Like hundreds of thousands in 1959, the toddler was grabbed by his parents as they fled colonial-administration instigated ethnic violence. They ended up in camps in south-western Uganda.
That is the humble beginning of Mr. Ndoli James, the founder of the now popular “Ndoli Supermarket”.
Before his return home, Ndoli would find himself in Kenya, where the government at the dismissed foreigners from teaching jobs in Kenyan schools in 1988.
When the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPFA) began organizing after its formation in 1987, Ndoli was on board. And after the rebels captured northern regions of the country, he was asked to open the first shop serving more than 200,000 local people. Later, these shop grew to three and sold everything, including UHT milk from Uganda. He was the first to do this.
As the country celebrates 25 years of liberation, The Chronicles traced down Ndoli so he could tell his story, what he saw and what the journey of liberation teaches the young generation.
It proved quite difficult for us to convince the 65 year-old father of three to sit down for an interview with The Chronicles’ Cyiza Theogene. And this is his first interview and indicated that he does not intend to hold any other. And we couldn’t leave him without asking a crucial question: “How much are you worth today?”
Below are excerpts.
From homeland to decades of refugee life…
I and my family fled Rwanda in 1959 to Uganda at age five. From primary and secondary school, I went to Kenya to study at the Kenya Science Teachers College from 1980 to 1983 where I obtained a Diploma in education.
After my graduation in 1983, there was a teaching opportunity at Magutu Secondary School in Nyeri County (central Kenya) until the Kenyan government issued a directive that no foreigner is allowed to teach in Kenya. It was not only Rwandans but all foreigners were not allowed to teach in Kenyan schools.
My memory has recorded that episode very well. It was late 1988. I moved back to Uganda where my family [members] were. However, prior to that in 1987 I had joined RPF. Basically, I returned to Uganda as an RPF cadre (Editor: the term “cadre” was and is still used by RPF to identify its members and mobilisers).
From teaching to cereals trader
When I joined RPF, it was only being founded. Any able-bodied Rwandan was mobilized and recruited. My membership started in early 1987… [Silence as he rubs his hand through his grey hair]…. A year later, I moved back to Uganda where I continued my cadreship activities… [speaks at high tone with seeming excitement at narrating this part of his story}….
In Uganda, I did not go back into teaching as teachers in Uganda were paid very little. With my savings from Kenya, I opted to start a small business selling cereals including beans, maize and sorghum at Kamwenge trading center in Tooro region (currently Kamwenge district in south-western Uganda).
As my profits grew quickly, I expanded my business from Kamwenge to more stores in Mbarara town (in Mbarara district today). As a Cadre, I combined my businesses and mobilization. There were RPF cells in Mbarara.
During that time, I was among RPF cadres who were sensitizing the masses. There was mass mobilization everywhere where Rwandans were in Uganda [and elsewhere in the world]. That continued until October 1990 when the liberation war was launched.
Starting the first shop in RPF rebel held areas….
When the RPA soldiers headed towards the Rwandan border for the first attack, they passed by my shop. Many of them knew me as the contact person in Mbarara. The cadres told me that what I had in my stores will be the first supplies to feed the soldiers. Everything in my shop was taken and more was bought from other shops. I closed my business for good and left as I had to be there to offer myself for the war. How could I stay there while everyone else headed to the battleground?
I was among cadres who manned the Mbarara supply station from October 1990 to early 1992, when I was directed to relocate to Rubaya which was in the RPF controlled zone as it had been captured (located in northern Rwanda).
In this region, RPF organized local people in identifiable communities so that they could easily be managed and provided with basic services. Of course that had to be done for security reasons.
There were around 200,000 people. We were told by our leaders that as the people are gathered in same area, their basic needs had to be taken care of with items such as soap, salt, sugar – and some smoked tobacco (Igikamba). All these are things the population was consuming on a daily basis, so they had to be availed. We could not keep people in controllable areas without normal living conditions. RPF secretariat was managing all these processes.
At Rubaya, I was given [a] house and supplies and directed to start a shop. I remember we brought sacks of salts, boxes of soap, sacs of sugar, garments and cloths for children.
The shop was handed to me by the RPF finance department. The commodities to start with were provided freely, but I was told that the shop had to make money and sustain itself. So I would come back to get commodities for which I paid.
How did the goods get to the RPF controlled areas?
There were vehicles whose specialization was to smuggle commodities from Uganda to Rubaya. The shop belonged to RPF but I was granted full control. I had to ensure it had commodities at all times. In case the supplies reduced, I had to keep orders flowing from outside. Local people kept increasing and some came with money from government-controlled areas. Some [we] brewed local drinks like ‘Ikigage’ (from Sorghum). The growing of sorghum was common in that region. It was [a] source of food and porridge. The sorghum was one of the foods which fed the soldiers.
The new Headquarters at Mulindi…
With time, Rubaya became small and crowded. Inkotanyi (rebels) kept capturing new places. A decision was taken to move all major operations to Mulindi (several kilometers away but in the same region), and it became the new Headquarter. It became like the capital city of RPF. It was a country within a country.
But some services still operated from Rubaya including the garage and infirmary (sickbay for soldiers), and the shop. The local people also remained in the camp here.
The shop was used by local people and soldiers – some of them usually received money from family members away from the warzone.
With time, I opened more shops at Rushaki and Mulindi. At this point, I had also acquired my own vehicle which I used to supply all the shops.
I had received military training like everyone else even though I was not on active duty on the frontline. The skills were for self-defense since I had to move regularly and control the shops.
As you noticed at the canteen at Mulindi, there was a constant supply of UHT milk (packed milk brand made in Uganda), which was smuggled in from Kabale district.
I often loaded a Toyota pickup packed with bread, doughnuts (Mandazi), oil that they put in maize/beans delicacy (Impungure), sugar and many other products.
When Mulindi became the HQ around 1993, there were often many high-profile visitors from different countries. RPF members also came in large numbers and they came with money. My products were on high demand. Women and girls would ask me to bring them cloths and sanitary pads. Gatuna border, which was a major entry point for Rwanda was under RPF control.
The shops were very helpful for many people including the sick who could get some other foods to supplement their diet.
The business thrived because the areas where I operated were safe. The enemy (government troops) were very far.
The death of President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994
I think it was around December 1993 when the 600 RPF troops were deployed in Kigali at the CND (parliament). The operations in RPF controlled areas remains the same. But after April 6 when President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed, there was full-scale war. We all advanced. For me, I moved my shop at Byumba town (currently the main city for Gicumbi district) in the building which was called Rugezi at that time.
There were refugees flowing into Byumba from government regions and they got small basic supplies from my shop. I kept travelling to Kabale for supplies. Some of the people arriving had money.
Kigali was captured on July 4, 1994, but I had already moved to Kigali in June.
When order was restored and a government established (on July 19, 1994), I opened my first shop in Kigali at Remera-Gisimenti. It was a very small shop, but it expanded quickly into a supermarket.
This shop was selling mainly food items because that is what everyone needed. I constantly trekked the Kigali-Kabale route with my pickup truck to bring sugar, bread and other edibles.
The first shop at Remera-Gisimenti was worth Rwf 3m at that time, but I can assure you it has reached billions today [As he divulged this detail, he was laughing – a seeming indication that he was joking].
First shop in Kigali….
By late 1994, there were no other shops in Kigali except mine. What was noticeable during the early days of the liberation of Kigali were pubs. In the city center, there was not more than one small shop.
The city was dark with no electricity. Immediately darkness fell, everyone locked themselves at home.[Amid laughter, he says]….The most widely consumed product at that time was meat. I don’t know where meat was coming from but people would eat a brochette with Primus beer.
Actually, there was no business taking place during that period. People opened shops for survival to be able to get what to eat. There were no banks operating.
People would move kilometers to find anything to buy even food from my shop. Apart from my shop at Gisimenti, another shop open in Nyamirambo. (Gisementi and Nyamirambo are 30mins drive apart).
Towards the end of 1994, people started coming from Uganda with Pickups full of commodities.
Birth of “Ndoli Supermarket”….
My shop at Gisimenti kept expanding. That location where I put my shop was deserted. I took three rooms. One room served as depot for beers which was also selling.
It took me six years to grow my shop to a supermarket. I started calling it “Ndoli Supermarket” in 2000.
The only reason why I named my supermarket “Ndoli” is because all around, everyone called the shop “Kwa Ndoli” (At Ndoli’s). So I settled on the name as it was popular. The supermarket also became synonymous with good bread.[Do you have any memorable photos?] He tells us that one of the things he looks back with regret is not being able to keep any photos from the bush days. [How much are you worth today? We ask him…] The relatively-still-strong businessman is not enthusiastic to speak about his supermarkets which have grown to others located in other parts of Kigali. Pressed for a number, he said he could be worth Rwf 800m. [“You surely must be a billionaire”, is how The Chronicles put it to him…to which he responded]
“Today business is not going well, but I can say that …… Am not sure about the value of the properties I own but I can say that I have acquired property from that trading, and I am still in business. For sure, I can’t tell but when you look at the buildings with my name, I could be Rwf 800 million…I swear I am not lying, I am not yet worth a billion Rwandan Francs”[What advice do you have for young people?…] He said he would like young people to work hard and ignore those who give mislead them into betraying their country.
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