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When a car was an Oldsmobile

By April 25, 2011June 6th, 2023No Comments

Talking about transport the other day reminded me of Eriya Nkundizana (God bless his dear soul). When he passed away in November 1999, Nkundizana had become a Protestant preacher, a canon, in Nyarusiza, Bufumbira, southern Uganda. His name evokes many fond memories in me. In his early twenties, in the 1950s, his was already a household name in all the ridges of Bufumbira in his country, neighbouring Ruhengeri in Rwanda and Jomba in Congo-Kinshasa, due to his sheer bicycle-riding antics. He was famous to all and sundry, so much so that we, the youth of Canika, had coined a song in his praise that went something like “Nkundizana akunda igare…

It is not exactly that he loved his bicycle, and there is no reason why he should not have, but rather that every time we saw him, he was riding one. There being hardly any other mode of transport, only the well-to-do could own such a treasure, and they were held in awe. The owners of such a prized ‘locomotive’ were numbered, and you did not need all your fingers on your hand in order to count them: maybe the chief, the sub-chief and the customs officer.

There did exist an old, asthmatic pickup which was known as an ‘oldsmobile’ those days, and its proud owner was none other than the surushefu himself (vice-mayor to you), my old man. But, I remember, I have talked so much about that vehicle before. Suffice to say that the area was blessed not only with a road but also with public transport the way we know it today. Which means that you could pay your money and travel by bus from Ruhengeri to Kabale and even up to Kampala, the heart of Uganda.

Quite a number of people had made that journey, and their stories had kept us spellbound up to the time we were bundled into exile, in 1959. We had heard of ‘isaha ya kwini’, a clock hanging in the centre of Kampala, which belonged to a woman who was the ‘Rudahigwa’ of  ‘Abongereza’, meaning the queen of England. It was said that the town of Kampala had artificial stars that shone so brightly that you could not tell night from day, that the Baganda could send ‘horns’ that could whip the daylights out of the strongest of men and other incredible tales. The bearers of these stories traveled by a U.T.C. bus that plied the Kabale-Ruhengere road twice a week.

That was the ONATRACOM of Uganda, with a difference. The difference being that the bus had half a bonnet, the other half housing the driver’s cabin. It was rumoured that the driver’s cabin was thus isolated so he could easily jump out through the window if the bus were to fail negotiating one of those hair-raising corners of Kanaba hills, near Kabale in Uganda, leaving his passengers to the mercy of momentum. Those hills are so steep you’d think the road was etched in an upright wall.

Which usually made you wonder how the ‘oldsmobiles’ could make it through this road. These were American-made cars that were longer than a long semi-trailer. In Rwanda and in Uganda, there existed only two of them: one called ‘Impala’ belonging to King Rudahigwa of Rwanda, the other one a ‘Chevrolet’ belonging to King Mutesa of Buganda.

The two kings used to visit each other and pass through Canika border post, ‘duwani’, occasions that used to see us keep vigil by the roadside for weeks to make sure we did not miss a glimpse of these metallic wonders. Even Queen Rosalia Gicanda’s (King Rudahigwa’s wife) ‘Citroën’ used to pass there and stop at ‘duwani’. You should have seen the way we used to marvel at it whenever it ‘stood up’ to go, ‘lifting’ its front and then its back!

So, it was said this road snaked its way all the way from a place called Mambasa through Nirobe, Jinja, Lugazi-na-Gahoro, Kampala, Kabale and Gisoro on to Ruhengeri and Kigali. That is why we used to see many lorries – trailers had not yet been invented! – frequent our ‘duwani’, carrying imported goods from the coastal town of Mombasa. Many times you could hitch a ride on these lorries, but that needed extreme tact. A simple African could not drive these lorries, no. They were driven by a higher species, a cross between a black man and a white man known as ‘abagoha’.

These ‘bagoha’ had among them some who were said to cherish human meat, in which case the time you got a lift would be the last to be seen. Luckily, if you were tactful you could tell which lorry belonged to a ‘mugoha’ cannibal, known as ‘ndumanga’. A lorry driven by ‘ndumanga’ was all wood, including the driver’s cabin, doors, bonnet and all. Everybody knew the lorries, and whoever spotted one raised an alarm by shouting “Ndumanga!” Men, women and children stopped whatever they were doing or dropped whatever they were carrying and dived for cover!

But back to late Eriya Nkundizana. It was a different story when he was spotted riding his bicycle through the Ubukomane pass or Ubudacinkurikirane from Nyarusiza. These are narrow passes between Muhabura Volcano and the adjoining hills that were thought to be havens for land ‘pirates’. Whoever spotted Nkundizana emerging from those passes would start up the song. Then all the youths would stop whatever they were doing to take up the song as they watched him ride through the narrow, winding paths waving at them with both hands, not holding the handlebars!

However, he was not famous for his riding wizardry only, but also for something else. He was the paparazzo of all time! Except people in our area, hardly anybody else had seen a camera in the rest of the Great Lakes region, I am sure. Nkundizana thus covered the length and breadth of Ruhengeri, Bufumbira and Jomba in Congo, committing people’s images to paper for posterity. The rituals involved in taking photographs those days, and the maneuvers needed to use the gigantic pinhole camera and its accompanying hood, I think I have talked about before.

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