A long history of violence

At the long table with most members of his family, The Man thought how remarkable it was that history had persistently pushed its way into all their lives and caused sharp unavoidable turns. The many gray heads at different positions around the family table were punctuated with heads with a multitude of colors and texture.

It was a family day just like many the gathering had enjoyed before. The loud voices skipped easily over the sounds of forks and other cutlery as the famed cooking of Great Nana was consumed: beans, chicken, potatoes, rice, pork, beefsteak, peanut gravy, yam, corn…the long table adjacent to the dinner place where they all sat was as heavy laden as the place where the different generations ate, laughed and spoke, seemingly all at once.

Uncle Z, a well-travelled, stately gentleman, who also had the characteristic pushy nature of Ugandans who have travelled the world, who have gone back home and realised things are not what they should be like, but when they’ve raised their voices, have been met with blank stares. Uncle Z had been there. He had run for the parliamentary seat of his county and lost to a seemingly backward equally-pompous political type who had been in the game for far longer.

“What do you make of this strange push for closed borders, this fever burning up the world?” he asked no one in particular. Most people around the table had an idea where this was likely to go: he asked because he expected nobody would offer an opinion and he would gladly supply his. As always.

It was a Sunday afternoon and the meal was mostly sitting in the distended bellies of young and elderly in the big airy room. Uncle Z started to speak, but he was cut off by his father, Gramps Olughase. “It is the violence,” the old man, closing in on his 96th birthday, said simply.

Now everybody turned reverently in his direction. Though the room had people from many corners of the world, many who had joined the family through marriage, the respect for Olughase went beyond cultures and borders.

Olughase had lived an eventful life. He rarely spoke about it, but those who sought to know more about his life did not have to dig too deep to know the man. He was the embodiment of the history of his country. Beyond that, he had not let history just happen to him; he had been involved and he had in his way changed the course of its flow.

“How do you mean, Gramps?” one young girl with almost yellow skin asked.

“The violent nature of humans. That’s what is happening. The fever is breaking, but first the world will twist and turn violently,” the old man spoke as though he was trying to recite bad poetry. It was not clear if he was just being dramatic with his dystopian judgement, or if it was all down to a senior moment.

A voice from the living room, where a few people had retired to recline, having been floored by the food, rang out.

“Ask me about violence. I have seen it.”

It was Raj. Originally from India, he and Monica, The Man’s sister, had met while at college. After 10 years of marriage, which were mostly spent travelling the world working for the United Nations, both had decided to settle in Uganda.

April 12, 2007

Raj was newly arrived in Kampala. He was all about exploring the country, see the parks and meet the people before taking up a position with the World Bank office in Kampala.

He was in a Pajero being driven by Musa, the family’s chauffeur of 20 years. Being a Thursday, it was important for this trip to go as planned. Raj had to meet the prime minister to conclude negotiations for a planned major agricultural project. Thursday was when the week ended for government types.

It was the boda bodas whizzing past erratically that alerted Raj there was something in the air. Too erratically.

Boda drivers all over Africa have their own law. You do not cross into the road as a pedestrian without permission from them. It doesn’t matter if the road signs say ,’No Motorcycle Taxis,’ or if the traffic flow should be in one direction, bodas will break all rules.

But on this Thursday, Raj who had been in Uganda for only a four months knew enough about the chaotic bikers to notice when the madness had been kicked up many notches. Even in his air-conditioned sanctuary of a rich man’s vehicle, the pungent fear colored the atmosphere.

Then at Clock Tower, Musa came to a stop at an all-too-common scene in Kampala: an accident. From what he could see, Raj thought the unfortunate Asian-looking man in a dark shirt and cream colored slacks had knocked another man. A journalist from the paraphernalia strewn near him.

A mob was forming fast. There had been demonstration that the journalist, later to be identified as one who worked for Radio One, was covering. Many locals were angry that the government was planning to hand over a portion of Mabira Forest to a sugar baron. The frustration was over what activists said was the government’s intransigence about having a discussion with the nation on the deal.

Soon, the Asian-looking man was yanked off his motorcycle and hurled to the ground. His pleas were drowned out by the louder voices, incoherent with a hundred screams, mouths turned into ugly gashes exposing teeth fanged and ready to bite. The thirst for answers was quickly morphing into a thirst for something darker: blood.

Raj did not know who threw the first stone. In these cases it is not easy to know. Musa, always quick thinking, knew who would be the next target in the next few seconds. It was almost a certainty that the Asian-looking, now on the ground slowly disappearing under a cloud of dust, man was going to die.

Somehow, Musa turned that Pajero around and gunning the engine (and sending the message clearly that if anyone stood in the way, they would surely die), he raced back to Tank Hill, Muyenga, where sanity ruled.

When the dust settled, the world was looking at Uganda in that all-too-farmiliar light: another mad episode in an african basket case country. There were many casualties of the madness that day, but the lasting image was one circulated widely of the Asian-looking man, dead, with another man pulling on his finger trying to remove a gold ring.

Raj’s reverie was interrupted by the voice of Uncle Cayeman. The older members of the extended family knew the origins of his unusual name.

His name was Kayibanda. He had the unfortunate distinction of having lived through two genocides and then the ensuring the Xenophobia in Uganda.

“It is true. It is a madness that many people do not understand,” he said in a measured thoughtful tone. He had a British accent, cultivated over 20 years. “I have lived long enough to know that when ugliness tears rears its head, at that moment when the head is still a small insignificant thing, it must be stomped on. Viciously.”

He went on to tell the story he had told to countless audiences around the world. The itinerant professor had found a home in Britain, changed his name perhaps in the unconscious belief that this would help him put distance between him and his unhappy past.

He was now a British citizen. He had earned his pips in academics and he had grabbed at his new life with zest.

He had married a Bradford girl and settled to a quiet life, only to be drawn back to Uganda, and ultimately to Rwanda by way of marriage. Yvonne, his daughter had married Jimmy the second son of Uncle Z.

Because Yvonne and Jimmy had no qualms about returning to the old country, countries in their case, Kayibanda had no option but to make that difficult journey back to where it all started. He realized he could not escape from his history.

April 6, 1994

On that Wednesday night, Kayibanda, slightly over 35, was working late at the ministry of information in Kigali when his phone rang.

He reached for it as he continued sorting the documents he was preparing for a meeting the next day with the directors of media houses. For months, he had been trying to convince his boss that a better handling of the rhetoric on national radio was needed.

His analysis that the increased references to ethnicity, especially demonising of Tutsis, on radio was eventually going to lead to chaos had finally been accepted amid increasing calls for a final solution, openly advocated by radio presenters. His boss had told him to put together a work plan to direct media houses on how to control the narrative.

The rotary dial telephone on his desk rang and when he picked it, a voice on the other end of the line whispered that he should get out of the office now. He did not know who it was. Briefly, the voice said President Habyarimana was dead and that all Tutsis were going to be killed.

As crazy as the message sounded, Kayibanda did not wait around. He had heard enough hate spewed over the airwaves.

He grabbed his tiny radio, a Sound Solo, and left the building. He did not have many family members as his mother had died two years previously. His father had died in 1959 when Kayibanda was only two months old.

President Habyarimana had been rumored on the verge of signing a peace deal with rebels fighting his government. The rebels, mostly Tutsis, were believed to have been supported by the army of Uganda next door.

Kayibanda had taken to moving with his passport at all times. He called a diplomat friend at the Gregoire Kayibanda International Airport, later to be renamed Kigali International Airport. There were road blocks but there was also chaos. The soldiers seemed in disarray. Kayibanda connected it all to the reports on his Sound Solo in the passenger seat: the BBC was reporting that President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundi counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira had been killed in a plane crash as they were about to land at the very airport Kayibanda was driving to. He needed to think fast. It could mean only one thing. A dark cloud had descended on Kigali, but he had to find his way out.

Pierre, his U.N. peace force commander friend, seemed to have been expecting him when arrived at his office after a circuitous route to avoid any roadblocks. He already had three other people, who later revealed they were also Tutsi. Pierre got the group onto a military flight to Nairobi.

It was not clear to Kayibanda if the 100 days of slaughter in 1994 were worse than the senselessness of 1959 through 1961. That prior nightmare took Kayibanda’s father and made the family, that had been proud of their heritage and connections to Rwanda’s Umwami to a life of servitude in Uganda where the majority Baganda employed the newcomers as herdsmen to take care of their animals and to tend the shambas.

The years leading into the Museveni era in Uganda were increasingly years of the Tutsis regrouping quietly in their dirty shamba boy clothes, disarming smiles and a burning heat in their breasts imploring them to head back home. Many Rwandans changed their names to sound Ugandan, often because of the disdain many Ugandans looked down on them with. The refugees held up the economy of Buganda, producing matooke and milk and making the central Ugandan tribe even more fiancially strong, but all this was taken for granted. Not many Baganda thought the end would come and the Balaalo would one day get up and go, taking all their industry with them.

Kayibanda remembered all this.


The Man cleared his throat. He was third generation and he did not often speak up in the presence of all the old bazeei. But the passion was running free now.

“I do not know what to call my experience then,” he began. “It seems this cancer, what you have called the madness, this fever that has boiled under our skins for so long and which breaks out every so often, it is hidden in our very beings. We do not know how to get to it and extract it for good.”

“How do you mean,” Olughase asked.

“I am talking about the madness that grips a crowd that was peacefully demonstrating against this injustice or that. The moment when secondary school students with genuine complaints against a headmaster lead the whole school, with the student council bosses up front, but then at some point, somebody throws a rock into the glass of the dining hall. Nobody can explain it when the dust settles and the wounds are stitched and the parents are called to take their wayward sons back home, away from Busoga College Mwiri.”

The Man described the madness that is talked about by philosophers on bar stools with enough liquor in their system to get away with saying out loud what they want to do with people “who come from the west” when Museveni finally leaves the scene. The same madness that caused terror when the Kabaka was blocked from visiting Kayunga in September 2009. The madness was in Ugandans turning on other Ugandans and demanding that they sing the Buganda anthem, failure of which would result in any kind of violence.

But The Man had also witnessed the madness in seemingly innocuous gestures. like when in school, students would say to him, “Oh, but you are different. Not like other Basoga.” Or when a relative of his girlfriend, thinking he did not understand his language, described The Man as Omukooko. These are the seeds that, in The Man’s opinion, germinate into full fledged violence. It was a cry for air to breath.

The violence had followed members of this family wherever they went. Maybe it was because it was part of their DNA; however much they washed off the grime and tried to separate themselves from the Great Unwashed of Nakivubo, there was no escape.





About Steven

It wasn't me; arrest the voices. It was the voices in my head. Sike! I am Ugandan first. I care for development in my country. I am a curious observer second and I care to know what you think.
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