In June 2009, the Nation Media Group sent me to Rwanda, not to do any particular story but, as managing editor Mutuma Mathiu put it, “we are sending you there to feel the place, know the people, and give us a report.”
I travelled on RwandAir and landed at Kigali Airport on a sunny Friday afternoon.
“Karibu Rwanda”, the friendly cab driver told me on reading the tag on my suit-case.
“Where do I take you?” “Anywhere: Let’s first have a drive through the town then you advise me on where to stay.”
After an hour of getting to know the town, the cab driver told me I could try Seasons Hotel next to the Rwanda National Stadium. “Kenyans like the place,” he said. He was right. And there began my lessons:
LESSON NUMBER ONE
Outside our borders, Kenyans appreciate what they hardly do at home: They acknowledge they are one people called Kenyans.
That evening I dined with a group of 17 Kenyans who hailed from every corner of our Republic.
After the meal, we rode in a convoy of four taxis to an entertainment joint in the middle of Kigali (it is pronounced Chigali) called Car-wash.
Any Kenyan who has been to Rwanda knows Car-wash. If a Kenyan was blindfolded and suddenly dropped at Car-wash, they would swear by the Holy Book that they are in Nairobi.
Everything at Car-wash is Kenyan. The nyama-choma tastes like that at Nairobi’s Kenyatta Market; the fish like that from Migingo; githeri tastes exactly like the one the Githeriman was munching as he waited to vote on Tuesday, and the muthokoi is original Ndwele sipite.
But the real Kenyan moment at Car-wash comes when the revellers take to the floor to dance to ohangla, mugithi, Ken-wa-Maria, mwana a mberi, twist, taarab, and any other Kenyan tune you know.
At Car-wash, Kenyans hardly suppress a feeling of guilt that it takes just one evening in a foreign capital to discover what we should have known all along – that we are first and foremost one people called Kenyans.
After a night of kuji-enjoy Kenya style, I was woken up past midday by one of the many friends I made at Car-wash, Dr Nick Onyango.
At the time he was a medical practitioner in Kigali. (Some digression: Kenyans know no borders. In the last eight years, Dr Onyango has telephoned to tell me he was working in Tunisia.
Then he called to say he had moved to Sao Tome. His last call came from Bolivia. God knows where else he will call from).
“Man, you can’t sleep the whole day. Come down I take you to see the town”, Dr Onyango woke me up, my head as heavy as lead.
LESSON NUMBER TWO
Rwandans can never go hungry for lack of unga.
The first stop we made was at the main market in Kigali – our equivalent of Wakulima Market.
While Kenyans have come to believe that ugali can only come from maize, Rwandans know unga must not necessarily come from maize.
They have unga from cassava (they call it manioc); they have unga from banana (ibitoke); unga from millet (my in-laws from Kisii know how nutritious ugali-wimbi is). Rwandans also have unga from minji (Governor-elect Anne Waiguru and other minji-minjis from across the country will like that).
Contrast that with Kenya where potatoes rot in Nyandarua; bananas are fed to cattle in Kisii; and cassava is eaten by rodents in Nyanza even as we starve waiting for maize from Mexico.
LESSON NUMBER THREE
Rwandans have internalised the importance of being orderly and obeying the law.
I came to know this as I took a ride through Kigali on a boda-boda. It was on Sunday when there was not a single cop in the streets.
The first thing the boda-boda man did was to hand me a helmet and a safety jacket. The typical Kenyan in me asked: “Must I put them on?” “Yes you must”, he said in a tone of finality.
In the streets, I noted all motorists were stopping at a zebra-crossing even when there was no pedestrian crossing, and stopping at every red light even when the road was clear.
I also came to learn why Kigali has the label of a clean, green city. Everybody drops waste in the dustbin; smokes in the designated places; and hawkers know where to sell their wares.
LESSON NUMBER FOUR
You should never destroy what you have to know its worth.
My first official appointment came on my fourth day when I met Foreign Affairs minister, Ms Louise Mushikiwabo.
At the time she was the minister for Information. At first sight she is a nice, soft spoken lady. She personally received me at the door and ushered me into her boardroom.
It is only when we sat down and started talking that I got to know that beneath her cool demeanour, she is as tough as concrete.
It was supposed to be me interviewing her, but she turned it into a lecture session.
“Why do you Kenyans want to destroy your great country?” she ambushed me as I dropped a tea-bag into my cup. It was a year after the 2007/8 post-election violence.
Without waiting for me to answer, she took me through the history of Rwanda.
“We got our independence before you (1962). We had a blessed country”, she said.
“Unlike you who are 40-plus ethnic communities speaking in different ethnic dialects, we are only three communities, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, who all speak in one dialect, Kinyarwanda.”
She went on: “At Independence, we were the most enterprising people in the region, trading from the edges of the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean.
We had the best climate to grow anything grown on Earth, and had enough water to irrigate and give hydro-power to half the continent. We also had the rare Mountain gorillas and 200 rare tree species. In culture, we were the people who invented ballet dance before the English stole our patent.”
I was almost concluding the lady wouldn’t give me a chance to ask a question when she suddenly said:
“Sorry I have taken so much of your time. But you know I am your fellow journalist. It reminded me of our own Raphael Tuju who will take half the time lecturing you, before he takes your question.
“So what went wrong with Rwanda that you ended up in the regrettable events of 1994? I asked her.
“Good question,” she said.
“Step after step, we took the dangerous path you Kenyans attempted last year (2008). Instead of seeing Independence as god-send opportunity to pool our great resources under our own flag, we embarked on negative ethnicity and self-destruct. The end result was 1994,” she replied.
“Do you see Kenya headed there?” I asked her.
“You have the choice. Like us you can first destroy what you have to know its worth the hard way, or choose to avoid the dangerous path we took before common sense came back to us.”
While in Rwanda I also visited the genocide museums. I wouldn’t advise you to do the same should you visit the country. I don’t want you to be haunted by ghosts of what I saw.
I also attended Gacaca Court sessions and witnessed how nice it gets when people willingly confess to their ugly past but aspire to move on.
Late Tuesday afternoon I bumped into a Rwandan at Park Place Hotel on Magadi Road and got into a conversation. He told me: “I hope you Kenyans will not destroy your great country just because of an election.”