Embrace your living history before it is too late

As you read this week’s blog, I’m just back from Nyagatare after laying my grandmother to rest. She passed away on Saturday at Kanombe Military Hospital despite the valiant efforts of her doctors and the prayers of her family and friends. She lived to see her children become women and men of substance; see her grandchildren get married and got to play with her great-grand children. She had run her race diligently and now her aches and pains are no more.

COLLECTIE_TROPENMUSEUM_Een_man_spring_bij_het_hoogspringen_2.20_m_Rwanda_TMnr_60033970 However, as I write that she had run HER race, I have a few regrets. I regret the fact that I didn’t spend more time with her, not only imbibing her wisdom, but also finding out more about the country that I now call my home. As someone who was born and raised in exile and then educated in very ‘western’ manner, there is very little that links me, personally, to the Rwanda of our forefathers.

Sure I can read books written by experts (who, funny enough, are often NOT Rwandan) and I can look at pictures. But none of those research materials can hold a candle to real, living history. That was what my grandmother was. That is what ALL our octogenarian generation is.


Mwami Yuhi Musinga and members of the royal family

They are our last link to the Rwanda of Rwabugiri and Musinga Yuhi. They are the ones who can remind us of how we used to live before sectarianism became entrenched in our body politic. They can bring to life our ancient customs and help explain them to the young generation. Why do we ‘gusaba’, ‘gufatirembo’ and have ‘imyotso’? Before we all became Christians and Moslems, how did we worship? How was our society organized and what role did the kingship play? What did the society expect from you when you became a ‘man’ (or a woman)? What were the values that made Rwandans who they were?  I know that I’m supposed to know all these things (perhaps by osmosis) but I don’t.

The generation that gave birth to me was raised (and sometimes born) in the various East African refugee camps that they were forced to live post-1959. Their history is one of exile, poverty, suffering and strife. Only their parents (our grandparents) remembered Rwanda as it once was.

A few months ago, I vowed to visit the grandparents in the village and record their testimony for prosperity. Sadly, although I did visit, I didn’t record our conversation. I assumed that I would have another chance.  I didn’t. So, while my children will see photos and hear about their great-grandmother, they will not hear her voice, and see her face as she explained her life and the things she had seen to me.

I’m not writing this to incite sympathy. I’m writing this to remind us all just how precious and

Fierce Twa archers.

Fierce Twa archers.

priceless our elderly generation is. Especially as we become more intrinsically linked to the global community. Rwanda has made changed in a million ways since I came back in November 1994. Where once we had an insular country, we now live in one where it’s normal for my six-year-old cousin to have a Facebook account. And where once it was taboo for a ‘good’ child to even contemplate a tattoo, a piercing, dreadlocks and moving out of the parental home (especially girls), it has almost become a non-topic (except the latter). Honestly, in a generation or two, I don’t think there will be a difference between the average American and us. And while I have nothing but admiration for what the US and its citizens have done, I don’t want us to become them.

But that is what is bound to happen if we don’t have a concrete understanding of who we are, why we are the way we are, and why we should be proud of whom we are. The only way that we’ll know all of this is if we know where we come from. Rwanda is fortunate in that we still have the very embodiment of our colonial and pre-colonial history in our midst. Our ‘Bachechuru and Basaza’ .

While I’m sure that our various museums and the Ministry of Culture is recording the testimonies of the elderly (at least I hope they are), perhaps we should also do it on an individual basis.  We owe it to the next generation. And we owe it to ourselves. Let us not become like a ship without rudders. Only through the appreciation (and knowledge) of our past can we steer ourselves through the choppy waters of our present and future.

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