A fellow Rwandan friend used to amuse me when we were in Kenya. Whenever he was required to produce his identity card, he’d swear and curse and vow revenge as soon as the policemen were out of earshot. His ire was always roused by the size of the Kenyan ID for foreigners. There were two types: one for refugees and another simply for immigrants.
But before we get to the reason for my friend’s ire, let’s recall these IDs.
Interestingly, the ID for refugees was called a PI – ‘Prohibited Immigrant’! The reason for such a moniker was probably for refugees not to entertain the idea of ever trying to become citizens. Otherwise why give a paper that allows stay in the country when it says the refugees are prohibited?
Whatever the reason, they had simple plastic pieces for IDs that were easy to carry and enjoyed warmer hospitality than we, other foreign souls.
But we were refugees, you’ll be quick to interject. Indeed, we were but preferred to pass for just aliens. We had certificates and didn’t want to be subjected to the humiliation of depending on crumbs from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. We wanted to break free of UN dependency.
Having lived and studied in Uganda, we fled into Kenya with Ugandans, following upheavals that engulfed Uganda in the 1970s-80s. In the wave of Ugandan immigrants, we registered as immigrants and were issued with an ID called ‘Aliens’ Card’. Which was all very well, only that it was the size of an amply-stuffed file and almost weighed a kilo!
It was that size that was the object of my friend’s ire. “God forbid,” he used to rage, “that we should return to our country! For, if we return and I happen to have the smallest influence in government, I pity any Kenyan who’ll come to work in Rwanda. For an ‘Aliens’ Card’, I’ll issue him/her with an encyclopaedia!”
And for my friend, that miracle came to pass. That, however, was after a protracted struggle that had its huge cost; human, material, mental, moral, psychological, political, name it. After that armed struggle to liberate Rwanda, which he’d joined early, when I reminded him about the “encyclopaedia”, he considered me for long and then walked off.
It was not until after two days that he revisited the subject. I’d avoided broaching it, lest I offended him again. This time he’d come to pick me up in his ‘liberated’ car. ‘Liberated’ meant he’d appropriated it to himself, the owner having probably fled the country. We were sitting in Filao Resto-Bar, at the corner where the now-stone-cobbled narrow street joins the Kicukiro-Remera avenue from Gisimenti.
“You know, Ingina, in Kenya we were fools,” he said in a mournful tone, in reference to the ‘encyclopaedia’ subject. “We didn’t know our enemy. Between the person who receives you in their country and the person who expels you from your country, whom’d you consider your enemy? No Kenyan was our enemy. We all suffered from leaderships that despised us.”
“Yes,” said he, still pensively, “the enemy is a leadership that does not appreciate the value of its people. Once individuals are not valued, they despise themselves. Once they despise themselves, they blame their misery on everybody who is not considered to be one of their own. The Kenyan police did not harass us foreigners alone. They harassed their fellow Kenyans, too. They blamed their plight on everybody except their colleagues in police.”
Yet, he continued, the Kenyan police, like the ordinary Kenyans who were always happy to make new acquaintances with us, had a soft heart. The break in the link comes with a leadership that trains them to be suspicious of civilians. A government should not train police on only how to disperse demonstrations, break riots, catch thieves or kill violent robbers. It should train them on how to work with the people to improve their livelihood and together achieve their security.
Indeed, I think now I can relate with my friend’s argument. Every human being feels vulnerable. And for that, everybody is suspicious of anybody that they may feel is out to exploit that vulnerability. In reflex self-defence, people will feel no remorse in inflicting pain on others. In fact, they’ll be happy to eliminate their fellow humans, now perceived as a threat.
So, everybody needs assurance that others mean well. It is the task of leadership to provide that assurance. Its duty is to cultivate the craving in people to associate with one another; to show them the need to value one another; to awaken in them the pride of who they are. In turn, the people will eagerly hitch on such leadership and be proud to demonstrate their deserved self-worth.
My friend’s conclusion that night still rings in my head today: when we value ourselves, we necessarily respect ourselves. Thus, we will value others also and respect them. We are proud of who we are and cannot hate anybody because we feel no inferiority complex. We are a dignified people.
In giving others their due respect, we’re defending our dignity.