school and playing with their Kenyan friends and so it’s only natural.”

“That’s exile for you.”

Pierre drank from his beer and said, “Just as I tell Mama Jean every time. If you demand that the children answer you in Kirundi when you speak to them, they will retain it.”

Jean found himself reflecting the warm smiles going around the table. Tresor nodded slowly and looked at him.

“That’s true, that’s true. Well, it’s been good seeing you, Pierre. You should be staying for these things more often.” Tresor turned toward Jean and said, “Buhoro buhoro. Slow is how you learn a language.”

“Listen to what she says, Jean,” Pierre said.

In the car heading home, his father spoke of how warm and good-natured Tresor was and asked Marie why they never invited her over to the house, and Jean felt envious of his innocence. The melancholy of things irretrievably lost clotted his thoughts as he realized that it would be their last diasporan party and there was no returning to that small world he hadn’t realized he cherished.

This piece is from our Spring 2024 African Writing Online Folio, an online-exclusive extension of our special issue, “African Writing: A Partial Cartography of Provocations,” guest edited by Chris Abani. You can read more from our Spring 2024 issue, available for purchase in print and digital forms here.

Raul Bimenyimana is a Burundian writer living in Nairobi. His work has previously been published in Brittle PaperPopulaBarzakh, and Kalahari Review.

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