Last Sunday was Car-Free Day in Kigali. Two Sundays a month, a stretch of streets in the capital is kept devoid of cars in morning hours for health purposes.
The cars are kept at bay for residents to colonise the designated streets and do any physical exercise that’s to their fancy.
The exercises are concluded with free medical check-ups for all present.
With its increasing traffic congestions and residents’ sedentary lifestyles, it goes without saying that Kigali, more than any other part of Rwanda, urgently needs this exercise alert.
Interestingly, this alert has everything to do with the Kinyarwanda response when one is called out. “Karame!” is the response to a call by any Kinyarwanda-speaker to another. So, outsider, when here, please adopt it when your name is called out or your attention attracted.
Because it has not escaped the wear and tear of the passage of time. Such that the insolent-sounding “Yoh!”, “Yes!”, “Yup!”, “Ouai!” “Yeh!”, “Uhm!”, “Yego!”, “Ih?” are the dirty in-thing of the day, especially with some youths.
So, some ‘youguns’ will be shocked to receive such a response from an oldie. Being loaded with politeness, it exposes them to the shame of not having adhered to that traditional decorum.
In the good old days, “Karame!” was the standard response.
As an expression of a wish for long life, it has been with Banyarwanda from the time of their evolution into who they are today, in this region.
The region, even when Balkanized by colonialism to scatter them into different countries, did not erase that Kinyarwanda cultural reaction to a call.
And as it was a reaction, so was it a call.
Yet as an impassioned wish for long life, has it ever been fulfilled?
So, it’s a call that Rwanda’s leadership has taken to heart today, not without critical reason.
For long, that call was a mockery of what it expressed.
Much as traditional medicine held its own with sterling results before colonialism, it still could not stretch the life of a Munyarwanda to many years. What with outbreaks of unknown diseases, wild beasts and rudimentary methods of responding to the elements (heavy rains, long droughts, et al), life was not only survival of the fittest but many times of the luckiest.
For children, living beyond age five was a game of chance. Add to that wars with neighbouring communities and you had a society under siege. Yes, most of the time adversaries were at the receiving end of bloody noses but, still, the wars had their toll.
Understandably, a long lifespan was a rarity even if, here and there, you could see a centenarian.
But at least that lone long-survivor was there!
Come Belgian colonialism and its so-called modernity and survival became a pipe dream.
Its churches doled out medicine to lure Rwandans into conversion and damned to hell the many who held to their own beliefs.
To hasten the journey to hell of those who stuck to their traditional religion, colonial administrators dished out an offering of death-inducers hitherto unknown to Rwandans.
With the introduction of hard labour, kiboko (hippo-whip), starving confinements into what were called prisons and other torturous methods over hardly any mistake, people were driven to their deaths in droves. For cattle owners, administrators introduced strange disease-carriers called tsetse flies, which saw them and their animals dying on ‘their feet’.
You and your animals only needed to be stung once and you’d all doze to your death as you walked.
Worse, colonialists recruited Rwandan agents to do their dirty work in what they called education. And some of the latter jumped at the chance to do an even dirtier job.
Thus was born division into what they called “les évolués” (elites), “les indigènes” (for native labourers) and ethnic hunting, land-tilling and cattle-rearing groups.
And thus was sawn the seed of the ideology of what colonialism’s successor republics, backed by other masters, followed to sink Rwanda to her dirtiest of dirty death-depths.
Rwanda was put at the precipice of her demise.
“Karame!” had turned into a mocking insult of its expression.
But, as the Rwandan adage of the ages goes, Imana y’u Rwanda ntiba kure (the God of Rwanda is never far away). So, July 4, 1994, happened.
And here we are, engaging in recreational health exercises.
Why not? There is health insurance for all, especially “mutuelles” for the poor. Health facilities dot the land. Every health facility has one ambulance or more. A drone can drop a life-saver by your side, however remote. Need I go on?
The hitch: no sufficient cadre of doctors. And the few need to be as committed as our volunteer health workers. But Kigali was not built in a day; it’s a work in progress.
Otherwise, there is universal education. Citizens are feeding better, having adopted proper nutritional habits. They are living better, with model villages slowly but surely spreading around. Whose houses, eat your heart out, with their amenities and furniture, will soon beat yours, city slickers, hands down! Living standards are improving. The list goes on.
“Karame!” is discovering its intended expression and so ye all, take to it.
For that, I say to you, of this globe: “Murakarama! Viva todos ustedes!”
The views expressed in this article are of the author.