FEATURED: A day of days: Formula 1, football and July 4

It has yet to sink in” has become a well-worn cliché sports people employ to explain that the magnitude of their achievement was such that it would take time grasp it fully. Not for Lewis Hamilton, who celebrates the New Year as a five times Formula 1 world champion. The British driver clearly feels the immensity of reaching the pinnacle of his sport, with every fibre of his being. And as well he might. He now stands as one of Formula 1’s greatest drivers. Spare a thought then for any Formula 1 fan, who missed the crowning of such a once in a lifetime sporting moment, because, some football match or other was on every screen within reach.

This was the misfortune that befell me, on the day that Hamilton clinched the fifth world title, to equal the great Argentinian driver Manuel Fangio, who achieved the feat in the 1950s. Hamilton regards Fangio as “the Godfather of our sport”, only one other driver, the German Michael Schumacher, has won more championships, with seven.

It is true that nothing is really impossible, but, trying to wrest a television remote control from a group of Rwandans to switch from a football match in one of the world’s most popular leagues, England’s Premier League, to watch Formula 1 instead, is probably as close as one can get to impossible. The task is made all the harder, if when told of Formula 1, over half the group mutters, “ibyo se ubundi nibiki?” loosely translated as what’s that anyway? It is at that I resigned myself to watching Arsenal, playing whomever. I should make it clear that I love the beautiful game, every bit as much as the next person, but, few matches, well, match the sheer vicarious exhilaration of a Formula 1 race.

Which is why, try as I might, I couldn’t get my mind off what I was missing. “Visit Rwanda”, a voice behind me interrupted my disenchanted musings. I smiled to myself, “Visit Rwanda”, again, almost to himself, in a contented tone. I didn’t turn to look, but, my eyes followed the voice, to the elegant figure of Mesut Ozil, the Arsenal No10, gliding over the manicured playing filed, football almost attached to his feet. Déjà vu. I’ve been here before. My mind wandered back, just three months earlier, in August. It wasn’t certain then whether Hamilton would clinch his fifth tile, it was nail biting stuff for every Formula 1 fan, not to say the teams, and the drivers themselves.

But, August was also the start of the football season. In Rwanda, this meant the first season since the country’s tourist board, Visit Rwanda, had entered into the much talked about partnership with the North London club. It was also Arsenal’s first match in two decades without their professorial manager, Arsene Wenger. They were playing Manchester City, “the noisy neighbours” as the other Manchester long term manager, Sir Alex Ferguson once referred to his rivals. It was unlikely to end well for Arsenal’s hopes of a first win of the season, or mine for watching Formula 1 anywhere in Rwanda.

Visit Rwanda however was not going to be deterred by such pessimism, perhaps clinging on to that other sporting cliché, “in football, anything can happen”. They had arranged for the match to be screened on one of the Kigali Convention Centre’s raised terraces. I had selected a well-positioned, but, unassuming seat, appropriate for a gatecrahser, and with the invited guests, waited for the match to begin. Ad, upon ad, upon ad, as I wondered how Lewis Hamilton was faring. The match starts, I try to be sporting about it all, and attempt to push all thoughts of Formula 1 to the back of my mind. The players walk on. Arsenal is at home. They are sporting the new kit, and there, boldly emblazoned on their shirt sleeves, the words, “Visit Rwanda”. And in LED lit surround displays all around the Emirates stadium, the same words, scrolling to images of Rwanda, and the inevitable mountain gorillas.

 I look around, first at the other guests. All age groups seem represented, some parents have come with their young children. On my left, a large group of the “official” Rwanda Arsenal fan club. Then my general surrounds, the luxurious, gleaming Kigali Convention Centre, then back at the cinema screen. A thought, more profound, more arresting than the Formula 1 race I was missing takes hold of my mind.

Much has been said of Rwanda’s transformation since 1994, but, rarely is the depth of this transformation ever understood, beyond its mere verbal expression. It is doubtful whether it can be, perhaps only if it were possible to employ the services of a Shakespeare, from the beyond.

From where I sat, what I was looking at on the large cinema screen, it was impossible to imagine that a mere twenty and four years ago, Rwanda was no more. It lay buried under the blood soaked earth, spilt in the mass murder of over a million of its people, in what was the horror of the 1994 genocide against Batutsi. Yes, one could still go on any map of the world, and there in East Africa, read the words, Rwanda, and see the tiny land mass. But, the nation that was once Rwanda, and what that had meant to Rwandans, had ceased to be. Perceiving it now, in this context, considering everything, was suddenly, deeply moving.

Was this the same nation that was now being promoted in one of the world’s most glamourous stadiums, its name emblazoned on shirt sleeves, proudly won by some of the world’s most glamourous players of the world’s most popular sport? “Visit Rwanda”, “Remarkable Rwanda”, the message scrolling on LED screens around the stadium, in one of the planet’s major metropolitans, half a world away from Rwanda itself. It was almost surreal. An extraordinary moment, when considered in its fullest context.

How had we got here? Once again, there is a Rwanda, and one that not only is, but, is constantly becoming. That it could ever be again, was only because of something as intangible, ethereal even, as it is enduring: the vision of a Rwanda that could be, which continued to be nurtured in the minds and hearts of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) leadership, and all who shared that vision.

“There are no more devils in hell, they are all in Rwanda”, observed the missionary. A somewhat ironic observation given the source. It is true the devils had Rwandan faces, but, it was the ideology fostered by the missionaries, those of the Catholic Church in particular, which flung open the gates of hell. But, even as the RPF was confronted by this hell on earth beyond a lifetime of nightmares, the vision of a Rwanda that existed now only in their imagination, would not be dimmed.

This vision would begin to be realised on the 4th of July 1994, the day the devils were sent back to their rightful place, although as always, some still roam the world, and live among us. 4th July, a day of days. A day of great import for everyone, even those who were indifferent or ignorant about Rwanda. For the devils, it meant the end of their reign and all their works, in this particular corner of the world. They of course continue to wage their perennial war, which for Rwanda, comes as genocide denial in one form or another, often devilishly masked as championing civil and human rights.

For the world, it is a day that salves its collective conscience, having failed to live up to its much vaunted principles to protect, turning a blind eye, and deaf ear to the many warnings that, as one of the chief architects of the genocide would say, the “apocalypse” long in the planning, was about to be unleashed.

And for those on whom this apocalyptic hell on earth was unleashed, men, women, children, even those still in their mothers’ wombs, not to be spared, for these, 4th of July would mean life itself. 1,074,017, the number of dead so far identified, a number alas that will rise, as more are found in unmarked graves, where they were dumped. One could hear testimonies from everyone of this number a million times over, and still not get an inkling of what the dead and survivors went through. It is as though their minds, their entire beings had been condemned to another, hellish realm, which those of us who did not share their ordeal could never fathom. For them 4th of July meant deliverance from this realm.

And for the dead, for whom 4th of July came too late, for these too, it is a day of days. Their memories will never be forgotten, as their tormentors had intended. Never Again, is etched in their blood in the hearts, and minds of those who survived, and the new nation stands as a fitting memorial to them. Their hearts would be gladdened by the Rwanda that has become, and is becoming. They rest in peace, in blessed memory.

Like most of Africa, the average age of the Rwandan population is well below twenty. For the young people around me in their Arsenal replica shirts, their peers around the country, in cities, towns, and villages, 4th of July would mean that this now, disporting themselves in their peaceful country, would be their life, free to make of it of they will. Who among them is a Muhutu, Mututsi, Mutwa? They would consider it an odd question, responding with blank, bemused faces. Who knows? Who cares? Not them. They are Rwandan, a lucky generation.

And what of the fighters of the RPF, what to say of them, the dreamers of the dream that is now unfolding before those of their brothers, sisters in arms, who lived to see it? 4th of July is the day of a promise fulfilled. A promise for which many paid the ultimate price. “If you can force your heart, and nerve, and sinew, To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the will which says to them, Hold on…” wrote the poet Rudyard Kipling.

The RPF class of ’94 did that and more. Up, down, and up again, almost everyone of Rwanda’s thousand hills, short on equipment, under scorching sun, and torrential tropical down pours, mosquito bites, and angry lions to contend with, often on empty stomachs, only their hearts saying, hold on. They did until the 4th of July. For those who pushed to the mountain top, but, never to know the promised land, they too, like the dead they were fighting to deliver, have a grateful nation as a living memorial.

Disappointed groans around me, oh dear, Manchester City scores again, oh yes, the football match, and Formula 1, the race would be concluded now. Who stood on the top podium? Would Hamilton manage a step closer to matching the peerless Fangio? By November, everyone in Formula 1, knew it had been foolish to bet against the British driver. 

And what of Rwanda? Still a long way to go to the “Rwanda we want” as they often say in Rwanda. But, the blessed dead, as the expectant living, are more than likely to get there. Anyone betting their house against that in real danger of sleeping in open air.

@Vincent Gasana.

Twitter: @MweneGahaya