On the first Christmas that I can remember, what happened comes to me as if it was yesterday but the day evades me. Being of tender age, I’d not yet started making sense of days. I know you are unwilling to admit it but I’ve ever been of tender age! In fact, apart from not knowing that the English language existed, I’d not worked my way around spelling the names of my old man.
I wasn’t exactly a tot but even you, with your sack-full of spelling wizardry in the English language, would work up a sweat spelling my old man’s moniker. Because our first lessons in spelling were done in the dust, I used to walk a km before I could write the full names: Appollinaire Rugelinyange (God bless his soul). Of course, the stumps that answered to my legs were to blame, mostly.
Which distance was not the sole source of my agony. There was a practice that I’ve not had the privilege to enjoy: administering the cane on some pea-brained imp. If I forgot where to put those double ‘p’s or ‘l’s, the cane came upon my head and my eyes burst into a thousand stars. I’d fall down, dazed, but still trying to remember where to put them, as I simultaneously tried to figure out where to put an ‘R’ and where, an ‘l’. Then I’d go into the torment of not only spelling that ‘nya’ correctly but also pronouncing it correctly: ‘nya’, ‘nnya’, ‘nywa’ – which?
And while trying to figure out all those, I’d take a second too many in my dazed stance, where upon the bark from our tormentor (‘Monsieur le Professeur’, as we called him): “Fathead, Ingina! You think this is time to enjoy your nap?” I’d spring up but not before the professor caught me on the forehead with an ‘ardoise’, the slate reserved for the brightest pupils. To-date, my forehead bears testimony to that agonising moment of hellfire.
It happened like this. Checking the work of a pupil, the teacher saw I was still lying down, when he looked up. Livid with anger, he hurled the slate of the pupil pop onto my forehead. He saw a gush of blood shoot up and was alarmed and lost his stern composure but soon regained it when, on checking, he found the cut was not too deep. So, to a pupil next to me, he shouted: “Don’t look on as if Mt Muhabura has erupted. Pick those pieces of the slate!”
I think that implement of torture, the slate, needs explaining. It was made out of clay that had dried to become like a rock. When broken, the pieces were sharper than machetes when they came in contact with your bones. Otherwise, it was like a blackboard and you used a clay ‘pen’ to write your work on it. The edges were ringed with wood, which was harmless, but it was not every time that ‘professor’ hurled it that the wood connected with your body. Many times it was the flat clay that burst into lethal missiles. Those could cut you into shreds.
Anyway, after the accident, he gave me his dirty handkerchief to cover the cut and I was allowed to walk the 6 km home, to have my cut attended. At home, I was put on my old man’s bicycle and taken to Mutorere Hospital in Uganda, some 12 km from Canika, in Rwanda.
As they say, every dark cloud has a silver lining. So, from the hellfire of being cut on the forehead, I was able to enjoy the rare privilege of being carried on papa’s treasured bicycle! Double privilege, actually, because there was also this treat, when we passed through Kisoro, of the six-ringed sweet and a bun, to soothe my pain! Cuts – I swore to exact them on myself the next time!
Unknown to me, though, that Christmas season was going to be full of many more dainties. When Christmas came, while everybody else woke up early to walk the 15 km to Kinoni Parish, I was allowed to wake up late because I was still convalescing. My trusted guardian, the strong-as-a-bull Ntibikwira, was with me so that no harm would come to me as we followed the others to church, later. Even if I arrived very late, God would understand because I was still sick.
But God had more in store for me. On our way, I heard the drone of what we called an automobile (a vehicle). We waited by the roadside and soon, when I looked back, I saw it: UTC, the Uganda Transport Company bus that plied the Kabale-Ruhengeri road and on which my uncle worked as a conductor! I moved to the middle of the road, as was our habit, and spread out my arms to stop it. Soon, Uncle lifted me up into the bus and pointed out a vacant seat for Ntibikwira, then placed me on the latter’s lap.
That meant a day of a ride to and from Ruhengeri, a lunch of the rare chapatti and, oh, so many other treats! I cannot remember a Christmas day I’ve ever been happier.