Skip to main content
Life Reflections

Conquering the demon of “leftovers”

By April 20, 2012June 6th, 2023No Comments

Addressing residents of Ruhango District after opening a new cassava-processing factory and touring a new, soon-to-be-equipped referral hospital in the area last Monday (16.04.12), President Kagame used the opportunity to call on Rwandans to reject living “on leftovers”.

If there ever was a tall order for Rwandans, this was one.

For over a century now, Rwanda has been a country of leftovers. The moment a colonialist set foot on Rwandan soil at the turn of the 20th century, Rwandans ceased to fend for themselves. From that moment, leftovers became a way of life and the words ‘kwigenga’ and ‘kwihaza’ (self-governance and self-sustenance) vanished from the Kinyarwanda lexicon. Life for Rwandans has been a continuum of different contests over leftovers ever since.

When the White man came (and here we discriminate against women without fear of recrimination!), he found Rwandans who were happy in their occupation: tilling the land; tending domestic, or hunting wild, animals; gathering wild fruits and tubers. All lived according to their will and in conformity with their tradition. They lived harmoniously as guided by their chosen administration and faith in the God they knew, Lyangombe.

Whatever their occupation, they lived symbiotically and no one could hunger when another had. What one had, another could have of, through exchange for either property or labour. Whatever they ate, they ate because they owned – if not property, energy. No one depended on what another gave after they’d had their fill. No one coerced another into leading an enforced life. Rwandans were a self-administering and self-sustaining society.

Then the colonialist came and put an end to all that by introducing forced labour. With forced labour, Rwandans were coerced into obeying another human being through fear. And with fear, they became puppets of that human being, their puppeteer. They ceded their power over themselves to their puppeteer and the puppeteer took over the role of guiding, and fending for, them. But in guiding them, he used a method he had discarded. In fending for them, he gave them what was extra, after he had had his fill. In both ways, he gave them leftovers.

And so they took to producing cash crops whose cash they never saw and crop whose destination they never knew. They abandoned their food crops that had sustained them this far. Their land was infected with tsetse flies and their animals died and cleared the land for yet more cash crops. Their elders were crushed under the heavy lashes of kiboko (hippo whip), just like every able-bodied one of them, and their old order of administration, sustenance and faith was put asunder.

The spirit of Rwanda was broken and now many Rwandans entrusted their fate to the new colonial administrative and sustenance order, just as they entrusted it to new messianic faiths. The few voices that protested were mocked or hounded out of their land and the rest settled into their new life as the charges of a master, waiting on this master for organisation and upkeep.

When independence came, indigenous leaders who took over settled in the colonialist’s political and economic order and made sure it remained un-tampered with. Independence to them meant the freedom to make a diversification of sources of upkeep, lest one source dried up, and they sought out many masters.

Meanwhile, at home they were ‘working’, making sure they were ‘killing’ off any competition over the diversification’s resultant bounty of upkeep in form of aid. The new political elite continued where the colonialist left, following the colonial administration to the letter and exporting their people’s wealth to others, who enjoyed this wealth and handed back what was extra. For administration and upkeep, Rwandans continued to live on leftovers.

To legitimise their left-over rule, the new elite cloaked it in what they baptised “ethnic majority democracy” but, in truth, it was a rogue rule of a small clique who killed their fellow Rwandans now baptised “ethnic minority”, banished others or kept them in the concentration ‘Siberia’ of Rwanda that was home to killer tsetse flies, aka Bugesera. An even smaller “ethnic minority” was left to rot in the forests as a magnanimously democratic concession to their way of life.

But the “ethnic majority” in whose name this small clique ruled was not having it rosy, either. While the clique feasted and made merry over leftovers, a vast majority of the “ethnic majority” were languishing in abject poverty, forever locked in the logic of denial. With no access to education, health or any form of wealth, they were condemned to the cycle of poverty and there was no hope for eventual emergence out of it by even their offspring. The so-called “majority” were left to play spectator as “their brethren/sistren” in the clique, now choosing regional cleavages, were locked in a bitter contest over leftovers from donors.

Rwanda was “leftovers”. All Rwandans everywhere were “leftovers”. And all of them everywhere lived on “leftovers”.

Ironically, save for their denied identity, many of the banished Rwandans were faring better in foreign lands than the neglected “ethnic majority” and the “smallest minority” at home.

Which reminds me of a local priest in one of the refugee camps in Uganda who compared Rwandan refugees to cassava. Unhappy that Rwandan children were doing well in school despite poor refugee conditions, Fr. Kamugeni said like cassava stems, Rwandans germinated on whatever soil you dropped them. To think that the idea of forging a reunion for all Rwandans first germinated in those foreign soils! Maybe the good father had prophetic powers, in spite of himself!

More seriously, however, with Rwandans today pooling their energies to put aid to the service of building their country, and with the effort having already borne the fruit of Rwandans funding almost half their budget over the span of a few years, from 100% dependence on aid, there is no reason why they should not wean themselves off the demon of leftovers. “None in a million, nay, in many millions”.


Leave a Reply