Sunday 10 March 2013
You must have missed it. It was a short story tucked away among many of those news highlights that greet you on your visit to the Yahoo website. Richard Turere, 13, a Kenyan boy whose family lives near the Nairobi National Park, is touring North America as an exceptional innovator. North Americans are amazed that he was able to ‘invent’ a tool that keeps away lions that otherwise used to prey on his family’s herd of cattle.
Turere put together dozens of LED lights and rigged them to a battery and solar panel. With these, he devised a way to make the lights flash and placed the bulbs on poles surrounding the livestock kraal. Since lions cannot tell that the lights are stationary, they think whoever is carrying them is moving and might attack them and thus, keep away. To have thought of this was truly ingenious. Turere deserves to be feted by Americans.
In our time as kids, the early 1960s, that would not have been possible. Not only was it impossible to get those lights and batteries; it was also impossible to make the lights flash. First of all, to think of making a bulb, you’d need to have seen one. We’d never seen such a thing. If in our case there was anything like batteries, it was what our old man’s whistling radio used. It used cells, yes, but our old man guarded them so jealously that you’d not have dared touch them if you valued your life. So, we had to devise other means.
In the sprawling refugee settlement of Nshungerezi, Uganda, we lived near an animal reserve teeming with wild game. We did not have cattle but at night the animals threatened our lives and ravaged our crops. However tough you were, you’d not always be on your guard and animals could turn you into their supper. They could trample your crops or even feed on them. For our survival, we had to devise means to protect ourselves, without endangering the animals’ lives.
Many kids devised many ways but I think mine was by far the best. I erected poles around our fields and connected them all with a long rope that dangled loosely at both ends. At the end towards the game reserve, I tied scraps of metal that I cut from old, discarded saucepans (sufuria). For a way of tugging at the rope constantly at night, I tied many pieces of a smaller rope at the end of the rope near the house, making sure they stretched up to the living room that doubled as a bedroom for me and all my siblings.
I made loops at the end of the smaller ropes. When we were all in bed, each of us used to put one leg in the loop before sleeping. Since no one slept comfortably as the grass (nyakatsi) bed on the floor always unavoidably had bedbugs, all of us would turn in bed constantly. So, whenever anyone turned, they tugged at the loop. The noise that the scrap saucepans made when anyone turned was enough to chase away Lucifer himself! From then on, I became the star of the refugee settlement and wherever I passed, they sang my praises.
To this day, those who were in the refugee settlement of Nshungerezi worship the very soil I tread on. And they should because, think about it. Kids in a family are sprawled on the ground and then a hyena sneaks in and stealthily pulls out one of them and disappears in the forests. The following day you wake up only to realise that Rubyogo has disappeared without a trace.
Or this. All of you in the family are in slumber-land and then the makeshift excuse of a house, made of nothing but bent wattle and grass, suddenly comes tumbling down on you. All of you scramble away to safety and gather in the dark to check if you have escaped. When you think you’ve all survived, you realise Old-man and Old-mama are not with you. In that case, it won’t be until morning that you’ll find that the damned elephant trampled on them.
In less severe cases, you’d check on the crop of sweet potatoes to find that hogs have turned it into a mixed mess of grass and mud. Yes, that’s how devastating the carnivores and herbivores of Nshunegerezi were. If it were not for those nuggets of wisdom like mine, many of us would not be here today. As Plato said: “Mater artium necessitas” – necessity is the mother of all invention.
Difficult situations encourage inventive solutions and as it is with individuals, so with communities. When you see Rwandans applying (sometimes borrowing from history) simple programmes (Gacaca, Anti-nyakatsi, Girinka……) and they bring enormous results, they’ve been in a difficult situation. Advanced societies are where they are because of where they came from.
On a sad note, last Tuesday George W. Bush lost a friend he never knew he had —the charismatic Hugo Chavez (May he RIP).