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The good old days of isinde and kabuti…..

By May 23, 2011June 6th, 2023No Comments

In late 1959 when we were forcefully removed from our home in Rwanda, we hastily crossed the border and settled in southern Uganda. Luckily, we lived near the border and Bufumbira, the Ugandan side where we settled, was only a short walk away. And, as many in the area were relatives and friends, every one of them was eager to offer us shelter. So, we settled in our new situation without a problem, only that I was forced to adopt a completely different lifestyle.

From a pampered pupil in primary school, I transformed into a herds-boy. Now, you may think a herds-boy only needs to pick a stick and beat his herd of cattle into the direction he desires. That, however, is the easier part. The harder part is a multitude of tasks that require many skills and knowledge in many disciplines.

For instance, after learning the art of herding, I became a designer-architect-mason-tailor-songster-poet, etc. First, let’s take designer-architect-mason-tailor. You are out grazing your cattle and then it rains, what do you do? Remember, ‘umbrella’ did not exist in the Kinyarwanda lexicon! That meant you had to make an equivalent. That is how I learnt how to make isinde, a cross between a jacket, an umbrella and a nyakatsi (grass-thatched wattle hut).

If you know dry banana fibres, then you know that they are supple and impervious to water. That, then, means that those fibres can protect you from rain. However, they come in thin bands so that one of them is not enough to cover you. That, in turn, means that you have to tailor them into a form of jacket. Yet, if you try to stitch them together, they’ll split into separate strings. We solved the problem by weaving them around twigs.

First, you built a skeleton by pushing twigs of the same height into the ground in a circle, leaving equal space between each two twigs. Then you tied the twigs together at the top, after which you tied thinner twigs (like imbariro) across onto the upright twigs, without forgetting to leave a ‘doorway’. On what now looked like the skeleton of a miniature hut, you weaved those fibres by folding them onto, first the lowest up until the topmost, the horizontal twigs. You tied a knot at the top so that water flowed down the fibres without seeping through. From there you could lift it and cover yourself with it so that people behind you would mistake it for a mobile hut!

After testing it, you placed it down and marvelled at your handiwork. Then you started to tweet, as you rested! Our twitter used to be our tongue. And, like today’s ex-journalists/advisers, there were herdsmen who used to abuse that twitter by hurling insults at respectable people, instead of using it to interact sensibly. A gentleman would be walking along a path and then from high up in the hill a sing-song voice would float down, clucking insults. That type of tweeting was called gukoronga. Tweeps of the time did it by twanging at their throats with their index finger as they sang. Those who engaged in it were known to have had poor upbringing. As for us who’d had decent upbringing, we tweeted songs, and that is how I became a songster-poet. You’d send a tweet of a song and then someone would chime in and tweet it with you.

And as designer-tailor? You see, sometimes the weather would be so cold that you’d require a jacket. But since you had no money to buy it, you’d have to make it yourself. It was easy, if you already had a torn shirt or jacket because you only needed to stitch together those holes. However, there were times you could not get even a rag. In that case, you looked for pieces of cloth. When you thought you’d gathered enough pieces, you started stitching them together.

After they’d taken shape, you’d start wearing them whenever it was cold. Even then, whenever you got a piece of cloth, you’d sit and stitch it onto the main coat until the coat became so heavy that you felt you were carrying it rather than wearing it! What with the many different pieces of cloth, however, your hand-made kabuti, as we called it, ended up as a kaleidoscope of colours and textures. It had no identifiable colour and it could weigh countless kilos but was as comfy as the rarest of fur coats. Problem was, sometimes it was so warm that it could send you into a Rip Van Winkle slumber.

Which is what befell me one time, when we were back in Rwanda for only a few weeks before being kicked out again. I was sitting on top of a hillock in my furry kabuti when I fell asleep. I woke up to the noise of many people, only to be told they were searching for me. From two o’clock in afternoon, I’d slept until eight in the evening!

With these chilly mornings of Kigali, how I miss my kabuti!

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