Reflections: The hallowed Abasiniya of yore

When “iron” is mentioned, I’m usually thrown back 46 years. In 1969, I became “umusiniya”.  Umusiniya was a “guy” who’d graduated from primary school to secondary school. A simple transition today, where such a guy is a simple creature. In 1969, that was not the case. Then, such a guy was a few steps from the seat of the gods. Ordinary folks worshipped the soil you trod on.

When “iron” is mentioned, I’m usually thrown back 46 years. In 1969, I became “umusiniya”.  Umusiniya was a “guy” who’d graduated from primary school to secondary school. A simple transition today, where such a guy is a simple creature. In 1969, that was not the case. Then, such a guy was a few steps from the seat of the gods. Ordinary folks worshipped the soil you trod on.

Even the word “guy” was hallowed. “Guy” carried with it connotations of physical and mental strength. Connotations of wealth, superiority, civilisation, worldliness et al. And only men could call themselves “guy”. Not women. In the village if you called yourself a “guy”, you made sure to defend the title when challenged. “Guy” was “Gayi-gasyomberenge”, breaker of all rocks.

In 1969, we were in the sprawling refugee camp of Nshungerezi, Ankole, south-western Uganda. As refugees, we had problems going to school. If it was not your parents confining you to a life of menial labour, it was poverty that made sure you didn’t so much as see the dust of a chalk board. Even when you managed to once in a while go to school, you found problems performing well in class. It was hard passing primary school exams, almost impossible passing secondary-school-entry ones.

Poor performance was not due to lack of hard work. It was due to hard work!

Even as candidates for the secondary-school-entry exam in 1968, you could not study every day. Unless you chose your brain over your stomach, a day or two had to be set aside to work for food. You always worked hard, but hardly ever at your studies.

You see, today’s cocktail of UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs was not there then. Those that were there had different hearts. Unlike today, they did not beseech Rwandan refugees not to return home. They did not fight among themselves to see who gave the best form of dietary nourishment and the biggest quantities. After a few months of assistance, the NGOs of the time abandoned us. Many times they urged us to return home, well knowing that the government would kill us off!

It’s only when I see the hatred they harbour for this government that I’m beginning to understand. The government of the time was their darling and we as refugees, their enemy.....

Anyway, we were talking about 1969. Those days, a secondary school was not that, either. It was a senior secondary school. Why “senior”, don’t ask me. What I know is that it was from that “senior” that our name was derived. It is a corruption of senior and its sound in Kinyarwanda or, for that matter, in many African languages. That’s how we became “Abasiniya”. Abasiniya were different from the lower species in primary school, in many ways.

As Umusiniya (singular), you spoke differently, walked differently and dressed differently.

In speaking Kinyarwanda, you translated every sentence from English. Thus, for instance, you said: “By the way...” and translated it into “niko se...” as if you’d just remembered that your interlocutor did not understand English. You did not simply ask: “Ariko se mama, izi nkwi ntizihagije?” No, you quickly asked: “But, mummy, isn’t this firewood enough?” Then you smiled sheepishly in a pretentious self-effacing gesture to show that you’d forgotten that you were talking to your illiterate mother.

As to the primary school pupils – mark you, not “students” like you! – you made sure you used the language we called “bombastic”. You did not simply say: “I am walking to Kajaho Primary School.” You said: “I’m in the sweaty process of gallivanting to the lowest institution of learning whose bantam nomenclature is Kajaho.” That way, you’d see the lower mortals in primary school reach for their notebooks. Then you’d bend your head in benevolent heed to the pupil who’d be pleading with you: “Eg..sicuse me, Sah! How do you spell garivantingi.... inshutiyisoni.... numenkureca..” And you’d complicate them even further!

In walking, you seemed to have springs in your second-hand shoes, which you’d have bought in the market. The fact that the shoes were used did not bother you at all. And it did not stop you from elevating them by not calling them shoes. You did not say: “My shoes are small and they are giving me pain.” No, to elevate them, you said: “My John Whites are a tad too Lilliputian. My Clacks, of course, are even worse. They are so miniaturized that they give me throes.” Then you watched as boys marvelled and girls stole sidelong, shy glances at you. 

In dressing, you made sure never to appear in your uniform. Since the uniform consisted of a pair of shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, it was not befitting of Umusiniya. You always wore your well-pressed second-hand long-sleeved shirt and long trousers. But since there was no iron box (ipasi) in any home in the refugee camp, ironing your clothes became tricky. You overcame the problem by putting hot water in a calabash. A better iron box I never saw!

As the Englishman discovered that long ago, necessity is the mother of invention.

Today, all that creativity is not necessary. Umusiniya is identified by the most vulgar language, the most ungainly walk. And the shabbiest dress. A pity for younger brothers. And the lasses!

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