Vive Gacaca and à bas colonialism!

You remember Gakara. He was Umumotsi of Bukamba at the slopes of Mount Muhabura in Burera, a district in northern Rwanda, in the 1940/50s. Umumotsi as a title meant ‘the man who barks’ but still Gakara coveted his job the way you’d covet yours in any government institution.

You remember Gakara. He was Umumotsi of Bukamba at the slopes of Mount Muhabura in Burera, a district in northern Rwanda, in the 1940/50s. Umumotsi as a title meant ‘the man who barks’ but still Gakara coveted his job the way you’d covet yours in any government institution.

Among his briefs, Gakara’s duty was calling everybody for a court hearing on every Wednesday. Those called could answer or lodge a case, or could simply participate in arbitration.

There was always a case to settle and, if there wasn’t, a matter for discussion would be found. Like, for instance, why wholly grown-up men should allow the colonialist, a man ‘who wore his skin inside out’, to whip them like small boys.

Gakara’s tasks all involved calling out to people. He called them out to assemble for a meeting of the colonial chief, to listen to orders from the colonial government, to stop trafficking goods from Uganda illegally or for any of the Wednesday court hearings.

Rutuku (the ‘red one’), on the other hand, was the white provincial governor of the area. He was so called because, after living under the African sun, he appeared red to the natives. That is why he was believed to ‘wear his skin inside out’ and was thus despised – covertly, of course.

Owing to his job, Gakara was always up before cockcrow and so was his wife, since she had to prepare him something to eat or drink and ‘chase the demons away from his throat’. It was generally believed that you could meet some harm if you talked before eating or drinking something. But there was another reason for waking up his wife at that ungodly hour.

Gakara’s bed was his office: he used to kneel and bend like a Muslim in prayer on his bed for his voice to ring out loud and clear. He would then bellow: “Yemwe banyabyaha!.. All ye men of crime, assemble at Surushefu’s compound!  Today is the day of Agacaca, the day of reckoning!” The whole household therefore vacated their house for father’s vocal convenience.

Surushefu was the sub-chief of the area, assistant to Rutuku, and boss to Gakara. He had a big house that had a big compound in front of it, with a big tree in the middle of the compound that provided a big shade, called Inganzamarumbu. The compound had a well-manicured lawn that always seemed smooth and was evergreen, called Agacaca.

It was under this tree that the native sub-chief held court every Wednesday. These also were sessions that he used to take advantage of in order to explain the ills of colonialism to his people. If it happened to rain, his house had a big sitting room that could double up as Agacaca hall.

Under the tree then, a council of elders, who included the sub-chief, used to take pride of place, all sitting in a circle to make sure that no one appeared superior to others. Behind them formed a circle of younger men – and sometimes women – and behind these formed a circle of still younger men and women.

Everybody was free to give an opinion or ask a question. There was always an elder to answer a question or seek further clarification, in between puffs at his long smoking pipe. In case there were any inhibitions, drinks of the banana or sorghum brews, non-alcoholic for the young, were served at the end of the sessions where people mingled freely.

These beverages were in plenty because if the crimes were not serious, which they often were not, then the culprits were fined pots of the local brew. Only occasionally were the crimes so serious that they would warrant the fine of a goat or a cow.

Sometimes the council of elders would deliver a verdict of guilty to a young man who had been a nuisance, like being drunk and disorderly or insulting elders. In such cases, they would ask that the man be given a number of strokes of the cane.

If the guilty person was known to be well to do and the crime did not warrant any fine, Surushefu would conclude, in jest: “Kajye mu Ruhengeri!” (May you go to Ruhengeri). It was taken seriously, even if it was understood to be a joke, and the person promptly organized funds to buy Primus beer, which could only be bought at the trading centre of Ruhengeri. Ruhengeri is 27 km from Canika, where was found Surushefu’s residence-cum-office.

Alternatively, he could say: “Wagira ngo me-e-e!”, imitating the bleat of a goat,  whereupon the guilty party immediately organized funds to buy a goat. It was understood that the men, especially the young ones, were hungry and needed roast meat.

In essence, therefore, Wednesday was party day and no person could miss it. And yet serious cases would have been resolved and important lessons learnt. The wrongdoer and the wronged would have reconciled, failing which the punishment would be forced blood brotherhood, ‘kunywana’.

Once the two parties exchanged blood, no one could ever dare wrong the other again. The unity of Rwandans was thus forged.

When Rwandans go on about home-grown solutions, they know what they are on about.

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