Today you may not see an African with a part in the hair, but in my time they were a dime a dozen. The hair part was the line that parted hair on the heads of most White people, women and men. It still does. You see Whites with that line on the left side of the head and others on the right.
At first, the side of the part didn’t mean anything to Rwandans. Before their minds were colonised, the whole business of parting hair meant nothing. Until one parted his hair on the right side and got a hiding with ‘kiboko’.
First, ‘kiboko’ (hippo whip). To manage Africans, the Whites adopted the way of the herdsmen. Herdsmen – for the youth who think the source of milk is solely kiosks – look after their cattle and do whatever they want with them with the help of a stick (you’ve heard of my ‘umuzo’ stick).
The colonialist, on his part, opted for something more punitive: ‘kiboko’. In Kiswahili, ‘kiboko’ means a hippopotamus and the colonialist used Kiswahili to baptise his umuzo stick. He’d learnt Kiswahili during a short stint in Zanzibar so as to be able to communicate with Rwandans.
Colonialists assumed that all Blacks spoke the same language, Kiswahili, only to find they’d to go through the pain of teaching Rwandans an African lingo! They realised that if they were going to teach these primitives their African language, apart from managing them, then they needed something that stung most mercilessly. So, they cut a whip from the thick skin of a hippo. On human skin, kiboko can cut like a knife.
If for any reason a Rwandan made a mistake, he was put on the ground bottom-up and a number of strokes of the kiboko were administered on his bare seat. That is how one over-enthusiastic ‘musilimu’ was whipped sore when he put the hair part on the right. After twelve strokes of kiboko, with his bottom now looking like bloody shreds of meat, it was explained in clear terms that it’d be worse for any ‘indigène’ (native) who’d be so foolish as to attempt it again.
From then, ‘basilimu’ had to content with a left hair part. Later, Rwandans came to learn that even Belgians who had no link to the royal lineage were not permitted to sport the right hair part. That’s when they realised that, indeed, such audacity deserved no mercy. Understandably, the highest ‘musilimu’ could not aspire for royalty!
Interestingly, that ‘musilimu’ (‘basilimu’ in plural) word itself developed to mean a civilised person from a funny source. The word is corrupted from the Kiswahili ‘Msilamu’, which means a Muslim. To Rwandans, Muslims looked civilised because coming from the coast, they’d come in contact with slippers and sandals. Originating from the Arab world also, their main dish was ‘chapatti’. To a Rwandan only used to beans and sorghum, such food meant civilisation.
So, if a Rwandan could speak Kiswahili, wear slippers, eat chapatti and sport a left hair part it was the height of civilisation. He was granted the grand title of Umusilimu, even if he wore rags for clothes and smoked raw tobacco, straight from its drying area on the roof above the fire-place. Whatever the case, his position was grand.
But, awe of awes, there was grander! Lowly that we were, however, we hardly saw them. I remember how knocked off I felt when one time I found myself in the presence of such a deity – for deity such a man was! We were playing a game of improvised clay marbles in our compound. Then our old man called out to us to come indoors and greet a visitor.
When we were lined up in front of the visitor, our old man inspected us to see that we’d thoroughly cleaned our hands. I remember waiting my turn to offer the man my little hand for shaking. He was called Bwana Van Hinderegisi (Hendrix) Kamuzinzi, old man told us. Of course, the fact that ‘Bwana’ was a title reserved for Whites, and that “Van Hindrex” was ‘white’, was not lost on us.
Even then, his imposing presence alone was enough to flabbergast our young minds. His feet were stuffed in containers (shoes, now that I know), his legs in cloth (stockings) almost up to the knees and with two pens stuck into the right stocking. He wore khaki shorts and a white shirt underneath what now I know to be a khaki shirt-coat (a cross between a shirt and a coat).
To top up his majestic presence, onto his nose rested spectacles with round lenses and his head had a parting that was high on the head, towards the right. His hair was pressed tightly onto his scalp, indicating he’d used a puller to mat it. His greeting: “Les enfants, muraho!” I knew immediately! He was what was called ‘évolué’ (evolved!). ‘Les évolués’ were those who’d gone to school and they were worshiped!
Ironically, today John Walter and his sister have done a study showing that almost all the great men have sported a left hair part – more of an aspiration to royalty!