Heroes do not tout their heroism; they act

“Hey, fading ‘fluker’!”

Yes, that was Sylvestre, my all-too-familiar village homeboy, shouting from across the street. He was now dodging his way through traffic to join me.

For info, ‘fluker’ in our school days referred to a cunning student who could evade hawk-eyed guards to gate-crash dances, films, cafeterias, etc.

But Sylvestre was panting out his ‘news’ even before greetings: “Me, I need not lead the fluking life of your youth. Guess the function I was invited to, last December!”

I tried to interrupt after we’d settled down I a ‘watering hole’ but he cut me short: “Easy does it, old home-chap. All in good time.”

Only he didn’t allow that “good time” to elapse! “I was a guest of our Head of State!” he said self-importantly and paused for effect, adjusting imaginary lapels of an imaginary coat. “At the ‘gusaba no gukwa’ ceremonies for the first family’s daughter.”

The Rwandan cultural rite of “gusaba”’ should translate as “to ask the clan for their daughter’s hand in marriage”. That of “gukwa” as “to pay bride price” is a misnomer since it involves the ceremonial offer of a single cow, for instance. So, rather, it’s a symbol to bond two families/clans.

But Sylvestre was still going on: Mind you, the cow was strictly one; nothing showy as often happens elsewhere. Everything was so simple that I’d have been disappointed but for one thing.

Where I expected to see the ‘Who is Who’ of this land, the spacious but ordinary tent was peopled with a motley gathering of mostly humble folk who’d never made it in the national news media. Regular clan elders took pride of place at the two high tables, facing each other.

Where was my host family?

Then the “but for one thing” happened. President Kagame rose from an indistinguishable table amongst “abasangwa”, hosts: family, friends and citizens like me who’d asked for an invite.

Talking of which, let anyone dare digitalise our Thursday visits to our President’s office. It’ll be us against them; we want physical access, period!

Anyway, the ceremony. He went around to shake the hand of every single “musangwa” on ‘his clan’s side’, asking after everyone at every table and how their Christmas festivities had gone. Then he settled back to listen out the verbal sparring of the elders at the high tables, as is customary.

By then, though, I was lost in thought. Shaking every papa’s, mama’s, youth’s hand? That courtesy, I’d never seen any parent demonstrate.

This humble, soft-spoken being, can he say “No” to anything? Isn’t he susceptible to manipulation?

I must’ve been thinking aloud because a dark, lanky, elderly neighbour muffled his burst of laughter, in respect to the occasion.

You think like many before you, said ‘Lanky’ in low tones. In O’level (S1 – 4) we used to live in hallowed awe of A’level (S5&6) students. I was in S4 but could do their every biddings: run to buy their cigarette, pick a piece of hot cinder from the kitchen to light it, anything.

When our host was in S1, continued Lanky, a soft-spoken, frail-looking and very obedient youth then, such an A’level student asked him to bring a cinder to light his cigarette. The youth softly but firmly said: “Sir, on such vices, I draw a line. I’m afraid, no!”

We were all dumbfounded. None uttered a word!

Yet only recently, you should’ve heard how President Kagame showered that S6 student, now an aging, shuffling man, with praises for being fiercely protective of young refugee students.

Not that our said youth wasn’t organising to do exactly the same, at that tender age. It’s a trait that has followed President Kagame to this date: organising Rwandans to regain their dignity and going beyond to the region and the continent and try and do likewise.

Lanky went on: rejecting to change his name, unlike many refugee youths. Organising to reject wrong rules of that same school; to refuse perpetual life in exile; reject bowing to a neighbour’s patronising pressures to be master of our liberation struggle and sovereignty of liberated Rwanda; reject Romeo Dalaire’s pleas to abandon the liberation struggle; or being cowed by French authorities’ threats even as they held him captive in their country, on and on.

Much later, Lanky said, I remember a guest of then-Vice-President Kagame commenting in an aside: “He doesn’t look like a General at all!”

The guest was thinking of the improbably successful liberation struggle the General had led and just concluded.

At this point I forgot about Sylvestre and his Lanky to wonder, on my part: leave alone that guest, we as Rwandans did we ever think that the General could metamorphose into a statesman-diplomat of undeniable repute?

So much so that he can be ‘held captive’ in Switzerland by world leaders till the last minute, take a late flight to reach home, freshen up for a minute and take the road to northern Rwanda, to open a ground-breaking university. All in one breath, like only a seasoned military can.

Wole Soyinka was right, in response to proclamations of black-empowerment Négritude by the likes of Sédar Senghor: “A tiger does not proclaim his Tigritude, he pounces.”

So is it with heroes. They act.

butapa@gmail.com

The views expressed in this article are of the author.