Wise words I once heard while buying bananas in a bar in Kigali, Rwanda in 2008:
‘Nothing can heal without truth; education seeks truth; so, nothing can heal without education.’
Occasionally on the way home from work at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, I would go down to a little grocery shop down a dusty side-street off the Boulevard de L’Umuganda to pick up some bananas.
This is the next instalment in the series, Letters from the Heart of Africa.
I’m a fusspot when it comes to the consumption of bananas; this entails a clinical and daily inspection of them ripening from light green to yellow, then to observe them grow tiny brown leopard spots, and then watching them enlarge and join to make larger brown patches like on a giraffe ‘s neck. The ripening is an art form, carefully expedited by hanging them on a hook or a door handle so that they brown evenly to just the right side of rotten – otherwise they risk going soft on one side and threaten to ooze a brownish, syrupy goo from a slowly emerging split.
It’s a little sad being a banana geek.
I’d also go down to this little grocers because it doubled up as a bar where locals would hang out, and I’d prefer to sit there on the plastic chairs and read a book over a Mutzig rather than sit alone on the comfy sofa of my front room.
The grocers-cum-bar was a deceptively small single room ascended by three steps. It had white-washed walls and wooden shelves full of wares. Not just bananas but also sugar, waraji sold in small plastic bags that resembled saline drips, tubs of margarine, cans of tuna, brightly coloured tubes of sweets, tins of Nescafe and BOP cockroach killing spray.
There was nearly always the twangy rhythm of Congolose music playing from a speaker and nearly always some local lads around a table drinking beer and munching brochettes.
In the evenings it was all lit up up with a single light bulb that hung from a pendant fitting from the centre of the room, giving it a yellow light that stretched the patrons’ shadows in to ghoulish phantoms with long arms and alien heads.
I met Ferdinand first, chatty, thoughtful, tri-lingual, the fresh-face of a new Rwanda who worked in IT and as business people we had things in common.
I had told him about my forthcoming ascent of Karisimbi and that I did’t have any cold weather clothes; a week later he had sourced a black polyester beanie cap with the single word ‘Paris’ on the front beside a logo of the Eiffel tower.
After a few visits to the shop I met Ferdinand’s other friends, Germaine, Jean-pierre, and Paul. As one of the local lads, they ensured I paid local prices (not Mzungu prices) of 10 big bananas for just 20 pence.
On some evenings Ferdinand would be on his own, tapping away at a laptop, and we would get chatting. He would tell me about his life before he was a business man, before the time of peace, the time he was once a soldier for the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi army in Ugandan exile that returned to Rwanda to end the genocide of 1994. He didn’t look very old, so it was hard to imagine him being a child solider and extra bizarre because Ferdinand was softly-spoken, an intellectual, so unlike a man of war and fighting.
‘Even if I was in a RPF uniform I never thought I was a soldier; I never really had the fighting spirit of a soldier, I just had a soldier’s uniform and gun; we would wait in jungles for the enemy because they had pockets of resistance in places here and there, but really I looked forward to weekends when I could put down my rifle and pick up a nice novel to read and see my family.’
He spoke like a man who ended up in job he had little inclination for , but destiny and circumstances had contrived.
‘The times before the genocide, the time of my childhood were happy days, I was at primary school in the valley of Gisozi. But the war ended all of that happiness. In July 1994 we had to pick ourselves up. We had nothing, I mean literally nothing,’
‘You started from zero.’
‘No it was worse than that – we started from minus 10.’
Ferdinand never told me what his personal losses were but I wasn’t keen to pry. Sometimes silence says more than words.
‘Some of my friends who were interhamwe escaped for Zaire; those who stayed behind, you couldn’t look at them in the eye.’
The interahamwe were the Hutu militia who perpetrated the genocide and oversaw the killing of 10,000 people every day for 100 days in 1994. What marked out the Rwandan genocide from those elsewhere in the world was that friends turned on friends.
He had spent the first three years after the genocide as a soldier attacking strongholds of interhamwe rebels in operations around the Zaire/ DR Congo border. At that time, Ferdinand thought that he would have to fight for the rest of his life. The interahamwe were still strong outside Rwanda’s borders, but then peace started, and Rwandans like Ferdinand could think about themselves and plan for their own careers.
‘So after being a soldier what did you want to do?’
He shook his head defiantly. ‘No doubt, I wanted to study. I finished secondary school when I was 22 and then I won a scholarship for a survivors fund for education.
“There were great intellectuals in the RPF,’ he said. ‘Some Rwandans left top universities in the USA and Belgium, they left luxurious lives to go and hide in jungles, where we would sleep on cut grass at nights.’
‘You slept on grass? Weren’t you scared of snakes?’
‘Snakes were scared of us! We were men fighting to liberate our country. It was an accident of history that made intellectuals become soldiers.’
After 4 years studying at the university in Butare, aged 27, after all the challenges, he graduated.
‘How do you see the future of the country?”
‘If I try to analyse it, things have improved, even though poverty is extreme.’
‘I noticed the poverty in the countryside, on the road to Gisenyi.’
‘That’s nothing. The south is worse.’
‘The government has changed, we have moved to a liberal economy with foreign investment and the government is no longer the big father; now it is the referee. Yet it is not heaven here, it is a constant struggle, we are surrounded by a lack of security in neighbouring countries.’
“When the foreigners come here they fixate on 1994 all the time, does that bother you when things have moved on and Rwanda is more than the genocide?”
“I prefer not to be stuck on the past, here there are building projects, openings of supermarkets, selling of minerals, we have good phone connections, you can improve your life and get married and have a good place in society; it’s not just about the genocoide.”
“But the lessons of the past? Is there is a risk that in the rush to future those lessons will be forgotten?”
‘In our minds we still live in 1994. I still see the images like it was yesterday, as if it was five minutes ago. Even if we earn a thousand dollars a month, the genocide has left a strong mark on our minds. What we saw in 1994 is not what everyone sees. First of all I am Rwandan; then I am Tutsi; then I am a survivor. I am a survivor because I am a Tutsi.’
I asked him about the future for Rwanda and what parents should now be telling their children.
‘Bring children to question things, to have critical thinking. Give them the options and tell them the consequences of each option. If you choose unity, living together will happen; if you choose stereotypes then another darker future will happen; if you choose to be divided hatred will will happen. Take a personal decision, not a collective one.’
‘Why give them a choice?’ I asked him. ‘Why not just show them the proper way?’
‘No, no no,’ he said shaking his head. ‘No Loons, this is education not indoctrination. We are saying you use your own thoughts and come to the conclusion yourself, make the connection between lessons from the past and the personal actions they can take, both as individuals and collectively, which will lead to a healthy future for all.”
Through my conversations with Ferdinand in that banana selling bar down that dusty side street, I started to understand the post genocide struggle for normality and how people dusted themselves off and got on with their lives. Ferdinand’s journey was remarkable yet in Rwanda not untypical. It could be told by many survivors who are now in their 30s having spent their formative years in the dark days of 1994. It has been a long journey from his minus 10.
On other days when he was with his friends we’d just joke and talk about football. I haven’t seen Ferdinand since 2008; I wonder now how his life has changed and how as he approaches middle age, how is outlook and assessments of the past have differed in this brave new recovering Rwanda.
Names of people in the above post have been changed to protect people’s identities.
This post was part of the blog series Letters from the Heart of Africa.