“ The Eternal Audience of One is laugh-out-loud funny with writing that is sometimes so beautiful that it dances off the page—to a millennial beat—in perfect tempo with its tales of migration, love, loss, and friendship. ” —Sarah Ladipo Manyika, author of In Dependence R eminiscent of Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon, this “ g orgeous, wildly funny and, above all, profoundly moving and humane” ( Peter Orner, author of Am I Alone Her e ) coming -of-age tale follows a young man who is forced to flee his homeland of Rwanda during the Civil War and make sense of his reality. Nobody ever makes it to the start of a story, not even the people in it. The most one can do is make some sort of start and then work toward some kind of ending. One might as well start with Séraphin: playlist-maker, nerd-jock hybrid, self-appointed merchant of cool, Rwandan, stifled and living in Windhoek, Namibia. Soon he will leave the confines of his family life for the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, in South Africa, where loyal friends, hormone-saturated parties, adventurous conquests, and race controversies await. More than that, his long-awaited final year in law school promises to deliver a crucial puzzle piece of the Great Plan immigrant: a degree from a prestigious university. But a year is more than the sum of its parts, and en route to the future, the present must be lived through and even the past must be survived. From one of Africa’s emerging literary voices comes a lyrical and piquant tale of family, migration, friendship, war, identity, and race following the intersecting lives of Séraphin and a host of eclectic characters from pre- and post-1994 Rwanda, colonial and post-independence Windhoek, Paris and Brussels in the 70s, Nairobi public schools, and the racially charged streets of Cape Town.
Release date: August 10, 2021
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Print pages: 384
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Eternal Audience of One
A long-forgotten essay:
The Last Ticket Out of Town
By Séraphin Turihamwe
Windhoek has three temperatures: hot, mosquito, and fucking cold. The city is allowed two or three days of mild spring weather in early September before the unrelenting heat crowds them out until May. The summers are long and sweaty, so much so that job offers can be sweetened by the promise of air-conditioning (and an overseeing committee to adjudicate on room temperature disputes because white people do not know how to share). Summer nights are stifling. Cooling breezes heed their curfews and leave the night air still and warm from the day’s lingering heat. The departing sun brings out the mosquitoes. They are organized, they are driven. If they could be employed they would be the city’s most reliable workforce. Alas, people do not have my vision. From sunset to sunrise they make enjoying a quiet evening drink on a balcony a buzzing and bloody affair. June, July, and August are bitter and cold. An ill wind clears out the gyms. Running noses are the only exercise anyone gets in the winter.
The city is called a city because the country needs one but, really, “city” is a big word for such a small place. But it would probably be offensive to have a capital town or a capital village so someone called it a city. The title stuck.
Life is not hard in Windhoek, but it is not easy either. The poor are either falling behind or falling pregnant. The rich refuse to send the elevator back down when they reach the top. And since cities require a sturdy foundation of tolerated inequalities, Windhoek is like many other big places in the world. It is a haven for more, but a place of less. If you are not politically connected or from old white money, then the best thing to be is a tourist. The city and the country fawn over tourists. The country’s economy does too. That is when it is not digging itself poor.
That is Windhoek. The best thing to do in the city is arrive and leave.
The mistake you want to avoid making is trying to “make the most of it.” My parents did that. I have not forgiven them for their sense of optimism. You will notice it in many people. There is a strange national pride I cannot explain, a patriotic denial of reality.
Beware of that optimism. It will creep up on you. It will make you notice how, in the early morning, the streets are hushed and the city’s pulse is slowed down to a rhythmic, nearly nonexistent thump-thump. The only people to be seen on the streets are drowsy night shift security guards, the garbage collectors hanging from the backs of dumpster trucks as they do their rounds, and a few stray cats. That is when it is at its best. Windhoek has not yet prostituted itself to neon and skyscrapers, so a horizon is always a short hill climb away and nature still squats on its outer extremities. The views are spectacular.
The same optimism might lead an early riser to be up before the sun to see how the approaching light gently shakes the city awake. Alarm bells ring as children and parents prepare for school; the blue collars make their way to a bus or truck stop and wait to be carried towards places of cheap labor; and the white collars take their time getting to desks and offices. As the day brightens, the cracked tarmac that lines the city’s main arteries sighs and stretches, preparing for the new day when the increasing traffic will become a viscous mess of commuters and taxis.
When it is going at full tilt, Windhoek does so at a slow hum. It pays respects to the Gregorian calendar and then some. Mondays and Tuesdays are busy. Wednesdays and Thursdays are reserved for concluding auxiliary matters. On Fridays everything shuts down with the firm understanding that the weekend is in session and nothing and nobody should upset the established order of things. The city has strict boredom and business hours and it keeps them.
The autumn days after the high summer are the best. The sky is afire with an intense passion; it burns with bright orange and red hues which tug at unprepared heartstrings before blushing into cooler pinks that tickle the clouds. The day’s fervor cools down into violent violets as evening approaches.
Windhoek has good days and it has bad days. But, ideally, you should not be here long enough to know that. If you have made the mistake of tarrying too long in the city, and forgotten to purchase the last ticket out of town, you might have to do something more challenging: actually live here.
Beginnings are tricky because there are no countdowns to the start of a start. There is nobody to point out that this moment right here is where it all begins. Life starts in the middle and leaves people trying to piece the plot together as they go along. The only certainty is this: everything that is not the end must be the start of something else.
So disappointment must be curbed when one sits down to this story to find the trailers have been missed and the action is already devolving. It would be rude to walk out in a huff, squeezing past sourly retracted legs while spilling popcorn all over the other patrons.
Nobody ever makes it to the start of a story, not even the people in it. The most one can do is make some sort of start and then work towards some kind of ending. Endings are tricky too. But that is a discussion for another time.
Right now, we are concerned with starts.
It occurred to Séraphin, as he sank lower into the uncomfortable three-seater sofa in the lounge, and not for the first or last time, that family was something that had to be survived. He reckoned the public acknowledgment of such a truth would irrevocably destroy the foundation of human happiness. Stock photography would never be the same again, for one thing.
The day already felt insufferable: twelve or more hours spent cooking, cleaning, and arranging furniture in preparation for the New Year’s party with the handful of Rwandan families clinging together for community in Windhoek. He took private comfort in the fact that after tonight, it would be only two weeks before he could return to his university, with its curated diversity, its distance from family, and its perpetual air of youth in the fickle-weathered city of Cape Town. Séraphin wondered whether his desire to be distant from his family marked him as an ungrateful son. Or whether his sentiments were mirrored in other twenty-somethings who flourished in the absence of parents and siblings, whose characters were compressed and restricted by the proximity of dinnertime disagreements about religion, education, or the trajectory of a career. What he knew for certain, though, was how easy he breathed as soon as his family was behind him, when the adventure and uncertainty of Cape Town lay ahead, with Table Mountain’s flat top commanding the horizon, a monolith which said, “Here be adventure, kid. Welcome.”
In South Africa’s Mother City he felt cramped corners of his being relax and stretch as he filled out his skin. Avenues of his mind opened up as he envisioned the people he could meet, the meandering conversations he would have about parties, picnics, and politics. He would be with his friends once more. They would pool their arrogant youth together and cash in on capers that would be the subject of sly jokes and cell phone group chats.
Ah. Cape Town.
Even thinking about Cape Town’s smoggy summer air made Séraphin smile, but it also made him anxious about how little joy he found in spending time with his brothers, mother, and father. Home, to him, was a constant source of stress, a place of conformity, foreign family roots trying to burrow into arid Namibian soil that failed to nourish him.
His attempts to invent a reasonable absence from home this year had failed.
At five o’clock that morning—the hour most loved by early-bird mothers and despised by night-owl sons—Séraphin’s mother, Therése, had come bustling into his bedroom, drawing back curtains and telling him to wake up. “Séra! Up! Now!”
The prone figure on the bed opened an eye.
Therése opened the windows, leaning out to smell the crisp morning air, tasting its coolness. By nine o’clock, sweat patches would bloom under every armpit. “We must get started,” she said.
Therése backed away from the window and noticed Séraphin had not moved. She clapped her hands together. A loud crack, which could have spurred on a team of wagon-pulling oxen, rang in the room. Séraphin opened his eyes and said, “Yes, Mamma, just now.”
“Now is now, Séra!” He heard her walk next door to Yves’s bedroom. A few seconds later another gunshot went off. He listened for the third and final explosion that would pull Éric, his youngest brother, out of his slumber. When it came it was even louder than the preceding two. It was followed by the sound of his mother walking back down the corridor. Séraphin shot upright and swung his legs out of bed. Even if he was about to become a graduate for the second time, and even if he believed his mother held a smidge more affection for him than she did for his brothers, he would not risk her ire so early in the morning. Not on a day when she would be operating at her most dictatorial.
Therése came gliding back into the room. “You are up,” she said. There was no question in her voice. That was the way it would be for the rest of the day. His mother would be a monstress, and her sons were blood-bound to do her bidding.
“I wasn’t given a choice,” Séraphin replied.
“You don’t need a choice. You need a shower, breakfast, and then you need to arrange the lounge.”
“It’s always arranged. Nobody sits in it.” Séraphin rubbed his eyes. “I think the lounge is fine, Mamma.”
“When it is your turn to entertain,” she began, “you will learn the difference between good enough for the family and good enough to avoid gossip.”
“So, the other families deserve better than we do?” Séraphin attempted to look disappointed.
“You deserve nothing, Séra,” she replied. She crossed her arms on her small chest and drew herself up to her full height, which would have been just tall enough to reach Séraphin’s chest if he were standing next to her. “What I deserve are sons to help me prepare for today and, would you know it, I have just the ones to do it: the dishwasher, the carpet cleaner, the window wiper, the sweeper, the potato peeler, the fire starter, the meat roaster, and the waiters too.”
Séraphin groaned. Again he thought about what he would be doing if he were in Cape Town. What parties would he be gearing up to attend? What crumpling of bedsheets could have ushered in the New Year?
Ah. Cape Town.
Therése, as though pulling an important thought out of the air, said, “And, of course, there is that one son who has to wash the walls, sweep the yard, pull weeds from the interlocks, and make sure the house looks like it was built yesterday, all in forty-degree weather.” She added, more quietly, “That’ll be the one who gets out of bed last.”
Séraphin stood up with false alacrity. “Jeez, Mamma, relax. Your favorite son is on the job!”
Therése walked out of the room in a mock huff. Secretly, she was pleased to have amused her eldest son. Lately she had been feeling distant from him and his brothers. The fierce and fearful closeness of their flight from Rwanda to their eventual settling in Namibia was dissipating. She felt as though her sons did not need her kind Rwandan words and comforting proverbs; they had developed their own English wit, picking up the language so quickly that even a question posed in Kinyarwanda would elicit an English response. Now they spoke using words and phrases that seemed to contradict the meaning of what was said. “Bad” was good, “good” was not so good, and “ill” did not mean “sick.” Their Kinyarwanda was used sparingly, for politeness, and to wheedle favors from her.
Séraphin stretched. “Just two more weeks after tonight,” he said aloud.
He walked to the bathroom and splashed water on his face. He leaned on the wide sink, his hands resting on opposite edges, and flexed and rolled his shoulders. His reflection looked back at him in the smudged cabinet mirror.
“Survive them,” it said.
“And then love them,” a second voice replied.
“Thank goodness, it won’t be too long now.” A third voice.
“Just two weeks and then—” said a fourth.
“—Cape Town,” sighed a fifth.
“Well,” Séraphin said, straightening, “let’s get this day over with.”
The morning passed in a blur of cleaning with the occasional berating from Therése about lackluster dusting, inattentive mopping, negligent arranging, distracted potato peeling, wasteful and uneven chip slicing, and shoddy dishwashing that would, according to her, shame the entire family. Exasperated, Séraphin waited until his mother’s attention was occupied by Éric’s weed pulling. When he heard the Kinyarwanda exclamations and criticisms, he sought the solitude of the lounge.
As a rule Séraphin tried to keep his sojourns to this city to a minimum by spending as much time as he could in Cape Town, but even he could not lie away the December holidays this year. There were no courses to take for unnecessary credits, or student jobs to fill out like in previous years. With his vacation work applications having been denied by all the Cape Town law firms to which he had applied, he was left with no choice but to return home after his last examinations.
The rejections had been uniform in their ardor towards his academic credentials. They were also firm and cool when they stated their reasons for not taking him on. They could not, by law, accept a non–South African or non–permanent resident for the position, trailed by the mandatory best wishes for all that he might do in his future endeavors. Séraphin had tried to make light of the bruising rejections by searching for an email that broke the well-established formula. The best one came from a young, personable director who ran a boutique law firm.
From: [email protected]
Subject: RE: Vacation work application
Hope you are well. No matter what you said in the interview—which was impressive, by the way—I know you applied to other law firms and I know we were not your first choice either. At best, we were a choice, but not the choice. I also know your inbox will be filled with rejection emails because the law is the law and nobody is going to risk their affirmative action rating by taking you on.
You are probably tired of reading blah-blah-blah emails trying to make you feel better, so I will just cut to the chase: you are the right person with the wrong papers. I think you knew that before you even applied. Also, I’m not sure if this is really for you. Don’t know why I got that impression but I just did.
Good luck for what comes next, Séraphin. And what does not.
The parting message had bounced through his head as Séraphin boarded the packed cross-country coach back to Windhoek. Mark was right. His heart was not really in law, but, even so, he could not stop himself from going through the motions. It was expected of him. As the coach pulled out of Cape Town, heading north towards Windhoek, it carried with it the curiosity of first-time travelers, the relief of the homeward bound, and the sulking silence of one. Ordinarily, Séraphin slept through bus rides, fatiguing himself the night before by partying or binge-watching a television series. After checking his luggage in, he would take his seat and sleep, only waking up at the South African border. His traveling patterns ensured he was never awake to see the monotonous, recycled Christian entertainment provided on board. The disappointments of the past weeks, however, had connived to drive sleep away, leaving him tired but awake and obliged to listen to pastors preach against evolution, offer postapocalyptic condolences for man’s innumerable follies, and promote limited-edition DVDs which, for a fee, could guarantee citizenship in the everlasting Kingdom of God.
By the time the bus pulled out of Springbok, the last northern stop before a straight run to the South African border, his mood was poisonous enough to constrict his airways. The pastor on the television screen asked the trapped congregation to give their life to Jesus. A hand shot up into the air at the front of the bus and Séraphin heard a voice say, “Praise Lord Jizzos Christs.”
A night breeze did little to cool Séraphin’s pique when he disembarked to have his passport stamped by a disinterested border official on the South African side. The man flicked Séraphin’s passport open, scanned the study permit, and placed a departure stamp on a convenient page with a gap. Back aboard the bus, Séraphin’s spirits plummeted whenever he contemplated going through the Namibian border post, a port of entry which was porous for white tourists and semipermeable for black African nationalities. Immigration officers would process the queuing travelers with haste, casting cursory glances at familiar passports and rubber-stamping them in a steady rhythm that permitted the passengers to board the bus and catnap all the way to Windhoek. Every so often a detailed search required by the border police would make a stop longer by twenty or thirty minutes. The duration of such a police stop was dependent on the presence of non-Namibian passport holders from countries of international disrepute. Nigerians, Angolans, Congolese, and Cameroonians. Basically, anyone who said “Lord Jizzos Christs” was immediately flagged for invasive luggage searches. A bored dog would sniff at their bags while the unlucky passport holders were subjected to the indignity of having their neatly packed clothing and underwear deposited on the dusty, interlocked pavement and flicked through by a rude baton or a dirty boot.
On such occasions an uncomfortable silence fell on all the travelers. Some would walk away to smoke or converse in low voices, hoping for the discovery of contraband or undeclared goods to warrant the unfolding scene. Others—including Séraphin on days when his Rwandan passport wasn’t the lowest desirable denominator—would simply stand in silent solidarity, bemoaning the accidents of geography that determined fair treatment. To the disappointment of the guards and the relief of the bus driver and the other travelers, the foreigners would soon be released and permitted to go on their way. Suitcases would be squashed back into the bus and the journey would resume. Over six years of traveling the same route to and from university, Séraphin had mastered the humble and polite demeanor of the voyaging black man: “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” and “Thank you, sir, I will repack my suitcase now, sir” and “Rwandan, sir, permanent resident stamp is on page two, sir.”
On his latest return to Namibia, his toxic mood made him forget border control etiquette. The passport control officer in the ramshackle office on the Namibian side paged through Séraphin’s passport, squinting at stamps, trying to find a discrepancy in his travel documents.
“The permanent residence permit is on the second page,” Séraphin began, “the study permit on the fifth, and there is space on the sixth for a stamp. Please don’t stamp on a new page unnecessarily. It doesn’t look nice.”
The official stopped paging through the passport and fixed Séraphin with a baleful stare. Séraphin attempted to return it as his sanity finally pushed to the forefront of his being. The rest of the queue shuffled nervously behind him. Being flippant with a border official was an act as criminal as carrying a kilogram of heroin in a handbag.
Séraphin muttered an apology. “Sorry, boss.”
The official let Séraphin stew in his solecism for a few seconds longer. He reached for the reentry stamp, tattooed Séraphin’s passport, and limply held it out to him. Séraphin reached for it. The official clung to it.
“Chief,” he began, “you don’t make jokes like that, you understand? Otherwise, I keep you here all night. The bus will leave you, you understand? You will have to call your people to come and get you, you understand?”
Séraphin had the good sense to mutter a quick “Yes, sir,” and make his way to the exit. As the official reached for the next passport, Séraphin heard him say, “These foreigners, eh, they think they can just behave any way they want. Not in Namibia.”
Séraphin walked to the bus, took his seat, plugged in his earphones, and ignored the rest of the ride until the bus arrived in Windhoek, delivering him into his parents’ emphatic hugs, his brothers’ bored fist bumps, and a monotony of hot December days spent in frustrated solitude or squabbling with his family.
On the sofa, Séraphin pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and saw there were no messages in any of his group chats. Everyone, it seemed, was too busy with something, somewhere else. He looked around his family’s lounge.
Like most lounges in immigrant family homes it was a shrine to diaspora. Every picture that showed some form of triumph against the humbled life most immigrants are forced to live abroad found its way to a frame or a mantelpiece. There was Séraphin’s father, Guillome, beaming as he leaned against his new Volkswagen Jetta; Therése, looking attentively at a computer screen in an office; Yves and Éric showing off gap-toothed smiles on their first days of school; and Séraphin, attempting to look regal in his prefect’s blazer and tie.
The rest of the room was mostly taken up with furniture. Around the laminate wood coffee table were two black three-seater sofas and two plump armchairs that were never sat in. Most of the family life happened in the kitchen and the television room: food, the English Premier League, and the Sunday blockbuster films were what really brought the household together. Selected from a weekly flyer in a newspaper and paid off in monthly installments, the furniture set was like most others Séraphin had seen: uniform in its gaudy ugliness, weak in the way of structural integrity, and totally deficient when it came to comfort. Its only purpose, as far as Séraphin could tell, was to call attention to a family’s upward mobility. House guests lavished attention upon the set and inquired about its cost, only to be shushed by the proud owners—“to talk about the price of a thing is to cheapen it,” he had heard his mother say once. The sofas were sat in once or twice by a family member when they were entertaining and then rarely thereafter, lest they be worn out before a new set could be purchased.
Glass-fronted cabinets were positioned in three of the room’s four corners. They held ornamental china dogs and the plates that were brought out only on special occasions like the New Year’s party planned for this evening. For the rest of the time their shelves were home to misplaced keys and half-read newspapers. A voluminous Webster’s English Dictionary occupied a whole shelf by itself. It was kept company by a Good News Bible on an adjacent self. The Bible was a curiosity for Séraphin, who had never seen his parents or brothers open it despite their Catholic upbringing. Like many Roman Catholics who practiced their faith on a part-time basis, or when an airplane experienced a violent dip in the middle of turbulence, Séraphin opted to show his piety through waning Mass attendance and, eventually, distance-based faith. “Like distance learning, Mamma. God is everywhere anyway, right?” he had told her the Sunday after he was confirmed. The Webster’s English Dictionary, unlike the Bible, brought the good words to the family. It delivered swift, cross-referenced justice to anyone who spread falsities of vocabulary.
Carefully spaced out on the walls were pictures from former and present lives. While the average immigrant family will diligently collect the trappings of their surroundings to fit in and impress—the language, a house, a car, a dog—few things matter more than winning the war of memories.
A frame held his father’s graduation photograph from university in Brussels. Tall and well built, Séraphin’s father had dark skin and his hair was a black halo around his head. His eyes bristled with the kind of intellectual curiosity that was all the rage when Africa sent young men from villages to former colonial capitals to learn about engineering and medicine and commerce and bring their knowledge and polished accents back home to their fellow countrymen. In other frames on the walls were pictures of Séraphin’s father and uncles standing in poses that looked like the Jackson Five were touring Rwanda. In each photograph, Séraphin’s father could be spotted by his height and his stare, which dared the camera to make him look anything less than handsome.
Next to his father’s portrait was a picture of Séraphin’s mother. She had the look of a woman who might once have commanded a hefty dowry. In the portrait she stood before a small brick house with a blue door. Her hands were clasped in front of her and she wore a well-cut grey pantsuit. Séraphin had been told that the house in the picture had been her elder brother’s; she had lived there after completing her secretarial studies at L’École Parisienne. The portrait had been taken on the day she had secured her first job, as an office administrator at the local United Nations office. In all of her pictures, Séraphin’s mother was smiling or laughing genially.
Another frame showed a young girl surrounded by what could only be called a tribe of boys, their numbers and resemblance driving home the point that in the bygone Rwandan days parenthood was a numbers game; the more offspring one fielded, the better the odds were of defeating the child mortality rate. Séraphin’s grandmother from his mother’s side looked shyly at the camera. Surrounded by her brothers, she stood out only because she wore a yellow pinafore dress. Barring that, she could have disappeared into the mass of round heads, shaven bald to combat lice, mistaken for a boy in an oversized flowery shirt.
Elsewhere, a chubby, one-year-old Yves crawled on a mattress; three boys with too many knees among them stood together in matching soccer uniforms; a small, round face in a blue shirt smiled at the world as though the fourth grade of primary school were the promised utopia; and, further along the wall, a much older version of the boy looked past the camera hesitantly, his graduation robes billowing around him. Séraphin frowned with displeasure at his graduation photograph. In it he could see the fear and uncertainty he had appeased by securing parent-pleasing postgraduate study.
Séraphin, to his disappointment and his parents’ relief, had found out that an English degree was a precursor only to law school and not to the fabled life of the traveling intellectual and writer. Pursuing the English degree had been a negotiated and protracted affair. The normal qualifications, which offered a safe and predictable income, had been arrayed before him after secondary school. Something in finance or, better yet, accounting. Anything in engineering, medicine, or law. None of the five had held much appeal to him, though he could already see the pride that would mist his parents’ eyes if he chose any one of the careers on offer. He decided law was the least constricting.
Quite by chance, he had won an essay competition that secured a scholarship to study English. A paid undergraduate was a rare thing to come by so he promised his parents he would pursue the law degree after he’d completed the English one. His parents allowed him to enjoy three years of missed lectures and cavorting in the arts before collecting their pound of flesh. There were impending retirements to be thought about, futures to be planned, and roots to be anchored. Now, with graduation awaiting him in the New Year, doubts about practicing law grew within him. Mark was right. Séraphin would need luck for what came next. And what did not.
The lounge had been vacuumed and dusted. Some wooden garden chairs and cushions would be brought in from the backyard when the numbers swelled beyond what the lounge’s furniture could accommodate. Séraphin would scuttle to and from the kitchen, bringing drinks. After the fresh fruit juices and water would come the cold Heineken beer, followed by red wine along with unknotted tongues and gossip. He would have to smile, shake hands, accept hugs, and utter polite phrases in broken Kinyarwanda. He would have to accept compliments about how tall he had grown, and then answer some questions about his future as a lawyer. ...
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