Antoine Kambanda has continued to make news since he was named Rwanda’s first-ever cardinal back in October, and was later created towards the end of last month.
At a Thanksgiving service held on Sunday, December 6, at Kigali Arena in his honour, President Paul Kagame, who was the guest of honour said: “This trust is founded on the wise judgement and proven commitment throughout his service to the Church in Rwanda. He has also shown that he is able to contribute to the Church on the global stage.”
About his cardinalship, we all know. More interesting now would be exploring what kind of man he is in real life. The New Times took time to talk to people whose paths have crossed with his, and here is what we know.
Father Deogratius Biabandi, 56, a Rwandan catholic priest currently working in Byumba Diocese is one of the people that have known Kambanda for a long time, at least in the pastoral work.
Biabandi got acquainted with Kambanda in 1984 in Nairobi – Kenya in a seminary where they both enrolled as religion students.
During school days, Biabandi says Kambanda, now 62, was a man of very few words – so reserved, to an extent that someone would think he was “timid,” yet he was reputably intelligent, hardworking and well disciplined.
“He was ahead of me by about four years, so, he was not my classmate at all; but I used to hear that he was very bright in class. I used to see him as a very smart guy in all respects, and highly disciplined as well,” Biabandi said.
The two young men were ordained priests on the same day in 1990. Kambanda started his pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Kigali (which he coincidentally currently heads), while Biabandi went to work in Byumba Diocese.
During this time, there was not much serious contact between the two priests; however, after about five or six years, a more serious encounter between them happened while they had gone to Europe for further studies.
“He (Kambanda) was studying in Rome – Italy, while I was at the University of Leuven in Belgium. One time, we had an opportunity to meet in London where I had gone for summer, and he was there for the same,” Biabandi says.
This time, Biabandi noticed that Kambanda had transformed from the very “reserved” character he was when they first knew each other in a Nairobi seminary. He was now more open, gave advice to his counterpart, as well as some encouragement.
“I discovered that though the man is very intelligent and serious, he reserves some time for leisure. We relaxed, and had a chat about academics, but also on the experiences we were encountering in our study life in Europe,” Biabandi said.
“Among other things, we encouraged each other to return to Rwanda to help our people. The Genocide against the Tutsi had happened, and the country was not in a good shape. It might not have been easy to return, but we encouraged each other about coming home,” he added.
The London meeting also revealed how Kambanda is a down-to-earth man.
“He was older and more experienced than me, yet he interacted with me as if we were on the same level,” he says.
Another man who gave us a glimpse into the personality of Kambanda is 48-year-old Pascal Tuyisenge, a catholic priest at Ndera Parish who, about 30 years ago, was his student of English.
“One of his significant character traits is that he does not speak a lot. This assists him to make good judgment and discernment before having to speak,” says Tuyisenge, who has according to sources in the church has remained a close protégé of the prelate.
“But he converses, and at times he even makes some fun when talking,” he adds.
Giving an example of Kambanda’s light side, Tuyisenge recalls one time when he (Kambanda) made fun of them by speaking Kinyarwanda using an English accent, mimicking how a white person would pronounce the words.
Tuyisenge and Kambanda interacted many times at school since the former was heading the English Language Club, and the latter was a teacher of the subject.
Among other things that Tuyisenge knows about Kambanda is that he is multi-lingual, speaking about six languages including French, English, Kinyarwanda, Swahili, some Italian, and some Latin.