The New Times (Kigali)

24 February 2013

Rwanda: The Torturous Education of the 1950s

column

In the old days when brains never forgot and eyes never missed a detail, only idlers went to school. So, knowing I was as a hard as they came, I was certain I'd never go to school as my old man depended on me for practically all his errands. As for old mama, I was her trusted boy that always helped in home chores and hanged on her aprons...

The apron of the time, remember, was no apron but a black skirt of coarse cloth that for some - not old mama - was bought and never washed until it was discarded after its lifespan. By then, it weighed a ton!

Anyway, I lived in this bliss until one morning when I literally got a rude awakening - and, boy, was it rude, or was it! I was in dreamland when, at an ungodly hour before cock-crow, I felt the stings of a thousand bees. I shot out of bed and made for my 'umuzo' stick, only to turn and stare into the stern eyes of Old-man. Sheepishly, I listened as he commanded: "Wash your face; put on clothes; go to school with your elder brothers!" Morosely, I joined my brothers where they were preparing for school after which I was carted to school. Or was I?

That was in the late 1950s and few kids went to school then. Most kids did home chores and accompanied herdsmen so as to get an early start on their eventual trade.

But first, explanations. "Thousand bees" meant no bees but ice-cold water splashed onto my sleeping, miniature body. If you've been to Kinigi, at the foot of Mt Muhabura, or you've experienced winter, you understand. "Umuzo" stick is a stick that starts life as the branch of a hardy tree but whose life is cut short at its tender age. We removed its bark and slowly heated it over fire flames until it turned supple. Such a now-hardened stick can fell a lion, no joke.

And what prompted Old-man to pack me off to school? The colonialist chief had given him a few blows of the whip for keeping his son of school-going age at home. So, after putting on a coarse khaki shirt that only opened at the neck like a tee-shirt, I handed my new, equally coarse khaki shorts to a brother. I was going to don shorts for the first time and I couldn't risk wearing them upside down or inside out.

He showed me how and, after we'd eaten the cold leftovers of the previous evening's supper and packing some for lunch, we set off. But set off for school? For me, not on your life!

When we arrived at school, it was late. As was the practice, when the teacher saw us through the window, he came out with his cane...

Again, though, an explanation. That window was actually a window-opening without a window. Classes then had no windows... Anyway, because I was behind, I watched as our eldest brother, who was leading the single file, put his packed lunch on the window-seal so as to prostrate. Then the teacher set upon him with strokes of the cane. As I watched him wince with every blow, my heart was racing. Ten strokes of the cane? I'd surely die!

When the teacher had worked his way through two brothers and was going for the third, whom I'd follow, I dropped my packed lunch and took off faster than Pistorius! You know the 'guy' who got the crazies and killed his girlfriend...

South African Oscar Pistorius had excelled in the London Olympics, racing with able-bodied athletes even as he had no legs and yet finishing among the best.

Then he threw his fame to the dogs by shooting his fiancée dead. Now "Blade Runner", as he'd been nicknamed, has consigned himself to the bin of the discredited, Tiger Woods-style. Me, I'll never understand: do some 'guys' in some societies take guns for toys?

But back to me. I did not look back until I reached the main road, where I could retrace my way home with ease. Of course, I could not go home straight or Old-man's cane would peel my backside. Near home, I made my way into a maize plantation where I spent the day sucking at maize stocks or resting on a rock, for fear of snakes, whenever I felt sleepy. When the others were on their way home, I joined them, shrugging off their mocking laughter. In the end, of course, I went back to school and got used to the torturous life.

So, whenever I see the happy multitude of Rwandan school kids going to and from home, I marvel at their laughter - they know no torture. No wonder all the children in these Rwandan big families are contented to join school.

But I grieve whenever I reflect further on the many schools in advanced societies that are child-starved. Surely, this earth is big enough for us all and there's no reason for any race to face extinction. Or is there?

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