February 5, 2012
Thieving is almost as old as humanity. From the time a man learnt how to acquire loin cloth, he discovered he risked losing it to a dishonest man. The woman discovered that if she was not alert to her acquired skin being around her body, a deceitful woman would not hesitate to transfer its possession. A universal problem, then. And Rwanda was not excepted.
I can recall a man whose legal trade was to steal! In the 1950s, in the region that hugs the northern part of Rwanda and the south-western part of Uganda, around Mount Muhabura, there lived a legally-accepted pickpocket and cattle rustler.
The region then was divided into two parts, one under Belgian colonialists and the other, English (‘British’ was not known back then). But the border did not make sense to the locals, who considered themselves as one people and acted that way. They respected the local king’s authority equally, although he was on the Rwandan side.
But mine is not a lesson in history. It’s a pack of personal recollections and so, I can only tell you about Mitwe, the ‘legal’ thief. Being quick of hand and nimble of leg and seeing a lot of carelessness around him, he thought he could make himself busy and, why not, make a spectacle of his happy-go-lucky people. That’s how he went to the king to make a request.
Mitwe: “Your Royal Majesty, can you give me licence to recover the property of the absent-minded?” It is made in good faith, thought the king, and it would serve to keep my subjects on the alert. But, after getting his request, Mitwe did not budge and, impatiently, the king said: “Have I granted you your wish that you should stand and stare at me?” With a sheepish smile, Mitwe said: “Your Royal Majesty, I thank you and I should be content to take my leave, only that I have Your Majesty’s wallet in my possession!”
In the time it takes to finish uttering “Your request is granted”, Mitwe had picked the king’s wallet from the outer pocket. Which, don’t get it wrong, was not a mockery of the king’s alertness, or lack thereof. It was a mockery of the new habit (read ‘dress code’, not ‘code of conduct’, even if the double entente is intended!) adopted by the king and his chiefs, from colonialists.
For understanding the whole meaning, the king did not so much as chide Mitwe. He (the king) laughed in bemused self-scorn and took his wallet. But he allowed him to operate freely in the whole region. People guarded their property but knew that they were powerless if Mitwe caught them off-guard and stole it.
You see, the king and his chiefs had taken to wearing safari suits, like their colonial masters. And a safari suit involved: a pith helmet; a short-sleeved khaki jacket with four large pockets on the outside; a white shirt inside the jacket; singlet (isengeli); khaki shorts; knee-long stockings with two pens stuck in the right stocking and, finally; safari boots.
The ridiculous ensemble sounds like the suit worn by tourists and it is. So, you can imagine a tourist chief on duty in the sun, leave along His Majesty! Nimble Mitwe had easily picked the wallet from one of the outer pockets of the king’s jacket because it could not be felt on the body.
By the 1950s, then, the Rwandan-Ugandan region had ‘developed’: it had one thief but, to his credit, a licensed one. And by 1994, the region had turned into a thieving country: robbery, embezzlement, larceny, pilfering, abduction, looting, smuggling – all were the order of the day. The most dreaded tool of burglary in Rwanda was ‘Gatarina’, a large rock or boulder.
Here burglars used to put a rock on a cloth and, with each individual or group holding each end, they’d swing the cloth and hurl the large rock at the door. When the door fell in, usually silently, you were at their mercy. And once at their mercy, you were better off taking the situation in your stride, as was one time done by an officer of the RPA, the new army after April 1994.
At the pop of a bottle opening, this Afande tiptoed to the sitting room door and peeped: several men and one woman were sitting on the floor and chatting away in low tones, as they swigged beer from the familiar green Mutsig bottles. When he shouted “Don’t move a muscle! You are covered!” they burst out laughing! They knew this new army could not dare shoot civilians.
And indeed, Afande could not. So, when they said “Come on, Afande, what’s all the bravado for? Here, take a beer!” he spread out his legs and sat on the floor and accepted a beer that was served to him from his fridge! They explained how they’d hauled off his furniture in two lorries and how they’d settled to quench their thirst, on finding a generously stocked fridge. Then they dispatched the youngest of them to run and call back the drivers, with all of Afande’s property!
Immediately after that, all thieving was put to an end. Now there is talk of a repeat? Our city fathers should instantly investigate rumours of burglaries in Kigali, when still isolated, and nip them in the bud.