It is quite hard to put a finger on when exactly Rwanda started acquiring its East African pips if I can borrow the military language here. Of course we can start by pointing way back to the days before colonialism when this was simply one large tract of land without borders.
Others may point to the days of great conquests like the time when the Kingdom of Rwanda stretched miles and miles beyond its current international borders. While some can choose to look to the days of the great Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom that also stretched from current day Bunyoro area in Uganda going all the way into Tanzania and present day Rwanda.
However, I will stick to more recent and personal events that I can relate to. Many times when people talk about East Africa they actually mean Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. This could be attributed to ignorance or the fact that Rwanda was for a long time part of Central Africa and traces of this are still visible especially in the time zone. (GMT +2)
Apart from the age-old cross border trade with neighbouring East Africans, the troubles that the country has faced over time eventually ensured it became more East African than we could have ever imagined.
While some crossed for trade, many more had few options when the governments they were living under stood by and even encouraged their persecution on the basis of ethnicity. The 1959 attacks on the Tutsi resulted in a major exodus of Rwandans to neighbouring Uganda, DRC, Burundi and Tanzania among other countries.
Some stayed so long that it became practically impossible to try referring to them as foreigners. Nothing says East African more than the fact that the Ugandan Constitution actually lists Banyarwanda as one of the ethnic groups in the country. It is therefore almost impossible for immigration officials to tell who is a Rwandan of Rwanda or Uganda. Even the wording is already confusing.
Each East African country continues to have a significant number of Rwandans among its population. In fact, had Rwandans been like the Chinese then we would be having several Rwanda-city areas in the different EAC nations just like you see the China-city areas in Europe or USA.
Around the time I started understanding anything about life, the Army Commander in my country, Uganda, was actually a Rwandan - Maj. Gen. Fred Rwigema (RIP). Several other Rwandans filled top government offices as well as other facets of life.
Towards the end of my primary school times, my best friend was a one Francis Rugema. There were several other Rwandans with whom I went to school all the way to the university and to me they were simply friends not Rwandans or refugees.
Today I simply look at them as East Africans. This is because I have known them as Ugandans and now as Rwandans all in my lifetime. I even know Rwandans who speak with a very thick 'Kenyan' accent. And I taught some who had been living in Tanzania just before moving back. Their Swahili was of course the sanifu kind that Tanzanians are only proud of.
One of the most amazing experiences in my life in regard to the East African character of Rwanda happened sometime in 2005. I was from playing cricket in Kicukiro with friends when I was stopped at a military checkpoint at Karuruma trading centre.
I had trouble telling the soldier before me that I could not speak Kinyarwanda, yet he too could not speak English. So he offered me some options. "Do you speak Swahili?" I shook my head to indicate negative. (The story of Swahili and Uganda is for another day).
The soldier decided to offer me another opportunity for communication. "What about Runyankore?" Again, my answer was a dejected nodding in denial. He then smiled as he looked at my passport and waved me on after a typical "Ogambaki ssebo?" I walked away smiling and kind of feeling at home, literally.
Rwanda's East African character is not just the membership to the EAC. It is more visible in its typical melting pot lifestyle that one experiences almost on a daily basis. Walk to Carwash club and you will instantly feel like you are you are on Moi Avenue, Nairobi. Nyabugogo, Gatsata or Giporoso tend to feel like Kampala's Wandegeya or Ntinda.
Parts of Kicukiro feel like Dodoma while the Burundi touch is just everywhere. Meanwhile, Gikondo makes you think you have already crossed into DRC without your passport being scanned! Joining the EAC was probably a mere formality because this place has for long had EA genes.