Not to fret! I don’t mean ‘hang’ literally. All is well in Kigali, this is just a humble contribution to an ongoing societal conversation.
I want to celebrate great historian Emmanuel Ntezimana: One of the great Rwandan men, a wise and bold man. I want to recall his inaugural lecture of the spring of 1986, at the Ruhengeri Campus of then National University of Rwanda, when he warned students: ‘Never to underestimate the continuity of Rwanda’s national conscience.’ He warns them not to take colonization or the revolution of 1959 as permanent breaks of Rwandan history.
By delivering such message, Political Author Jean Paul Kimonyo writes, Ntezimana was basing on his understanding of ancient history to predict an inevitable return of exiled Rwandans to their country.
That was a bold lecture to give, in such an oppressive era. I asked Late Prof. Laurent Nkusi why Prof. Ntezimana wasn’t in trouble for this speech. He said to me: ‘He was a highly respected intellectual. We all called him ‘Ki-Zerbo’, in reference to the illustrious Burkinabé historian. Father Alexis Kagame and Bishop Bigirumwami were highly respected too.
Rwanda in essence, in conception and in governance, respects thinkers, elders and artists and this, for centuries. Rwanda is a millennial civilisation. It is one of the few nations on earth that preserves a rich repertoire of national folklore, philosophy and spirituality.
So I am bothered by the lack of ‘Agaciro’ that philosophers are subjected to, nowadays in Kigali. Disrespecting elders, who committed no crime is unRwandan. I am disappointed in our city’s lack of grasp for Rwandan sensibilities. I have lost respect for you, Kigali!
Unlike others, some artists do not sing praise to power, they are true artists and possibly divas. They may have made mistakes in the past and I may not know the full story. But all I know is that they are real, their love for Rwanda is immeasurable and they should be respected, if not for their age, at least for that. For it has never been about one individual, it is about the body of work, in various capacities, the cadreship, the service that they have rendered to this nation, which many of us are proud to call home.
In a group I am in, when an elderly was paraded, I reacted and said: ‘ababikoze ntakinyabupfura bafite’. I said it is undignified. And I asked, why they had not paraded the two generals in similar offense – that said, I was relieved the Generals were not paraded and shamed, at least. A lady in the group reacted that an artist and a general were incomparable – implying that the artist was below them. I find it disheartening that we conceive society like that. In his latest book, ‘Homo Deus’, Yuval Harari explains that in the conception of the city in 2021, whence humans want to play God using technology and law, we must give a place to philosophers in the conception and administration of the city, lest ‘homo sapiens’ lose their Soul.
The city of Athens was greater when it listened to Socrates, to Plato and to Aristotle. If we teach young Rwandans to sing praise to the powerful and disregard the artists, the elders and the philosophers, we are then not really a society, we are then not really a nation. That is why we have and accept daily harangues from ‘improvised’ philosophers with little empathy.
Historically, great Rwandan figures had a direct relationship with the arts; King Yuhi Mazimphaka was a poet, an eccentric, but most called him a mad man. Most illustrious Rwandan King, Ruganzu Ndoli was a poet too. The lady ‘Nyirarumaga’ who hid him when he was a child and saved his life from the ‘Banyabungo’, was asked what she wanted as a reward when Ruganzu Ndoli returned as a King. She did not ask for a position, she did not seek cows, nor riches, she replayed that she wished the King to build: ‘Ingoro y’abasizi n’abanyamateka’. She is the real founder of the national museum. People who think Rwandan generals or Rwandan politicians are more important than artists, elders and philosophers, either they do not read, or they do not have self-respect.
It took me immense strength to share this feeling, it took me time. I am deeply bothered by your behaviour, Kigali. I cannot sit by and watch, for what you are doing is not in my name, Kigali. In Kinyarwanda they say, ‘Umuryango utazimuye urazima’, kandi umuco wo kwinenga niwo natojwe jye. Uwo gushyigikira amafuti no gukoma amashyi sinywuzi…
I am bothered that you do not respect philosophers, I do not pretend to be one, but I do aspire to be. I aspire to be Rugamba, I am worried however, that you wouldn’t respect me then, unless I wear a uniform with ranks, unless I wear a title with protocol, for that’s who you are becoming, Kigali, a vain, superficial city, with little knowledge of history, with little regard for poetry, with no care for romance…
However, I warn you, Kigali: Ranks and titles come and go, poetry and music are timeless.. They will inspire humans for generations.
How many young people joined the struggle because of our music, how many people love this country because of its poetry, its culture and history? We aren’t perfect, me in particular. We err, often. But how we are dealt with in our erring is what defines an empathic city and one that is not. No one said we shouldn’t be held accountable. We said ‘HOW’.
There is great value in holding everyone accountable, including the greatest among us – and I have referred to it in the past. However, laws aren’t the only thing that guides society: culture, empathy are equally important. Arresting generals is important but respecting elders is too. Because I got to a venue earlier, gives me the right to be seated and be served first. But if an elder comes, I may stand up, let them seat, and let them be served before me – not by virtue of the law, but by virtue of another, equally important value, which is respect of elders.
I look up to Rwandan artists, philosophers. Humiliating them is humiliating me, it is humiliating millions of people; more importantly, it is humiliating yourself, Kigali.
In his theory: ‘Discipline and punish’, philosopher Michel Foucault analyses the social and theoretical mechanisms behind the birth of the penal system. He argues that we should create a more humanitarian penal system, one that is more rehabilitative than punitive. His predecessor Jeremy Bentham had studied the ‘Panopticon’: a disciplinary concept brought to life in the form of a central observation tower, placed within a circle of prison cells. From the tower, a guard can see every cell and inmate but the inmates can’t see into the tower. Prisoners will never know whether or not they are being watched.
Kigali is not, and should never be a Panopticon. We live in it with abandon, with freedom. There are rules to be observed, and as typical civilians, at times we break them. We accept to be held accountable then, but the media should never be misused to give us the impression that we are being watched.
You see, one supports an institution they identify with. When they do a good action, one says: Ah! this is done in my name! Citizens’ support isn’t blind and unconditional. We accept to be held accountable, but we have the right to hold our institutions accountable too: That is our social contract. This one institution however, has lost me. This was one action too many, that got stuck in my throat, ‘I can’t breathe’.
I know the deeds of a few individuals cannot tarnish the image of an entire institution. Although they lose me at times, it doesn’t mean I consider myself their adversary – on the contrary – we are all Rwandans and in this together. And I know that their mission is necessary and their actions usually efficient. I just wish they’d use a touch of empathy as well. Efficiency and empathy are at times mutually exclusive, but as Samuel Becket once said: ‘To find the form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of an artist’.
Anyway, I am sorry if I offended anyone. A respectful conversation is healthy, after all, our constitution enshrines ‘The constant quest for solutions, through dialogue and consensus’. I had promised myself not to criticize our institutions in public anymore, because it may give ammunition to those who wish us harm. But I will never be held hostage by our enemies to fail to speak to my own people. It is not our enemies, but ourselves who define our condition, in our own city.
That said, you make me happy, every day, Kigali. You make me proud. But every now and then, you break my heart. I will leave, Kigali, and comeback only to visit. I will soon leave you to your devices. But just know that I am not impressed, I am not pleased by your ways, lately…
This too shall pass. As you always do, I know you will rediscover your Soul, Kigali, so that I fall in love with you all over again, for those who love more, get more heartbroken. The love however, is not gone, it never will…