What’s too costly when your very dignity is at stake?

When, in his opinion piece, a fellow columnist rattled off names of hangouts in this city, though he mentioned only a few in passing, I felt like an alien. I’d definitely need a tour guide if I wanted to know all the hospitality places around.

When, in his opinion piece, a fellow columnist rattled off names of hangouts in this city, though he mentioned only a few in passing, I felt like an alien. I’d definitely need a tour guide if I wanted to know all the hospitality places around.

It’s intriguing. Only the other day, I was the best guide there was!

“The other day”, of course, is relative to my donkey years because it means 1994-5! But think of it: in the life of a country, isn’t 1994 actually the other day?

The other day then, 1994, you didn’t need all your fingers to “rattle off” the country’s hospitality spots.

Kigali’s hotel business counted Mille Collines, Diplomates, Merdien and Chez Lando. Other hangouts were run-of-the-mill eatery, dancing or watering holes where, before 1994, “eatery” meant over-indulgence in chicken (so-called ‘ibisiga’) chomping.

The joints, dingy dens, were for the pre-1994 crèmes de la crème of society.  So, woe unto thee, ‘fluker’, if you were not nimble of leg when the Mafia overlords walked in! Their goons would toss you out like a dirty, damp rag.

In Kigali, other resorts were Sun City, Cosmos, Kigali Night, Filaon, grimy others. The seat of academia, Butare (in Huye), boasted its now worn and weather-beaten hotels Ibis and Faucon. The home of gorillas, Ruhengeri (Musanze), was graced with bug-infested Hôtel Muhabura.

Cyangugu (Rusizi) had a run-down Hôtel des Chutes and Kibuye (Karongi) a collection of village huts. Gisenyi (Rubavu) had a number of hotels that had seen better colonial days: Merdien Izuba, Regina, Palm Beach, others.

So, if the hospitality industry of the time were to see that of today, it’d wish for the earth to open and swallow it!

When I mentioned this one evening recently, someone in our group newly arrived from France but who’d been in Rwanda before 1994 laughed me off. 

Said he, it’d not only be the hospitality industry to wish for that. So would the whole collection of bankrupt and directionless politicians in charge of the then leadership, if those dead were to resurrect and those living repatriate and look at what ‘their’ Rwanda has turned into, today.

This progress was supposed to be for European countries, not ‘their’ Rwanda! But the situation was direr than you may imagine, he told us.

In fact, but for the existence of Kaddafi’s Libya as the gatekeeper to Europe, many Rwandans would have become fodder for the Mediterranean Ocean, such was their abject poverty.

For, while it was a life of scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours for this clique of politicians and their business community hangers-on, the populace languished in squalor.

The government depended on donor funding for everything. The business community depended on contracts from government to implement the latter’s projects.

To get the contract, the business person gave a cut to the politician or else no deal. After a shoddy job and tax evasion, the business person made a handsome profit and was happy. The politician, envelope of cut in pocket, happily okayed the shoddy job.

And so, together they popped expensive champagne from donor countries and chomped ‘ibisiga’ bought on the cheap from the local peasants. After which, politician and business person sang praises to the donor, who happily poured out more funding.

Que la vie était belle!

And the ordinary person? Well, there were crumbs of salary for the workers and little earnings from cheap agricultural produce for the farming peasants.

Now the present. At the end of his course in France, when our friend announced that he was returning to his country, fellow African students were aghast! How could he squander the opportunity he had of one day becoming a citizen of a European country?

For answer to the sympathetic Africans, he recounted an anecdote.

When one day he offered his seat to an elderly, frail French lady in a commuter tram, the lady threw him a dirty look and spat out (here I ‘shoddily’ translate!): “You’d do a lot better returning to your country!”

Our friend’s polite answer: “Madame, please take the seat. Tomorrow I leave your freezing winters and head for my year-round sunny Rwanda.”

The frail lady exclaimed: “Ah, le Rwanda de Kagamé! What a haughty lot, Rwandans! As a lecturer, I remember how, when our government cut the sponsorship of Rwandan students after their government had dared boot our ambassador out of their country, from €850 per month we used to offer each of their students; their government immediately offered them € 1000 each!

And I loved it, in spite of myself. Let’s be saddled with your génocidaires, young man, whatever our government sees in them. A fat lot of good it’ll do us! Thank you for the seat.”

Life today may be more expensive than during their time, as some exiled Rwandans usually say in self-defence. But what can be too costly where the very dignity of Rwandans is concerned? For our dignity and pride, let’s happily pay our taxes and our produce’s true worth.

France sojourner and TNT columnist, I owe you one! Thanks for opening my eyes to the pace Rwanda is on towards self-sustenance. You pointed to a lot more that I look at without seeing.

The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.