I am amazed when I see traffic choking up Kigali’s roads today. In my youth in the 1950s, the whole of Rwanda had about ten vehicles. In my home area, at the slopes of Mount Muhabura, there was only an old, asthmatic pickup which was known as an ‘oldsmobile’.
However, the area was also blessed with a road and other visiting public transport, the way we know it today. Which means that you could pay your money and travel by bus from Ruhengeri to Kabale and even up to Kampala, the heart of Uganda.
Quite a number of people had made that journey, and their stories had kept us spellbound up to the time we were bundled into exile, in 1959. We had heard of ‘isaha ya kwini’, a clock hanging in the centre of Kampala, which belonged to a woman who ruled over ‘Abongereza’, meaning the queen of England.
It was said that the town of Kampala had artificial stars that shone so brightly that you could not tell night from day, that the Baganda could send ‘horns’ that could whip the daylights out of the strongest of men and other incredible tales.
The bearers of these tidings travelled by a U.T.C. bus that plied the Kabale-Ruhengeri road twice a week.
The bus had half a bonnet, the other half housing the driver’s cabin. It was rumoured that the driver’s cabin was thus isolated so he could easily jump out through the window if the bus were to fail negotiating one of those hair-raising corners of Kanaba hills, near Kabale in Uganda, leaving his passengers to the mercy of momentum.
Those hills are so steep you’d think the road was etched in an upright wall. Which usually made you wonder how the ‘oldsmobiles’ could make it through this road. These were American-made cars that were longer than a short semi-trailer.
In Rwanda and in Uganda, there existed only two of them: one called ‘Impala’ belonging to King Rudahigwa of Rwanda, the other one a ‘Chevrolet’ belonging to King Mutesa of Buganda..
Even Queen Rosalia Gicanda’s (King Rudahigwa’s wife) ‘Citroën’ used to pass through our area and stop at ‘duwani’. You should have seen the way we used to marvel at it whenever it ‘stood up’ to go, ‘lifting’ its front and then its back!
So, it was said this road snaked its way all the way from a place called Mambasa through Nirobe, Jinja, Lugazi-na-Gahoro, Kampala, Kabale and Gisoro on to Ruhengeri and Kigali.
That is why we used to see many lorries – trailers had not yet been invented! – frequent our ‘duwani’, carrying imported goods from the coastal town of Mombasa.
Many times you could hitch a ride on these lorries, but that needed extreme tact. A simple African could not drive these lorries, no. They were driven by a higher species, a cross between a black man and a white man known as ‘abagoha’.
These ‘bagoha’ had among them some who were said to cherish human meat, in which case the time you got a lift would be the last to be seen. Luckily, if you were tactful you could tell which lorry belonged to a ‘mugoha’ cannibal, known as ‘ndumanga’.
A lorry driven by ‘ndumanga’ was all wood, including the driver’s cabin, doors, bonnet and all. Everybody knew the lorries, and whoever spotted one raised an alarm by shouting “Ndumanga!” Men, women and children stopped whatever they were doing or dropped whatever they were carrying and dived for cover!
Which was a different story when we spotted our favourite rider of a two-wheeled ‘vehicle’. We all used to jubilate and generally raise Cain whenever we saw Eriya Nkundizana riding his bicycle through the Ubukomane pass or Ubudacinkurikirane from Nyarusiza.
These are narrow passes between Muhabura Volcano and the adjoining hills that were thought to be havens for land ‘pirates’.
Whoever spotted Nkundizana emerging from those passes would start up the song that praised him. Then all the youths would stop whatever they were doing to take up the song as they watched him ride through the narrow, winding paths waving at them with both hands, not holding the handlebars!
And he was not only famous for his riding wizardry, but also for something else. He was the paparazzo of all time! Except people in our area, hardly anybody else had seen a camera in the rest of the Great Lakes region, I am sure.
Nkundizana thus covered the length and breadth of Ruhengeri, Bufumbira and Jomba in Congo, committing people’s images to paper for posterity.
The rituals involved in taking photographs those days, and the manoeuvres needed to use the gigantic pinhole camera and its accompanying hood, I think I have talked about before.