Its been a week since I came back from my academic sojourn to the land of Mao Zedong, panda bears and the Great Wall, and like I imagined, it is great to be home. There is nothing like the hills of Kigali, warm sunshine and, of course, a meal of beans and sweet potatoes, to reenergize you and make you feel like you have ‘properly’ left foreign lands.
While the jetlag took me out of commission for a few days, I was back to normal by Friday. And lo behold, it was Kwibohora Day! I watched the proceedings on Rwanda Television online; all I can say is that it was the best liberation celebration I’d ever witnessed. Not only because the president was in rare form but because of the military parade. And when I talk about the military parade, I mean the march of the wheel chair bound veterans.
Watching the proud, sharply dressed veterans of the various wars that Rwandans have waged to protect themselves and their gains being wheeled in front of the crowds of the brought a lump to my throat. I felt my heart swell with pride while another part of me felt so sad. I felt proud to call them ‘fellow citizen’ but I wished that they weren’t forced to sacrifice themselves thus.
The sight of the disabled troops and my emotional response to their proud ‘march’ got me thinking about veteran welfare.
How well do we treat our veterans? How well do we appreciate their service and sacrifice? What support systems do we have in place to show our appreciation? I’m not talking about the government’s role in veteran welfare. Rather, I’m wondering how we, the people who they get injured and die protecting from those who would hurt us, respect and appreciate their service?
In the United States, military veterans (or vets as they are known) enjoy not only special services from a grateful government, but also enjoy a special status in American hearts and minds. They are respected, given special services and regularly celebrated on national holidays and events.
Sadly here in Africa it is a bit different and I think I know why. For the decades following independence, our servicemen and women were not people we loved and respected for protecting our lives and property. Rather, they were the very people who violated our human rights by robbing, raping, torturing and killing us. So, our reaction to our armed forces was based on fear and loathing. The army was not to be loved. It was to be hated above all else.
Today, the RDF proves that there is nothing inherently ‘un-African’ about a army that is loved and respected by the very citizenry that it aims to protect. When one meets a patrol of well-armed troops in the dead of the night, one doesn’t feel the blood drain from their face. Rather, one feels even more secure.
I have personally made it a habit to spend a few seconds chatting with the soldiers (and police) who stand guard outside our government departments and along our streets. I feel that this simple gesture firstly breaks the monotony of the job. Secondly the small moment and joke I share with them helps me actually ‘see’ them. In the hustle and bustle of daily life, we can take for granted those who make it all possible. Our eyes don’t actually see what is in front of us. The guys standing guard outside, both in the blazing sun and cold night air, often become part of the background and that simply isn’t right. Let everyone show their appreciation in whatever way they can. It doesn’t have to be something big.
To our veterans, we should show our appreciation in both word and deed. For example, I urge both the private and public sector to have special rates for veterans. Gyms, nightclubs, cinemas, museums, national parks, public libraries should give card-carrying veterans special rates. That is one idea, I’m sure that other ones are appreciated. These men and women are the very best of us. Let us show them that.