Neil Armstrong died last Saturday 26th August and may his soul rest in peace. Until the news of his death, Armstrong was unknown to many people. Which is very interesting because his name burst into our lives from obscurity in a similar way, back in 1969.
One day we knew nothing about him and then the next he was all the buzz on radio. Some of us who had just joined secondary school had access to newspapers and could even see black-and-white photos of him. Photos or none, however, we were all ecstatic!
Why the excitement? On 20th July 1969, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first men to walk on the moon. Armstrong was more prominent in the news, perhaps because he commanded the spacecraft, but both men were astronauts of great repute. In fact, after Armstrong no one cared about all the other equally great men who landed on the moon in subsequent missions.
In all, the Apollo missions that landed on the moon included: Apollo11 (the first), 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17. Each carried three astronauts, two of who landed on, while the other orbited around, the moon. But for all these, only Armstrong excited the world.
So much so that when we went home for holidays, the whole refugee camp was still agog with the news. Remember, home was then in the sprawling refugee camp of Nshungerezi, south-western Uganda. Here, by August the news had shifted from the man who walked on the moon to how some elders rejected the possibility of it all.
Late Muzeke Musuhuke, God bless his soul, was said to have advanced one simple argument to prove that impossibility.........
Among the community of refugees, there were micro-communities who saw themselves in terms of which areas in Rwanda they hailed from. For instance, if you were from the ‘eastern’ part, you were sharp-tongued and cunning – and therefore saw yourself as intelligent. If you were from the ‘northern’ part, you were straightforward and uncomplicated – and therefore were seen as being dull........
Muzehe Musuhuke, being ‘northerner’, thus ‘unintelligently’ argued it could not be conceivable that any man could have gone to the moon without his knowledge. It was unthinkable, advanced he, because if it were possible then an ‘easterner’ would already have been there!
The rest of the micro-communities, knowing the fact of his area of origin, considered his argument but were not totally convinced. However, his argument was re-enforced when a member of another micro-community advanced his own argument.
A member of a ‘southerner’ micro-community was said to also have asserted that it was impossible to land on the moon, but for different reasons. After having heard that the men who went to the moon took more than three days to reach there, he asked if there were lodges on the way. And since no one seemed to be sure, he declared it impossible. This, added to Muzehe’s argument, strengthened the likelihood of its impossibility.
Still, though, not everyone was convinced the news was a hoax. After all, ‘Southerner’s reason for believing it was an impossibility was debunked when we arrived for the holidays. We found everybody eagerly waiting for us, Abasiniya (‘senior’ secondary school students), to confirm the credibility of these ‘theories’.
After calling together a number of us Basiniya, the elders went on to ask if there was anybody who could beat the ‘easterners’ at being the first to walk on the moon. When we confirmed that, indeed, Americans had done it, ‘Southerner’ got up to speak: “Tell me,” quizzed he, “are there any lodges or bars on the way to the moon?” We all responded there weren’t any. Then he put a smirk on his face and sneered: “So, how can human beings go for more than six days without sleeping? And how can full men go for more than six days without quenching their thirst?”
Well, well. You may think it’d be easy to convince our elders of the refugee camp of such a possibility. However, that’s because you’ve never lived in a refugee camp. These questions were not questions per se. A refugee camp is a world of tangibles. It’s not a world of theories, where you believe all the news you receive. There, it’s touch, feel, smell, taste, etc. It’s study and think. Then, and only then, believe. No second-guessing, speculation, idealisation.
These elders’ statements were not bizarre. Muzehe Musuhuke was actually saying that if an American could go to the moon then even a Munyarwanda could do it. Elder ‘Southerner’ was saying that an American slept and quenched thirst like anybody else. So, we should find out and know how they slept, drank and ate as they went to the moon. We should learn and be able to do what other humans are capable of doing.
In simple terms, these elders were challenging us to be inquisitive and creative. And therefore to study and discover. And, discovering, be equal to the challenges of the world. Their question: why should we succumb to the dictates of others? What another could do, we could also do. So, why live as refugees?
Our elders all shared rare wisdom. They were aware of Neil Armstrong and what this journey to the moon represented for America. Interestingly, in villages around the camp and in the rest of the country, practically everybody was in the dark. Enquiry is knowledge.