Talking about being two Rwandan refugees in a class, as I did, I can’t resist being force-flung back to the stormy days when school was hell. Hell with a difference, as per the Good Book.
According to which, the way to hell is paved with gold – pray, don’t quote me!
The way to our ‘school-hell’ was strung with thorns similar to those sturdy spikes you sometimes see at roadblocks! Click?
Yet it was not a shock. As Rwandan kids of primary-school-going age, we’d seen worse.
You did a ten-kilometre hike every morning, laden with your none-too-light lunch. That, mind you, was for your P1 to P3. As for P4 to P6, your parents had to have a Good Samaritan to put you up for a term. The trek there involved weeks upon weeks.
Beyond P6, if parents couldn’t afford sending you to Burundi or the Belgian Congo (DRC), you resigned yourself to becoming a hunter-gatherer, land-tiller or cattle-keeper.
Personally, as a tiny tot I travelled something like 16km to school; that, while weighed down by a 1kg-lunch. In our window- and door-less mud-and-wattle classes, everybody had to pick a stone as their “chair”. I guarded my smooth one jealously – it was going to host my backside the whole three years I’d be in that school!
But then 1959 happened and a section of us Rwandans were tossed into exile like rags.
From there, two years wasted in Bufumbira, s-western Uganda; then one in Jomba, eastern DRC; then two years in Bambo, deeper inside eastern DRC.
And then we were kicked back into Uganda where now we were settled in the refugee camp of Nshungerezi, in s-western Uganda. Where, finally, we saw true school.
True school because, by that time, 1964, the road for it had been “paved” by our fellow refugees. From classrooms in the shades under trees, they had upgraded to window- and door-less mud-and-wattle, but where dried grass served as our collective chair. Yes, one chair!
You may laugh today but it was nice and comfy!
However, what was special about these schools was the dedication of our teachers. God knows they put all their hearts into giving us all knowledge as if their lives depended on it. Because they got salaries from their pain? No, sir/madam, nary a dime.
Yet, week-days, week-ends; day, night; they were there to pump all the knowledge they possessed into us. Qualified or non-qualified, they taught us in English, which was a phenomenon among phenomena! Because, being from French-speaking Rwanda, they learnt the English language ‘on their feet’. Meaning, they learnt it as they taught us.
When it came to Arithmetic and Mathematics, they were superb.
Unluckily, 1966 struck and our ‘posho’ – food rations doled out by the Red Cross – dried up!
Said hell was let loose. Two days in a week, half the school had to go labour for food among the “bataka” (Runyankore for “citizens”) of the area. Another two days were for the other half.
Each one of you went scouring the area and, at every home, yodelling out: “Mwine omurimo?”
You were beseeching the owners of banana plantations or fields of maize, beans, ground-nuts, et al, to give you the back-breaking, day-long job of working their fields in return for some crop payment. Or else, it was hunger for home.
The still-dark-dawn hike through human-flesh-cherishing animals to “abataka” and the heavily-laden trudge back, no story-telling can do justice to their description!
But all were eclipsed by our gallants of self-sacrifice, our teachers, who were waiting patiently to impel knowledge into us any time we finally ‘surfaced’.
It was commonplace to find a teacher on a Sunday evening fiercely and copiously ‘calligraphy-ing’ neat lines of notes of the lessons you missed, on the blackboard, under torchlight.
Remember, they were young men/women who’d otherwise have used their free time to indulge their pleasures. But they gave of themselves that we should aspire for dignified destinies.
In quoting my experience, I am demonstrating how the exact same sacrifices for Rwandan refugee youths were playing out in the rest of Uganda and neighbouring countries of Burundi and Tanzania. In the DRC, where land was there for the taking and schools accepted all, there were other forms of sacrifice.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.