Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Worth remembering that just about all other volunteers have a water tap in the yard and wash from buckets of cold water! Aren't I spoiled!

Africa rocks!

Jan 28

Off to work early again, leaving home at 6.30 (that means a 5.30 wake up, deserves brownie points!). Another lovely morning – cool, fresh and sunny. Promise of real heat by mid-day, so glad I keep all my stuff in my day-sack just in case. For the record, the “normal” kitlist is: loo roll, sun cream, hat, sunglasses, cagoule, book to read, camera, platypus, deet spray, germicide gel, and bags of peanuts (emergency rations in case I miss lunch!)

This visit by the President on Friday is being taken very seriously. During Sunday every hole in the road has been filled in all round the town centre, and all the dirt roads he will use have been graded. All buildings under construction or eyesores have been shrouded in plastic sheets or corrugated iron fences. Ceremonial arches are being erected at key places – these are very much a Rwandan tradition and I will get some photos when they are finished. Someone has decreed there is to be umuganda every afternoon; by 2 p.m. there are gangs of men all along the road into town sweeping it clear of dust with tree branches. (So much for the anti-deforestation legislation passed recently). The place is thick with police; apparently they raided Karen’s house on Sunday night and demanded to see everyone’s papers because they live very close to the President’s route. I’m expecting to get challenged every time I go out, but no problems so far. (Quite the reverse: Gaston, one of the local bobbies who looks about sixteen, came into the office for a chat yesterday because he was bored and wanted to see the muzungu). When you think about it, with umuganda and gacaca there won’t be many working hours this week!

At the office I’m trying to get ready for my first formal inspection on Wednesday. Claude has rung the school and confirmed our visit; Cathy and Elson are sorting out transport. I’ve got my formal lesson observation sheet pad, very impressive with the Rwandan coat of arms on every page. I’ve made my crib list of questions to ask (in French). In the office I find copies of the secondary national curriculum booklets for Art, Music, Sport, ICT, Science and Religion so spend most of the morning going through them. The standard seems pretty close to our GCSE, and I wonder just how many of the population can survive primary school to get a crack at all these subjects. Unfortunately the ones most useful to me – French and English – are not there, and nobody seems to know if there are any lurking in the office. This is typical of the way things work here – everyone does his/her own thing and it’s very difficult to get any sense of joined up governance. Gets very frustrating. Absolutely nobody has a useful map of the district; I am going to have to go to Butare again and order a personal copy at the GIS office there. (See, Rachel, your university GIS would come in really handy here!)

After a while I get bored and discover brand new French textbooks (secondary) lurking in boxes in the office. Nobody has arranged their distribution yet. They’re lovely books, well illustrated and similar to our school books of the 1980s and 1990s. All the pictures are of Africans, and the places mentioned, animals, shopping items etc are all appropriate to Rwanda. It’s wonderful that these sorts of books are being produced, but I wonder how many are actually in the schools and how many children are actually using them? In other boxes there are primary school Kinya-rwanda textbooks; these are illustrated in black and white but, again, are lovely resources which need getting out into schools straight away. They’re all funded by various foreign NGOs, of course.

Mid-morning I escape the office to go to the bank. My cheque book, naturally, hasn’t arrived, but I’m almost out of cash and they give me a bank cheque to draw some dosh. Realise I haven’t a clue whether I’m living within my means, so decide to keep accounts for a bit.

Lunch at the Tranquilité restaurant again – meal and drink and tip for 1000RwF (£1). The waitresses all speak English, so that means they were refugees in Uganda during 1994. I really like it – fast service, nice food and pleasant ambience. Izikiah, the head waiter, won’t let me start eating till I’ve listed the names of all the ingredients in Kinyar; it’s a good game and I’m beginning to learn them. (The problem in Kinyar is that so many words are almost identical except for one letter).

Today the results of primary P6 exams are released; this is the means by which pupils are selected for secondary school. It’s really like our old 11+ exam. In the office there’s a huge wad of printouts and Innocent, one of my mates, is keying in some stuff into the computer. Looking through the sheets I realise they’re a goldmine of information for each school, telling me the strengths of each subject, and even (in one case) highlighting that boys seem to be favoured over girls. The results vary wildly from school to school and from year to year for the same school.

But the thing which stands out a mile is that the English results are dire across the board. So far as I can see, no school has reached even half way to the pass mark (38%) in its average English score, and it’s dragging the whole district’s results down.

So I spend all afternoon, all evening till 11 o’clock at night, and get up early next morning to make a statistical analysis of a large sample of the results. Sorry if that sounds nerdy and boring, but it’s exactly what Claude wants me to do and I know that the way he’s looking at the data won’t show him what he wants to know.

Polly comes round to let off steam at tea time; she’s doing exactly the same job as me in the next district down (Ruhango), but is having all sorts of problems communicating. She can’t speak French and has had to hire an interpreter, but worse is that she’s at the centre of a political tussle between her mayor (who arranged for her to come) and her education director( who is old, settled and doesn’t want anyone rocking the boat until he retires). She’s a brilliant ex-HMI, and we get on well. Nobody can believe I’m so sorted so soon in terms of job and materials, and I’m offering all sorts of bits to the others who are less fortunate. (Marisa is also doing the same job as me at Nyamata, which is close to Kigali).

Celebrated all this excitement by buying a whole cheese and a yoghurt at the shop, and did battle with the market traders for spuds. Poor Tom, he took one look at the pile of papers I was processing, cooked our tea, and then left me to it while he watched a DVD in the evening. I must be more sociable tomorrow, but, hey, Tuesday is salsa night!

High point of the day – getting some money out of the bank, and realising I’d struck gold with the exam result data. It actually managed not to rain today.
Low point – none. Life is cool, hectic. Africa rocks, at the moment!


Jan 26th

The good news today is that my stomach has quelled. Hooray! Wonder if I’m getting some degree of immunity from the bugs?…. Glad, though, that I haven’t arranged anything energetic for this weekend. I want to use as many of my weekends as possible to explore this little country, but on this occasion it’s definitely time to chill out.

Very odd thing this morning. Woke up to no traffic outside the flat, very few people. Shops all shut. Even the hairdressers wasn’t broadcasting reggae to the nation. Everything was quiet and subdued. What was up?

Then I remembered. The last Saturday in every month is Umuganda day. Umuganda is when everyone is supposed to do community service for a morning. Picking up litter, clearing drains, general tidying up. All houses are allocated to little cells called umugudugu, with a leader/organiser who allocates tasks. Tom hasn’t found out who our cell leader is yet, so we decided to keep a low profile for as much of the morning as possible. We don’t want to cause offence by being seen too ostentatiously avoiding work (even though it’s largely the poorest Rwandans who do the work; the richer and smarter ones always seem to have a good reason why they can’t get involved).

Dropped off some things from Kigali at Cathy’s house. On the way back a police car pulled up alongside. Oh oh – am I about to be arrested for avoiding Umuganda? Then a voice from the back of the car yells “muraho, Monsieur Bruce”. It’s one of my colleagues at the District Office, showing off to his police friends that he’s a friend of the muzugu. So it’s handshakes all round; I’m offered a life in the car but I’m so close to home it’s not worth it. Some puzzled locals, though, trying to work out how the police have pulled me over but not taken any action!

Spent the rest of the morning pottering round the house out of sight, sorting out laundry, all the silly little things you need to do. Late morning Tom and I took the laundry up to the FHI guest house where Janine works. It’s a lovely looking building and will be ideal for family coming out to stay in Gitarama later in the year. On the way back called in at Karen’s house and collected a spare armchair. Got all sorts of funny looks as we walked back home carrying it – people here aren’t used to muzungus doing such manual work. We now have three armchairs and our lounge is looking slightly less like an empty warehouse! Just in time, too, because Tom’s got a couple of visitors coming out from Kigali for the afternoon.

There is a ruined building right in the centre of Gitarama we all call the acropolis. If you look at my photos you’ll see why. I think it was a government building and the scene of heavy fighting in 1994, and has never been rebuilt. Well, this morning they’ve put up a fence around it. Either it’s being redeveloped or else they’re just going to disguise it ready for Friday….

Friday is “Heroes Day”, a national holiday, and the word is that “PK”, President Kagame, is coming to Gitarama to celebrate it here. Certainly we’ve been warned there will be ceremonies which we’re expected to attend. Security will be mega tight; we’ve been told not to bring mobile phones even if they’re switched off. Apparently, the last time “PK” went somewhere, the locals were frantically hiding their mobiles under bushes to avoid having them confiscated; after “PK” left there was pandemonium as most people have similar looking mobiles. Nobody could recognise their own phone and could only sort out whose was whose by seeing which numbers were stored in the memory! Everyone’s warning me that these events involve waiting around for ages, but it’ll be pretty cool to meet the President after only a couple of weeks in his country. (Mind you, in “Long Way Down” Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman met him after about 2 days). Anyway, watch this space and I’ll tell you what happens!

We all (except Tom) descended on Cathy and Elson for lunch (well, we had all been invited!). Just got there and it thundered and rained all afternoon. Spent the afternoon moving the sofa to dodge drips coming from the ceiling, and having to sit closer together to hear ourselves speak above the noise of rain on the corrugated iron roof.

Met Antonia, a long-term VSO based in Butare. Then discovered she comes from Netherbury and can remember the Saunders and Harvey families in the village. Rest of the group watching in amazement as we realise we lived within a hundred yards of each other for a few months in 1983…..

Also met Han, Mans’ wife. There’s quite a sizeable Dutch VSO component tin Rwanda, and with Geert we have three in our southern province.

Lovely long, relaxed lunch. I’d wanted to spend the day getting some photos of the Gitarama people and around the town, but the rain was so intense and it got so dark there wasn’t any point. In fact, we had to order taxis to get us home afterwards. The driver didn’t know where our flat was, and couldn’t speak much French and no English, so we had a farcical twenty minutes driving round and round mud roads while I tried to look for somewhere I recognised in the town. At least it meant I saw the backstreets, albeit in pouring rain and with ruts in the road so deep they shook the car to the extent that my head was bouncing off the window!

Back at the house Tom still had his guests; they were asking him to go over their business plans (Tom’s job is helping people start up small businesses in Rwanda), so we tried out the banana loaf I’d bought in Kigali. Wonderful! – just like home cooking. Everybody needs an extravagance now and then………

In the evening went to Raina’s house with Cathy and Elson for dinner. (Yes, two meals out in one day. My, my, we live the social whirl here in Gitarama!) We were all convinced that Raina wanted to persuade us to do some teaching work in her private primary school, and had rehearsed why we couldn’t possibly commit ourselves at this early stage in our placements, but instead it was purely a social evening. We ate very well, and she regaled us with tales of her time in Rwanda. She is one of those fascinating people you find in places like Gitarama. Bulgarian in origin, a high-powered lawyer working with the U N, she came to Rwanda in 1995 just after the genocide and worked in the prosecutor’s office. When her tour of duty ended she was asked to go to Kosovo, but decided she’d had enough. She bought a farm, built her own house, set up and built a primary school which she now runs on a shoestring. But it’s the best equipped primary in the area, and she’s a formidable presence in the town. A good friend with no-nonsense advice. She roared with laughter when I told her some of the silly things I’d done in my first week here.

We walked back home through the darkened streets at ten o’clock – unheard of lateness here. It was still raining slightly and not just chilly but positively cold!

Best thing about today – just feeling no pressure, relaxing, eating like pigs.
Low point – realising I’m almost out of cash. Hope to goodness my cheque book has arrived at the bank!

Kigali's nice but Gitarama's home!

Jan 25th

Took some photos of the flat and around Gitarama as I walked to the matata park. Joined by Karen and Polly for day out in Kigali. Matata squashed in as usual, but quick and safe journey. Kigali felt hot and close after the cool heights of Gitarama.

Toured the UTC shopping complex; drooled over bars of Cadbury’s chocolate, quaker oats and just about every English delicacy you can imagine. But it’s all very expensive, and they do something to the chocolate to prevent it from melting in the tropics. As a result it tastes nothing like as nice as it does back home. Honest!

Bought a few goodies including a banana cake so I can indulge during the weekend. The we treated ourselves to hot chocolate and cake in the bourbon café. The place seemed full of other VSOs; I didn’t realise until today that there is something of a tradition of coming to Kigali on Friday to collect mail from the VSO office and shop before the weekend’s exertions.

At the Programme Office met Epiphanie, who nobody had seen since we left Amani, and various other VSOs new to me. Frantic swapping of phone numbers. By the end of the day I think I’ve met a good three quarters of the entire contingent in Rwanda.

We had two meetings, an informal one over lunch which turned into a long series of moans about how inefficient the Programme Office was and how obstructive and dilatory some people’s Rwandan bosses could be. Made me feel very lucky, once again. Claude has loads of meetings and is difficult to pin down at short notice, but at least he is straight and trustworthy.

The afternoon meeting was a working party on capacity building. It felt rather inconclusive except where we shared strategies for pinning down our bosses to make decisions and on how to find information. My strategy for the latter has been to simply read every file on every computer in the office (nobody seems to co-ordinate information and there’s no such thing as a staff handbook). Other people suggested going through all unlocked drawers. It’s a funny way to do business, but it’s the Rwandan way!

Unbearably stuffy in the meeting, and realised that my stomach has decided to rise in revolt again. Dreaded the bus ride home – we left Kigali on one of the last matatas of the day and if I’d needed to make a quick exit en route I’d have been stranded all night out in the wilds. Fortunately, with lightning flickering all round and a light drizzle falling, I made it back to home intact. Sweaty, clammy, tired and jaded. But Gitarama definitely feels like home now, and it was good to be back.

High points of the day – meeting new VSOs, touching base with people from my little group; chilling in the coffee bar.
Low point – not a wasted day but felt it could have produced more. But then, Cathy said Claude was once again out at meetings all day so even if I’d stayed in Gitarama I wouldn’t have been able to get any decisions made. It’s just the African way and I’ve got to get used to it. As somebody’s boss kept saying, “You volunteers produce good ideas and have lots of energy, but you stay a while and then you go. We are here for good. So we do things our way”.

My first Rwandan school

Jan 24th

This is a very long diary entry but bear with it and you’ll get a real taste of Rwanda!

Off to the primary school in Gitarama. It’s (mostly) new – only a few months old, replacing older buildings. A long, single story classroom block with blue corrugated iron roof. Surprisingly, in a brand new building, there’s no electric light or power points (I’m told this is because it’s expensive and a bureaucratic nightmare to arrange for Electrogaz to wire the place up to the mains). There’s a national school uniform consisting of beige shirt and shorts for boys, and blue shift and trousers for the girls. It’s not as smart or sexy as the Cuban school uniforms I saw in December, but it does give the teenage girls still in primary school a measure of protection from lascivious men.

You have to look at children’s feet to judge whether they’re affluent or not. The children from well off families wear “proper” shoes or trainers. Next down the list come high-class designer flip-flops. Further down are plastic, shoddy flip flops. And, of course, I’m sure we’re going to find barefoot children in the rural areas even if not in Gitarama.

This school, on a site no bigger than an English primary, holds 1250 children. There are 21 teachers and the Head (who doesn’t teach). One of the teachers is paid for by the PTA which in Rwandan schools is enormously influential and can get teachers sacked if there’s a consensus that they’re ineffective.

We meet the Head who is efficient, courteous and welcoming. (We’ve been warned that it’s going to be quite likely the Heads of schools either won’t be there at all, or will virtually ignore us on our visits). This guy is good, and his school is – by a large margin – the best in the whole district. His name is Hormisdas Twagirumukiza and I’ve been practising saying it all the 20 minutes walk from the flat.

We’re taken into a year 5 classroom and sit at the back in the brand new but old-fashioned double desks. As we appear at the door with the Head the whole roomful stands up and chants “bonjour Monsieur le Directeur” and then “bonjour Madame” to Cathy and “bonjour monsieur” to me. The interior walls are bare brick, devoid of any decoration. (In the rainy season any paper or cardboard posters would simply wash or rot off the walls. If you want durable wall posters you use plastic (expensive) or make your own from rice sacks (a VSO speciality). There’s a full width blackboard at the front. There’s no book store in the room; I think most sets of books are in the Head’s office which is the size of a classroom and doubles as school office and time-out room for naughty children.

Unusually, in this class all the 53 children seem about the same age, with only a year or so between them. We already know that at this stage in the Rwandan system it’s not unusual to find children from as young as 10 to as old as 17 in the same class. You don’t move up to year 6 unless you pass yr 5; if you’ve got special needs you tend to spend years and years and not get beyond about year 3. It’s a crazy system. Many children never finish primary school. At 15 or 16 the boys want to earn money and gradually disappear from the system; many of the girls are being married off or are already pregnant before they can complete year 6.

But this school is as good as it gets. The woman teacher is in command, confident. She has every single child’s attention and they’re desperate to be chosen for the question and answer sessions. Rwandan children don’t put their hands up to answer; they wave their hands and click their fingers. In a confined space it’s deafening. They’re doing maths: adding, subtracting and dividing distances. The work has been set as homework the night before, and the teacher is checking they’ve done it by making them do it in front of each other. Woe betides the child who can’t remember where the decimal points go.

Next we watch an English lesson with the same class and teacher. She speaks in English to them the whole time. They’re learning noun plurals, and already they all seem to know which are regular forms (girl/girls) and which are irregular (ox/oxen; baby/babies; wife/wives), potato/potatoes but mango/mangos). All the kids are desperate to be chosen to go up and write on the board; only one in about twenty gets the answer wrong.

Unfortunately the lesson never gets beyond lists of words and their plurals. We both feel the teacher has missed a trick in not getting them to use their new plural nouns in sentences – it would have stretched the abler ones and made the whole exercise more relevant to everyday English. But it’s an impressive feat – English is these children’s third language and they’re only about 10-11 years old!

Now we go to year one in a shabby, older building. It feels bleak inside even in the humidity of an African morning. These children have only been at school for three weeks and it shows. Constant fidgeting with coats and bags, a steady procession to the loo. Two row in font of us we can straight away spot the bully of the future who spends all his time pushing and shoving the other boys on his bench. It’s another class of 50-plus. The teacher gives commands in Kinya, but the lesson is French and she’s trying to get the children to introduce themselves using the formula “comment tu t’appelles?” – “je m’appelle …….” It doesn’t really work. The kids are distracted by each other, and by their muzungu visitors. We agree she ought to break off after 15 mins and do a song or something, but she ploughs on and on. Nobody’s barefoot but these children somehow look a lot poorer than the year 5s.

We report back to the Head, praise as much as we can, and he shows us round the rest of the place. Toilets are a smelly shack in a corner; there’s a single standpipe for water in the middle of the playground. The school is built on a steep slope and he wants to level a terrace to use as a garden and teach vegetable growing as well as produce flowers. The playground is bare earth with huge potholes where children have worn the soil away down the slope. It must be a nightmare on a wet day.

As we leave it’s playtime. The boys, of course, are playing football. The girls are doing and intricate clapping and dancing game which looks incredibly complicated.
We mull over what we’re going to say to Claude as we walk back to the matata park. Cathy’s going to Kigali to renew her passport and see a doctor; I’m going home to write up our report. But it’s been a great morning and at last I’ve been into my first African school!

After this, the day goes steadily downhill. I walk towards the office and am given a lift in an ambulance. People part as the ambulance swings in the front entrance; heads turn as white man jumps out, perfectly healthy, and tries to make an unobtrusive entrance to the building! This could only happen in Rwanda…..

I’m desperate to talk to Claude. Our carefully planned schedule of visits is shot to pieces within 24 hours because the moto charges to go up to Rongi will be beyond our budget. But Claude’s not there and I won’t see him till Monday. Hastily write him a note on the office computer. Half way through, the power goes off. Use my laptop. Discover I’ve picked up a worm virus from the office machine. My virus checker catches it, but it quarantines the files, which means most of the academic work I’ve done so far is now unusable. Try to recover the situation. Post a note under Claude’s locked office door. Walk back home the scenic route. Take a wrong turning and end up causing quite a stir in the Moslem quarter of Gitarama. As I retrace my steps the grand daddy of all thunderstorms breaks loose and I’m stranded for two hours, running from one house’s front awning to the next. A dressmaker’s shop invites me in to sit and wait out the storm and I’m the subject of giggles and a lot of innuendo from about six women. It’s so dark in the shop I can’t see to read, so how on earth they can carry on sewing is beyond me. Get home soaked and change. Tom’s also had a frustrating day in Kigali; he went to see the Dutch ambassador about funding for business start-ups, but the ambassador didn’t come back from his lunchtime engagement…..

We dine on instant Chinese noodles and a sauce so full of chemicals that even cheese and barbecue sauce won’t disguise it.

Spend the evening watching DVDs on our laptops while the shop over the road plays Bob Marley for the umpteenth time.

High point – visiting the school; the reception the children gave us.
Low point – everything that happened after the school visit.

Sorry this entry is so long, but it seems to sum up what the Rwanda experience is all about!

Mr Inspector Man

Jan 23rd

Another good day, for completely different reasons! Today, with Cathy’s help, I began to get my role and work planned out. We walked through the town together to the office and were well installed before Claude arrived. He promptly moved us to another office. Here we have access to computers and printers (but not internet unfortunately). It’s a mark of how on-the-ball he is that instead of delegating to a minion he kept loads of people waiting while he went through in detail with us what he wants us to do.

As a result, and by the end of the day, I have a very official looking letter accrediting me as a school inspector for Muhanga district. In the words of the boss I am « conseiller en matière d’éducation au sein du district. » And I have « la mission de faire inspections pédagogique et administrative des écoles, le suivie et évaluation des activités éducatives et l’analyse des statistiques scolaires afin d’évaluer la qualité de l’enseignement et la gestion scolaires »

Sounds terrifying to me and I’ve no doubt it’s going to put the wind up all the poor headteachers I’m going to visit in the near future. You should see the letter – I have the Rwandan coat of arms at the top!

We’ve decided to focus on schools in one of the remote northern secteurs of the district, an area called Rongi. We are going to get as many inspections in as possible before the rains start in April and make road traffic on dirt roads all but impossible. We’ve picked Rongi because there are some very low achieving schools in this secteur and we want to try and pinpoint why this should be. I am doing the “inspection administratif” which means making sure that all official school documents are up to date and that the school is being efficiently managed. I and Cathy are both observing English and French lessons to try to gauge the quality of classroom experience the local children receive.

I’ve no doubt we are about to get a very rude awakening in terms of what rural primary schooling in Rwanda actually means, and I know we’ll get a lot of things wrong. But you can’t really prepare for this except by getting started and learning as you go along. We want to be as supportive as possible to all the teachers who are struggling against enormous difficulties. We’ve no doubt that between us we’re going to be able to suggest all sorts of ways to improve learning without involving unrealistic amounts of money or equipment. Time will tell, but it’s so good to be actually under way!

On Mondays I’m going to be inspecting secondary schools on my own (Cathy is teaching in a local primary on those days). This is even more of a challenge. All the secondaries are divided into two sections, the “tronc commun” (common core) for the first three years, and then (if they pass the exam) the last three years of secondary are into specialisms such as Biochemistry, Arts, Maths/Physics.

Tuesdays is Gacaca day here in Gitarama so we won’t go into schools; Friday will be office day to write up reports and prepare for our weekends.

Cathy is doing a lot of teacher training courses at weekends, and I’m going to help her on at least some of these. She returns to Canada in the summer and I’ve got a hunch I might be asked to continue her primary methodology work when she’s gone. I’m a bit nervous about that since it’s nearly 40 years since I last taught a class in a primary school, but we’ll see.

Two other good things happened today. Cathy and I went for lunch at the “Restaurant Tranquillité”, a super little place tucked away just behind the main square in Gitarama, behind a cobbler’s shop and a dressmakers. I’ve been wanting to go there ever since I read in the Bradt guidebook that it’s the best place in town. The Rwandan lunches are wholesome, filling and cheap: vegetarian 70p; with meat £1. Life gets better and better!

In the evening Tom and I re-planned out kitchen and lounge with yesterday’s furniture, which seems to have dried out without too much warping. We now have a near-perfect kitchen; a place for everything and everything in its place. Ergonomic, easy to clean. Boy, are we smug tonight! Unfortunately I had a near disaster in the process – I lost my grip on my brand new water filter and the base of one of the filtration candles has sheared through. I can just about get it to hold in position, but, to be honest, it’s the boiling of water that’s important and if the dodgy filter lets a bit of (boiled) sediment through then what does it matter?

By the way, more thunder and rain today. This is supposed to be the short dry season! What the hell’s happening to our weather. It wasn’t just cool today on the Equator, it was ruddy well COLD!

High point of the day – nearly everything, really
Low point – seeing, in slow motion, the water filter crash on the floor, soaking everything and knowing I’d probably ruined the filter candle.

Salsa Africana

Jan 22nd

A brilliant day today. It’s Gacaca day here in Gitarama so I don’t have to go to work. Gacaca is the system of people’s courts set up after the genocide to allow justice and reconciliation. People accused of crimes and atrocities are brought to face with their accusers (often the relatives of those they murdered) and brought to account. All shops shut. Matatas don’t run into the town. People aren’t supposed to work; the idea is that the whole community takes part in the trial and judgement process.

Well that’s the theory. Gacacas have been going on for too long and people are tired of them unless the accused is directly relevant to them. Most people sit in clumps along the roadside banks and chatter. Matatas cruise slowly up and down the main road and dodge the traffic police cordon. But the place is full of police and army today; we think it must be quite a serious case they’re trying. Someone said they thought it was of a person who had murdered innocent people in 1994 by burying them alive.

What it reminds you is that here in Rwanda your next door neighbour, or the person you’ve just passed in the street, might not be a victim of the madness but a perpetrator. It’s an uneasy thought if you’re buying your vegetables from them, or working alongside them at the District Office and making friends with them. You simply don’t know about people’s pasts unless they open up to you.

Anyway, Gacaca meant I was able to go to Tom’s office and use their internet wire and at last, AT LAST, I’ve been able to put my entire diary to date onto the blog. Even better, I’ve been able to put my Kigali photos on as well. I’m hoping I’ll be able to repeat this each week, so hopefully you’ll get some pictures of our flat and/or of Gitarama town during the next fortnight!

In the afternoon it rained, it thundered, it poured. A heavy downpour’s the only time the steady stream of pedestrians outside our windows stops, as they huddle under gable ends or slide on the mud in their flip-flops.

So, of course, in the middle of the heaviest rain there arrives the VSO pick-up truck with more furniture for me. A coffee table, two easy chairs, a book case, a locking cupboard and a couple of coat racks. We don’t really need the coat racks but we’ll find a use for them somewhere. The locking cupboard is intended for my bedroom but I don’t need it (I have fitted shelves and wardrobe), but it’s just what we need for the kitchen. The calor gas cooker will fit on top and it raises it to a sensible height for grown men to cook on! Likewise the bookcase is just what we need for storing pots and pans. A pity all of it is soaked (they forgot to put a tarpaulin over it when they left Kigali), and as I write we have a lounge full of soaking wood, dripping onto the floor tiles. Also, they managed to shear off the key to the locking cupboard so it arrived locked and unlockable. After a bit of fiddling we managed to get it undone. But it’s not really a problem – who needs a locking cupboard to store food things?

I discovered today that BlueBand butter spread is the ideal lubricant for squeaky doors. Now I can go to the loo in the night without waking up half the neighbourhood!

Finally on this excellent day, we went for tea to Karen’s (yes, that’s twice in three days), and then on to Salsa class. Me, two girls from FHI, a German girl who is helping run an orphanage here in Gitarama and one of her Rwandan male helpers, and a bunch of local women. The class is free, and we just have to pay “Taxi Thomas” for the ride. The class is led by a German woman who is simply brilliant at teaching the moves. I try to remember what we’ve been told about the social acceptability of married white men associating with unmarried Rwandan women, but circumstances take over. So by the end of the evening I’m happily dancing with this stunning Rwandan girl, a student at the Catholic University here, and trying to chat her up with sweet nothings while remembering to keep my feet moving and not tread on her (dainty) feet. Oh, and that’s after flinging my German partner around when we found a bit easy enough to show off….. She’s only about 25. I never learn, do I?

High point – getting blogging again; salsa. Why, after having been to Colombia and Cuba, do I have to wait till I’m in Rwanda to learn how to Salsa? Isn’t life great!

Low point of the day - discovering that despite all this soggy furniture having arrived, I’m still missing a table and a couple of “hard” chairs. I s’pose they’ll come eventually!

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The new Kigali rises, modern, brash and affluent

High density housing in Kigali. Not a slum by any means, but not many amenities, either!

Laying our flowers on one of the mass graves at the genocide memorial in Kigali. One of the graves has been left open so that coffins are visible; this is deliberate so as to confound anyone in the futur who tries to deny the events happened. We thought it fitting that our flowers should be put on the grave by Epihanie who is half Rwandan, half Canadian, and Tiga who has both Jewish and Armenian ancestry.

Front of Hotel "Milles Collines", the site of the "Hotel Rwanda" story. It felt surreal to be sitting by the pool at the rear, drinking fanta, and reading about the horros that happened around here onky fourteen years ago.

Slogging away at Kinya-rwanda. L to R Kersti, Tiga, Soraya, Epiphanie and Marisa

The Amani guest house and conference centre, Kigali

Downtown Kigali at a (relatively) quiet time

View across part of Kigali from the Amani guest house.

Click these images and you may be able to enlarge them.

Into the office

Monday Jan 21st

First day at the office. Up bright and breezy, half hour walk through cool morning and the sun just getting some heat as I reached the office. One of the first to arrive, so interesting half hour greeting people and practising my Kinya-rwanda on them before Claude arrived. Having been here twice already, at least the office begins to feel like home even if it isn’t very homely. Bleak is the best phrase I can use – no pictures on walls (not even in the offices), just a few calendars and curling notices.

We started with a meeting of the whole District Office team, from accounting to PR. I had to introduce myself in Kinya-rwanda, then the rest of the meeting was also in Kinyar which meant I understood nothing except the occasional word and the tone of conversations. Seemed aimed at motivating all the team.

Claude announced he had to go to Kigali for a meeting with the Ministry; and left me with a load of school roll statistics to input into his computer. This took an hour or so; even allowing for the variations in spelling of some school names.

From time to time people would appear round the door expecting to get favours or do business with Claude; I had to do my “je suis desole mais il est alle…..” routine. I felt sorry for some who had obviously come in from up country on the off chance of a meeting.

At half past eleven the VSO truck arrived with my furniture. Well, just my bed, really – nothing seems to get done in a logical way here. The rest of my furniture will arrive during the week. Had a lift in the truck to the flat and then an entertaining half hour trying to match up bolt holes in the bed frame. Sort of IKEA comes to Rwanda. But it has been custom made for me, extra long, and with a good mattress. It looks wonderful!

Back to the office for lunch at my desk and spent the afternoon trying to make sense of the statistics. Only about a quarter of boys and a third of girls seem to finish the six years of primary school. And because of missed schooling during to war, and having to repeat years, a typical year 4 class will have children aged between 11 and 17.

Posted letters on the way home – 555Francs seems a lot per letter. Huge rainstorm just after I got home; this is supposed to be a dry season. Everyone skittering for shelter into shops.

High points of today – having my new bed arrive. Feeling I’d done a proper day’s work at the office.
Low point – sitting through a two hour meeting without being able to understand what was going on.

Church, Rwanda style

Sunday Jan 20th

Slept like a log last night – must be relaxing at last. However, slept to soundly that my shoulder is aching like mad and I can barely use my left arm. Thank God I brought diclofenac tablets! Off to church with Tom, to a Presbyterian place near his office. Tin roof, brick walls, mixture of wooden seats and benches. We sat at the back next to a church elder who spoke fluent English and translated the sermon for me (very fiery, all about Moses and the plagues of Egypt). Lots of choirs; children’s choirs from a nearby orphanage; then series of adult choirs including some in harmony. Music mostly from backing CDs; just occasionally live accompaniment from a keyboard. Readings, notices, personal witness – all the expected ingredients. Some things seem random – one of the choir will suddenly get up and belt out a some with everyone tapping to the rhythm. At the start of the service all visitors had to introduce themselves. I tried my best in Kinya-rwanda and was greeted with a storm of applause. A muzungu able to string three or four sentences together made me the talk of the place! Service lasts around three hours (and other churches’ last even longer), but you’re not expected to turn up for the whole thing. WE got there after the first hour, and the church continued to fill for another half hour until it came to sermon time. Three separate offerings boxes, one for people who are tithing, one for the poor, one for the work of the church.

Back from church Tom and I tried for nearly an hour to find BBC world service on my wind-up radio. We failed. Plenty of Kinya-rwanda and Swahili, but no plumy English tones or decent news.

Off to Karen’s for lunch. Karen lives close to the town centre; to get to her place you go through the market, then down a steep dirt lane with a central drain (smelly), covered in dubious planks. We walk on the edge of the planks. Her house is pleasantly eccentric – a courtyard with tap, then a big lounge. The kitchen and store-room are just shells with none of the westernised fittings of our flat. Met Polly again, one of our original six volunteers and someone also doing education management. Our contribution to the lunch is a bowl of jelly and another of Tom’s spectacularly good fruit salad. Excellent lunch (vegetarian), and then long natter with Polly over tactics and trying to find out whether we can do things together in our two areas (she’s based in Ruhango which is the next district south of Muhanga). She’s been messed around so much with her accommodation that she’s decided to move in with Karen and Christi. That’s good for all of us and specially for me as I’ll have someone who knows what they’re doing just round the corner from me!

Karen is the fount of all knowledge and in five minutes has found a working wavelength for BBC world service.

We also meet Geert, a Dutch VSO who is based at Shyogwe just beyond Kabgale. He’s done Kilimanjaro and we talk about the possibility of doing either Karisimbi in April or even Mt Elgon in Uganda before he returns to Holland in the late spring.

In the evening we decide to have a massive food preparation. Spend what seems like hours peeling and chopping veg to make a soup/stock base for use during the week, and after cooking it we leave it overnight to cool before freezing. (We’re almost unique among the VSO contingent in having a freezer and so able to do food in batches). I nip across to the local shop to buy bread and eggs, and we end up having a fry up of chips, omelette and imboga: a Rwandan leaf which tastes like a cross between watercress and spinach. While we’re cooking we listen to BBC world service, but it’s all in Swahili and this time and then becomes full length coverage of one of the opening games in the African football cup. So we never do get any news in English!

Finally have long phone conversation with Teresa. All’s well with the world and I’m quite looking forward to starting work proper, even if it means getting up at 5.45 to be there for 7!

High point of the day – everything – the church service (I’ve wanted to go to an African church), the lunch with friends, the cooking in the evening.
Low point of the day – my aching shoulder.

Out on the razzle

Saturday Jan 19

Up early and off to Butare on the matata bus. Well, sort of. Get to the bus station at 8.30 and wait in the bus, with heat building up, till gone 9 when it’s finally full. There’s no express service to Butare so we stop every few miles. The buses are popular, we rarely have more than a couple of empty seats at any time, and occasionally are overloaded with the fare-taker squashing himself against the door. Great amusement that there’s a muzungu on the bus, but then people talk. Man next to me is a theology student going south to the university, he’s reading from a missal more or less all the way, including listening to hymns on an MP3 player. That’s true devotion for you!

The countryside is simply beautiful. Only unused land is in a strip of eucalyptus scrub along the road. Everything else is terraced, farmed, manicured. You’re never out of site of houses, too – it’s almost a continuous line of little rectangular mudbrick houses all the way, with just occasionally a traditional round, thatched building remaining. We stop at all the towns on the way – Ruhango, Nyanza. At Ruhango we find we have a flat tyre, so with full complement of passengers on board the driver charges through cyclists, motos and pedestrians to the back of the bus park, now down a mud track which gets steeper and steeper until he reaches a hut where someone mends tyres. This person somehow has a petrol powered air pump for his tyres, so we get reinflated. Then an impressive hill start through the chickens and little children who’ve gathered to watch, and back down the main road.

The main road is superb – no potholes, beautifully graded, shaded most of the way. The driver is careful and I feel perfectly safe. Children get passed around between adults (but not quite, yet, to the muzungu). We pass paddy fields and occasional grim genocide memorials – every district has one!

Two hours later and we’re in Butare. It’s blazing hot even though cloudy. The bus park is on the very edge of town and I walk up an avenue of jacaranda tress which don’t seem to give much shade.

Butare seems a one-street town with some lovely 1930s style colonial bungalows behind high walls, and each house smothered in bright blooms. There’s a sense of civic pride with noticeboards pointing out prominent buildings – the old hotel where a Belgian Princess stayed, the former bank which is now the university bookshop etc. Butare is Rwanda’s university town but you have to look hard to spot any kind of university feel to the place. At the far end of the town the Catholic church is there in force with schools, guest house and an enormous squat brick cathedral, quite out of proportion to the rest of the town.

The high street is the usual row of open fronted shops, set well back from the one through road (which, of course, continues on to Burundi so is an international highway); it has a wild west feel to it except that the baddies are on motos rather than horses. Having mooched the shops I meet up with Tiga and Soraya at the Hotel Ibis which is THE place for muzungus to gather and seems full of them. We have a decent lunch, European style, the some more shopping. Soraya buys loads because she’s in a very isolated place (Mushubi); I buy honey and a spare light bulb so Tom and I will be able to see to read in our lounge!

The girls want to get back early so I walk with them back to the bus park. On the way we pass the football stadium which is heaving – there’s a local derby just getting started. People have climbed every tree with a view of the pitch; they’re clinging on to the roof of some public latrines (imagine the stench on a hot day…) or using bicycles to see over the stadium wall, where red-overalled security guards are enthusiastically knocking them back down with staves. In the bus park a serious fight between two men has begun, and a crown gathers to enjoy the spectacle. We choose prudence and get out of the way. Poor Soraya is on her own in a beautiful but very isolated town; her house is big (therefore creepy at night); she has no running water, electricity for only a few hours each evening, and is cooking on kerosene. I feel so guilty at my good fortune by comparison! Tiga is less out in the wilds and there is another VSO, well established, for company.

I drift back through town and get my express bus back to Gitarama. In fact it’s so express that it only takes just over the hour to make the run, despite stopping for the driver (and others) to buy fresh milk at a dairy we pass on the way. Nobody gets out of the bus, all the transactions are done through the window with much waving of banknotes. It’s so express that as we reach Gitarama I realise that nobody has got off it since Butare and for a few minutes I sweat thinking I’m going to have to go all the way to Kigali and then try to get back late at night. But I’m rescues by an English-speaking woman next to me who just tells me to bang on the window when I want to get off. The driver’s well into his stride now, overtaking anything on the road (we have some much hairier moments than on the outward journey) but slowly obsequiously whenever he spots traffic policemen lurking (on foot, in pairs) by the roadside. (Apparently if they see someone speeding their trick is to stop the next car that passes and make the driver take them to catch up the speeding vehicle, which then gets a booking. Sounds a haphazard arrangement but it must work because everybody, everybody, slows down when they see the cops. The driver’s now shouting into his mobile, driving round the twisty road one-handed and chatting to the front seat passengers as we enter Gitarama. I bang on the window and, magic, the bus stops at its designated stop for the town. It happens to be outside the shops right opposite our flat. How’s that for service!

Very tired, so flake out early.

Friday Jan 18th

First day in new flat, and I love it. Clean spacious, light, airy, all mod cons. It barely feels like we’re in Africa at all until you look out of the window. Then there’s no mistake – the traffic (motos, matata buses, home-made wheelbarrows, and a constant procession of people past our window going to and from the market. Some carry great baskets of fruit or vegetables on their heads; others (women) glide elegantly in their African robes, usually with a baby strapped on their back. At least half the women have their hair in braids. What is nice is that is seems just as fashionable to be dressed in “African” style as in “Western”, and most people, men and women, are looking so smart it puts me to shame. When you see the tiny houses they live in with no modern facilities, you wonder how on earth they can turn themselves and their children out to immaculately.

Bought bread from the bakery across the road – my first proper transaction in Kinya-rwanda! Decide today’s priority is to get my water filter up and running (Tom’s gone to work and left me to it). Problem – the “candles” which filter the water have to be boiled, and are just too big for any of our saucepans. Decide to do them in sections and just getting well into this when there’s a knock on the door – Claude. He’s apologetic for not getting back to me last night and has come to help with my bank account and post box. So turn off the gas; the water filter will have to wait awhile. We walk to the bank and I’m so glad to have him steer me through the bureaucracy. It feels good to have safely deposited the great wad of cash I’ve been carrying around for the past few days. I’ll get a chequebook in a week or so, all being well. (I expect that’s an African week of around 21 days, but so long as it comes eventually and I can withdraw enough to live on….)

The post office is just opposite our District Office, so we nip in and I buy a post-box for Tom and I to share. Costs RwF9500 (£9.50) which seems quite a lot, but it’s the only way I’ll get mail so we have to grin and bear it. Tom says allow a good fortnight for letters to travel: if that really is the case then it’s twice as fast as post from Cuba!

Next thing, Claude takes me to the office and I sit like a lemon for a couple of hours while he deals with a steady stream of people coming to ask favours or negotiate things. This man is demanding use of the District motor cycle, but Claude refuses. He storms out of the office. This woman is about 22 with a year-old baby. She’s still finishing her secondary education. She’s been given a place in a boarding school but isn’t allowed to have her baby with her there, and the baby has to stay with her parents. But her school is too far away from her home for her to see her baby, and Rwandan law says she must be gioven the facility to be with her child at weekends etc. So Claude has to do a lot of phoning and eventually writes her an official letter which (I hope) will give her what she needs. She shyly makes conversation with me in halting French while all the official business is going on.

In the afternoon Clause is doing sport and then her has to see the priest to make arrangements for his forthcoming wedding, so I go back to the house and finish sterilising my filter candles. Put the first lot of water through – and its DISGUSTING. It’s so chalky it’s almost undrinkable. Decide this water’s too precious to waste, so I mix it with maracuja juice and fill a platypus so I can chill it down in the fridge. Properly chilled it’s just about manageable, but with a strong chalky aftertaste. Boil up several pans of water but can’t be bothered to wait for them to go cold before putting them to filter. Now we have lots of perfectly pure water, but it all tastes disgusting.

Tom cooks beautiful meal in evening and we stay up chewing the fat till the ripe old time of 10.

High points - lots, today: bank sorted, postbox sorted, flat feels like home…..
Low point – got to get the water tasting better. Maybe wait till its quite cold before filtering the next batch!

Thursday Jan 17 th

Up very early today, ready for 8.00 departure. Marisa left at 7.00; I was the only one of our group up early enough to see her off. It feels as if we’re living a real-life balloon debate where our numbers keep whittling down and down.

I’d spent poor night – alternately boiling hot or freezing. It can’t be a temperature because the antibiotics working in full swing now. So I assume it must be a side effect of the lariam drug.

Claude joined us for breakfast but not before I had been buttonholed by Raina and she tried to get me to agree to teach some English at her school. Claude told us he was getting married in Mid-Feb and has invited us all to his wedding. Wonder how many others will come but I definitely must!

Eventually all of us except Epi left at the same time. Tiga and Soraya were sharing transport down to Gikongoro; their stuff crammed into back of 4x4. You’d think it straightforward that two vols + 2 staff and a load of kit would be a carload. But no, two extra teachers turned up for the ride. They must have been absolutely crammed in. As a result Cathryn, who had also been hoping to hitch a lift down to her new post, had to go into town and catch a bus.

Eventually our driver Alphonse turns up in the red official pick-up, and we load our stuff in. I must say, Claude seems so much more on-the-ball than a lot of them. First we went into town centre – Alphonse had to go to the bank. That meant 30 mins in sweltering sun; we couldn’t find any shade to park. Then Claude wanted to go into another part of town near city bus station to print off some stuff, so another 15 mins parked in full sun watching the world go by. Good job I had my water. Alphonse stood out of the car guarding my stuff in the back. Me very conscious of having all my money – about 400000 RwF in cash in my day sack, plus Euros etc. I’d have made the best kidnap target they could have imagined!

Eventually we were on our way to Gitarama/Muhanga. Past the infamous “1930” prison, with inmates in faded pink uniforms digging in the grounds. First through some very downtrodden parts of the city (made me realise that the area around Amani is pretty classy). Next a huge market area on the fringe of city. Across the wide Nyabonga river which marks our entry into southern province, then past the main road junction, turning away from the road up to the north, the volcanoes and gorillas. Then through series of flat valleys and winding ridges all the way to Gitarama. About a 40 min drive – we never went at more than about 40, and with bends and gradients and other traffic you can’t do it any other way.

Lots of settlements, especially on the hilltops, where most of the crossroads seemed to be. Papyrus growing in marshy valleys; sugar cane, soya, bananas everywhere. Fewer goats than I’d expected – mainly crops growing.

But the scenery is wonderful. Green, terraces everywhere, with patches of trees, even small woods in places. Nowhere is there room for really “wild” stuff, though, there’s too much need for farm land. Occasional we passed a dairy farm with cattle under cover to protect them from the heat.

The road was beautifully graded and smooth. No potholes anywhere – what a difference from Kenya! Almost everyone driving carefully. There were police posts every few miles; we were never stopped but at most places someone had been pulled over to check documents etc.

We arrived at Gitarama quite suddenly. There was no real sense of being in a town, just that the groups of houses became much denser. We stopped off at Tom’s work to collect our key and met Christi his fellow worker (who’s sharing accom with Karen). Then to my new abode to unload.

We are living on the main road where it constitutes a relief road parallel to town centre’s main street. We have a modern first floor flat above the MTN telecomms office, with another flat next door. I am SO LUCKY when you consider what other people are putting up with either in terms of facilities or distance from amenities. We have a big lounge, looking very empty until fully furnished. The kitchen is quite small but adequate and contains a full size fridge-freezer which was Tom’s extravagance he bought for himself. Our bathroom has a proper, working toilet, shower and bath and washbasin. (I absolutely MUST remember not to use the water from the tap to clean my teeth). There are two bedrooms, both with fully fitted wardrobes). Tom’s is bigger but noisier as it faces the road. Mine is smaller but at the rear, and I think I’ve got the better deal. There’s just one problem – my furniture hasn’t arrived. I have no table, chairs, and, especially, no bed. But even then I’ve fallen on my feet – Tom has a spare mattress which I can use. It just means I won’t be able to use mossie net for a while, and will have to spray room before sleeping. (Good job I bought can of spray in the Chinese bazaar). (In any case Gitarama is so high up that we’re near the limit for mossies and it’s rare to see more than one or two in the rooms during the course of an evening). At the rear is a small garden laid to lawn and an ornamental border (the guards do the gardening and grass cutting). Can’t see anywhere to plant my flower seeds and the veg seeds from Tiga; will have to invest in some pots anon.

Tom gives me keys and leaves me to it while he goes back to work. I just dump all my things in the room, because Claude takes me to the district office to show me round and introduces me to about 20 people, none of whose names will I remember. The District office is a rather dreary official building covering all civil administration – finance, legal as well as education. His office is tiny; there’s not really room for two of us so it’s still to be finalised where I’ll work. Then I leave; Claude promises to come at 1.00 to show me round the town.

Of course, he doesn’t show – he’s tied up at work. So I leisurely unpack all my stuff and find homes for everything in these fitted cupboards. Above them, there’s a wide, flat niche where I can store my case, rucksack and all the big plastic bowls etc out of the way. This makes the room seem bigger as well as tidier. I’m going to like it here!

Cathy Nicholl texts inviting me to her place, so I explore the road to hers and she comes to meet me. She is down a dirt road in a lovely western house surrounded by Rwandan huts. She has a view across top of the prison across to the hills. Come to think of it, everywhere in Gitarama has a view of distant hills (just like Bridport but the hills are higher). We talk over tea and I warn her about Raina, and about Claude’s mutterings that he might ask Cathy to work weekends. Then Elson, her new husband, arrives. He’s a teacher in nearby school and very pleasant. His brother is staying with them, silent on the sofa watching a DVD. It’s reassuring to find that some young Rwandan boys are just as uncommunicative and unsocial as English teenagers!

They walk me home and Tom’s just arrived back from work, so introductions all round. We’ve all been invited to Karen’s for lunch on Sunday, so it will a chance for all the volunteers in Git to meet up, whether VSO or FHI

While Tom cooks our evening meal (there’s a flurry of negotiations about money, cooking, laundry etc) I get the iron out and clean the soleplate. Then to my joy I discover that at a lower heat it works well and doesn’t snatch at our clothes. I manage to iron all my shirts save those in the wash, so feel pretty smug. (Offer to do Tom’s but he doesn’t bother with ironing). Tom cooks us a really good meal – meat, various veg), feeds me and the night guard too. We sit and talk for a couple of hours.

We try to get my wind up radio to work. I still can’t find BBC world service, but find Rwandan stations, all of which seem to be broadcasting religious stuff. A pity, because the row of shops opposite broadcasts loud music all day long. Mostly local stuff but a lot of reggae too. It’s not bad music, but a bit relentless. You can’t shut it out by closing our windows because each room has airbricks for ventilation, and the sound just comes in through them.

Eventually get out my new sleeping bag and – luxury – silk liner, and off to sleep

High point of the day – the flat. It’s lovely; I’m so spoilt
Low point – leaving friends in Kigali; feeling apprehensive about coping with work and sharing a flat with a stranger.

Meeting my boss for the first time

Wednesday Jan 16th

Today is the Employers conference. It’s the beginning of the end of induction. All of us beginning to feel collywobbles at thought of leaving the safety of our group at Amani.

The Employers are slow arriving, quite a few can’t come and sent representatives. This is difficult for those of us who need to negotiate timetables, workloads etc because there’s nobody in authority.

Finally I meet Claude Sebashi. He’s small, neat, fit, and very young. Sharp, too – he asks a lot of leading questions. He speaks good English; fortunate, this, because I find his French accent and speed of speaking French difficult to follow.

The conference itself starts drearily (reminded me how nice it had felt to retire from teaching), but comes alight during discussion over contracts. Raina, a woman of European origin sitting next to me, is head of a private primary school and has a legal background. She’s very combative and as a result nothing is finalised about our contracts (the idea was to agree and sign them then and there with our employers).
The conference ends with a long speech from Alex, then we feast with goat brochettes (at last! And VERY good they are, too).

Afterwards there’s nothing left to do but to pack up all our things ready for moving out. We all feel very flat and nervous about what is to come, but we all try to put a brave face on and nobody wants to admit they’re scared. What will our new accommodation be like? Can we do the job? Some of us have already been dropped-on with more teaching or more subjects than seems reasonable. I’ve still got no idea how I am expected to get to the farthest fringes of Muhanga to fulfil my inspection role (Claude has made it clear he wants me to focus on raising classroom standards through inspection and monitoring).

Nobody seems in the mood to go out for a final drink. We all retreat to our rooms. A phone call from Teresa is most welcome, then we all settle down for an early night.

High point of the day – meeting Claude at last
Low point – all of us dreading splitting up, being on our own, possibly isolated etc

A sobering visit....

Tuesday Jan 15th

Today was our final Kinyarwanda lesson. It was a review of all we’ve done (makes an impressive list but we’ve done it so quickly it hasn’t had much chance to sink in ). More role play with language – Marisa and I did a convincing impression of hiring a moto ride.

More heavy rain a.m.; so cold we all needed fleeces on. The weather here is peculiar; it can suddenly go very cold – down to English temperatures – but then just as quickly the sun will come out and sky clear and we’re in equatorial Africa within five minutes!

My stomach is just about back to normal, thank God. But I get the impression my errant bowels have been a topic of conversation at the Programme Office because everyone seems to be asking me how I feel. Embarrassing or what?

Late morning we have a Global education talk (what was that all about?), then a quick evaluation of the whole In-Country Training course with Gerard (a visiting assessor from Nairobi).

After lunch the atmosphere gets sombre. We visit the Genocide Museum in Kigali. We’re shown mass graves, one deliberately left open with coffins visible. There are bouquets of lowers left everywhere, and as a group we add ours. It’s a beautiful museum building with landscaped gardens, everything symbolic such as a circular pond representing a pre-genocide unified Rwanda, then a star shaped pool to signify disunity.

I thought that having been to both Auschwitz and Yad Vashem I would be hardened to this sort of thing, but no chance. After about two hours we all felt a desperate need to come back to the living. This genocide museum really gets you in the throat. Why? Is it the COLOUR photos as compared to the black and white of world war 2? Or is it he recent-ness – we can all remember it all happening while our Governments stood by?

It is beautiful clear air and late afternoon light; Kigali’s looking wonderful. The road back from the Museum crosses a swampy valley with slums – sewage strong enough to smell through car windows. Then immediately, up the next hill, we’re in the embassy quarter with the new U S fortress in a prime site and luxury hotels along the roadside. What a difference a few hundred yards can make in this country!

Some of us stopped in town to send e-mails; I spent a frustrating 4 minutes before I could even get logged on properly. I think all the machines are riddled with viruses, and there is clearly no broadband connection except in a very few favoured locations in the city centre (and I haven’t located these yet). We walked back to Amani through rush hour traffic. The roads are dark roads, there are deep gulleys to fall into and traffic whizzing past very close, and yet drivers and pedestrians all seem calm. We, too are beginning to get used to being out on the street and feel more relaxed.

After the museum everyone was very subdued. It was especially hard for Tiga – she has both Jewish and Armenian ancestry, and the room in the museum which described other past genocides besides the Rwandan one was very gruelling for her.

I must describe my shower at Amani. It is an electric gadget attached to the shower head. It looks amazingly suspect in terms of safety and wiring but it does work. However, when I switch it on the room light flickers crazily. I have visions of me electrocuted, naked, in stream of water from shower…. Not a pretty prospect.

Best point of the day – feeling well again. Arranging to get laundry done ready for Gitarama (new sheets etc). Bargain for 50p
Worst point – everything related to the genocide. The waste, the stupidity, the ineffectiveness. And yet you can walk all round Kigali and not be aware that it had ever happened. And places like the Mille Collines back in business serving same types of wheeler-dealer clientele, the new elite of the country.

The Mwami's revenge.....

Monday Jan 14th

I’ve had a bad stomach bug for two days now. Alone among our group, I’m not able to keep anything inside me. At breakfast it was decided for me that I should go to the polyclinique. Felt such a failure – I’d lasted less than a week before falling ill. And knowing that it must be my fault – eating or drinking contamination. And yet, I’ve drunk all water from bottles; brushed my teeth with bottled water. I haven’t eaten any unpeeled fruit with the skin on. Can’t work out why I’ve been clobbered. I was driven to the Polyclinique by Bosco and Josie-Marie. It was pouring rain – the first day I’ve been unable to wear sandals. Cold, too, so here we were on the equator with the car heater full on, and me in heavy cagoule and fleece. I signed on with Polyclinique – the first of our group to need a registration card. I was seen almost immediately; had to explain my symptoms in French (good at first but shaky in response to his follow up questions). I have a slight temperature. Then a blood test (yes, a clean needle…), then out to a smelly loo in backyard next to path lab to produce a stool sample. Oh the indignity…. Despite having diahorrea I was straining away for ages to get enough to make the sample look usable. I handed it in and sat in foyer reading my book, watching CNN on TV (Kenya looks like it’s on verge of falling apart) and watching the other patients. These range from totally immaculate to elderly and down at heel. Then after an hour I was summoned to see the boss (who we had met a few days previously when being shown round). He took my pulse, told me I was very fit for my age. Didn’t tell me off, but then I already knew it was my fault. Told me to avoid dairy produce, eat lots of rice & bananas, drink black tea with sugar. Gave me a scrip for antibiotics and anti cramping pills. Another wait while these dispensed at the Poly. Then returned back to our Amani guest-house base with Bosco and Josie-Marie in time for morning tea. Meanwhile I’d missed a Kinyar lesson on telling time, which turns out to be a nightmare. First of all the words are based on Swahili, then the first hour of the day is 7.00 a.m. which is SERIOUSLY confusing!

More Kinyar until lunchtime; we’re getting fed up with all the language stuff.

After a cautious lunch, I had my placement discussion with Charlotte. I’m still not sure whether I’m asking the right questions but seem to have the right ideas in how to approach – go slowly, read up all I can find in the office, ask people, go on visits. I think I’ll need to do a lot of visits before the long rains arrive. Can’t get any great feel for job till I meet my boss on Wednesday – and then the very next day I’m off to Gitarama and into the job proper.

At end of afternoon we were finally get taken to the Programme Office to collect passports, then we could go to the bank and GET SOME MONEY! And how! – we each took out RwF396,000 which comes to a fair wodge of notes. With all this money (and it was issued in full view of other customers) we all felt vulnerable, and walked home all in a tight bunch convinced we were going to get mugged any minute. But no, we were just being paranoid muzungus. A frantic hiding of money among our clothes, then settle debts from the past few days.

After supper we were supposed to do Kinya-rwanda homework but made a joint decision to forget it and watch a video instead. Epiphanie had such a huge luggage allowance she’s brought a projector, so we watch silly film (Maybe Baby) and chill. Kersty’s Rwandan boyfriend Nick came round, too. I broke out jelly teddies so we had comfort food. By end of film we’d all forgotten we were in Africa; we’re all relaxed. To bed but unsettled night because, like the others, I haven’t caught up on missed work or prepared for role play in morning session…

Best point – needing and getting treatment. Pin sharp views across Kigali and surrounding hills after the rain.
Worst point – feeling of failure in falling ill

My Brain Hurts!

January 11th

We’ve fallen into a routine now, and feel very much at home in our protected little enclave. There’s a constant procession of volunteers coming and going who pop in to say hello (and get a free feed!)

Our Kinyarwanda language lessons are now very exhausting – two sessions of 90 minutes today; our brains are reeling. Also this afternoon we learnt how to set up our mosquito nets properly in our houses, and how to light our kerosene and charcoal stoves safely. Kerosene is smelly and charcoal is messy. We’ve all got a hurricane lamp for if (when) the electricity goes off. Tomorrow we’re into Kigali centre to the Chinese market to buy all our domestic stuff – pots and pans, buckets, mops, washing powder, matches, clothes pegs etc. We also had an intense session with an experienced volunteer who briefed us on the idiosyncrasies of the Rwandan education system. It’s a Kafkaesque maze of old fashioned formal curriculum, with exams so hard that most children fail. Secondary school is fee paying (£25 a term which is a lot in Rwanda) and it’s going to be a real challenge to find a way in to start tackling the local implications of the national muddle.

At the moment we’re all exhausted by the heat and the concentration of it all – there’s a huge volume of stuff we need to learn or get proficient at. Fortunately we all get along well and I know we’ll be meeting up at weekends in each others’ towns once we’re all settled in.

It’s turned dry and very hot from about 10-30 until about 5.30. The nights are quite chilly. Best time is the early morning. I get up at 6 to try to get an hour’s study done or sort my stuff out. It’s cool, the birds are singing and Africa feels great.

Now for the really good news. Got through to Tom, the church aid worker I’m to share a house with. Apparently we’ve got pretty reliable running water – hot water, even – and the electricity’s pretty constant. I don’t have to buy curtains either, and we’re cooking on a gas stove. He’s even got a fridge/freezer. Have I struck lucky or what!

High points of the day – everything, really; it’s all new and exciting and very, very real!
Low points – nothing in particular, just the sheer volume of stuff we have to cover.

First days; first impressions

Last night I didn’t sleep particularly well. I kept tangling with my mosquito net (it feels like being inside one of the old-fashioned muslin meat safes), and although I was tired I felt too wound-up to sleep properly. Then at 4.30 the nearby mosque broadcast its call to prayer, followed shortly after by all the others across the city. Exotic and romantic, certainly, when heard for the first time, but preferably not so early in the day. My body clock was still telling me it was 2.30! Just got back off when at 5.30 the birds started a kind of shouting match right outside my window, and by six I could hear people walking past my room and gave up trying to sleep.

I got up and had a leisurely unpacking of my kit – I seem to have brought half as much again as anyone else but that won’t matter once I arrive in Gitarama. And everything will get used eventually. First problem – the tap on my washbasin was dry. Next problem – I couldn’t get the shower to work. But I had cold water and a bucket, so problems were over. If we don’t have water on tap in Gitarama I’ll have to pay someone to bring me jerry cans of water for everything, and showering with a bucket will be par for the course. It certainly jolts you into action!

Plus points – the electricity is reliable, so no problems recharging phone, laptop etc. I have two rooms, a small bedroom and a huge dressing room-cum-bathroom.
The rooms are cool and clean. Just a few small spiders and the odd very big ant. Oh, and a fat little lizard who lives in an airbrick in the wall and (I hope) eats any insects who might be tempted to visit me.

I haven’t seen any mosquitoes in my room (yet), but they’re certainly in Kigali city and the most prevalent form of malaria is the worst sort which goes onto the brain. Gitarama, where I’ll be going on Jan 17th, is nearly 2000 metres high and almost beyond the reach of mossies, but for the meantime I’m taking no chances – lariam tablets, mossie net at night, and wire netting over every window!

Our daily routine on this training course is going to be exhausting. Today we started off with finance. Within half an hour we six volunteers had three million Rwandan Francs between us – half a million apiece. We were given a cheque for our first three months wages in advance, and instructions on how to open a local bank account. (Remember we’ll be doing this in French, with all the usual form filling to complete…) Then we were given 100,000 RwF to provide our household goods – bedding, curtains, buckets, pots and pans, a stove, cutlery. VSO provides us with bed and water filter. On Saturday we’ll all go to the Chinese supermarket in the town centre and the market place and haggle for our things. By the way, the conversion rate is £1 = 1000RwF, so we’re not all about to decamp to the Caribbean and party the year away…. And the picture on the 5000RwF note is…………..a gorilla.

After finance we filled in applications for our work permits. We are employees of the Rwandan ministry of education (teachers) or the local education authorities (for advisers like me. My employer is the Mayor. But Gitarama doesn’t have a mayor at the moment; he was sacked just after Christmas for carousing and enjoying the company of women other than his wife! English politicians take note! Not sure where this leaves me legally if my employer doesn’t exist, but, then, nobody seems to be worrying so why should I?).

Next, we piled into pick up trucks and were driven through Kigale to the VSO head office to meet everyone there and see what facilities they have to offer. It was a jumble of names, procedures and the like, but it meant that I’ve met the VSO official who is in charge of me during my time here, (Charlotte), as well as a whole bunch of other serving VSOs who had come in to collect money or kit for particular projects. They seem a sociable crowd and provided we’re all prepared to travel within the country, we won’t be getting lonely.

By lunchtime it was hot and humid, and we had a traditional Rwandan lunch of “melange”. Melange means mixture, and it’s an apt description for a massive carb feast – rice, chips, polenta, pasta, all with peas and stewed goat and fried fish. There’s always a salad side dish. There’s plenty of fruit – pineapple, sweet bananas, passion fruit. And lots of water. We’re trying to stay hydrated but somehow we never quite seem to drink enough. I think it’s because the water comes in little half-litre bottles (nobody here would dream of drinking water that didn’t come from a sealed bottle, and it’s a social gaffe if you don’t break the seal in front of a guest to prove to him that the water you’re giving him is clean). We feel guilty about all the pile of water plastic bottles we’re accumulating day after day.

Next came our first official lesson in Kinya-rwanda, the language. I prided myself on having done a lot of work on this before leaving home, but soon discovered that my pronunciation was rubbish because most of the words aren’t pronounced as they seem. We’re trying to wrap our mouths round something like “mngwaramutse” or “ni bgyiza”. It’s funny to watch others trying, but it feels like trying to talk with a mouth full of mashed banana. Still, by lunchtime we could say hello and goodbye in several different ways, and knew which we could use with our friends and which we mustn’t use in front of the boss etc Let’s just say it’s a lot more complicated than English and after a heavy lunch in stifling heat we weren’t at our sharpest. We ended up being given homework to do before the next morning’s session.

Meanwhile outside there was the rattle of gunfire from an army shooting range not far away, and the occasional heavy thud much closer. In the guest house where we’re staying there are mango and avocado trees. The avocados are ripe and fall off the tree at intervals. Kind of deters you from sitting under them: it would be tragic to get concussed by an avocado on our first day in Africa!

Finally, two VSOs who have already been in the country a year spent a hilarious hour telling us some of the local customs and how to avoid making gaffes. For example: Handshakes – with left hand on your right elbow to show respect to an elder or superior. Phone calls are expensive here, so nobody ever switches off their mobile. If a phone rings during a conversation, the person will just break off whatever they’re doing so they can answer the call – even if it is someone addressing a room full of people. There’s a national obsession with toothpicks; after eating you pick and flick the bits of goat or mango stuck in your teeth all over the table (or your neighbours). A lot of communication is non-verbal – raised eyebrows means “I agree”, for example when you’re negotiating a taxi. To get someone’s attention you hiss loudly. But never hiss to a woman; if she responds you assume she’s “loose”. If she’s virtuous she’ll be offended. It’s common for people to visit you at any hour of the day, and expect to be invited in and given food or drink.

By this time we’d had enough. We mutinied against further work and walked down into the city to find an internet café to be able to contact home. This turned out into a mini epic in itself. It was already dark and rush hour was at its height. There seemed to be a total free for all and almost complete gridlock with cars, mopeds and minibuses all weaving around each other; pedestrians everywhere including the middle of the road, and huge lorries loading at all the most awkward places. On unlit roads it’s lethal. We found a café and sent our messages, but the lines are very slow and I’m not able to send photos on the blog until I find somewhere with a faster link.

You’ll understand that after yet another meal of melange and fruit we just flaked out straight to bed!

AAAAfrica at last!

Now I think I must come clean. How better to start the African section of my blog with a confession?: On my way to Rwanda I had an assignation with an enigmatic young woman at Brussels. At the last minute before leaving Dorset I arranged to meet up with another VSO volunteer who was flying up from Toulouse to catch the same plane. It seemed fun to fix a blind date with Tiga-Rose over coffee in the transit lounge. Recognising each other proved little trouble (how many giant bearded Englishmen wearing tropical clothes will you ever find in a cold and clammy Brussels January)? Alas, we never did manage our coffee – my flight was late arriving – but we managed to negotiated seats together on the African flight. Tiga is going to teach English at Gikongoro, about half a day’s minibus ride from me, so we’ll be able to support each other when the going gets tough and Africa piles up on us…… That’s how VSO works.

It felt a mighty long way to Kigali. At first the flight was wonderful; the kind of journey you dream of. Clear skies over the Alps, and a vista as far as the eye could see of thousands of snow covered peaks, crisp and pristine, like a frozen sea. Then, in a while, the coast of Croatia with amazing elongated islands; a mapmaker’s dream floating underneath us and contrasted against the bright blue of the Adriatic. Greece was covered in cloud, but over the Med the view cleared in time for us to see most of the Nile delta loom up and gradually roll past below us. An olive green uniform mass, distinguished only by the glint of sunlight off drainage channels. More murk and dust haze over Egypt (we missed the pyramids), until suddenly it ended abruptly. And there below us was Abu Simbel and the lake stretched out beside it. We followed the Nile southwards all the way to near its source in Rwanda, with razor sharp ridges of rust-coloured rock projecting through a blanket of dun sand. For about two hours we flew over a landscape with nothing man-made recognisable from the air. Past Khartoum, past Juba, until the land below faded into evening dark, with just spots of flame from nomad campfires visible even from 30,000 feet. Over Uganda everything was in pitch darkness, with just a splodge of light to mark Kampala. Then we were descending across the Virunga volcanoes and sleeping mountain gorillas (sorry, chaps, if our jet woke you) and watching a distant lightning storm over the Congo as we approached Kigale. The airport stands on a flattened hilltop and we shuddered to a halt just yards from the end of the runway and a busy road. Almost everybody on the plane descended in Rwanda, with just a brave few going on to their final destination in a troubled Nairobi. (The news from Kenya doesn’t improve, and our Rwanda friends, many of whom have relatives in Nairobi, are fearful for the future unless the political crisis is settled soon).

At the airport we were met by a reception committee of VSOs already in the country and staff from the country headquarters. We were terminally jaded and tired out, and I can’t tell you how nice it was to be welcomed so enthusiastically. Our luggage (nothing mislaid en route, hooray!) was loaded into a pick-up truck; then us on top of it, and we set off through the warm tropical evening with their air ruffling our hair and dozens of mopeds weaving their way round us. What a contrast to clammy Gatwick! After the wastes of Sudan, Kigali was ablaze with lights and traffic; the epitome of civilisation. Lots of people out on the streets, roadside shops open, knots of people talking, half the others shouting into their mobile phones. We were introduced to four more VSOs, most of whom had arrived from Canada the previous day, but by then we were struggling to remember our own names, let alone theirs! All we wanted was food, a shower and bed and we gratefully sank into oblivion. The night air was cool, our accommodation spacious and quiet; it began to feel as if we we’d come to the right place to get settled in and prepare for the very different Rwanda beyond Kigali’s city boundary.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Final countdown

Rwanda here I come! In three days' time I shall be in Africa. Hard to believe on a wet, grey Dorset Saturday. I'm still piling mounds of clothes, hardware and medicines onto our spare bed, while wondering "how can I possibly carry all this?" I have been given a 40 kilo baggage allowance which is wonderful, because there's no way I'd ever be able to keep it all within 20kg.

I've been simply bowled over by the support and goodwill from so many people in Bridport and Beaminster: the churches, our neighbours, the Brit Valley Rotary, the New Elizabethan Singers. Our mantelpiece is crowded with good luck cards, and everyone seems to have looked at the blog already. I can't describe how reassuring it feels to be leaving England with so much encouragement.

Everyone in our family has also been so amazingly encouraging, and at the end of December we had a family gathering on the Isle of Wight for Dad's 91st birthday and for my farewell. Thank you, all of you, and especially to Teresa who has been so patient when half of me has for months been thinking and dreaming about Africa.

As for accommodation in Rwanda, I now know that I'm to share a house with Tom, who is a church-based aid worker. Sounds fine to me to be sharing with someone who already knows the ropes. And, I understand, he has a working fridge: what luxury!

On a lighter note, I'm determined to finish the final "Harry Potter" book before I go - all 600 pages of it - so I'm reading furiously. I've bought a clutch of Dorset calendars to take with me. They'll make useful presents, and also serve as visual aids is people want me to describe what life in West Dorset is like.

The news from Kenya is grim; fortunately I'm flying direct to Kigali and not (as most volunteers do) via Nairobi. But in the Rwandan newspapers there's much talk about a resurgence of "genocide ideology" - the attitudes and inter-ethnic hatreds which made the 1994 catastrophe possible - so there's clearly an important role for me in helping schools promote tolerance. In fact, it seems that schools are very much the front line in creating or dispelling sectional hatreds within the country.

We shall see.

Well, the goodbyes have all been said and now it's time to pack my things. Teresa's taking me up to Gatwick on Monday evening and I'm staying overnight in a hotel there ready for a crack of dawn flight to Brussels (then transferring to the main flight to Kigali). VSO have booked me a seat on the plane with extra legroom which is wonderful.

Once again, a huge thank you to all of you who have been so encouraging to me. The next blog, I hope, will be from Kigali. Africa beckons.