What does it mean to be a citizen? Beyond the fact of being a member of a particular country, citizenship or nationality is the belief in a common creed. It is the ultimate faith in something bigger than self.
In its preamble, the Rwandan constitution prescribes: ‘CONSIDERING that we enjoy the privilege of having one country, a common language, a common culture and a long-shared history which must enable us to have a common vision of our destiny’.
I thought my first piece of the year would be on citizenship because I have just learned from a students’ mentor that high school graduates going to study in the west are first made to sign contracts binding them to return to Rwanda as soon as they finish college.
It is hard of me to conceive that a Rwandan should be compelled by a piece of paper to return to Rwanda. I think that the contract should be abolished. I think that what we have as a people is not a burdening contract, but a source of pride, or so it should be.
So I recounted to the mentor, herself a young college graduate, the story I was told by Dr. Emile Rwamasirabo. When he graduated as a young urologist, he didn’t have a country to return to, so he started practicing in France. He was highly admired by his seniors and every other day, they’d bring to him his papers to fill so he could get French citizenship, he constantly pushed them back.
One day his superior showed him a Porsche parked outside: - That’s the car of the doctor you will take over from. He has an equally posh house, he said that as he presented to Doctor Rwamasirabo the French citizenship application once again.
On the next day, the doctor went to see his French superior and turned down the offer. It was January 25, 1986, and President Yoweri Museveni, helped by Rwandan youth, including our current president, had just seized Kampala. Rwandan refugees scattered on the four corners of the world started making arrangements to join the struggle; Doctor Rwamasirabo was one of them.
‘We didn’t know people in Uganda individually, we just knew that if Rwandans are involved in that struggle, then our minds were aligned’ -said Faustin Kagame an author, who also landed in Kampala from Switzerland around the same time.
To this young girl, I said, your parents were not all in dire conditions when they joined the struggle. Some were doing well, in fact, many who joined Museveni in the bush as early as 1981 had graduated from prestigious universities but chose to sacrifice their future. Like a Rwandan General explains: ‘In the bush we could not have salt. Your feet would be swollen to the point of falling off of because of lack of calcium.’ I had never thought of salt as such a rare commodity until I was told that story. Here is a graduate from Makerere University, turning down hefty jobs in Kampala to risk his life for five years in swamps and places where he couldn’t afford salt.
Regardless of their conditions; rich or poor, graduates or not, our parents believed in a common creed: The Rwandan citizenship. Obviously, there were problems with their people and country, and for some, there were incentives to pursuing personal careers abroad, but none of that was strong enough to deter their citizenship.
When President Paul Kagame, announced to his instructors that he was resigning from his military education at Fort Leavenworth in the United States, they looked at him in disbelief: ‘Generals come to this school, do you know how fortunate you are to be here? Do you know the opportunities that training at this elite military school will offer you? Besides, we thought you were a Ugandan?
He responded: ‘What I am about to do, and what I am giving up will actually define me as who I truly am, and have always been: A Rwandan.’
Rwanda may be skewed and broken, and there are so many things that are wrong with it. But who else is to fix it, if not us? Being a citizen is defined by what we give up, not what we take. True Citizenship is a sacrifice. If we do not make sacrifices for our nation, others might happily to do it on our behalf.
I see many people calling upon the ‘international community’, the UN, America, Europe, etc., to help with their countries; I see entire communities migrate to the west and send money back home at the end of the month, or meet in a hotel overseas to celebrate national holidays and dance to traditional tunes. There is nothing wrong with that, but citizenship requires more than that, as Austrian psychotherapist, Alfred Adler once said: ‘It is easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them.’
I have met Africans living in self-imposed exile because a member of their clan, tribe or region isn’t in power: that is not citizenship, it is village mentality. I have seen others who live in exile because they have a bone to pick with a leader, worse yet, undermine their nations in order to undermine its leaders; my own colleagues funded to undermine their own kind and prized to sell their people’s misery, with charities and televisions flocking them: ‘tell us what is wrong with your people; tell us how fortunate you are for escaping your nation’s misery and for living here; tell us how we can save your kind…’
I do not wish to be misunderstood; citizenship isn’t defined by the mere fact of living in the homeland, especially when such a position denies access and opportunity to brethren living abroad.
Rwanda is an ideal. It is not the piece of land, the flag, the national anthem, or even the people, because all that keeps changing. We can take in or lose more of each of those things, and we certainly have. But the ‘ideal’ is what brings us together as a creed. The moment we see it that way, we might not even fight, for what binds us is metaphysical.
Many countries around the world are falling apart because their people see their nations as gravy trains from which to loot. They steal from their own countries as though they are someone else’s. They speak of their countries’ problems as though they are someone else’s to fix. They litter, leave trash on the street for someone else to pick up: instead of planting trees, they extract minerals from the soil and live the earth bear as they move to another mine. That isn’t citizenship.
Many think to pay taxes and remittances make them citizens. But all Africans regained their nations because their ancestors gave out their lives for it, including us Rwandans; No amount of money could have given us this nation.
And today isn’t different from yesterday. Even Ronald Reagan used to say that the American democracy was one generation away from extinction. My aim isn’t to be alarmist; I want this generation to roar like in Black Panther, recall who their parents are, what they accomplished, and believe that because they come from a long line of valiant men and women, they shall overcome all, and that greatness and sacrifice are their destiny.
Our parents are worried that we have gotten too comfortable and keep pointing out our vanity. They are right! But we know no other way. We are a product of a generation of self-projection, social media, and consumerism. I think the best mentorship our parents could offer us is sharing the stories of their youth. Sure, like us, they too had fun, partied, drunk, believed in religions and had personal ambition. But they had something that transcended it all: Citizenship.
To African youth, I will keep telling the stories as I hear them because our parents might not. They wouldn’t wish us the life of sacrifice which they went through because they love us, and it was very hard. But the revolution continues. Our parents did it in otherwise harsher conditions, we can do more, and better with the possibilities at our disposal today, and we will!
And to parents, please share your stories of struggle with your children, because citizenship is the best legacy you can leave us! That’s what set Jews apart, that’s what sets the Swiss apart, or the Singaporeans, or the Japanese. They share the belief - not in greater personal wealth – but in an ever-greater nation. You do too and that’s why we are here, but you need to tell us what you did; you need to tell your children that it isn’t easy being a Rwandan. That it isn’t easy being African, that it isn’t easy being black. But that it is our duty to overcome.
It is a shame that in 2018, children of freedom fighters are being made to sign contracts to return home after graduation – or worse yet, that freedom fighters might encourage their own children to stay away from countries for which they saw their brothers-in-arm die face in the mud for.
They should tell them that Benjamin Netanyahu skipped the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as soon as he heard that his country was attacked and went home to fight and possibly to die for it. He did not think about the possibilities that such a prestigious education would score him in comfortable America. He knew that America was comfortable because others had died for it. He did not want anyone else to die for his country Israel, he wanted that to be him.
It is not a specialty of boys only. My former boss Eugenia Kayitesi is part of an intake of fresh graduates from Makerere who were taken to the bush upon graduation to study RPF cadreship. She and her colleagues were to help transform a guerrilla group into a civilized republican movement, and a rugged, post-war country into an open and democratic society. I have met many of these heroines. While it is hard to get them to tell their stories, since the cadreship also taught selflessness and humility, it is easy to appreciate how they dedicated their youth to this country. But they have never regretted it; It like in that ABBA song ‘Fernando’: ‘though we never thought that we could lose, there is no regret, if I had to do the same again, I would my friend, Fernando’.
There are so many inspirational stories that I have heard from our elders and there is one in each Rwandan households. I urge parents to tell them to their children. I urge children to pay attention. I have used real names for young people to relate.
Note: This is not a call to the entire African diaspora to return to Africa all at once - although that would be ideal, this is a call to every African to live a life of true citizenship.
I will leave you with one quote: 'The slave who is incapable of assuming his revolt does not deserve that we feel sorry for his fate’, and my emphasis: ‘He may respond only to his misfortune if he deludes himself of the condescension of the master who claims to free him. Only the struggle liberates…' -Thomas Sankara