Very interesting how an innocent comment from President Barack Obama touched off a national furore in the USA, even if the comment was justified. Interestingly, what calmed the nerves was a leaf borrowed from Rwanda: Gacaca!
I’ll jog your memory, if you’ve forgotten the story. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was coming back to his Massachusetts home from China, where he’d been working on a documentary.
He is an African-American Harvard University scholar whose face is familiar to many TV viewers in the USA.
On reaching the airport, he picked up a taxi driven by a Moroccan to take him home. Because the lock to his main door seemed to have been fiddled with, the taxi driver assisted him to force the door open, before going back to his car to resume his work.
The house belonged to Harvard University and so, before settling down, Prof. Gates went to the kitchen for a phone to inform the university’s real estate maintenance office about the malfunctioning door. Before he could talk, however, he heard banging at the main door!
Police outside was shouting to him to come out: a lady in the house across had rung police to report a burglary attempt! Knowing he was in his house, Prof. Gates got his identity cards together but refused to get out of the house. The policeman got in and handcuffed him.
This, in spite of the fact that he had shown that he possessed the papers that showed his address, which was this house.
Screaming and kicking, the professor was bundled into a police car and rushed to police. He was charged with exhibiting “loud and tumultuous behaviour”!
Police found out the truth and released the professor, but maintained their charge of “loud and tumultuous behaviour”.
Police would have stayed put, and the professor gone cursing, and all would have let sleeping dogs lie, but then President Obama made the none-too-unreasonable remark: “police had acted stupidly.”
Police went ballistic, accusing their commander-in-chief of blaming the whole police force, where only an individual policeman had erred.
That was a serious charge and so, for a quick reconciliation solution, his sharp mind led him to Rwanda.
President Barack Obama invited the two men, Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley, sat them on the White House lawn, in the shade under a tree, and appointed himself and his vice-president ‘Inyangamugayo’.
And bang, in forty minutes it was over!
‘Inyangamugayo’ (men of integrity) with ‘akarusho’ (a new touch), of course.
The new touch being the addition of a climate of camaraderie by the provision of a round of beers to everybody and toasting: “Ale to the Chief!” Within 40 minutes, the aggrieved parties had “agreed to disagree”!
Which is the essence of Gacaca: reconciliation and recognition that you have to live together, in spite of sometimes antagonistic circumstances.
It is a fact, for instance, that Blacks are viewed suspiciously in White neighbourhoods and police responds to a situational feeling.
It is also a fact that one session of a foursome discussion cannot begin to scratch at the racial divide.
However, it is also a fact that by learning to live together and to tolerate one another we shall recognise the symbiotic connection that bonds us together till death do we part.
It is towards that distant light at the end of the tunnel towards symbiotically harmonious co-existence that Gacaca sessions will painstakingly take us.
Which is why the Gacaca court system should not be terminated in Rwanda, especially as it is beginning to provide vital lessons to the rest of the world!
In fact, there are areas developing everyday in Rwanda that require the services of Gacaca courts, as I noticed the other day when reading ‘The East African’.
In an article entitled “Rudderless in the hilly city of Kigali”, the ‘Rwandan-Kenyan’ Lloyd Igane correctly points out one irritant in Kigali.
Lloyd praises the clean and orderly way in which all people in Rwanda conduct themselves; on streets, on motorcycle taxis, in special-hire car taxis, minibus taxis, buses, name it, but points to the rampant petty theft at the Rubangura Taxi Park.
Personally, I see Gacaca courts as the best solution to this problem.
Gacaca courts can do correctional service not only to petty thieves but also to alcoholics, flesh-vendors, street urchins, beggars, drug abusers and all sorts of delinquents and miscreants.
As soon as any of the groups goes through with the court system, another developing group would be taken up.
In fact, we can throw in a round of beers for the last of the Gacaca sessions, with the toast: “Ale to Gacaca!”