In Kigali, as in the countryside towns and shopping centres, today Rwandans take these ubiquitous sidewalks on roads and streets for granted. This is interesting because only twenty-six years ago, they’d have wondered what they were for and given them a wide berth.
Road- and street-sides were only depositories for rubbish – not excluding human waste, un point un trait!
I was jolted into remembering this on listening to a BBC Radio interview with an African academic. I don’t exactly recall the interview but I was stung by his matter-of-fact response to the BBC journalist.
Said the academic: “You see, because African governments don’t care about their citizens, there are no sidewalks for the safety of pedestrians. These are left to jostle it out with motor vehicles on the road and may the best dodger survive!”
This is indeed a sad commentary on African governments and intellectuals.
First, it’s true that many African governments don’t give a damn about their hoi polloi, yet these are the majority. And as a majority, they matter more to governments as they are the ones that vote them into power. The heavyweights, being a wee minority, hardly count in this.
Second, many of our intellectuals tend to lump all African governments and countries together as if they were as ignorant about the continent as some foreigners. It’s no wonder these foreigners see Africa as one country. Our exponents give out this lopsided view.
Third, few governments seem to notice that there is more to sidewalks than just walking.
I don’t know if it’s in Rwanda only but sidewalks tell a lot about leadership.
A couple of old fogeys and I were hobbling along one of these Kigali sidewalks in a none-too-well-off neighbourhood, not so much for burning our fat as for combatting diseases of old age, when we met a number of kids laden with stuff destined for home chores.
Without bothering to wait for us to get out of earshot, one kid loudly remarked to the others: “Aba babosi ntibarya agahunga, sha!” And another one chipped in with a remark that’d translate as we oldies not owing anybody any rent money at the end of every month.
The accuracy of their comments was definitely questionable but that’s beside the point.
The Kinyarwanda remark translates approximately as “Evidently, these bigshots don’t rely on maize meal paste for self-sustenance”. That maize paste, ugali, is a common dish in central, eastern and southern Africa.
It’s not exactly reserved for the poor but it’s easily affordable to many. Still, you’ll more likely than not find it gracing the dining tables of the well-heeled.
We were all amused and teased them on why they should deny us our favourite dish and their rejoinder was that, whatever the case, we didn’t depend on it that much. Then the smallest of them piped up something to mean that soon, they wouldn’t be paying rent either.
We understood and enjoyed hearty laughter all round, with us dipping hands into our pockets to offer each one something to thank them for their entertainment.
In “not soon paying rent”, the small one meant that they’d be joining the groups that are being housed in these model villages that are slowly but steadily dotting the landscape of Rwanda.
In the long but definite end, Rwanda will say bye to houses without electricity and running water, plus other amenities, the way she said bye to grass-thatched houses.
All of which goes to show that the sidewalks can be a meeting point for people of any social class, age, gender. The camaraderie that’s borne out of that is only one block among many that are building the unity of this society.
Yet how many sneered at it, when government embarked on constructing these “mysterious” sidewalks! “It’s a luxury we don’t need; they are not among the pressing priorities for Rwandans; etc.,” many grumbled. Who would have guessed that they’d join other interaction platforms to further bind a people together?
In their little way, today they are joining the ranks of other social interaction platforms like Umuganda, Umudugudu, Umushyikirano, Umwiherero and more, constant meet-the-people leadership outreaches, and many more, to solidify the unity of a discord-bruised people.
For Rwandans all together, leader and led, to come up with these platforms that at first looked insignificant and furiously work on cementing them, today Rwanda holds her head high, unabashedly. Her leadership is consulted by the mighty of the world; its opinion respected.
Unfortunately, our African intelligentsia, on seeing any little ray of hope, dismisses it as a sign of dictatorship because there is no heckling in the country. So, Africa is a continent sans hope.
Governments that work with their people for self-advancement are increasing by the day on this continent, it’s a fact. To our intellectuals, however, they are the model of the West or they are a sinking lot. So all countries are all lumped together and dismissed offhand.
So blinded are our academics that they don’t see the fissures opening up and widening every day in those heckling democracies of the West.
Our intelligentsia, wake and smell the diversity of Africa!