The platoon commander is surprised to see his troupes stopping.
- Wewe, what is the matter? He asks;
- A river Afande. His deputy answers.
A platoon of Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) has been walking all night and came up to a river just before dawn. The adui barracks they’re supposed to attack are just on the other side; they have to cross! Afande can’t swim. Having grown-up in a refugee camp in Uganda, he missed out on the swimming lessons…
They have to cross! Orders are to attack by dawn. He’s never disobeyed an order; that’s not how you make Platoon Commander in the RPA, a rather nice appointment, which spares you from carrying ammunition – he likes his job; They have to cross! To avoid any misunderstanding to his troops he makes a disclaimer:
- Tutavuka hiyi mtoni saa iyi! (We’ll cross this river right now!)
He can’t swim, he wasn’t trained for this; they have to cross!
Half his troupes can’t swim, but they know very well, today is as good day as any to start learning how to. They have no doubt Afande means business.
Sneering, he repeats; – Saa hiyi! (right now!) He was so close to his sting mission: The adui barracks across the river are located at vintage point from the small town where massacres are occurring. Orders were to hit at dawn, seize them, radio HQ for reinforcement, then move to save lives in the town. One more day and the mission would be a failure as there would be no one left to save; they have to cross!
He had even rehearsed the radio message to HQ upon seizing Adui barracks: ‘Kazi umetutuma afande, tume maliza’ (The job you sent us to do, Afande, we have finished); they have to cross, damn it!
He has an idea; Nani anajuwa kuogeleya? (Who knows how to swim) some kids grew up by lake Tanganyika in Burundi and Tanzania, others by lake Kivu in Zaire: expert swimmers both! See, every Saturday they washed their only outfit; so the lake was a perfect place they could hang out naked, as it dried in the sun.
- mimi afande! na mimi, na mimi…(Me sir, and me, and me): Half of them.
Ah, hope regains his mind; now he knows all is not lost; they will cross the bloody river; Today isn’t the day him, Kayitare, will disobey orders!
- Ok, one swimmer, one non-swimmer hold hands and cross.
- What? One terrified non-swimmer, seemingly unconvinced by the simplicity of the plan – exclaims;
For motivation he hears a crack crack! Afande pistol cocking. Suddenly the non-swimmer is feeling much better, and ready to cross.
And that’s the story of how the RPA won the war and stopped the genocide; and that’s the story of how a post-conflict country is about to become a middle-income country in one generation…
Which brings me to the Car Free Zone: ‘If Music were wealth, Africa would be rich, if you can’t dance, you would curl up and die’ – Richard Dowden, Author of Africa
I refrained from posting this before the second day; I wanted to have a more realistic picture of how the car free zone – or simply #TheZone was doing. Knowing my people, I didn’t expect them to embrace such radical change immediately. ‘Of course they want change; but just not right now…’ – 20 years later, hitting the ground running, as in the little story above, still isn’t the forte of Rwandan civilians.
So here is an account of the first two days #InTheZone. The first day was exciting in its own way. People not quiet sure they can actually walk in the middle of the tarmac; only crossing the street from the Zebra. Bumping into the Minister of Justice; attracting admiration from the mayor, as if my presence on the roadside, typing this story on my laptop is proof, that his plan works or will work; painfully witnessing a blatant violation of rule number one of my #CarFreeZone User manual (Read next blog); being photographed, tweeting, facebooking and Blogging!
Here I pose to set the records straight:
It farfetched that cars promote business and car ban kills it! In fact, it’s just plain ignorance. What some see as a ‘novel’ idea here, is a 200-year-old practice in most big cities and they are all bustling with business and life. Not to mention that I saw a policeman in uniform getting into a casual convo with a girl, seamlessly, and walk off with her digits, 300 meters of #TheZone later.
Also, the feeder roads to the #TheZone are free-drive and most of the buildings facing #TheZone have back access for vehicles.
At some point I came up with one idea of starting an omelet joint here with two friends; an artist and a community organizer, who already has a cookie business: Mkate na Buta. However, my co-blogger of the day Rima, was overflowing with ideas of how to make this the most vibrant space in East Africa: Festivals, exhibitions, food fairs, Jewelry, farmer’s organic marked, Jazz Fests, traditional Sunday, ‘This space embodies what I think the new Rwanda stands for’, she said to me, enthusiastically: ‘Safe and free, no one judging me, while I’m experiencing new things!’
The fact that she is Indian and excited about this is encouraging and at the same time revealing: Leading Rwandans into modernity is hard. their neophobia (fear of anything new) is deeply entrenched. Rima had more ideas on the Car Free Zone than me, simply because she’s lived in more cities than I have, In my previous blog I suggest that her experience, yours and mine can all be harnessed to build a true colorful city. So open your heart!
I remember when they asked people to relocate from ‘Gakinjiro’ to ‘Gakiriro’, they almost rioted: ‘they are chasing us out of their town’ – some said. Look at them now; they’ve built a new and modern city down there. Would they want to go back to their bird nest? Never! That city policy literally transformed carpenters and welders into investors and businessmen; in less than four years.
While democracy, consulting the people, outreach, etc., is all-good, there is nothing wrong one can possibly say about walking on foot and not driving. In all logic, a space where there are no cars is healthy, safe and attractive. It also facilitates exchanges of people of all classes and backgrounds.
So what were the arguments against here?
- ‘It will be difficult for traders down the road to walk to the bank with sacks of money’
- Really? How ridiculous is that? On that street there are headquarters of banks – meant for corporate, cash free banking. However, each bank has many branches just nearby, for the alleged sacks of money; the city is safe, no one will snatch them.
- ‘People who buy come in cars’
- Well if you have a car you know how parking on that street has been a nightmare. So what people usually do; what I usually do is come for one specific thing in one specific shop, get it and get out. Now I have the opportunity to walk around, do window-shopping and let myself attracted in one, two or three shops. Buy on the spot or comeback later.
- Most business owners there even told me that they use their shops as show rooms and have stores somewhere else.
That settles it? Not really; I even saw people with no cars complaining – for a reason that is beyond me…
I think the real problems here is our parvenus: new or aspirant car owners, seeing their chance to show off in peril. They are just trying to be elitist; ‘petit bourgeois’ – as Marx would call them.
One group had genuine concerns though – and that is shop owners #InTheZone, who were doing just fine and didn’t feel the need to venture into the unknown.
The five that my journalist friend Archy Henry and I, interviewed by closure of business last evening, were all understandably anxious. Two of them, namely: Wood Habitat furniture, towards Ecole Belge said nothing changed, in fact her business was slightly higher on the first day (She has a store elsewhere); likewise for the electronics shop at the heart of the Zone. Sadly, a nearby clothing shop didn’t have the same luck, nor did the retailer next to him – He explained that people who wanted to buy gallons of water and bottles of Gaz didn’t quiet manage to transport them.
The quick evening survey taught us that there is need for more study and engagement with businesses; that said, #TheZone is here to stay…
To conclude, I will quote a tweet from Sanny Ntayombya, the promoter of #TheZone, responding to Edmund Kagire’s worries of business closing (they are both good journalists and friends): ‘some will close, others will open, others will remain’; That’s just the reality of a fast moving city. If your business isn’t fit for car free zones, one of you should move – and in all likelihood, #TheZone ain’t going anywhere…
Now that we have a Car Free Zones, there are endless opportunities that this space offers – those who’ve been in them in other cities can tell us. It is up to us the youth, social activists and artists to take it up and fill it with positive energy and good vibes – of course that is, if we start looking in that direction and stop whining 😉