The return of the sheep to the fold
Venant Gatare left Rwanda and his parents behind in 1958, to go to what was then Usumbura (Bujumbura today) in order to join his elder brothers who were to take charge of his education. Just one year later, disaster struck. Rwanda was put on fire, Rwandans, including his parents fled their country in all directions to neighbouring countries. This is his story of how he reunited with parents in 1966, eight years later.
From Usumbura we travelled in a lorry up at the back, on top of loaded sacks of beans and dried maize up to Muyinga on the Burundi-Tanzania border. The journey was painfully slow and very uncomfortable. Later on in the day, on crossing the border, we had to exchange our Burundi Francs for Shillings, the English currency used throughout East Africa, after which we went on to cross into the then Tanganyika Territory (now Tanzania).
It is also at this point that we had to part ways with their Burundi lorry mode of transportation because, from here onwards, we journeyed towards Uganda in relative comfort as the means of transport in this country were far advanced in terms of roads and the type of vehicles that plied them from one point to another. Down from on top of sacks of beans, we boarded a semi-bus-semi-lorry, with a cabin for the driver and one or two passengers in the front, and a coachwork for the passengers at the back. The coach was fitted complete with rubber seats on metallic frames, luggage racks above glass windows through which one could watch the beautiful scenery of the Tanzanian savanna shrubbery drifting past.
In this relative comfort, we travelled through the vast expanse of the Tanzanian territory, occasionally catching sight of gazelles gracefully flitting by, or of a herd of zebras peacefully grazing, or even of a group of elephants basking in the late morning sunshine, until we reached Kikagati, the border post between Tanzania and South Western Uganda. From here, we boarded a bus of the Uganda Transport Corporation up to Nshungyezi Refugee Settlement, our final destination.
Nshungyerezi was one of the numerous sites throughout Uganda, which were allocated by the government to the United Nations to serve as refugee settlement camps. This is one of the places where some of the first wave of Tutsi refugees, survivors of the 1959 massacres in Rwanda, had been amassed, some living in tents, and others in makeshift houses made of thatch, and on maize-meal handouts by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In a bid to supplement the irregular food rations by the UNHCR which, as time inexorably went by, had begun to dwindle dramatically both in quality and quantity, they attacked the surrounding thorny, snake-infested forests surrounding them, and eventually turned them into veritable farms.
My uncle and I alighted from the Uganda Transport Company bus and we were now progressing on foot on our way to wherever we were going – by now, more than ever before, I solely depended on my uncle’s guidance. We went by people in the field, men and women, some with machetes others with hoes, hard at work. Sometimes, my uncle would stop to greet and exchange words with some of them he seemed to know. Others would come trudging from across farther ploughed ridges in the field, they would embrace fondly, and then they would embrace me after my uncle had introduced me to them as his elder brother’s son. They all seemed to know my father, something that I could not quite understand at the time. However, later on, I came to understand that in places like this, everybody knew everybody.
Then all of a sudden, a thought struck me from nowhere. My mother… Could she… It was dreadful…! Could my mother and my father, by any but inconceivable chance, be somewhere out there in the field digging like these other people? It was a possibility, my mind reasoned involuntarily. But logically, if all these men and women worked in the fields for their survival, it was a certainty. God forbid bad things!
It is quite amazing how fast news travelled in most rural areas. There are no telephone lines, a few radios around if any, but any small incident worth knowing is as if by magic was transmitted all around the community in a relatively short time, no matter how distant the location of its occurrence. This is exactly what happened. As my uncle was busy talking to and embracing some people in a group they had met, a couple of children whom I immediately recognised as my young brother and sister materialized as if from nowhere and jumped on me in silent embrace. They already had news of our arrival, and had run ahead to welcome us. The appearance of these two was a blessing for me because, with the frequent stops my uncle was making to greet all the people he knew, our progress was at a snail’s pace and my patience with him was growing thin. I was all too impatient to meet my parents. Therefore, my brother took my small wooden suitcase - my uncle’s was heavier - my sister took my hand and together, we left our u
ncle to his endless talk.
About half a kilometer along the way, just as we rounded up a turn on the road, my young brother said: “That’s Mother!” I turned and looked all around me.
“Where!” I asked. I turned to my brother again, and then got a very unpleasant shock. I was looking at my brother’s pointing finger. But the only person I could see was an elderly woman throwing some grass on a heap of rubbish from which rose a thin column of white smoke. No! That couldn’t be my mother. The picture of my mother I had kept in my mind all these years was of a tall, plump but graceful lady with raven black hair, always dressed in an immaculate white blouse and multi-coloured fabrics. The woman I was looking at now was visibly emaciated; she wore a not too clean head kerchief on her head and was dressed in other garments of indistinct colour.
But, as long as he could remember, my mother suffered from asthma and did not therefore stand dust. And now, as she worked, the poor woman had tied a scarf across her mouth, a poor attempt at warding off particles of dust. It was my mother all right. Then, when she heard our voices, my mother turned and looked in our direction, and all doubt vanished from my mind. She was my mother. I felt a lump build up in my throat, and, in order to stop myself from crying out loud, I rushed to her and let my emotional outburst flow in her bosom.
For a long time my mother held me in a tight embrace, and I felt I could burst with emotion. It took us a while before we finally broke up and together, we went home to where my father was waiting for them.
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