REFLECTIONS:The story of cities is told by their history!

It is true, “Akanyoni katagurutse ntikamenya iyo bweze” or “Ubwenge burarahurwa”. Literally and crudely translated, these practically identical homilies would mean: “A bird that doesn’t fly won’t tell where there is harvest” or “Wisdom cannot be harnessed from within”.

It is true, “Akanyoni katagurutse ntikamenya iyo bweze” or “Ubwenge burarahurwa”.

Literally and crudely translated, these practically identical homilies would mean: “A bird that doesn’t fly won’t tell where there is harvest” or “Wisdom cannot be harnessed from within”.

I cannot think of the English equivalent of those proverbs immediately, but “Experience is the best teacher” would be making the same allusion, even if lacking in the importance of their emphasis on travel.

In case you are wondering, I am thinking of what a friend was telling me the other day. You see, Pascal is what the Nigerians used to call a ‘been-to’, which referred to a person who had visited another country.

Pascal, a medical doctor, has just returned from Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, where he has been furthering his studies. The good doctor was recounting to me his experience on his first journey to Dakar.

On his flight from Nairobi, he found himself sitting next to an affable, chatty Senegalese man. When the man wanted to know where Pascal hailed from, Pascal explained that he came from Rwanda, the country known for the genocide of Batutsi. 

People think of Rwanda, Pascal continued, in terms of the 1994 genocide, but the country has since shed that image of a violent nation. It is now an oasis of stability and development in an expanse of conflicts and poverty in the Great Lakes region.

You should visit the country, extolled Pascal, especially the capital city. Kigali is the safest, cleanest, most orderly, most beautiful city in Africa, enthused Pascal, and it is quickly acquiring the most beautiful buildings.

Pausing for breath, Pascal wondered: “By the way, I am a first traveller to Dakar, how is it as a city?” The man was non-committal, only saying: “It is fine, really, only maybe having a bigger number of hotels than Kigali.”

Deflated, Pascal almost choked on his words: “So, you’ve been to Rwanda! I should have let you give your impressions of Rwanda and Kigali, instead of lapsing into rants about their beauty.”

In fact, a few hours later, Pascal’s heart sank when the plane circled over Dakar City as it prepared to land, because below him lay an extensive metropolis on the scales of European or American cities!

When the plane taxied to a halt, Pascal pretended to be too busy at the luggage rack and stayed behind. He walked cautiously to the immigration desk, making sure to duck behind a pillar or a wall whenever he saw the man waiting.

From immigration, he jumped into a taxi that took him to his hotel. For the whole year he was in Dakar, Pascal never saw the man again.

Meanwhile, as we laughed at his story and his feeling of shame, something was nagging at my mind.
“Doctor,” I asked, “can you walk freely at night in Dakar?” 

Pascal shook his head, and so did he when I asked if the city was generally beautiful or orderly. As for its cleanliness, he spat down to indicate how everybody spits carelessly in the streets.

“So, Doc, can you guess what the man wanted to tell you?” When again Pascal shook his head, I said: “He wanted to tell you that you were right!”

When he opened his eyes and tried to protest, I quickly continued, explaining that beauty was not in the immenseness of a city or in the height of its concrete buildings.

Especially, we should look at how long a city has had a chance to grow and how much it has achieved in that time span, as well as the advantages it has enjoyed.

For instance, Dakar is on the Cape Verde Peninsular, on Senegal’s Atlantic coast.

This is an advantageous departure point for trans-Atlantic and European trade, a major regional port. That is why by 1444, Portuguese traders had already founded it and by 1536 it was their base for the export of slaves.

In 1588, Netherlands snatched it from Portugal, and it kept changing hands between Dutch and Portuguese occupiers until January 1664 when the English seized it.

England lost it to France in 1677, which continued to use it as a slave-export port until 1848. By 1923, Dakar was a French commune and had a telegraph line and a railway linking it to Saint-Louis, northern Senegal, and Bamako in Niger.

In its colonial heyday, Dakar was one of the major cities of the French Empire, comparable to Hanoi or Beirut. All of which goes to show that maybe Dakar has not been growing that fast, and you may not rely on it to fair any better soon.
On the other hand, Kigali is where it is after a mere five years.

The years before 2004 were for the consolidation of the country’s stability and her people’s unity and reconciliation, after the 1994 genocide.

Given Dakar’s 565 years of uninterrupted growth, imagine Kigali in the year 2569!

ingina2@yahoo.co.uk

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