Covid-19, Rwandans Have Learnt to Forego ‘Hobe’, Can They Learn To Queue?

Last Wednesday’s virtual cabinet meeting, took the decision to tighten the measures against SARS-COV-2, following the initial relaxation, which included ending lockdown. The need to increase strictness of the measures is due to a resurgence of infections we are seeing across the world, but also people’s behaviour in response to the measures still in place.

The cabinet decision now means that all bars are to close once again, no alcohol is to be served anywhere, except where people are sitting down to a meal. All but specifically authorised movement is to end by seven o’clock curfew, and travel between provinces is once again restricted.

As has become the norm, the situation will remain under constant review, and will change towards either greater relaxation, or tighter restrictions, depending on the scientific observation of the virus, but crucially, also on people’s adherence to the preventive measures.

Only days before the cabinet decision, Rwanda, especially Kigali, was experiencing a spike in infections. Deaths have now hit double figures, to date, and hopefully holding.

Mercifully this number is of course still low, compared to what is happening around the world, and indeed the region, but as the rate of infections continues to rise, the government acted promptly, as they have done from the very beginning.

Two of Kigali’s main markets, Nyarugenge, and Nyabugogo, were closed.

The panic to get home by the new hour of seven o’clock is steadily flowing into normality. Cutting transport links between Kigali and the provinces is inevitably causing great inconvenience, and the traders of Nyarugenge and Nyabugogo, understandably grumble about loss of income.

To a large extent however, whether or not their places of business closed or remained open, was always up to them.

Despite much noise from outside, including from Human Rights organisations, in particular, Human Rights Watch, about alleged lack of freedoms in Rwanda, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) led government, justifiably prides itself on a close partnership between government and governed.

The pandemic is testing this partnership, and while on the whole it is proving to strong, a sizable minority seems to have decided that it is all too much of a bother, and will only go through the motions of observing the preventive measures against the pandemic.

Like the woman I encounter at one of the many washing points now found at every entrance. As I approach it, someone is already washing her hands. I wait, observing the stipulated 1.5metres. There is a queue of at least eight people behind me. I know because I can feel the breath of the one immediately behind me at the back of my neck.

I turn and attempt my most disapproving look, but to no avail. I get blank, questioning stares back. You are supposed to keep your distance I say. In unison, they begin to debate the point, but I expected it, and ignoring them move forward to wash my hands.

I turn on the tap and begin. A woman approaches, she is on the phone. She walks past the entire queue, and puts the hand not holding the phone over mine and begins to go through the motions of washing hands, or to be more precise, her fingers.

She is not even looking at what she is doing. Her attention is on her phone conversation, as she stares in the distance. I am taken aback, stop and step back, and look at her. She reacts as if what she is doing is the most natural thing.

The queue at the back closes in even more, still debating the physical distancing. I am stunned, bristling a bit now, quickly wash my hands and walk off, muttering to myself. I pass one of the many young volunteers who remind people to observe the preventive measures. He had been watching the scene intently.

I make a helpless gesture with my hands. He responds by informing me that they need to be at least 1.5 metres apart. He seems to be defending himself. I tell him I know how difficult it is to get people to do what they know they are supposed to do. He visibly relaxes, and explains that he had been trying all day to get people to queue properly, and was just resting for a bit. Bless him, I say to myself, forgetting my irritation.

They are a wonderful bunch these volunteers. Most are barely out of their teens, and with the Rwandan culture of respect for one’s elders, it takes quite something for them to instruct people to follow the guidelines. They are firm about handwashing, but are often too exhausted by the apparently constant need to tell people to queue properly, keep the right distance between each other.

Rwandans will preach what should be done, even as they contravene it. Almost without fail, every time you stand in a queue, not one, but several people will come and blithely get in front of you as though you are not there. And you will be treated to a debate if you mention it, and chided for making a fuss.

The woman who saw nothing untoward in washing her hand over mine, was more than old enough to be the young volunteer’s mother, he was never going to admonish her. She knew it and took advantage of it.

The incident took place outside a main bus terminal and shopping area, close to one of the markets that has now been closed.

Inside the bus terminal, round circles have been helpfully painted for people to stand within, as they queue. There is the appropriate distance between the circles. Without fail, people will come and stand in the spaces between the circles, jumping the queue.

When the bus approaches, they will start pushing and shoving, and if you hold your position in the circle, they will go passed you. It is like trying to keep a herd of goats in order.

The young volunteers do their best, but they need eyes in the back of their heads to see people jockeying for position. Interestingly, the young women volunteers seem to do better. You pray you will encounter one of them. Their male colleagues tend to be more self conscious, and can get overwhelmed by it all and shrink away.

Predictably, the disregard for the preventive measures was even more pronounced in markets. The constant reminders on radio, television, SMS, loud speakers, apparently not enough to instil in people the need to keep the safe the distance between each other, or wear their face masks properly.

There is a new fashion that is all the rage in Rwanda: a face mask won around the chin, or below the nose.

Shockingly, it is quite common to see people sneeze openly, people clear their throats and spit, or cough to the four winds. Unsavoury habits at the best of times, highly irresponsible in these times of Covid-19.

It is of course difficult to know exactly the extent to which such habits have contributed to the current spike in cases. These rises in infections are being experienced all around the world, since the easing of restrictions, especially lockdown measures. But it is safe to assume that they will contribute to these numbers.

The result is a cabinet decision to protect so many from the potentially fatal consequences of their own irresponsible folly.

And yet, the partnership is broadly strong and enduring.

Culturally Rwandans embrace to greet one another, they shake and hold hands, men, or women. The notion of personal space is on the whole an alien concept. For them, aloneness is somewhat unnatural.

In spite of that, in little more than five months, it has become normal to touch elbows, bump fists, rather than shake hands. It is extraordinary how this has taken root so quickly.

Motor cycle taxis carry sanitisers and theatrically spray passenger helmets, sanetise passengers’ hands, and ask them if they have “agatambaro” a handkerchief, or scarf to cover their heads before they don the helmet. Occasionally, you will see someone on the back of a motorcycle, their coat trailing from underneath a safety helmet. They had forgotten their gatambaro.

And while many may insist on wearing them down their chins, and under their noses, it is now strange to see anyone without a face mask. So strange that long before a police officer sends the miscreant back home, they will have had several voices asking where they left their gapfukamunwa, literally, mouth cover, perhaps they ought to have added izuru, nose, then perhaps the masks might be won properly.

“Hobe” they say, with a quite a depth of feeling when they embrace one another as they meet. If they can learn to forego that, largely anyway, perhaps they might learn to queue. They will need to. As we constantly hearing now, Covi-19 is not going away any time soon.

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