…wherein we learn how the throwing of metal horns broke the ice and led to a memorable encounter between a wayward American and machete-wielding Rwandan possible genocide perpetrators; and a brief treatise on how collectivist cultures have been unfortunately usurped by governments to instigate the commission of unspeakable horrors.
I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda on an exceptionally late-night Ethiopian Airlines flight out of Kampala, Uganda. Pulling into the cheapest hotel I could muster (and by cheap, I mean it has Wi-Fi yet, in a seeming contradiction in technological terms, offers not a solitary power outlet in my room) and slept until 8 AM. I awoke to the sound of straw brooms, dozens of them in the aggregate, their syncopated brushing cadence crooning a soft chorus on the streets below, the melody wafting thru my open window and, for some reason I can’t explain, giving me the ticklish feeling of a Q-tip digging deep in my ear.
Chatting up hotel reception before heading out a few minutes later, they informed me that on the final Saturday of every month, all Rwandans are compelled to clean their public spaces. They mandatorily labor from 7 to 11 AM in a government-mandated program known as muganda, taking to the streets and tidying the sidewalks, parking lots, common gathering places like plazas, and anything else not considered private spaces. Local commissars oversee (read: compel) the participation of members of every community. If they sleep in, feel lazy, or for some other reason simply aren’t particularly civic-minded, community members are fined 5,000 Rwandan Francs (roughly 8 USD); and if too poor to pay, the commissars see to it that a make-up cleaning session is rapidly arranged, and again local authorities are there to ensure compliance. Indeed it is true: gas or grass, but nobody rides for free.
Rwandans are quite serious about this cleaning business. Nothing was open, there were no cars roaming about, no moto-taxis whizzing thru the melee and haranguing me to take a ride, no casual strollers, nothing. Just people cleaning, dutifully and diligently. I began walking up the street, marveling at the silent industry of it all, when I came to an embankment at roadside. It overlooked a vacant lot that was full of people, around 40 Rwandan men with machetes striking down a considerable overgrowth.
They labored, their faces adorned with supreme concentration and submission to the task. They perspired, striated muscles tensing with every downward blow, knuckles knotted like stones atop fingers airlessly clutching their instruments. The men were bringing down their machetes with a fury and vengeance I would not normally have associated with removing weeds from a vacant lot. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to take things like yard work with less gravity. But these men, no. They didn’t fatigue, and what’s more, their movements were in perfect union: the wavelength of their brutal and incessant synchronized rhythm was not dissimilar to heart cells coming together in a petri dish and gradually assuming the same beat.
Over the last 15 years, though not a farmer myself, I’ve developed somewhat of an expertise on the art of the machete. I’ve been to enough places and seen enough folks in action with this most ancient of cutting tools that, indeed, I can distinguish chicken crap from chicken salad. And let me say here and now that I didn’t even see machetes move so fast in El Salvador over a decade ago, when the country was still largely agricultural and folks there, even the ones choking the country’s too-densely populated urban centers, toted machetes around as a matter of daily course. The Rwandans had practically taken flight, their rusted gray blades a helicopter propeller’s blur in the crisp morning air.
I don’t have to spell out for you what the sight brought to mind. I’d assess that most of the men there were between 30-40 years old, which means the ones on the greater end of that spectrum would have been sufficiently old enough in 1994 to participate in the three-month enduring Hutu genocide of the Tutsi ethnic group, which killed roughly 800,000 people while permanently disfiguring and displacing scores more. This extermination campaign effectively cut Rwanda’s population by a full tenth. In Kigali alone, mass graves hold the mortal remains of 259,000; and I use the word “remains” loosely, since in many cases the corpses were first so brutally hacked, then left to rot so long – accordingly subject to the rapacious appetites of stray dogs and birds of carrion and a quadrillion predator insects – that by the time the killing came to a halt and the bodies were recovered and catalogued, little often remained but a femur or cranium for a man, woman, or child who just three months prior had been a breathing human being. I will also add here that while I’m not an expert in tribal or ethnic distinctions on the African continent, my understanding is that Hutus are shorter and darker than Tutsis. Quickly glancing over the lot and the men slashing about in it, I concluded that they certainly fit this admittedly stereotypical description. And so it was entirely likely, therefore, that a number of these men were low-level genocide perpetrators.
I observed them for five minutes collectively bludgeoning the ground (if this sounds like a short period of time, then I invite you to have a go at five minutes of unabashed machete work yourself) before one of them stopped and looked up. He didn’t even say a word. Yet he did not need to make a sound, for I clocked off a mental “3 Mississippi” before all 40 had stopped and began staring at me as well. It was like a human version of a YouTube video going viral, a meme spreading thru the group, without a word being spoken betwixt them. So if the rhythm of their machetes was locked in unison, so too were their stares a group endeavor. It was so sudden that I barely had a chance to register that I now had, from my vantage spot on the embankment, the absolute and undivided attention of this entire lot of machete-wielding men. I didn’t feel threatened; that’s not my point. They were merely stuck in a bout of compulsory labor and braking to gawk at the muzungu, who was likewise gawking back at them.
At an impasse, and cognizant that one of us had to blink first in this impromptu staring contest, I did the first thing occurring to me: took off my shades, threw up metal horns and greeted them with a hearty, “Hey dudes!!!” And I was greeted in return with a friendly whoop that exploded from the group all at once. A few of them tried throwing metal horns back at me, even, and I saw one of them gingerly correcting another who was doing it with the wrong fingers; he’d given me an Aloha sign instead. And so channeling the late Ronnie James Dio, the ice was broken by metal for this brief and alien moment, a wayward American and a band of machete-wielding possible genocide perpetrators. They did not return to work. They waited – as did I – for what would come next. So I threw them a “thumbs up”, and the whole group threw one back simultaneously. Both their timing and delivery were impeccable, evincing the same group cohesion they did with the chopping, staring, and metal horns.
Officially out of hand gestures, except for throwing up my middle finger (and I was NOT going to do THAT), I shrugged. One of them, near the middle of the mass, held up a garden hoe and said something in either the local language or Swahili – I’m unsure which – and his gestures and broad grin suggested he was asking me if I wanted to clean at their side. I’m in. I sprinted down to the lot, seized the hoe, and began. But they were chuckling; I was not sure why at first, since though I’m certainly no master gardener, I’m sure I know how to handle a hoe. After a moment, one of them spoke to another in French and I thought I heard the word “woman” in the mix. So now this had become a yardstick for masculinity, with a hoe being a lesser tool and the machete being the surefire barometer of a man’s fortitude. So I put down the hoe and pointed at a machete, and they commenced SCREAMING with what I could only describe at a sort of joy; did I pass the test, whatever it was? I bade them back up, and began hacking for all I was worth at the grass in front of me, praying to God that I didn’t cut off my own foot in the process of illustrating the size of my my macho. A few men who were coalesced in my most immediate vicinity scrutinized my technique and began offering advice. Though I did not understand a word they spoke, they touched my right arm, used their hands to attempt correction of my striking position, and made me go slower, guiding my motions. One of them, his own fearsome machete resting on his shoulder whilst he smirked, finally intervened, making me step aside and observe him as he hacked the bejesus out of the brush before us, demonstrating how it’s done. Just standing there, I could feel the wind generated by the force of his machete strikes raining down. At that precise second, a single thought occurred to me and it was this: can you imagine being on the business end of that? And the second thought that occurred to me was that, sadly, it’s quite possible a number of people found that out the hard way.
Eventually, the activity stopped and we all stood around in a circle, awkwardly smiling and making repeatedly failed attempts at communication. A young-ish guy, probably in his early twenties, approached me then, materializing in the group as if dropping from the sky, greeting me in passable English and even using the word “cool” in his opening sentence. He was dressed like any young American hip hop fan; both his brow and clothing were dry, so I divined he was simply a passerby who saw the scene, assumed he’d at least get a chance to practice his English, and came on down. Finally dispensing with formal niceties, he asked me if I needed help, if I was doing okay; I responded that I was fine. Then he, sensing that perhaps I’d benefit from an explanation of everything happening, began. I’m paraphrasing here, but the essence is accurate: “The president said we must avoid what happened in the past. Rwanda needs to be unified. Now we just have one major political party, and the opposition is very small and doesn’t matter. Since President Kagame controls the whole country [note he didn’t say whole government, but whole COUNTRY], he can get things done with no problem. Rwanda is very small and we are efficient people who follow orders well. So when he said we must work, and said we must clean, we know we must do it without question.” I had previously heard that for numerous reasons, Rwandans are methodical about following instructions from authorities. Now I was beginning to see how that manifested in real time.
At this point, two drunken men broke crashed the scene. They were messes, reeking of alcohol, and judging by the unfavorable odors seeping seemingly their every pore, I’m inclined to believe hadn’t bathed in a fortnight. Laughing and staggering, they each took to one side of me, and began jutting their hands into my pockets, saying something that included the English word “money”, for all intents and purposes rifling me for cash. The assembled machetes fell deathly quiet silent at that moment, assumedly sensing trouble. No smiles, no talking, just watching and waiting. I pushed one of the drunks away and stepped back from them both, gingerly smiling to keep things cool but telling them to stop. This was a pucker-factor-ten moment; I didn’t wish to piss off a group I assumed would side with another Rwandan over me. But I also could not let lushes lay hands upon my person and try to yank cash from my shorts, since what good would it achieve beyond showing me to be a lamb, intrinsically vulnerable to other wolves amongst them?
Enter a savior: my new twenty-something friend said but a few quick sentences to the drunks, speaking in hushed tones and, judging by the nodding heads around me, to the general agreement of all present. The two men immediately laid off, backed away, and smiled. I asked him what he said to cause such an abrupt change in their posture, and in his slow and accented drawl he explained, “I told them you are a visitor in our land and they are showing indiscipline. And this is bad.” That was all it took to stop them. Then two cops materialized out of nowhere, grabbed the men by their arms, and hastily led them away. To this, my friend said, “They will spend 3 days in jail to learn a lesson. The police will punish them.”
So I’d been on the streets of Kigali for fewer than two full hours and already felt I’d unlocked the key to explaining the genocide. First, a culture favoring collectivism, with tremendous peer-pressure to act according to specific behavioral guidelines, especially when anything involving the tribe or kin is at stake. Second, a bizarrely uncommon efficiency built into Rwandan culture, by which they are able to achieve results incredibly rapidly. Third, a strong individual work ethic which, when injected into a group context, focuses group members to the extent that they get tunnel vision and see task completion to be the only worthwhile goal, without necessarily questioning the task itself or the methods by which it is being completed. And fourth, a top-down institutional capacity sufficiently robust to compel community members to carry our orders to the letter. The combination of these fou can be applied for social good like collective cleaning, or for social evil like the Tutsi extermination in 1994.