I remember with nostalgia the good old days when borders did not bother anybody. Before the 1960s, from Canika in Rwanda, you could walk into ‘English’ Uganda or the ‘Belgian’ Congo without let or hindrance.
Unlike today, travel papers were unknown. That is how, come Sunday, we could choose to attend mass in Rwankuba in Belgian Congo, Mutorere in Uganda or Kinoni in Rwanda.
It was the same if you wanted medical care and, especially as our Shyira Hospital in Rwanda was further than the other hospitals, we almost always found ourselves crossing borders for hospital services.
There was, of course, also the case of specialty services known for the different hospitals, and you usually visited a hospital that specialised in the treatment of your ailment.
For offering better maternity care than the other hospitals, for instance, Rwankuba Hospital was preferred by all expectant mothers.
In going to hospital, however, there was also the little point of which religious denomination you subscribed to.
Religious passion ran deeper those days than it does today, and you could not just walk into any hospital without first considering ‘its’ religious affiliation.
As it was Protestant, Shyira Hospital was shunned by some of us Catholics.
This, therefore, left us with two cross-border options when it came to specialty medical services in the region, because both Mutorere in Uganda and Rwankuba in Belgian Congo were Catholic.
And borderless-ness did not confine itself to such miner services either.
No, it pervaded not only all human but also all animal activities in the whole of East and Central Africa and even going beyond into the colonial-mother territories.
Movement of people and goods, commerce and trade, commodity and livestock exchange, name it, all went on vibrantly and the economies of all the countries involved soared every year.
It was the epitome of regional integration, indeed, until independence. Yes, paradoxically, the advent of independence sent this vibrancy into a free fall.
In fact, for all I know, when they fell, some countries have never risen again.
‘Belgian’ Congo, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, today lies in limbo, knowing neither democracy, nor exactly whether it is a republic.
‘English’ Uganda, now the Republic of Uganda, is fumbling along, still dogged by the scars of a succession of dictatorships and wars that are threatening to burst into fresh wounds again.
From her deathbed, Rwanda and Burundi are painfully shedding the shackles of a bruising Genocide.
Interestingly, though, there is a one Biryabarema in Uganda who thinks the “tiny republics” of Rwanda and Burundi will be “a burden” to the East African Community that they have just joined.
All peoples of the world, and the East African Kenyans and Tanzanians especially, are excited about integration, and with good reason, if you ask me, but a Ugandan sees it as a burden when some countries come together to pool energies and resources!
I can understand others for wanting to go it alone, hard as it may be.
From the Nyayo era stagnation, the Kenyan economy seems to be re-gathering the Kenyatta leadership momentum, but that is only if corruption, the Mungiki threat and land clashes do not tear it apart.
The Tanzanian economy, after surviving the “man-eat-nothing” Ujamaa leadership of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, has shown a steady rise, even if this has meant a steadier increase in corruption.
The residents of its capital city, Kampala, are under assault from the stench of a clogged-up sewage system that is chocking on ‘buveera’ (polythene bags), spirited efforts by ‘karolis’ (marabou storks) notwithstanding, according to a recent BBC report.
As if that is not enough, the one stick-wielding gang or another from any of the obscure security forces springing up everyday who are whipping in daylight Kampalans while they struggle for their rights.
These security mobs come with such outlandish names as Black Mambas, Kiboko Squad and, lately, the Kanyamas!
Before anyone in the African countries’ leaderships could even have known the use of computers, in the mid 1990s, the Rwandan leadership came up with the innovative “ICT for Development”.
When the other African countries saw that it had become the catchword for donor countries, they are now falling over themselves trying to impress the West on how ICT savvy they are.
However, Rwanda’s intention of creating a knowledge economy was not to impress anyone but to empower her people.
Biryabarema can pour scorn on the country’s “advanced ICT industry” all he wants, but Singapore was not built in one day: the bleak statistics for Rwanda that he quotes today may be an all-together different thing a dozen years hence.
Diligence, determination, hard work, leadership focus, political goodwill and good governance have ever produced miracles before and it will not surprise many Rwandans.
And, indeed, it is this order and ‘savoir-faire’ (flair to know what needs to be done) of the Rwandans that the colonialists had exploited so much so that borderless-ness had been used to run the neighbouring countries’ mines and plantations on Rwandan expertise and labour.
If Biryabarema had been born during the colonial era, he would have been aware of the fact that the scaling-down, and sometimes complete loss, of Rwandan labour has spelt death for some sectors in the economies of East and Central African countries.
The copper mines of Katanga and tea plantations of Kivu, in D.R. Congo, the copper mines of Kilembe and sugar plantations of Kakira and Lugazi-na-Kawolo, in Uganda, livestock rearing and coffee growing in the plains of Uganda and Tanzania, as well as the tea plantations of Kericho and Nyeri, in Kenya, have never again seen their glory of the colonial days.
Of course Biryabarema was there and he does not wish to inhabit a country that is going to be a burden to East Africa, he might be staring exile in the face, because that country won’t be Rwanda but…!
Otherwise, in the East African context, the “toenail of a nation”, as he calls Rwanda, is equal among equals.