Glorious tales of history in refugee camps

FROM 1964 to 1969, in the refugee settlement of Nshungerezi, south-eastern Uganda, life was not a bed of roses. As I’ve said countless times before, it was a bed of thorns. Thorns of living with the knowledge that we could not achieve what we wished: a life of hope of an assured future. An illusion of hope, it turned out to be. Now we had one goal: daily survival. 

FROM 1964 to 1969, in the refugee settlement of Nshungerezi, south-eastern Uganda, life was not a bed of roses. As I’ve said countless times before, it was a bed of thorns. Thorns of living with the knowledge that we could not achieve what we wished: a life of hope of an assured future. An illusion of hope, it turned out to be. Now we had one goal: daily survival. 

Still, though, we enjoyed ourselves. Personally, I enjoyed going to Ngarama. Ngarama was a hamlet, a village, in the south-western Isingiro District of Ankole, about 12 km from our refugee camp. We as children frequented Ngarama; that’s where we worked for a bunch of matoke (bananas as food, working for native Banyankole). I didn’t relish the back-breaking strain of tilling the land for food but what a pleasure it was to be witness to the stone on the way.

It was no ordinary stone. It was a library of the history of Rwanda! Yes, no jest, there are many stones that represent the only accurate, documented evidence of the history of Rwanda. What was interesting was finding such a stone on a hill that was tens of kilometres away from the Uganda-Rwanda border. It was called Eibare rya Ruganju, Runyankore (spoken by Banyankole natives) for Ibuye rya Ruganzu, in turn Kinyarwanda for Ruganzu’s stone.

Ruganzu was an extraordinarily brave monarch of 17th century Rwanda. The short of his story is that he grew up in exile, in Karagwe, in today’s Tanzania. He’d been sent there as a child by his father, when the latter saw that he was going to be overthrown, which came to pass. When he grew up into an adult, Ruganzu fought to capture all the kinglets and was able to reconsolidate Rwanda as it had been before, even expanding its territory. The kinglets had been formed by his father’s various chieftains after his overthrow. 

The stone in Ngarama was therefore interesting because it catalogued this long history which, when told in detail, can cover tomes and tomes. But what was special about it?

On the stone was imprinted Ruganzu’s foot and two paws of one of his dogs, most probably his favourite one. Unbelievable as it is, the foot and paw marks represent a history of Rwanda few books in Kinyarwanda have retold in satisfactory detail – hoping the stone is still there, the way even inside Rwanda many have been removed. Ruganzu marked all the parts that were Rwanda, as evidence! It was enough for you to tell an old man in the camp that you had witnessed Ruganzu’s stone for him to exclaim: “Niko sha! Go tell your mama to give you my calabash.” 

You excitedly ran to do his bidding because you knew its full implication. On bringing his calabash that had become dark-brown with age, he rummaged through jingling coins in his pocket and handed one to you. And you, running and skipping as you whistled happily, went as you checked for a stick with one end sunk in the ground and the other, carrying a banana leaf. On sighting one, you veered towards such a home, for it was an indication that they sold banana brew.  It was known that first you’d have to taste if it was well brewed, wherein lay the pleasure. 

Little pleasure for a young connoisseur, of course, because whoever was selling was wise to the fact. The fact being that, if you were given free rein, one swallow would be worth fifty cents, the coin you carried. So the salesman always had a calabash on the side, for tasting purposes. He made sure it carried little brew because a man with an accommodative throat could swallow a whole litre’s worth. For a kid, there was no problem as the salesman made sure to squeeze the straw. Thus, if you sucked with force, you felt air squeezing through your eyes instead!

Anyway, once back at home, you handed the calabash to Old-man, where he sat on a stool under the eaves of the house, in the cool evening air. You spread your tiny legs out on the ground as, after a pull at the straw, he started his account. Good Old-man, though, he never forgot to give you once in a while but, of course, without forgetting to squeeze lest you gulp too much.

Now it was time for the story. In truth, an account of history.

Ruganzu Ndori was son to Ndahiro Cyamatare, son to Yuhi Gahima, son to Mibambwe Mutabazi, on and on, all kings before Ruganzu. Wherever he stepped, he left his foot prints and so did his fierce dogs. He attacked, he was never attacked, for he could vanquish the strongest warrior, overrun the strongest army. His army of warriors, Ibisumizi, made crooning history wherever they passed. The story took days and, in fact, I don’t remember it ending...

Alas, today, even if parents had the knowledge of such stories, they’d neither have the chance nor the time and patience to recount them. And the youngsters, if they had the interest to listen, would not have the time or will to let go of the computer, iPod, say it.

Our history, who will excite the interest in it, in our youth? It’s not enough to leave the job to Itorero.

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