Dear Moon, I Am the Colour of Water
Alain Jules Hirwa
Note: The names of most people and places mentioned in this essay are fictitious
PART I: MY PAST
We were looking for more faith than what we had for we wanted to become priests, and sometime later, bishops, sometime later, cardinals, sometime later, which would be a miracle, we’d become popes. I was an altar boy. I enjoyed carrying the incense boat, even if one day, moving alongside the thurible bearer, the incense smoke gave me a hard time. I coughed all the mass long. Maybe there was a bird inside this cage called my body fluttering its wings wanting to escape this road I was taking. Still, I kept walking and arrived at the Minor Seminary Our Lady of Flowers.
We were looking for more faith than what we had. Yet, some of us left the seminary with no faith remaining in the bucket they took to the river. Maybe, we found the water muddy. We no longer crossed ourselves while walking into the chapel. Inside the chapel, we sat silently watching others recite the Liturgy of the Hours. We had become homophobes who could not stand living in the clergy, let alone the seminary.
Apart from the neighbouring nuns who attended most of our daily masses, our environment was all male. Taught to never see beauty in boys, most of the times when we discussed beauty while sitting in our classrooms or lying on our beds, we spoke of the nuns. However, we did not have access to them. Who could ask out a nun, let alone tell her she was beautiful? Their beauty became something abstract, something you see on the screen. When the movie was over, we started looking for it in our own realm.
Someone’s school uniform fit so well somebody else admired his style. Someone’s skin glowed so much in the lamplight that somebody else followed him with their eyes. There was beauty in the lamps. There was beauty in the beige lights that the lamps shed. There was beauty in the glow on our skin. There was beauty in the skin. Someone fell in love with somebody else and their closeness, the long time they spent together, just their friendship became suspicious.
Someone summoned our class for a meeting. When we had all gathered in our classroom, the summoner had shushed us and stillness was trying to eavesdrop on what had not yet been spoken. Finally, it was said – one of us was queer.
My heartbeat ran at the speed of a criminal running from the crime scene. I had smiled too much with a boy. I had played chase with another boy. Was it me? It was not. Somebody else was put at the front and beaten. On my turn, I beat him because not doing so, first, showed you sided with him and, second, foreshadowed that in another world you were the one standing in his position, that you were crying your tears in time.
A boy came out and was beaten. On my turn, I beat him. The third. The fourth. At last, a boy was beaten, and I didn’t beat him.
In 2016, at Minor Seminary Our Lady of Flowers, in a ten-beds dormitory, we beat a form two student. I was in my final academic year – form six. The strongest students, both in muscles and in authority, were summoned. We packed ourselves inside the dormitory. The door was locked before the boy was beaten in turns by Fleur, the victim of his crime, and other student leaders such as class presidents.
Someone pushed him down and flogged him. Another one slapped him ten times in a row across his cheeks, which swelled. Someone searched for the strongest belt in the dormitory and belted him. When the beating in turns was over, they started to beat him with no order. Someone belted him across his head. He wrapped his hands around it. Another one kicked him from behind. The boy hit his head on the wall. In a minute or two, his nose started to bleed.
His crime: he had molested Fleur, which meant queerness in our homophobic school. Fleur was my friend. The beaten boy had gone to Fleur’s dormitory at midnight when everyone was asleep. He had walked over to Fleur’s bed and touched him.
My friendship with Fleur was so close it created a dilemma to what side I was on with regard to the beaten boy.
My friendship with Fleur had started a night when I passed him at the door of the refectory while he was crying and asked him what was wrong. Before this, we never talked. Sometimes, we caught each other staring at one another. Sometimes, in the refectory, someone said something funny, and we glanced at each other and smiled. Still, we never talked.
One night, he came over to the dining table where I sat and told me he wanted to talk.
“Now?” I asked.
“No, later, after dinner.”
After dinner, we met. While standing beside one block of the brick-faced dormitories, we talked for over an hour. He told me he didn’t know I had a brother who studied in the school. My brother Michael was in form two.
He said, “I want to ask you something.”
“Yeah, what is it?”
“Does queerness exist in this school?”
I told him the names of those who had come out during my five years in the school. I told him the names of those who were said to be queer but had never come out.
Oftentimes looking at the ground, he’d go through the ritual of “I want to ask you something,” “It’s scary,” and then ask the question. Now, he asked me for advice. He told me some students, including some of those who would later beat the boy, had made intimate approaches to him. Someone had told him they’d stop loving him if he didn’t join their club. He questioned that love the other boys had suggested. I told him that it was not okay – the love.
He was a boy, yet so baby-faced, his body slim and tender, he looked like a flower on a fragile stem. A lot of the boys at the seminary had fallen for him. It conflicted with his beliefs. Like me, he believed he was straight, even if the seminary was a fieldwork testing our sexuality.
“I want to ask you something.”
“It’s okay.” He told me his company, a group of about four, loved me. His words that remained inscribed on the walls of my memory: “Not any kind of love, just as a girl loves a boy.”
He told me how they discussed my beauty and he countered their ideas by showing them my negative sides.
“A rumour has it that he is cruel,” he told them and, amusingly, “He wears his trousers at his belly button. He is old fashioned.”
While he told me it was the other boys, I went on to conclude, that he spoke for himself – for why had he been the one to come and ask me out in their name?
That night, I told him these feelings were bad. Still, it never occurred to me they were bad. It went on to become one of the best things that happened to me, being told that I was loved, that I too was a flower, that I too was beautiful enough to make passersby compose poems and keep them in their silence.
A day later, when everybody else was doing sports, when outside the window were students playing soccer with worn-out and dirty shoes, I sat on my wooden desk and wrote this unabridged diary entry.
Memo No. 87
To you m most openest frnd.
I’m writing this to seek the truth about your secrets, love, feelings, characters and friendship.
From Plato’s writtings on the conversat˚ of Socrate and Diotima about Lover, Love is the love of everlasting possession of good. This is the way through which I can never blame you for your internal feelings.
Loving is to love to possess something good. I’m not bad (I think). I’m good and perhaps I’ve been the best for u in dis society.
The human biological nature makes us love girls and dat’s what we must do, we must live in. But in case we get to find ourselves in d single world, the nature to love dat girl can become such an evil sin to wish me.
It’s evil but in case you find me good, you can wish to possess that good. That’s love.
I’m not saying dat dis stuff is good but I’m defending your feelings of loving to possess the good. You really have became a hero, to have been able to not die of your feelings but say them and be free. I liked it and I’veappreciated. ‘cause I have been mature enough to correct you and try together with you to change your feelings. It was good to have made you free, showing you the right route to take but it didn’t become so really good as it burnt my insides giving me some strange thoughts n feelings that I could have never had.
Never have any more such feelings emotions and thoughts of being different. You’re a classic man. Man! I dedicate 2 U: Melano n d dragon egg or n Melarmy.
Work hard, shoot high, be smart, work creatively to make a better change in this dying earth.
Always be a classic man.
To myself, my name.
HIRWA Fouine Alain Jules Colonel.
Fleur and I went on to grow a very close friendship. When one of us was in danger, the other was affected. I remember dedicating all my prayers to him the day he fell sick and was hospitalised. I remember a time I fell sick and went to stay in the infirmary. He visited and danced for me. We were in an unofficial love.
When the boy was beaten for touching Fleur, I didn’t beat him because I knew my intimate friendship with Fleur was a river that funnelled into the ocean of the boy’s crime. I don’t want to mean I would molest him. I want to mean all lust is preceded by love. For the first time, I did not beat a boy accused of queerness. Did I side with him? In another world and a different time, was I standing in his position?
PART II: A LETTER TO FLEUR
If you had never asked me out, I would claim myself to be straight, without having to verify anything. Whenever I try to say “I am straight,” your memory raises its hand upon my lips and says, “Shut your mouth.” For there is a memory that everything in me clings on to as the night sky with its stars and the moon, the house with its lamps and the candles, everything clings on to light.
How on the night you told me your friends loved me, when we shook hands to part, you lingered as if you didn’t want the free world in our palms to break into separate countries. I remember the other night when the lights went off while we stood in an alleyway surrounded by gardens, surrounded by what we were not allowed to look like, flowers obliged to grow thorns to be seen as fitting in the stereotypes. I remember that night. The lights went off, and we kept talking. I liked talking to you in the dark. I remember how you suddenly embraced me, crying out, “Oh God!”
“What?” I asked.
In the dark, I did not see any cat. Instead, I saw imaginary eyes of the world glare at our embrace. The embrace, which I loved. I loved being in a world with no borders between countries. I enjoyed traveling without having to pass by hidden roads outside my country for there were no borders. That’s what the darkness did that I loved about it. I remember you as a borderless land. I remember the world as a cage in which I was a bird constantly fluttering its wings.
Was ours a queer friendship? In 2019, I had a straight romantic relationship with a girl. Am I queer, straight, bisexual? No. I refuse to be labelled. I am more than that caged bird. In fact, this is a need to be you, a borderless land.
PART III: MOON
Avoiding that our relationship would grow into homosexuality, with no notice, our communication slowly faded away like a photograph fades away with time. Still, I believed I was straight because Fleur and I had never engaged in a homosexual act which was what made me conclude someone was queer. That year, 2016, I finished high school. As I had always wanted to be a writer, having read almost every novel in our school’s library, I turned to reading from online. My hometown, Ruhengeri, had no library. In that very first holiday out of high school, I discovered the short story God’s Children Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu. The short story had recently been shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. I discovered it online, through the huge social media presence it got. Hearing it was about queerness, at first, I was reluctant to seek it out. When I checked the Caine Prize’s website where all the shortlisted stories were, and as an aspiring writer dreaming of one day being shortlisted for the prize or even winning it, I opened all the shortlisted stories, and only Arinze Ifeakandu’s one struck me to how tidily, clearly, and elegantly it was narrated, as well as its third person point of view. I wanted to write like that, so I read the story over and over again.
While still surrounded by the influence of the short story, sitting in my mother’s stock of beverages, a story came to my mind. I wanted to write about the good times I’d had with Fleur. I had no book nearby, so I took a roll of toilet paper and wrote my story on it.
Online, I also discovered the poetry chapbook Burnt Men by Romeo Oriogun. It too was about queerness – a friend I always denied myself from visiting. Reading the book was my first encounter with free-verse poetry. I started writing poetry too, whose most of my earlier themes were queerness. I wrote such poems as the following.
1. Restricted Colours
tonight, he searches my face for a beauty he heard in my quietude
he wakes me up
sets my house on fire
I close all of my windows and doors
so that the smoke of the fire does not exit
but my neighbours smell the restricted songs he sings
and violent knocks appear on the door
he runs into his body
and turns into my dream
my dream transforms him into a girl
before it allows him to pour his tears into my cup of coffee
to wake up
I climb the wall
stand at the chimney
draw in the smoke so that no one could know my house is on fire
and keep my mouth shut for the smoke to not show off its restricted colours
because I’m restricted to say what’s inside me
2. The Way of the Cross
the light exists in different forms
sometimes it is the freedom that only darkness can offer
when we became alive during nights
and died in mornings
before we’d return back at nights
dressed in our sisters’ beads and softness
to knock out of the windows
the garlics that stereotypes packed in our mouths
but the dark teeth of the night
chewed our sanctuary
we hide our sugar in cold drinks
so that mouths cannot taste our sweetness
but no man hides stars in a night sky
night watchmen smelled our perfume
we are afraid of daylight and its eyes
we accompany each step into the day with a rosary bead
because all eyes we meet
turn into courtrooms when they see us
and each of our steps
feels like one station of the Way of the Cross
I wrote poems like those, not knowing why I did. I kept struggling with defining my sexuality, until I realized it was stupid trying to name the colour of water. I liked this new realisation because it released my birds out of the cages of having to be either queer or straight or anything.
In 2019, I fell in love with a beautiful girl, Moon. Moon oftentimes questioned my masculinity. One morning, as we walked down a deserted road, I showed her a new wallpaper I had on the screen of my phone, a picture of the singer Idyl (Barbara Hermans) whose music at the time was a train I commuted to visit places where live my angelic selves.
“You know what’s amazing about that?” she asked.
“Thank God it’s a girl.”
“What the f***?” I said.
“Gays put at their wallpapers their fellow boys. So, thank God you ain’t like them,” she said.
This implied she questioned my sexuality. During the course of our relationship, I always felt a pressure of trying to prove to her I was straight. My tongue a lexicon of only sweet words, she thought me as less of a man. She wanted a stereotype, not a man. My emotions were such a brittle paper able to be torn by heavy words, she thought I was rather a mystery crime and she was the detective.
One night, as we shared supper, she said, “If somebody told you their relationship with you was an experimentation, what would you do?”
For a second or two, I put my hand upon my lips. Silently, I tried to decode the hidden meaning from her question. Maybe I drew the wrong interpretation, but I took it to mean she had dated me so as to experiment with my sexuality. But why?
Inspired by the announcement of the title of Lidudumalingani’s book Let Your Children Name Themselves, in the aftermath of my relationship with Moon, I felt compelled to act like a child finding the right name for itself. I wanted to tell her, “No, I am not masculine,” “Nope, I’m not feminine either,” and “Baby, I’m water. Give me any colour.”
PART IV: NOTES
The last boy who was beaten in the dormitory was later on taken to the basketball court and beaten in front of the whole school. His health having deteriorated as his body had swelled a lot, he was hospitalised outside our school and never returned.
Alain Jules Hirwa lives and writes from Kigali, Rwanda. His work is forthcoming or has appeared in Wasafari, Jalada, Welter at the University of Baltimore, and elsewhere. He is starting an MFA in Poetry this coming fall at Texas State University.
*Illustration: ‘stars in the night sky’ by Sef Adeola.