Sunday 13th October 2013
Seeing Kigali today, you’d never believe that in 1994 it was the Tower of Babel, in the middle of the jungle that was Rwanda. Every individual had his/her own language.
You see, Kigali was a city whose founding by German colonialists was seen by Rwandans as a blessing in disguise for the country, in the early 1900s.
The local logic was that, much as no one knew when the German “messengers” would go back, it was locally known that the duty of any messenger was to take a report back to their master. They were taken as being on an errand to deliver a message, after which they’d report back.
If the messenger suffered any lapse of memory and for some reason didn’t remember to report back, it was the duty of the host to prompt them – with a good whipping if necessary. Or else, how was the master supposed to know the message was delivered?
For info, colonialists came calling themselves “messengers of God” – some of them, at least. Remember, Rwandans believed in God but didn’t know if they also did. It was therefore assumed that they brought the message that they also did. They would go back with this report: “Rwandans are happy to learn that you also believe in God. It’s well and fitting.”
Meanwhile, the messengers were building good houses in Kigali. Good sorts, really, since they were not building them on wheels. It meant that when they finally finished building and returned home, they’d leave the houses, kind souls. Rwandans would be respected in the region as proud owners of a city like Kigali, with modern tall buildings.
Like in the book of Genesis, Rwandans said: “….let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Once the city was complete and the messenger gone, the city, for its height, would be like Mount Muhabura (Mt. Illuminator). It’d act as a beacon from afar to illuminate the direction back for Rwandans outside. Like Mt Muhabura, it’d call back all who were scattered abroad.
All this changed, however, when Germans got into a fight with their cousins in what they called World WarI. They were kicked out and Belgian colonialists took their place, telling themselves, in regard to Rwandans: “Come, let us go down and confound their speech.”
Indeed, after almost 80 years of having their speech confounded, Rwandans were no longer speaking the same language. They had become a man-eat-man society.
This was the Kigali I found myself in, in 1994, on my return from exile. It was a “confounded-speech” Tower of Babel; a bedlam of riotous, uncoordinated mobs.
No one resided in a house they owned. Nobody was a house owner; all were house claimants. If you happened to find an unoccupied house, you got yourself a heavy-duty padlock and locked the gate. Then at the gate you scrawled the message: “Don’t look. It has been claimed!” (Remember Yabohojwe?).
If you were creative you put a more frightening message: “Very fierce dog!”, “Trespassers will be eaten!” and suchlike. But if you were even more creative, you peeked inside the compound and if there was nobody, you broke in and then changed the padlock and message and prepared to tussle it out with any claimant.
In fact, some claimants were so daring as to take over government buildings as their residences. When a friend who’d returned earlier offered me shelter for the night, in the morning I realised we were in a post office building. When I visited another friend and found he’d got himself a palace, later I came to learn it was the central bank!
Businesses had similarly been hijacked; none dealt in their original merchandise. All shops seemed to have become bars and their functions stretched into streets, so much so that streets were strewn with chairs and were all but closed to traffic, motorised or human. Drinking hours were from sunrise to sunrise. The market in the city centre was a theatre of mortal combat, with everybody hustling everybody else.
As to traffic on roads, it was a scene straight out of hot hell. Road signs, which were in French, could as well have been in Chinese for many returnees who did not understand the lingo. “Sense Unique”, a common sign on roads in French that means “One Way”, was taken by many to be an advertisement for a special perfume.
With the result that motorists who understood French found themselves playing a deathly game of hide and seek with motorists unschooled in matters French.
It was common for motorists on the dual carriage way to and from the airport to dodge their way through oncoming traffic all the way. That is, if they didn’t crisscross the dividing median, on realising their mistake!
Clean and orderly Kigali has come a long way. Yes, Kigali, with the land wherein it sits, has come a long way.
But whence, the light house that’ll be the beacon for Rwandans still outside, fewer by the day even if they be?