Our 2020 Chance Encounters competition-winning story: A traveler shares a table with a stranger in post-war Rwanda.
“So, I killed them.”
“All of them?”
He shrugged and took a sip of his coffee. “Pretty much.”
A warm breeze blew across the table, a welcome relief from the beaming sun, causing the edge of the table cloth to rise up. The paper menu fluttered, and I looked for something to stop it blowing away. The salt pot sufficed.
The air was scented with flowering trees, and I recognised the pink and purple blooms of the delicate bougainvillea. From where we were sitting on our rooftop terrace, I could see right across Kigali with its red-tiled roofs. I hadn’t been in the city for long, having just spent a few days volunteering in a school. Now I had a few days to myself before heading home.
The stunningly beautiful city was spread below us, the bustling streets and meandering highways some of the cleanest and safest in the world. Looking up at the lush patchwork of green hills, I saw Rwanda as a truly captivating country. There was no doubting how it got its nickname – The Land of a Thousand Hills.
“Can I get you anything else?” A young waitress stood to my side, pen and notepad in hand.
I shook my head. “No thanks. Coffee is just fine.”
She smiled and walked away. I leant across the table.
“And her?” I asked, cocking my head to where the waitress was clearing another table. “Would you have killed her if she’d been there?”
Kenneth clenched his fist. He brought it up to his mouth and looked away. “You could never understand.”
“Tell me,” I said.
He took a deep breath and stared at me. I always thought I was pretty good at reading people, but Kenneth was different. A brief moment of emotion flashed in his eyes before he looked away again. I wasn’t sure if he was going to talk.
I had met Kenneth by accident. The coffee shop balcony had been packed, so we’d ended up having to share a table. I didn’t mind, I just wanted a coffee. Rwandese coffee is world class and renowned for its exquisite, creamy taste. I had no idea how they produced such a delicate flavour, but the caramel aftertaste was something I craved in this African city.
I hated small talk, always had. I remember thinking that if this guy was going to share my table, he’d better have a good story to entertain me with. So we cut straight to the chase. I asked him to tell me his best day – and then his worst.
He smiled. “My best day is when I married my wife.” He looked up at the vast, blue sky and chuckled to himself. “Ah, that was a good day.”
But then I asked about his worst day. His expression clouded. He started picking at the skin around his thumbnail. I could tell he didn’t want to talk about it, but I was relentless.
“Tell me,” I urged. “Go on. I told you about mine.”
“A broken engagement is not the same as a broken life,” he murmured. But then, for some strange reason, he opened up. Maybe he needed to get it off his chest. Perhaps he had to tell someone before the pain engulfed him and thought it would be easier talking to a stranger, a foreigner, someone who could never understand.
So he told me.
He told me how in April 1994, the Genocide happened. He was working in Kenya at the time but travelled back to Rwanda when the atrocities began.
“I never came back to get involved. Just to protect. But then, you see things that change you. I saw things that darkened my heart. Nobody knows the vicious lion they have inside until they are faced with such evil and hatred. People were losing their minds.”
I poured the coffee. We decided to share a cafetière; it seemed easier. It seems odd now that at the moment a stranger was summoning the strength to talk about something so horrible, my attention was diverted to the coffee. Maybe at that point I simply needed some normalcy.
I added two sugars to his cup, and he nodded his thanks.
“I never thought I could kill. But I went into a house, up in the hills.” He pointed towards the right, although of course this meant nothing to me. “On the table was an open wedding album – everyone in the photographs dressed up so fine and smiling into the camera, you know?
It was when I saw those same people dead on the floor, their lives hacked, that I knew I too could be a killer. I wanted revenge for the lives of these innocent people. And I took it. Many times over.”
He reached across and picked up his cup. As he drank the coffee, I noticed his hands were trembling.
“And that was my worst day,” he said.
I could have asked how many people he had killed, if he’d had trauma counselling, or so many other questions.
But instead I asked him if he wanted more coffee. He nodded, and I ordered us another cafetière.
We sat at that table for an hour, drinking and admiring the views. He pointed out areas of interest to me, including the prominent Convention Centre – one of the most impressive buildings in Kigali. Built in the shape of a beehive, it lit up in different colours at night.
As we sat and finished our coffee, we talked about the amazing sights and places in Rwanda, and the past conversation and all its horrors was forgotten for a few brief moments.
When the waitress brought the check, I told him I’d cover it. He smiled and thanked me.
As he got up to leave, he held out his hand, the same hand that had carried the dead to places of burial, that had killed people, that had wiped away blood and tears and grief.
I took that same hand in mine and shook it.
“Take care of yourself, Kenneth,” I said.
He nodded. “You, too.”
And he left.
I looked out at the breathtaking hills that rolled around me like a huge green wave, packed with golden monkeys, dainty sunbirds, and red billed firefinches. I tried to think about the horrors that had happened there over 25 years ago. In these peaceful, flourishing times, I couldn’t imagine it. But I had seen the haunted expression in Kenneth’s eyes. I remembered the way his hands had trembled.
And that was enough.