Yesterday I was reading the Sunday Papers( Yeah, I am one of those people) when I turned to read http://apenyo.com/finding-tracy-tears-and-wine/ , a beautiful piece by Mildred Apenyo that opened my mind to so many thoughts and memories.
Growing up, it did not occur to me that I was ‘different’ in any way.
At home we spoke English, Swahili, Kinyarwanda and Luganda. None of it seemed out of the ordinary really. Some of these languages were best articulated when you did something wrong, others were for normal conversation.
I started school when the time for it came and made friends. Everywhere I went I made friends and went about my business like an ordinary child, without putting much thought to where they came from.
When teachers made fun of the name ‘Kalenzi,’I simply smiled but later got irritated. How is it that everyone who heard my name for the first time had to say ‘Kalenzi-Ka-boy’ or ‘Kalenzi, why not Kawala?’ Were they that un-creative? I needed a new joke so I could laugh as hard as they did, but it never did come.
Before I even turned ten,a kid around my age walked up to me and said “You must be from Rwanda. Mum says your dead bodies are all over Lake Victoria and we can’t eat fish anymore.”
Never mind that the Rwandan genocide had ended three or so years before this conversation. I stared at him. Dumbfounded.
This was the beginning.
I don’t remember ever asking my parents about it, but it was the first time I started to feel like I did not belong. I didn’t know much about my ancestry but all my relatives were in Uganda. I am one of those lucky ones that did not lose any close relations in the genocide. I had something to think about.
After a while, our body features became more pronounced as adolescents and I started to realise that my body was often given as an example.
Needless to say, there were females endowed far more than I ever would be, but I was an easier target I guess. The hips were for people from ‘that side.’ As a teen, these are not issues you want to deal with. As if the new ‘baggage’ isn’t enough, now you have teachers bringing it up too?
Somehow, I survived this phase.
Before long I was in Secondary School and something incredible happened. Suddenly it was cool to have ‘Nyaru’ blood. Girls started tracing their family trees to Rwanda as far as their grand mother’s mum. They would tell me how they are sure we are ‘related.’ The only thought that crossed my mind was, “Why now?”
After knowing only Uganda as my home, it became increasingly difficult to explain why my village was in Masaka or how come I spoke better Swahili than Kinyarwanda or French.
Like all fads, this ‘being a Munyarwanda is cool’ phase came to and end. The ‘loud whispers’ soon began like they never left.
I soon moved to an institution where teachers, matrons and even the Headteacher based their attitude towards me on my origin. I did not tell anyone. I was not about to worry my family or seek pity from friends whom I wasn’t sure shared these sentiments. I pretended it was ‘okay’ and went on about my business despite the prejudice that surrounded me almost everyday.
I was more exposed after High School. When I walked alongside other people, the taxi touts hurled insults at only me. It was ‘normal.’ Whether or not I wore the most decent of clothes to cover up my body shape, a remark would be made in my direction. I later discovered my facial features had also been classified. What was I going to do, wear a mask?
The moment I hit down town Kampala and other crowded areas, I ceased to be Esther. I was the intruder.
I remember one afternoon a few years ago when I got into a taxi in the New park,I took a seat by the window and waited for it to fill as always. Hardly had the journey started when one of the passengers began “Naye abanyarwanda bano batwagaza ki?” ( Loosely translated- What do these Banyarwanda want from us?) I didn’t pay much attention till at least 9 of the passengers joined in and argued, insulted, cursed Banyarwanda in my presence. To be honest, there was no ‘real’ message being shared but they were emotional and this scared me even more.Could they hurt me in broad day light? Weren’t their words hurtful enough?
None of them was on ‘the other side.’ I cringed.I wanted to break down, to jump through the window, anything but be in there.
If I didn’t know better, I would think it was orchestrated for my ‘benefit.’
I was mad. Why me? What had I done to deserve it? Did they know who I really was? Would they condone such behaviour against their daughter,sister or friend? Did they care? Why couldn’t humans just get along? There were no answers.
I decided against jumping out of the taxi and waited for my stage.
I got home with a heavy heart that evening and when my mum heard this story she said to me, “For as long as I am around, you shall not use a taxi ever again.”
I nodded, while suppressing tears but knew deep down, it was impossible and that it was no solution to this prejudice.
On my way from work last year, a guy selling apples in Wandegeya came to the car I was in amidst traffic jam. After he laid eyes on me he yelled, “I can’t sell to you, you are a Munyankole” and he stormed off. I was too shocked to react.
Speaking of traffic and cars, as soon as I learnt to drive, a can or huge colourful worms was opened!
When they noticed I was in the driver’s seat, it only emphasises how ‘we were stealing their money.’ Never mind that no car I have ever driven belongs to me.
These incidents have become so common I have grown accustomed to the ‘treatment.’
I am whoever they choose to think I am because of what I look alike and at that point, it does not matter what my beliefs are or who I am on the inside, because these people want to turn me into a victim yet I know, I am worth more than that.
Last year when the Lukwago madness ensued, I told the boda guy I had taken not to use the Kisekka route. I could foresee trouble. He obliged but later connected to it any way.
While riding through there, the not so gentlemen kept shouting how ‘my people’ had destroyed the country and how they were going to come for me. They assured me I needed to be careful.
If it wasn’t so sad, it would have been funny. I have worked for government institutions before that opened my eyes to filth I live each day trying to fight, but here I was being blamed for what, the Kampala mayor’s problems? Ha-ha.
Writing this is a reminder of how far we are from achieving equality.
Most nations that wage way based on ethnicity deal with at least two ethnic groups. Uganda on the other hand has over 40 tribes. The constitution recognises all of them, including Banyarwanda who like some other tribes are constantly reminded that they ‘don’t belong .’
What is even more disheartening is that some of these people who are happy to denounce certain tribes, have strong ties to them in reality. You might very well find they changed their names to avoid prejudice against them but are happy to inflict it in ‘their own.’ This reminder alone is revolting!!
I consider myself lucky, to be able to share some of these tales ‘lightly.’ These incidents had the power to break me but I didn’t let them. What distresses me is that they are not over yet.
I can think of many others I left out and know other Ugandans out there who have been preyed on by their own or people who thought themselves better, more equal.
Mildred suffered for being Luo as if she had anything to do with the family she was born in.
Is this really the kind of example we are willing to set for our children and their children, in the 21st century? Have we learnt nothing from History?
I remain baffled but I hope that if we begin discussions around such ‘silent evils that are crippling development, we can create a much better society for those yet to come.