By Sophia Natukunda
I read about politics often, whether in local or international media. I have been a keen follower of politics and political actors for close to three decades. In all this time, I have resisted from publicly commenting on public affairs.
However, when I read Bernabas Taremwa’s letter on the “silent war” between Uganda and Rwanda, I thought my own experience may point us to the real problem. At the root of the “silent war” is a problem that myself I confronted until I found inner peace when I accepted myself for who I am. It is a problem that most people in similar circumstances face, however with different remedies and effects.
My family was born in a place called Umutara in Ndorwa (Umutara w’Indorwa) in Rwanda. This is the same area where President Museveni originates, as he told parliament on June 20, 2018. I, like Museveni, have had a difficulty reconciling with what it means when we claim our heritage to be Umutara and are confronted with the reality that Umutara was not among those areas of Rwanda that were annexed to Uganda during the Berlin Conference.
As a young girl in secondary school I hated visiting our village in Mpororo. Whenever I asked them stories about their parents, my grandparents, they would bring up Umutara. I wanted to hear about our grandparents but without hearing about Umutara and Rwanda. They were almost nostalgic about this place. But it wasn’t until I was a grown woman that I found the courage to listen to this story. I came to discover of a mass exodus of people from Rwanda to the area that became Uganda. This area of Mutara was dominated by cattle keepers. When colonialist passed a decree to immunize their herds of cattle, there was strong resistance.
My grandparents were among those who protested. They believed that this was a colonial conspiracy that wanted to rid them of their cattle, to impoverish them so that they could turn to tilling the land. The only life they had known was cattle keeping and hadn’t a clue about tilling, which they considered to be an occupation of the lower class. In essence, they were fighting for their status.
They fled up north with their cattle. Among those who fled was Mzee Ntarushoke, the grandfather of Janet Museveni. Ironically, Ntarushoke was among those who had been selected by the colonialists to immunize the cattle, “gutera Igikatu” in Kinyarwanda.
It became a popular saying that people were fleeing “Igikatu cy’a Ntarushoke” or Ntarushoke’s injections. This is the past that many of us had a difficult time coming to terms with, especially as young men and women battling an identity crisis. Were we Bahima like our parents had wanted us to conceal ourselves in order to integrate in Ugandan society, or were we Banyarwanda like our grandparents were nostalgically telling us.
In other words, we were conditioned to be two people depending on circumstances: something else in private and quite another in public. We were severely punished whenever we mistakenly brought the private part of ourselves into the public and vice versa. However, as the ability to live a double live became instinctive, the internal conflict with the self-worsened, an identity crisis due to the demand to deny who you are in order to gain acceptance and the validation of belonging.
My own experience showed me that as the stakes rise, so does the anxiety. This is why I have always been sympathetic to President Museveni. His reflexes whenever there is an internal crisis in Uganda remind me of my own trials and tribulations as a young child, and later in life whenever I had something of significance to lose as a result of who I am.
President Museveni and President Kagame have had cordial – if not friendly – relations for almost three decades now. Any problems they had before didn’t stop them from visiting each other. Kagame’s family has visited Museveni’s in Uganda. Museveni has visited Kagame at his private home in, ironically, Mutara (on Lake Muhazi). Kagame also gifted Museveni with ten cows, the specificity of the gift being a great symbol in Museveni’s private (Rwandan) and public (Ankole) cultures.
Then things fell apart in Uganda. The breakdown of public goods and run away corruption, among other ills, brought out Museveni’s – as it did to all of us at some point in our struggle with identity – basic instincts. He was faced with the alternative of fixing the country or responding to a country that was saying “omunyarwanda tumukoye” (we are sick of the Munyarwanda).
Museveni took this expression of resentment rather literary. He believed that Ugandans were fed up with the Banyarwanda. In fact, they were fed up with him. So, he believed he could fix this resentment by proving to Ugandans that he was also tired of Banyarwanda. And since Museveni’s strongest voting constituency – stronger than the Bahima – constitutes of the Banyarwanda in areas like Sembabule, Kiboga, Mpororo, etc (whom he tells during the night that he is one of them) he thought he could confuse Ugandans by targeting another set of Banyarwanda: those in Rwanda.
Museveni has decentralized this resentment beyond himself by clutching onto Rwanda. In my childhood I, with Rwandan parentage, was among the kids who spoke the most fluent Runyankore. I would pre-emptively point out another kid to accuse of being a Munyarwanda and encourage other bullies to follow my lead as we beat him up. For people like us, it’s a survival instinct.