“What has really differentiated Koffi Olomide to his emblematic predecessors in Congolese music was the role he assigned to the ‘atalaku’”. Who is an ‘atalaku’? It is the annoying guy in the background of a soft and southing rumba, announcing random names of random people that no one cares about, throughout the entire song. For your name to be mentioned, I am told you must pay at least 10 thousand dollars. In Kinyarwanda you’d call them ‘Inyombya’ and in English: propagandists.
In the days of Zaiko and OK Jazz, as a connoisseur recently explained to me, the likes of Tabu-Ley, Madilu System and Papa Wemba would intone endless love anthems, while guests sat down and listened, shaking their heads in nostalgia and reverence, helped by the alcohol of course… The daring couples danced a one step, boring move, holding each other on the shoulders until, 25 or so minutes later towards the end of the number, the drummer would signal the entry of the atalaku with a thunderous drum jam called ‘doublage’, Then there’d be a twerking and belly dancing stampede on the dance floor.
Koffi looked at it and said why postpone the party? He introduced the atalaku from the beginning of the song and made sure no one endured long, one-tuned litanies about love or life philosophy. Koffi became an overnight sensation, especially among the youth, and those who pay no attention to the lyrics, but he may have turned Congolese classical rumba into cheap pop.
Just like in music, in politics too Atalakus thrive because they speak to the masses, but they have no morals, nor loyalty, and are only useful if and when the politics utilizing them want to do pop, rather than classical music. But Atalakus are not an African invention, the world uses them much, much more than Africans; picture Collin Powel sticking out a small capsule and swearing to the UN Security Council that it contains proof of Iraq’s WOMD.
While the ruling RPF is founded in moral values, genocide perpetrators and the powers supporting them have used cutthroat intellectual mercenaries with absolutely no morals to undermine its government. France in particular, to cover-up its role in the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi, has manipulated its own justice system, as Wikileaks cables recently reveled.
Others, more or less serious politicians, journalists, NGOs and scholars trace their roots in a colonial mindset or are inhabited with wilsonianism (read: mission to civilize Africans) that does not enable them to soberly and respectfully engage with us.
That’s how films like ‘The Untold Story’ were produced by the BBC, books published by Sundaram and Human Rights Watch and articles written by Philip Reyjens, Michaela wrong, etc. The Rwandan opposition in exile is hardly any different; during a US senate hearing about ‘lack of freedoms in Rwanda’, the invited Rwandan speaker shed real tears in front of the camera, in loving memory of British Radio: BBC-Kinyarwanda, which had just been shut down in Rwanda for peddling genocide ideology.
In the beginning, the Rwandan government was frequently outraged by the sheer nonsense propagated to tarnish its image; rebuttals were written; I too partook in the rebuttals. In the end they must have said to themselves, instead of spending time wrestling with pigs, lets hire Atalakus; sometimes even snatching them from the opposing side, which allowed them to pursue serious transformational politics, while Atalakus from both sides wrestled it out in the mud; their mutual element.
This is dirty business, this is dirty politics, but it has paid off. During the just concluded national dialogue, it was declared that ‘for once, Rwanda’s political space is occupied by Rwandans’ and critics have been defeated! (there are many factors to this, I’ll come back to them in a next blog)
So let’s set the records straight; the mercenaries we use, be it Rwandans or Ugandan, aren’t a reflection of us, they are a reflection of the world we live in. I know that our leaders may have as little respect for them as any person with integrity in this town, but such is what politics and geopolitics have come to. In fact, while they serve their purpose externally, internally they erode the image of the state – as Umushikirano has shown, the people aren’t impressed…
What’s remarkable is that over time, it’s unclear who’s using whom. I noticed atalakus have many followers; they have followers because they have the favors of power, and they have the favors of the power because they have the followers; it is uncanny.
So to the youth: when you see these inyombyas thriving, invited at the high table of power, please do not take them as your role models. I am sorry I can’t name names; see, I am already involved in so many cold wars, against my best intentions, that I am not about to start Jihads (holy wars)…
I wish I could though, so that you know whom to ‘unfollow’. But they are easy to spot on social media and in official events, here is a hint: you will usually spot them by how loudly they sing praises. Hint 2: their shameless plug-in, always copying the President is compulsive. Hint 3: They always know something about everyone…
Adults too, whom had been leading irreproachable civil service, may start seeing no point in toiling, while louder fools thrive; They start seeing their principled service as a dignified road to starvation, and at times, succumb to corruption; so long as afterwards they become louder sycophants, and know how to humble themselves later and apologize…
So, there is a school of thoughts suggesting that the use of Atalaku is somewhat reactionary. This school believes that: 1. We have the means to occupy our political space; 2. Critics have nothing on us both in style and class; and more importantly; 3. With the progress and stability that Rwanda has registered; time has come, when we can stand our ground without using atalakus. Many of us think there is a way to fight the good fight of telling our story quietly and elegantly.