When I met elderly Verediyana in Kigali’s Quartier Commercial (Commercial Estate – a pre-1994 nomenclature that actually refers to a small street) last Saturday, I could not believe my eyes when she told me who she was.
You wouldn’t, either, if the last time you met her was in 1995. Then I was a protocol officer at work on grounds near the then Gikongoro Prefecture headquarters (now in Nyamagabe District), at a function attended by top government officials. As a colleague and I were preparing to go, after the officials had left, there was an alarm and we rushed to find the prostrate bony frame of a lady who was said to have fainted. Personally, I was convinced she was dead.
All the same, we put her in our service vehicle, together with a relative who accompanied her, and took them to the area hospital – again a small affair. Luckily, at the hospital she’d regained consciousness, though frail, and between the two of us we raised Frs 50,000 and gave them and left. Later, when we contacted the ‘prefet’ (governor), he assured us the lady had recovered, not to worry. From then the incident all but vanished in my mind.
Now this elderly but robust lady, looking every inch like a worldly businesswoman, was telling me she was the lady in that dark fairy tale of 1995!
In the short time we stood on the street, she recounted how that time she was dying of hunger, a common occurrence as famine had become a permanent fixture between seasons of harvest from time immemorial, in that part of Rwanda. Today, she said with rising excitement, she is probably as rich as late Rubangura (yardstick for wealth in Rwanda). A widow, she none the less sends her three children to university. She owns a big, airy iron-roofed house with electricity and running water in the compound; land; two hybrid milk cows; on and on.
But she wasn’t done. Now she was from Butaro Cancer Centre, the ultra-modern cancer clinic in the remote hills of Northern Rwanda, where she was given a clean bill of health. She only stopped over in Kigali to make an order for new roofing material. She was moving from ‘Nyakatsi II’, which was iron roofing.
It’ll be recalled that the Nyakatsi (grass) eradication programme was a government-driven effort to remove people from grass-thatched houses to more decent habitation. Now people are weaning themselves off that government largesse to provide themselves with an even more decent roof. Today, the ordinary citizen has relegated the fad of yesteryears to the low level of grass-thatch.
“Porotoko,” she interrupted my thoughts, “I’m one example of many ordinary Rwandans. We are getting more united. Every day brings better health; better living standards; better prospects generally. We are in a transformation and we want no other change, period.” Apart from contradicting her thinking that I was still a protocol officer (Porotoko!), I saw no reason for disagreeing. We parted on that note. But the homework. It looks like the home works for RPF cadres are coming in thick and fast, from many quarters and not only President Kagame.
The change Verediyana mentioned referred to the gauntlet thrown to cadres of the ruling RPF party by their chairman, Paul Kagame, to find a formula of managing the transition from his leadership of the country come 2017.
Without compromising Kagame’s principled leadership by resorting to the easy way of a third term; without taking what has become the ordinary way for African presidents; without abandoning their now-famous home-made solutions; without answering to the whims of international community pundits, gurus, mandarins, experts, whatever they call themselves – how should Rwandans change from one president to another in unscathed stability?
Given their ugly history, how do Rwandans maintain this element in themselves that they’ve only now rediscovered (19 years is a short time in the life of a nation)? The element of being fiercely independent, refusing to be pushed over by the most powerful countries of the world. How will they get another leader who will stare these bullies in the eye and tell them off, when they ambush him in UN corridors, in faraway New York?
RPF cadres, if ever there was a tall order, this is one. And, for sure, you’ll not be up to it if you hang in the clouds, among only the elite of Rwanda.
Get down to earth and anchor the debate where it belongs. This debate belongs to Verediyana in the south; Sembagare in the west; Semajeri in the north; Nyiragashumba in the east. Rwandans in all corners of this land. Swell the ranks of the RPF party and give its chairman teeth. It delivered unorthodox Rwandans and it delivered Kagame and, for them, Rwandans became one and realised spectacular achievements. United, Rwandans will handle any change.
2017 will be change and continuity. Change of the top leader but continuity of, and addition to, the accumulated achievements. Change while continuity and sustainability of transformational change are maintained. It will be change amid the continuity of change.
The trick is to give the RPF the strength of the ANC of South Africa – without its chosen flag bearer and, much less, his soul mates!
Rwandans, all together, the moment you lose your uniqueness will be the moment you fall asunder. Listen to no voice but your own; pay no heed to the cynical eye of the West trained on you. History will not be kind on you if this change does not set an example to guide future generations.