The Day Birds Flew over the Village
Compared to many of his peers in Idundi village, Nelson is a pretty noticeable kid. With a lankiness accentuated by a 180cm height, he has an unusual presence for a 20-year-old in the Waha tribe. With the unusual height, he is often relied upon to see beyond the tall maize stalks that ring the periphery of the Idundi village during the harvest times of early August.
The ability to see beyond is, and has always been, important for the village. As maize crops dry under the blazing sun of Tanzania’s western savannah, desiccated cobs fall to the ground, making them perfect picking for swarms of birds coming in from the west. Nelson’s job is to kill as many of the incoming birds.
Nelson is widely acknowledged by his peers as the village’s bird-killing expert. Whenever he shouts for help, villagers arrive to find half a dozen birds lay mortally injured on the ground.
Just as Nelson steps into the fields this morning, he is greeted with a couple of black birds flying toward the maize fields. As usual, Nelson hoists his slingshot.
But he does not shoot. Something is different about these birds. As they approach the maize fields, they do not swoop down in hunger. Instead, they continue to drift eastward, with no change in speed or direction.
Upon closer look, he is surprised to find that the black birds have no wings. Instead, two pairs of what seem to be rotating blades keep them in flight. More perplexingly, a medium-sized brown box is tucked neatly under each of the birds’ belly.
Nelson feels he must examine the thing more closely. What is the flying thing? And what is in the brown box? He has to know. The cloudless sky was perfect Nelson’s slingshot.
As one is shot down, the other quickly speeds up and evacuates Idundi airspace.
When he looked at the downed “bird,” he immediately knew he is in trouble.
The brown box is marked: PROPERTY OF REPUBLIC OF RWANDA.
“Sir, we lost another one!” The young officer, large doses of sweat bleeding through his white shirt, shouts anxiously to Francois as he suddenly barged into his office.
Before Francois can respond, the officer was running down the corridor informing others.
With a usual sigh, Francois looked out the window toward the busy streets below.
It has been five years since he was transferred to this little office in downtown Kigali. Even now, he cannot help but reminisce about his old job at the Ministry of Transport.
Francois, after full five years, still cannot figure out why he was transferred to the Transport Section of the Ministry of Innovation. He certainly is no expert in handling drone transport providers.
Before he started this job, he thought of drones as anything more than toys for kids. They have become so common in Kigali that their presence is practically a public menace. Not a day goes by without flight interference, complaint of voyeurism, or someone getting hit.
Considering the public nuisance that drones are becoming, what his team is doing may actually be brilliant. They are buying all drones from the public as transport vehicles. The drones, at least as the idea goes, would ferry goods all the way to oceangoing ships docked on the Swahili coast. Drone owners are to be compensated, but there was little room for negotiation.
On paper, the project makes financial sense. Citizens get money for their drones, and government gets cheap transport vehicles. With auto-pilot and GPS becoming standard drone features, only a couple of supervisors are needed to pilot hundreds to destinations thousands of kilometers away.
But the harsh reality of arranging children’s flying toys into the country’s aerial transport fleets provides Francois with many real-world headaches.
For one thing, the young officer sweating in his white shirt already burst into his office five times today, all bearing the same message. And it is not even 9am yet. The thought of losing five drones in two hours of work made Francois shake his head in disbelief. “…how are we going to explain what are in those boxes?”
A fleeting thought crossed his mind as he remembered what the drones are carrying. He knew that it was time again to make a phone call to an old friend.
“I told you many times before, Francois, I cannot be responsible for what happens to your drones outside our facilities!” Joseph fumed impatiently less than a minute after he picked up the phone call.
Joseph was getting sick and tired of receiving multiple phone calls from Rwanda on a daily basis. His job at the Receivable Office of Dar es Salaam’s Port Authority requires him to process incoming cargo for export. But there is little he can do if the cargo does not show up at the Port. It seems that his friend Francois just cannot understand this no matter how many times they argue over the topic.
“But you work for the government! Can’t you get someone to communicate with the officials in villages?” Francois was not about to back down.
“I work for the Port, not the president. I can’t just get someone to send a decree to tell people to stop throwing rocks at things that fly by.” Joseph fired back, “It is plainly ridiculous!”
After twenty years in his job, Joseph has become quite callous to cargo being lost. Every day another heavily laden truck is steered off the twisty mountain “highways” linking Dar with inland Tanzania. They fall into the abyss, goods and men alike buried deep in the ravine. With many trucking companies too cash-strapped to pay for rescue operations, the goods (and sometimes the dead men) stay down there forever.
But now some pesky Rwandan is insolent enough to request 100% accountability on all of his goods. Goods delivered by drone to boot. There is not even a dying driver and expensive truck to worry about, why should he be concerned with their lost drones?
He cannot hide the feeling of disdain welling up inside him. He was not going to let Rwanda boss him around. To him, the littlest country in the East Africa has now become the regional bully.
Rwanda’s emergence as the regional power is, for all the Tanzanian displeasure, no longer surprising. In the decades since the Rwandan Genocide, the country’s leadership crafted a beautiful narrative to keep the genocide in the collective memories of the developed world. In return, it became the darling of global donors. With genocidal horrors of the past not forgotten and a government keen to feed the outside world with news of the latest investments in modernity, the West is all too willing to make the country the highest per capita aid recipient in the world.
But ultimately, it is how Rwanda used that endless stream of aid money that made all the difference.
It is not news that Rwanda has involved itself in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the aftermath of the Genocide. An eastward exodus of genocidaires prompted the Rwandan government to fund any local militias willing to contain them. But with much of the original genocidaires in DRC having capitulated, the purpose of Rwandan involvement gradually shifted. Gone is the funding for various fickle militias, and what came in their place were Rwandan investments in DRC.
As the new master of the land, the Rwandan leadership wasted no time turning the region into a cash cow. Government-owned mines popped up everywhere to systematically move coveted underground resources back to Rwanda proper for processing and then export to world market.
The drone transport idea is an integral part of this ongoing economic plan palatable for the outside world. Joseph grimaces every time he imagines a beaming Francois showing foreign donors his fleet of mineral-carrying drones flying off to Dar. The drone transport program is that “wow” factor putting a modern spin on an age-old method of resource exploitation, getting the international press all excited about Rwanda’s façade as a technology pioneer and forgetting about the aggressive opportunist that is behind that façade.
It really hasn’t been a great morning for Francois.
Call up the Port Authority in Dar and they hang up after angrily denying any responsibility. Call up villages to help find downed drones and village leaders find excuses to avoid conversations. How is he supposed to report back to his superiors and give a legitimate-sounding reason for all the lost drones?
He put down the phone, and looked out of the window once more.
Perhaps it was a mistake for his predecessors to take all drones out of the villages. The cost of kids throwing rocks at transport drones is definitely not worth whatever benefits of what is essentially a financially compensated confiscation.
So why did the government decide that villages cannot have their drones? It is all about international perceptions, really. With Kigali trumpeting the concept of drone transport as some cutting-edge technology that revolutionizes the logistics industry in Rwanda and Africa as whole, it would definitely raise a few eyebrows if every village has drones. It takes away the feel of the “cutting-edge” and “cool” to market the idea abroad.
The reality is that perceptions matter much more than substance. If foreigners are shown with visual and physical evidence that drones are privileged items accessible to only a few rich families in Kigali, it will get their “I need to help the poor people” feeling tingling. Money flows in, and a win-win situation is achieved: foreign donors get their “humanitarian satisfaction” and the Rwandan government gets more money to invest.
But the headache is that the transport drone project is bleeding money so fast that the aid money Rwanda gets because of it is not even enough to compensate for replacement drones and lost cargo. Financially speaking, the project is no longer worthwhile. But if Kigali stops now, how can it explain to foreigners who already donated millions for the project? Not that much money is needed to make the project happen? We lied and spent your money on something else?
Who knows, maybe one day the foreigners will have their “buyer’s remorse,” but Francois has no plans to let that happen while he is still in office.
As he is lost in thought, his phone rings again.
“Sir, we found the drone that you were looking for…and maybe something more…” the staff on the other end sounded rather mysterious.
Joseph can’t believe his ears.
“Wait, the President did what?” He has to confirm if he heard what he just heard.
“The President apologized to Rwanda for the lost drones found on our side of the border, and asked me to drop the usual tariffs on drone cargo from Rwanda for the next two weeks.” The bureaucrat repeated himself blandly.
“Wait, why do we have to apologize? Why do we have to cover their export duties? It’s not like we shot down their drones intentionally.” Joseph was practically shouting over the phone. He cannot believe that Francois somehow managed to get to the Tanzanian president.
“Joseph, the Rwandans got hold a broken drone of theirs. And they also have a Tanzanian kid who voluntarily admitted he shot down the drone.” The bureaucrat sounds as calm as ever, “please just process accordingly.” With that, the call is cut.
Joseph fiercely pounded the office table. As if the Rwandans don’t have enough money already. He just can’t get over the fact that his government would so swiftly have its arm twisted into paying compensations for something that it does not have any real control over.
His phone vibrates. “What now?” Joseph impatiently murmurs as he picks up to read the new message.
Thank you for your help in getting back our drone. And we also thank you in advance for allowing the passage of our cargo through your port for free. We at Kigali can never be thankful enough of having a great partner like you. Francois
He can almost visualize Francois’s sneers as he composed the short message dripping with sarcasm. And worse yet, he did not forget to attach some pictures. One is particularly striking: a young kid smiling nervously at the camera. In one hand, he is holding a broken drone, and in the other, a piece of paper with a carelessly scribbled line of text. He had to squint hard to make out what it says:
Nelson, from Idundi
Nelson still cannot figure out if he is just having a particularly unlucky day.
It seems as if his luck ran out the moment he stepped into the village office. Paul, the chairman of Idundi, was amicable enough at first sight. Despite Nelson showing up suddenly, Paul politely received him in his office.
“So, tell me your name again?” Paul inquired with a smile, as he took out a notepad and a pen from the drawer of his table to take notes.
“Nelson, sir,” Nelson did not hesitate to make the purpose of his visit known. “The thing I just gave you, I shot it down.”
“Good, thank you for your honesty!” Paul’s face was almost a display of pure joy. Nelson smiled his best smile in response.
“Now, please excuse me for a second while I make a phone call. I will be back in just few minutes.” Paul took his notepad and quickly walked out of the office.
Minutes later, Paul was back in the office, as quickly and quietly as he had left it.
“Mr. Nelson, we would like a picture of you with the drone, to prove your presence.” He remarked, as he walked over to hand the drone back to Nelson. “Please stand here, and hold the drone with your right hand. Also please hold this piece of paper in your left hand.” Paul tore a page from his notepad, and jotted something down very quickly, as he motioned Nelson to stand against the office wall.
Great, I will do anything to help resolve this thing. Nelson had no reason not to be compliant, even when he saw his own name on that piece of paper handed to him.
Paul was busy on his phone after snapping the photograph, so Nelson just sat back down on his chair and waited. He didn’t have to wait long. Less than five minutes later, uniformed officers emerged in Paul’s office. Without any greeting, an officer took out a pair of handcuffs, and fixed them to Nelson’s hand.
“Sir, you are under arrest for illegal possession of Rwandan government property.” The officer stated rather robotically.
Nelson had no time to react to the sudden turn in events. As his hands are cuffed, his eyes opened wide, and he stared in surprise to Paul. Paul was done with his phone now, and just leaned back in chair, his face retaining the polite smile from the beginning of their conversation.
“Don’t worry, my friend. The officer here is just going through some formalities. We just need to walk you back home.” Paul then raised his phone to show Nelson the photograph taken, “and this picture, we will need to use for something. I hope you won’t mind.”
Seeing that Nelson is still not convinced, Paul casually stated, “This matter is out of our hands now. But rest assured that you will not face any punishment.”
Next thing he knew, Nelson was stuffed into a van, sitting next to Paul and the police officer.
He looked outside. The van was driving through the familiar bumpy dirt paths of Idundi.
10pm. Nelson is lying on his bed. It is pitch dark outside, and an eerie silence envelops the village. The village has gone to rest after an eventful day, but he, the central protagonist of the event, still has his eyes wide open, without the slightest whiff of sleep.
It seems that within the course of one day, his entire world has been turned upside down.
His job as the watcher of the maize field is now in jeopardy after his trigger-happy behavior damaged Rwandan property. And somehow, an innocent-looking picture led to public shaming by none other than the Rwandan president.
Worst of all, however, is the fact that he, vaguely and rather ambiguously, realized just how helpless he felt during the whole incident. He had no influence whatsoever in how the situation is dealt with. His fate was sealed even before all parties involved got on the same page about what is happening.
For Nelson, his tall stature combined with accuracy with a rock-hauling slingshot is the only thing really going for him. In a community where practically everyone is a hereditary subsistence farmer, his skill means that people pay him not to work the fields all the time. It, he thought, is the skill that allows him to change his fate, to something better than just a mere farmer tending maize for an entire life.
It seems like he was overly optimistic, to an unrealistic degree. His skill, he is taught in one day, is not nearly as important as the health of a cheap flying machine. Even a broken drone, no longer capable of carrying goods, is more valuable than his skill with a slingshot, in the ability to make international news after being talked about by a national president.
Nelson, of course, does not understand the significance of the drone as a magnet for Rwanda’s international aid, or its significance in portraying the country as a high-tech destination. All he understands is that, all things considered, his humanly powers are no match for the machines in the eyes of some important people.
For a moment, he saw a young man, guarding Idundi’s maize fields, pointing his sling toward the sky as a bird approached the fields. But the sky was no longer filled with birds, but drones.
A future that he did not understand has already arrived while he is unprepared.