In 2007, we allowed ourselves to be conquered by tribalism and hidebound politics. This time round, we have seen the light, we have experienced the negative effects of tribal politics and we will not give it a chance to rule over us.
Dani sat on the ashes that were what was once his home; that place where all his life had fallen into ruin. His mind was far away.
“Why did it have to happen? Why?” he asked himself over and over again, but no answer was forthcoming. Within a span of just four days he had lost all that he had ever possessed and all that he had ever believed in – family, friends – all his worldly possessions. Four days.
“Why me, God? Are you really there? Why did you let it happen? Or… maybe you are not there.”
The events of the last four days were still fresh in his memory – a raw, salted wound that would probably never heal. The throbbing pain in his head persisted, a constant reminder of the deep cut inflicted by a blunt machete.
It had all started with the much anticipated elections for a new president, and had ended with 1,500 deaths and over a million internally displaced persons; it had all started with an expectant hope for a new dawn, and had ended with a bleak future for which no one had been prepared.
The elections had pitted two arch-rivals against each other and the tension was as high as the stakes. Sides had been taken and the country split right down the middle, sadly, along tribal lines. What would come out of it, no one, not even Ares, the Greek god of violence, could have foreseen.
As he sat there in the cold morning breeze, Dani replayed the events of the Election Day in his head: How peaceful everything had seemed that morning despite the thick air of expectancy. Voting started at six in the morning and by five thirty in the evening the process was complete in most parts of the country. The tallying of the votes had begun at around six in the evening and had gone on until about eight o’clock the following morning, with provisional results being issued throughout the night. The race between the two candidates was tight and it was not clear who would emerge the eventual winner. Then, out of the blue, rumours of vote rigging started spreading, with each side accusing the other of the malpractice. Soon everyone was up in arms, literally.
The evening of the day after the elections, Dani was at his home together with his family – his parents and his younger sibling. The door to their house was firmly bolted from the inside and no one was moving on the streets. Both within and without the house, an uneasy silence hung in the air. It felt as if the devil was brewing up some mischief waiting to unleash it on humanity.
Inside the house, no one was talking. The volume of the television set had been turned low and even the crickets had ceased their bothersome chirping. Suddenly the still, night air was rent by piercing screams coming from their neighbours, James’ family. The screams sent a new wave of chills into already chilled hearts and even Dani’s father was at a loss as to what to do, for the first time in Dani’s memory.
They caught words of some form of dialogue that was taking place: “Please spare my children at least,” a voice that Dani knew so well begged amid sobs. It was James’ mother.
“Cockroaches have no place in our town,” a male voice responded to these pleas. “And that means that children of cockroaches also have no place here.”
None of this made any sense to Dani. Clearly, these were no ordinary burglars. What had cockroaches and children of cockroaches got to do with their beautiful and clean neighbourhood? Why was James’ mother screaming for her children to be spared? What was going on?
Part of the mystery was solved only a few seconds later. They heard a strangely muffled sound amid the sobs and pleas of the mother. A “Thud! Thud! Thud!” which, Dani was to learn later, had been the sound of a wooden club meeting human flesh. The voice of James’ mother faded away, but the screams were renewed. This time Dani could make out clearly the voices of James and his younger sister, Jane.
James had been his bosom friend. They had grown up together and gone to the same schools. They had known each other practically all the seventeen years of their lives. Many were the times that people had mistaken them for brothers because one was seldom seen without the other in tow. Their families, too, were close. Their fathers went out together for drinks and their mothers belonged to the same local women’s welfare group. Nothing, it seemed, could ever separate them.
Without thinking, Dani jumped down from the sofa where he had been sitting and made straight for the door. Some form of madness had seized him and a great urge came over him to go and help his friend, his brother. Before he could reach the door, however, his father’s strong arms grabbed him around the waist and wrestled him to the floor. They struggled for a while but his father proved stronger and held him pinned to the floor. His mother sobbed in her chair and his sister appeared to be in some form of stupor.
“Let me go! Let me go! They are killing James’ mum!” he cried.
But his father held him firmly, without saying anything. Maybe he did not trust his voice to speak, lest it betrayed his own feelings. For almost two minutes father and son remained locked in the combative position. In the end Dani stopped struggling and buried his face on his father’s shoulder and sobbed like he had never sobbed before, his own broad muscular shoulders shaking violently, till he finally collapsed on the sofa having used up all his energies.
The screams from James’ house died down but soon the streets outside were filled with sounds of people shouting and whistles blowing. Cars hooted and chants were heard: “Haki yetu! Haki yetu!” They were shouting for their rights, rights which had not been clear then as they still were not even now in Dani’s mind as he sat there on the warm ashes.
This had been the hunt for the cockroaches; the beginning of the madness that the country was to experience for four continuous days. Dani came to find out later that James’ entire family had been murdered that night. Their only crime: belonging to the “wrong” tribe. The only reason Dani’s family had been safe till then was because they belonged to the “right” tribe.
All this reminded Dani of what the people of Rwanda had gone through thirteen years before. He had never imagined that his country could ever go through the same thing. A country which had known only peace since independence; a country which was the envy of many other countries: countries which knew only too well the ravages of civil wars…
But this was not what ran through Dani’s mind on that fateful night as lay there on the sofa. These reflections were to come much later. At that particular moment, the only thing that had filled his mind was the shouts, the chants and the blowing whistles.
The noises outside continued to grow as more and more people joined the frenzy. Screams could now be heard from almost all corners of the neighbourhood and bright fires could be seen outside the windows along the streets. Dani tried to block all this tumult from his mind but to no avail. He lay on the sofa looking at the ceiling, warm tears streaming down both sides of his face. As far as he could see, his life would never be the same again. He did not realise that the worst was yet to come.
At about two in the morning, they were startled when they heard a soft but desperate tap on the door. Everyone in the house was still awake in the living room. Who could dare sleep on such a night? The hair on the back of his head stood on end and Dani, for a moment, forgot about his friend’s family. The tap grew louder and more desperate but not a voice could be heard from the outside.
“Who is it?” his father asked.
No response, just some more rapid tapping.
“I will call the police.”
He eventually gathered enough courage and approached the door, but with caution, and slowly unbolted it. He swung it back purposely as if expecting a violent attack from some enemy lurking behind it. A cold draft stole its way into the house. He peered outside and what he saw sent him reeling back into the house in shock, throwing the door wide open in the process.
On the door step lay little Jane, James’ six-year old sister, all covered in blood from head to toe. Her dress was torn and she shook like a leaf in a storm. She looked very weak. The angel that she had always been and the beauty that she had always possessed seemed to have deserted her at that moment. Her sight would have brought tears to anyone’s eyes. What she had gone through or how she had escaped, Dani never found out, for at that moment something happened which would change the course of his life forever.
A group of rowdy men passed just outside their house and saw his father kneeling over Jane. They immediately started shouting. Dani could make out the words ‘traitor’ and ‘betrayal of the tribe’ from their hysterical screams. Soon their house was surrounded by a group of men, both young and old, possessed by some madness which seemed to have driven away any shadow of humanness from them. Little Jane was roughly wrenched from the ground and carried off by one of them. Dani never saw her little body again.
‘’Why do you shield them?” one of the men – obviously the leader of the mob – asked, approaching Dani’s father and brandishing a machete. “They have been feeding on us like ticks on a healthy cow. Why do you protect them?”
With these words he swung the machete and landed it squarely on Dani’s father’s head, who immediately collapsed onto the porch. At that moment several things happened: Dani’s sister screamed; his mother collapsed next to his father in shock; and Dani jumped on the attacker and tried to strangle him. This promptly earned him a blow from the machete across his forehead which sent him sprawling onto the dusty ground. He did not lose consciousness, but his head swam with dizziness.
He was dragged away by two strong arms and taken to some place outside their compound. Voices buzzed around him and the smell of bhang was in the air. He was thrown down roughly on dewy grass and a heavy soiled boot, set on his heaving stomach. This made his already laboured breathing even more difficult.
‘’Why do you shield them?” the same voice that had questioned his father asked him.
“Because… they are just as… human… as you and me,” was all he could say with a lot of effort, both physical and mental.
The foot on his stomach was lifted and he breathed out in relief. Two seconds later it came landing again with such vehemence that Dani was surprised he did not spurt blood through his mouth. The pain was short and intense. It started from the stomach and reached its climax inside his head, or so it seemed to him. Whether or not he lost consciousness for a while, Dani did not know. What he remembered next was being dragged and placed against a wall, with two hands propping him up on either side to prevent him from crumbling down.
“Can’t you see sense? They have been feeding on our resources. This land is ours and they have no right to be here,” the Voice continued.
Dani kept quiet, having learnt his lesson on answering questions the way he was not meant to answer.
“Answer me when I talk to you!” the Voice demanded, trembling in anger.
He took a risk and spoke again, “But James… we grew up together. I’ve never considered him an enemy jus… just… just because of his tribe. He was like… he was like a br…brother to me.”
“Don’t preach to me about brotherhood. I know an enemy when I see one. Our people are languishing in poverty while these ticks prosper. Don’t tell me that we are the same.”
“It all…It all boils down to… to hard work,” Dani cut him short, “Those who… who work hard… reap the fruits of their… of their efforts. If these people… these that you call ticks are… are prospering, it’s not because of their tr… tribe but because of their… of their… hard work.”
“I’ve warned you against preaching to me,” the man growled and struck him across the face with the back of his hand.
The crowd around them started shouting. In his woe, Dani had almost forgotten about the other people. They were urging their leader to finish the boy off so they could move on. Some had started sharpening their machetes on the ground and prodding his ribs with them.
“Tomorrow. I want some good answers from you when I come back tomorrow,” the leader said and struck him on the head with a heavy iron rod. Dani crumpled into a heap and slowly drifted into a painful unconsciousness. The last thing he could remember were the screams coming from the direction of his house… the blazing fires all around him… the chants of blood-thirsty voices… the sirens… and then nothing more.
When he came round, he was lying on a hospital bed at the National Hospital. A nurse was leaning over him, examining him. His head was bandaged and his ribs felt like they were on fire. He tried to sit up but two gentle hands held him back.
“Don’t move. You are not yet strong enough,” said the nurse. “You have been through a lot. It’s a miracle that you are still alive. Lie down and don’t stir.”
Nor could he have moved even if he had wanted to, for at that moment a sharp pain split through his head and he fell back onto the bed with a groan.
He left the hospital two days later. One of the doctors gave him some money to go back home after narrating to him what had been happening all around the country in the days he had been in the hospital. The country had gone up in flames. What Dani had experienced was just a preview of what was going on in most other cities. Hundreds of people were reported dead and thousands had fled their homes in search of safer havens. Peace had only been restored after the army moved in to help the regular police quell the chaos. Even then, blood, a lot of innocent blood, had been spilt and the country was in a state of shock and mourning.
According to the doctor, no one had paid Dani a visit during the three days he was in the hospital. This increased his sense of foreboding. He feared the worst.
It was 5.30am when he left the hospital. The sun was not yet out and it was slightly dark outside. He took a cab home, spending all the money he had received from that kind doctor. As the vehicle sped through the deserted city streets, all that Dani could see were signs of death: blood and smoke.
When he arrived at his house, he jumped out of the cab and walked towards the house without so much as a glance back at the driver. The driver looked at him for a long time, shook his head sadly and drove away. His own heart too was heavy with sorrow.
What Dani saw on alighting from the cab, he would never forget, not were hell to freeze over several times. Where his home had once stood, there now lay a smoking ruin. Crumbled walls and ashes was all that was left of their magnificent home. A small boy, half-naked and barefoot, was ravaging through the charred remains for anything edible. Dani was to learn from him what had befallen his entire family: machetes and fire.
Of all eleven of the neighbouring houses, only two of them still stood and even these looked deserted. He fell down on his knees, then lay prostrate on the ashes and wept. He cried until he felt the wells of tears in his eyes dry up. As far as he was concerned, his life was over. There was no reason to go on living.
After what seemed like an eternity, he sat up, clutched both his knees and rested his chin on them, a blank stare in his eyes. A strange madness had passed through the country, razed it to the ground, and moved on. Yet, here he remained, its victim. He looked away into a distant haze of smoke and wondered how things would eventually turn out. On the horizon, the first rays of the morning sun were beginning to pierce through the clouds. The world was waking up to a new dawn.