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Rusingizandekwe and Gakara of Canika

By March 20, 2012June 6th, 2023No Comments

March 18th 2012

A conversation with a friend about the strictness of Rwanda Revenue Authority (RRA) over its taxes reminded me of Gakara in the 1950s. I’ve talked about Gakara before but so shadowy was he that, even in my memory, he represents a fleeting, hazy phantom. Gakara was an enigma to us all and only a harsh reality to smugglers. To a smuggler, he was the death sentence personified.

If you remember (which I know you don’t!), Gakara was the shifty ‘guy’ (in today’s parlance) who ruled Canika (Rwanda-Uganda border area to the North-West) with an iron fist that hammered down hard on anyone caught carrying smuggled goods. He was attached to the customs post, which was managed by a colonialist officer we called Vanduruwera. As I’ve said before, this colonialist’s correct name must’ve been Van der Waals.

But that’s neither here nor there because, after all, neither management nor name could render Gakara’s task less daunting. To be equal to the job demanded superhuman mettle, which is maybe why he was hated and dreaded in equal measure.

Gakara was supposed to single-handedly man the whole borderline between Uganda and Rwanda that stretched from Mount Muhabura to the mountains that marked what we called ‘ku nkiko’. ‘Ku nkiko’ was an area with mountains that rose until they touched the sky and only left a slit of opening through which the sun could rise and around which dark clouds formed to make rain and send it to our area.

As kids, we saw the world around us as a kind of bowl that was ringed by high mountains. But, of course, we were aware that Rwanda went beyond this bowl, over the mountains to the south-west. We also knew that Belgian Congo was behind Mt Muhabura while Uganda stretched beyond the north-eastern mountains, ‘ku nkiko’ where rain issued from. The sky looked like a cap that covered our bowl-world.

This was the colony over which Gakara reigned like a European colonialist! Unfortunately, I’ve failed to trace a friend who remembers him better, so I’ll only describe the hazy picture that I can remember. He was a man of mean build and short stature with darting eyes who could never sit still.
For that, even my nephew, otherwise with a razor-sharp memory, can only remember picking a bottle from a crate and handing it to him. Unknown to my nephew, the crate of Primus beer was reserved for colonial masters, but such was the terror that the name Gakara had instilled in everybody that even kids trembled in his presence!

Yet he was supposed to spell horror only to smugglers. His duty was to waylay and apprehend anybody who crossed the border with undeclared merchandise that had not paid the necessary taxes. But the borderline between Rwanda and Uganda was so porous as to render such an effort futile.

You see, the whole stretch from Mt Muhabura until ‘ku nkiko’ was a succession of villages that hugged both sides of the border. Many times you could tell the borderline only by a tree that stood in the middle of a village to mark an imaginary line that separated the village into Ugandan and Rwandan sides. Gakara guarded all the ‘panya’ routes (literally, rat routes) in the villages of Nyagahinga, Canika, Rusagara, Gasozi and Kagogo.

Definitely, a large hunting ground. Gakara was therefore kept busy and could always be seen herding smugglers to the Commis, a government functionary who manned the border post, who was Vanduruwera in this case. But, as such posts slowly began to be placed in the hands of locals, Vanduruwera was replaced by a local known as Otto Rusingizandekwe.

As Vanduruwera was unaware of local shenanigans, so Rusingizandekwe was easy of manner and did not pay attention to Gakara’s devices. It is thus that Gakara continued to reign as if he was a power unto himself, reporting to the Commis whatever merchandise he decided on and keeping for himself whatever tickled his fancy.

And that was the way of our leaders back then: nobody in charge, except for their stomachs. That’s how, rather than settle down into his work and try to understand its intricacies, Rusingizandekwe sought out the company of my old man (Surushefu), the only other government functionary of the area, to while away the time sharing a beer with him.

Of course, being evolué (schooled), Otto could afford that, as he was not supervised. As for Surushefu, whose schooling did not go beyond rudimentary literacy and numeracy as sub-chief, he had to work or it’d mean ikiboko (eight lashes of the hippo whip) by his colonialist superiors.
That, then, is how Canika was run. Work by the citizens under Surushefu. And no taxes from commerce.

Even then, Surushefu and Rusingizandekwe had become such bosom buddies that Rusingizandekwe, as minister of foreign affairs in the Kayibanda government, could dare visit us in the refugee camps of Uganda, at the risk of being lynched. Interesting, considering what he was capable of doing to our fellow refugees.

But again, whatever the goings-on outside Rwanda, think of the calibre of the leaders of the first Republic inside Rwanda. From the mismanagement of a border post to the vital task of guiding foreign policy. Gakara and Otto: a 1950s revelatory phenomenon on leaderships of the time!

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