This is my grandfather, a light-hearted, powerful and wise soul. Current age estimated between 106 and 112 years old. Just some days ago I went to visit him at his home in rural Rwanda.
He is said to be one of the last traditional medicine men in northern Rwanda. People sometimes travel up to 100 km, often barefoot, to get cured by him. In his younger years he would go for epic walks into the subalpine forests of the Virunga mountains: to collect herbs and minerals for his medical practice, to hunt all sorts of wild life and also for beekeeping and honey collecting. He has lived all his live at the foot of volcano Mt. Karisimbi, my own birthplace, just at the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. In my grandfather’s mind that border didn’t really exist. He used to go freely wherever the journey’s leading to.
I consider my grandfather a miracle of our contemporary times: he is the only person I know off who’s experienced all the major (often atrocious) events and transformations a Rwandan person could possibly experience in the 20th and early 21st century. He was around when the pre colonial kingdom of Rwanda was still in function, has seen the early transitions towards colonization by the Germans, quickly followed by the Belgians who drastically overturned every aspect of Rwandan society. There was the violence and turmoil of the Rwandan Revolution in the 50’s and the independency throughout the ’60’s, 70’s and 80’s. There was the 1994 Genocide and the post-war massacres – amongst the worst in his village and region. And yet – in spite of this all – he still is driven by an endless positivity and unconditional love towards his fellowman and environment. His great sense of humor is unstoppable and his erupting laughters and whirling naughty giggles are contagious.
We met last in 2011, and I went to visit him again mid August and last saturday, for some in-depth talks. Especially his revelations about his life as a hunter and traditional doctor were for me – having grown up in the totally different environment of Bruges in Belgium- mind blowing.
An African proverb says “When an African man dies, a library burns to the ground”. So of course I have ‘taped’ every little word and sigh of my grandfather’s parchment-like, ultra fragile and soft voice. And the videos and binaural audio tapes that I have gathered are amongst the most ‘precious treasures’ of my personal AFRICA ON TAPE archive – so I hope the recordings can serve one day as a source for oral history of the Virunga Mountains. And yes, time is against me, but I’ll do everything I can to get another chance to visit my grandfather some time soon to listen ‘nd tape more stories from the past.
Bondy and Nickita, I feel very blessed that you were accompanying me on those very special excursions to Mt. Karisimbi. Thank you also to my precious family in Rwanda for the amazing time we shared together. And to my friends that encouraged me, despite all my doubts and fears to take the flight back home, back to my ancestral territory: BIG THANK YOU !