As has been the case many a time in the past with such exigent days in the history of this land, last 1st November passed quietly, like any ordinary day. Yet it’s a day that marked a major ripping-apart of the cord that held this society together, one of many.
Alfred M, a senior citizen and school mate of the old days given to quick wit that he can put to expressive effect – though sometimes to piercingly stinging effect on individuals of choice! – put that day succinctly.
This day, said he, is not at all good for Rwanda. A man named Dominique [Mbonyumutwa] was coming from church on 1st November 1959. On his way, continues he, Dominique’s cheek was touched (for ‘slapped’!) by one among an unruly group of youngsters and what ensued was like the saying that goes: “Playful trial kills” (?).
In a land with no megaphone, microphone, telephone, radio or WhatsApp, this slap was heard in Kibungo, Cyangugu, Gisenyi, Ruhengeri. In a word, it reverberated around the country. And touched off a round of havoc that turned this land into a bloody mess.
Indeed, where we were at the northern tip of Rwanda, it reached us in real-time. Being near the border, we skipped across but few others in the rest of the land escaped the killing, arson, livestock slaughter, the whole appallingly lethal lot.
Yet we knew not the slapped man, the young slapper nor where the incident took place.
Sixty years after that slap, concludes Alfred, its effects are being felt in this land.
This is a society whose people share the same culture; language; religion (before colonialism); hills and valleys of habitation; everything. Yet one section of them was singled out for revenge that was to thirty-five years later turn into the worst crime known to humanity.
However, as Vladimir Nabokov said, the breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole.
So, just as the death of Habyarimana was not a trigger for the Genocide against the Tutsi, that slap was in no way the touch-off for the ruthless repression and constant killings that followed.
The repression and murders had their root in a concerted campaign that was carried out by a colonialist, Belgium, that had been mandated by the League of Nations, precursor to the UN, to oversee the smooth running of a “primitive people of the dark continent, Africa, who knew nothing about self-rule”! Where that “oversee the smooth running” went, search me!
That condescending statement about “primitive”, remember, was made about a society whose administration had taken European colonialists by surprise for its order. Order which, to-date, Belgium has never attained. Perhaps the reason for the colonialist, possessed of instruments of coercion in the form of guns and the use of different forms of trickery, to embark on a divide-and-rule effort for close to sixty years or just to prolong their colonial lifespan? Certainly both, but mostly the latter.
By the end of this divide-and-rule crusade, alas, some Rwandans had swallowed the trickery whole and believed their kindred to actually be foreign intruders. They had embraced the colonial invader as liberator and they were ready to work with him, and later without him, to rid themselves of their kin by any means, always violently foul.
The fuse had been lit and it’d have occasional bursts, some miner, others drastic, all along its length. It was long and miner bursts were many, but every minor burst meant the spilling of part of this society’s blood. 1959 was one of the major bloody bursts.
It would be followed by other constant fuse bursts till the dynamite blast that left this country on her death-bed in 1994, with the loss of 10% of the population. The Genocide against the Tutsi shook the fundamentals of world conscience but, perhaps bearing in mind that “primitive” tag of yore, the world noted its magnitude but was in no way stirred.
Still, much as that “primitive” tag may have had some validity among some in this society, the society had never lacked in heroic others. These are the heroes who had risen to come to the rescue of their society and themselves in 1990 who, in four years flat, put a halt to this infamy.
1st November 1959 is not commemorated with national wailing as it was one of the fuse bursts which, even if major, would lead to the apocalyptic dynamite explosion of 1994. 1994 is commemorated internationally as the genocide-culmination of the slaughter bursts before it.
Just as the heroic launch of the armed struggle of 1990 is not commemorated with pomp and circumstance because its dream was not to stop the shameful misrule before then per se. Rather, its vision was to liberate this country from the malady of third-world poverty and squalor.
Thus the fitting national celebration of Liberation Day.
Thank you Alfred for reminding us that we should never forget our history. And thus that it should never be allowed to hold us captive. Rather, that it should spur us to a better future.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.