A little hygiene for a load of improved life
Visiting some areas of this country leaves you with that exhilarating feeling of having been witness to a practical good. When I visited some community settlements (imidugudu) in the districts of Rwamagana, Kayonza and Kirehe in the Eastern Province, I was convinced of what somebody said: “When a people put their heart into something, they can get anywhere.”
People in the settlements of Kitazigurwa, Nyagatovu and Munini, in those districts, have got somewhere – and further. Looking at their houses, I was ashamed to think of ‘my’ appropriated hovel back in Kigali – to boot, ‘Kiyovu for the Rich’ (a colossal misnomer if ever there was one)!
The clean and airy interiors of those houses, their manicured gardens with beautiful trees, the well tended fields of healthy crops and the well cared-for livestock behind the houses; electricity, a tap for running water and a water tank for each house.... If that’s the way life in the village is going, for sure it is going places.
But... For ‘buts’, I later went to the fringe corner of the Northern Province, a place I know since childhood. I was received by the family of a childhood neighbour whose friendship I’d renewed on my return from exile in 1995.
However, their house is a far cry from any of those in the east. It does not have a cement floor or electricity and the gardens and fields are not so orderly. Still, the good thing is that everybody looks healthy and the whole environment around is not exactly a riot of dirt and disarray.
The house is set on a hillock that rises from the fields, where the shed for their milk cow and her calf is found. Some hundred metres from the house is their ‘convenience room’ and a roofless ‘shower room’. To the left of the rectangular iron-roofed house is a kitchen near a kitchen garden and a rack on which were arranged utensils, drying in the sun, on that day. When it rains, rain water is directed to a concrete water tank underground.
The homestead is surrounded by an expansive field of maize through which winds a path leading to the community’s common tap of piped water.
As the children and their mother filed past us sitting in the shade outside, after polite greetings, I looked at their clean clothes and shoes and shook my head. Times have changed, indeed. This clean family and their clean surrounding were testimony of a people who are headed for a future far removed from the life that defined their country until only about a decade and some years ago.
As Health Minister Dr Agnes Binagwaho often says in these pages, people are undergoing a major shift in hygienic practice. The north may be hot on the heels of the east but the rest of the country is even ‘hotter’ in the race.
Anyone who knew the area around Cyanika border post before 1959 would not fail to be amazed for, before that, the place was in the Stone Age. And, except for a tarmac road from Kigali to Cyanika that hadn’t been there, nothing had changed by 1995. If anything, life had regressed, considering that the only stone house existing there was reduced to rabble during the 1959 pogroms.
It was only with the existence of that house that the area had been named Amajambere (development) and yet, even without that house in 1995, the area was still known by the name. The name remains today, this time perhaps with some validity.
Before 1995, the place crawled with an army of hollow-eyed kids with bony bodies and protruding bellies, clearly victims of malnutrition. Wherever the kids moved, they were followed by ‘faithful’ swarms of flies that constantly sucked at their unwashed eyes and mucus-filled noses (Sorry for sensibilities!).
But few moved, anyway, as they sat screaming while their mothers fought a losing battle with jiggers that populated their infantile toes and feet. Diarrhoea and dehydration were constants in their little lives, lives that were more often than not snuffed out before their fifth birthday. These constants also afflicted their elder siblings, as they did, their parents.
Covered in tattered second-hand clothes that knew no water until they dropped off their unwashed bodies, women and men were usually engaged in balancing blackened pots of water on their heads. If they were not fetching water, they’d be in the field digging. Or the women would be cooking in sooty houses that simultaneously served as sitting rooms, kitchens, mat-partitioned ‘bedrooms’ and goat-and-chicken houses – one house being everything! Men would be out drinking themselves silly.
Or else all would be engaged in their ‘recreation’: digging lice out of tatters, jiggers out of toes; nursing scabies, smallpox, leprosy, cracked feet and a battery of other skin diseases whose names exist only in medical manuals.
If you whistled in the vicinity of some men, they made sure you met instant death, immobilised as they were (Get my drift?). I’m told the disease is called ‘hydrocoele’.
And if you think this life was a preserve of the north, perish the thought. It was the bane of Rwandans throughout their tortured history.
Yes, a bit of hygienic practice “can get a people anywhere”.
Contact email: butapa[at]gmail.com