When we scurried across the border into Uganda seeking safety from the pogroms of 1959, I dreaded Baringa. Baringa is Kinyarwanda for ‘phantom’, but in English you cannot exactly capture the context that makes the word in Kinyarwanda sound horribly terrifying. I’d acquired the fear in Rwanda and remained in its grip in Uganda for the year and a half we were in exile and returned with it when we were recalled back to Rwanda for a time, in 1961.
Rwanda back then was sparsely populated, which meant residential houses were surrounded by bush and, at our young age, we feared venturing outside in the dark. But parents of the time being the mean sort they were, they’d force us out, sometimes for the pleasure of seeing our fear. Your old man would be sucking at his straw, dipped in Primus Bukavu beer – a preserve of the privileged few, of course – and then he’d bark out: “Ingina, go tell Neighbour to come for a chat.”
Chat, my foot, when I risked being mauled by wild beasts! “Bu….bu…,” you’d begin to protest, to quickly formulate an excuse, but he’d cut you short. “Bu…bu…what, you wet sissy? Yewe, sha!” this to your elder brother, “Bring me the cane!” You took off, knowing that’d mean a minced bottom and no sitting for a month. Definitely better to run into the mouth of a hungry hyena than face the prospect of searing pain on your flesh and definite deformation of your bottom.
At the door, you’d see dark forms of beasts lining up and ready to spring at you. You’d look left and, yes, za-Baringa (many) were there. You’d look right and for a fleeting second there wasn’t any, so you’d shoot right round the house and to the outhouse at the back. That was our kitchen and, blessed soul, Ntibikwira’d be there. Ntibikwira, herdsman, your protector, teacher, guardian, brother, friend – all. He’d escort you to Neighbour and bring you back and at the door whisper: “Ok, Ingina, now go tell your dad Neighbour is on his way.”
Unknowing old man, his face’d light up and he’d slap your shoulder and enthuse: “Nuko sha, now you’re a ka-man! You can suck at the straw.” With a tinge of pride, you’d take the tendered straw and suck (not desecrated American ‘suck’!) a sip of the pungent drink and feel a million butterflies scatter inside your body. Then you’d happily float into your bedroom that you shared with your half-dozen brothers and fall into blissful slumber.
Towards morning, you’d dream that you were walking from Neighbour’s house at night so fearlessly that you could even stand by the wayside and ease yourself. It was as you were standing, answering that call of nature, that you felt the wet-warm tongue of Baringa licking its way down the side of your thigh. You’d try to run but the legs seemed to no longer belong to you and, when you tried to scream, you seemed to possess no voice. Then you burst into wakefulness and realised to your horror that you were lying in bed!……
That horror, though, was not always a result of your imbibing Old Man’s privileged Primus drink. It was a nightly nightmare even when you did not catch a whiff of anything that answered to the description of alcohol. And it was as I was still hostage of that horror that we returned to Rwanda and were put up in the quarters of our neighbour, as our own house’d been razed to the ground. That, in the name of subscribing to an ‘ethnic group’ that was undesired by colonialists and their Rwandan acolytes.
For thus being undesired, our herdsmen had abandoned us, save for good old faithful Ntibikwira. As there was no school, I automatically became Ntibikwira’s second-in-command, a post I was more than happy to assume.
But I have no fond memories of that assumption that lasted almost a year and what are etched in my mind are disasters that were visited on me with sadistic frequency. Like this time I and my Afande Ntibikwira went to Burera Lake to water our cattle. On our way, my aunt who was a teacher in Kidaho Primary School intercepted me and convinced Ntibikwira to leave me at that school and pick me on his way back. Unknown to us, Aunt’s trick was to take me to greet my grandparents some twelve km away, in Ruko, at the foot of Mount Muhabura. I stayed there for the night.
Or, to be exact, half the night. For, deep in the night and in deep slumber, I dreamed that I was walking from Neighbour’s house and was standing, answering the call of nature……..
When I burst into wakefulness, I bolted out of bed and through the door and determinedly picked my way along the narrow path, and through thick bush, in the deep dark night that looked impenetrable, to walk about 20km to Canika, my regained home.
Za-Baringa in their hundreds would not have stood in my way! Even then, I was braving wild beasts that included wild dog, porcupine, hog, hyena, name them, in addition.
From then, Baringa became Phantom and its associated mishaps vanished.