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The solidarity of yore against the rage of thunder

By October 14, 2011June 6th, 2023No Comments

We’ve been having a series of rainy mornings lately and what a waste we’ve made of them. But, poor Kigalois (French for Kigali resident/s), what good can they be to us? If they’ve been any good at all, it’s been to that lazy-boned civil servant who got the chance to add to his/her morning forty winks with the excuse that it was raining.

Yet, if those winkers knew the kick we used to get out of such blustery mornings in my time, they’d eat out their heart and spit it onto any of our side-walks. And be nabbed by our hawk-eyed cop for littering those walks, in the bargain!

I remember one particular morning. It was 1968, on a Wednesday when we were known to cut school, despite our being candidates for the primary leaving exam. Officially, there was no holiday in mid-week. There only seemed to be a tacit agreement between pupils and the school administration that mid-week was food-hunting day. Only a symbolic number constituted school on such days.

Uti why? You see, this was in the sprawling refugee camp of Nshungerezi, south-western Uganda. The taps of UNHCR food rationing had dried, which meant that refugees had to use whatever means they could garner to obtain food. Which also meant that if your parents were too old for the task, the burden fell upon your young shoulders to access nutrition for family.

Since there was no land allocated for that purpose, and the notion of money was alien to a refugee mind, you only relied on barter trade. But barter trade means exchange of something for something else. Yet the Munyankore, who had the food, had no interest in the thread-bare knowledge of Arithmetic you’d picked. And, of course, much less the rudiments of your English, which only passed for a sparsely anglicised form of Kinyarwanda, anyway.

So, we settled for labour. With our arms and legs, we could ‘PAM’, if you get my drift. If you don’t, PAM was a UN programme that offered food for work to internally displaced persons, in the wake of the 1994 war and genocide.

Similarly, we walked to the Banyankole banana plantations outside our refugee camp and tilled the land or cleared the fields of weed in exchange for food. After a back-breaking day, we hobbled home under the forbidding weight of bunches of bananas. But got a happily satiated family for half a week for our labour, so help us God.

Which is how rainy mornings come in. You may not have had land of your own to till, but there did exist some kitchen gardens. If you’d planted maize in your garden, the rain got you dancing on a banana leaf, as they say in Kinyarwanda. That is, celebrating. You celebrated your way to the garden to harvest maize for a roasting feast – and no going to the banana plantations.

That was at the expense of the food you’d have brought in for the evening but what the heck! Did another cut day the following Thursday really make a difference? After all, it was easily explicable.

Problem was, during those maize-roasting fetes, the combination of rain, maize and exposed white teeth in laughter were a powder keg. They were a direct invitation to thunder. But, you reasoned, since many homes were similarly engaged, why should it pick on you?

Unfortunately, you said that to yourself but did not, to thunder. And so it came to pass that that thunder would pick on your kitchen, the outhouse behind your main residential hut. Lightening struck, interrupting our reverie and paralysing everybody. But, on checking, everybody was intact……until somebody shouted: “Smoke!”

We bolted out of the kitchen and, on looking back, we saw the roof had already been consumed and the fire was eating its way down. The drenching rain and water we splashed onto the fire only succeeded in sending sparks to the main hut and, soon, the tongues of flame were licking their way up from the lower eaves up the grass-thatched roof. The flames could be seen reaching out to the next house, with every gust of wind that bent them.

Clearly, a whole cluster of houses were going to be dissipated and even the next. Someone sent out a scream for help.

As if on cue, men spilt out of their houses like elephants in a stampede at the sound of gunfire. They were carrying water containers of varying sizes and they started fiercely splashing water onto the flames. In the end, only the kitchen was completely gutted, while the main hut contented itself with a lost half-roof. Elders went back to warm themselves in their fire places, in the main huts.

As for the young boys and girls, we went back to our kitchen maize-roasting. We joked merrily about seared shins that had lost their original colour but never once exposed our teeth. After all, fire was only a taste of thunder’s fury: another provocation could leave a paralysed limb at best, a death at worst.

The community solidarity of yore, whither art thou today?

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