The family tree is a living thing, and like any living thing it needs to be nurtured, watered and kept alive. Its various branches have to be tended and kept an eye on and its roots must be deep and strong in culture to sustain the bigger tree. The greatest thing about Rwanda and Africa in general is our family ties are strong and form the basis of daily life.
Rwanda is like a big family; you never know who is watching you, you can be chastised by any member of the public. You can also be related to anyone; I remember one of my best friends let me stay at his place; and when his mother asked who my parents were she was shocked to find we were cousins.
Such is life in Rwanda, one of the benefits of knowing family lineage is being related to everyone in some way or another. There is a saying that “Success has many relatives, but failure is an orphan” and indeed, the more successful you are, the more relatives you have.
One of the downsides of modern life is that families are scattered all over the world; it is very rare for all my brothers and sisters to all be in the same room, and when it happens it is a big deal like a rare eclipse.
During birthdays and Christmas we try to rekindle that spirit of togetherness that bonds us; our dream is to all live on a giant homestead, within sight of each other and age gracefully.
A family sinks or swims together; you are all judged by the same standard and all success or failure is shared. There is a downside to this as the sins of one can mark all the rest for generations.
While running away from Rwanda in 1959 a distant aunt of mine who hadn’t eaten for several days and resorted to raiding the crop fields of the local Bakiga in Uganda; all hell broke loose and it took skilful negotiation to stop a bloodbath.
All her children are known as “thieves” even though it was a single misdeed caused by starvation and not malice. Likewise a distant cousin of a millionaire is by proxy a rich man too “that is Rujugiro’s fifth cousin, he must be rich.”
My mother once said “if you ever open a business, then don’t forget your cousin; he’s a conman but such a nice guy, just don’t leave him in charge of money.”
We come from a culture that used to view both wealth and poverty as communal but suddenly individualism comes in and we don’t what to do.
Many of my friends in the Diaspora used to send money every week when they first arrived, but started to send less and less until they sent none at all.
My friend had to return to Rwanda this week to see his ill father who he hadn’t spoke to for a while; anyone in the Diaspora understands his situation as he was caught in the rat race of Western living. Then the spinning wheel stops and you have to revive that family tree.
A sign of family breakdown is when you see yourselves on weddings and funerals but less on a day to day basis. Sometimes you take for granted that your family will always be there; a lot of genocide survivors do not have that luxury.
A friend of mine had only one member of his extended family survive; and that person just happened to be the one he feuded with most. They have since reconciled and cannot argue over petty nonsense like before, but their story is a testament to the power of family.
One thing I love about my Grandfather was the way he gathered distant members like scattered stones; looking endlessly for a nephew or third cousin who had ended up in a far and foreign land and bringing him back home.
When you live in the Western world and see a man who has separated from his roots and ceased to know who he is, then you know the power of family.
This was something that was destroyed by slavery and migration to the West, while it took 300 years to destroy a culture it can now be destroyed in 5-10 years.
So I urge all you have relatives in the West to call your sons and daughters home; they are not doing as well as you think, they are merely surviving.
They are barely living better than animals; true they have cars, houses, jobs but something bigger is missing – YOU. When you call them, just ask how they are, they go for weeks and months without human kindness and when those from back home call it is often with problems or asking for money.
Tell them you miss them and you need them back home; if you starve then starve together. That is family; roots, leaves, and branches, a tree that needs to be tended or it withers away.