Smelter of Iron, Carver of Terraces
I grew up in Habyarimana's Rwanda [Juvenal Habyarimana was the president of Rwanda from 1973 until 1994, when the plane he was flying in was shot down. His assassination sparked ethnic tensions that led to the Rwanda genocide in 1994.] When Albert Einstein was born in the industrial-strength Rhineland of 1879, our nation had yet to be glimpsed by a single white person. For years, soot-belching freighters had been plying the sea-lanes from Brindisi and Suez to Mombasa. From booming Mombasa, the Uganda Railway regularly chugged up past booming Nairobi to our very gates in the Uganda highlands.
Where we heard you knocking, but you couldn't come in. Behind those gates, locked tight, we were a stubborn people, and not simply stubborn but illiterate, and not simply illiterate but innumerate. We couldn't count.
Another decade comes and goes. Young Colette is enumerating her beaux. Young Albert is working differential equations. We can still barely count.
White people — Zungu people, Bazungu — remain something we know the way we know that our paramount chief, our mwami, is divine. In Paris, photographs are starting to move. In Berlin, a man named Benz is designing an automobile. In Cleveland, a black child who will one day devise the traffic light enters school. We remain ignorant of the wheel, a people still unseen by even one Muzungu.
And yet… Presume if you will that we're aboriginal, some elusive stone-age remnant whose scant numbers and simple ways let us hunt and gather in deep secrecy. In the event, we're neither much of a secret nor graced with Pleistocene charm. With iron we've long since been smelting in bush forges, we've long since — centuries since — felled most of our forests. We're isolated, a small place adrift in wilds without end, but our isolated valleys are crosshatched with irrigation channels, our hills stepped in painstaking terraces. Our cows give rich milk, our bees fine honey. Our women weave fine basketry.
For nearly half your nineteenth century, the rifle-armed merchants of two different Muslim worlds have been heading for us from two different directions. From the north out of Ottoman Cairo marches the expanding merchant world of the Nile. From the east marches the expanding merchant world of Zanzibar. As John Wilkes Booth fires his derringer at Ford's Theatre, hired Arab gunmen are circling us, dragging the endless wilderness about us for slaves and ivory as they eye what they call our "infidel sultanates."
Nor are they alone in their designs. More than a quarter century before Colette begins to flirt, that most moody of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, General Gordon, declares he wants to trade his command at Khartoum for Mombasa, the better to reach what he reckons the Nile's true prize, our highlands. In 1884, Bismarck summons a council of Zungu cannibal chiefs. He bills it "the Conference of Berlin." The idea is to carve up Africa without carving up each other. It works — though with each cut, the Zungu chiefs eye each other intently. After securing some prime cuts for the Reich, der Reichskanzler has "Ruanda-Urundi" for dessert. That's nine years before a single German ever sets foot on our soil. Still, you wouldn't want to call us a triple-canopied secret. Nor would you want to call our population scant, nor our economy aboriginal. Aboriginals, anthropology tells us, need vast tracts to feed tiny bands. It took all of aboriginal Britain to feed fewer souls than live in twenty-first-century Swansea. Yes, we can barely count. We're lost in an Africa thick with hyenas and thin with people. Still, our lost sultanates have put themselves together so complexly and so obsessively that in our fastness, we have for centuries been feeding a population among the densest on earth, as dense as the Yangtze, as dense as the Ruhr. We are, in our inspired improbability, that thoroughly African.
From Rwanda Means the Universe by Louise Mushikiwabo and Jack Kramer. Copyright (c) 2006 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.