The good old days of Gacaca community courts

The way foreigners like to drag our country’s name in the mud, why don’t we revive our Gacaca courts and cart them there? It has happened before and I remember how it liberated them, turning them into humble beings. The most recent time was in early September, 2005.

The way foreigners like to drag our country’s name in the mud, why don’t we revive our Gacaca courts and cart them there? It has happened before and I remember how it liberated them, turning them into humble beings. The most recent time was in early September, 2005.

That year, our traditional community court system extended its tentacles abroad to ‘embrace’ a Belgian genocide-crimes suspect.  You remember when Father Guy Theunis appeared in the St. Famille Gacaca, here. You must have noticed the smartness of the Belgian priest, as he sat on a beautiful wooden stool, resplendent in a sparklingly clean, pink suit that snapped the attention of the elite of haute couture.

But, in truth, a smart Belgian citizen in Gacaca was not a novelty. I remember in 1958 on a Wednesday when I first saw Rutuku make an appearance in our local ‘agacaca’ (as they used to be known then). Rutuku was the name of any White male of generous size – and they all seemed to be – be they local colonial administrators or local Catholic priests.

I say ‘Catholic priests’ because, those good old days, Protestantism was practically unknown and Islam unheard of. Sure, I’d heard of those religious denominations, but if they were there then their adherents made sure they were never heard or seen, because that would have meant no school for their children. If you were a Muslim youth called Saidi, you disguised yourself as César. If Aisha, as Agnes. You’ve maybe always wondered why many Rwandan Muslims carry Christian names. But, as usual, I’m digressing…

That Wednesday morning, Gakara seemed to have ‘opened office’ exceptionally early, much as he was known to always be up early for his ‘calling’ duties. You will recall the name of ‘Gakara’ for featuring often in my scatter-brain thoughts, as the ‘umumotsi’ of Bukamba. ‘Umumotsi’ was what you’d call a ‘town crier’ in English, much as we had no idea what a town was then. Suffice it to say that the message that morning was: “All ye, people of Bukamba, still a-snoring! Kick your beddings; come witness a White man who has shamed the world! ….” 

The mention of a White man in connection with ‘shame’ was enough to see the people of Bukamba scamper out of bed and race over the ridges to the compound of the indigenous local leader known as Surushefu (sous-chef/sub-chief). Everybody was good and ready and waiting in the lawn under the ‘inganzamarumbu’ tree long before the echoes of Gakara’s voice had died down.

I remember then that on that particular Wednesday, with nobody moving a muscle and in dead silence, Surushefu got up deliberately slowly, checking that everybody was healthy and that nobody looked miserable. Then he gave his greetings, wishing everybody and their family good health and good living. The assembled citizens chorused their greetings also and wished him good health in return. The sub-chief then spelt out the agenda of the day’s Gacaca: “Today, good people of this land that was bequeathed us by God, your duty as arbiters is simple. Today we called you here to identify three people. As usual, be open and be fair. Thank you!”

As the gathered people started to protest the inadequacy of the information, they saw a line of young girls streaming from Surushefu’s back house to come and parade themselves in front. And before even Surushefu could utter a word, three elders were pointing at one of the girls and swearing that she must have given birth recently. Observing that, Surushefu thanked them and asked the other girls to sit down.

Then a baby that had been found abandoned in the bush a few days before was brought by one of the domestic helps. She placed the calm bundle of joy in the arms of the new mother and walked back. Again, before anybody could say anything, a number of elders were swearing that the baby was ‘miratiri’ – mulato or half-caste.

With the bewildered gathering looking askance, Surushefu said nothing and instead walked to his main house. In the house he had left the local priest enjoying a late breakfast of boiled eggs and hot milk that he had been hosted to, unaware and uncaring of the proceedings outside. When Surushefu asked him to step outside, the Rutuku priest thought nothing of it. But, on seeing the mother and baby and the multitude of eyes trained on him, he lost all colour.  As his knees seemed to buckle, Surushefu assisted him to sit on the round stool put there for him.

With his head in his hands, the Belgian priest tearfully recounted the details of what had happened. Satan had entered him, he confessed, and he had succumbed to Rwandan beauty. Then, like Jesus, he knelt down to beg for forgiveness. After that, elder after elder stood to express sympathy with the priest and how they understood that as a human he was liable to err, and as a man it was hard to resist tempting, young beauty. A family was identified to keep the mother and baby, and the priest pledged to provide them with upkeep.

As people who cherished their honour, Rwandans could not mock him or punish him. They understood that to err was human and forgave him. Sometimes, however, Rwandans should not be so forgiving. Or else they’ll continue to be abused.

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