One of the first and best things anyone ever says about Rwanda is its level of security. White, black, man, woman, you can walk safely at night alone or in a group, throughout the city. Police are everywhere, and there is a general sense of amahoro throughout Kigali.
In fact, security is so good that a couple weeks ago, when a broken window at midnight culminated in a fight between my girlfriend and I, a freak accident, the infamous local defence forces came within minutes of being called.
In fact, ten of them came, with weapons, without uniforms, understandably sleepy from the night, and carrying not a singe piece of identification. Were they here to help?
At first that’s how it appeared, but after being detained for four hours, threatened with a kitchen appliance and my girlfriend locked inside her own home, it’s hard to know for sure.
It’s a shameful experience, and to make the argument I wish, it is only fair that I disclose both sides of the story.
A couple Monday ago I went to my girlfriend’s house in Kamahinda cell, in Kimironko, where she is living with a Rwandan mother-in-law who is a close family friend of mine.
I went over there to help her negotiate her agreement with the mother-in-law, and later that evening we got into a fight. It wasn’t the most eloquent affair, and I’m sure that maybe we kept some people up that night with silly bickering.
At around midnight, in a brush of anger, me, I, tried to push a window and broke it by accident. Shattered glass and the sound of shattered glass fell like cackles into the night and onto the floor.
Needless to say security was alerted, and within minutes, a couple local defense forces were at our gates.
I had explaining to do. I was so sorry, and promised to pay for all repairs in the morning. I understood that I had kept people awake and I was prepared to whatever necessary to make it up to the community.
After all, I am not a visitor as everyone likes to say. I live here, breathe here, and sleep here as well.
But the response I got was muffled. He wouldn’t respond, and called someone on the phone. I tried asking, what is it that we must do now? It’s late, can we go to sleep?
But he didn’t respond. A few minutes later, a further eight security ‘officers’ came. I put the word in quotations because none of them were dressed like officers, understandable for the middle of the night, they were holding weapons they seemed to have picked up off the ground, not understandable, and carried absolutely no identification at all, unacceptable.
How was I to know for sure that these were actually defense forces and not random, semi-drunk thugs looking for money or trouble?
They certainly did not act like defense forces when they told the house-girl inside to lock my girlfriend in the house, refusing to let her outside to stand next to me even as she pleaded.
And they did not act like defense when they refused to tell me what they were doing, why they were there, and how long they were going to keep us for. And they certainly did not act like defense when a man holding a sink hose with a metal bracket on the end threatened to hit me.
That wasn’t the end. We were kept hostage for over three hours, never being told once who was holding us there, why we were being held, and what was going to happen.
Finally, at 4 in the morning, the ‘chief’ came, a man named Francois K. (to protect his identity) who proceeded to come into the house, call my girlfriend a “son-of-a-bitch” and make me sign an agreement on a piece of paper that I wrote myself, promising that I would never return to the house, all while a man dressed in a t-shirt, holding an AK-47 sat on the couch.
Finally, he lectured me on being a visitor to his country, that I am an outsider who “doesn’t know the rules” and lives in “someone else’s culture.”
Now, I am very well aware that I am living in someone else’s country. I am well aware that I must, like anyone else, follow the rules.
I also know that there is something different about me, not because I am White, but because of the passport I hold.
I know that, in the long run if you break the law you break the law and I shouldn’t expect anything different.
But I also know that there is something different; that sadly and unfairly, people tend to hesitate when picking fights with foreigners, because embassies and governments can get involved.
I know that I am not bulletproof, but the fact is that people are less likely to do something illegal—like detaining me at wooden-club-point—than they are with a fellow local Rwandan.
I can only imagine how I would have been treated if I was a local.
Yes we were loud, yes we made trouble for the neighborhood, yes I caused disturbances. But nothing warrants this. I complied out of fear. I shouldn’t have.
Obviously, this doesn’t just concern me. First reported in the last Sunday Times, a 27-year old university student by the name James Kayumba was shot dead by local defense forces recently.
Is this what the world would have looked liked to me had it not been for my American passport?
District Police Commander (DPC), Superintendent Emmanuel Kalasi said that Kayumba was under the influence of alcohol, that the local security forces were afraid and acted in self-defence.
Armed local security officials scared? Local security with weapons shooting at an unarmed student in self-defence? This doesn’t sound right, does it?
The point is not that there is an inherent problem with the personalities who inherit the ranks of the local security forces. There is a problem with the discipline, protocal, and, organization, notably identification.
If we are to have civilians from our imudugudu protecting us, we must know who they are. They must be unafraid to tell their protectees, their constituents, who they are.
They must have identification on them at all times, so that we don’t, in the fear of the night, wonder whether people are here to protect us or harm us.
To the Ministry of Interior and national and municipal police; ultimately this falls under your watch, and if these people are really your security force, you must brand them with identification, and I they are not, we have a serious security problem under the surface in Kigali.