I was filled with joy that brought a lump to my throat on hearing the RPF candidate pronounce these words: “They dug a hole for us, put us in it and buried us. But they didn’t know we were seeds that would grow. Rwandans became seeds; they grew tall and today we are standing strong. You have me and I have you. Nothing can stand in our way.”
My exhilaration stemmed from the fact that the words brought the whole range of their meaning flooding to my mind because I’d not grasped the significance of a different negative variance spat out at another time, when I was of tender age.
That time the words were expressed loathingly and ruefully that the opposite was not the case; that we had not rotted and perished.
Which is why, on the other hand, I bled inside that that ‘holy’ man was not here today to be stung, seared and burnt inside by the candidate’s words, in their confidence-inspiring sense.
It was 1968 on a Sunday in a Catholic church. But I remember the padre’s words as if they were voiced yesterday.
As Father Bart Kamugeni ended his homily, he sardonically remarked: “….konka imwe Banyarwanda muri nka muhogo; ah’omuntu akubanaga hona nimumera!” (…comparing Rwandans to cassava/manioc stems, which germinate wherever they are thrown).
This was in Rwamurunga Parish, Nshungerezi Refugee Camp, south-western Uganda. The priest was haranguing his refugee flock for holding their heads high with a noticeable air of confidence, instead of supplicating to the locals for soiling their land with an undeserved presence that should otherwise have been death and burial.
But, a disclaimer. Father Kamugeni was talking as one priest who neither shared his feelings with other priests, other Ugandans nor with citizens of other countries in the world where Rwandans have been hosted, as refugees or otherwise, at different times.
If anything, almost to an individual, the hosts have been very kind and I know, without claiming to talk for them, that Rwandans will always be thankful for that hospitality.
By the time many refugees got to the point of receiving that hospitality, though, they’d gone through excruciatingly dehumanising and decimating times. Times which applied not only in the refugee camps and forests of different parts of Uganda but also in those of today’s D.R. Congo, Burundi, Tanzania and countries further afield in Africa, without excepting city wildernesses of countries beyond the oceans.
Usually it meant the refugees being packed like sardines in open creaking lorries or trains that broke their backs, ribs and limbs, rocking them up and down.
It didn’t matter that you were a baby or similarly vulnerable. Nor did it that at times it was raining cats and dogs and other times so scorching hot as to “crack the forehead of a dog”, as Rwandans say. Or freezing cold, in wintry climes.
And there was worse. There were those, in same-said conditions, who didn’t enjoy the luxury of those ramshackle rides and had to wear their feet, often hands too, to their bloody bones to cover km upon km for days and nights in order to reach their destination.
If the hellfire awaiting them could be called “a destination”. In Africa, when you think of the forests teeming with tsetse fly, mosquito, snake, hyena and other hordes of small and big land and marine human-flesh wreckers and diseases where refugees were dumped, “hellfire” does not begin to define the anguish.
Add to that the weevil-infested beans and rotting maize-flour offered by humanitarian NGOs of those days, without instruction on hygienic cooking, and what you had was a catastrophe whose magnitude could break the strongest of human endurance. Very few refugees survived.
Yet if the condition for Rwandans in these foreign lands was hellfire, that of some “citizens” within this land was a red-hot eruption of deadly magma that left many in a daily battle for survival, with countless ending up at the losing end.
“Citizens” in quotes because this land hosted Rwandans according to allotted tiers.
The lowest tier of expendables was hosted in a Rwandan Siberia (Bugesera) where they were subject to regular slaughter as need arose.
The next upper tier was quarantined in forests and only let off the leash to extend their emaciated beggarly palms for morsels of food to quieten their hunger pangs. For only a while before diseases sank them into death and ended their suffering.
Yet another upper tier was given free rein to till the land in their regions, but nowhere else, and there to fight mostly a losing battle with the ravages of disease, famine, floods and other menaces of nature. But at least, while alive, these enjoyed the honour of serving the select top.
These select few who had inherited the land from a foreign invading master, who had seized its ownership illegally before that, were themselves marionettes stringed to that master in seeming serf-master bondage of eternity.
Bondage the rivalry fights over which left few survivors; the louts who rode the crest of oppression, division, banishment, butchery and engineered the elimination crime of all crimes to seal the grave.
That the Rwandan citizenry could work together with its leadership to painstakingly rise phoenix-like from this nadir and sprout into a near-12m-strong true family bond to post indicators on politico-socio-economic and other areas’ progress that show a country rapidly headed for middle-income, in a mere 23 years, is nothing short of a miracle.
“With our unity….energy and commitment, we cannot fail to achieve anything we have set out to achieve. We cannot lose the battle to develop our country”, cemented the helmsman of this family bond responsible for the turnaround, the RPF candidate, on another leg of his campaign trail.
When you hear such time-tested statements as this and seriously reflect back, can you hold back tears of joy?