The travails of living in our past Zogo-land, in film

Last weekend a truly made-in-Rwanda film is reported to have premiered in one of the suburbs of Kigali, where it was actually shot. According to its review, it’s a departure from the usual offerings that are mostly imitations of western movies, often irrelevant to our situation.

The story depicts the daily travails of a trio of female domestic workers that are usually interruptions to their assigned jobs, forced on them to serve personal whims of employers.

 

But the title, Karani Ngufu, at first glance threw me back to the past. It conjured up images of the terror that reigned on the streets of Kigali before 1994 and a few months after, especially around today’s Cooperative House. Where, before, it was an open market.

 

This recollection gripped me with such force as to make me forget the review story.

 

“Karani ngufu” then referred to young men for hire who carried your purchase load on wooden hand-carts from market to your car or home. The work required brute force, thus the use of “ngufu”, a Kinyarwanda corruption of the Kiswahili “nguvu”, strength or force.

In contrast, “karani” is Kiswahili for an office clerk. So, the soft pen-pushing or typewriter-fingering clerk combined with brute force made for a confusing title. It was maybe a euphemised title for reasons of politeness.

Yet politeness was alien to those monsters. Those days you dared visit the market only if you knew you were strong enough to face off with the terrorist karani ngufu.

Say you were contentedly whistling your way down, along what’s today car-free zone, from Bank of Kigali headquarters towards the ultramodern Cogebank. 

If, in your happy whistling, you didn’t hear and heed a “Pssss!” hissing, woe befall thee!

Karani ngufu would be coasting down at speeds that literally rivalled those of a racing car with his mountain of a load, behind which he could see nothing but the path he trod on. If you were agile enough, you skipped out of the way in time.

But if you were not, either of two songs that accompany the dead would be intoned for you in a few days. If you died rich, it’d be “Twaremewe Kuzajya mw’Ijuru” (We Were Created to Go to Heaven). If a pauper, then it’d be “Umunsi Uzatoranya Abawe, Mana Uzatubabarire” (The Day You Pick Your Choices, Lord, Take Those But Spare Us”.

The first song alludes to the fact that you’ve enjoyed your life and are content to go. The second, that the poor surviving family and friends be spared to maybe later strike it rich, too!

Karani ngufu was such a menace that, combined with street urchins, thieves, robbers and drunks, they had rendered Kigali city centre a terror zone to avoid like the plague. It was safer for you, in case you needed any market purchase, to contact someone familiar with the place who could coax any of those hoodlums to bring it to your residence and drop it at the gate.

Karani ngufu was such a power unto himself that, once when I dared venture into the market, I had to cover my eyes and retrace my frightened footsteps when, to my consternation, I saw one attempt to rape a smartly dressed lady in the open market place.

Luckily, the brute didn’t succeed in ‘its’ enterprise as the RPF/A was in town. We were only witnessing the residues of the anarchy that former governments had been overseeing, in the name of administration.

We have confined ourselves to Kigali city, mind you, not because the rest of the country was safe. No, it was in similar, if not worse, dire straits.

Of course, compared to the more serious atrocities and mayhem that convulsed this country, the horror perpetrated by karani ngufu and other mobsters was a kindergarten variety.

Which is why we should all salute our young film makers. That they no longer ape other films but, rather, expose and document this country’s historical or present realities.

And that, in addition to documenting the current pangs of swift transformation towards middle-income status, in looking back they should expose the zogos, as some West Africans call criminals and drunks, of the time to demonstrate the hell Rwanda is coming from.

A hell supervised by a bunch of bankrupt mobsters that one is hard-pressed to call leaders, one time headed by an excuse of a man called Grégoire Kayibanda.

A senior citizen, in exile in Tanzania from the upheavals of 1959, recounts encountering that then-president Kayibanda at a kiosk in the capital, Dar es Salaam, a retinue of bodyguard in attendance. Son Excellence’s mission? To buy two sticks out of a packet of cigarettes!

But what to expect from a man whose state house was a four-narrow-roomed burned-brick-and-tile affair, about 50-km bumpy-road away from his administrative capital, Kigali. That, too, covering it in a beetle, those who remember the shock-absorber-less VW car of then!

A man who supplemented his syphoned-off-donor-handouts income with earnings from his charcoal-making and selling business. For his daily dose of urwagwa, the banana brew.

And that’s only talking about one of Rwanda’s past regimes.

For movie-making material, our young film-makers have their hands full.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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