The return to my motherland

I was born between 1947 and 1950. I am not sure. I have never seen my birth certificate. Even if there ever was one, I am not sure my present name is the one on it. All along my life, I kept changing names to suit the circumstances. All I know is that I was born in Kabere, a very small village about six kilometres from Ruhengeri town.

I was born between 1947 and 1950. I am not sure. I have never seen my birth certificate. Even if there ever was one, I am not sure my present name is the one on it.

All along my life, I kept changing names to suit the circumstances. All I know is that I was born in Kabere, a very small village about six kilometres from Ruhengeri town.
My elementary education started at my village primary school called Mwuto, which had only two levels, Primary One and Two.

My guess is that this was because at the time, we did not have qualified teachers to undertake the tasks required for higher classes.

When I completed my Primary two therefore, it was necessary for me to be transferred to yet another school, Muko, a catholic school that had two additional levels, Primary Three and Four.

Apart from this new school being rather distant (I had to endure a daily six-kilometre trek to and fro), it did not have my father’s blessing.

A staunch Protestant, he did not care very much for the Catholics. So he instead, opted to send me to a Protestant boarding school at Shyira, in the then Gisenyi Province. I studied in this new school for only one academic year.

I remember this year and this school very well because it is the last school I ever attended in Rwanda, and also the last year I ever saw my country again until my eventual return in 1995, thirty-six years later, due to various circumstances and events as we shall see in this narrative.
That year, when I returned home on holidays, I had excelled at school (taking first position in my class), something that had, as I remember, pleased both my parents enormously.

A week or so after this, as my friends and I were kicking our makeshift football made of banana fibres on the village playground, my mother sent for me.

I ran home as fast as I could. My mother was known for her impatience with children who did not react fast to her whims, and I knew that my father, our protector, had left earlier for town. So, any delay on my part could be an invitation for a cane.

“I am here Mama,” I said on arrival, panting rather excessively, to show that I came as fast I could on hearing her summons.

“Sit down.” She started. “I want to talk to you.” She said this in a rather quiet, ceremonious manner, something strange in her usual authoritarian disposition. So I sat down as required and waited. On a chair next to her was a small wooden box, which I knew contained some old photographs.            

“The day after tomorrow, you are going to Usumbura.” She continued with a smile, looking at me to see my reaction. I smiled back at her, but within myself, my heart was beating so hard and fast that I was afraid she would hear it.

My eyes went to the small wooden box, and my mother knew then, that I had guessed. For she said:

“Yes, you are going to visit your brother”. And that was enough. I knew, for having seen them before that among the photographs in the wooden box were those of my brothers in Usumbura, Laurent being the eldest. So, I was going there to see them.

My mother was still talking to me explaining all the arrangements that had been done for the journey, but I was hardly listening.

My heart was no longer beating hard. It was dancing Ikinimba, our popular traditional dance and my mind was already saying goodbye to all my friends, especially Kalema, Bachungu and Ruhumuliza, my best and closest in the village.

Kalema derived his name from the fact that on the hand of his right arm, only two fingers, the thumb and the forefinger had sprouted.

With Bachungu, I had sworn the oath of blood allegiance, the ritual of drinking each other’s blood from small cuts made on our stomachs, and vowing never to harm each other or each other’s family ever.

They were all brothers from the same mother, and Ruhumuliza was the eldest.

Their father, Cyatarugamba cya Rugina, was one of the notables of the village and he was renown in our district and beyond, not as much for his owning so many sheep and goats as for a man who had married twelve wives.

His twelve wives’ traditional cone-roofed huts were built within a huge circular compound surrounded by a fence made of bamboo, interspaced by a number of huge Imivumu (ficus trees).

The wives took turns in hosting him for a night or two, or sometimes three, depending on his disposition and the mood of the moment.

Bachungu’s mother was wife number one, and was therefore most favoured by Cyatarugamba. But even she did not at times know in which of the eleven other huts her husband spent the night.

By his wives, the man had several children. Sons and daughters, even if some of the sons had since departed this world, and others had gone to Buganda to seek for remunerating jobs.

However, these came back home regularly, once in a while, after a year or two, bringing him money, in-laws and grandchildren. Because of all this, he was prosperous, influential and commanded respect in all Kabere and the surrounding villages.

I have deliberately taken time to give you a rather detailed background of this man, because he was wonderful. Had it not been for this man, I would not have seen my parents ever again, let alone the rest of my family.

I’ll tell you more about why and how, and then you will understand. But that will be later. Let me first go to Usumbura.

When I got there, I lived in Bujumbura for a period of four, maybe five years. For you know, Usumbura, the capital of colonial Ruanda-Urundi, changed to Bujumbura when Rwanda and Burundi became independent from Belgium on July 1, 1962.

The so-called Hutu revolution of 1959 had passed me unawares because; my then immature mind could not as yet comprehend the ways of the adults.

It was not until the year 1966 that I came face to face with the enormity of the catastrophe that had befallen my people and my motherland.

Some time that year, my brother Laurent told me that I was to go to Uganda with one of my uncles. Somehow, I had already heard that my parents and family had gone to Uganda, but I had not really stopped to ask myself why, or in what circumstances.

All I know is that when I heard the news that I was going to Uganda, all I felt at that time was some kind of intense happiness, and I was very excited at the prospect of seeing my family again.

But, least did I expect what spectacle awaited me when I finally reached Uganda. 

From Bujumbura, we had travelled by lorry, up in the back, on top of sacks of beans and potatoes, through Rwanda up to Gatuna, the border post between Rwanda and South Western Uganda, from where we boarded a luxurious bus of the Uganda Transport Corporation up to Nshungyezi, our final destination.

Now, Nshungyezi was one of the numerous sites throughout Uganda, which were allocated to United Nations, to serve as refugee camps.

This is the place where some of the first wave of survivors of the 1959 massacres in Rwanda, had been amassed, living in make-shift houses made of thatch, and on maize-meal handouts by the UN High Commission for Refugees UNHCR.

As we progressed on foot on our way to wherever we were going (I solely depended on my uncle’s guidance), we passed people in the field, men and women, hard at work, some with pangas (machetes) others with hoes. 

Sometimes my uncle would stop to greet some of them he knew. They would embrace fondly, and then they would also embrace me after he had told them that I am my father’s son.

They all seemed to know my father, something which I could not quite understand at the time. But later on, as I grew up, I came to realize that in places like this, everybody knew every body.

Then I started thinking of my mother. Could she…, another thought struck me. Could she and my father, by any but inconceivable chance, be somewhere in the field digging like all these other people?

To be continued