Porcupines have been in the news lately. It must have been in the 1950s when I first heard about them but, going by their notoriety, I was hoping that I’d never suffer the misfortune of making their acquaintance.
It was said that they had sharp ‘spears’ and the only positive thing was that they were rare around the foot of Mount Muhabura. In any case, they were nocturnal and you could avoid them by not venturing out at night.
Then we fled Rwanda at the end of 1959. In Bufumbira, Uganda, as refugees we took over the duties of older men, most of who had been detained or killed in Rwanda. Personally, I became a herds-boy, which meant bringing cows home very late in the evening. However, as a herds-boy you necessarily become a hard nut and no small rodent can scare you. Though big, porcupines are in the family of rats.
Cats I could fear, but you remember how I used to have a guardian angel which was a bird called Rushorera. Rushorera used to warn me whenever I was going to meet a wild dog, for instance, or whenever I was being trailed by a leopard. I told you how a leopard used to escort me home and that it could only harm me if I suddenly startled it. Rushorera’s duty was to remind me of the fact. Apart from being hardened, I was protected.
But I did not meet any in Bufumbira, nor did I in Belgian Congo (D.R. Congo today) when we went there in 1962. It was not until later when we went back to Uganda, this time in Ankole, that I came in contact with the porcupine – or, rather, its spiny quills. I’ll live to regret that encounter!
The encounter was in 1968, on a Saturday. As was the case with all Saturdays, we woke up at about 3 o’clock in the morning and headed for the banana plantations of the locals. But before reaching those plantations, we had to negotiate a forest that was teeming with all kinds of wild animals, most of them eager to turn you into a meal.
That early morning we rendezvoused at the edge of Kibungo 20, one of the sub-camps that made up the sprawling settlement of Nshungerezi. When we had gathered into a number that could have rivalled Hitler’s army – which was how we always scared away the beasts – we set off. By the time we reached the edge of the forest, it was daybreak and we sat down to rest.
Then I saw it. A big mound of animal dragging its feet clumsily and hurrying into the dense part of the forest, as it furtively threw frightened glances at our group. I jumped up and ran to block its way and redirect it to the grassland, as my group cheered with: “Yes, Congoman, that’s your meat!”
Those of us who’d been to Congo were called ‘Congoman’ (whether one or many!) and we were known to eat any animal meat. Crocodile, hippo, elephant and buffalo meat, for instance, was a delicacy to us while others considered it taboo.
Anyway, I was running after an animal. For its lumbering movement, it was fast and had gone over the hill and down into the valley beyond when I finally caught up with it. It had buried its head into a hole, leaving the rest of its body as exposed as an ostrich in the sand. So, I howled a war cry and did a war jig as I prepared to deliver my muzo-stick blow to its neck, which was sure to leave it as dead as dodo.
Looking back as I did my war jig, I could see that nobody in my group had followed me, which meant that I could do one of two things: take the animal home and eat it alone; or exchange it for bananas with the locals and go home, leaving the others to labour in the fields. After deciding to take it home and eat it alone, I turned round and deliberately slowly approached it as I spat in my hand to have a good grip of my stick.
Then I raised my stick and.......screamed!
Millions of spears had pierced me and were hanging out of my front body, around the stomach. That’s when I remembered what I’d been told about porcupines. I was relieved only when my group came to my rescue by plucking out all the ‘spears’.
You see, a porcupine’s body is covered with a crop of spikes, called quills. It’s these quills that people called spears. They are used as defensive weapons against predators that may want to feed on the porcupine. When the porcupine is threatened, it shakes its body and sends them out as a shower of missiles. But once it’s done with showering them around, it’s as harmless as a new-born baby.
When you are familiar with porcupines, you scare them and then keep a safe distance as they throw out those missiles harmlessly. By the time it grows a new crop of quills, it’ll have been yours for the picking.
It’s the same with those Rwandan politicians who talk the language of the porcupine. Nothing comes of their barbs.