Last week I was delighted to be invited to attend the graduation of a friend's son, Hervé, from the National University of Rwanda, which is in the ex-colonial capital, Butare in the South of the country. The family, Judith, Hervé's mother, Bosco, his uncle, Awunick, his godmother and I arranged to travel together from KIgali, which first meant Awunick and I had to get from Nyakarambi the day before. That gave us the chance to meet up with a good friend of Awunick's, my predecessor in Kirehe District, Dorothy, who has returned to Rwanda for a second placement, this time in a teacher training college to the north of Kigali. Dorothy and Awunick had a good catch-up chat over a drink or two.
The proceedings in Butare were due to start at 08.00, which meant we had to catch a bus from the other side of Kigali at 06.00. The day started with a wake-up phone call from Awunick at just after 05.00, probably concerned in case I slept in and missed the bus! Then a fast 15 minute moto ride through the still dark and virtually empty streets of Kigali to Nyabagogo bus station. Of course, I was first to arrive but the others were not long in coming. Luckily the tickets had been bought earlier in the week as all the buses going that way were packed with graduands (some already in their gowns!) and their families, all in their best clothes. The journey took us southwards into a different landscape with higher hills and consequently more twisty roads up and down the slopes. All vehicles travel at maximum speed at all times, so there were a few near misses on the way, but we arrived at Butare on schedule. "Let us go and take something." is the invitation to go to a café for breakfast and we duly drifted into Chez Julie, which is reputed for having the best milk in Butare. We asked for chai (milky spicy tea) and some chapatis and doughnuts, only to find that they had no chai left, nor had they any hot milk, only drinking yoghurt. After our early start we wanted something hot, so after some insistence they agreed that hot milk would be ready in 15 minutes. In fact for once it only took ten minutes and it was good. Some time around 09.00 we started to head for the University, having by now heard that the road in that direction was completely blocked with traffic and there was no point in taking a mini-bus. Hervé had already left to collect his gown and mortar board, so off we went by moto taxi, zig-zagging through the cars and mini-buses until all traffic was directed off the tarmac road and onto a dusty back lane track, also nose to tail. As we neared the University it became clear that we would get there faster on foot as we had come to a standstill. Once outside the main entrance the crowds were even denser and there was a big crush to pass the invitation check point. Hervé managed to get four of us in with only three tickets and I imagine the over crowding was because every other graduand had done the same or worse! Once inside mother, uncle and friend fussed around Hervé's regalia before we continued towards the stadium where the ceremony would take place.
|Left mother, Judith, centre Hervé, right uncle, Bosco and friend, Awunick|
The stands and marquee areas were already packed out with visitors and graduands so we ended up sitting on a grassy slope behind and at the side of the proceedings.
|As you can guess it was a roasting hot day!|
After the opening words there was a display of Intore dancers such as you get at every ceremony in Rwanda.
The proceedings began much as the UK equivalent with the award of honorary doctorates to two or three important visitors - this involved an introductory CV speech then a thank you speech. All this was in English and it was clear that many of the graduands families were getting nothing from it all. I thought things must get better but the ceremony continued with the deans of faculties reading out the names of graduands in a long list of something near 2,000 names, closely observed by the live outside broadcast cameras of Rwanda TV.
It took me while to realise that the graduands had no role whatsoever in the ceremony - no hand shakes, no presentations of degrees. There was an occasional cheer or bust of applause but all the graduands in their academic gowns, hoods and mortar boards were simply milling around in the crowds outside the marquee and the stands chatting and taking innumerable photos. "All dressed up and no where to go" came to mind!
The military band meanwhile had retreated to the woods surrounding the site and were relaxing in the grass.
Eventually we found seats in the stadium, as the earlier graduates and their families drifted away once they had been called out. Unfortunately for us the departments of Pharmacy and Medicine were very near the end, so it was about 14.00 before we heard Hervé's name. Shortly afterwards the last group, newly qualified doctors took part in the only ceremony including graduands as they took the hippocratic oath together.
Now it was time for the "official" family photos of Hervé and proud mother, uncle and friends at the front of the University.....
....until eventually Hervé waved his last good-bye to the University of Rwanda and we walked off towards the town centre with the rest of the crowds.
- the lucky ones got motos even in their gowns!
The tickets for the return bus at 15.30 had been bought in advance so we had seats for the return journey to Kigali. After two hours we arrived at the crowded bus station right in the evening rush hour! The journey across Kigali was the usual rush-hour stop start, exhaust fumes and crazy zig-zagging motos and then it was a short walk down to the family house not far from the airport.
Friends of the family joined us in increasing numbers, along with Hervé's two younger brothers. After drinks the buffet food was ready and we all took our turns to serve ourselves from the selection of vegetables and meat along with potatoes, green bananas, rice - a similar feast was being eaten by the children in the kitchen at the back of the house.
|This ceremony echoes the wedding ritual, where couples give each other food after the wedding.|
Once the meal was cleared away the Rwandan ritual of speech-making began. As the oldest one there and a guest from far away I had to kick off the speeches. Thank goodness I've got used to this now and I can usually find something reasonable to say. This day of course it was about congratulating Hervé and wishing him luck in finding a job as a pharmacist so that he could begin repaying his mother for the years she has scraped money together to finance his studies. I also mentioned that I was really honoured and pleased to be included in the family celebration and to be invited to their home once more. A fairly short speech compared to those that followed, so I was glad I was first otherwise I'd have felt obliged to speak for longer to try to match the Rwandan eloquence!
Some of the speeches were translated for me, but the body language was enough to make three general meaning clear. Hervé had a special part for the younger children, telling them to work hard at school as they could achieve their ambition as he had done. All his family relations spoke as well as the neighbours and friends, as you can see from the photos below.
Finally great numbers of photos were taken of all the guests in different combinations so that everyone was included.
As guests began to leave, the hosts wanted to follow the Rwandan tradition of accompanying the guests for part of the journey. And so we all set off along the road until after ten or fifteen minutes they felt duty had been done and I was left to continue alone. It was not very late, maybe 10.30 and as it was Friday night Remerea and Kabeza districts were still bustling with people and most of the little shops were still open making the walk home interesting.