The first time I visited Ruhengeri must have been early 1959, when I was passing through on my way to Rwaza, escorted by my brother’s brother-in-law on foot.
I was being taken to Rwaza to see my godfather. Ruhengeri lies to the north of Rwanda, at the foot of the Birunga chain of mountains that ring the country’s northern frontier.
I remember, Ruhengeri then was a non-descript outpost on a dust road that was lined with a couple of mud shops of that familiar Indian architecture: high front walls and fenced-in backrooms.
Occasionally, you could sight what the Barera (natives of the area around Ruhengeri) called a memsahib, in soiled slippers and with cracked feet, walk out of those backrooms. She would be leading a line of slipper-clad children also with cracked feet, and their practically nude Rwandan nanny in tow.
If I describe the Indian community of Ruhengeri of the time in some detail, it’s because I’d like to capture the detail of their poverty so as to give a better picture of the stark poverty of the Rwandans of the time.
In truth, during colonial India, memsahibs were European women of better fortunes than those of local Indian women. So, in Ruhengeri, Indian women were only a rung lower than European women and were therefore also viewed as superior to the locals, because they enjoyed better fortunes.
Along the sides of that dust road, then, Rwandans who thronged to the local markets presented a pitiful sight with their bare, cracked feet covered in black, volcanic dust and their bodies wrapped in ragged clothes that barely shielded them from the biting cold of the area.
And, apart from those few Indian-architecture shops, the buildings that existed then included the colonial administrator’s small residence, a small lodge called Mimosa Hotel (today’s Muhabura Hotel), a Catholic church, a small regional hospital, a prison, a postal building and a court house.
The next time I visited Ruhengeri was in early 1995, when I was fresh from exile. Little had changed except that those shops were now occupied by Rwandans and the administrator’s residence by a Rwandan government official.
In addition to the still-existing buildings, a Protestants’ church and a one-storey government regional headquarters had been erected, together with a scattering of additional mud shops along a pot-holed tarmac road and a taxi park with wooden kiosks.
The whole northern part of Rwanda lived in terror of the insurgents who led bloody incursions into Rwanda from the jungles of Zaīre (today’s D.R. Congo). I remember venturing further north into Canika, my birth place that shares a border with Uganda. I got an old friend of my late father to show me what used to be our fields, only to receive reports the following day that he had been murdered for identifying the fields.
Last week-end, 16th, 17th, and 18th April 2010, I was back in Ruhengeri. I had been visiting the town in between, but still I could hardly believe that the Ruhengeri I saw was the Ruhengeri I knew. Now it is a fast-growing city with a string of modern, multi-storey hotels that are sprouting everywhere.
First, I was amazed by the cleanliness. I am now used to the cleanliness of the streets of Kigali, of course, but who could believe that you can drive in Ruhengeri without a whip? If you are not familiar with Ruhengeri of those days, only corporal pain could persuade a resident of the area to give way to traffic.
Today, however, those residents are a converted lot. You’ll find them in clean shoes and clothing hurrying to their business in an orderly way on the side walks, both sides of the wide tarmac road. Most surprisingly, none of them will be spitting, relieving themselves or throwing banana and sugar-cane peelings all over the place.
Where motorists used to pick Irish potatoes, peas, cabbages, and other agricultural produce for a song everywhere by the roadside, today peasant farmers of the north have formed co-operatives that see them reap respectable revenue from their agricultural efforts.
Today, the whole area, just like the rest of Rwanda, enjoys unprecedented peace and stability. Having found the borders impenetrable, the Rwandan insurgents in D.R. Congo have settled for a life of raping the women and pillaging the wealth of their country of exile (D.R.Congo), as they continue to massacre their hosts.
Rwanda has pleaded with the world to give her chance to once and for all rid it of the Interahamwe menace, all in vain. Mention that and the West will be up in arms and crying “Tutsi Empire! Going for the minerals of D.R. Congo!” Yet we know the number of Rwandans who perished in the 1994 genocide even as the world promised to act.
Only in Rwanda has the government shown that that génocidaire can again turn human. Who else can have the nerve and patience of working so tirelessly to right the corrupted minds of a whole population and show them that the enemy they seek to eradicate is in fact their partner; that the true enemy is poverty, ignorance and backwardness?
Ruhengeri provides a glaring example of the positive transformation that a people focused on the right cause can effect.
But then again, isn’t the whole of Rwanda that living example?