Many Banyarwanda will by now have heard about Vietnam, following our President’s visit to that country last week. Wiseacre that I have always vainly tried to present myself as, I must confess that I was jolted out of a blissful ignoramus’ slumber when I was told that ‘Vietnam’ was a country!
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to pick the brains of ‘Mr/Ms Google’, who gave me some insight into the geographic set-up of that part of the world. I was amazed to learn that Vietnam was not only a country, but that it was actually among the most beautiful countries of the world, and an emerging ‘economic tiger’.
A long time ago, before the radio made its appearance at the slopes of Mount Muhabura, we used to wear ‘Vietnam’. Yes, you heard right: ‘Vietnam’ used to be expensive clothing worn by the moneyed of this land. Those days of no concrete shops, we used to do our shopping of clothing items in open-air bazaars where we bought ‘Vietnam’ on market days.
Those were the days when poor creatures used to have their clothing made by the roadside tailor, while those without any money at all mostly wore loin-cloths, which was a piece of cow skin held together by a string. There were even those who moved around in Adam’s suit, and it was as normal as wearing a Muslim’s tunic.
Only the ‘évolués’, whom I’ve alluded to many times here, could afford ‘Vietnam’. The yarn doing the rounds then was that ‘Vietnam’ came from the land ‘where the sun rose from’ and that it was left by dead American soldiers. It was said that they were involved in a war with fierce warriors who would have scared even the ‘Ibisumizi’.
In case you were born the other day, ‘Ibisumizi’ were ferocious fighters of the king of Rwanda at one time. It will have occurred to you by now, of course, that these were the clothes today referred to as ‘Imibiliji’ in Kinyarwanda, which many of you may know by their Kiswahili name of ‘Chaguo’, or Luganda name of ‘Mikadde’.
Whether you call them ‘second-hand’ clothes or ‘Imibiliji’, know that we used to be proud of donning them. Word of mouth used to go round then that the American soldiers were pitted against small but fierce warriors called the ‘Viet Cong’, who could fight 24 hours a day and who appeared and disappeared mysteriously.
We were told that they had overwhelmed the powerful Americans and that was how we were getting those used clothes in plenty. It was explained that ‘Vietnam’ was not military uniform, even if it was from soldiers who had fallen in battle, because the Americans fought in their civilian wear like the Viet Cong, but still were dying like flies.
To them, the Viet Cong somehow managed to defy death and as soon as you shot one, a replica would appear behind him!
If you followed the stories in Rwanda during the war between the Habyarimana army and ‘Inyenzi’, I am sure this story rings a bell. You remember how the retreating Habyarimana forces used to describe the RPA soldiers as having rabbit ears and monkey tails, who could appear and disappear like witches!
So, if these ‘Viet Cong’ sound uncannily like the ‘Inkotanyi’ (RPA) against the Inzirabwoba (FAR) of Habyarimana, it’s because they were similar. Thanks to the astronomical advances of science today, now I know it from Google that the Viet Cong were Northern-Vietnamese guerrillas who gave an unprecedented whipping to our dear American friends that they won’t want to remember in a hurry.
As for Vietnam as a country, its history is as tortured as that of Rwanda, if not worse. Worse because, unlike Rwanda which was colonised for only about sixty years from around 1900, Vietnam lived under Chinese domination for an entire millennium and did not manage to shake it off until the mid-1800s.
Before the Vietnamese could take a breather, however, the French colonialists struck and took them under their wing. The armed campaign started afresh but before it could end, the Japanese, backed by Adolf Hitler during World War II, pitched in their colonial drive and took Vietnam over.
The Japanese went with Hitler, but the French were still there and the old war resumed. France was defeated in 1954 and the Geneva Accord divided Vietnam into Communist North and anti-Communist South. Meanwhile, of course, USA was keenly watching and didn’t like what it was seeing.
If you remember, Communism was to the Americans then, what Al Qaeda is to them today. So, they struck Communist North Vietnam with a vengeance, but what they thought would be a walk-over reminiscent of the recent Baghdad capture proved to be a long, drawn-out and bruising encounter that you should not mention within their earshot.
In the words of an American journalist: “On April 30, 1975, the last fleeing helicopter lifted off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon and the first tanks of North Vietnam smashed through the gates of the presidential palace a few blocks away.” And that is how Communist North Vietnam re-unified Vietnam, an emerging tiger today.
And the laments of Henry Kissinger, a one time powerful American secretary of state: “Vietnam...has created doubts about American judgment…credibility…power – not only at home but throughout the world. It has poisoned our domestic debate. So we paid an exorbitant price for the decisions that were made….”
To say that Vietnam has come along way is an understatement! And, who knows, maybe a French official will echo Kissinger’s lament one day, about Rwanda! The spittle is on the leaf (‘Twaciriye ku kibabi’).