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The days of calligraphy in DRC

By January 4, 2014June 6th, 2023No Comments

Sunday 3rd November 2013

While Rwandans have been celebrating the power of information and communications technology (ICT), I’ve been grieving. You would, too, if you were me! Lucky you, though, you’ll never be me.

Come to think of it, though, today’s 4G (our youth), is that your luck? With your increasing fascination with junk food, will you live to be the rock of ages that self-same Ingina is?…..

But again there I go at a tangent, scatter-brained rock of ages that I tend to be! I was talking about how the advent of ICT robbed me of my fame.

In the good old days when ‘smart’ referred to humans and not talking toys (like smart-phones); the power of the word was formulated orally by a gifted tongue; or it was crafted literally by an artistic hand and not a laptop or PC, I was a celebrated penman. I was a script wizard and my illustrious trade was calligraphy, which had made crooning history. It simply meant writing messages dictated to me, but so what? I was a star, anyway.

I was the kahuna of my region and I held my brood captive so that nobody communicated except through my larger-than-life personage.

I first cut my teeth into the eminent art of calligraphy in the late 1950s in Rwanda before we were tossed out into exile. In exile in Bambo near Masisi, Congo Kinshasa (D.R. Congo), I was able to refine my calligraphy. That’s the region where, as we talk, FDLR holds forte with impunity but they came long after we’d gone.

Before they sowed their mayhem, Bambo was a civilised area – relatively, anyway. And so by the end of my third year of primary school I was a formidable calligraphy ace. That’s when I became a celebrity. From fellow pupils who wanted to perfect their calligraphy skills to illiterates who wanted to dictate messages to relatives and friends, they all sought me out.

In fact, sometimes there was the odd teacher who, when they wanted to sneak a well-crafted missive to a sweetie, secretly approached me. After school, if a teacher or two did not sneak me into their house, I was kept late to serve my fellow pupils.

Much as I was mobbed on weekdays, however, on week-ends I received ‘clients’ by the truckloads. I sat in front of our house ‘designing’ dictation after dictation from morning to evening, to the contentment of many an elderly ‘client’. All kept their relatives and friends up-to-date with family news, thanks to yours calligraphically!

That is, of course, when they were able to get a traveller to Rutshuru, a trading centre some 60 km away, or Goma town, some 100 km away.

Unfortunately, sometimes it’d take more than a year before they got a traveller! Still, they paid handsomely, with produce or their labour on our land. My family was the better-off for it and I looked like I was going to reign for eternity.

But then, DRC being what it is, in 1964 my empire crumbled and we made a hasty exit. Then, as now (!), anybody who spoke anything remotely Kinyarwanda-like, we in exile or Congolese national, was hunted down and hounded out of the country.

I remember that our men in exile fought to defend everybody lest we were harmed but, as if that was not lesson enough, Congolese Rwandophones later returned there. What’s been happening to them should not be new to many of them.

The UN peacekeeping force, which was there then as today (!), did nothing to defend anybody. The force was then called Opération des Nations Unies au Congo. It was ONUC for short – for which it was ridiculed as EUNUCH then, as MONUSCO is ridiculed as MONUSELESS today. In DRC, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Anyway, once in the Nshungerezi refugee camp, Uganda, I lost my shine. There were many better calligraphy experts who could be picked anywhere to quickly pen your message, like Fidel Rwigamba, today an MP, or late Munyeshuri. Moreover, the glory of calligraphy craftsmanship was fading and it was the beginning of its descent into oblivion.

The typewriter had hit the scene. Even if it was a laborious, manual piece whose keys needed all energy to hit into writing, it was quicker and did not require slow, careful crafting. By the late 1960s, talk was emerging of a computer monster. Apart from eating our exam papers, however, it didn’t impress and the manual typewriter continued to rule the roost. But by the late 1970s, an electric typewriter was beginning to push it off its celebrity pedestal.

By the 1980s, the manual typewriter was a museum piece that could only be spotted in Kigali, Rwanda, where it still doggedly insists on splitting eardrums! In the late 1990s, however, the computer finally exploded on the Rwanda scene and sealed the fate of calligraphy and typewriters for good. Today, when computing, internet, tablet, smart-phone, facebook, youtube, instagram, viber, on and on, are mentioned, I feel dizzy!

To send a message today, I’ve to consult an ICT geek.

Do I feel like going back to Bambo, where calligraphy still reigns? And am I actually grieving? No, madam/sir!

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