I want to tell you about a book written by a famous Rwandese acquaintance of mine, called Kagame. The name sounds familiar, does it not? But do not jump to conclusions. After all, Kagame is quite a common name in Rwanda (although the grammarians would call it a “proper” name), and no one, however great and powerful, can claim an absolute monopoly to it. There, indeed, are several Kagames elsewhere in East Africa.
Do you remember my telling you that every Ugandan south of the Nile probably has a Rwandese relative? But many Kenyans, too, are close relatives of East Africans with Rwandese roots. These are geographical and historical realities that we should embrace profitably and joyfully.
Incidentally, even in recent times, a striking number of us Kenya-based literati have had close ties with Rwanda. My KU colleagues and bosom friends, David Mulwa and the late Francis Imbuga, were there in the mid-1990s, soon after the Genocide, to film docudramas, like 100 Days and Sometimes in April, about that catastrophic event. Imbuga was so touched by the experience that he soon returned to Kigali as a visiting professor at the Kigali Institute of Education (KIE), currently a part of the National University of Rwanda. “Remera”, which appears in the title of Imbuga’s last novel, Miracle of Remera, is the Kigali district where KIE is located.
Preceding Imbuga to Kigali was another friend of ours, Prof Rocha Chimerah, who is currently one of the most senior academics at the Pwani University in Kilifi. Prof Chimerah, a leading educationist, linguist and Kiswahili expert, is also a stalwart among Kenyan literary figures, with several novels to his name, including the intriguingly prophetic Nyongo Mkalia Ini (Gall Bladder Sitting on the Liver). I am still digesting his opus magnum, the Siri Sirini (secrets within secrets) trilogy, on which I started nearly five years ago.
For some impressionistic reason, I believe that Chimerah is the rightful heir to the Kenyan Kiswahili novel legacy of the late Sociology Prof Katama Mkangi, my former UDSM classmate, who left us such prose gems as Ukiwa (desolation), Mafuta (oil) and Walenisi. Do my young colleagues detect potential research topics here?
Back to Rocha Chimerah and Francis Imbuga, our two distinguished scholars stayed and worked in Rwanda for several years, contributing crucially to the desperate human resource needs of that country in its early years of regeneration. They were subsequently joined by other ex-Nairobi academics, like Prof Egara Kabaji, of MMUST, Dr Evans Mugarizi of Moi, and eventually me. I, however, did not stay long, for a number of family and, especially, health reasons.
I had, however, been to Rwanda long before all these colleagues of mine. This was in 1969, when my colleague George Nshemereirwe and I had travelled as research students from Makerere to go and meet the Oracle of Rwandese orature, the Abbé Alexis Kagame.
This is the Kagame whose book has been on my mind, and which has triggered this nostalgic reverie down my Rwandese memory lane. He was then Rector of the Minor Seminary at Kansi, and also a Professor at the nearby National University of Rwanda in Butare.
Professor Kagame’s Kansi den, called a “study” in proper academic parlance, was absolutely breath taking. Every available inch of space in the cavernous room was stacked tight with books, files and folders, literally from floor to ceiling. The Abbé (Father Superior), you see, was indisputably the most learned man of his time in Rwanda. Studying and researching in Rwanda and Europe since his early 20s in the 1930s, he was the first African to become a member of the Belgian Royal Academy of Overseas Sciences, just as Léopold Sédar Senghor was the first African member of the Académie Française.
A big, towering man with a strong, sonorous voice, Kagame had an insatiable appetite for knowledge. He talked to George and me for several hours about his work in theology, history, anthropology, linguistics, philosophy and, of course, orature. He was, in 1969, in the final stages of preparing his manuscript of the Ibisigo royal recitations for publication. It eventually appeared as Introduction aux grands genres lyriques de l’ancien Rwanda (introduction to the great lyrical compositions of classical Rwanda).
The book in my mind, however, is his La philosophie bantou-rwandaise de l’être (Rwandese-Bantu philosophy of being). Based on his doctoral dissertation, the book is situated in the philosophical sub-discipline of ontology. This deals with such basic questions as: what is being? How many varieties of being are there? Can we grade them, and if so, how? In the process of developing his hypothesis, with close reference to the Rwandese language (Kinyarwanda) and belief systems, Kagame appears to have laid one of the foundations for the ideology that we call Ubuntu (indigenous humaneness) today.
Ubuntu (the conviction that asserts that I am because you are) came into my mind when I recently heard one of Kenya’s lawmakers say that we need a referendum and maybe a subsequent amendment of the constitution, in order to stop people stealing public funds. This may be so. But my view is that what we particularly need, in the whole of Africa, is proper ideological orientation. Do you remember Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble With Nigeria?
Constitutions are made and implemented by people, and so are laws and any such measures as anti-corruption rules. Unless we can change our people, point them in the right human direction, problems such as corruption, violence, myopic ethnic alliances and personality cults will persist, regardless of the major documents that we keep drafting and amending.
As a teacher, I believe that this process has to start with our education, and, as it happens, a younger but better informed friend of mine, Dr Evelyn Jepkemei, seems to have developed an approach quite similar to mine. I will have a word with her, and if she agrees, I will see if we can share our combined thoughts with you.
Meantime, I am because you are.