Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Our Rwanda Christmas Tree

This has been a wonderful co-operation between Teresa and Holy Trinity Church in Bradpole village. Every year in Bridport we have an exhibition of decorated Christmas trees in the United Church. Local organisations buy a tree and decorate it round a certain theme. The trees are on display to the public for a week; each tree has a collecting tin for the relevant charity. This year the Holy Trinity Church tree - in one of the most prominent positions of all - has been dedicated to my work as a VSO in Rwanda, and to raising money to provide a water tank for one of my schools. The tree is decorated with banana leaf Christmas cards from the apprentice training centre at Butare; with tiny basket's from the women's co-operatives which Tom is supporting in the southern province, and with some of my photos from the past year.

A huge thank you to everyone who has helped in this project, and to those people who are donating large amounts of money towards the provision of clesan water for Muhanga primary schools. And a special thank you to Teresa, without whom none of this would have happened!


Just some of the seventy trees inside the church.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Christmas Holidays

I am home on leave between now and January 7th, so there will not be any more Rwanda postings for a month.

During the last year my blog has been visited by around 6000 people from Africa, Europe, North America, Australia; sa few of these are my family and friends locally, some are fellow volunteers; others are complete strangers.

Thank you to all the people who have written to me with comments or advice. The blog has been fun to maintain and I am so pleased that so many of you have found it interesting.

I know for a fact that it has helped some of you make the plunge and become volunteers yourselves; this alone has more than justified the time and effort taken to write it.

I wish all of you a peaceful and enjoyable Christmas, and hope you will follow me during my second year in Rwanda in 2009.

Bruce

Latest pictures of Shyogwe school

This is how far the classroom block has come at the end of 2008. Walls are finished; roof timbers in place; the roseaux (reeds) on which the roof tiles will rest are there, but more need adding. No roof tiles, doors, or windows, and floors still to be cemented.
The rear view. The holes will contain ventilation bricks.

View across to surrounding countryside from the new rooms. You can see how close the school is to a mains electricity supply - at some time in the future Shyogwe will be wired into the mains!

Another more distant view, looking Eastwards

After our Autumn rains, grass is starting to grow on the classroom floors.

So near and yet so far. Despite appearances it wouldn't take very long to convert this empty cell into a fully functioning classroom.
Looking from the classrooms towards the Diocesan offices at Shyogwe.

This picture is to remind you of what we're replacing - classrooms too small, too dark, too low to be acceptable in the 21st century

We're deep into the long school holidays; without over two thousand pupils trampling them, the plants in the school garden have a chance to recover.


The admin block, almost finished now.

This room will become Stephanie's office. The bricks will be cemented over to give a durable and smooth floor.

Roof details in the admin block. This roof is finished; compare this picture with the first one in this posting and you will notice how much denser the layer of roseaux is in this finished section.

A final photo of the admin block.

Rwandan basketry designs

The designs on Rwandan traditional basketry are not merely abstract patterns; they tell stories. This one is about two friends meeting. It is by far the commonest design. The two friends meet, exchange greetings and friendship, and then part to go their separate ways
This pattern signifies joie de vivre: the general feeling of success, of well being

This pattern signifies speed, or progress, or prosperity

This is my favourite design In it, two people meet, then go along the road together. The road can be a literal road, or signify their progress through life as partners

Not sure about this design. There is another common one with diamond shapes on it which signify stars in the night sky. (In rural Rwanda, where there are no street lamps and few houses have electricity, the night sky is quite something)

my end of year report

December 3rd

I’m pretty sure that there will be no training at Kiyumba today, and I’ve made a list of jobs to do to occupy my day. It’ll mean a tidier end to the term.

As I’m leaving the flat to go to the Office I meet Hayley. She’s also on her way to the Office to get her green residency card issued. Her mother is coming out in January and the two of them want to see the gorillas, so Hayley needs her green card to get in at the cheaper rate. At the District Office I introduce her to Raymond, the fonctionnaire in charge of residency. She needs a couple of photocopies of pages from her passport. But there’s no power in the main office at the moment….. I scoot round to my building and find that by some miracle the power is still on in our block, and I just happen to know that upstairs there’s a store room used by the land survey department which contains a small photocopier. Some pleading in my best French and hey presto, in a couple of minutes Hayley has all the documents she needs and exits all smiles. She’ll come back to collect her finished green card on Monday. That’s a lovely example of how you have to think laterally to get things done here!

I sit in the Office and write an end of term report for Claude. It’s a summary of which schools I’ve inspected, which trainings I’ve done, and my provisional plans for next year. I want to see Claude to wish him a Happy Christmas, but he has also gone on Christmas leave. So it’ll be a case of a New Year card in January!

Emmanuelle is in the office, and I tell her I have a wrap of hers which was accidentally put in my bag at her sister’s wedding. She insists I call in at her place on Friday morning to say goodbye before I leave. I could do without the extra complication, but I like Emmanuelle and she’s been a good friend to me so I must make sure I do it. Provided I get there – and leave – early enough, it won’t interrupt my other arrangements, but it means I’d be better going to Kigali on Thursday to sort out business with the VSO office and to perhaps see Kersti before I leave.

Once again there’s no post for any of us at the Post Office. At the bank I change yet another cheque; I seem to be getting through cash like water at the moment but it’s a combination of buying new gas cylinder, more electricity credit, paying Janine’s wages, and buying lots of souvenirs for Christmas presents.

Then to the internet café where I manage to download and print my coach ticket from Heathrow to Dorchester. It really seems amazingly cheap - £15.75 return. Let’s just hope the plane is on time and I’m not delayed at Heathrow!

Tinks has texted to say she’s on her way to Kigali; she’s going to confirm her flight and mine which saves me a phone call to Ethiopian Airways.

It’s turning into a good day already. I decide to have a final mélange lunch at Tranquillité, and then walk back through the town to COPARWA (the craft shop) to buy some baskets. Unfortunately the place is closed and there’s nobody in the office building to ask to open up for me. Oh well, you can’t win them all and there’s always tomorrow. I take a moto out to Shyogwe, because another job I need to do is take a final batch of photos of the building project to send to Holland. The school is deserted – it feels quite eerie without its 2000 children!

The admin block is still not finished, but the roof is on and all that’s needing doing is cementing the bricks which will make up the floor, and installing doors and windows. It’s a nice little building and I’m glad it’s almost finished.

The classroom block is less complete; all the roof timbers are in place and most of the “roseaux” (stalks of elephant grass – like thin bamboo poles) which the roof tiles will eventually rest on. The recent rains have caused a flush of grass to start growing on the earth floors inside the classrooms; it looks quite peculiar. Oh if only there had been enough money to get this job finished in one go – what a difference it would have made.

Geert seems to be definitely coming back next summer; I think the formal opening and commissioning of the building ought to be left till his arrival and then I can withdraw gracefully from the scene and it can be a proper Dutch occasion with Geert and the Bishop doing the honours. We’ll see.

On a whim I stop by at Michael’s cottage in Shyogwe, and find him in. We natter over a cup of tea (he’s almost fully packed ready to go home tomorrow) and I decide it would be fun for me to walk home rather than take a cycle taxi. It’ll mean I’ve walked about ten miles all in all today. We go together through the trees up to Kinini (the “village centre” part of Shyogwe), and there part company. I walk up the hill and through Mbare School, then descend through the fields and brick pits, past an orphanage surrounded by beautiful pine trees, and across a little valley with delightful stream winding its way through the middle. Its very hot now and I’m cursing myself for not bringing a bottle of water with me, but it really is a lovely walk and a beautiful way to end the year here. When I first arrived in Rwanda I was scared stiff by all the strangeness and newness of everything; by the stares and constant attention; by worries about safety and illness. Now here I am, a year later, out for an afternoon stroll without a care in the world. What a difference a year makes!

Back home we prepare the evening meal; Christi is dining with us because we have masses of food to finish up. I’m off on Friday, and Tom’s off to Butare for a couple of nights. I won’t see him after tomorrow morning until 2009! The meal is a great success – a second batch of Chilli, and the rest of our big fruit salad. Christi and I are both in demob mode at the moment. She listens to some of my Congolese music and decides she likes it, so I burn her a CD to take home with her.

Best things about today – pretty well the lot except no post. It’s a lovely way to end the year. Monday’s super training day at Nsanga, and today’s walk through the Shyogwe countryside mean I’m leaving this country on a high!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

waiting at the roadside for a moto to be repaired

OK, I was bored to tears. This shows the amount of engineering needed to make the Ngororero road, and you can also see how the rock is so rotten and weathered that its constantly slumping down into the roadway. You take corners at speed at your peril!
Two views out from the roadside into the countryside of Muhanga secteur. Lovely!

What mycamera won't pick up properly is the sheer depth of hills receding in row upon row into the background. This is about as typical a "Rwandan landscape" as you'll get

The changing face of Gitarama

Gitarama is in the middle of a building boom. This is the building opposite our flat, taken on January 27th
And here it is, finished and open for business, on a beautiful fine morning (December 1st)

Kabacuzi blues, or the best laid plans.....

December 2nd

Now today should be an easy day – I know where I’m going; I have transport booked; I don’t need to go to the bank or buy more marker pens etc. It should be a doddle, a nice relaxing end to my first year in Africa.

But that’s not how it turns out, needless to say.

And things start to unravel right from the start. The only thing that goes without a hitch is my early morning walk up through the town. On the way I bump into Évode, the chargé d’éducation for Kamonyi District. He’s on his way to a meeting at Kabgayi and has spotted me on the street. He’s wearing a moto driver’s helmet, and is on his bike, and at first I think it’s my driver for today. He wants to get in touch with Christine, who was the NAHT volunteer who worked there last spring, and wants to know if I have her email address. I don’t, but I say I can find it and tell him to ring me in a coupe, of days. That gives me time to text Charlotte at the VSO office in Kigali and discover whether Christine has given permission for her email to be released.

At the office I get Innocent to try ringing Kiyumba secteur to confirm whether they’re expecting me tomorrow. If they are, then I’ll happily go. If they’re not, well, then I’ve got an extra day to do tidying up and write a short report for Claude. But as usual, even at 6.55 in the morning, Innocent can’t get through to Kiyumba because the system’s down. I despair of MTN in the mornings. It’s just hopeless.

So I shoot off towards Kabacuzi on the moto to do today’s training. I’ve left things with Innocent that he’ll try phoning Kiyumba again during the day and either write me a note or send me a text accordingly.

We go at breakneck speed; I can feel the rear wheel slipping away from me on some of the bends, and we have a near miss with a lorry on one particularly sharp bend. Never mind, the driver seems competent and if I have to die before my time then on a fresh December morning on this particular stretch of road is no bad way to do it! We’re right at the top of the mountain section, between Mata and Gisiza, and at least a couple of miles from anything remotely resembling a village, when the rear tyre blows. We have a puncture. We are supremely lucky – if it had been the front tyre we’d probably both have gone head over heels over the handlebars and into the rock face or smack onto the road. As it is, we fishtail to a sudden halt.

What’s to do? We’re nearly 7000 feet up in the middle of nowhere. Motor bikes don’t carry spare tyres. And just to add to the situation we’re in a pocket on the mountainside where there’s no phone reception at all. We’d have to walk up the mountain for a while before we got a signal. And, of course, even then – would MTN be up and running? The moto driver and I look at each other and both are thinking “this isn’t what’s supposed to happen today”.

As if on cue a pedestrian emerges from the bushes at the side of the road and has a conversation with my moto driver. This guy says he is a mechanic and that he can repair the puncture at his workshop a mile or so down to road. There’s nothing I can do to improve my situation – I can’t hitch a lift on any other vehicle or take a matata because Kabacuzi is so out in the wilds that no other vehicle goes there. (Kabacuzi isn’t the furthest out of my secteurs, but I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s about the most difficult to get to. I doubt whether even the main dirt road into the secteur sees more than half a dozen vehicles a day).

So I wait at the side of the road. And I wait, and I wait, for over an hour. I text Cyrille at Kabacuzi to explain why I’m going to be late. This is not good – late for trainings two days in a row, but I can truthfully say that neither is my fault. Countless matatas and other vehicles go past, all hooting at me to see if I want to be picked up. I don’t. Several pedestrians pass by, thunderstruck at a muzungu apparently just sitting biding his time by the roadside. They stare and stare, not just at me but at what’s around me in case there’s something important here that they’ve missed or never seen before. And especially to check whether there’s anything here that looks as if it might be remotely valuable and can be converted into cash.

Unfortunately they’re disappointed. There are plenty of rocks, and very interesting ones too. What with rocks left over from the road works and the local bedrock there’s just about every kind of igneous and metamorphic rock you can imagine, all within a hundred yards of where I’m waiting. I know this because I’m pacing up and down, picking them up and wishing I had a car boot to put them in, while listening out for the sound of a motorbike engine in the distance, and trying to tell my gabbro from my trachyte and my mica schist from my mica pegmatite.

One young man stops by and we talk for a good quarter of an hour. He’s finished school, specialising in biochemistry, but can’t afford to go to university. Without a degree there absolutely no chance of his getting a job in science. (Rwanda is already producing more science university graduates than it can find work for). We exchange emails, as you do here, and I’m quite surprised that he doesn’t ask me for money. He’s just walking around, hoping to find paid employment somewhere in the country. He’s an orphan, and knows that the chances of finding paid employment in the rural parts are next to zero, so he’s making his way on foot to one of the bigger towns in Rwanda – Gitarama or Butare – to try his luck there.

Eventually my moto returns (I’ve made sure I’ve kept one of the crash helmets to ensure the driver does return) and off we go. Soon we’re off the tarmac road and bumping along dirt tracks. The track to Kabacuzi is desperately gruelling. It winds through the hills for two or three kilometres, then plunges down in a series of hairpin bends across jagged ridges of rock. I’ve got a full rucksack hanging off my shoulders, and I can feel my back being twisted and strained by the forces as we lurch from one bump to the next. I bet I’ve got a bad back by the time I get the plane on Friday. At the bottom of the mountain we ford a little river, and its up and down and round and round, through little glades of trees, leafy and cool and very European looking; through banana and elephant grass plantations; through little clusters of houses with people looking suspiciously at us. Motos are very rare here, and as for a moto carrying a muzungu…… The little children shout ahead up and down the road to call their mates to come and see. Little faces appear as if by magic from every bush and corner. One thing Kabacuzi is good at producing is children, even if it has real trouble feeding them all.

The moto driver has no idea where he’s taking me, and I’ve only been along here once before; I know instinctively when we’re on the right road because every now and then I’ll remember a particular landmark from last June, but I don’t know it well enough to give my driver instructions. We have to keep stopping and asking people. And all the time we’re getting later and later arriving. In my text to Cyrille I’ve emphasized that I am coming, and to wait for me, but we keep passing people on the roadside carrying neat yellow document cases and I feel as if they’re my clients giving up on me and going home. (They’re not; I have no idea what’s in the folders but there is obviously some sort of meeting, whether to do with church or health or local politics, also happening in Kabacuzi today).

When we reach the school the teachers are all hanging around morosely, waiting for something to happen. I am really not sure whether Cyrille has phoned any of them to explain my lateness. I get, well, not exactly a hostile response, but not a desperately warm one either. I get the distinct impression that these people are here because they’ve been told to be; that they’re here because they will lose money if they don’t turn up; that they’ve decided they just want to hope I never arrive and they can claim their per diems for doing nothing else but gossiping all day.

Tough titty, folks, Bruce’s here and he’s trying to make up for lost time.

The educational games – towers of Hanoi, tangrams, snakes and ladders go well, but I have a real problem when it comes to the rice sacks. Kabacuzi is a desperately poor school. There is not a pane of glass in any window. The wind whistles through the holes in the wall. There is absolutely no equipment of any sort to use – big rulers, etc. The only seats are silly little benches which are really for kneeling in prayer- this building served as the church before the present church was built. For making good, accurate, presentable wall chart copies from my originals, it’s a lost cause. But it’s not just that. These teachers are terminally slapdash and have no idea of how to present work, or any pride in their presentation. Even in those wallcharts which are easier to draw freehand than to trace, the labelling is scruffy, with mis-spelling everywhere.

I decide these guys are just going through the motions and I find it really depressing. Yesterday, at Nsanga, the atmosphere was so positive and co-operative; we could have done anything with the Nsanga teachers and it would have been a success. Here it’s just not worth even trying. For example, I try to explain that on the number grid they ought to do all even numbers in one colour, all odd numbers in a second, and square numbers in a third. I emphasize that most carefully. But when I look at what they’re doing, I see that they’re only using one colour, and even when I point this out to them they just shrug their shoulders and continue. Most of what they’re producing is rubbish; I’d be ashamed to have it on any classroom wall of mine and I’d criticise them bitterly if I came to inspect and found materials as poor as this in their classrooms. But then, I will be coming to inspect them in the spring, and I will find these rubbish things on their walls. I can make allowances for highly inaccurate maps because they weren’t able to trace, but, for goodness sake, how cavalier do you have to be to make such a poor fist of copying simple diagrams? What angers me most of all is that the whole day is turning into a waste of money – my travel costs, the rice sacks and marker pens (they can barely be bothered to put the lids back on them). Then one woman demands that she wants a lot more sacks. Not on your Nellie, my friend, you’ve ruined enough already. I tell them I have to keep the remainder for the secteurs I haven’t been to yet. And I also tell them that if they are able to get to Gitarama they can come into the Office and make good copies of any of the posters I keep there. But I rather doubt if they ever will.

To add insult to injury, Cyrille hasn’t organised any food for any of us; nor has he come to sort out payments for transport or per diems. They look at me expectantly, but I’m not getting into that game. “I’ve given you my time; I’ve given you the rice sacks and marker pens and other materials. That’s my contribution. All other expenses come from your secteurs, and don’t forget that 15% of your school budgets are for training. Take it up with Cyrille” is what I say. That’ll show him – he should have come and seen us at some point in the day, even if it was only to check that I did actually arrive!

I manage to finish a bit early, and I’m so pleased when my moto returns to rescue me from this place. Kabacuzi is beautiful, but it’s a hard place to reach and right now I just want out of it. We crunch and bump our way back through the hills; it’s trying to rain and at speed on the bike the cold raindrops feel like sleet on my face.

Back at the District Office I realise there’s no note from Innocent about tomorrow; neither has he texted me. Fortunately Valerian, the new chargé d’education, is working late, and he tells me that Innocent has had to go to Kigali in a hurry because someone in his family has died.

I decide that tomorrow I will roll up to the office, but I won’t go to Kiyumba unless they specifically ring and ask for me, and do so before 8.00. I can find other things to do tomorrow to justify my existence!

Back to the flat. (Oh, and just to make the day complete I discover that once again there is no post for any of us. That’s just ridiculous. Hayley and I must have at least two if not three newspapers somewhere in the pipeline, and either Hayley or Tinks is expecting a big Christmas parcel from home. I’m beginning to give up on the Rwanda postal system. Either that or it’s time I went home for a bit.

At the flat Tom has come up trumps. On a difficult and busy day for him, he’s managed to replace the gas cylinder. We cook up our beans and have a great chilli con carne; there’s easily enough for another meal tomorrow so we’ll probably invite Christi to share it with us.

Best thing about today – erm……. I’ll get back to you. The evening meal, I supose

Worst thing – just about everything, really. Talk about “the best laid plans…..” !

a wonderful day at Nsanga

December 1st

Up at barely light this morning. The power’s still off, so it’s a cold shower for at least the fifth day in a row, and I have to boil water for tea in a saucepan. No matter, I’m out on the road again for training at Nsanga. This is one of my favourite schools, if nothing else for the view across the hills from its yard.

I’m in the office by 6.45, hoping to borrow Claude’s modem and see if Teresa has been able to send me an email coach ticket from Heathrow to Dorchester. But Claude’s off on some training day at Rwamagana and has taken the modem with him.

Innocent is in the office, though, and I get him to translate the words of a Kinya-rwanda hymn for me. He translates from Kinya into French, and then I re-translate from French to English, so no doubt the words have lost a lot of their vigour in the process. But my local church is definitely going to end up singing in Kinyarwanda this Christmas!

Then I’m queuing outside the bank ay 8.00, waiting for it to open. Michael’s with me, he’s got nothing urgent to do at Shyogwe today and he’s coming to Nsanga with me to help and see how I do my resource making training days. Of course, just because we’re in a hurry the bank is ten minutes late opening, and then there’s a big problem with the computers – they can’t get them to boot. By 8.30 there’s a string of angry customers waiting, and the manager at last shifts himself out of his office, gathers a handful of cheques including mine, and rings the Kigali head office to veryfy on their machines that each of us has sufficient money in their account to honour the cheques. By the time I finally get my money it’s 8.45.

I was supposed to be at Nsanga by 8.30. I hurriedly text Evalde to tell him I’m delayed; that I’m now on my way and to wait for me. Michael and I rush up to the bus park to hire big motos and at last we set off on our way. It’s a beautiful morning with clear skies and with the promise of heat. The mist has already risen from the valleys around Mata, but its Michael’s first experience of the Ndiza mountains and their spectacular views, and he’s just as entranced as I was when I first saw them.

We arrive at Nsanga at just after 9.15; I deliberately don’t ask the motos to take us up the last kilometre off the main road because it’s very rough and I don’t want all my stuff spilling from the bike down the mountainside. All the teachers are there waiting for us, so I apologise profusely and off we go.

The whole day today is in French with barely a word of English. Because I’ve had a three day break from training courses I’m that much fresher and my French is so much better than last Thursday; also I discover that Michael’s French is excellent and complements mine – the vocabulary I don’t know, he does, and vice versa. We work well together as a team.

The training goes even better than last Thursday’s; I can relax because I’m sure of my timings and every time I do this presentation I learn a little bit more about the material which makes it more relevant and useful to the Rwandans. They absolutely love the games and the first hour especially is full of laughter – I can’t imagine anything more different from the dreadful INSET days I’ve endured in England on various occasions.

Evalde is efficient and has organised lunch – fiery hot sambozas and stodgy mandazis, with a huge supply of fantas to wash them down. During a pause I take Michael over to the primary school section so he can take photos of the view across the river Nyaborongo into the Western Province and beyond. The sky is clouding up fast, but that only serves to make the patterns of light and shade on the endless hills all the more interesting.

The teachers have remembered from a previous visit that I’m interested in geology and we have a short discussion about the mica which litters the site, and I ask them about tungsten ore which is mined near here. (Tungsten ore is a bright yellow colour and very distinctive, though I haven’t seen any yet. Next year, perhaps….)

Some of the teachers are the same ones that Cathie and I trained in English methodology in the spring, and whom Soraya trained a couple of weeks ago, so a lot of them know me. I think that’s why they’re pretty relaxed about our visit.

We have arranged with our motos to pick us up at 3.30, and true to form by 4.00 two bikes come clattering down the main road. We could just as easily (and more cheaply) have returned on matatas – two pass us while we’re waiting and they have plenty of empty seats. But we’re a long way out here and you can never be sure just what transport is available. And at Gisiza on the way out there’s been yet another bad accident; a matata has rolled and the roof is smashed in; not a pane of glass is left and there are enormous score marks across the new road for many yards before the impact site. The bus must have been travelling at some speed. I don’t know whether a tyre burst, or the brakes failed or whether it was doing some dodgy overtaking, or just driving too fast. The police were already there and anyone injured or worse had already been removed. But it is a reminder that safety in a country as poor as Rwanda is always relative, and sooner or later, if we use matatas every day, we will be involved in an accident.

Back at the District Office I quickly prepare my stuff for tomorrow and arrange with the moto driver to pick me up. He has driven back from Nsanga at a furious pace and I could feel the rear wheel sliding sideways on the wilder bends. But tomorrow I think we’ll be on the mountain road, so he’ll have to take it easy along the ridge. I just hope it’s going to be as clear as today so that I can take some pictures along the way.

While Tom and I are in full swing cooking supper the gas runs out. That’s a real drag. We have a lovely boeuf bourguignon almost cooked, and cabbage pretty well done. We have a quick council of war and decide that almost cooked is preferable to cold food, so we get on with it. It’s not perfect – and we were really looking forward to a gourmet meal from this food – but it’s just one of those things and there’s no way of knowing exactly when your gas cylinder is going to give out.

Then we have a long power cut –again – we’ve just got used to the power being restored after last night. Eventually the lights come back on; we’re both of us at the point of abandoning the day and getting into bed, so it feels quite a reprieve to have a second chance at getting things done in the evening.

Best thing about today – the scenery, and knowing we’ve done a good training which has been appreciated by the teachers.

Worst thing – power cuts. Lack of gas. I’m still not sure whether I’ve finally managed to get rid of my fleas. When you’ve had fleas you get this horrible feeling in your skin where you’re convinced that something’s crawling across you and biting you even when there’s patently nothing there!

upside-down cake and proper coffee!

November 30th

Today it’s nice to have a lie-in. Neither Tom nor I are going to church. The morning is grey and threatening rain, but no rain actually arrives until the afternoon.

We decide to have a cooking morning. There are two tubs of raw meat in the freezer and we are going to cook them up to last us through the week. When Tom goes home on December 23rd he will disconnect the fridge-freezer and let it defrost thoroughly, so we are beginning to run down our stocks already!

We amble down to the market, and manage to find an internet café which also sells electricity via our card system. So at a stroke we have solved our shortage of electricity and can luxuriate at the thought of a hot shower tomorrow morning. Ah, the little things in life….

We do the market thoroughly and come home laden with fruit and veg. Avocadoes are especially beautiful at the moment – twice the size of those sold at Tesco and about 5p each. There’re so creamy they just taste like butter – nothing at all like the ones at home. On the other hand it seems to be an “off season” for onions. Most of the ones on sale are very small – more like shallots or overgrown spring onions than the ones I’m used to at home. They’re fiddly to prepare, but taste very nice in a stew if you leave them whole. For the first time since either of us got here we buy a load of dried beans and put them to soak. As with all the other vegetables on sale by the market traders here in Rwanda, they mix beans from all sorts of different varieties, and the colours of the beans as they plump up in a tub of water are extremely beautiful. Let’s hope they taste as good as they look!

Back at the flat we scrub up and start trimming fat and gristle off a pile of meat; the good stuff we’re going to use to make a boeuf bourguignon; the scrappy bits we’re going to mince and make a Mexican style hot spicy dish. So after doing the meat we’re peeling and chopping veg as if our lives depended on it, and the whole flat is filled with the smell of cooking and spices.

By lunchtime we’re done with the cooking, all except for the beans in the Mexican dish which we’ll cook tomorrow and add to it. Each dish will probably last us two days, as well.

We lunch on cold left overs – cheese, hot salami sausage, peanut butter; but with avocadoes and bananas to give us vitamins.

In the afternoon we’re just about sat down and started to watch videos. Tom gives me a couple of toffees and I’m sucking merrily on them when I manage to pull a crown off one of my front teeth. Curses – good job I’m about to go home. I’ve been dreading this happening all year.

Fortunately I have a dental kit with me, and I start mixing up cement to glue the crown back on.

Just as I’m doing this there’s a knock at the door and in comes Tinks. Outside, by the roadside, are Michael and Piet in Piet’s hospital car. Do we want to come with them to see Piet’s house and have coffee and cake? Yes, of course we do. Given a choice of watching old DVDs or eating good food, it’s a no-brainer!

So here we are; Tinks is standing in the doorway waiting for us; Tom’s putting his shoes on; the others are in the car outside. Meanwhile I’m holding a tooth crown smeared in dental glue in one hand and trying to contort my face in front of the bathroom mirror so I can make the thing fit tightly in place. Everyone has to wait a few minutes while I glue my tooth crown back on. They’re all laughing at my discoloured stump of tooth over which the crown must fit; it looks like an animal’s fang. They’re all highly amused that “fang” is doing do-it-yourself dentistry. Fortunately the crown holds well, but I end up wiping surplus dental paste away from my gums for the rest of the afternoon.

Piet lives out on the Kibuye road in an absolutely beautiful house. It’s large, airy, and there’s an upstairs balcony reached by an exterior spiral staircase which reminds me of being on the bridge of a boat. The views are lovely – Mont Mushubati in one direction, and the Chaine de Ndiza in the other.

In his lounge he has an electronic piano – a really good quality one – and for the first time since leaving England last January I’m playing music. Michael and Piet are both music lovers, and we all like Bach, and it just happens to be Advent Sunday, so I have to play “Sleepers Wake”.

The food is amazing – Piet’s housekeeper has been trained by a Belgian. We have pineapple upside-down cake, and proper Rwandan coffee. We can’t believe we’re really here, eating an English “high tea” in such comfortable, clean and pleasant surroundings. His house is absolutely huge; there are about 5 bedrooms, and there’s an old guest house next door – a completely separate building – which has two bedroom, lounge, bathroom and kitchen. We could easily base a couple of VSOs there if it wasn’t so out in the country! The house was built in 1992 (just before the genocide) and was hired by a group of Spanish nuns until they were driven away by the atrocities all around them and it became unsafe for them to stay. The place is owned by a very rich local man who seems to own half the hill around us.

After tea we go out to inspect the garden. None of us are botanists, but between the five of us we manage to identify a few of the plants we see.

Then we decide to go for a walk up the lane. Piet’s lived here for such a short time he doesn’t even know where the lane leads, but we venture out nevertheless. There’s a thunderstorm banging and crashing away to the south, but it appears to be avoiding us and we’re not venturing a long way from the house. I’ve got a pretty good idea where we’re heading because one of my schools is just up the road from Piet, and sure enough within a few minutes we’ve arrived at Karama secondary school. The path goes through the school grounds and is closed off by a gate, but within minutes of five muzungus standing outside it, the caretaker appears and opens up for us. It’s a clean and nice looking secondary with a speciality in accounting for its 650 pupils,

After the school we wander around the countryside for a while, collecting the usual collection of curious children and adults. The path eventually peters out at a brand new Pentecostalist church, still under construction but with pews and chairs set out round the scaffolding poles. These people aren’t going to let a minor thing like a church still under construction get in the way of their worship! On the way back the views are just super – the others all take pictures but I think I’ve already got most of what you can see from this place, but taken from different angles.

As it gets dark Piet drives us all back into Gitarama to Nectar for our evening meal. We really are living like the idle rich this Sunday! Hayley arrives from the East; she’s been to see Heloise and help with an HIV/AIDS training session there. Arlene (Momma) from the orphanage is there, and also Christi. It’s a funny meal because at least four of us are leaving for home during the week, so it’s like an end of term staff dinner. Christi and I have to make various arrangements about accommodation for the new VSO short term placement people coming out in January; I’m one of the first arrivals back in the New Year so I’ll have a lot of sorting out to do in the first few days.

When we get back home we discover there’s no electricity in our little section of town. A local transformer has broken. At this time on a Sunday night nobody will be coming out to fix it, so we’re off to bed more or less straight away at nine o’clock. It’s ironic really – all through the last few days we’ve been trying to save electricity in order that it doesn’t run out, and then the minute we get more juice on our account the power goes off at the mains!

Best thing about today – relaxing, and enjoying Piet’s hospitality

Worst thing –I hate it when the power goes off unexpectedly. There’s a lot of things I’d have liked to get ready for tomorrow but there’s no point trying in the dark. I’ll just have to get up a bit earlier.

Monday, 1 December 2008

lunch with the gang in Butare

November 29th

Another umuganda day, so I’ve decided to go to Butare and buy some more craft souvenirs to take home with me. It’s a funny feeling to think that this time next week I’ll be in London with eleven months of service behind me.

In order to escape umuganda I have to get up early and by seven o’clock I’m on a slow matata to Butare. The seat in front of me has lost its back, and the bus is so old and decrepit it chugs at walking pace up most of the hills.

It’s a grey day with spots of rain every so often. Gitarama’s decidedly fresh this early in the morning. When I get to Butare it’s still grey and overcast, but Butare is much lower than Gitarama and the weather is stuffy and humid. The museum is open, so I know I’ll get my cards OK. I buy fifty cards and note the prices on some other items. Most of the stuff in the museum is cheaper than in the town craft shop, but not all of it, so I need to go into town and check. I know that all the town shops will stay closed till around mid-day, so I explore round the back of the museum. There’s a very nice botanical garden with lots of specimen trees and shrubs and flowers; unfortunately almost none of them have name tags on them so I don’t know what they are. Also, at the back of the museum there’s the CAM centre where they train apprentices to make the lovely craft objects sold in the museum. I have a nosey round at the pottery, the forge, and the bead and card making classrooms.

Then I still have an hour to kill until umuganda finishes, so I just sit on a bench in the botanical gardens and enjoy being away from constant noise and people. A flock of goats is the museum’s version of a lawnmower; they eventually come right up to me. The goatherd is keeping watch at a distance, but I’m pretty sure he won’t speak anything other than Kinyarwanda so there’s no point in trying to make conversation. I’ve got the whole museum and its grounds all to myself. Little finch-like birds are chirping in an acacia tree next to me, and damsel flies with black and white wings are flitting all around my feet.

I discover I’ve managed to pick up some fleas from one of the taxi buses this week; probably Thursday’s home from Muhanga. I’ve got two rings of bites, one round my left ankle and another round my right knee. It’s annoying because I had a complete change of clothes on Friday morning, so it suggests my little fellow travellers are still in flat with me. I’ll have to do some shaking out of clothes on the balcony tomorrow morning!

On the bus journey down I’ve texted Soraya to see if she’s free for lunch in Butare, and it turns out there’s a whole crowd of VSOs gathering today. Mata is slow in opening after umuganda, so we decide to go to Ibis Hotel for lunch. There’s me, Soraya, Jane, Els, Tiga (just back from holiday in Zanzibar) and Andy, and a non-VSO friend of Els. It’s an unexpected pleasure to have so many people together at this stage of the year; we’re many of us just about to fly home, so it’s nice to have lunch together and catch up on gossip and say our farewells till 2009.

Tiga’s trying to sort out her accommodation for next year in Butare; she’s working for the Anglican Diocese there and we now understand there’s going to be a husband and wife team working in my position in the District. Andy’s grouchy because it looks as if he’s going to have to share his house with Mans’ successor in the spring; he’s just got used to having his own accommodation to dispose as he thinks fit. Els has just finished the same sort of mad round of training days as I’m doing; she’s exhausted and is off to Kibuye for a couple of days’ rest by the lake before she flies home to Birmingham on Thursday.

After lunch we all go our various ways. I go into the craft shop and then back to the museum until I’m completely spent up on baskets, table mats and the like. My rucksack is really full. I must be the museum’s best customer all year! I can’t be bothered to walk all the way back into the centre of Butare to get a fast bus, so I settle for two hours on a stopper all the way home. There’s the usual mixture of people – elderly men with their hats and sticks; elderly women with their baskets and shopping bags clutched tightly to their chests. Young women, invariably with babies. Young men and girls doing their best to look cool and smart, many with laptop bags even though they’ve only got a handful of papers inside them. And all of them wondering why the muzungu’s on the slow bus when, as a muzungu, he must be rich enough to afford the express bus if not a taxi….

For most of the way home it rains, a gentle rain which will no doubt bring out all the insects. For the past few nights we have had rain at night time, and this has led to a swarming of grasshoppers. These are huge grasshoppers, the size of locusts, with bright emerald green bodies. The little boys, and some of the adults, eagerly chase after them because when you’ve pulled off the wings and legs you can fry them and eat them. The birds go crazy after them, too. This morning, as I was leaving the flat, there were at least 8 of the pied crows either on the balcony itself or sitting on the metal railings, and the red cement floor of the balcony looked like a battlefield with countless insect legs and wings strewn across it.

Back at the flat I cook up a meal of whatever we’ve got left – fresh avocado, sardine curry with spuds and beans, and bananas and custard for pud. Pretty filling, and the guard certainly has nothing to complain about. Just as I’m finishing Tom arrives; he’s caught a stomach bug in Goma. But his visit to the gorillas was excellent and he proudly shows me his certificate to say he’s seen them. (OK, so why don’t we get a certificate for climbing the volcano?)

We agree not to put the water heater on because we’re so low on electricity, but we think some of the local shops can recharge our system and we’ll try them out tomorrow. I’m down to about £6 in all my worldly wealth after buying these souvenirs; there’s plenty left in the bank but I’ll have to go and draw some out on Monday and be a little bit late arriving at Rugendabari for my next training.

Best thing about today – I’ve got some nice souvenirs and after several days on my own I’ve met up with a whole bunch of colleagues

Worst thing – we all feel the same: tired, jaded, end-of-termish. We’re all ready to go home. I don’t know whether it’s a psychological thing or whether it’s got something to do with the end of the long rains. I thought it was just me – not sleeping well, lethargic and floppy, not firing on all cylinders – but it turns out that everybody feels the same way.

Friday, 28 November 2008

roads, laptops and far too much sex!

November 28th

Although I don’t have an English class at the Office this morning, I’m up at 5.30 as usual and there by 6.45. I like these early morning starts; I’ve said before in this blog that it’s the best part of the day. Yesterday I realised that Mushushiro secteur hasn’t confirmed my training session with them today, nor told me which school to use. By the time I got back from Muhanga yesterday it was too late to contact them – the District Office was shut and Innocent would have gone home. When things get tricky I need a native Kinyarwanda speaker to clarify things for me! (Sorry, there’s about five different tenses in that paragraph. I’m beginning to mark my own writing as if it were an exam. And I’m failing the exam…)

So first thing this morning we try ringing Emerthe, the secteur rep. And we try and we try and we try. I have a go, Innocent has goes; finally I go to Claude with all my woes and he tries several times. Each time we get a pre-recorded message saying that the phone is either switched off or the person is not in the country.

Claude rings a couple of the other Mushushiro head teachers. Eventually we get the story. Emerthe has got a new phone, but she hasn’t told the District her new number. Since the head teachers’ mobile is the only way of contacting a school, we have a situation where Cyicaro (Emerthe’s school) is completely uncontactable from Headquarters. Not only that, but since Emerthe is the secteur rep, it means that it’s impossible to organise communication with any of the Mushishiro schools in a sensible way. Neither of the two heads Claude talks to has any idea about resources training today, so we decide to cancel. Claude’s hopping mad with Emerthe and embarrassed for me.

I’m cross, because it’s a wasted day, but at least this one’s not my fault. And I really need a rest. I can’t believe how three days’ training on the trot takes it out of you. My arm and shoulder is aching where I’ve been lugging heavy baggage on the back of motos, and despite an early night I still feel lethargic. Goodness knows what I would feel like if I had done 5 days consecutive training, as I had planned. Plus four day’s English lessons at the Office.

Anyway, I make the most of the morning reading up various reports in the Office, and planning some more English trainings for January. I try to make things relevant. Detailed instructions on a packet of medicine is a standard English Language training exercise out here. Instructions for loading a new programme onto their computers will also be applicable to all of them. And I spend some time creating a detailed job specification and advert exactly as it would appear in the “Nouvelle Rélève” newspaper. The job is for an EMIS and educational database manager – I might even be tempted to have a go for it myself!

I raid Claude’s office while he is out; there is a pile of “Nouvelle Rélève” papers on his table, covering September and October. Its very good practise for my French to read through them, even if to casual visitors to the Office it appears that I’m just sitting mucking about and reading the papers.

Firstly there’s an article about the new tarmac road from Gitarama to Ngororero. Although the road is being built by the Chinese, the chief engineer in charge of the whole project is Italian. I wonder what language they all communicate in. Apparently the locals along the route have been helping themselves to the blocks of stone used for culvert making and especially for the gabions. I assume they’re using the stone to build their houses. It has cost the project no less than 800 million extra Francs – a huge sum. The engineer is accusing the Muhanga population of being thieves; Yvonne, our Mayor, is stung to the quick and denouncing the thieves but promising to take action. It’s just like stuff in the “Bridport News” – parochial and defensive, but this is the national newspaper! The engineer also says that the road is guaranteed for ten years before it should need repair. But at the same time he admits that the section through the mountains just past Gitarama has been exceptionally difficult to build, and that there is a constant risk of “glissements de terre”- landslides, which become almost constant during the heavy rains.

The article confirms that the road will eventually go all the way to Gisenyi; Ngororero is about 45km from Gitarama, and Gisenyi is about another 50km further on. By around 2010 the route will have been done and a big chunk of the country will have been opened up. It’s just staggering how isolated most of these places are along the road. There’s whole areas the size of Dorset where it is so hilly, and the roads so poor, that people are simply shut in within their own communities all year round. You live in the community, marry in the community, go to market within about a 6km radius of your house, and during your entire lifetime you’ll almost never venture further than about 20km away from it. It’s just like England in the 1700s, before roads were surfaced and railways built. I dread to think what the amount of inbreeding is like in some of these communities! The whole idea of the new road is to open these parts of Rwanda to trade and to new ideas, as well as to take as much through traffic as possible out of Kigali. (All the heavy lorries from Congo to the south of Rwanda will eventually come this way, and what is currently for me a beautiful road with almost no traffic to spoil it will become one of the busiest highways in Africa).

Another article talks about a plan to give laptops to every school child in Rwanda. I’ve heard this mentioned before, and you’ll remember I wrote in this blog last week about an ICT training course being held at Gitarama primary school. But this is the first time I’ve seen stuff about computers for every child in writing. An outside, foreign aid organisation is making cut-down, cut-price laptops available; some 5500 will have been distributed by the end of this year, and thenceforth at the rate of around 50,000 a year. I’m still scratching my head over all this. Almost no rural schools have electricity, so they’ll either be spending a fortune on batteries, or the schools will have to buy solar panels (which are very expensive). I can understand that they will wire up schools in the towns, or wherever the main electricity grid runs close to a school (Munyinya and Nyarusange in my district are two prime examples). But can you imagine the wear and tear on laptops being bashed about over stone roads on their way to and from school? And if there’s a huge black market of parents, pupils, and even some teachers raiding their local primary school to steal textbooks and sell them in the local markets for food money, just imagine how tempting it will be to flog off all these computers. The average lifespan of a laptop is only four years or thereabouts, so in four years they will have distributed about 200,000. But there is an estimated 2 million children in primary schools across the country (up from 900,000 in 1994 – there’s a population explosion for you!), so you see the scale of the problem.

Any increase in ICT and in knowledge has got to be a good thing here; the “human capital” of Rwanda is at a desperately low level and I’m constantly surprised at how low the general level of education and understanding is. Rwanda is the first time I’ve been to a place where everyone is streetwise and cunning to the Nth degree, but abysmally backward in anything approaching formal education. It just seems crazy to be giving something as complicated as a laptop computer to households where neither of the parents can read and write, where the whole family lives in one room, and where the only source of lighting is an old tomato paste tin full of paraffin with a strip off somebody’s trouser hem as the wick. New roads – yes, definitely; rural electrification – yes, as fast as possible. But there are all sorts of other urgent priorities – hygiene, food security, health education and above all contraception, which are far more urgent than trying to shunt children from the 1700s into the computer age overnight.

Which brings me to the third article in the “Nouvelle Rélève”. The government here is beginning to square up to the Catholic Church over birth control. The Government really means it when it says you “must” not have more than three children per family. The average number of births per woman has gone down from 6.2 in 1992 to 5.5 now, which is something. And a 20% infant mortality rate means that on average every family loses at least one young child, usually to some combination of dysentery, malaria or respiratory diseases. At the present rate of increase the population will double to 16 million by 2020, and there will simply not be enough food. Rwanda will become like Bangladesh – a permanent “basket case”, forever dependent on foreign aid. Even if the population control measures are adopted with vigour, they expect the population will reach 13 million, and in a country not much bigger than Wales that’s a genuinely scary prospect. But I have grave doubts as to how well they can enforce their 3 children policy. The Rwandan male’s attitude is that is he’s going to get married he’s doing it for the sex and if he has ten or more children, well, that’s not his fault. It’s God’s fault. And therefore it’s God’s job to look after the children. “Je les ai mis au monde, mais Dieu s’occupe du reste”. In the very backward, rural secteurs it is common to see groups of children who are clearly not in school, dressed in absolute rags, and quite obviously fending for themselves. They raid their neighbour’s fields, stealing potatoes and plantains and making little fires to cook them. Children as young as six are living this way and often looking after even younger siblings. I can sometimes see these children when I travel up country, because a muzungu on a motor bike is so rare that these kids’ll break cover to come and stare. There is a prevailing attitude that God smiles on large families, and it’s undoubtedly true that women are judged on their fertility and see themselves as fulfilled in measure according to the number of children they manage to raise successfully.

Then last month the Pope, safely away from the realities of Rwandan rural life, repeated his line about every effective method of birth control being forbidden and that it’s celibacy or nothing. He should come to Cyeza or Kibangu.

Educated Rwandans are definitely having small families – they are no different from educated families in England or anywhere else in the developed world. But they are only a tiny proportion of the total population, and their forbearance does nothing to alter the overall demographic trends. I feel really sorry for the Catholic priests like Jean-Damascène who have to toe the party line from Rome, while at the same time trying to hold their exploding, and increasingly poor communities together. Make no mistake; rural Rwandans are getting poorer. Land is being subdivided more and more. Soils are getting so seriously exhausted that crop yields per hectare are falling fast. You can measure rural poverty by the proportion of people who have to buy seeds each year (because they’ve eaten their seed potatoes during the dry season, for example), or who buy artificial fertilisers to increase yields. The statistics for both these categories are going the wrong way, and a food security crisis is looming. While his Holiness waffles on about the sanctity of marriage and that it’s still a sin to disturb the intimacy of the act of union etc etc, I can see war, famine and disease galloping over the mountains towards us.

And what chance will a posh school laptop stand with these families?

The only hope seems to lie in getting girls as educated as possible. Educated young Rwandan women are very modern indeed. They’ll certainly not see life as an endless conveyor belt of pregnancies, and they want all the goodies of life, and they want them now if not sooner. They’ll tell the Pope exactly where to go. They’ll tell their menfolk exactly how many children they’re going to have, and when they’re going to have them. This sort of lifestyle is so much easier to do in towns like Gitarama and Kigali where you are safely away from pressure from grandparents and other tradition-bound relatives. In the villages things won’t really change for a couple of generations. And by then it could be too late. It would be ironic if the lasting legacy of the genocide was a subconscious desire to repopulate the country, and that this lasted so long that the country destroyed itself in an avalanche of hungry people.

OK, that’s enough on the subject.

Best thing about today – having time to relax, read, and think.

Worst thing – it looks as if by the time I come home next week I’ll only have done half my resource making training sessions instead of the three quarters I had planned. But it doesn’t matter; I have my whole second year before me! Nobody’s angry with me, and I can take life at my own pace.

Also, I’ve discovered that by not using the water heater and being sparing with lights and the kettle and leaving my ironing till next week, I should be able to keep the electricity flowing until Tom comes back on Sunday and he or I can get the meter recharged on Monday morning. So it’s not all bad.

whre's my dinner?

November 27th

Final District Office English training session for this term – there’s too much travelling in the next few days to allow me to fit any more in. In some ways this is a pity because I’m starting to enjoy myself and I know the sessions are going really well.

It must be towards the end of the week because they’re quite late arriving today, and its quarter past seven before I’m really quorate. But the Vice Mayor’s not only here all the session but is joining in with the rest of them, so that’s quite an achievement. I think they’re all terrified of him; when he makes a mistake on a wordsearch they don’t quite know how to react!

Another good session – a listening exercise involving the description of an imaginary island and its potential for tourism. (Oh dear, we’re back to this lack of imagination in education again. You can see them thinking “why don’t I know where the state of Cameronia is in West Africa, and how did I not know there were gorillas on the mountains there?”). We do twenty questions which is also an entirely new experience for these people. Mind you, they’re quick learners and smart cookies; it just says reams for the narrowness of the secondary education system here that all the games we play in England to encourage lateral thinking and stimulate the imagination are lacking here in Rwanda. So I’m a man with a mission – I will take you, drag you, hijack you by any means possible to a state where you learn to think outside your comfort zone!

We end up doing a wordsearch which is another new experience for almost every single one; as soon as get the hang of it they’re away and jostling each other to come up to the flipchart and identify words. I never got this degree of enthusiasm from any of my classes at Beaminster!

We all leave the room laughing and we’ve actually enjoyed the best part of an hour’s hard work, so I must be doing something right.

Then it’s off to Mata school in Muhanga secteur. This is one of my favourite schools; it has two cows and a huge acreage of coffee trees. I took Hayley there with me in the middle of September on her second day at work in Rwanda. I’m even better organised today, and the whole training goes very, very well. I would have come back on a tremendous high except that Ernestine seems to have forgotten to arrange lunch for any of us, and nobody gets anything to eat at all. I have a couple of boiled sweets in my bag and a small bottle of water, so by the time I get back in the afternoon I’m starving. It’s most unlike Ernestine to screw up on anything, she’s an excellent organiser. I wonder if some other training session got our food, or if they got two lots of food? If two lots turned up they’d scoff the lot without the slightest second thought.

I get overcharged on the matata when I come home; at these trainings I have a lot of baggage and the host school usually insists on escorting me to the nearest bus point. That makes it difficult for me to hitch a ride on a passing car, which is always my intention. Never mind, instead of 30p I had to pay 60p and in any case it’s VSO who is paying.

I have to buy more scotch tape and marker pens when I get back to Gitarama – I think some of these people are eating marker pens – and flake out at the flat with cups of tea and peanut butter sandwiches to keep me going. I’ve decided to treat myself to a meal out tonight; I reckon I deserve an omelette spéciale, perhaps with a side plate of chips….

Panic stations at 4.30 – our electricity is about to run out and Tom has the card and meter box key locked in his bedroom. I’ve got a horrible feeling I’m going to be without power very soon until Monday morning… So let’s get phone and iPod all charged up and minimise cups of tea; I’m already showering in cold water for a few days so I don’t have to use the immersion heater.

Best thing about today – all of it – two good training sessions and I’m feeling on a high.

Worst thing about today – I’m beginning to feel very tired already, and I’m only half way through the secteur trainings. But at least I don’t have to spend the evenings preparing more stuff for the District Office crowd!

busy, busy, busy

November 25th-26th

Well, these are training days with a vengeance. It’s my grand finale in Muhanga District before I set off home for Christmas. I’m up at 5.30 and out of the flat at 6.30. Tom’s sleeping on a mattress on the lounge floor, and won’t be awake until 7.00 at the earliest, so I’m trying to creep round the place and not disturb him.

I’m in the Office by just before seven, and from 7.00 to 8.00 I’m teaching the Office staff again. It’s suddenly a lovely atmosphere in the place. Everyone is shouting “hello teacher” as I enter, and people from every office and every department are pleased to see me. On Tuesday morning my numbers have gone up from 13 to 21, and on Wednesday they are 27 including the Vice-Mayor who drops in to give someone a message and then stays to check on what the muzungu is up to. He’s a very dour person, but makes a point of coming up and saying something nice as he leaves. That’s good news – if we are getting the stamp of approval from the very top then we know we’re doing something really worthwhile.

I’m trying to make things as relevant as I can in my teaching; for listening exercises I’m giving them mock phone messages; everything from requests that the mayor rings someone back, to reports of landslides on the main road, to requests for serial numbers for spare parts for the photocopier! I put in a plug for them to tell the English speakers when there are changes to the usual routine (like bloody tree planting days). We look at newspaper extracts for reading comprehension; I get them to speak for a minute about themselves and their families, or about where they would go for a holiday if they won a million francs. (Got to be careful on that one – holidays are just not affordable for virtually any Rwandan. They interpret the question in all sorts of odd ways – opportunities to go to London and do a language course, for example. That’s not what I meant by a holiday!).

Some things fall flat. The idea of using your imagination to create a story is such hard work that I cut it short. I start by saying “Last night, as I was walking home from Shyogwe late at night, I turned a corner in the road and saw…….”

But the person I ask is flummoxed. She wasn’t in Shyogwe last night so how can she know what I saw? These people go all the way through school without ever having to think creatively for fun; without having to imagine and fantasize. So I plough on by myself; the exercise is now for them to listen. I make up loads of crap about a frightening figure who looms out of the dark, with an eye missing, a scar all down his face, dressed in dirty rags, using a stick, and carrying a sack inside which something is wriggling….. You get the idea. Some of them begin to see that it’s a made up story, but I’m sure some of the older ones are convinced I really did have a close shave with some sort of highwayman last night! I work in a chase sequence; the writhing thing in the bag turns out to be a deadly green mamba snake….. They’re getting into the swing of it now. Finally I work round to it all being a dream. When I finish I get a round of applause – I’ve made a hit as a storyteller….

On both mornings I end up at 8.00 on a real high. Their pronunciation is improving; their confidence is growing, and every now and then somebody says something really clever and we all fall about laughing. It’s so much better than the deadly atmosphere in so many school classrooms. I only wonder how long I can keep the pace up.

On both days I catapult out of the Office just after 8.00 with a carrier bag and rucksack stuffed to capacity with goodies for my resource making trainings out in the secteurs. Tuesday is Cyeza; Wednesday is Nyarusange. Neither is very far out; but Nyarusange is on a hilly road and needs a big motard to get around Mont Mushubati. On Tuesday we are in Bwirika school, which I inspected back in March. Then, it was in a sorry state. This is the school where children were being made ill by polluted drinking water from the nearest spring.

What a change has happened since. Some other NGO has given them money. There is now a concrete water tank, roof gutters, and part of the tiled roof has been replaced with tin to give an efficient catchment for the water supply. Sorry Bradpole Church – we’ve been beaten to it. This is the school we thought we were going to supply with an Afritank. Never mind; there are probably around 70 other schools which still don’t have clean water, so we’ll simply find another one and get on with the job elsewhere!

The resource making goes OK; better at Nyarusange. It’s one of those things just like the English training with Cathie back in the spring, where you get better and better for the first few sessions, then reach a plateau after about three or four. For Nyarusange I have two enormous dice made out of Soraya’s old mattress (yes, the one with bed bugs in it). But we’re counting on the bed bugs not living on the extreme edges of the foam rubber, and I’m not keeping them in my flat. They’re spending the nights in the District Office. So if Claude and Innocent start scratching all next week I shall keep VERY, VERY quiet on the subject…..

At both schools I’m fed at lunchtime; this is part of the deal with the secteurs. If they organise the food it saves me a huge hassle and I know they can do it far more cheaply than me. At Bwirika a chap rolls up on a moto with two huge plastic tubs. One is filled with bottles of Fanta; the other has those foil dishes like we use at Chinese take-aways; inside is quite a good mélange with excellent cow-meat, and still warm, too.

At Nyarusange I go with Gaston (the head) and one of his staff to a nearby bar. The rest of the teachers have asked not to be fed at all, but to have the cash in lieu. In the bar we have warm fanta and rabbit and chips, in an incredibly hot sauce. The rabbit is roughly jointed for us and reasonably tender; I’m not sure about leaving the head as the centrepiece of the presentation, though! None of us feels up to crushing the skull and sucking the brains through, but no doubt the head will get eaten by someone when we’ve left. (The rabbit head, that is, not Gaston himself). Too many heads in one paragraph!

Nyarusange is my second biggest primary school, with 1844 pupils. It has a row of 20 classrooms which seem to stretch for ever along the hillside, and there’s an annexe or “école satellite” at Nyamabuye which will eventually become a totally separate school. Gaston’s therefore the head for at the very least 2500 pupils and staff. Yet he’s ridiculously young, dynamic and funny. He rides a beat up old moto, leaking oil like a sieve, but with a home-made foam rubber passenger seat which is by a long way the most comfortable in Rwanda. Go Gaston! He’s one of my secteur reps and, like most of them, quite a character. I’m beginning to really enjoy being out in the countryside again – but then I always do!

The teachers at the Nyarusange training are an exceptionally nice bunch of people and we have a real laugh. We start with logic exercises – towers of Hanoi and tangrams and there’s all sorts of laughing and ribbing as people try and try to solve them. And when we get on to snakes and ladders it brings the house down. We’re using fanta bottle tops as counters, as you do here, and the blue team are far in the lead and absolutely cock a hoop when they land on the longest snake on the grid and slide almost back to the start. There’s uproar!

The only down point of the day is that they’re too slap happy when they’re copying my rice sacks. Neither Bwirika nor Nyarusange schools have glass in their windows, so we can’t trace anything. This means the quality of reproduction is very limited. And where they’ve cut the rice sacks with scissors they’ve done it in a way which frays the edges terribly. I tell them they absolutely must get the edges sewn when they get home. I think some of the women will do it, but as for the blokes, well – who can say. As usual we have at least two babies yelling and being fed during proceedings; one of the little cherubs loudly fills his nappy in a quiet spot and everyone gets the giggles one more…..

The only problem with this training is that I’m having to do it all on my own. Normally there would be two of us, or even more, but Soraya’s in Butare, Michael and Tinks have their own trainings at Shyogwe primary, and everybody else who’s left in Rwanda is similarly occupied. To do a whole day’s training, in French, and to be responsible for every part of it is hard work. By the end of Wednesday I feel really weary, and I’ve got two more days to do this week and three next week.

Never mind. I’ve got the flat to myself; Tom and Luke have gone off to Ruhengeri to watch gorillas. I’ve got soup in the freezer so I don’t have to spend a long time cooking. I prepare Thursday’s English lesson and write up the blog. That brings me to this minute, and I’m off to bed at twenty to ten!

Best thing about today – everything. It’s been a damn good day.

Worst thing – nothing at all. Just give me enough energy to keep up the pace!

tree planting day

November 24th

Up early; I’m supposed to be doing a resource making training at Shyogwe but Emmanuelle has never got back to me to confirm the date or location, so it looks as if it isn’t going to happen. Last night Hayley said she’d been told by her boss that it was “National Tree Planting Day”, and that schools, District Offices etc would all be closed. Ho hum; we’re back to the last-minute public holiday routine again.

And Hayley turns out to be exactly right. When I get to the District Office (at seven o’clock in the morning) everyone’s either gone already, or going off to plant trees. Even Innocent, the sports secretary, is off to Rugendabari. For that matter, even Claude’s off but whether to plant trees of mind the baby or to official meetings – who knows!.

If I’d been told in advance I would have worn suitable clothes and brought my camera, and gone out and stuck some eucalyptus in the ground with the rest of them; tree planting is a pretty photogenic affair. But I’m smartly dressed for training teachers and I can’t be bothered to rush back to the flat and change. Besides, by the time I got back I’d miss any transport out to the wilds!

So at least my fears about Shyogwe training are answered, and I have a down day. Well, almost. Claude gives me the internet modem so I have a grand time getting caught up on all my computer business, including updating all my virus checkers. I get so bored I even mess around with Facebook – a sure sign of underemployment in any workplace around the world!

I get an email from Carmel, one of my fellow volunteers in Pakistan. She’s just been pulled from her original placement (giving health advice to sex workers in Khanewal city) because the set-up she is working for turns out to be totally corrupt – Almost no work is being done, but huge amounts of money pocketed by the directors! Another triumph for VSO vetting of placements before volunteers arrive!

Tina emails to say she is improving fast and it sounds as if she’ll be back in Africa well before Christmas, so that’s seriously good news.

I’m busy reading the “New Times” on line, and looking at the “up-country” section for local news, when I discover a long article about an education conference at Rongi, to set targets and raise aspirations in this remote secteur. And lo and behold the author is my mate Étienne, the secteur rep from Rongi and a real friend to me, Soraya and Cathie, too. Good for you, Étienne. This guy’s definitely going to go places! He knows how to publicise himself and he works so energetically for his little part of Muhanga.

Towards the end of the morning Soraya rolls up from Butare. She’s down at GS Butare for the MINEDUC teacher training programme in English (as one of the trainers). She’s come up this morning to meet Charlotte for a “progress check” visit. While we’re waiting for Charlotte we talk. Soraya’s getting paid (handsomely) for being one of the trainers on this course; it begins to look as if she’ll be the only VSO in Rwanda to make a tidy profit on the year (most of the rest of us are finding it really difficult to live on our budgets and are subsidising ourselves from private funds). And at GS Butare they have a brand new 25 metre swimming pool. The only problem is that nobody is allowed to use it yet because it hasn’t been officially opened. I’m not sure when it’s opening, or who is doing the opening. But it must be the biggest and best pool outside of Kigali and I wonder if the President will pay a visit….. I tell Soraya she’s got to try the pool out, even if it means midnight dips!

At the end of the afternoon I have my very first training session with the District Office staff. I am taking the “intermediates” – the people who think they have already got reasonable English and want conversation practise. There were originally 21 people on my list, and it’s gratifying to see that even on a “jour férié” I have no fewer than thirteen. The session goes very well, much better than I dared hope. The level of overall literacy is good, and their pronunciation is almost always better than that of most of the primary teachers I meet. Truly, the District Office staff are the crème de la crème!

I go home very happy, even if frustrated that I’ll have to reschedule Shyogwe in the spring term. But suddenly I’m a classroom teacher again, and I need to prepare material for the following morning. Tom and Luke, his brother, who has just arrived from England, end up preparing supper while I furiously type up listening exercises, vocabulary games and the like.

Best thing about today – succeeding in training adults. I’ve been quite anxious about it and it gives a nice feeling at the end of the day to know I can do it despite not being an English specialist.

Worst thing about today – at the moment I still haven’t started on my resource making trainings. Never mind; I start tomorrow…..

doing Geology with a gospel choir singing in the background!

November 23rd

A lie in this morning because we’re all tired. So a leisurely breakfast, and an opportunity to take more photos in the warm early morning sunshine. Outside our dining room there’s a gospel choir rehearsing their moves and being filmed; I think it must be a promotional video. The choir come from Ruhengeri and there are plenty of them – at least twenty five singers all in matching green tops and white trousers. Their singing is pretty good, too, but when I go outside to watch them I discover they’re miming to a tape, presumably one which they have already recorded.

We sit on the terrace at Kinigi with Karisimbi and Vishoke looming behind us and I do an hour long summary of everything I can remember on the geology of this part of Rwanda – the volcanoes, their effect on Kivu and Rwanda’s river systems; the petrology of the lava and the economic aspects of the volcanics. Even if I say so myself, these kids are leaving this place pretty well clued up on what’s going on, and there will be few other Rwandans who know as much in as much depth as these teenagers.

All good things come to an end, and we leave Kinigi regretfully because it’s such a nice place. Kersti has managed the budget supremely well and we are on the way home with a substantial cash reserve left in her purse!

This means that when we reach the “singing toilets” stop at Base we can buy everyone a cold drink; it’s getting noticeably hotter as we approach Kigali and it’s no less than 32 degrees as we enter the city.

Walt’s wife has made us a huge Tupperware box of cookies and these are steadily munched as we descend past the Nyaborongo valley on one side, and the deep gulleys of the mountains on the approach to the capital.

With the children safely off with their parents Kersti and I go to her house and crash out to doze for a couple of hours. Paula has texted to invite us to a do in town this evening, and we think it’ll make a nice way to end our weekend. (Nick is away in Kampala on a short business trip).

Unfortunately things go awry as the day wears on, and we don’t make it to Paula’s do. But the trip has been a great success, and we’ve both come back uplifted by the scenery and the sense of having achieved something worthwhile.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Life in the Congolese refugee camps

This family of eight registering at Lushebere camp, also in North Kivu, will have to stay in a single hut.
Pictures and text from the BBC website, with grateful acknowlegement


Aid agencies have struggled to reach some of those who have fled. The makeshift camps provide little protection, and leave residents exposed to health risks including cholera.

Civilians have been fleeing clashes involving rebel forces led by Laurent Nkunda and government troops. Both sides have been accused of atrocities. The displaced live in camps like this one in Nyanzale, North Kivu.


At Rutshuru hospital MSF carries out operations and helps victims of sexual violence and malnutrition. Mobile clinics also help deal with cholera outbreaks and conduct vaccinations. Few Congolese people can afford cars, so they improvise their own means of transport.

There's volcanoes at the bottom of our garden.....

Sunrise at Kinigi
Sabyinyo from the entrance to Kinigi. The oldest and most eroded of Rwanda's volcanoes.
One of my favourites - a dramatic shot of Vishoke and Mikeno

Karisimbi. By the way, it isn't snow covered - the white section at the summit is just a trick of the light

Karisimbi and Vishoke

Dense growth in the tropical forest just inside the National Park wall. This may look like "virgin jungle" but in fact this was cultivated land up until the late 1960s when people were evicted and the territory added to the national park to increase the "buffer zone" between farming and gorillas. P.S. don't on any account tangle with the stinging nettles here - they're really vicious!

Dead tree at about 3200m, covered in mosses and lichens.
Ornamental papyrus grass in the gardens at Kiningi. This is the first time I've seen papyrus as an ornament; usually you find enormous expanses growing wild in the swamps around the Nyaborongo river.

The volcanoes of Rwanda

This is what you see first thing in the morning at Kinigi. Gahinga on the left; Muhabura (14,000 feet) with wisps of cloud on the right. Two down; four more to go.....
Looking the other way, there are (L to R) Karisimbi, the highest mountain in Rwanda, Vishoke, which we were to climb, and in the background Mikeno which is inside the Congo. You also see the beautifully kept grounds at Kinigi.

About half past eight on a perfect morning, as we're on the run-in to the base of Vishoke. Left to right: Karisimbi, Vishoke, Mikeno.

Crossing the boundary wall to enter the National Park. Watch out for buffalo poo and see if you can smell any gorillas!

A beautiful mid-day shot of Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura. What looks like steam coming from Muhabura is (unfortunately) just a trail of cloud.

Pahoehoe (ropy lava) on our path. We're walking over the top of an old lava flow, and you can still see the wrinkles the liquid lava made as the outside skin cooled quicker than the runnier stuff inside it. Just like custard, but not as tasty.......

Mid afternoon. The same three volcanoes (Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura), but now the afternoon's storm is building up. You can see the potato fields on the fertile volcanic soils just outside the boundary wall.

Vesicular trachyte. Nature's version of Aero chocolate bars.