Tuesday 8th March was international women’s day. Its commemoration in Rwanda was low key (read: there was no public holiday) as many such events have increasingly become here.
The preferred option nowadays is to celebrate such events at the local level (umudugudu). The reasoning seems to be that commemoration of some events should also be decentralised and brought nearer to the people. That way there will be greater interaction among them and they will understand better the significance of what is being celebrated, and relate it to their lives.
The absence of a public holiday did not go down well with some people, especially given that this year was the 100th anniversary of the women’s movement. One Shangazi Rugina called into Imvo n’Imvano, a BBC Radio Kinyarwanda programme on Saturday to complain that the day was not given its due importance by not declaring it a public holiday. Never mind that there had been a week of activities leading up to the day.
Ms Rugina and others for whom she spoke probably had genuine reasons for thinking that a holiday was the most suitable form of recognition for the significance of the day.
But I suspect for the majority of people there are other reasons for the love of a holiday. For most, especially those in public employment, it is an excuse for staying away from work. For others, it is reason for a public spectacle and celebration, preferably at the expense of someone else, usually the state.
How did this love affair with holidays (or more appropriately, dislike for work) come about?
It probably has its roots in colonial history. There was a time when we had many holidays, and they were festive affairs. The majority of them were religious feast days. Others were national days in the country of the colonisers.
It goes without saying that initially these special days did not mean much to Africans. Both had to be legitimised and given respect in countries where they meant little. And so while in Europe religious feast days were observed without much fanfare because they were part of the history and culture of the people or they did not believe in them anymore, in Rwanda a way had to be found to make them acceptable. And like many of the religious rituals which had to be clothed in mystery in order to inspire reverence, feast days were also packaged with holidays and celebration for the same reason. The bonus attraction was that strict observance added to the credit for holiness.
For colonial officials, a holiday and the accompanying partying was part of the perks for working in the colonies. The whole colonial package meant leading the life of a lord, even when most of them had a plebeian background. A life of indolence was synonymous with privilege and power.
This life of excess and idleness, mystery and ritual was inherited by post-colonial leaders, both religious and secular. They even added feast days of their own, with strict demands for observance, very often at the pain of death. How else could they impress their semi-divinity on the poor mortals they ruled?
Now the government of Rwanda, with no sense for the power of mystery and no respect for rituals or symbolism, has come and spoilt the party. They have stupidly cut down the number of public holidays and done away with public celebrations. In the process they have made the high priests at these feasts redundant. And all for what? To increase productivity, cut on waste, enhance citizens’ participation and all the other nonsense.
Who cares about the rational reasons for reducing the number of public holidays? The reasons are dumb. Listen to this. Too many holidays are expensive, cut into profits and will make us poor. We shall then be forced to go, bowl in hand, to those who value work. Nonsense! Do the birds of the air work, and don’t they feed and have shelter and fun?
They ask us to think about the cost of marking the birthday of every saint, apostle (historical and self-nominated), street corner prophetess and other tin gods. Then when you mention the need to celebrate the different international days, our leaders groan under the weight of the number of days we would have to set aside and the cost of celebration. The calendar is cluttered with such days. New ones may even be invented. We could be asked to celebrate the day of the tortoise or baboon, or snakes and other slithering creatures.
And what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing really. Except, we would not have enough days in the calendar to celebrate all of them. If there aren’t enough days, create them. What is the problem?
In these days of so many rights, and even more watchdogs (the real ones are much maligned by this unfair comparison) ready to bark at every shadow and mirage, I would not be surprised if an organisation calling itself “Public Holidays Without Borders” sprouted up tomorrow to champion the right of people to celebrate holidays all year round. Nor would it shock me to hear this something-without-borders accuse the government of Rwanda of being too dumb and violating people’s human rights by denying them their inalienable right to celebrate whatever thing took their fancy. It is not beyond imagination.