I stared intensely at the man and the little boy as they walked towards me. Something tightened in my throat; surely he must be a kidnapper taking the boy to some hideout. I proceeded to scrutinize the boy’s countenance for signs of tension, panic, confusion, but he was happily chatting away with his captor, a man dressed in poor tatters and whose age I put in the early twenties. The boy’s well-groomed appearance spoke of his privileged background. Ritualists! That must be it. The boy must be babbling away in a ‘Jazz’ induced delirium, oblivious of himself, his captor and his environment. I increased my pace in hot pursuit. While fishing around my bag for my phone, I wondered whether to proceed with shouts of “Ole! Hollam! Ole!” As I made to dial the Nigeria Police hotline, “MTN Rwanda” stared at me from my phone. Silly! You are in Kigali and not Lagos, relax!
Pardon my suspicious and still jetlagged mind, having arrived only a few hours earlier via a Rwandair direct flight from Lagos. Not one case of kidnapping or ritual murder has ever been reported in Kigali - not since I started following news from the city and the country years ago.
I let the pair – most likely a houseboy and his ward – go on, and boarded a bus to my destination.
“You must be mental to give me dat kain moni” The wild-eyed conductor barked at a passenger who handed him a dirty looking note, torn in several places.
“Na craze dey worry you.” The passenger retorted, assuming a fight-ready countenance, “no be pesin give am to me?”
Someone’s phone belted out loud tunes of , We Wish you a Merry Christmas. For one second I thought I had gone ‘mental’; were we in August or December? I was not sure again.
“Jude, what is it again? Why are you disturbing my life?” Christmas-in-August bellowed into his phone. Something must be wrong with the set because he put it to his ear to hear, and then expertly, in a split second brought it close to his mouth to speak, swiftly rushing it to the ear again to hear.
“Am I the one who pregnanted your wife, ehn?” He shouted louder as he sat up and hunched over the phone, pressing me to the rusted brown iron that is the wall of the bus. Some saliva from his mouth dodged the phone and settled on my arms. Muscles, the size of chicken thigh bones protruded from his forehead.
He listened for two seconds more, and with a loud hissing sound, pressed the red button on his phone, cutting off the voice of Jude as he was still pleading and trying to explain. “Nonsense,” he spoke and glared at me as if I was Jude’s pregnant wife. “After enjoying yourself, you dey call me. You think say I be ATM machine.” I looked away, not knowing whether to say sorry, or nod my head in agreement, or put in an apt word chiding the irresponsibility of some men.
“Osigara Rwandex” The voice of the passenger telling the conductor he would be dropping at Rwandex shook me back from Lagos. I was on a bus in Kigali and not Lagos. It was all an illusion, a day dream, if you may. I watched the conductor and the alighting passenger as they quietly negotiated the fare, as if talking about a sick relative in hush-hush tones. The rest of the bus sat quietly, lost in their various thoughts, only a couple of Caucasian expatriate workers chatted away.
Rwandans are very reserved and self-conscious people. One can stay for years and take public transport every single day without witnessing a single incident of a passenger and conductor quarreling or fighting. Indeed, one of the very first things you notice about Rwandans is that they respect themselves and carry themselves with much dignity. Open displays of anger, confrontation and raising one’s voice to prove a point is seen as the lowest level of indignity and disrespect for self and for others.
The flip side of this is that you do not really know who your friend is in Rwanda. Everybody puts up a diplomatic face, smiles, hugs, talks gently and slowly tries to negotiate everything. Perhaps, that was why the genocide was as efficient. Neighbors thought they could trust their neighbors; friends thought they were friends despite being of different identities; colleagues thought they got on well together. But as it happened, the person you drank tea in the morning led the Interahamwe to your house hours later.
Nigerians are loud and clear – to a large extent, at least. And I bear the weight of saying all of the above at the risk of stereotyping. But if you ask me, I would say, except a Nigerian has something to get from you that would compel him to act nice around you, it does not take too long for you to know who is nice and who is not - to a reasonable extent.
My appointment went well and on my way back, tired and hungry, I decided to take a taxi. I flagged down a taxi. Peeping through the window, I steeled myself for the open confrontation and verbal scuttle that is haggling over fare in Lagos. The cab driver opened the door instead and asked that I enter.
With a smile, he spoke to me in Kinyanrwanda.
“No Kinyarwanda.” I responded.
“French?” He asked already driving towards the Round-about.
“Je ne parle pas Francais. Je suis Nigerian. Je parle Anglais” I managed to cobble together as I relaxed in the cordial atmosphere.
“Nigeria!” He left the steering for a moment to clap his hands together in excitement. “I love Nigeria filime.” He squealed. “You have?” He stretched out his hand, expecting me to pile it up with pictures of Olu Jacobs, Patience Ozokwor, Genevive Nnaji and Jim Iyke.
When I said no, he replied “Again you go, you bring filime for moi.” He brought out his phone and took my number. Pointing at me, and then inverting the same finger to touch his chest, he declared with a broad smile, “me and you friend now.” I acquiesced with a smile and wondered if the friendship would result in a free ride to my destination or subsequent reduced fares, should I make him my regular cabbie.
I described where I was going in the most basic English I could muster, and relaxed to enjoy the ride.
Hunger pangs and thirst struck, and opening my half sleepy eyes, I looked out the window in search of plantain chips and bottled water. Up the road, down the road, by the tree lined stretch that separated the roads, or the raised pedestrian sidewalks, there was not one single hawker in sight, only the neat, asphalt paved, well-swept road and neat cars.
“Unasema Kiswahili kwa Nigeria?” The voice of the taxi driver asking me if we spoke Swahili in Nigeria reminded me that I was in Kigali, where no form of street hawking or trading or idling about the streets in any manner is tolerated.
“Hakuna, hatufanyi.” I responded that we did not. I learnt a bit of Swahili in Washington D.C. and I am still learning.
We reached and I gave him the fare, which I had earlier been told was the flat rate per drop.
Still hungry, I looked for a nearby restaurant to ‘fill my tank.’
Smell of hot Egusi, Okro and vegetable soup filled my nostrils. I could hear the sound of some able bodied being pounding swallow. I contemplated my options as I entered; Vegetable soup with Okporoko or dry fish? Or should I try white soup and fresh cat fish. How about asking for a mixture of Egusi and Ogbono with Orishirishi?
It was when I sat down to look at the menu that I realized I had just had an out of body experience. Boiled potatoes, potato fries, boiled unripe bananas (not plantain), Macaroni , Spaghetti, White rice, Avocado salad and such, made up the menu. That was when I really missed Lagos. We have food in Nigeria. We do.
Rwanda has end-stage kwashiorkor and Nigeria is morbidly obese where food variety is concerned. It makes you almost want to cry when you enter a restaurant in Rwanda. Nigerians are spoilt with food choices, especially if you come from the East or the South-south. But wherever in Nigeria, one fantastic thing about having a multicultural society like ours is that we end up influencing each other in numerous ways than we care to give ourselves credit for. We have borrowed and blended and mixed recipes so much that we have this rich variety of Nigerian dishes.
Rwanda is a mono-cultural society. The Hutu and Tutsi division is more economic and political, than cultural in nature. There is only one language, one overriding culture, dressing and one food table. Being a dry and hilly country, the land is bare; fish is rare to find and very expensive. ‘Correct’ vegetables like Ugu, Amaranthus “green”, scent leaves, bitter leaves, Okazi, Ewedu and the rest are non-existent. Meat is expensive commodity and does not make it to the plates of many. When it does, it is in the most basic form; no Peppersoup, Nkwobi, Suya, Orishirishi, Kirishi, dried meat, snail, etc.
People in Rwanda would go without food for days, drinking only milk fresh from the cow udder. Several of them have told me that they did not get to eat any form of solid food until they were about 8 years old. Weaned of their mother’s milk, they were placed on fresh cow milk, a delicacy worshipped by Rwandans. “It is an abomination to stand and drink milk” is one of several taboos associated with the product.
There are the pros and cons of both the overriding Rwandan and Nigerian cultures. There is a general sense of order and peace in Rwanda; Rwandans are easier to govern. They have a deep and profound sense of respect, no, reverence, bordering on fear, for authority figures, and there is a noticeable dependence on government by the citizens. Also, you stay in Rwanda for a long time and you get a feeling that people are afraid of something, and that you really do not know your friend (not in all cases, of course).
Nigerians are Nigerians; bold, outspoken, full of energy, out and about, ready to take the world and take on anybody who stands in their way. With Nigerians, what you see is what you get (there are several exceptions, of course). We place very little expectation on our leaders apart the basic necessities and support to allow us hustle and do our part to make our lives better. Nigerians can learn decorum, tact and diplomacy from Rwanda, while Rwanda can learn independence, fearlessness and being appreciably open and forward from Nigeria.