I visited Fort Portal, Uganda’s jewel in the West, and fell in love

An aerial view of the town

An aerial view of the town

Known as the only town with an ‘English’ name in East Africa, Fort Portal is probably the most ‘Rwanda-like’ town in Uganda. In Fort Portal, you can forget the smoke, dust, buveera (plastic bags) banned in Rwanda, piles of rotting rubbish and disgusting Marabou Storks that plague Kampala, Jinja, Mbarara and other major Ugandan towns. Here, a sweet air and cooling breeze welcomes the visitor.

I travelled to this town, which is about five hours away from

The blushing bride and I

The blushing bride and I

Kampala, to attend a ‘Rutooro’ traditional introduction ceremony. By the time I left, three days later, I’d fallen in love with the town. Surrounded by tea plantations, the town, home to about 50,000, was named after the British Special Commissioner to Uganda, Sir Gerald Portal. His statue, which takes pride of the place in the central business district, is one of the distinct attractions there.

The other is the  ‘Karuziika Place’, the official residence of the king of Toro, Omukama Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV, once known as the youngest monarch in the world when he ascended to the throne when he was just three. Reining over a kingdom, that was founded in 1822 by Olimi I, his kingdom had the eyes of the world trained on it when his older sister, Princess Ruth

In front of the royal palace

In front of the royal palace

Komuntale married her African-American beau, Christopher Thomas, last month.

Curious to see where the nuptials took place, I jumped on a boda-boda (as Ugandans call their motos) operated by one the chattiest riders I had the good fortune to meet. I call to good fortune because, as I found in the ensuring hours he drove me around, Mr. Assimwe Christopher, was extremely knowledgeable about the history of his town.

The palace, which sits atop at hill overlooking ‘Forti’ (as the locals call their town), is easily accessible all the days of the week. That is, of course, until the king is in residence. I was lucky to find that he was still in Britain, where he is in university.  I was shown around the palace grounds by a friendly guide (who I later found out was in fact a chief!) who explained to me the history of Toro. In fact, I found out that the old Kingdom of Rwanda had close ties with Toro.  The chief was excited when I told him I was, in fact, from Rwanda.

After shooting a bunch of photos, I was taken around town, getting to see the famous Mountain of the

The famous Gerald Portal statue

The famous Gerald Portal statue

Moon hotel, the Toro Club (a gold course that is one of the prettiest I’d ever seen) and the local market.

All the riding was making me hungry, so I stopped for lunch at Gardens Bar and Restaurant. The food was simple but delicious and the bill was friendly on the pockets. If you tire of the ubiquitous mashed plantains (matooke) and want something a bit more ‘exotic’, I suggest that you try the local delicacy, uburo (millet bread) and firindi (mashed fresh, beans, infused with a generous amount of cow ghee). I tried it and could barely keep it down. But to each their own I guess.

A dance troupe at my uncle's Introduction ceremony

A dance troupe at my uncle’s Introduction ceremony

Attending the introduction ceremony, which was about thirty minutes out of town along the Fort Portal-Kasese road, gave me the chance to see rural Kabarore District and what a sight it was. The world famous ‘Mountains of the Moon’, the Rwenzori’s, loomed around me, providing a sight that haunts me to this day. If you think that our very own Virungas are impressive, then you need to see these peaks. Absolutely stunning.

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Where are the storytellers in the RPF?

imgresI honestly cannot believe that we will be celebrating RPF-Inkotanyi’s Silver Jubilee tomorrow. I mean, I feel like it was only yesterday that I joined other members of the Rwandan refugee community in Toronto on October 1,to eat African food, dance and throw in a few measly dollars for the war effort; an effort I really didn’t understand.  I only knew that my uncles were fighting a war and they needed some money for clothing and medicine. I remember telling my father that I wanted the few dollars I donated to be used to buy bullets and guns, instead of medicine.

Thousand of us, young and old, made our nation’s liberation possible. At the forefront of this liberation, and the nations subsequent development, are the people I called the ‘Refugee Generation’. These men and women were at the vanguard of the movement in 1987, and they are still leading the way even today. But what was it about their shared experiences that made them such a powerful generation? Was it the poverty? The deprivation? The shame?

I know that all the offspring of the Refugee Generation have heard tales of their parents having to walk miles to school barefoot and having to 405377_10150560275838248_689018247_8994539_1236240180_nwork in the farms of the natives to feed their families back in the camps. A relative of mine, whenever he meets me, jokes that the only reason he isn’t taller is because of the heavy loads he had to carry on head stunted his growth. However, while the ‘loads’ stunted their physical growth, it also have them a steely resolve to improve their lots in life. They excelled in school, joined the work force, and when things became tough in the wintery conditions of the mountains, their earlier experiences instilled in them the ability to persevere.

I can only imagine that our leaders experiences in the camps, mountains, in the jungles of Congo formed their character, and their outlook on life. It is my belief that only people who’d suffered as much as they suffered could make the hard choices they’d made. Choices that are being validated by Rwanda’s and Rwandans place in the world. Which brings me to the crux of the issue I’d like to discuss.

An RPA solidier about to fire a 82mm motar infront of Chez Lando in Remera in 1994

An RPA solidier about to fire a 82mm motar infront of Chez Lando in Remera in 1994

The RPF of the last 25 years was borne out of the harsh realities of refugee life. The RPF of the next 25 years will be composed of Rwandans who’ve, hopefully, not seen the harshness of the Nyakivale and Kyaka II refugee camps.

The question I’ve been pondering the last couple of days is, will Rwanda be able to continue to move forward at such a breakneck speed with a new generation at the helm? Have we (I add myself to this generation) ‘suffered’ enough? Do we have the fire in our bellies? And if we don’t, will our parents and mentors pass on their own passion, and their life lessons, to us?

Young Americans can, with either a library card or Google, get thousands of books, images, film and other documents recounting the Civil Rights movement. They watch movies like Born on the Fourth of July and Apocalypse Now to see just how the Vietnam War affected the soldiers that fought in it.

Gen Sam Kaka of Alpha Mobile, Col Twahirwa Dodo of Bravo Mobile, Col Gashumba of Charlie Mobile and Col Musitu of the 21st Mobile getting decorated for their role in the war of National Liberation

Do we have such resources here? Nope.  In fact, I’ve found out that attempting to prying any kind of detailed information from my ‘Afande’ uncles about what they saw in Rwanda and their other theatres of combat, was an exercise in futility. And that is very unfortunate.

What I suggest is something that is ‘un-Rwandan’ in some peoples eyes. I urge everyone who can share their experiences to do so. It isn’t about ‘showing off’ or attempting to ‘take credit where it’s not due’. It’s about giving the next generation of leaders the historical context and foundation needed to make the right decisions, even when you are gone.

In my opinion, the RPF story did not start in 1994. Nor did it begin in 1987. It began in 1959 in the camps.  That story must be told to the next generation of RPF. For if we cannot remember our past, we will not be able to navigate the waters of our future.

Steve Hege and his lies will be thrown into the dustbin of history

steve-hege-en-contradiction-avec-les-principes-de-lonuJesus of Nazareth is known for a few things. I mean, he was a man who defied gravity, the Machiavellian attempts to murder him by King Herod as an infant and fed thousands with a few fishes and loaves of bread. But in this instance, I’m not going to discuss any of these miracles. What I will talk about is his ‘house built on sand’ parable. According to him, and I paraphrase,  ‘if one builds a house on sand, it will crumble at the first hint of bad weather.’

Well, when I look across the border to our unstable neighbor, and reflect on the various actors, I cannot resist the temptation to say, “what goes up, must come down”.

Remember Steve Hege? The head of the utterly dismal DRC Group of Experts (GoE)? Well, as of the present moment, he’s a layman like the rest of us, pushed off his soapbox, kicking and screaming. We in Rwanda knew what he stood for. We knew that he had revisionist tendencies and was biased against the present Rwandan government.

However, this did not stop him from getting the delicate job and it didn’t stop him publishing nonsense; convincing the international community that General Jack Nziza was commanding the day to day operations of the M23 in Rubavu District (despite the fact that he was in his Kimihurura office the entire time, and has evidence to prove it), that there were sightings of Rwandan troops crossing the border speaking English (come on now, when did they start speaking the Queens tongue?) and that the M23 had arms that weren’t in the inventory of the DRC army, therefore proving that they were receiving external backing(despite the fact that there was an earlier UN report stating the EXACT opposite!).

The lies worked. The leaked GoE document, published in tandem with a Human Rights Watch pile of rubbish, gave ammunition to those who either had a bone to pick with their own governments (such as the British press against the former International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell) or with the Rwandan one. The ‘errant’ politicians got kicked to the curb, and Rwanda’s good name got smeared, important aid got withheld and  Rwanda’s nomination to the Security Council was jeopardised .

Of course, Rwanda pushed back, winning a seat on the UN Security Council and unleashing a barrage of withering critiques to the GoE report. And while it seemed to me that our voices weren’t being heard, I can see that slowly by slowly, the lies are starting unraveling.

I felt the tide turn when, to my surprise, and despite pressure from its own Security Council partnersSusan+Rice+Hillary+Clinton+Attends+UN+Security+wk5IPqcpMQrl (especially the French, quelle surprise) the US REFUSED to name Rwanda as the backer of the M23.  In the fevered environment, I expected Susan Rice to get swayed, but the fact that she stood firm gave the truth a chance to be heard. And it has begun to.

The first victim of the truth is Mr. Hege himself. He quietly left the GoE (or was pushed, as I believe he was) late last month. In my opinion, the unbearable pressure emanating from Rwanda, friends of Rwanda, made his position untenable and so he has fallen on his sword.  His pro-FDLR writings and his inaccurate reports are all chickens that have finally come home to roost. So, good riddance Mr. Hege, the people of the Great Lakes Region will not miss you. May you and your dastardly report become a mere smidgen in the minds of future generations.

 On another note, I find it extremely hilarious that the head of the DRC delegation in the ongoing Kampala peace talks is the Foreign Minister, Raymond Tshibanda. I mean, doesn’t it make more sense to send perhaps the Interior Minister, or barring that, the Defence Minister, to negotiate with the M23? Why send a foreign minister to negotiate with domestic opponents? Is the Congolese government trying to portray the mutineers as foreigners?

Congo: Forget who started the fire, who will put it out?

As I’ve done before, I have a guest writer on my blog, Rama Isibo. His views are not necessarily my own. 

Congolese refugees displaced within their own homeland by militias and armies, fighting with foreign weapons for foreign purposes, face extremely rough conditions in makeshift Camp de Kahe in Kitchanga in the Masisi district of Congo’s North Kivu Province, near the Rwandan border. – Photo: S. Schulman, UNHCR

Congolese refugees displaced within their own homeland by militias and armies, fighting with foreign weapons for foreign purposes, face extremely rough conditions in makeshift Camp de Kahe in Kitchanga in the Masisi district of Congo’s North Kivu Province, near the Rwandan border. – Photo: S. Schulman, UNHCR

The recent crisis precipitated by the M23 rebellion is the latest in a long saga dating back to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Since the Genocide, we have seen an escalation of the conflict to the extent that there are now 23 armed groups fighting to fill the vacuum left by the state. The governance model of DRC going back to the days of Mobutu was to have a weak central government, weak army, a corrupt civil service which was hardly ever paid on time, and hope for the best. Instead of disarming or fighting these groups, the government has accommodated, used one to fight the other, and therefore not helped the situation. We all know the history, but history will not solve the crisis, Rwanda has been blamed but didn’t understand this blame was a cry for help. The blame was a call for Rwanda to solve the crisis, the fact that we are going to suffer as a nation means that we are compelled to drive home a solution. We cannot afford to go through the five stages of grief over aid cuts; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We must sort this out before it derails our development and makes it Vision2025.

 The birth of a nation

The New York Times ran an article called “To save Congo, we have to let it fall apart.” The piece called for what the Congolese fear the most “Balkanisation” or fragmentation, but this in itself is not viable in the short-term. There is little support for the Republic of Kivu among most Kivutians, yes they are fed up with the Kinshasa government but know that all areas of Congo are let down by Kinshasa, just that they suffer the most. They are patchwork-quilt of tribes that have rarely gotten along, but to ask for statehood in an era where states are coming together under Superstates is hard. Even the recent example of Southern Sudan needed a referendum even though it was obvious that nearly all Southerners wanted to secede. To start a state is one day of happiness, then years of work, a Kivu state would need billions of dollars of aid to start. Even with billions of dollars under its soil in the form of minerals, Kivu would start at the bottom, with the highest infant mortality, highest number of rape victims, 90% of the people exhibiting trauma, and every other negative. The dynamics are pulling Kivu away from Congo but not just yet, the solution is better governance.

The Katumbi effect

There is an accepted myth that Congolese are inherently stupid and ungovernable, it is shared by people in the

Moïse Katumbi Katebe Chapwe, a multimillionaire, is the powerful governor of the Province of Katanga. He is also a member of President Joseph Kabila’s ruling party PPRD.

Moïse Katumbi Katebe Chapwe, a multimillionaire, is the powerful governor of the Province of Katanga. He is also a member of President Joseph Kabila’s ruling party PPRD.

Kinshasa government, NGO’s, the international community and even many Congolese themselves. This they say, is a result of two men whose shadows loom over Congo; King Leopold and Mobutu Sese Seko, it is true that with a broken down society the Congolese revert to their most disagreeable nature but exceptions exist. Moise Katumbi, the Governor of Katanga is undoubtedly a future president of Congo, he rules Katanga, the richest province with a vision that is rarely seen in Africa. Born to a Jewish father and Congolese mother, he changed his name from Moise Soriano to Katumbi Chapwe, this gave him authenticity among Congolese. It was his works that have earned him respect all over Congo, he hardly asks the Kinshasa government for anything, he builds roads, schools, hospitals, public works with royalties taxed direct to mining companies and sends taxes to Kinshasa. It also helps that he has the most popular football team in Congo, TP Mazembe. If he chose to run then Kabila wouldn’t stand a chance as Katumbi would take his powerbase among the Luba in Lumumbashi with him. Governance can start with one man, under Katumbi all the uniquely Congolese traits have been calmed, Kivu needs a Katumbi, a man who governs for the best interests of his people like they are a separate state.

A uniquely Rwandan solution

congo-war-2012Rwanda is going through a spin at the moment, several months of political pressure from donors and western media have left it reeling. We have vehemently denied, got angry, tried to bargain but to no effect. It was amazing to see ministers saying “we don’t need aid” as if it is a fait accompli, the aid is not off the table it is merely suspended, we can and will get it back if we can find a permanent solution to this Congo crisis. In that way we can kill two birds with one stone, but first we need honesty on both sides. Rwanda has been in a covert proxy war with DRC and Zaire since 1994, we should openly admit that, just as Congo has been supporting FDLR against Rwanda. There has to be a peace and security treaty between the two nations with a genuine cause for mutual security. There is no solution without Rwanda, Rwanda has a genuine security threat but some individuals in Rwanda have benefited from the chaos in Congo. The FDLR has to be disarmed, as well as other groups, the Wild, Wild West that is Kivu must be tamed, the UN must leave and Africans must solve this problem. We as Rwanda must move past the GoE report, and present viable solutions to end this crisis as we are suffering from its effects, we need to be honest about our involvement citing our genuine security concerns and draw a line under it.

Hope for Kivu

Kivu can have peace, the people are exhausted by war, exhausted by running for refuge, it is not an interminable problem, there are drivers to this crisis. The breakdown of the Congo state; foreign rebel armies, the greed for minerals, the inactive UN, and lack of investment and infrastructure must all be solved. One critic, Gerald Prunier said “M23 is a pimple, but there is a deeper cancer in Congo” and this is true indeed. Kabila might fear a strong army in Kinshasa but he needs a strong army in Kivu, not strong in numbers but as ideological motivated and disciplined as the M23. Not all Banyamulenge have supported M23, others have stayed loyal like Patrick Masunzu, if he could appoint a loyal local general who is acceptable to all sides, as a governor of North Kivu, then M23 would not have a reason to exist. The current Governor Julien Paluku is a joke to say the least, spat upon in the streets for his comical blunders, he was hounded by mobs out of Kisangani. If he had a Patrick Masunzu or a similar figure, who can start to disarm these groups, rule the area like a sovereign state but still remain loyal to Kinshasa, to follow the Katumbi model. The West will also have to pump some clean money into Kivu because most of the money there is derived from illegal means, they need clean money in Kivu. They also need investment in roads, just like the railroad pacified the Wild Wild West, a highway would open up Kivu.

Rwanda cannot afford to look back and continue the denial game, it is what the West wants, someone to blamecongo-war and buy time while the war continues. That is what the GoE UN report was, a litany of blame, blame the wrong guy and force him to fix it. I saw this personally in UK, when the police would arrest a wrong guy for murder just so people could name the real murderer and exonerate him. This is the situation Rwanda is in, they have prior involvement in Congo so they must be the ones, other than deny, deny, deny, we should come up with an equitable solution that keeps Congo together, brings peace to Kivu, guarantees our security, and helps develop the region. We can take hope from a previously “interminable” conflict in Northern Ireland, though they are not the same the dynamics are similar. A divided community, a part wants to be part of one country, a part wants to be part of another, and they are living street by street. We also had UK and Ireland fighting proxy wars, funding militia and terrorists, international crime meets ideological warriors. Devolution saw all sides reaching an equitable solution, it needed Britain and Ireland first to agree to solve the situation, then it was a complex negotiation between various groups for power-sharing. We all know the solution for Kivu but no one has the guts to utter the solution. We must just accept the West’s ignorance as just that, but help fix it not because the West told us, fix it because you cannot live next door to a burning house without the burning embers reaching yours. While we argue about who started the fire, the fire is just burning out of control. Rwanda needs to be talked off the ledge, it is not all over, this can be resolved, and the sooner the better.

Aid cuts: Now isn’t the time to panic

I’ve been, for the last few days, in a place so remote that even the thought of surfing the Internet would have been a fool’s errand. While being detached from my trusty Google alerts, Twitter and Facebook was somewhat disconcerting at first, eventually I allowed myself to mellow out and enjoy a simply, and honestly, less stressful existence. The news junkie in me didn’t like going ‘cold turkey’ but I managed.

The last time I was exposed to any of my news sources, the UK was still debating revoking our aid, the World Bank and the African Development Bank (ADB) were still above the political posturing and the M23 was still giving the FARDC a good kicking up and down North and South Kivu. And all the while, the member states of the ICGLR were trying to find a path to a sustainable peace in the region.

Britain’s International Development Secretary Justine Greening: ‘Continued support for Rwanda would depend on progress on various issues’. Thats of course before she decided to CUT off British Aid!

Britain’s International Development Secretary Justine Greening: ‘Continued support for Rwanda would depend on progress on various issues’. Thats of course before she decided to CUT off British Aid!

So, imagine my surprise when I got online on yesterday. I discovered that the UK Development Secretary Greening has suspended aid, as did the World Bank and the ADB.  The M23 had left Goma and retreated to its environs while the emboldened FDLR had attacked Rwanda, killing a park warden in Kinigi, causing the American government to issue a travel warning to its citizens, advising them not to travel to see the gorillas. I was amazed by just how much things could change in less than a week.

Yesterday morning, while listening to the Ministers’ of Finance, Defence and Foreign Affairs as they addressed both chambers of Parliament, I instantly understood what they were attempting to do. They were cutting through all the speculation and rumor in order to reassure Rwandans that their world wasn’t crashing around their heads.  As Minister Rwangombwa said, GDP will fall by around 1.5 percent next year, from the expected seven percent growth, if almost all the donor monies are excluded from the national budget.

Juliette is one of Rwanda's success stories - a farmer who increased her harvest thanks to support from UK aid. Picture: Tiggy Ridley

Juliette is one of Rwanda’s success stories – a farmer who increased her harvest thanks to support from UK aid. Picture: Tiggy Ridley

I will not be one of those people who totally dismiss these cuts, because, if we are to be honest, they will affect us in various ways. Inflation will certainly rise, certain development projects will have to be shelved and Rwanda’s international brand will be harmed.  However, we mustn’t allow ourselves to become demoralized.

Just look back and remember how far we’ve come.  Only 18 years ago, our ministries were stripped bare by a retreating genocidal government, with nary a pen, chair or table to be found.  We didn’t have an economy to talk about, never mind foreign exchange reserves. Everything must be put in perspective. While the cuts will affect us, they will not make us grovel, nor should they. We are a proud people who’ve seen worse days than these. When we plunged to the depths of hell, we lifted ourselves up. We weren’t saved by the western media, NGO’s and governments. We sought our own solutions and look at us now.

Will the farmer abandon his farm? Will the moto rider park his motorcycle? Will the civil servant stop serving the populace? Will the shop owner stop stocking their shelves? No.  Tomorrow, they, and I, will go about our lives.

Rwandan soldiers return home after operations in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they participated in joint operations against rebel militias there.

Rwandan soldiers return home after operations in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they participated in joint operations against rebel militias there.

Sibo Mana’. ‘They are not God”.   No truer sentiments have been expressed. There are people who think that they have the power to determine other people’s lives and destinies.  They believe that because they have money, they are allowed to trample on people’s rights. This kind of thinking must be challenged. As the President said, “”we are a small country, not a small people”.

I think that these aid cuts will, fifty years from now, be looked at as the moment that Rwandans challenged the prevailing view on what ‘poor’ nations could and couldn’t do.