There is a saying in Kinyarwanda that goes: ukize inkuba arayiganira (loosely, when you have a brush with death, you’ll never tire in telling the story). And with the life-threatening experiences each of us has undergone in this region at the hands of killer soldiers, who wouldn’t harp on the story?
This thought came to me after seeing the camaraderie among civilians, active-service soldiers and army reservists as Minister for Defence Gen James Kabarebe chatted them up last 24th May, after he had officiated over the inauguration of affordable houses built by a company belonging to the army reservists.
Knowing the minister, I could imagine the roars of laughter all round as he, with fellow veteran Generals present chipping in, offloaded the repertoire of hair-thin escapes they’ve made in practically this entire region.
It’s a long recount, even if they cannot give it in full as much of it is older than they.
In this country before July1994, an encounter with a soldier out of the barracks was a stare into the jaws of death. In Uganda, the hell soldiers visited on citizens in the 1970s and early 1980s is well documented. Then the harassment in Kenya one time in 1982 when soldiers went amok. Maybe also in Tanzania in 1964, before the mutinous army was disbanded.
Burundi, South Sudan and DR Congo, need we say anything? We can only pray that their leaders finally find the formula to create a rapport between solders and citizens, so the people can get to tell their chilling stories.
It’s sad but true that soldiers can render life worthless, once out of barracks, in some societies.
My glimpse at this was in Uganda in 1978 at one of the dreaded roadblocks of Idi Amin’s infamous soldiers when once I was accosted thus: “Chacha wewe nini? We kwisa kuwa tajiri natumia dora?” (“You are so rich you deal in dollars, eh?”)
My smattering knowledge of Kiswahili (still, better than theirs!) was going to bail me out after pleading a case of only carrying dummy plastic dollars but my Ugandan fellow spoilt everything. He produced his university ID (soldiers couldn’t tell!) and blurted out: “Wona, mimi muyizi.”
I quickly pleaded that he meant “student” (mwanafunzi), not “thief” (mwizi), but also that we were not students but simple villagers. The latter fib was to save us from being branded “Ayino tu mach” (I-know-too-much), a capital offence of claiming superior knowledge that was punishable by death!
But for my Kiswahili, my friend and I would be singing Halleluiah in Heaven prematurely!
All of which goes to show you why that mirthful banter of the group around our minister for defence is telling a long story.
A long story, to see the ramification of which, you need to walk the streets of Kigali in evenings as an example. When you extend your hand to any soldier patrolling the streets, their handshake will be with both hands, yet without once blinking in their alertness.
That Rwandan ‘both-hands’ handshake is a sign of high respect and, in it, the soldier will be telling you this: nothing can go between you and your peace and comfort without removing me.
However, that removing him/her is easier said than done, as any French soldier who was in Zone Turquoise in 1994 will tell you – another long story, the telling of which needs pages!
Anyway, without even going into examples of how, for instance, whereas some European governments (may God help their victims) have learnt to copy our government and bring their soldiers out on the streets among the people, they’ve never remembered that pre-emptying these terror attacks is a permanent, collective business. It serves no purpose, doing it after the fact.
Which is why here the army is in sync with the populace at all times. The Rwanda Defence Force is one with the people, kufa na kupona (life and death).
Where other armies are kennelled in barracks and only unleashed when war and other attacks break out, to the extent that once out they can’t tell who is or is not enemy, in Rwanda the army is folded-sleeves, working with the citizens, at all times.
In their Rwanda Military Hospital that’s set to be one of a kind in the region, they are busy treating any patient who comes to them, soldier or civilian. If you can’t come to them, they’ll come to your village for free medical care in their outreach activities, whatever distance.
In the army week initiatives, they are providing whatever can develop their people: modern houses for genocide survivors, other vulnerable groups and those relocated from risky areas; building schools, roads and bridges; providing biogas, modern cooking stoves and clean water.
The RDF and its Reserve Force are contributing to the Girinka Programme; planting trees and digging trenches to play their part in protecting the environment.
Their rescue missions within the borders and in foreign lands have become something of a legend. In all the aforesaid, not forgetting themselves and their self-advancement, of course.
As Gen Fred Ibingira once quipped, even if they were attacked in their sleep, the RDF would defeat the enemy and only wake up to clear the mess. He may have said it in jest but, having cheated death innumerable times like us all, he should know.
To the RDF, for having internalised the ethos of being one with the people, “impossible n’est pas Rwandais”.
That, if you ask me, is our story. And it’s a story worth telling.