If Twitter is anything to go by, and it rarely is, if ever at all, there are already t-shirts featuring Lilian Mugabekazi, in her now famous, or infamous attire, at a concert in the Kigali Arena.
She may deserve more than a t-shirt. Rwanda has her actions to thank, for an opportunity to take a critical look at itself.
The debate (although calling it a debate, may be dignifying the unedifying noise that followed Mugabekazi’s arrest for “indecency,”) serves as a timely reminder of the nature of the nation, that is the new Rwanda, how far it has come, and even a glimpse into the historical perspective.
Less than a week ago, most Rwandans would have responded with a blank look, if you mentioned, Lilian Mugabekazi. Other than those most familiar with the entertainment industry, where she earned a crust, as a “video vixen,” little to nothing was known about her.
Thanks to a combination of her choice of clothing, the actions of the police, in response to it, she is now, for a time at least, something of a national icon.
Kigali is fast becoming a favourite of the region’s performers, and three weeks or so ago, it was the turn of the singer, TyC, to delight the almost exclusively young crowd, with a concert at BK Arena.
Speaking in an interview she gave to one of the many channels, that now compete for Rwandans’ attention, Mugabekazi, said she not been at all that keen on going to the concert. She is not one for concerts, she intimated. She was persuaded to go by her friends, and she particularly likes the featured performer.
She claims that she just picked up the first outfit that came to hand. That is perhaps a little economical with the actuality, since what came to hand, was an exact replica of a jumpsuit, worn by the singer Rihanna. Even the pose, in the picture that would go viral, was uncannily similar to the one Rihanna had struck for the cameras.
The suit, entirely see through, left little to the imagination. Like Rihanna, Mugabekazi, combined it with a coat. The pose struck, the picture taken, a touchpaper was lit.
Like almost all African nations, Rwanda’s population is predominantly young. The capital Kigali, is famously well ordered, safe, and pleasing to the eye, characteristics that are making the city, a favourite venue for various musicians, from around the region, and beyond.
Some things are as inevitable as the laws of nature. Take a mix of young people, a safe, vibrant city, all year-round sunshine, social media, especially Instagram, where celebrities, like Rihanna, Beyonce, express their exuberance, through the most daring styles of dress, a burgeoning fashion industry, and attempting to prevent imitation of these celebrities, is like trying to get water to flow uphill.
And with youthful ebullience, especially in their sexuality, and let us be honest about it, female sexuality in particular, comes older people’s disapproval, for some even disgust.
It would be unfair however, to characterise these older people, as killjoys. Far from it. They are often protective of the young people they censure, and are bewildered by their seemingly overexcitable, exotic offspring, who they wish would conduct themselves, more as their elders do.
There is a sense of young people being out of control, getting out of hand, and a lot of the strictures are rightly or wrongly, genuinely meant for the good of the young people themselves. It is a tale as old as time.
Mugabekazi’s full display of her feminine charms, seems to have come as the proverbial straw that did for the camel’s back. She was pushing at boundaries, many felt were already being pushed too far.
In the society where Rihanna has the popular media eating out of her hands, her clothing barely caused a ripple, beyond paparazzi buzzing around her, to take the perfect picture, to grace the latest front cover, of magazines and popular newspapers.
In Rwanda, alarm about young people, many under age, behaving irresponsibly, under the influence of alcohol, was already rising. Mugabekazi’s appearance, in all her feminine splendour, seemed to have turned the alarm dial, into the red. The police cited some yet to be clearly defined law of indecent exposure, and arrested her.
Her arrest was a cue to largely cacophonous declarations of the different positions, from the highly active Rwanda Twitterati. The condemnations, which continue to rage, were held with a dogmatism verging on the religious. Reason, as ever, sat demure, and in vain, waited patiently to be invited into the fray.
From most, on either side of the fence, the tone of the condemnation, was a of sermon delivered from the moral high ground, to the poor unfortunates below. Angry pedagogy, excoriating those they consider unenlightened.
Those who think themselves progressive, sanctimoniously emoted how unbearable they find what has been done to someone else. Their opponents, dismissively retorted that are limits, that should not be crossed.
In the middle of all that, the authorities, or “the system” as some refer to it, was upbraided for worrying about women’s clothing, when there are so many more important things on which they should be directing their attention.
Judging by past experience, this pantomime soon exhausts itself, and some calm is restored, if there is ever such a thing on twitter. The opposing sides remain, as ever apart, for battle to be resumed next time, over some other issue. And the government? Like an indulgent parent, it keeps its counsel, and we never really know what, if anything has changed.
It will be an opportunity lost, if this incident too, ends in impotent, self righteous gnashing of teeth, against perceived opponents, and wrongs.
How best to address the unfortunate spectacle, of a law abiding, young woman, in hand cuffs, simply because of the choice of her wardrobe. And as instructive, how she comes to develop a choice of clothing, that is apparently so alien to her own society’s view of what is appropriate, to so easily clash with the guardians of that society.
Only four years younger than the oldest person born after the nation’s liberation, in July 1994, 24 year old, Mugabekazi in many ways, epitomizes the new Rwanda.
In the interview she gave before her arrest, she comes across as calm, self assured, confident, aware of her rights, without in any way being brash. Entrepreneurial, she moonlights as that “video vixen” while running her own bar, which by all accounts, is already gaining in popularity, thanks to her newly acquired fame, or notoriety, depending on your point of view.
In a mere two cades, Rwanda has changed so radically, that her life, and that of her peers, is worlds away from her mother’s, virtually another dimension from her grandmother’s.
A digital child, she tracks, and emulates billionaire celebrities, a world away, through a device in the palm of her hand. She enjoys privileges that carry onerous responsibilities. But she is in her salad years, a time when, if circumstances allow, privileges are assumed, and responsibilities are deemed a bore.
Rwanda has modernised, is modernising at a rapid pace. Changes that normally take generations to bed in, are having to be absorbed in less than half that time.
Young people are gulping it all down, and demanding ever more, rushing headlong into the unknown.
If you read much of foreign, Western media, especially, Rwanda is an oppressive place, where media is suppressed, and “criticism is not tolerated.” This message has yet to be communicated to Rwandans, whose trust and confidence in their government, is rare among world governments. More often than not, Rwandans demand more, not less from government, in their daily lives. That includes reining in, what they perceive as young people’s excesses.
When they do intervene, the authorities almost always precede any such intervention, with explanations, information campaigns, before any action is taken.
The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) led government, places great emphasis on consultation, the best to take the people with it. It is this approach, that in large measure, earned it such trust amongst the population it governs.
Inevitably, there will be the occasional misstep by one or other agency of government. The arrest of Mugabekazi, was also preceded by a warning from the police, that the laws of indecent exposure, were being flouted, and they would be enforced.
It is however not precisely clear what these laws stipulate, and how this particular young woman contravened them, perhaps something else about which to be thankful to her. Thanks to her brush with the law, these laws will now have to be stated, chapter and verse, and clarified.
She has been granted bail, and technically, she faces a two year jail term. It would however come as a shock and surprise, even to the harshest critics of the authorities, if she ever saw the inside of a prison. This is important to bear in mind.
For all the noisy posturing on twitter, from so many, young Rwandans take for granted that the government is their government. Those who were indignant over Mugabekazi’s arrest, will also have been confident that she would be well treated by the police, and the protection of her rights under the law, would be respected, or else the police themselves, would potentially face prosecution.
It is difficult to find a government, anywhere in the world, which has done, and does more, to engage young people in the political process. The constant refrain from governments around the world, that young people are the future, is in Rwanda, more than mere words.
The opportunity that Mugabekazi has provided, is a challenge to the young people, to look again, what part they are playing in nation building.
Not only is the way open for them to challenge institutions of government, where rightly or wrongly, they might think, those institutions are taking a wrong turn, they are encouraged to hold the institutions to account.
A little knowledge, it is said, is a dangerous thing. There is a tendency for many to suppose their little knowledge to be the fountain of all wisdom. And because they are blissfully unaware of the limitations of their understanding, they declaim to those they deem less enlightened, with the certainty and arrogance of youth.
Has the police acted in an unnecessarily heavy handed manner, in the particular of Mugabekazi? On the face it, it would appear so. Is the justice system alert to any such heavy handedness by the police? Undoubtedly so. Then with the right challenge, in the right way, it will all come out in the wash.
No one needs reminding that the older generation of Rwandans, sacrificed literally everything, including their very lives, to bequeath a proud, just nation, to those they will naturally leave behind. And again, unique to Rwanda, the older generation has not waited, until it leaves the stage, to hand over the reins, to the younger people. They do so every day.
It is at moments like this, that young people know whether they are up to the task. Anyone can stand on the sidelines and carp. It takes real understanding to engage with humility, even when you disagree, and are critical of those with him you engage. In fact, especially, when you disagree and are critical.
The older generation are playing their part with aplomb, and are willing the young to learn by example.
There is a reason so many around the world, fail miserably at governing. Governance is difficult.
Despite shrill condemnations from Western media, and commentators, Rwanda is doing governance well. There is an understanding that not only can things be better, but that efforts to improve them must not waver.
The RPF is leading nation building, as Umuganda (community action). An important aspect of Umuganda, is when the participants meet, and discuss issues that may be holding back not only the community, but even individuals. A successful Umuganda, is where everyone states their case, calmly, mindful of their rights, yes, but also respectful of rights of others.
For the older generation, there is no doubt that the young are worth the sacrifice they made. But are they up to the task? It is up to the young generation to demonstrate that they are worthy of that sacrifice.
Rather than egotistic, self indulgent, overblown, sarcastic condemnation on social media, can people, on all sides of the argument, express their opinions, state their objections and issue their challenges, in measured tones, bearing in mind that their institutions are clear, that they servants of the people? This question cannot be rhetorical. It needs considering and answering.
Rwanda is on a journey. For those who set the nation on that journey, the path is clear, and includes, in fact it is predicated, on marching in step with all Rwandans, from all backgrounds, but especially the young.
The older generation have every day, shown the wisdom to understand that the path cannot always be straight and narrow. But it must always be heading the in right direction. They are aware that young people will be distracted by trinkets, take time to chase butterflies.
When they are reminded that they are straying too far, however, can they argue their positions, challenge their elders with due regard of their greater understanding, demonstrating a grasp of the bigger picture? Can they show they understand that without being mindful of the path, the joy of chasing butterflies can easily be a thing of the past?
Already, the country’s detractors are attempting to use the Mugabekazi incident to distort the truth about Rwanda. And while they rightly celebrate their lives, in concerts, bars, restaurants, and wherever else they please, are the putative future of the nation, aware that even now, the “system” continues to repel enemies that would drag the nation, back to the hellish abyss, from which many sacrificed everything to liberate it?
“This is a cause. I am ready to go to war” one twitter user declared sententiously. Was he aware that yes, there is a cause, but those against whom he would fight, not only share the cause, but are its guardians?
There is in truth no “system” in the sense that those who consider themselves in possession of superior understanding, mean it. What there is, are dedicated individuals, of varying abilities, who spend their lives strengthening the nation that is being built.
There is need for understanding. Not as one might think, from the older generation for the young, but from the young to the older generation. A poet puts it best. The older generation understand full well, that, “your children are not your children…they are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself…they have their own thoughts…you may house their bodies but not their souls. For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit even in your dreams…”
Can the young generation understand, that their elders are ever anxious to leave them well equipped, to conserve that house of tomorrow, where their souls dwell?
You cannot judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins, goes the native American saying.
It would be a sad world, where the youth did not seek to push the boundaries, and challenge their elders. Indeed, in Rwanda, the elders encourage them to do both.
But in so doing, is the younger generation capable of walking two moons, in their elders’ moccasins, so that they are better informed, and on occasions when they disagree with them, do so gently and respectfully?
However well she will have been treated, the experience she has gone through, will almost certainly leave Mugabekazi, shocked and distressed. It may therefore, be of little comfort to her, to consider that if this incident leads to a general re-evaluation of how they young in particular, relate to institutions of government, especially where they disagree with the manner in which those institutions have exercised their duties, then she will have done her peers, and the nation, a not insignificant service.