I remember visiting the chaotic downtown Kigali market, “Isoko rya Nyarugenge”, in August 1994, fresh from exile. To reach a desired stall, it was a veritable struggle forcing your way through the mob of people in rags all with outstretched hands, pleading: “Wamfuguriye!”
That word can be a request or a demand, depending on the tone used, either to open for or offer food to someone. So, with my memories of a 1959-Rwanda that knew no begging ‘trade’, I opted for the former and asked where the door for opening was.
When the strong young man gave me a red-eyed stare that ill-veiled his threat as he made the sign of putting food in mouth, I understood. Quickly, I rummaged through my pockets for coins, whatever morsel of food those’d buy him.
The point being that wherever you turned, there was no avoiding those “wamfunguriye” outstretched arms from persons of all ages and all physical states.
On streets, on building entrances; in the city centre, suburbs: they were there to haunt you every minute of the day and night. In villages too, as I found out a few days after the market incident when I visited what used to be my home area before exile.
When I wished an old lady weeding her field a good working day, as is the Kinyarwanda custom, she glanced up at me with perceptible recognition but disinterestedly resumed her work with a curt: “As if your wishes would fill my tummy!”
Despite the snub, I humbly proffered a Rwf1,000 note. Her reaction totally blew me!
The indifference instantly vanished and, from a bent wizened woman, she was galvanized into a lithe woman who executed a few gigs of the traditional dance before grabbing me in a hug that painted her muddy arms, hands and fingers all over my white shirt, to the amusement of relatives with me. After which, she counted off our names, before similarly painting the others muddy!
What devilish spell had bound the good hearts of Rwandans of old, whatever their station? Those who spoilt you with whatever they had, to the point of self-deprivation? Those who, even when hungry, never showed it, let alone beg?
Admittedly, there was a category that went around for offerings but, understandably, those were still primitive times. Still, the whole society, excepting a small elite group, hadn’t sunk so deep into this ubiquitous begging misery and heartlessness, even with efforts of colonialism.
Now, fast-forward to today.
In place of the chaotic market sits a multi-storied building of a modern market, shops and offices owned by a cooperative of those stall operators of yore. From peddlers of a few items on improvised rickety tables, they’ve transformed into true members of the private sector and employers.
In villages, the omnipresent desolate “wamfunguriye” peasant, having joined cooperatives that sell their produce at competitive prices, has becoming an employer in his/her own right.
How has it come about?
Take one mudugudu (village), like Umudugudu wa Kibaya, as an example. But in this case it’s a city estate, not village, as it’s in one of the suburbs of Kigali.
On one muganda day, after the usual communal work, the subsequent meeting and decisions on reports from different volunteer committee members, the mudugudu chairperson welcomed back a member who’d just come out of hospital. Immediately, all members were falling over themselves to offer money, fruits, meat, whatever, for the member’s convalescence period.
The other day, when news spread that a mudugudu member had lost a father, within a few hours the better part of a million Francs had been raised to assist in funeral arrangements. A few days before, it’d been the exact same thing for a member who’d lost a newly-born baby.
Mind you, this is not a mudugudu that comprises a majority of members who are well-to-do.
Now consider all midugudu (plural), especially the more compactly self-organised villages outside urban areas, or those with more means, and the way they look after their security, their general welfare, everything, with ubudehe committees examining categories of poverty for members, to identify the type of assistance required in a poverty-eradication crusade.
Consider, too, that the midugudu are coordinated by akagari (cell), which is in turn coordinated by umurenge (sector). Umudugudu, akagari, umurenge: these are the centres of power.
That’s how, for instance, you find a group of elderly and vulnerable villagers gathered at umurenge, awaiting their government financial support, in a third-world country. Those will have been identified at umudugudu level by ubudehe committees, where the elderly but able-bodied will also have been found salaried employment in activities that advance their area.
Those activities involve building roads, making terraces, initiating irrigation projects, planting trees, addressing sudden emergencies, et all, leaving government to deal with the bigger projects.
To encourage a culture of saving and accessing credit even at that level, Umurenge SACO (saving and credit cooperative) has been set up. All this is organised through Vision 2020 Umurenge Project (VUP) as a vehicle to eradicate poverty and enhance rural growth and social protection.
There are miscreant corrupt elements, habitual beggars, unruly hawkers, all right, but with government committed to an unrelentingly vigilant up-down-down-up coordination from the lowest level to the topmost, these will be a thing of the past.
The level of enthusiasm in almost all Rwandans for a dignified existence is such that they are with their government to the hilt.
So, in the not distant future, that lone “wamfunguriye” voice may be a curiosity for Rwandan tourists to go and view in other countries! In a street corner of New York, for instance?