Happy Heroes’ Day!

Friday 1st February 2013

If you did not witness them, you’ve heard or read about them: ordinary men and women who risked limb and life to save neighbours and non-neighbours in peril. Or who firmly and unselfishly challenged evil. In addition to the well-known distinguished national heroes, examples abound of men and women who defied forces of evil to defend Rwandan traditional values.

Take Frodouard Karuhije, an ordinary Rwandan who led a simple life that he’d never have associated with adventure. Indeed, Karuhije was more ordinary than most, being an undemanding peasant who laboured to make ends meet, his family surviving only by their meagre agricultural produce that he supplemented with equally meagre wages as an occasional mason. For that alone, he had all the reasons to wish for property, if occasion were to have provided it. And, actually, in 1994 it did. But, against all expectations, Karuhije took another path.

That path was far from what he could have imagined. He’d imagined that if the danger the government of the time was portending came to pass, he’d hide his family in the only way he could. The danger, as the Habyarimana government repeatedly warned in speeches, on airwaves and in the print media, was that the “invading cockroach force” (read RPF) intended to exterminate all Rwandans who were not “their kindred”. He devised a way of hiding his family from RPF, using the simple tool that he’d always relied on for his family’s upkeep.

With his hoe, Karuhije dug a trench, making sure it was in a potato field, near a common path, in full view of passers-by. This way, whoever passed imagined him to be preparing some kind of irrigation trench. Interestingly though, when it was deep enough and he secretly covered it up with branches, soil and plants, surrounded by a young crop of Irish potatoes, no one would have guessed that there was a trench anywhere near their path. He now sat cosy, knowing he had done his best, even if, understandably, apprehensive.

He did not sit long, however, before it dawned on him: his government had been drumming up support and building up propaganda for a different reason all together. It called on all Bahutu to use any implement to kill all Batutsi. These peasants who were in no way dissimilar to others were declared enemies of their fellow peasants. Any Muhutu who did not heed the call was to also be treated as an enemy. Thus rose the mayhem that was the Genocide against Batutsi, which for an agonising three months engulfed this fair land.

Karuhije, the man who’d followed all government directives to the letter, defied this one. For the first two months that it took to hunt down these hapless people of his area, he sought them out and hid them in the trench he’d dug supposedly to hide his family. From Rememera, his home, in what was Mukingi Commune, Gitarama, he went out to the communes of Nyamabuye and Ntongwe to pluck out these hunted citizens and hide them in his trench. When he saw that the first trench was full, he embarked on digging a second one. From 9 O’clock in the evening he dug until another trench was ready and covered, in the wee hours of the morning.

The man, who did not necessarily have any Mututsi neighbour, went out to the rescue of total strangers, knowing the mortal danger to his life that it involved. He acted with determination and ingenuity to feed them at night, to seek medication for any who fell sick, to help them in any way. Fourteen total strangers saw this simple and straightforward casual labourer tirelessly seek them out to pull them out of danger. Yet he was placing his own life in danger.

If this is not the stuff of heroism, show me what is. And the joy of it all is that he was not alone. They may have been precious few but there were others who took his path, some of who paid with their lives. In an ocean of villainy that saw the demise of 1.25 million at the hands of compatriots, these rays of hope stood out. And for them and for others who rose to answer the call to come to the rescue of this land, many with their lives, we are a better Rwanda. A Rwanda of Rwandans of courage and humanity, determined to forever be a force for good. It’s for that that today we celebrate.

And celebration lies in emulating them. Rwandans and Residents of Rwanda, on this Heroes Day, reflect upon it: are you marked by that total selflessness?

Can you, without prompting from nefarious self-interest, bail out somebody in distress? That brother in front of you, can you resist treating him more favourably than another? That vulnerable sister, can you resist taking advantage of her? That scholarship, job, land, contract, and others in concerned offices, will you offer them on merit? That road, will you spare its breadth?

Talking of which road reminds me. One time, told that ‘breadth’ in Kinyarwanda is ‘ubugari’ (also the word for a kind of cake, ‘ugali’ in Kiswahili), President Kagame quipped: “Eh, in that case, we shall be hard put, restraining our corrupt officials from eating it!” I’d elaborate as to how they are doing a good job of it, but it’d kill my intention…..

To extract a chuckle from you all on this muted Heroes’ Day!

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