This is the land of “Strong Man” – and proudly so!

Mahama refugee camp (photo UNHCR/Anthony Karumba)

“Change of mind-set, my foot! Why all the hullabaloo?” Many people must be wearily wondering after hearing this term uttered to no end. Yet in life, its pertinence cannot be overemphasized.

Obstinacy towards changing our mind-set can sometimes play silly tricks on us. Refusal to adopt to new ways or incapacity to erase what has been imprinted on the mind and espouse new realities can at best be laughable, at worst, fatal.

Yet that obstinacy remains too bewitching to pry from oneself for many people.

First: “laughable”.

I remember a story I picked up in Nairobi, Kenya, when I was still a stateless nobody, as a refugee. A cabal of senseless leader-cretins fancied that… But I digress, so early in my tale!

So, the story went that while in the rest of Kenya men wore modern clothing (mainly shirts and trousers), the men of  northern Garissa County (per today) had stuck to their wraparound cloth and nothing but.

That wraparound was no more than a piece of cloth tied around the waist to extend down such a short distance as to rival the shortest of minis. When the men care-freely sat on their stools or haunches, as they often did…you understand, their leaders were not overly proud of that ‘haute couture’.

They directed that the men wear at least short trousers (shorts).

But whole grown men don’t take orders from some top official, ‘sitting down’ (no pun spun); they devise ways around such directives. Which was no sweat, since there was a tree for their shaded rest by the wayside to their shopping centre, where they could be seen by leaders.

They bought a single pair of fit-all shorts to hang on its branch for the convenience of any thence-bound traveller. And with that, the good elder-sages of Garissa had licked their leaders!

If you found only a mini-cloth hanging on the branch, you knew there’d been an earlier traveller and waited out your turn for later, for the shorts.

For cleanliness, search me, but I know Garissa, though arid, doesn’t miss at least one rainy day in a year. What’s better than self-washing ‘on the line’ and self-drying – drip-dry, so to say?

The Garissa community later learnt the sense in modern dress, alright, but on their own terms.

So, second: “fatal”.

Those of you oldies who lived in Nshungerezi refugee camps, Uganda, will remember the no-nonsense ‘Heresi’ (health officer) and the terror he/she spread unto us. If, God forbid, you were found the littlest unhygienic, you were doomed – he/she’d skin you alive!

But as I was saying, our elder-sages were not born with porridge for brain in their heads.

So Heresi wanted a spotlessly clean wash/cloakroom/‘bathroom’? Well, the wiseacre would get more than he/she bargained for!

That ‘washroom’, mind you, was nothing more than a one-metre-diameter all-grass round hut with a pit in the middle, for a long call.

“Clean” also meant no bad odour from human waste in the pit, which necessitated a covered pit. The cover? A small square wooden slab, with a plank sticking from its middle, for a handle.

Elder’s dilemma: it was taboo in the Rwandan mind-set to ‘add human waste to yesterday’s’. In their wisdom, therefore, the elder-sages advised that the hut be built, the earth inside cleaned and the wooden cover put in the middle, yes.

But for the pit, why the folly of digging one that none would use? For a ‘washroom’, the bushy hillsides around the camps were most convenient.

Indeed, when Heresi inspected the spick-and-span ‘washrooms’ by only peeking inside, they went home thumping their chest in self-important satisfaction. They’d get a salary raise for enforcing directives to the letter!

The community learnt the bitter lesson of their idiocy after a cholera epidemic, following heavy rains and abandoned their obstinacy. But at least they hadn’t swallowed orders from above unquestioningly.

All of which goes to show that no one should take the masses for granted; leader and led must strive to communicate as equals. The masses appreciate only the processes they can own.

In Rwanda, this is called people-centred governance. Decision-making is collective for all, without exception. Umuganda, Ubudehe, Umushyikirano, etc., serve this process.

So, what’s with this story of the breakout of ubuheri (mange, dermatitis, scabies) doing the rounds of this land? Has some health official turned into Heresi, giving directives from above?

Are there health officials still obstinately sticking to their mind-set of issuing orders? Knowing the masses are adamant about buying into unfamiliar hygiene ways? Don’t officials know that they must demonstrate that new ways countering the mange threat are a collectively owned process?

For if not, they’ll be lending credence to insults from foreign critics that Rwandans are a subdued lot too scared to reject unfamiliar orders because they are under an “an autocratic leadership”.

Yet to think so is to not-understand Rwandans.

Long ago, slave traders did not call Rwanda “Nchi ya Bwana Mkali” (Bwanamukari) for nothing. It was “Land of Fierce Boss”, “Land of Strong Man” as others call it today, because they’d failed to penetrate it.

That “Strong Man” is the proud combined strong hand of all Rwandans, working in concert.

Can any official have the audacity to sully that strong hand, denigrating citizens thus?

The views expressed in this article are of the author.