Sunday 12th March 2013
You know how it used to be. In the early days of our childhood, it used to be that getting water for domestic use was a taxing task that, at the least, consumed more than six hours.
You in the smallest shopping centre, used to getting water at the turn of a tap, cannot begin to comprehend such a task. Come to think of it, it’s a task that’s foreign to a villager in this country, where today piped water is at his/her fingertips. In our day, getting water was a day’s undertaking.
Consuming the whole day, however, was one small aspect of the water-fetching business. At the slopes of Mount Muhabura, northern Rwanda, fetching water meant the long journey to Lake Burera. Now, there is nothing hazardous about taking a brisk 20-km hike. If anything, who wouldn’t enjoy such a walk? The problem came with the ‘pirates’ on the way.
No, there was no Somali involved – if Somali pirates are still a menace. Nor was there any re-incarnation of those pirates of the high seas. Remember those Long John Silvers, Ho ho ho and a bottle of rum? They populated the English and French novels we read.
The pirates in our case were pirates of the ‘high paths’, tough boys along the Muhabura-Burera route. They, especially the herd-boys, could overpower you and take your water. To guard against such piracy, we formed a water-fetching force that went to the lake once a week. The long of it is a tale that’d take days to tell, and that’s not for today, so I’ll give you the short.
The short of it was that water was a precious commodity to be used only in life-and-death cases. All of which meant that it was only for cooking and, on rare occasions, for cleaning or washing.
As for trivial indulgences like bathing, everybody went to the lake. A day for this indulgence was set aside, maybe once a month. It could take longer, especially for women and girls, if water-fetching was not among their chores. In all cases, therefore, by the time you remembered that you needed a bath, you were over-laden with layers of dirt.
Considering that life meant work, and that work was necessarily manual – thought was a preserve of the educated elite (elite that hardly existed) – you can imagine. The sweat, the dust, the mud, etc – all accumulated dirt that could weigh a ton!
So, given the few times you took a bath, how did you rid yourself of those kilos of dirt? As Rwandans say, “Itera amapfa Igatanga n’aho bahahira!” (When God – or Nature – unleashes famine, He/She provides a source of food supply). And that’s how it was that we had ‘icyangwe’. Now, you can take the translation of ‘icyangwe’ to be a sponge, but you can be sure you’ll not have captured its exact meaning.
In English, a sponge can mean any number of things capable of absorbing anything: a piece of rubber, a creature in the sea, a creature of the human variety……. So, exactly what’s ‘icyangwe’?
Not to worry, I found the exact translation. And it’s thanks to……….not the English, French or any outsider for whom we are ‘-phone’, no. It’s thanks to the Chinese that I came to know that the name is luffa (or loofah, loufa). Ask me how I got it.
As a creature of habit, I cannot just take a shower and feel clean. Yet, in this age when everything we use comes from the shop, I’d failed to get luffa in its raw, but dry, form. Whereas in our childhood luffa plants were everywhere in the wild, today you can only find them in Uganda. It was therefore when you happened by a shop that imported luffa sponges from Uganda that you could obtain one.
However, I’d been searching all boutiques of Kigali without success, and in the process feeling unclean, until I met a friend and expressed my frustration to him. He led me to Remera 1 (Gisimenti) and voilà! Luffa in its most well-packaged form, made in China.
And trust the Chinese to find nutrients in anything. As I’m made to understand, that wild plant that we took to be only good for exfoliating skin (remove dead cells with dirt) is actually a favourite fruit of the Chinese. It’s said to be related to the cucumber and only when it’s nearing maturity does it develop those fibres to become a luffa sponge. And that’s not all; it makes many other things, including fluffy soles for slippers.
Interestingly, too, we in Rwanda were not the first to give the plant a name. Europeans derived luffa from an Arabic word. How you can derive luffa from لوف , don’t ask me!
What all the above goes to tell us is that we need to be more creative. Young Indians have managed to electrically charge bras that will ward off rapists. Young Africans have found soap that will repel mosquitoes. A Kenyan doctor has developed a cheap cure for AIDS.
Young Rwandans, there’s never been innovation time like now!