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The costly smartness of the 1950s,’60s

By February 18, 2012June 6th, 2023No Comments

26th Februaryr 2012

I’ve seen pointed shoes on young feet lately. But, being no fashion buff, I wouldn’t tell if they are back in fashion or if these ones I’ve seen are from these “Shake-off-the-dust” markets, those markets that nostalgically cling to the beauty of the past and are determined not to be influenced by the inferior quality of modernity, even if it means going for hand-me-downs. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were back, though. After all, it was said as early as 1849 by the French novelist and journalist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (The more things change, the more they remain the same).

But God forbid and I’ll tell you why! In the 1950s and early 1960s, skin-tight was the word. If you were not wearing clothes that you seemed to have been poured into, you didn’t appear among Abasilimu, the select civilised elite of the time. And they were not many, Africa having been largely peasant-based. This meant that 90% of Africans, if not more, lived on the land and most times never ventured beyond their neighbouring village, which in turn meant they’d never seen modern clothing. Shirts, blouses, trousers, skirts and shoes belonged to a tiny group who’d gone to school. It’s this group that preferred to look as if they were bursting out of their clothes.

And burst they did, many a time. After all, to wear these trousers demanded a laborious negotiation. You had to lie down first before a number of strong arms could pull your trousers onto you, after which you did not sit down in a hurry. To sit down, you first had to test if you could bend. After bending successfully, you did a test of how you could half-sit, after succeeding which you now tried to carefully go all the way down, making sure your chair was not too low. Shirts and blouses were equally tight, such that the buttons looked like they were at a point of bursting free any time.

As for shoes, Rochereau provides the most vivid demonstration of how skin-tight was taken to heart. The name Rochereau may not ring a bell to many below the age of sixty but there may be a few in their fifties to whom the name Tabu Ley, adopted later, could be familiar. It belongs to a Congolese singer who gave us such songs as the ever-green “Indenpendence Cha Cha”, “Africa Mokili Mobimba”, “Sorozo” and many other beauties. We, the elderly horses, shall for ever be content to lend an appreciative ear and shake an old bone to his voice in these old tunes that we so cherish.

So, Tabu Ley, being the music maestro of the ’50s, 60s and early ‘70s, had his clothes as his second skin. His shoes were so pointed as to prick those in front of him who did not hasten their pace. But, for having been born in 1940 when there were no shoes for the colonised, otherwise known as ‘ingigenes’, he had no way of having had feet that had gone through ‘controlled’ growth. In short, his toes enjoyed the uninhibited growth that allowed them to face in any direction. And we know how it was, we who identify with his time and conditions, as we lived in Congo around that time. Then it was known as Congo Kinshasa, having just shed its Belgian moniker of Belgian Congo at independence.

The life that we led, which must be the same that he led, was like this. In the morning we woke up early to trek to the water well. After getting the water for morning use, we went to the fields to till the land till lunch time. After lunch it was time to go to the forest to get firewood for cooking dinner and lunch the following day. Before it got dark, we rushed to the water well again to get water for evening use.

But Sunday was celebration day. In the morning we dressed in our Sunday best (though not exactly in the sense of ‘best’!) and went to church, where we exercised our cords in the church choir. After church we went to the market to sell whatever harvest we’d carried. After that we accompanied our parents to the village bar, where some strong maize brew for the elders and soft brew for children was sold. The celebration involved listening to the village crooner as he belted out popular tunes of the time, to the accompaniment of an improvised guitar and taps at an empty bottle. And, after warming up to our drink of ‘amarwa’, hitting the floor in a lively dance.

For doing all this on bare feet and for the feet having hosted uncountable lice that laid eggs that became jiggers, none of our toes faced in the same direction. While the big toes faced sideways to the right or left, the small, last toe usually faced up.

Which is how Tabu Ley comes in, for his toes met the same fate. In order to wear those tight, pointed shoes, he had to sacrifice his two small toes – he had them chopped off.

As they say, smartness knows no comfort.

19th February 2012

The easy hunt that was the porcupine

Porcupines have been in the news lately. It The easy hunt that was the porcupinemust have been in the 1950s when I first heard about them but, going by their notoriety, I was hoping that I’d never suffer the misfortune of making their acquaintance. It was said that they had sharp ‘spears’ and the only positive thing was that they were rare around the foot of Mount Muhabura. In any case, they were nocturnal and you could avoid them by not venturing out at night.

Then we fled Rwanda at the end of 1959. In Bufumbira, Uganda, as refugees we took over the duties of older men, most of who had been detained or killed in Rwanda. Personally, I became a herds-boy, which meant bringing cows home very late in the evening. However, as a herds-boy you necessarily become a hard nut and no small rodent can scare you. Though big, porcupines are in the family of rats.

Cats I could fear, but you remember how I used to have a guardian angel which was a bird called Rushorera. Rushorera used to warn me whenever I was going to meet a wild dog, for instance, or whenever I was being trailed by a leopard. I told you how a leopard used to escort me home and that it could only harm me if I suddenly startled it. Rushorera’s duty was to remind me of the fact. Apart from being hardened, I was protected.

But I did not meet any in Bufumbira, nor did I in Belgian Congo (D.R. Congo today) when we went there in 1962. It was not until later when we went back to Uganda, this time in Ankole, that I came in contact with the porcupine – or, rather, its spiny quills. I’ll live to regret that encounter!

The encounter was in 1968, on a Saturday. As was the case with all Saturdays, we woke up at about 3 o’clock in the morning and headed for the banana plantations of the locals. But before reaching those plantations, we had to negotiate a forest that was teeming with all kinds of wild animals, most of them eager to turn you into a meal.

That early morning we rendezvoused at the edge of Kibungo 20, one of the sub-camps that made up the sprawling settlement of Nshungerezi. When we had gathered into a number that could have rivalled Hitler’s army – which was how we always scared away the beasts – we set off. By the time we reached the edge of the forest, it was daybreak and we sat down to rest.

Then I saw it. A big mound of animal dragging its feet clumsily and hurrying into the dense part of the forest, as it furtively threw frightened glances at our group. I jumped up and ran to block its way and redirect it to the grassland, as my group cheered with: “Yes, Congoman, that’s your meat!”

Those of us who’d been to Congo were called ‘Congoman’ (whether one or many!) and we were known to eat any animal meat. Crocodile, hippo, elephant and buffalo meat, for instance, was a delicacy to us while others considered it taboo.

Anyway, I was running after an animal. For its lumbering movement, it was fast and had gone over the hill and down into the valley beyond when I finally caught up with it. It had buried its head into a hole, leaving the rest of its body as exposed as an ostrich in the sand. So, I howled a war cry and did a war jig as I prepared to deliver my muzo-stick blow to its neck, which was sure to leave it as dead as dodo.

Looking back as I did my war jig, I could see that nobody in my group had followed me, which meant that I could do one of two things: take the animal home and eat it alone; or exchange it for bananas with the locals and go home, leaving the others to labour in the fields. After deciding to take it home and eat it alone, I turned round and deliberately slowly approached it as I spat in my hand to have a good grip of my stick.
Then I raised my stick and…….screamed!

Millions of spears had pierced me and were hanging out of my front body, around the stomach. That’s when I remembered what I’d been told about porcupines. I was relieved only when my group came to my rescue by plucking out all the ‘spears’.

You see, a porcupine’s body is covered with a crop of spikes, called quills. It’s these quills that people called spears. They are used as defensive weapons against predators that may want to feed on the porcupine. When the porcupine is threatened, it shakes its body and sends them out as a shower of missiles. But once it’s done with showering them around, it’s as harmless as a new-born baby.

When you are familiar with porcupines, you scare them and then keep a safe distance as they throw out those missiles harmlessly. By the time it grows a new crop of quills, it’ll have been yours for the picking.

It’s the same with those Rwandan politicians who talk the language of the porcupine. Nothing comes of their barbs.

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