The other day, when somebody reminded me of the early 1960s, what sprang to mind immediately were the hazardous nights!
We had just been hounded out of Congo-Kinshasa by Mobutu’s boys, (after being hounded out of Rwanda by the Belgians and Kayibanda before that!)
We had just been deposited in Nshungerezi Refugee Camp, Uganda. Luckily, we found empty houses that had been abandoned by other refugees -- the way the Interahamwe are enjoying those that we abandoned! To think that we built our houses for those satanic killers …!
Early evenings in the refugee camps of Nshungerezi usually found us in the kitchen, which was a small outhouse behind the main house.
The light in this outhouse was never adequate, owing to the scarcity of firewood. It was a tough job collecting the firewood, so we made sure that only very little was used, and none was wasted.
Very often, then, when you were busy roasting maize, you experienced a cold feeling and felt as if your hair was standing on end.
When you got that feeling, you knew automatically that a snake was in the vicinity. If there was too little light, then you opted not to declare war, alerted the others, and you all stopped talking and sat still, to let it pass.
After all, it was only going to sniff at your maize and sample its aroma: it was not going to eat it. It slithered on your leg, your chest or your neck harmlessly if you did not move a muscle. If you dared move, it dug its fangs into your flesh.
Alternatively, you could choose to fight it, if there was enough light. Many of us who were used to these reptiles did not think twice about fighting them. You just got its neck, near the head, between your thumb and forefinger and pressed hard.
Being fresh from the Congo, we were known as ‘Congomen’. Having been hotly pursued by the Mobutu elements, we were happy when we hopped over the border to safety in Uganda. We went through humbling experiences that I have no time to recount here: in the lorries, in Kabale, etc.
Still, we made our presence felt immediately. First of all, we made sure that everybody knew that we could use our heads for many purposes. And that apart from carrying any load, our heads could split the head of anyone who joked around.
Also, we could use our legs to overcome a foe in a way only wizards could comprehend. Those we found in Nshungerezi held us in awe and reverence. They believed that we could control the elements, the beasts, maledictions, name it.
We, too, believed it. If you had survived the numerous diseases of the Congo jungle, what climate couldn’t you face? If you had survived all the creatures of Congo, including humans and animals, who or what could scare you?
That, however, was before we met the creatures of Nshungerezi! The camp was erected where formerly there was the Kagera Park Reserve. It was infested with all forms of parasites and germ-carriers.
The moment these hungry pests saw us, they welcomed us with such zeal that sometimes you could find the whole community down with one disease or another.
The mosquitoes there were so efficient that you could fall down with malaria within a second of one mosquito pricking you! Man, of course, is the ultimate survivor of all creatures. It was no wonder, therefore, that hardly after a year all the beasts had vanished, and man reigned over all the camps.
The first to go were the big creatures, like the hippo. The hippos had hunted us with so much vengeance that we stopped all forms of nocturnal movement. Then somebody came up with a revolutionary idea that changed all that. Instead of these beasts putting to waste our flesh, why don’t we put their flesh to good use?
So, we started running to the park guards to report a rogue hippo that was on the rampage. It did not matter that it had not attacked anybody: someone was always ready to scratch or smear themselves with blood to show that they had been assaulted.
The hippo was then shot dead and the people shared the meat, which was salted and dried.
It is this meat that we used to take and exchange for bananas, and thus came our rest. The Munyarwanda does not consume hippo meat, as a tradition, but those of us who had lived in the Congo did not mind the taste, clandestinely!
This was a revolutionary discovery because we were now able to get time to go to school.
Our schools were not buildings!
They were trees, those trees that were lucky enough to survive our rampaging pangas, knives, as we cleared the forests to get firewood.
This meant that the classrooms were scattered all over without order, because classes formed under any tree that could provide a shade.