Friends from Kigali
By Lloyd Igane (Kenya)
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(Dedicated to Dan Voiture Montana, a true hero of the Rwandan
Had I not met an old friend in a bizarre coincidence at Kigali
International Airport one early morning, none of this would have
But I did.
And it does...
It all started with a yellow immigration card with print
so small that anyone over forty required magnifying glasses to read it;
more so if said over forty person had stayed awake all night alternating
between a very dry martini and a soda, rather than go to bed only to
wake up again to check in at 3 a.m. in the morning.
“May I use your glasses when you are through, sir?” I said to the
tallish lean man with the blearily intelligent protruding eyes.
“Certainly,” he said looking at me in a manner suggesting I was not just
another not-too-tall woman with an involuntary swagger and a softly
pronounced nervous tic on the left side of her left eye, but someone
whose presence perturbed and puzzled him more than a little.
“Certainly madam” he repeated cheerfully as he went back to giving the
offending piece of government stationery one last squint through some
formidable-looking bifocals. “These pieces of paper,” he offered as he
handed over the glasses, “can be very annoying sometimes.”
“It’s only these Rwandan ones really,” I explained as I put on the
glasses, squinted at my own card, decided I was happy with the result.
“I do all the others with a lot more ease____” I couldn’t help noticing
that all along, my benefactor was looking at me and smiling a strangely
familiar kind of smile. “What?” I asked feeling a bit perturbed and
“You look very familiar,” he said. Here we go, I thought. “In fact I
think I know you.”
“You look kind of familiar yourself,” I said, not sure what else to say,
playing along. “Have we met?”
“You used to work in radio,” that sounded like an accusation. “You
worked with Ike “On the Mike” Mulembo, DJ Cool and Catherine Kasavuli…
and John Obongo Junior…And Edith Luseno.”
“Yes. Are you also Keny _____?”
“You lived in Umoja 1 Estate, well, when it was fashionable to do so,
and used to drink at a pub called Sowe… with (Wihisie-Whisie),”
persisted the tallish lean dark middle-aged man, who now seemed to
visibly strain as he tried to connect and reorganise ideas and events as
he went along. “You used to write for the local dailies occasionally
too. You used to discuss assignments with Whisie over a “swallow” at
Sowe … you’re Sheila, that’s your name. Sheila Igambi.” he stated with
“Guilty.” I almost blurted out, but instead simply said “yes, I am,”
and, summoning all non-verbal communication tools my face and body could
muster, managed to convey the most common question people ask under such
circumstances: “… and you are ---?”
“Apolinaire,” he said. “Apolinaire Nkunda.” I could tell he was trying
for the Bond, James Bond trick but not even the best of Hollywood could
have pulled it off with a name like Apolinaire. “You were friends with
my cousin Solange,” he added quickly, realising his name had rung no
bells with me.
“Oh, yes,” I said, remembering Solange but not him.
“That’s Solange and her big sister Daniela who used to teach at Ngara
“Yes, the Daniela who married a Kenyan called Dan,” he volunteered.
“Their children are now big college women.”
Of course I knew about them. Well, as much as they had let me know. They
had only one daughter named Danielle when I last saw them in Kenya.
Later they got Louisa. I had met or made friends at parties who knew the
family, but I had not met my friend Daniela or her husband Dan.
“We have talked on the phone with Daniela a few times but have not met
yet,” I said, my Bic pen flying over the yellow card. “She’s too busy.”
For the three weeks I had spent in Rwanda pretending to be on holiday
but actually exploring ways of extending my PR practice to the ville de
mil collines, I had come to the conclusion that all my Rwandan friends
in Kigali were too busy for any old friends from Kenya. No wonder the
most attention I got was from fat parastatal types who just wanted to
get drunk with you, paw you a lot, brag about how many billions of
amafarangathey (they) controlled, and explain, with much sputtering of
saliva all over your face, that if you are as Kikuyu, as you are
beautiful, then together “we’ll get rich”.
There are those who had made dates – which they most peculiarly call
appointments – only to cancel at the last hour, pleading a funeral
planning “appointment” or other such grim emergency. Others would tell
you to meet them at places whose locations you couldn’t quite figure out
and when the directions turned out to be a series of French sounding
names and you gave up, they quickly suggested you meet another day.
Daniela was different: noncommittal; saying in her cool quiet way that
she would seek me out at the hotel as soon as she could, not making any
definite promises but keeping my hopes high. Now here I was going back
to Nairobi before getting some answers about her sister’s story and
especially the bit about how a backache that was under observation – and
obviously on the mend – had killed her.
“She works on genocide related matters at the office of the president,
you see,” explained my newly found friend, though I could see he too
understood his explanations wouldn’t pacify my frustration with people I
considered friends from Rwanda; his people.
“It’s nice to meet you again after twenty-many years,” I said, extending
my hand, which he raised to his lips and kissed chastely.
“I used to have a huge crush on you,” he blurted out before I could ask
him if the famous guerrilla fighter in the DRC was also one of his
“I dotted an “I” on the offending piece of government stationery and
looked at it through his reading glasses.
“You must have been too shy to show it.” I handed him his glasses and
“Yeah, you can say that,” he toyed with his glasses then carefully put
them back on. “You were way out of my league.”
“Oh, nonsense,” I said, feeling a little self conscious. “So, tell me
about Solange,” I said, and not just to change the subject.
In his guerrilla war against George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden had
single-handedly brought the world to its collective knees. This war
should have officially been declared WW3 right after 9/11 but I guess
America being who they are must have decided against the move on the
grounds that it would just make the bearded one grow a bigger head. So
they declared a worldwide war anyway and put everyone on emergency
alert. One of the most direct effects of that alert was the drastic
increase in the number of hours between check-in and boarding at all
airports around the world. This was for purposes of allowing
anti-terrorist sleuths (and satellite feeds to Big Brother observatories
around the world) enough time to observe passenger behaviour in penned
areas – usually unfriendly open lounges between the check-in counters
and the boarding gates. People with bad intentions posing as genuine
passengers can easily be spotted here. They can then either be hauled in
for questioning by the sleuths and their mean dogs, or simply paired
with tough mean guys who watch them like spy hawks and anticipate their
every move throughout the flight.
The drastic increase in the number of hours between check-in and
boarding at all airports also helped boost the coffee industry in any
country with an airport, as anxious passengers – having checked in at
least two hours before departure time – drink copious cups of coffee
from plastic cups dispensed by dumb machines stuck against the wall.
There were no coffee machines or any form of refreshments at Kigali
International Airport then, as it was long before Bourbon Coffee later
established a branch of their hugely successful wifi-powered coffee
house there. But we can use coffee anyway to continue the story: By
approximately the time we would have been on the second steaming cup of
coffee, Apolinaire had told me quite a lot of fascinating stuff. You
know how men like to talk, mostly about themselves. However, he still
had not told me much more than I knew about my sister friends from
Kigali; especially the bit about Solange’s post-Nairobi life and
eventual passing on in Kigali.
Solange and her sister Daniela had been among the crop of Rwandans who
had for a long time chosen Kenya as their second country of refuge,
having come in from Idi Amin’s Uganda where they had grown up and been
educated as refugees. Unlike her quiet, calculative, logical and orderly
big sister, Solange was bubbly and full of life in an infectious,
carefree kind of way. She was bouncy and graceful at the same time; a
tall, fair maiden who somehow reminded you of a galloping heifer of a
giraffe, only better proportioned. Solange had inner and outer beauty: a
proud, elegantly poised, and unpredictable princess, with a smile that
made otherwise sane men chase their tails and bark at the moon; a lady
by choice mostly, but a bitch on occasion.
“I’m a part time lady actually,” she was telling a man the first time I
met her at Soweto, the ghetto pub owned by a nice but rather shady
character called Sowe, may his royally crooked soul rest in peace. We
had struck it off right from the start and never had a dull moment from
then on. Even after an excitable soldier’s bullet had strayed into my
hip – as soldiers loyal to Moi tried to quell the riots that had erupted
in Nairobi following the foiled August 82 coup in Kenya – and I was
hospitalised for a stretch, I remember feeling guilty that I always
looked forward to Solange’s visits more than my own family’s. We would
laugh about the slight involuntary swagger my gun shot injury threatened
to leave me with and make feeble apologies to visitors in the next room
whenever they came complaining about the noise.
We were tight like that, as we say in Nairobi.
“Have you ever considered,” Daniela had asked me one day, “that you are
my sister’s best friend because you are the only one besides me who can
stand her nonsense?”
“Of course”, I would say, “but I can’t have it any other way.”
I loved her nonsense. She had a sense of taking things easy that quite
appealed to a big part of me. Having failed to secure a job as an
engineer as easily as her sister had got one as a language teacher, she
would get drunk, dance with men, get drunk some more and then sit her
sister and I down and tell us what was on her crazy mind.
“I hate work,” she would state with stoic nonchalance. “I hate
policemen. I hate married men. I hate house boys; law and order
As if it provided proof for all this, she would occasionally reach under
the coffee table and there, right next to last month’s New Africanand
under last week’s paper, she would extract a carelessly tossed A4
envelop out of which would pop her genuine certificate of graduation
from Makerere University with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical
Engineering, First Class Honours.
“So what do you like?” Daniela would ask, her voice dripping with biting
“Me,” she would say simply and cackle in a most endearingly wild manner.
We would be having a polite late afternoon drink at Eureka Bar.
“What do you call a waiter in Kiswahili?” she mischievously challenges
everyone at our table and the next.
Everyone, especially the men, try to impress this Rwandan beauty by
mumbling something incoherent___.
“Sh sh!” she says and a passing waiter rushes up to us, notepad on the
Quite ironically “Sh sh!” had also turned out to be the exact same word
for waiter in Kinyarwanda when I finally visited Kigali many years
later. There are, of course, a few variations in the general
characteristics of this species of service person in the different
countries of the region. The first being that more often than not, the
Rwandan waiter will not rush to serve you as the Eureka one would, but
will instead amble gracefully towards you, take your order without a pad
and keep making you repeat it because he/she keeps mixing it up, then
stroll away to go get your order, stopping a few times along the way to
pass on a phone number to a workmate who needs it for her mother, and
only come back ages later with your order. The Rwandan waiter also
differs from the Kenyan one – and is more like the Tanzanian one – in
that once the order lands on the table, he/she will, more often than
not, pour the drinks. Interestingly they pour the men’s drinks first –
giving the men time enough to “be a gentleman and pour a drink for the
lady”, I suppose.
Anyhow, Eureka had been far from our minds when I had last seen Solange
in Nairobi in the mid-nineties. Not only had she looked healthy and fit
– she was also thoroughly optimistic and positive about her country’s
and own future.
Bouncy as usual, she was happy the killings had stopped; thrilled that
her engineering degree was finally benefiting her beloved ancestral
land: she had helped revive and was running a government flour packaging
factory that fed the army. She was in Nairobi to get spare parts for her
factory. She would use the opportunity to have her back injury -
sustained during the 100 days war but mending quite well – checked by a
Banana Hill chiropractor she laughingly claimed was much better than the
one I had seen back in 1982 after the stray bullet had been dislodged
from my hip. We had laughed about that too, right there on the queue for
an Eastlands matatuwhere I had found her.
How could anyone forget Solange? How could anyone who knew her fail to
wonder what had happened to her? Daniela had told me on Yahoo chat that
she had succumbed to her old back injury, which, honestly, did not seem
to add up…
By the time the public address system was making the final call for
passengers departing for Nairobi on Rwandair Flight WB 107 to proceed to
the boarding gate, Apolinaire had told me quite a bit about his eventful
life as an accountant turned software and hardware hawking geek, but
still not quite opened up about the circumstances surrounding Solange’s
“Guma guma guma!” I wanted to say to him, both to amuse myself at the
expense of his marital status (two families in Nairobi and Kigali and a
girlfriend in Burundi), and to genuinely congratulate him for being such
an East African Alfa Male. In Rwanda and Burundi you “guma” heroes or
champions by celebrating their achievements with song, dance, food and
drinks. It is the western equivalent of getting drunk over someone’s
accomplishments and chanting “For he’s such a jolly good fellow,”and/or
“Give the guy a cigar”, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are
Somehow I envied him his undoubtedly successful polygamous existence. I
was also determined to keep the conversational ball on family firmly on
his side, lest I would have to talk about my own marriage story, which,
for your information, is hopelessly uninspiring. It involves walking out
one night in my nightdress, my two young sons – seven and nine – in tow,
and driving off to my mother’s house, never to return.
So “Oh, that’s nice,” is all I said. That quickly turned into “Oh, how
sad!” when he told me he was going to Kenya for the first anniversary of
his Kenyan son’s passing on.
“He was a pilot,” he explained matter-of-factly. “His plane crashed in
the Rift Valley as he ferried a planeload of German tourists to go meet
flamingos,” he continued in the same matter-of-fact tone of voice that
belied that live and let live attitude I had observed in all my newly
made friends from Rwanda. “He would be twenty three this year,” he
continued rather proudly. “In fact,” he added, a surprised sense of hope
creeping into his voice, as a tall young pilot in dark aviator glasses
sauntered smartly past us, dragging behind him that all too familiar
wheeled briefcase pilots are so fond of dragging behind them, “he looked
exactly like that guy the last time I saw him.”
At this point, he almost stood up, thought better of it, settled down
again, stood up to his full height, settled back down just as abruptly,
nudged me and explained himself.
“That’s creepy,” he said. He pointed an accusing finger in the general
direction the young pilot’s back had disappeared. “That dude not only
looks like my son; he also walks like my son and, hey, never mind! I’m
sorry I’m just seeing things.”
“I’m sorry, are you alright?”
“I’m cool, I’m cool, please forgive me,” he assured me as he gathered
his carry-all and got up to join me in proceeding to (boarding-board)..
I knew he was trying to hide his pain but I could feel it, having
personally lost quite a few loved ones in the 46 years of a lifetime I
had served on this planet – as a human being. Some people believe you
reincarnate many times over, existing at different times in the
space-time continuum as a frog, a cow or even some crawling insect,
mollusc or arachnid.
Someone pinch me when I come back as a lioness!
“It’s free seating,” Apolinaire mumbled into my ear as we entered the
little aircraft. “A bit like a matatu.”
But that was all that was matatu-ish about the flight.
“Welcome aboard Rwandair Flight WB 147; enjoy your flight,” said a
curtsying Pretty Young Thing of a stewardess as she checked our boarding
passes. She had a great body and a sparkly, not-too-toothy smile but was
absolutely, positively, not Rwandan: the ingredients – high cheekbones,
big wide-apart eyes with long lashes, generous lips and perfect
hourglass figure that’s smaller at the top – were conspicuously absent.
We took adjacent seats in the middle section of the all-business-class
plane and settled to a most professional take-off routine. As soon as we
were airborne, the stewardesses started busily moving around,
distributing breakfast, while the captain cleared his throat, reminded
us his name and, once again, welcomed us to the flight. Expressing his
hope that we would enjoy it, he emphasised the fact that it was a
relatively short flight lasting only an hour, six minutes.
I pointed out that the crew seemed to be almost entirely Kenyan.
“They work for Jetlink,” explained my newly discovered friend from
Kigali. “Jetlink is the Kenyan company that leases the plane to
Rwandair. You see Rwandair Express is still trying to feel its way
around after suffering the economic effects of what Rwanda went
through.” he went on. I had by now got used to the way most
conversations referred to the genocide as “what Rwanda went through.”
The genocide was always an awkward matter for foreigners. One never knew
what to say or ask without offending the host. Once in a while, however,
a local would open up and volunteer an experience or even just a piece
of information about the genocide, and even laugh about it.
“You see that valley down there?” asks a local lawyer friend over drinks
and brochettes (in) the curiously named Heaven Restaurant in the
affluent Kigali suburb of Kyovu. “There are probably more bodies in
there than there are in all the genocide mass graves around the
country!” He laughs but you can’t laugh with him. You feel ill at ease –
like you may be mistaken for laughing at the hosts’ grief.
One of the many don’ts for foreigners is that you can not mention any of
the two main tribes by name in any conversation, lest you be accused of
spreading genocide ideology. Advertising copywriters quickly learn to
communicate to their target audiences using direct statements as opposed
to clever lines which clients keep rejecting without explanation.
“During the genocide,” explained a local advertising executive, “the
perpetrators tended to use coded messages to spread hate. To ensure that
never recurs, all communication has to be in simple plain language.”
One invariably came to the conclusion that if letting them be about it
and being content with whatever information they volunteered is what it
took to help with the healing process, then that’s the way it had to
Now as the stewardesses started to clear away the breakfast things on
this, my second Rwandair flight on a jet rented from a Kenyan company, I
could not help drawing mental comparisons between Rwanda and Nigeria.
The former had a national airline and not a single plane, while the
latter had altogether dropped any pretensions to having a national
airline and outsourced the whole risky business to Virgin Atlantic and
I had heard somewhere that the Nigerians used to run quite a fleet of
aeroplanes but had had to sell them off or convert them to local flights
only, having become unwelcome guests the world over for running
astronomical bills and failing to honour them. But you can’t possibly
quote me on that one…
“We have a plane actually,” explained Apolinaire. But it’s not even half
as sexy as this jet here. It’s not even a jet plane come to think of it,
but an older kind of contraption that takes more than one and a half
hours to do this flight to Nai______”.
It was at this point he was, mercifully you might say, interrupted. Not
by me, I might add, though I admit that at his mention of the word sexy,
my mind had switched off the conversation and wandered off to that
perennial question about who is sexier, prettier, and more attractive:
Rwandan or Kenyan girl?
While most of us Kenyan girls can’t help but feel threatened by the
general height, shapeliness, graceful long legs, long neck, and high
cheek-bones of the quintessential Rwandan girl, it is always gratifying
when one lands in the country of many hills to note that there are
actually some not too tall, not too graceful, not too beautiful Rwandan
chicks after all; that some are just as plain – if not worse – than the
plainest of us.
Our men however continue the debate.
“There are more beautiful women in Nairobi alone than there are in all
of Rwanda,” says Juma, a Kenyan accountant, over a Tusker and roast goat
at Executive Car Wash (otherwise known as “Car-Wach” or little Kenya).
“No way, says David a long distance transport executive from Muranga.
“Kenyan girls cannot hold a candle to Rwandan chicks… they just can’t.”
“Come on, Dave,” says the accountant heatedly. “Stand on any street in
Nairobi and count how many beautiful women will pass by in one minute
only…” he tears meat off a rib like an angry tiger with an eating
disorder. “I’ll tell you this though,” he continues, chewing furiously,
“Rwandan girls are friendlier than ours any day; more approachable. Stop
any girl you like on the street any day – she will not only give you her
number but will also expect your call. In Nairobi, getting a girl’s
number is like getting the president’s cell phone number. You have to be
introduced by someone she knows and trusts, or if you are very, very
clever, and you can come up with a pick-up line that makes her smile,
then you may just be lucky.”
“Rwandan girls are the bomb!” pipes up another Kenyan drunk at the next
table. “The bomb!” he repeats, waving a leg of goat for emphasis.
“Nonsense,” says Juma. “There’s not much to them. In fact most are a bit
like overripe tomatoes – saucy on the outside, soggy on the inside.”
What sour grapes!
You must by now be dying to know what interrupted my friend’s incessant
chattering before he could say “Nairobi”. It was a voice: a baritone so
gloriously deep I remember thinking it was wasted on its current task
and would be more useful on a CNN house ad.
“Attention, all passengers,” it said over the plane’s PA system. “This
is your new captain speaking. This plane has been taken over by the
National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) under the
leadership of Laurent Nkunda.”
A collective whimper went through the plane like an oversized eel
swimming through a goldfish bowl.
“Quiet!” commanded the voice.
A hush fell over the whole plane and a few pious souls could be seen
making the sign of the cross. I looked around. There were two beefy
armed men in business suits at each end of the aisle – at least I
assumed they were armed. I’d have loved to tell you dramatically that
they held AK 47 semi automatics pointed at us but I won’t, simply
because I didn’t see any guns. It was probably all that hardness of face
and the bulges in their suits that made me assume they were armed.
Beside me, the man Apolinaire sat as if in a theatre watching a horror
flick. His knuckles were taught and his fingers trembled like twigs in a
storm as he gripped the sides of his seat and raised himself a little
above the seat. His beady eyes were rather scary as they looked fixedly
at a spot a little beyond the two beefy men at the front. I followed his
gaze through the slightly open blue curtain behind the two armed men
only to see the young pilot we had seen earlier, now talking on the
wall-mounted microphone the hostess had used earlier to take us through
the emergency drill.
“There is no cause for panic,” he went on in that annoyingly rich
baritone. “No one will be harmed. This is not a hijack___.
With a tremendous scream and incredible speed for a man in his fifties,
Apolinaire leaped out of his seat and lunged for the front of the plane
as the two beefy men reached for their weapons…
“Leave the mzee alone,” boomed the young captain. Apolinaire had stopped
momentarily in mid-step. “Let him and the girlfriend come forward,” he
One of the big men remained where he was, his gun drawn, while the other
walked quickly past my friend, grabbed me firmly by the arm and took us
both behind the curtains where he huddled us next to the dumb waiters
and the two scared-looking stewardesses who sat on the floor under armed
guard. After sternly warning Apolinaire to “sit still and shut up, Dad”,
the young pilot continued his address.
“This is not a hijacking,” he explained. “We are just borrowing the
plane for a few minutes to take a wounded soldier to hospital in
Kampala. After dropping us off at the old Entebbe airport, you will be
free to resume your flight. We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience
this little detour will cause you all(,-Delete).” He turned away from
the mike a little. “Refuel in Goma,” he said, presumably to the pilot.
He sounded just like Moshe Dyan saying “Refuel in Nairobi” during the
The plane flew low – to avoid, I presumed, radar detection. We were now
headed for the border town of Goma, not for Nairobi as originally
planned. Our new captain had for some reason chosen to follow the same
route as the winding road that weaves its way around the many hills
between Kigali and Gisenyi. We were close enough to see the traffic on
the road and I couldn’t help recalling the day I had taken a road trip
to Gisenyi at the invitation of a Kenyan family living in Rwanda. Oh,
what a scenic route.
On both sides of the tree-lined road, the land rises up steeply till it
reaches the top of whatever hill you’re passing. And on each road-ward
side of the hill, hundreds of residences appear on neatly terraced
compounds, surrounded by neat paddocks of farmland laden with climbing
beanstalks, maize or even just banana trees bowing close to the ground
from the weight of their succulent seed. How, you wondered, do the
people get their household goods up there, seeing the hillsides are too
steep to accommodate any motorised transport! And how, pray, do their
motorised city relatives come visiting? Even now that the risky thrills
of modern air travel had thrust upon me the opportunity to see it all
again from the air, these questions lingered in my mind. “Count your
blessings, Sheila,” I could hear my mother’s voice whispering over and
over in my mind as, outside, the bright glow of the sunrise began to
creep up on us like a big ball of fire that peeked teasingly from a gap
between two hills. I could also hear my friend’s voice as he continued
to protest the unfairness of life through what seemed to be some kind of
Earlier, having finished his public address, the young pilot had turned
his attention to where we were still cowering next to the dumb waiters.
“I’m sorry papa,” he had said after hugging the older man affectionately
and knocking his head thrice against his in the traditional Rwandan
greeting for men. Father and son had held each other’s hands and looked
at each other in the eye. One could almost feel the generational gap
throbbing between them but there was no mistaking the resemblance and
the bond between them..
“Sorry doesn’t begin to cut it, son,” Apolinaire had said as he detached
his right hand to wipe off a tear of joy then quickly reattached it to
the bizarre double-handed generational handshake. “Can you even begin to
imagine how much grief you have caused your mother and me?” He had
touched his son’s head tenderly, as if it was a baby’s and he was afraid
to hurt him. He had then disentangled his other hand, stood hands akimbo
and asked his son to explain himself.
After ordering the stewardesses to go on and serve whatever beverage the
passengers would like, especially alcohol, he insisted, the son had very
quickly explained to us the circumstances under which he had become a
most trusted officer in the guerrilla organisation (ran-run) by the man
who shared their surname.
“I never perished in that plane crash in the Rift Valley as you can
see,” he concluded.
“And I must say you’ve perfected the art of stating the most obvious,”
retorted his father, for the first time exhibiting the legendary Rwandan
keen sense of the sarcastic.
“And the two German tourists I’m supposed to have crashed with were gay
neo Nazi operatives whose elimination an Israeli organisation had paid
well for. So I had parachuted off the plane and left them to die with
their plans of stealing a flamingo and smuggling it away to keep as a
pet.” He smiled thinly. “Tell mum I love her. And as far as you are
concerned, I am still dead. It’s for your own protection…”
The plane was flying over Ruhengeri as we got back to our seats. I was
just in time to once again witness the spectacle of the war crimes
prisoners as they marched to work in their thousands, the early morning
light shining on their scruffy blue American khaki uniforms as they
walked in single file along the shoulder of the road, but mostly
spilling into the almost empty road, reluctantly giving way only when a
car came too close or hooted angrily. That too is a Rwandan thing. It is
said that this is due to the traffic rules being so considerate of the
pedestrian and mostly strict on the driver. “You knock a pedestrian; you
go to jail with no option of a fine,” my friendly guide Martinique had
explained at one time.
“These are convicted criminals of the genocide,” my friend had told me
as we passed them on their way home during our road trip to Gisenyi.
“They confessed their sins, were forgiven by the state and sent to work
building the nation from home.”
I remembered thinking then that they were luckier than the male
prisoners at the Kigali jail who dress in pink and work on recycling the
city’s sewage into fertiliser. Why, I had asked my guide, are they
dressed in pink, of all colours?
“Can you imagine a man running away in a pink tunic?”
He had me there.
Before that, I had never even imagined a man in a pink tunic, period.
But what did I know about anything? I was just a foreigner. And even as
I scouted around for business opportunities, I couldn’t escape the
oddest sense that the locals were always reminding me of this fact,
albeit in the most subtle ways, that I was just that: a Banyamahanga, an
It also worried me that from my country alone, we were almost three
thousand banyamahangaand rising, and that the locals – both returnees
and those who had stayed at home – were not too comfortable with the way
our go-getter attitude was cramping their style; taking the jobs they
couldn’t do (because they were either too unqualified or too laid-back
to do them effectively) and generally consulting and doing business
worth billions of amafaranga.
Of course, my heart went out to President Kagame – my choice for
President of East Africa – for embracing the spirit of East African
cooperation and maintaining that foreign professionals and foreign
investment were most welcome to help the country attain its Vision 2020;
but I still couldn’t help feeling more than a little resented every once
in a while. That did not, however, dampen my East African dream: a dream
from which I always wake up with a contented smile; a dream in which the
Federal Government of East Africa, led by His Excellency Paul Kagame
(aka Uncle PK) adopts an American system of government in honour of the
son of Kogelo, Barak Obama.
What dampens the dream a bit is a little voice, the voice of my friend
Martinique, which keeps popping into the dream like an awful evil fairy,
fiercely whispering to me why I cannot (to-Delete) trust a “Mnyaru”.
“A Mnyarucan be very dangerous,” Martinique had once told me.
Mnyaruis short for Mnyarwanda. And that refers to every Rwandan: both
the one that never left and the returnee who spoke Kinyarwanda with an
accent. The returnees included those from the DRC who also spoke a
Congolese dialect of bad Swahili and, for some curious reason were
nicknamed Dubai, probably due to their expensive lifestyles. There were
also returnees from Uganda and Kenya (Wasajya), and returnees from
Tanzania, Mozambique and other lands, but their nicknames elude me.
Those who remained at home were of two broad types with variations in
between. There were the filthy rich, mostly characterised by deep rooted
investments in property and industry (Sopecya), and then there were the
wananchi,the people, generally called Abaturage. Abaturage could also be
a derogatory word used to describe the backward, the uncouth, the unhip:
amturage– an unsophisticated mshamba straight from the village…
“First of all,” continued Martinique, “they are very suspicious of
everyone and anyone. If you had witnessed fathers slaughtering their
wives just because they were from the other tribe, then the children
because they looked like their mothers, you too would be suspicious of
everyone and anyone. “Secondly, a Mnyaru will laugh and joke with you
even when he wishes he could wring your neck!”
Now that was a bit scary; even more so because it made that little bit
of xenophobic resentment I thought I had imagined a lot more real.
Still, I liked what Paul Kagame had done with the country – the whole
national unity programme, the reconstruction strategies under Vision
2020, the zero tolerance to corruption and the many other policies that
were turning Rwanda into probably the most promising little country in
“Life, oh life…,” my friend Apolinaire was still groaning in his sleep
as the plane descended towards the twin border towns of Gisenyi and
Goma. A boat was motoring its way across Lake Kivu from the Rwandan
side, making huge waves ahead and leaving a long trail of disturbance
behind. As I watched the boat become a dot in the horizon, I found
myself wondering what exactly drove people like Laurent Nkunda.
>From what I knew of him, he was a 40 year old career soldier, a father
of six, a soldier since 1993. Although he was born in Congo, he had
fought with Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, the rebel movement
formed by Rwandan Tutsi exiles that took Kigali in 1994 and ended the
genocide. In 1998 he had returned to Congo and become a senior officer
in the Rally for Congolese Democracy Goma (RCD-Goma), one of the main
rebel groups fighting in Congo, his stated mission being to protect the
Congolese Tutsis, locally known as Banyamulenge,from the Hutus who fled
to Eastern Congo after the genocide.
In 2003 when the DRC wars ended (leaving over 5 million dead), Nkunda
and his men had joined the national army of the transitional government.
Made a general in 2004, he had thumbed his nose at Kinshasa, refusing to
report there as part of the new integrated army. Instead, he had
withdrawn with hundreds of his former troops to the forests of Masisi in
North Kivu, from where he had declared the Congolese government corrupt
and incompetent and called for a military coup de tat.
Following the many clashes ever since, Nkunda’s band of over 5000
well-trained, well-armed and disciplined men had been more than a match
for the DRC government’s undisciplined and poorly paid troops. This had
led to the UN peacekeeping forces being deployed to the Goma area and
various ceasefire accords that had not quite held.
The world press had branded Nkunda a terrorist and the government in
Kinshasha and the UN Security Council had declared him a war criminal.
The same world press, I reminded myself, had also branded Dedan Kimathi,
Che Guevara and Yasser Arafat – at various times before him – as
Still, I wondered whether his guerrilla war could be as justified as,
say, Kimathi’s or Museveni’s or Kagame’s. Surely, I thought, he couldn’t
have abandoned (and potentially risked widowing/orphaning) a wife and
six kids, to fight an unjustifiable war, or could he? Was he a genuine
rebel with a cause or was he just another pawn in some high stakes
super-power game, and the women and children that died in the war
nothing but poor molecules of paint that got trampled upon and scratched
out of existence as the huge pieces were moved at various velocities
across the big chessboard of life?
And was there any truth in Kinshasha’s claim, which Rwanda had denied,
that Kagame was backing Nkunda in an attempt to turn eastern Congo into
a buffer zone?
The politics of liberation struggles aside, I wondered whether it was
Lauren’t Nkunda’s life we were on our way to save and prayed that
whoever it was would make it, lest our detour was all in vain.
Blame it on the few glasses of wine the stewardess had served me, though
it may as well have been all these musings becoming too much for my
simple mind; but as we started circling the twin border towns with a
view to landing on the airport in Goma, I was beginning to feel very,
very tired indeed. I knew what it was, I mused. It was part of the
soldiers’ battle plan for this “non-hijack” situation. In fact, the
young handsome guerrilla captain had ordered the stewardesses to serve
everyone as much drink as they could take because every drink on the
plane was spiked with some tranquilizer drug. That was it, I thought
My last disjointed thought before I fell asleep was the various ways
landlocked countries tended to cope with the general lack of beaches,
and how Rwanda in particular has taken advantage of Lake Kivu to turn
Gisenyi into a holiday resort, complete with a convincingly natural
artificial beach and a Serena (Beach) Hotel.
“… at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in fifteen minutes…” the
Captain’s voice – not the CNN one – was ending its announcement when I
woke up with a start. “Mabibi na mabwana…” it went on, repeating the
announcement in Swahili.
I may have imagined it but all the other passengers I could see from my
seat were either waking up or in deep slumber.
“If you look out the window,” the captain’s voice continued soothingly,
“you can see the great Rift Valley – one of the original Seven Wonders
of the World – in all its morning glory,”
I looked out the window and saw the Rift Valley floor in all its morning
glory. But it didn’t bring me any joy: it just brought into sharper
focus the memories of what had happened there during the chaotic
aftermath of the infamous Kenyan elections of 2007.
My mind filled with images of women and children roasting to death in a
place of worship; of grown, bearded men scampering away from their
homesteads with arrows sticking out of their behinds; of mothers getting
raped in front of their children and siblings; of long convoys of
destitute-looking internally displaced people (IDPs) walking for days
and nights in search of food and shelter… It also reminded me that many
months later, and even as the politicians continued to fight for more
power and selfishly awarded themselves more and more super-perks from
the taxpayer’s shallow pockets, thousands of IDPs were still living in
squalid conditions, their hopes of ever getting their lives back dying
by degrees every day as their tightly negotiated government played
smokes and mirrors; moving from crisis to crisis, smokescreen to
That right there, I thought, was material for a Kenyan genocide museum
just like the Rwandan one in Gisozi that I had been too lily-livered to
visit! Oh, how close we had come to the brink, I thought. For a country
that had spawned the first ever African-American president of the United
States of America, we were doing badly indeed.
As thinking was becoming most singularly depressing, I turned to my
travelling companion who was now snoring softly in his fully reclined
seat, shook him awake and informed him we were almost landing in
“Who? Where? What happened here?” he asked groggily as he stretched like
a troubled cat and straightened his seat into an upright position.
“I just woke up myself,” I said. “Your son’s no longer with us?” I
added, testing the waters.
“Of course he’s no longer with us, don’t be ridiculous!” he said,
removing his glasses, shooting me a piercing beady-eyed look. He
breathed on his glasses then started to clean them with a soft piece of
cloth he removed from his jacket pocket. I was going to protest but,
remembering his son’s warning, decided to play along. I began to wonder
though if I had not dreamt up the whole non-hijack situation.
“Pardon me,” I lied, “I meant to ask what happened to Solange, exactly
what. Did her back injury suddenly relapse?” I persisted.
“Yes, sustained in the 100 days war, remember?” I said impatiently.
“Solange never fought in the bush,” he said, shaking his head rather
sternly. “When she came to Rwanda in 1986, she became what we called a
‘Cadre’, which means she just used to talk as opposed to actually going
to the bush and carrying a gun.”
“Did she talk to anyone in particular?” I cried, perplexed.
“The people,” he answered simply. “Cadres,” he explained as if talking
calculus to a retarded six year old, “were part of the liberation
movement’s public education machine. They would go around telling the
people how nice it would be if Rwanda needed to be one nation with one
purpose for all Rwandans.”
Why would Daniela lie to me on Yahoo about such a thing? What else had
my friends from Kigali misled me about?
“But Daniela said____” I began, but he shushes me with a raised hand.
“Daniela and I are both Wasajya, which means we came to Rwanda from
Uganda only after the genocide.” I understood now that Daniela had not
come directly back to Rwanda, but had stayed first in the then
Rwandan-friendly Uganda of Yoweri Museveni, but didn’t see how that
advanced our story.
“Okay, okay,” I said as casually as I could under the circumstances,
“cut to the chase and tell me what killed my friend!” I shrieked.
Apolinaire put his glasses back on and squinted at me through them. He
cleared his throat politely.
“Solange,” he started quietly, “was not just another cadre. She was
special; some kind of chef du cadre who, due to her gregarious and
mostly agreeable nature, dealt closely with all sorts of people in the
liberation movement: from the lowliest Kigali city gutter rat to some of
the highest ranking officials, and everyone in between. She was a mover
and a shaker. Unfortunately, she moved and shook so much she got sick
from it. That’s when she came to Uganda and stayed with me for a
“I don’t understand…”
“Opinion is divided on how she got sick… many fingers point at a
boyfriend who died not much longer after her, while others even suggest
a mysterious rape incident on a drunken night. Only she alone knew the
truth and she took it with her.
“Anyway, as her condition continued to deteriorate, it was becoming more
and more difficult for me to feed her the right foods and source all her
medication. But like I said, she was a shaker and a mover and was close
friends with the leadership of the movement. To date, most of the our
good fortunes including Daniela’s plum job, her husband’s and my own
Joyce’s jobs at the BNR (Banque National du Rwanda) are just but a few
pointers to her power and connections. So the movement’s leadership sent
for her to be brought to Kigali where they made sure she got all the
food and medical attention she needed.
“Her verve and bounce and the lustre of her skin returned and so did her
big heart and big smile. Soon she was back to work and many are those
that never suspected she was ever unwell. The rest, you know: After we
attained liberation and a credible national government was in power, she
got down to building the nation, running that factory until an
opportunistic infection sneaked past her man-made immuno-defensive
system and got her.
“Daniela is yet to get to grips with losing her only sister just when
she was beginning to enjoy their reunion in the motherland.”
As the plane taxied to a stop at JKIA, and everyone’s phone beeped with
welcome messages from local cell-phone networks, I was glad I had bumped
into Apolinaire at Kigali International Airport. For now I understood
everything. ©Lloyd Igane 2009
The height of fanaticism – the government of east Africa, led by pkagame
adopts an American system of gvt in honour of the son of kogelo.