In Rwanda today, "The past is never dead. It's not even past," as the American author, William Faulkner, said. So, every morning you’ll find the streets of Kigali sparklingly clean. If you happen to be an early bird, the worm you’ll catch will be the sight of the authors of that cleanliness.
Ladies draped in green overcoats and reflectors will be bending over short-stocked brooms sweeping away furiously.
That short-stocked broom has been in Rwanda as the tool of cleanliness for as long as the nation has been in existence.
It puzzles many when they see those brooms yet they know that it’s not beyond Kigali City Council to afford the modern, long-stemmed ones.
In fact, the city council should even be able to buy a few of those street-cleaning tanker lorries I’ve seen in Western capitals. I’ve not asked around but my guess is that those ladies would not welcome any such development.
First, even if some of the ladies got the job of driving those tankers, it’d mean loss of employment for a much bigger number. Second, those ladies are averse to longer brooms simply because they are not as thorough in cleaning as their traditional counterparts.
The latter are hardy when a bit of force is needed to push litter and they can be squeezed into nooks that are otherwise impossible to access.
Even then, there is yet a more paramount reason. The dignity of a Rwandan. To see the connection of that dignity and a broom, you probably need to look into the lifestyles of Rwandans in the distant past.
Among other things, Rwandan clans used to be distinguished by the ‘hill’ on which they settled, such that you’d find ‘agasozi k’Abasindi’(Abasindi clan’s hill), for instance. Cleanliness was among the things for which a clan was respected.
If you wanted a bride, you wouldn’t go to a clan whose ladies could not sweep dirt beyond the doorway. But before I invite the wrath of our gender-sensitive ladies, let me hasten to add that sweeping was also done by males, depending on how individual families shared up tasks.
As for the broom, if you were on the clan hill and wanted to see the clan head, you looked for the compound that ‘was used to seeing many brooms’. This meant the cleanest compound.
The family on the cleanest compound was most respected, just as was the clan on the cleanest hill. This went up to what today would be called cells, sectors, districts and provinces.
If Rwandans seem obsessed with cleanliness, it’s not because they are trying to compete with Western countries.
It’s because they are making an effort to appreciate the values of their ancestors, values that were abused with the advent of Western influence.
By appreciating the value of that short broom, Rwandans are rediscovering one of their values. The totality of these values is helping them to sweep away their problems.
For having shamed themselves to the point of inviting outsiders to intervene in their internecine annihilation effort, today Rwandans have guaranteed security of person and property.
That’s why they’re only bemused whenever a visitor expresses surprise at seeing a place where they can freely walk around in total security for 24 hours. They know that if it used to be so in the past, it should be so today.
So as to look clean and presentable to the world community, they set out to clean the shame that had presented them to the world as a cursed lot. They set up Gacaca courts, only known to their society, to swiftly and cost-effectively resolve the sin of genocide and painstakingly stitch their society together for eventual total healing.
To remove the curse of perpetual hunger, they have gone all out to make sure there is food security.
They know that, for heeding colonial advice of prioritising cash crops, they experienced two devastating episodes of famine that struck in the early years of the 20th century: Ruzagayura and Rudakangwimishanana (?).
Such indignity cannot be suffered again, especially now that there are better tools of exploiting the land. It only necessitates correct programmes.
There is a litany of more examples of such cogs that feed into the wheel that’s the dignity of Rwandans. So, whenever they are reclaimed, they are celebrated with frenzied chants of “Our dignity! Agaciro!” So it was last Tuesday evening at Urukari when Sports-Culture-and-Youth Minister Protais Mitali launched an aspect of tourism that had never been heard of: culture tourism.
So it had been four days before, when literally all Rwandans in the Diaspora ‘invaded and captured’ the city of Chicago, USA, to chant out their ‘dignity’ in Kinyarwanda, drowning out inaudible shrieking in ‘Kigarashanda’.
To the bewilderment of Americans who had not joined their friends, Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago was rocked to its roots by drum booms that were totally alien. Rwandans’ claim to their dignity knows no moderation. Nor does it, bounds.
The next time you go for an early morning jog, pause to listen to the broom lady humming. She’ll be celebrating the short-stocked broom she’ll be clutching. It is one of the cogs in the past-present of her Rwandan society.