By Rose Zimulinda
THIS year, on July 4, Rwanda celebrated their 20th Liberation Anniversary.
Recently, in a moment of relaxation at home as I watched television, a programme featuring a veteran team of Uganda entertainers was aired. The Ebonies had been on a tour of Rwanda and were now presenting their crowning event that highlighted the merging of two peoples (Uganda and Rwanda) and two cultures that have since become one.
After enumerating the reasons why they are so impressed with Rwanda’s progress, the Ebonies baptised the country, ‘the Sun of Africa.’ This was most touching considering that, at one time, the country qualified to be called the ‘dark country,’ not so much because of the skin color of her people but due to her physical and social isolation from her neighbors and of course the pitch darkness visited upon her by the genocide of 1994.
As I continued to watch the exciting blend of the Kigali and Kampala fanfare, I recalled my very first encounter with Rwanda, exactly twenty years ago. The contrast between then and now is monumental; the makeover truly unbelievable.
Late in July 1994, about two weeks after the guns fell silent; a combination of interest and curiosity got the better of me. I decided to travel to Kigali. Who would receive me? A dear sister-in-law of mine who had been deeply involved in the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) liberation struggle would be my hostess.
I longed to see her after so long and to congratulate her and her comrades upon their resounding success.
I shared my week long journey with a friend who had a mission to establish the fate of his cousin, Joy, and her family. Incidentally, Joy had visited her relatives in Kampala just before the start of the genocide.
Her relatives in Uganda had tried to persuade her to stay until the brewing storm was over, but she flatly refused, saying that if her family were to die, then she had to go back and die with them.
After completing the immigration procedures at Katuna and Gatuna, respectively, we settled back in our car and I mentally braced myself for the long journey into the mysterious land. In my mind, I expected the journey to Kigali to be at least equal to that from Kampala to Katuna (About 6 hours then).
The landscape of the Gatuna- Kigali country, particularly the first half, is very similar to that of Kabale but the hills are much more rugged with sparse and pale vegetation, worsened by the dry season. The previously terraced plots of farm land were seriously overgrown and so were the foot paths leading to the villages on the slopes andhill-tops.
The heavily loaded and graying stalks were now bent paths leading to the villages on the slopes and hill tops. The gardens in the valleys including the tea plantations were equally bushy.
A particularly sorry sight was the sorghum gardens, the grain being a staple crop in this country. Ironically, that season had got a bumper crop which seemed to have stood waiting to be harvested until it got tired. The heavily loaded and graying stalks were now bent over, appearing to be resigned to fate.
The area was rather sparsely populated, contrary to what the authorities in the late president Habyarimana’s regime always pleaded, that over population was the reason why the Rwandese diaspora could not be allowed to return home.
I soon noted that some homesteads had been destroyed and others razed to the ground.
There were no animals in sight- be it cows, goats, sheep or even chicken. Of course they had been killed for food or to punish the owners.
The narrow, winding highway, characterized by high cliffs and treacherous bends was tarmac although many spots were in a state of disrepair. There were few vehicles on the road, save for those carrying security personnel.
Suddenly, people appeared. They were certainly human beings, but difficult to make out. These people seemed to be coming from everywhere and headed everywhere. Up the hills and down the valleys, they moved, in groups, big and small. Along the road, they trudged; silent men, women and children.
All carried something on their heads and in their hands, ranging from blankets, fire-wood, pots, food, etc. But the commonest items were jerry-cans, papyrus mats and what made them particularly scary –machetes. They wore rags that were soiled beyond description. Their sweat-coated bodies looked like they had never had a bath since birth.
The roaming Rwandans whom I later got to know were ‘Wananchi’ returning to their homes from various places of refuge within and beyond Rwanda, were truly a sight to see. And we were to meet them everywhere in the country. But even scarier than the machetes they carried, however, were the expressions (or lack of them) on their faces.
Most of their eyes were simply blank. But what disturbed me is how they did their best to avoid direct eye contact. What were they trying to hide? Was it fear, hate, guilt, disillusionment or simply resignation? Whatever it was was scary.
Shortly, I was brought back to my senses by the driver trying to communication something. ‘What?’ I started.
‘Yes’ he affirmed. We are entering Kigali. As I looked out of the window, I felt rather disappointed. ‘Could it be that all this time, Kigali was actually so near? So, the regime had managed to keep the country a dark secret? I could not believe that before we had settled down to enjoy the ride, we were already there!
We entered Kigali around 5:00 p.m after a slow drive of approximately two hours from the border. By now, I thought I was immune to shock. So, we took Kigali in as we saw it. A subdued basin, over shadowed by a menacing Mt. Kigali. A city characterised by death of lives and livelihood, a city of broken hearts. All these realities combined were substantiated by a terrible stench that hang in the evening air.
Kigali actually stank. I was forced to ask the naïve question of what was the cause. Then I was told to look around and see for myself. Having gorged themselves on human flesh during the genocide, the dogs of Kigali were actually suffering the after effects.
Apparently, they had contracted an infection and since there were no veterinary services available, the creatures were dying like flies. They irony here is that when the human beings stopped dying, the canines started dying and there was no city authority to handle their disposal. So, the dead dogs largely remained on the streets and stank.
Meanwhile, my companion had been given directions to help him locate a ‘supermarket’ owned by Joy’s family in Kigali City. After a lot of difficulty, we managed to trace the address. Despite the small size of the city and the fact that they shared a language, Kinyarwanda, it was difficult to trace an individual in Kigali owing to the compartmentalised minds of the inhabitants.
Soon, we learnt to do it their way; you had to say whether the person you wanted was a ‘Muganda,’ “Tanzanian”, “Congolese”, “Burundian”, “Belgian”, etc, referring to the country they returned from. If they had lived in Rwanda, they were called ‘SOPECA’ or ‘SOP’ (I think SOPECA was a popular meeting point in the city). This classification was worrying. I, for one, wondered whether these people could ever be on; or develop a national spirit.
We soon found my companion’s cousins` supermarket (it was actually a tiny grossary). We were welcomed by the two surviving children who told us the story of their survival and the sad demise of their parents and two siblings. We then asked them to help us trace my own ‘Baganda’ people. ‘Ah.’ I know one “Muganda Afande” who usually buys here. He will help us…’
That is how I also managed to trace my people, who fortunately, had just moved into the upscale neighbourhood of Kiyovu. Theirs was a relatively clean environment with less evidence of destruction. We had a terrific re-union of laughter and tears.
‘The worst is over, thank God.’ I whispered to my sister-in-law as I settled down to sleep at 2:00 a.m.
‘I wish I were so sure…`, she sleepily answered.
At around 11:00 a.m that morning, I was awakened by horrified shouts coming from the backyard. I jumped out of bed, grabbed and put on my gown and rushed to the source of the commotion.
The stench …. It had followed me from yesterday! Even in Kiyovu!
What is going on,’ I asked involuntarily clamping tightly on my nose. Then I was told the story. The Shamba-boy had been told to weed the back-yard and plant some flowering shrubs.
After digging a few hoes, he hit something squeaky.
On further examination, he found that there was a human body buried very near the surface. This was the source of the stench. I was told that this was not an uncommon incident. Police was called and they promptly came and took the body away.
That incident immunised me against any further shocks that would come my way during the rest of my tour of Rwanda.
It is against the above background that one can appreciate the transformation and the benchmarks made over the twenty years.
Once again, Congratulations, and keep it up Rwanda and Rwandans.
The writer is the Presidential Adviser on Diplomatic Affairs