EVERY TIME I visit the Mutara region (Umutara), northern Rwanda, I cannot believe it’s the same Mutara I knew. The Mutara I first saw in 1995 was a semi-arid wasteland that was fast turning into desert. I remember that when then I sighted it, I immediately thought of Mpororo.
I remembered Mpororo, a region in southern Uganda, because it was the first place that I’d ever seen that was almost totally devoid of trees. Before that, I’d known the over-cultivated areas of Burera, Rwanda, and Bufumbira, south-western Uganda, both nonetheless teeming with trees. I’d known D.R. Congo’s dense jungles and thick forests of Nshungerezi, near Mpororo.
How did I get to know Mpororo before Mutara, in my own country? The reasons are many but for the shame of the history and ideology responsible for them, let’s not revisit them.
As for Mpororo, it was sometime in 1971 that I went there. From Ntare School, Mbarara, we travelled in our open school lorry, going for the burial of a school mate’s relative. At the Ntungamo trading centre, on the Kampala-Kabale road, we turned into a dust track that seemed to head to uninhabited land.
When we were beginning to think the track was endless, suddenly our school mate shouted to the driver in the cabin to turn left. Instead, the driver stopped; there was no road/track to turn into!
Our teacher, in the cabin with the driver, came out to look at the distraught student and, as if he didn’t trust if his nuts were in place, gently asked: “John, what do you mean, turn left?”
But John was undeterred and insisted, pointing: “Sir, the house is behind that hill beyond.”
“And the road?” we all chorused. But John was calm: “No need for a road,” said he, “there are no rocks or ditches.”
The teacher climbed back into the cabin and, winding through cattle, we drove over the near-dry grassland, across the valley and over the hill and, indeed, there it was: a small round hut surrounded by cattle.
We joined family and friend in the burial ceremonies after which we left, leaving our fellow student to join us at school days later.
When we were out of earshot, one student, at the sight of a shrub, piped: “I am the First Munyankole to discover a tree in Mpororo!”
We shrieked in laughter. It was as if he had opened a tap and students began to outdo themselves playing different ‘explorer-sailor’ roles. One picked up ‘binoculars’ (a piece of wood!) to check out for ‘land’; another used ‘a campus’ (a stone!) to determine our position; on and on, all as if we were on the high seas!
After which, we broke out in “old sailor” song:
Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum/Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest/Drink and the devil had done for the rest/Marimbas, calimbas, he’s playing steel drums/A week in the tropics and he’ll be all right/Sporting a tan as he rides out of sight/Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum!
(Oh, the good old days! How we devoured those novels and books! We’d been brainwashed but what the heck. If we were going to learn English, we’d as well imbibe the English lifestyle – of medieval times, even if it was! Which begs the question: since some of the kids today are averse to immersing themselves in English novels, how will they hope to write good English prose?)
But back to Mutara as I first saw it in 1995. It was exactly like Mpororo, with drivers roaming the plains, hunting game. Yet, even as they were being hunted, wild animals were threatened with extinction because ridges were all turning desert; rains were becoming a thing of the past.
I remember witnessing dead hippos in a pond that had dried up. Of course, it meant that lions and other carnivores were having a field day. But for how long? It was a matter of months before realisation jolted them out of their carnivorous slumber: their prey, antelope, buffalo and other herbivores were quickly migrating into Uganda and Tanzania. Soon, God forbid, the desert would encroach on the whole of Rwanda.
Unknown to me, as early as that 1995, while Government was busy rescuing Rwandans from total destruction, so was it, nursing the environment back to life. People who, from exile, had settled on what had been a hunting zone were encouraged to plant trees.
Meanwhile, game was confined to the main park, which was now ringed off by an electric fence. To-date, the fence ensures that man and beast live side by side harmoniously.
The dying plains of Mutara have turned into the food-basket and milk-udder of Rwandans: a feast to their throats and stomachs; a joy to their eyes and lungs.
Green, forested Mutara has joined green Rwanda to foster a greener and healthier future for all.