This story warmed my heart; I hope it does yours. On November 7, 1968, in the poor Roxbury housing development of South Boston, USA, an ordinary day suddenly saw a fire engulfing one of the apartments.
At the fire station nearby, a slim Whiteman adeptly jumped onto the truck as he had so many times practiced, quickly settling beside his colleagues. They all hurriedly checked that their fire fighting equipment was in place as the truck raced them to the low-class housing.
It screeched to a stop in front of the apartments, scattering the screaming inhabitants gathered outside. One shrill voice caught the slim Whiteman’s attention: an old Black woman was shouting for someone to save her baby in the burning apartment. And, without hesitation, the slim Whiteman bounded up the stairs.
Once inside the apartment, he crawled on his stomach through smoke so thick and so black that he could not see his hand in front of his face. Somewhere inside was a baby and he had to find it.
Luckily, a window broke and light filled the room. The fire fighter saw the Black baby lying in its crib, dressed only in a diaper, unconscious. It was not breathing and it had no pulse.
He grabbed the baby and clamped his mouth on its mouth in a resuscitation effort, running out. As he emerged from the building, the baby gasped and coughed, as it began to breathe again.
Amid thunderous applause from the gathered residents, he handed the baby to its mother, and joined his colleagues in smothering out the fire.
As the residents continued to cheer, the fire fighters clambered back into their truck, and it raced back to the station to await the next fire alarm.
Last Wednesday February11, 2009, more than 40 years after that fire, that baby, now a 40-year-old mother of 6, finally managed to track down her rescuer. She had tried to trace him many times, but had hit a dead end every time. The reunion was witnessed by a huge, joyous crowd.
Evangeline Harper, the baby of 1968, is now a 40-year-old motherly matron. William Carrol, the fire fighter of racially-divided USA of the ‘60’s, is now a retired, bent but still slim 71-year-old man. Compare the story with mine, which is less than heart-warming.
On November 1, 1959, at the foot of Mount Muhabura, northern Rwanda, a serene All Saints Day morning suddenly saw a maniacal explosion of violent hatred among brothers and sisters who had live together for centuries.
As our fellow Rwandans attacked us with deadly implements, bolstered by Belgian colonialists and their guns and helicopters, at that tender age I joined my people in a hasty flight into exile.
That first attack turned out to be the beginning of a long period of persecution, segregation and periodic massacres that ended in the 1994 genocide of the Batutsi. When RPF stopped the genocide, it embarked on a painfully slow campaign of reconciliation.
By 1996, the restoration of brotherhood among the Banyarwanda had started to take root. So, with that confidence, a few relatives and I felt confident enough to venture into the potato fields of the slopes of Mount Muhabura.
On arrival, we were struck by the fact that the whole area seemed deserted. We all knew that the refugees had returned, yet there was nobody in the fields and nobody answered when we called out in the homes.
So, when we went to an equally deserted eatery for our lunch and I spotted an old man in the vicinity, I was beside myself with joy. I recognised him as a close playmate in our childhood, and ran to hug him.
Unfortunately, Ntibikwira didn’t seem to share my excitement; not even after calling out his name and introducing myself. It was only after a persuasive offer of chicken and cash money that he accepted to sit and chat with us.
That, however, was the last chat he had with anybody. Reports reaching us in Kigali later were that he had been killed the night after our departure.
As he had explained to us, whenever the people of the slopes saw us, they melted away into hiding. For talking to us, therefore, he was seen as a traitor and killed.
Surely, what poisoned our people so? Luckily, things are slowly changing and Banyarwanda are genuinely coming together again.