If you were watching any of the international TV channels last week, you might’ve seen them. Objects that washed off from the Atlantic Ocean onto North American shores. They were said to have been part of the debris from the Asian Tsunami that all but buried Japan under rabble on 11th March 2011. Once again, ‘tsunami’ reminded me of many things.
I remembered how, in the late 1960s when we had just joined secondary school, we scampered out of the debating hall to go and look up the word, unconvinced that it was English. When we checked, indeed it was not an English word. But our Michael West dictionary acknowledged it as being in the English vocabulary, though Japanese. It described it as meaning ‘tidal wave’: ‘tsu’ for ‘harbour’ and ‘nami’ for ‘wave’.
The word was uttered by a student known as Karugahe. But, for knowing “too much English”, he preferred to be called ‘Rutigita Macumu’, after the great English dramatist, William Shakespeare. And, in fact, it was a near-perfect translation into Kinyarwanda: ‘rutigita’ (the man who shakes) and ‘amacumu’ (spears). We knew the student to relish the use of ‘bombastic’ words and we always eagerly awaited his contributions in debates. As a rule, he always came up with a strange-sounding word.
During a debate on the usefulness of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, precursor to African Union, AU), the fellow said, in part: “The OAU is a chimera and by the time we, the hoi polloi of Africa, realize that we are being led by a cabal of un-punctilious panjandrums, we shall have been torpedoed by trillions of triphibious termagant tsunamis! …” From then on, we called him Mr. Triphibious Tsunami!
Still, we did not see any connotation of danger in the word. Personally, I cherished playing in the waves (tsunamis) of Lake Bulera, at the foothills of Mount Muhabura, northern Rwanda. Since we used to walk more than 24km to and from the lake, our main source of water for domestic use, we always economised on the water that we fetched. Which, among other measures, meant doing all the washing and bathing at the lake.
As soon as we arrived at the lake, we’d first fill our containers. These were blackened clay or aluminium containers that doubled up as cooking pots. Then would follow the washing, which involved repeatedly knocking your clothing onto a smooth rock after which you applied ‘rufuha’ or ‘rugondo’, the washing soap. Then you gave them another series of ‘knocks’, after which you rinsed them and spread them onto the grass to dry.
For obvious reasons, if you were big, the cloth you were wearing was washed last, and with tact. Fortunately, it was just a simple T-shirt-like shirt that reached your knees and had slits at the sides, for easy movement. You therefore lifted it slowly and removed it as you moved further, or crouched deeper, into the lake depending on where you could find a smooth rock. A few ‘knocks’ and it was ready, after which you tossed it onto the grass to dry and thereafter started your treasured bathing.
Which is how ‘tsunami’ comes in. You would swim far into the lake while calling out to ‘umuhengeri’ (wave/tsunami) to come and wash you, which it did by tossing you onshore.
You repeated this kind of bathing as you waited for the washing to dry. When all was ready, all of you put your bundles of washing and your water-containers on your heads and called it a ‘clean tsunami’ day! This, of course, was after you’d remembered to don your now-dry shirt.
But these were not deadly tsunamis. Since Lake Bulera is a small freshwater lake, the angriest wave, even on a particularly windy day, could not even reach the height of your knees. So there had never been any untoward mishap involving tsunamis.
Because we lived at the slopes of Mount Muhabura, a source of disaster was only the volcanic mountain of Muhabura. But we had learnt how to detect such danger. You see, every extinct volcano has a crater in its middle, whence used to issue lava when it was active. Usually, this hole contains water that forms a crater lake and which fills up and overflows when it rains.
Because the top of the volcano is high up ‘in the clouds’, very often it used to rain at the mountaintop and not in our area at the slopes. And when the lake overfilled after such rains, the water would flow through the permanent gullies that had been formed by the frequent rains. These very often came down as dangerous torrential rivers when rains were heavy.
You’d be playing in a deep but wide, dry ravine on a sunny morning only to see water hurtling down from the mountain and carrying whatever was in its way. When the rains were really very heavy, the ravines themselves would overflow and the water would devastate the whole area.
We had learnt many ways of averting these ‘tsunamis’ but many were a time when we were overwhelmed. Tsunamis – they are not your everyday toy!