Apart from the laddering
of banana trees,
there is no intermediary
between the hills and sky
so the sun, releasing
full-blooded candid colours,
brings the heavens closer
to a slightly stuttered earth.
People are moving homeward now,
clasping torn banana-tree stems:
thick pieces, mottled brown and yellow,
made into a scroll, and filled with charcoal,
glowing red and misting silver.
Matches are precious. So every evening
the one who has bought some shares out fire.
The hills become smudged with curls of smoke,
feeble yet continuous, pausing at intervals
as neighbours stop to exchange a few words
then get back home before the rain.
Outside, banana leaves rattle in the wind
but the scarce resource outlasts itself,
lengthens to potatoes, cassava, rice,
shadowy light from the kerosene lamp,
hot sugary chai in the thermos.
As if it isn’t enough to live
at the top of the highest hill in the district,
every evening children take skipping ropes
made of bound amashinge grasses
and two hold an end each while a third starts to jump,
dislodging the dust beneath the trees.
It’s almost dusk when the chores are over.
They lead the goats home along the valley
through wisps of sun, then string the air
with rapid ovals, as if in victory
that a few loose strands may buoy them up
above the hills, and never come undone.
In this way, multiple veilings
of water and vapour, near-substanceless layers,
conceal a view to the centre of Earth,
to a depth
too dark to grasp.
The other direction, the way we came,
holds details in focus,
dense starburst leaves
thick pools of mud, raw stone, vivid grass,
and, beyond, deep black earth
cultivated into sections,
the diplomatic spacing of the plantations,
precise, and governed;
only more sharply revealed, by weather.
The wind intensifies.
The mist clears.
Sheep stand in white pyrethrum flowers.
In the valleys, the paddy fields: near-perfect smoothness,
a serene antithesis to the hills.
Women in bright kangas bend across the green surface
or stand up to brush away sweat or rain.
They know the secrets of the slender shoots,
the roots within earth, the wind and sun.
Meanwhile, wagtails fidget in the thatching
of darkened classrooms. The cultivators’ children
bunch up on benches, bare feet swinging,
facing a blackboard propped up on rocks.
Gradually, chalk marks gain clarity,
become symbols, categories, mysteries.
Later, at home, bulky sacks are upturned
to a brisk shift of sound, like an onrush of air,
as rice grains softly shuttle down onto canvas.
The corners are patted to shake out the last bits.
Over a charcoal stove, the rice fluffs up,
and the family gathers round the saucepan to eat.
The empty sacks are taken aside,
torn with a knife, and neatly stitched
into tight, compact little schoolbags for books.
With a closely fitted handle, and three added buttons,
they are strong and coarse and waterproof;
apt to fray, perhaps, but maintaining resistance.
In this way, the sacks carry nutrients
for body and mind, from outside and in,
for child and mother, for manual labour
and academia, and, in the transition,
seem to dispel the difference.
Light papery casements flake away
at her fingertips into the dust.
Beans spill into her gathered red kanga:
pearls stippled white and black and purple,
hard and smooth and polished and sunlit.
Cupped hands move them into baskets.
Nearby, a child spoons mashed ibitoki
for her baby brother. Others scratch draughts boards
or simultaneous equations into dust,
pass round postcards of The Globe and Big Ben.
Mama Louise breastfeeds her baby.
Her sister cuts sugar cane with a panga,
hands around thick succulent sections.
We suck out the sweetness, spit out the veins.
In the distance, kids bang jerrycans
at a rehearsal for the New Year’s Day dance.
In the afternoon sun, we unshell ourselves,
through simple English, minimal Kinyarwanda,
or something other than language.
ibitoki: green bananas