Friday, 28 March 2008

A day in the life - visit to a rural primary school

A typical mud brick rural classroom. The playground has eroded down so far that there's a massive step up to get in!

Mud brick classrooms ("semi-dur"). On the left is class 1 with morning and afternoon populations of 69. On right is class 2 with two populations of 60 children.

Year 6 English class

Year 5 English class. Earth floor. Good shot of the desks typical of every single Rwandan primary school

Bilingaga, a school lost in the bananeraie (banana groves)
On the way home from school, and off to hoe the fields

Population pressure - new house squeezed into the banana groves. I particularly like the way they've planted the garden before they've finished the house!

This is what a typical Rwandan farmhouse looks like

Goat and sheep - just so you can tell them apart!

AAH! Brochettes in a few months' time!

Population pressure in action - new terraces being made at Cyeza

The school office E P Bilingaga (E P = Ecole Primaire - Primary School)

What you can do with 50 francs at the market

Mar 26th

Another day at the office. Still no more new census forms in, so spend the whole morning trying to analyse the figures I’ve already got. Certainly some interesting things are emerging, mainly in terms of the range between the highest and lowest figures for schools. I don’t want to bore you, but you might be interested to hear that the best equipped school only has 2.3 text books per child, while the worst has 0.7 per child (across all subjects). There is virtually not a single book in 26 schools about history, geography, religion, civics, agriculture, and physical education. And these 26 schools have 3400 “orphans” between them, though it may be the case that some of these orphans may be children in single-parent families, especially those born to mothers as young as 13 or 14 who have been forced by older boys and men.

Dined in style at lunchtime on home-made potato salad and tomato base; my economy drive is coming on well even though I spent more than I wanted to in Kigali yesterday.

Venantie had one of her sons with her in the office; he was getting bored and fidgety so I showed him some of the photos of Beaminster and some family pics from my laptop. Soon had half the office crowding round to see them. I must say, that by comparison with the local primary schools, Beaminster Comp looks extravagantly equipped. You should see the adult’s faces when I showed them pictures of the library and swimming pool. Venantie’s son was more impressed with the Southern National double decker in the bus park. Poor, misguided child….

In the afternoon we had a big power cut, so came home ahead of today’s thunderstorm and continued to work on data analysis. Nipped out to the market and continued my policy of only paying 50 francs for stuff, and not 100. Got some flak from some of the women, but I still think I did well and they’re beginning to realise I’m not going to be ripped off quite so much in future. Tried to buy peanut flour, but couldn’t find any – I’m determined to be a bit more adventurous with Tom away. Never mind, I know I can get it at Ndolies in Kigali on Friday. (Not quite sure what I’m going to do with it but let’s get it first and then find out)!

Phoned Chris at Kamonyi and finalised details for the Heads’ training tomorrow.

Cooked up a big pot of vegetable stew; I was trying to make soup but it didn’t work out right. So put in some cheese and it tasted great – warming and filling. And there’s enough left for some more tomorrow, too. Also tried mixing mashed potato with a little marge and a lot of peanut butter – unbelievably filling but not exactly a gourmet offering. I definitely should wear “L” plates in the kitchen!

Quiet evening listening to rain drumming on the roof!

Best thing about today – just doing my own thing at my own pace all day
And there’s nothing really grotty about the day either.

Visas and peanut flour; a day in Kigali

Mar 25th

Off to Kigali with Tiga. Nice to have someone to talk to on the bus; the journey seems much shorter. Tom’s off to Burundi on FHI business; too bad a parcel has come for him today at the Post Office with a jar of Marmite in it! He’ll be gone for the rest of the week, so I have the flat to myself. Best of all, there’s still several days’ worth of food in the freezer, and the power cuts of last weekend don’t seem to have spoiled anything,

At Kigali we try to sort out our visas; we need them if we are to travel during the holidays, and we also need our visas to get our green cards. Tiga’s in luck, her visa is ready and she’s able to go off in the afternoon to get her green card. My visa’s not done yet; all my documents are in order, so I simply have to wait for however long it takes officialdom to process the paperwork. Geert has asked me to collect his visa if it’s ready but it isn’t; we can’t find his police clearance form in the office and we think it’s waiting for him at police headquarters where it has been needed for one of his other documents. Honestly, the bureaucracy here gets Kafkaesque at times. The upshot of all this is that neither Geert nor I might be able to go abroad during Genocide week in April. That’s not a disaster for me; I will use the time to visit some of the far-flung VSOs in the East and work towards completing my grand tour of Rwanda. But it would have been nice to have had a look at Uganda and perhaps bag Mount Elgon in the process!

There’s competition for the computer at Programme Office; I’ve forgotten that the schools have already effectively broken up, and as well as Tiga there’s Joe and Paula from the East who want to use the machine. So all I can do is download emails and upload my blog text. Unfortunately the photos of my birthday bash, and a picture essay on a school visit, will have to wait until later.

It’s gratifying to find that several people who are nothing to do with my Bridport circle are reading the blog. Today I’ve had an enquiry from someone at Essex University who’s been reading this blog and is seriously thinking of doing VSO herself – provided she can do it in Rwanda. That means a fairly long and detailed reply later this afternoon, to send a.s.a.p.

It’s also good to see that Heather is really getting the office administration speeded up, and everything at Kigali seems already to be moving along more efficiently. We have a new national director coming, from England, and while some would see it as a retrograde step that there are fewer Rwandans holding the key posts, we have become very frustrated with the way the Programme Office has been working, at least in some respects.

A quick bash round the Kimironko shops and we pal up with Jane, who is the most southerly of all the VSOs. Like Samira, she does HIV/AIDS prevention work in schools and youth clubs, but she is based very close to the Burundi border, an hour’s drive beyond Butare. I never realised that Rwanda extended that far down. So that’s another corner to explore….. Back to the town centre, me to change the last of my reserve of Euros, and the girls to get their green cards.

While I’m waiting for my bus home I make a note of some of the religious slogans on matata windscreens. They’re very keen on these in Rwanda; most are in English with just a few in French or Kinya. In half an hour I saw:
God is Good
God is Great
God is Sweet
All the Time God is Good
No God, No Hope
My God
The Power of God
Jehova Shalam
Yezo Biolgi
Come to me (but that could just be an appeal for custom)
“Dali Bread” (a prayer, or recognition that the bus is his earning potential?)

And, on a Ugandan juggernaut,”we trust in Allah” (and looking at the state of his tyres, he’d need to…..)

Apart from the Holy Trinity, by far the most important other person on the matatas is Bob Marley. Everything Rasta goes down big in Rwanda; at times you could be mistaken for thinking you were in a corner of Kingston, Jamaica.

Finally back to Gitarama on a sweaty matata, and call at the Office to see if there are any more census forms waiting processing. As I’ve been skiving all day I’m willing to work all evening. But there’s only Innocent in the office; everyone else, he says, is off because it’s Gacaca. But I thought Gacaca had finished. I really don’t get this place sometimes! And there are no more census forms, so I troop back home and start to catch up on myself. Spend most of the rest of the afternoon writing return emails to people, while a thunderstorm gathers and breaks outside. It’s actually quite relaxing to just have myself to worry about, even though I’ve got to cook for the night guard as well as me. A nice, relaxing evening.

Best thing about today – catching up with Tiga
Worst thing about today – I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to be doing at this Head’s training day at Kamonyi on Thursday and its starting to worry me. Must work at it tomorrow when I feel fresher.

"Expect the Unexpected" is a VSO slogan; here's a case in point!

Mar 24th

One of those entirely unpredictable days, and with a happy ending, too.

After a night in candle light, cold shower, and cut off from the rest of the world by a flat phone battery, I breezed into work laden with computer and phone and proceeded to monopolise every power socket I could find at work to get things charged up. I didn’t realise how dependent we are on our mobile phones. Called in at the Post Office on the way and, lo and behold, a birthday card from the Isle of Wight. My birthday really is turning into a season rather than one day!

Spent all morning typing furiously, must have looked really driven and efficient, but actually all I was doing was writing up about five day’s worth of blog entries before I forgot things. It really did take me all morning; perhaps I’m putting too much in but then when I read it all back after a month or so it’s nice to have the detail!

Well, the financial economy drive is in full swing and I dined off a cheese roll rather than go to a café; it felt so righteous!

In the afternoon Charlotte arrived unexpectedly from Programme Office in Kigali to do my three month appraisal with Claude. She spoke to me on my own first, and I laid it on thick about the transport issues here. Then she spent time with Claude. As a result Claude has said I can have use of the District moto, but there’s an awful lot of red tape to do with insurance and training before I can be let loose on the roads of Muhanga. I think it’s a hoot! After all the argy bargy with VSO London about the need for motor cycle training (CBT) and whether or not VSO Rwanda could afford to give me a bike, I will now have to learn to ride a motor bike on African roads in African conditions. At least I’ll have done some off-road training, which is more than those trained in England ever get. Claude seems happy with my work so far, although we both know we haven’t really had time to work together yet. One thing he has said is that in future, when I do inspections, he wants me to take another Head with me so that I can train them up in how I evaluate lessons. That’s fine by me, but it’ll take a lot of organising. The ideal people to use will be my “elite squad” of secteur reps; they’re already the most outgoing and forward looking of the lot and I get on with them. Roll on next term, I say!

After all this excitement I go through a whole bunch of “recensement scolaire” forms which the Kiyumba secteur rep has brought in, and that takes me till gone four o’clock, by which time I’m the last one left in the building. Boy, I must have looked keen today! If only they knew……

As I’m walking back home Tiga texts, asking if she can stay the night. Charlotte was supposed to have brought her passport with visa but has forgotten, and Tiga’s going up to Kigali to collect it tomorrow. She knows I’m also planning to go on Tuesday, and it’s such an easy ride in from Gitarama. (She’s been helping in an English teacher training day at Nyanza with Cathryn and Ken – good example of how all of us work with each other whenever there’s a big training session to do. Even with-it Rwandans like Claude don’t realise just how much we all help each other out in this place)!

Tom’s in Kigali today and might or might not be coming back in the evening. Big question is – have Electrogaz sorted out the power problem in our building. I don’t want to be cooking and entertaining by candle light, however romantic it might be. Think I’m getting too old to be romantic.

So get home and……YES, we have power. Text Tom to tell him, take my shoes off, and the power promptly goes off!

Curses. Realise that I need to get all my preparation done before it gets dark so frantically clearing up in the bedroom for T and moving mattress and my sleeping stuff into the lounge. Then down to the market to buy some extra vegetables. Here I make another unexpected discovery – we’ve been flashing 100 Franc notes each time we want veg, but at this time of the afternoon (gone 5pm) when the women are desperate to sell up and go home, you can get just as much for a 50 franc piece. (Tiga hooted with laughter when I told her this and said it just proved I had no Jewish blood in my ancestry….)

On the way home I realise there’s a general power cut for our district, so it’s probably not the same problem with electricity that we had at the weekend. Sure enough, by the time I get home the power’s back on. When Tom phones to say he’s coming home after all, I’m well organised with veg all ready to cook and feeling very smug.

Tiga arrives quite late, after dark, loses her bearings (after all, she’s only been here once before and that was in darkness, too) and in the night starts walking in the wrong direction. Leave Tom to sort out the rest of the dinner (I’ve done all the cooking and it only needs to make sure things don’t burn etc) and start trying to track Tiga down. I assume she’s gone the wrong way at our garage and is heading off towards Kabgayi. Fifteen minutes later and I’m well outside Gitarama and there’s no sign of her, so I realise I’ve got it wrong and she’s seriously lost. I try to ring her, but at the same time as she tries to ring me. Mercifully the phone network’s up and running and we’re eventually able to pinpoint where she’s got to and meet up.

The rest of the evening is lovely – good food, nice relaxed conversation. She’s off to see a friend in Ethiopia over the holidays, but there’s a problem with her camera and eventually we have to face the fact that she’s lost all the photos she’s taken so far in Rwanda. That’s really rubbish luck. Anybody else would be in floods of tears at losing three month’s pictures, but she’s remarkably unfazed about it. So I burn a disk with most of my photos on; at very least she’ll have a few pictures of our initial training at Kigali and our trip together to Kibuye.

She borrows some of our videos and we all agree there’s going to be a massive sharing of photos, videos and music tracks on our ICT 2 week in April.

Best thing about today – everything. A really lovely day, and all the more so for everything about it being completely unexpected.
Worst thing – nothing at all. Let’s have a more of these! It’s just the kind of day which makes me so happy I’ve come to Rwanda to work.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Mad matata drivers

Mar 23rd

Pouring with rain all morning and no sign that it would stop. A real shame, because we’d intended to get out and about in Gikongoro and take photos of the town and area. It’s so lovely; beautiful mountain scenery and tea plantations all around. Also, I’d wanted to get a couple of shots of Tiga’s place and garden. Never mind, I’m determined to back another time and just do Gikongoro itself.

Soraya was sleeping in, sp Marisa and I crept around, tidying up and sweeping out the place. Eventually left mid morning, and as luck would have it a matata was waiting at the roundabout, and was going all the way to Kigali (in other words, past my front door)!

However, as we entered Gikongoro the driver was so buy looking for passengers that he didn’t see a woman right in front of us and had to slam on the brakes; he came within a few inches of killing her. Then, in the rain and drizzle in the bus park, he was going up and down, touting for passengers, and reversed right into an elderly blind beggar, sending him flying into the mud. The man got up, and after a couple of minutes they were all laughing about it, but Marisa and I exchanged glances and thought “is this going to be the kind of ride we want down steep mountain roads all the way home?”

Eventually we got going, driving like a maniac through every bend, bumping across potholes. It took barely 20 minutes to reach Butare but at least we hadn’t managed to actually kill ourselves or anyone else.

Next, the driver launched into a kind of duel with another matata, also heading for Kigali. Whoever was in front would pick up all the waiting passengers along the way. For several miles out of Butare the two idiot driver continually tried to overtake each other; we ended up in the slower bus and lost, but not until we’d had a truly hair-raising ride on the wrong side of the road, with not enough time to get back into our lane if a heavy lorry was coming the other way. It was pure luck we got home intact. After some miles, our driver had to concede defeat, and stopped to pick up whichever passengers the other bus had left. We still managed to be jam-packed full by the time we reached home.

Today was Easter Day, and it was the first Easter for many years where I haven’t been to church. Along the road, however, absolutely everyone was trooping out in their Sunday best, and at Ruhango a service had just ended and the roadside was crowded with people. All the men and most of the women were carrying bibles. Between Gikongoro and Butare, where people seem poorer than round here, a far larger proportion of people were barefoot. They had to cross muddy paths and fields to reach the tarmac road to their church; they headed for places where streams passed under the road and were busy washing their feet in the rivers before walking the last section along the black top.

Back home at Gitarama we found there was a big power problem at the flat – the entire building is without electricity and all the meters are blank. Perhaps somebody doing building work nearby has cut through a cable. So we dined on bread and cheese and cold drinks, then Marisa had to get going back home to Nyamata.

By this time I was pretty weary, so I dozed away the afternoon. By now I was stony broke, my phone battery was completely dead so I couldn’t make or receive calls (including Teresa’s weekly call in the evening), and I couldn’t do any work on my laptop. Amazing how bereft that makes you feel!

Meanwhile Geert had texted us to say did we want to come for eats and rinks at the “Petit Jardin” bar. My first reaction was to cry off, but, then, if you just had one drink and ate ibirayi it was a very cheap night out. So went with Tom. Geert has another Dutch friend staying with him, an ICT expert who works in a hospital complex near him. He’s come out to Rwanda for a holiday but is also going to help Geert with an ICT course next week. Only problem is that at Kabgayi they’re also suffering from power cuts, and just imagine trying to run a computer course without electricity……!

Anyway, we ended up with eight muzungus in the bar, dined on brochettes and ibirayi and had a good evening. Back home by soon after eight o’clock. Pitch dark; no iPod to listen to, and still feeling weary from the rest of the weekend, so went to bed early and slep like a log!

Best part of the day – meeting up with everyone from Gitarama in the evening
Worst things about day – no electricity, phone not working, iPod not working, can’t use computer, can’t talk to Teresa, tired, stony broke…….

Nyungwe Forest Day

Mar 22nd

The rain has stopped although its grey and the cloud is low. Tiga’s not coming with us; she’s been round Nyungwe before and is saving a second visit until her mum comes to see her in the summer. And she’s bogged down in exam marking, too. So Marisa and I are picked up promptly at a quarter to seven in a rickety old matata, and set off to Gacerenda. The scenery continues to be beautiful; deep, deep valleys, mostly terraced, and plenty of trees. Little houses, some perched on astonishingly steep slopes, but overall the countryside looks poorer than around Gitarama. At Kigeme we pick up Anne-Miek, and then at Gacerenda, Mans, Cathie and Elson, and Antonia and two friends. Cathie did her main VSO placement at Gacerenda, so she’s been catching up with old friends all Friday.

At Gacerenda we come into the main Rwandan tea growing country. Bright green bushes, waist high, planted so closely together that there’s no chance of weeds growing through between the bushes. Some are on terraces, but most are on these incredibly steep slopes. Unfortunately it’s difficult to get photos as the bus is moving too fast; then when we ask the driver to stop he does so in a ridiculous place with power pylons blocking the view. No matter; Marisa and I have agreed we need to come back to this part of Rwanda before our tours of duty finish. We’ll get all the photos we need on that occasion!

All down one particularly steep raving there’s a trail of twisted metal where a big lorry came off the road one night. The driver, of course, was killed. The locals came out to loot whatever they could from the wreckage, and found several barrels of oil. Inside the oil, so the story goes, were masses of semi-precious stones being smuggled out of the Congo. Nobody knows exactly how true the story is, but in terms of the Congo, and smuggling, and all manner of underhand dealing, you can’t rule out anything. And certainly there’s enough mangled lorry to remind you that this is a dangerous road even in broad daylight!

We pass another village called Kihemba and suddenly we’re in the forest and the landscape changes completely. Nobody lives in the forest; there are no fields at all. There are hills and hills covered in jungle, like waves in the sea, receding into the far distance. From the highest ridge we know we’re looking into another new country, Burundi, which has a National Forest Park adjoining Nyungwe. To the right we get occasional glimpses of Lake Kivu and, in the far distance, its far shore which is yet another country, Congo. This means that for me, in a few weeks, I’ve been able to look into all the countries which border Rwanda!

We cross the Nile – Congo watershed again, and it starts to rain. Suddenly there are monkeys all around us in the bushes next to the road. They’re black and white mountain monkeys. Mostly they’re shy about having their pictures taken, and all I get are telephoto shots. But one specimen jumps up on the matata, perches on the wing mirror and is about to come inside. We yell at the driver (who is cowering, terrified down in his seat) to wind up the bloody window! But this is a clapped out bus; the window handle has come off and is lying somewhere in a pile of other bus bits on his dashboard. It seems to take a lifetime for him to find the bit and wind up the window far enough to keep the monkey out. The reason for all this fuss is that these monkeys might well be carrying rabies, and while for us volunteers the worst thing would be to need an extra jab of protection, for the matata driver a bite or scratch could well be fatal. It’s not like this at Longleat……..

We get to the official park entrance and spend an hour booking in and arguing over the park fee. In Nyungwe, although the main road to Cyangugu goes right through the middle of the park, you’re not allowed to stop anywhere and get out and walk. You can only stop at the official centre and do some of their marked trails. The forest has lots of Rwandan soldiers in it; they are here to prevent infiltration of rebels from Burundi, and if they heard or saw random people in the forest they would probably shoot first and ask questions later. So unfortunately we have to do this thing the official way.

To get the reduced rate entry fee we have to show a Rwandan visa. But, of course, most of us haven’t been given our visas yet. And even though at Akagera we were easily able to show then that we were, indeed, working in the country and not tourists, here they play everything by the book. So it costs us 28,000 Francs to go round for a two hour walk. That is extortionate, but they have the monopoly and there’s no gainsaying them. Nyungwe is inaccessible and only gets an average of ten visitors a day. We had an entire day’s worth in our group alone. They really do need to get more tourist-friendly here. It feels almost as if they’d rather we didn’t come at all, yet their jobs depend on increasing the throughput of visitors. It turns out that Yves, our guide, knows Mans when he was district officer for his region. Yves was a secondary school English teacher, but the job of forest guide paid better so he took it. Turns out he also knows Cécille, the guide I had round Akagera. Small country, Rwanda…..!

Mans has been here before; he’s not interested in one of the normal walks and wants to do the elephant swamp walk. This is bad news for me; I have to hire wellies from the guides at extra cost. But eventually we get started. The trees and vegetation are everything I dreamed of. It’s virgin forest on a massive scale. It’s the largest remaining mountain forest in Africa. This isn’t tropical jungle; sweltering and teeming with insects etc. It’s cold, damp, squelchy and with a conspicuous absence of much wildlife. There’s the odd butterfly and centipede, and a flashy touraco in the trees. But compared to Akagera there’s nothing doing. Partly this is our own fault; the women are chattering on and on all the time. We see some leopard poo, which we all duly photograph, and the guide is knowledgeable about some of the trees and their uses. This one has roots which were used as an abortifacient. This one, when it flowers, is noxious and forest villages used to move away to avoid it. Many of the trees are being strangled by vines, and hereby we come on to the topic of elephants.

There used to be many forest elephants here, smaller than the savannah beasts but big enough. They were gradually hunted or poached to extinction; the last one killed by poachers in 1999. (Its skull is mounted on the wall at the park headquarters). The elephants used to eat the vines and creepers as part of their diet, and this allowed to forest giant trees to flourish. So now there is a plan, within five years, to reintroduce forest elephants imported from Cameroon, and try to re-establish the balance between plants and animals. It will be wonderful if it works, but they will still have the problem of poachers. Nyungwe was only officially made a national park in about 1999, so there’s a lot of remedial work still to be done to restore its ecosystem. It’s the last remnant of what was once continuous forest all down the side of the rift valley and covering the whole of the mountainous part of Rwanda, and the rate of clearance has been so rapid in the 20th century that they have had to create the National Park or it would all have gone by about AD2050. (It remains to be seen how the current rapid population growth will affect the Park).

Eventually we reach the swamp itself. This is a vast basin and the most fearsome swamp I’ve ever seen. It is notorious because it is so deep that elephants used to be caught and drowned in it. Mere people would have stood no chance. The centre of it is absolutely inaccessible even today. Our path winds down hundreds of fet from the level of the main road to the edge of the swamp, then crosses one corner of the swamp on a boardwalk.

Unfortunately, at the start of the boardwalk is one section o slippery that it’s almost impassible. So I manage to not just fall off the log path, but fall ion my side right in the swamp. I come up covered in mud all down one side. Fortunately my camera seems unhurt, just my pride! Mans also comes off the logs, but not so spectacularly. Must be because we both have a high centre of gravity!

So I’m dripping mud for the rest of the day; we eat our sarnies on a bench surrounded by elephant grass, then climb back up to the main road, across lots of flimsy log bridges, as another rainstorm approached. The thunder’s crackling across the ridge beyond us, and we barely make it to the road and our bus before the heavens open.

All the way back to the Park entrance we’re passing landslides which partially block the road, and the tarmac has long since broken up into potholes and puddles. This road urgently needs a lot of work doing on it or it will become unusable. At the park entrance we drop of our guide and head for home. It’s still raining so there’s no chance to take more photos.

Back at Gikongoro we shower and I try to wash out some of my clothes; can’t do much about my trousers because they’re the only pair I have. Some of the mud brushes off, and no doubt I’ll be able to get them cleaner tomorrow morning, but I look pretty scruffy! Downhill again to Tiga’s house to meet Soraya, who’se stopped off on her way home from Kigali. Tiga’s cooked us an amazing meal, really beautiful. I’ve brought the rest of my birthday balloons and table confetti, so we make it a second birthday party and reunion meal (since Polly has gone back to England, we’re only missing Épi out of our six people). It’s a really brilliant evening, and we stay up till late.

Soraya’s sleeping with us at Samira’s house, and once again we scramble up the hill from Tiga’s as it starts spitting with rain. We can smell when we approach the prison, but the puddles in an unlit, muddy, rutted lane make it a tiresome journey. It’s more or less full moon tonight, and just occasionally it peeps out between the rain clouds and the whole landscape of mountains and valleys takes on a dreamy look. As Tiga says, in terms of a place to be living and working it’s just unbeatable. It’s considerably cooler even than Gitarama, and without all the bustle of my town. Gitarama feels like living on a human anthill, with constant noise, movement, bustle. Here it’s quiet and just beautiful.

Don’t let that Fool you; barely a mile away is one of the grimmest genocide memorials in Rwana where thousands of people were herded into secondary school “for their safety”, and then murdered. Their mummified bodies are still on display as a grisly reminder that the events of 1994 really did happen.

Best thing about today – the evening meal with Tiga and Soraya.Worst thing about today – falling into the swamp; the sheer cost of the excursion. Nyungwe was good, but not nearly as good as Akagera.

Going down south - day 1

Mar 21st

After breakfast Els changes her mind and decides that she doesn’t want to come to Gikongoro with us after all; she wants to spend Easter with another of her group, Hester, who lives at Rusumo. Now Rusumo is right on the border with Tanzania; its way past Akagera and a long, long journey to get to. It’s the furthest out placement from Kigali; in fact it’s so far away that on her telephone she gets a Tanzanian service rather than the Rwandan one. Els’ll certainly take the whole of Friday to get to Hester, and need the whole of Sunday to get back, but that’s what she’s decided to do.

So we leave her to it and take the matata to Butare. I know Butare well by now, so it’s “Bruce’s tours” round the museum, the Belgian quarter and the middle of town. I don’t particularly need to go round the museum again, but I’m interested to find that some souvenirs there seem cheaper than at the craft co-operative in town. At the museum there’s intore dancing and drumming going on all morning; it sounds wonderful in the background. Unfortunately it’s a private booking for a group, so we can’t gatecrash it.

At the Matar supermarket we chat to the manager, who’s fast becoming a lifeline to all the VSOs in the south. (He sells a wide range of stuff and his prices are very reasonable). Turns out he and his brother used to run a supermarket in Kigali, and even in Kigali were a staple of VSO life (there’s lots of references to them in the VSO Cookbook compiled around 2003), but something happened – I reckon he fell foul of powerful people in the city – and they decided to relocate to Butare. They’re about to open a restaurant/café in an extension, and I’m sure it will give Hotel Ibis a run for its money. Good job, too!

In the afternoon we catch another matata to Gikongoro. It’s now new ground for me, as well as Marisa. For the first few miles we run through a beautiful wooded valley, with rice paddies along the whole of the bottom and sugar cane on the lower slopes. Then we pass the jam factory where all the jam I eat comes from! Next we pass fields of coffee on the upper slopes. The hills are closing in on us and getting higher; we’re really talking mountains now, rather than hills. This is the coffee growing part of Rwanda; it’s where the Marabou coffee is grown. We chug past the experimental station and coffee washery. This is some of the best coffee anywhere in the world, and deserves far more fame and publicity than it gets.

Next, the road starts climbing steeply. Some fields are terraced, but there’s a lot of farming on ridiculously steep slopes, and I can see why soil erosion is particularly an issue in this area. The views are simply wonderful; it’s like Byumba but the valleys are tighter and narrower. Much, much prettier than Gitarama, but I still think my area with its thousand hills is the “soul” of Rwanda.

We reach Gikongoro, which is also called Nyamagabe. (It’s rather like Gitarama & Muhanga; sometimes the two words are used almost interchangeably. If you’re a local there’s no problem but it’s almost calculated to be confusing to outsiders). As we get off our bus in the bus park we’re hailed by Mans, who’s on his way home to Gacerenda in another bus, and immediately see Tiga and Caroline who are arriving from Butare in a third. Five muzungus all together brings things to a halt, as usual.
Tiga and Caroline are starving, so we go to their favourite bar and have brochettes and ibirayi and a cold beer. I’m deciding the brochettes/ibirayi combination is the definitive Rwandan culinary experience! Thunder is crashing away in the distance and its clear there’s a storm coming. Caroline leaves us to go back to Butare; there’s a band playing at the University and she’s going to listen to them with a friend and stay in Butare overnight.

We’re to stay in Samira’s house because she’s away all week, and there aren’t enough rooms chez Tiga. Samira lives right next to the main road from Butare to Nyungwe and Cyangugu (and hence to the Congo). There’s a fair amount of traffic passing, but not anywhere near as much as past our flat in Gitarama. She’s painted the interior bright blue, and has decorated really artistically inside with bamboo, banana leaves, and photos. Makes me feel ashamed that I haven’t done more to personalise our place!

We dump our stuff at Samira’s, and then Tiga takes us to see her place. It’s about half a mile away, down a mud track. Thunder’s still booming and crashing all around. We pass the army barracks, with soldiers coming and going with AK47s slung over their shoulders; then the prison where the toilets seem to empty into an outside drain and the stench is overpowering for a couple of hundred yards. On, on, down hill past a community centre and sports field, and suddenly you’re at the school. Tiga is in one of a row of staff bungalows right next to the school itself – in a hundred yards she goes from home to classroom! She’s also right next door to the head teacher (who can be a bit too friendly at times, but is distantly related to the President and hence very safe and influential). Next door on the other side there’s a family with a baby who cries constantly…..

Tiga’s front garden is amazing. She’s got lettuces and all manner of vegetables; in a few weeks she’s be almost self sufficient in food. I feel so ashamed at how little I’ve managed to do. I wonder if I can arrange to find a plot of land to cultivate, after all. There’s a small walled yard at the back where Suerte, the rabbit lives. Suerte was supposed to be dinner a month or so ago, but looked so pretty that Tiga decided to keep her as a pet and fatten her up….. Suerte is the Spanish for “luck”; I reckon this rabbit’s stock of suerte is going to run out pretty soon!

Her house is really comfortable; there’s an outside squatter loo, and an outside shower room, but the electricity is reliable and she’s made the whole place very homely.

She takes us on a tour round her school. It’s by far the best equipped in the area, and in many ways it’s a waste of a placement for a VSO to be based there. They don’t need a westerner; we’re a luxury they like to have to boost their prestige. Makes you wonder about the criteria by which volunteers get assigned to positions.

Anyway, we speak to loads of the “children” (remember that in secondary schools here you’ve got pupils as old as their mid twenties in the 6th form) and escape back to her bungalow. Now we have spectacular lightning as well as thunder and it’s going to rain at any minute, so we all three hastily scamper up the hill back towards Samira’s. (Tiga’s going to sleep with us). Just as we reach home the storm begins, and for the next couple of hours you can barely hear yourself speak against the noise of rain on the roof.

Samira works for the PHARE project, which does HIV/AIDS prevention work in schools and youth clubs in Nyamagabe district. She’s not a teacher in one particular school, like Tiga, or covering education in general, like Marisa and I, but very specifically targeted towards teaching people about the dangers of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The project is funded largely through IrishAid, which is the Irish equivalent of VSO and is the parent body for all the southern Irish VSOs here. There’s all sorts of AIDS literature in the house, but on a ledge in the middle of the lounge are four wooden penises which she uses to show how condoms should be put on. I can assure you they’re fully life-sized and remarkably life-like (and, of course, they’re made of a black wood for added realism here), and they certainly make a striking room decoration. And yes, I’ve got photos to show you….. Good job Samira’s got the chutzpah to carry it all off. Nothing fazes her; she’s a wonderful person. What a pity she isn’t here to tell us some more of her stories…..

And so to bed while the storm rages. Best thing about today – meeting Tiga and Caroline, discovering how beautiful this little part of Rwanda is.
Worst thing about today – realising the Nyungwe trip tomorrow is going to be very expensive and will use up absolutely all my money till the end of March. Not sure how I’m going to manage, but no doubt Tom will give me a loan to keep me going!


Mar 20th

Hooray, my tummy has let me off. Still not feeling 10% but definitely not the dreaded bacterial runs or (even worse) amoebic horrors! Still can’t work out exactly what I’ve eaten which has disagreed with me; it might be the Mutzig beer, too.

I arrange with Cathie that I’m going to have a lie-in and a slow start to the morning, and it feels all the better for taking things easier today. In to the district office, stopping at the bank on the way. Try to draw some money but my cheque is refused, and I discover to my horror that I’ve virtually no money left in the bank! My accounting hasn’t been as good as it should be, and my budgeting obviously leaves a lot to be desired. Still, there’s another VSO pay cheque coming at the end of the month, and there’s also some money coming from Teresa. Just hold in there, Brucey…..

Problem is, Gitarama is a relatively expensive place to live compared with volunteers based in schools, and those in the outlying districts. And I’ve taken every advantage of going to places, too – I reckon I’ve already seen more of Rwanda than any of the others in my group.

The only problem is that if we do go to Nyungwe Forest over the Easter weekend it’ll be another expensive outing (like Akagera), just at a time when my finances are at their most vulnerable. Ho hum, things will sort themselves out. I’ll eat bread and jam for a week…..

At the office there is another small batch of school census forms to tabulate; that takes all morning. I think I’ve now got 19 out of 106 primary schools, and about 6 out of 23 secondaries. Way to go!

At lunchtime we meet up with Elson and I only have safe things in my mélange – rice, beans, matookes. Continue working in the office all afternoon, then home to clean up and prepare for visitors. Marisa and Els are coming from Nyamata tonight and we’re all going to Gikongoro for the Easter weekend.

Tom’s off to Karen’s for the evening; she’s doing a house communion as its Maundy Thursday. If I didn’t have visitors I’d go as well, to show willing, but as things stand I’m busy cooking. No sign of the girls, and I’m getting really worried. Turns out we’ve got one of these periodic phone blackouts where nobody can get through by phone or text. Eventually make contact and discover they’re sitting at the bus park like a pair of orphans; they’ve asked around if anyone knows a very tall muzungu called Bruce but those who recognise the description don’t know where I live. Walk don to meet them and the rest of the evening goes fine.

I’m sleeping on the mattress in the lounge so that the girls can share my bed. This time I’ve got myself sorted out and douse myself with Deet before sleeping, hence a much better night than when Tiga and Lisa were here.

Best thing about today – not being ill; having visitorWorst thing about today – can’t yet make much progress on the school census returns because so few have arrived.

Hey ho, another day at the office

Mar 19th

Finish off entering the data for all the schools which have sent their forms in to date. Of course, that’s only about 10% of the total, but I feel that at least I’m earning my keep so far this week. Does feel funny not being on the road visiting schools.

In the afternoon I hosted Cathie and Chris, one of the new volunteers (a primary head from Herts here on a short term contract with the NAHT). We’ve agreed to help her on a Head teacher training day at the start of the Easter holidays. Spend the afternoon thinking about how we can assist these people; I always feel so devoid of ideas at these meetings. Hope I don’t disgrace myself when it actually comes to pass – we’ll have about 80 Heads to perform to, and the whole event is being monitored by the powers that be………. So no pressure! At least it means that I’m learning how to do these things in other places before I set about doing any in Muhanga. Here in my local patch they all think I know what I’m doing.

In the evening went out with Karen and Christi and other FHI people for a meal at a different restaurant/bar in Gitarama. Yes, folks, that’s three places I’ve eaten out here now. A nice “omelette spéciale” (i.e. omelette with bits of all sorts of mélange stuff thrown in) and cheaper even than Tranquilité.

Back home, though, my stomach is decidedly unhappy with something I’ve eaten and I’m wondering whether to cancel the weekend trip to Nyungwe Forest. Decide to wait till morning and see what sort of night I have.

Best thing about today – getting on top of the statistics. Nobody else in the District Office is doing it, and I alone have got the time to sit and think about what the figures are telling me.
Worst thing about today – I’ve got a horrible feeling I’ve got the dreaded tummy bug again.

Bruce's guide to orphans, toilets, and everythign else you didn't need to know!

Mar 18th

Into work early to get on with the primary census forms. Out of 106 primaries, only 11 have sent their forms in (or at least, only 11 have reached our office). They were supposed to be in at the end of January. Still, it’s a representative sample. Spend an exciting morning keying in data. By half past ten I’m the only person left in the office; everyone else has been and gone. Even Venantie announces she’s off to visit a Genocide memorial somewhere up north. After all the crowds of people in the office at the start of January, it feels like the Marie Celeste here.

I finish all the primary data, get started on the secondary sheets and then get hungry. Trouble is, it’s pouring with rain outside. The rainy season proper has definitely started, and it’s different from the dry season rains! In the dry season we have heavy thunderstorms which damage the crops; in the rainy season the rain is not so heavy but lasts a long time. I’m marooned in the office till mid afternoon, when the clouds start to break up.

Back home I play around with the data. Interesting things emerge. In all the 11 primary schools there’s not a single textbook in History, barely anything except the odd atlas in Geography. Maths and languages seem the only subjects which have resources. The average school has 23% of its pupils who are orphans – the schools I thought were exceptionally populated with orphans turn out to have below the average number. I still can’t get my head round this orphans thing. Maybe it is the effect of AIDS after all. Schools have up to half the total number of pupils in a particular year group who are repeating the year (usually in the younger classes and because they haven’t learned to read or write effectively during the year just past). The number of toilets ranges from 1 per 50 pupils in one place, to 1 per 200 in another. The number of children with special needs or recognised handicaps in the schools ranges from 0% to 4% - that means that most special needs children are still not being educated at all. There are a few special schools, for example in Gitarama where Karen is working, but in the rural areas I think the kids just have to do without school.

Boy, what a nerd I’ve become! Sorry to bore you with all this stuff. The other thing which strikes me is that barely a single census form, primary or secondary, has figures which add up. They’re all handwritten, covered in tippex and with crossings out all over the place. One has even forgotten to write in the name of the school; we work it out from its phone number. According to one secondary school, the entire place is devoid of books for either pupils or teachers.

In the evening I’m invited out with Cathie and Elson to eat a fish at the Secret Garden bar. As usual, we have to wait an hour or more for the fish to arrive (have they gone to Like Victoria to catch it?), but when it comes its delicious. Show Cathie the party photos and catch up on the latest news.

Best thing about today: being able to get on with working undisturbed.
Worst thing about today: I’m already bored with statistics after 2 days. Mind you, by the end of tomorrow I’ll have done all the primaries and secondaries which have sent in their stuff. I’m not going to bother with the maternelles.

Getting to grips with my statisticals!

Mar 17th

Slept like a log last night; woke up still feeling tired. Off to the office early. No need to feel guilty about not doing school visits; it’s exam week in the schools and they wouldn’t want to see us. So I’m going to spend the whole week getting to grips with the “recensement” statistics. These are the very detailed census of schools, carried out in January. All the forms should have been back ages ago, and the Heads I’ve been visiting all assure me their forms are at the District Office.

Except that when I ask Venantie, the forms haven’t come in yet. Out of 106 primaries there are barely 20 who’ve sent their stuff in. Anyway, I get to grips with the twenty. There’s loads of material there; if I can only get a really large representative sample I’ll have an excellent idea of how our schools tick. They ask everything – about the buildings, water supply and facilities, about the children – ages, handicaps, orphans, redoublements and abandonments; about the staff (ages, qualifications), and about the budget. If I really get a load of these forms in, it’ll make my school visits easier. I won’t have to spend so much time asking the Head questions, and I can either observe more lessons or teach a demo lesson myself. It’s about time I did the latter and change my street cred from Mr Scary Inspector to Mr Friendly Adviser.

I use some of the day to write up my blog, and show Venantie the pictures from the party. She’s suitably impressed. Claude is back already, but he’s too busy to speak to. That’ll wait till later in the week. Also, I clean forget to ask the vice-mayor for my VSO documents to be signed. No matter, there’ll always be time.

Just at the end of the afternoon Karen comes in; haven’t seen her for ages, so nice to catch up on gossip and thank her for all the stuff she gave me for my birthday. She’s doing a house communion on Thursday, but I have to decline because I’ve got two people coming round for a meal and I don’t think they’ll want to go.

Getting clearer in my mind what I want to do next weekend: Marisa and Els to arrive Thursday evening; Friday off to either Butare (Museum, Belgian quarter, University), or to Nyanza (Mwami’s palace and museum, but only if Cathy Devine is free to come round with us), then to Tiga’s at Gikongoro. We can sleep in Samira’s house ‘cos she’s elsewhere for Saturday. Then Saturday, if we get up at dawn, we can get to Nyungwe Forest and do the monkeys; might just possibly see the chimps if we’re early enough. Stay at Gikongoro again on Sat night, and back home on Sunday. We might even be able to get Soraya to come down and join us from Mushubi.

Well, that’s the plan as it stands on Monday. It’ll no doubt be all changed by the weekend!

My Birthday Bash (with a lot of help from St Patrick)

Mar 15th and 16th

Saturday dawns bright and hot. We’re up early, making sandwiches and packing a massive picnic. We’ve even bought luxuries like Pringles and packets of western biscuits

We collect Christi (Karen’s hurt her back and had to drop out), then Janine and finally Geert at the Kobil petrol station. We have a quick conflab as to whether the FHI truck runs on petrol or diesel. Tom thinks petrol but isn’t sure. So we check on the filler cap, and it clearly says diesel. So we fill the tank full of diesel.

While this is happening, Geert has bought me a present, a lovely piece of batik cloth full of lively designs with drums, women carrying pots and bowls, and warriors with shields. Beautiful and it’ll look lovely on my wall.

A mile up the hill out of Gitarama and the engines dies. We realise that some bone head has put a different filler cap on the truck and that it was, after all, a petrol engine. So we now have three guests in a broken down truck with nearly 40 litres of unusable diesel and a damaged engine. And a party to get to which is about 80 miles away.

We manage to get the truck turned round despite being on the main road, and coast back downhill to the garage. Tom rings his boss, who in turn phones a mechanic, who in turn phones a friend, and they come out on a matata with their tools. It takes about three hours to get the tank drained, and involves jacking the truck up precariously on lumps of concrete (when you’ve seen the photo you’ll realise just how precariously!)

Then there’s a ruined fuel filter and various other parts of the engine which have to be stripped down and cleaned. The whole fuel supply system needs to be purged of diesel. The mechanics do this by taking a mouthful of neat petrol from a can and spitting it directly into the engine, then running it at full power. The last dregs of diesel spray out from a hose all over about twenty little boys who’ve spent the whole of the three hours sitting barely three feet away from the car and following every move. Even funnier are two young women, one with a basket of sweet potatoes, who’ve abandoned their business and also spent a couple of hours in the blazing sun watching the show. I’m driven by the sun into the shade of the garage awning. Opposite the garage there’s a batik workshop; Geert and I go over to have a nosey around but there’s nothing I fancy. (What I want to get now is a big piece of batik with one single design; one of these lovely ones of dancers or musicians in which the whole fabric feels full of movement as well as colour).

Eventually the engine seems to be working again, so we load up and set off. We get a hundred yards and the engine dies once more. This keeps on happening. We ring the mechanic again; he returns with a handful of tools, this time by moto. For the next half hour he tinkers around; something he’s adjusted is not quite right and he can’t work out exactly what he’s done wrong. Eventually we strike a deal. He’ll come with us most of the way to Kigali to make sure the engine really is behaving, if we pay his matata fare back. Done deal, and finally, four hours late, we roar off. Even then, we spend another half an hour near Kigali trying to get the machine running properly; every time we stop, the engine won’t start without a huge amount of pumping the accelerator. But by Kigali it’s purring like a Rolls Royce (or so it feels to us). We’re finally on the road; we’re not squashed into a matata, and we’ve got plenty of time to get to Gahini before the party. We eat our picnic in the truck and all’s well with the world. This is Rwanda, after all, and it wouldn’t be right if everything went like clockwork! The whole disaster has cost us less than ten pounds for the mechanic, and about thirty pounds waste of fuel. (We agree that we’re not going to pay that; FHI needs to shoot whoever put the wrong filler cap on a shared-user vehicle…..)

In Kigali we stop briefly at the VSO office so Geert can collect his papers (he’s been driving his moped illegally for months and doesn’t want to get caught in the last few weeks before he leaves), and collect mail for everyone who we know will be at the party.

Then finally we’re off to Gahini down the road leading East towards Tanzania. Through Rwamagana and finally to Kayonza where there’s a lovely road sign saying Ouganda to the left and Tanzanie to the right (see photo).

It’s only a few miles more to the lake and we pile in with all the rest of the crowd for a cold beer and gossip. They laugh like drains at our epic journey.

We’re in an outdoors eating area under a massive thatched roof, like an African hut without walls. There’s a breeze off the lake; some people have hired a boat for a trip on the water and one or two have even been swimming off the boat. We set to, decorating the hut with balloons and glitter; the girls have made some super “St Patrick’s Day” banners and even a “Happy 60th Bruce” banner. There’s paper shamrocks, and (of course) Irish tea-towels to adorn the African structure! Karen has given me presents of party poppers etc and a wonderful badge which I wear with pride the whole evening. It’s the Rwandan coat of arms, with the slogan “Bruce – you’re not over the hill, just still climbing the mountain”. You couldn’t really have thought of anything more appropriate for me, could you? And I’ve got cards from the Irish who are so pleased that we’ve joined forces to get more than half the entire VSO contingent, plus lots of friends, into one place for a knees-up.

Crested cranes strut around and look peevishly at us for disturbing their peace. Weaver birds are frantically building nests, chattering non-stop all the time. There are some beautiful flowers; I don’t know their names. The only jarring notes are fibreglass giraffes at the entrance gates, and fibreglass elephant heads set into the bar…… sort of Longleat meets Butlins, but very expensive by Rwandan standards! So there are few other Rwandans in the place, and as more and more VSOs arrive we take over.

We decide to check out where our accommodation is situated while it’s still daylight. Our guest house is the cheapest joint, about a mile away and up a hill. To say its basic is an understatement, but it’s incredibly cheap (£2.50 a head for bed and breakfast), so we’ll put up with the odd cockroach and the smelly bathroom. After all, if you’re going to swim in a lake, who cares about the washing facilities elsewhere?

The ones who booked early are in the old Bishop’s Palace, a magnificent building set at the water’s edge with fabulous views up the lake, and towards President Kagame’s private estate and ranch on the far side. Once again, these Rwandan Bishops know how to live…. Apparently the bishop himself is on tour in America (probably drumming up support for the gay-bashing of clergy that the African church seems so keen on, but we won’t get drawn further on that subject), so we can be sure he’s not going to suddenly appear and disapprove of our alcoholic night ahead. Any way, we five cheapskates make sure we visit the Bishop’s pad and take lots of photos. It reminds us of an English stately home next to one of those Capability Brown lakes, but on a grand scale.

Three of the VSOs, Ghislain, Ginette and Paula, are based here in Gahini, at the secondary school next door to our little guesthouse. It’s an idyllic spot, but I have to say I now prefer the hills and coolness of Gitarama! Gahini is a lot hotter and lower.

Christi has made me two chocolate birthday cakes; we light the candles on one and eat it. The whole contingent sings happy birthday, and a lot of very surprised Rwandans can’t understand why someone who is so old, and retired, should have chosen to spend a year working in their country. They’ve got absolutely no idea how much I’m enjoying myself here!

We eat well – whole tilapia fish – and the beers are flowing freely. Eventually we start the dancing. There are four Irish VSOs; Paula and Cathy from Ulster and Eric and Joe from Limerick and County Mayo in the south. Joe has brought CDs of Irish jigs and reels, but none of the Irish can remember how to do them. The whole party’s going to splinter just when it needs everybody doing something together. So I get everyone on the floor and do a circle dance (I can never remember how they go so I just make up steps from several and hope they fit the music), and then we do “strip the willow”) which goes down a treat and we do it again. I’ve now got a reputation as a dancing master…. Martine tells me it’s actually a Scottish dance, not an English one, and that it should be called “strip the widow”, which puts a whole new slant on it!…… A gay gordons or two later, we decide to call a halt to country dancing and get on with bopping.

Tom and the rest of the Gitarama crowd leave late evening; for various reasons they want to get back the same night. The truck is running well, and on empty roads they should be home in a couple of hours.

The party goes on till about half past two, when those of us remaining drift down to the boathouse. It’s turned out to be a lovely night; slight breeze off the lake but not at all cold. You can see lots of stars and hear little waves slapping the side of the building. A lot of people are drinking Waragi (Ugandan Gin) or banana liqueur, but at my old age I need to stick with beer. We share the second chocolate cake, and a big pack of honey biscuits. It’s very difficult to make cakes out here since we all use either paraffin stoves or charcoal, but somehow Christi’s managed it on a “camp oven” she brought from America. And chocolate – English chocolate – is even rarer here (you can buy chocolate but they make it differently to stop it melting in the heat, and it doesn’t taste at all as nice as ours in the UK). So Christi’s the toast of the party, even though by this time she’s back in Gitarama and tucked up in bed!

Next we sing continuously for nearly an hour until nobody can remember the words to anything else. We briefly consider staying up till dawn and watching the sun come up over the lake, but we’re too tired. We consider skinny dipping in the lake, but there’s too many Rwandans still around; within our own group we’d be fine, but the VSO girls with Rwandan boyfriends aren’t yet sure enough of them to risk it.

So, still singing, we tramp up the road to our various guesthouses, surprising some locals cycling at gone 3a.m. with loaded bikes. Half past three and into bed!

Sunday we’re up early and down to the Bishop’s palace to take photos. Half the gang are still in bed; others are drifting off home already. We chill by the lakeside for an hour or so; Marion and I go for a swim, then it’s the long trek back home. Flag down a matata to Kayonza (500 francs for about eight miles; its robbery!) Then a second matata to the Remera bus station in Kigali. I’m in the back seat, so jammed in that my head’s against the roof and I can only sit sideways on, which gives problems for the other three people with me in the back. They’re looking daggers, but even they can see I’m too big for the space so they just shrug and get on with it.

Outside the bus there’s a woman with a couple of squalling toddler twins, they look about two years old. She undoes her top and gives them a breast each. Unfortunately, with a breast in each mouth, the kids start going off in opposite directions, so she’s being stretched wide open and pulled apart. Great hilarity in the matata; great embarrassment and frantic clutching of kids, cloth and bosoms outside!

At Remera bus station I manage to get straight into my third bus, down to Mu Muji (town centre). I’ve no sooner got off the bus when I bump into Marisa and Els, who left ages before me from Jambo but who’ve had a slower run. So we decide to go to Bourbon café and pamper ourselves with a western-style lunch. I find the Rwandan coffee desperately strong, but the Bourbon’s hot chocolate is super.

Even now, I’m being looked after by someone up above. In Bourbon we meet Nix and Isidora; Nix is going for a swim at the Novotel pool but returning through Gitarama to Shyogwe in her jeep. Would I like a lift with her? Turns out Nix is the same age as my Catherine; yet she’s running an orphanage for 98 Rwandans, most of whom are now in the 18-30 age range. And Nix makes the most wonderful comment of my whole birthday. “We all think of you as a twenty five year old, but with a grey beard”!

Back home Tom and I chop up loads of veg and make soup, but I’m too tired to do anything else; looks as though, whatever Nix might say, at my advanced years I can’t be doing with only four hours’ sleep a night! Still, I manage to put my party pictures into a power point; I’ll load it on the VSO office computer some time next week and use it as a pictorial “thank you” to all the gang.

Best thing about the weekend – everything, really. I can’t think of a better way to spend any birthday, let alone a 60th
Worst thing – sitting around waiting for the truck to be mended. But even then, there were things to do and people to watch! I’m so, so lucky.

African Birthday, and une ecole orpheline

Mar 14th

Yay, my first African birthday! Christmas in Kenya in 1999, now birthday in Rwanda in 2008. Can’t be bad; I’m SO happy I’m somewhere exotic to pass my 60th, but I wish all the family was here to spend it with me.

Woken up at just gone six by Geert phoning to sing “happy birthday” in heavily accented English. Well, it’s a lovely thought and it certainly did wake me up….

Off to the office, dropped in at the Post Office on the off chance and yes, there’s a huge parcel from Teresa just come in. Somebody up there is definitely looking after me! Balloons and party stuff, a new fleece for when it gets cold again, even more DVDs (we’ve now got the best collection in the area, especially of old classics), and a baseball cap so I don’t have to look quite such a fright in my current hat.

Enough. Today is a working day. Off to visit Bwirika school, another little primary lost deep in the banana groves of Cyeza secteur. Two men greet me; I assume one is the Head and the other, in white coat, is one of his staff. White coat doesn’t leave us to it, but trails us round the site, and eventually it dawns on me that actually white coat is the Head, Idebald Niyorora (these Rwandan Christian names are a knockout) and the other guy is the chairman of his parents’ committee which roughly translates in English terms as Chairman of the Governors.

Both guys are very pleasant, direct and honest and the next four hours pass quickly. The chairman of governors sums the place up perfectly by saying they feel like “une école orpheline” – an orphan school. They’ve had no extra money for rebuilding; every building is in “semi-dur” (mud-brick); every room in the infant section is too small. The school’s grown from 610 to 725 children in just over two years and there’s been no extra building to accommodate them. It just means children jammed even tighter into rooms; four to a desk instead of three, and so on. You name it, they’re short of it.

OK, that’s not much different from several other smaller primaries in my patch. What stands out about Bwirika?................

The school site is huge and they take their farming very seriously. Not just a small grove of coffee trees, as at Gatenzi and Kivumu, but a big field, and being extended, too. And several acres of manioc; some thriving, but even I can tell other plants have a wilting disease.

On the edge of the site, and well within the area in which children play, there’s a huge brick-lined pit about twelve feet deep. It’s an old pit latrine, I think, now disused. It’s a potential death trap. There’s absolutely no barrier or any form of protection around it. If you fell in you’d break a leg at very least, and once inside it there’s no way a child could climb out. I bet at break times there are kids swarming all round it.

Here is a school of 700+ which not only doesn’t have water, but where the nearest water supply (down a hundred feet or so at the bottom of the valley) is contaminated and frequently makes children ill.

Even more astonishing, here is a school of 725 in which, according to the Head, there are 128 orphans. That’s over 17% of the entire roll and a huge figure. They can’t be orphans from the genocide (after all, even if we count the post-genocide killings which went on till 1996, the youngest victim of those would be 11 or 12). It’s also too many for them to be AIDS orphans or victims of family feuds. They might be children in households headed up by a young person who was originally a genocide orphan, but the whole thing is a mystery. Idewald doesn’t elaborate and the facts get lost in the opacity of Rwandan conversation.

Interestingly enough, although this school is in the same secteur as Bilingaga and Kivumu, and only a couple of miles away as the crow flies, Bwirika doesn’t seem to have the same difficulties in getting children to come in uniform and with shoes. I ask the chairman of govs directly about this, and about why Cyeza should be so poverty stricken relative to the other secteurs surrounding it. He cites poor soils (there’s so much mica in the soil that it’s painful on your eyes in bright sunlight), and the pressure of too many people per acre, so that farms are being subdivided and subdivided again until there’s not enough land to support families properly and the soil gets exhausted. It’s a worrying and dangerous situation and isn’t going to improve. It also helps explain why they had no alternative but to remove the majority of the old Akagera National Park and use it to settle returning refugees from Uganda.

Back to Gitarama on a moto, and lunch at the Tranquillité. I’m just starting to swallow my mélange when one of the waitresses comes up shyly and drops a birthday card onto my table! Someone has tipped them off that it’s my birthday, and they’ve bought me a card and all signed it. And the card would have cost them more than the value of my meal today. Must have been Cathie who put them up to it…..

Back home and write up my report on Bwirika. Tom arrives; he’s also been to the post office and during the day a card has come in from Mike and Ann. Talk about expert timing!

During the afternoon and evening there’s lots of texts from people either confirming they’re coming to the bash tomorrow, or crying off because of cost/distance/tiredness (and I can absolutely understand that, especially for those teaching in secondary schools. They’ve got exams to set and mark and all the usual end-of-term exhaustion). Tom and I finalise our arrangements for tomorrow’s picnic while we prepare a massive fruit salad and box it up for the freezer; and so to bed.

Best thing about today: the parcel from home; everybody’s kindness today
Worst thing about today: how can you allow a situation to exist where a school’s only water supply makes its children ill? It’s crazy. There’s so much rainfall here that you could have clean drinking water for all the children all the year round. You just have to pay to install a cistern and filter and connect it up to roof gutters.

Escaping to Kigali for the day!

Mar 13th

Another day of skiving! Up to the District Office to see if the mayor has signed my “memorandum of understanding” document which precedes my contract. Nothing doing – no mayor, no form. Never mind, at least she’s signed the contract itself which is the important document I need to get my visa.

Off to Kigali on the early bus and then all day at the Programme Office, fighting the internet. Lots of blogging done, including pictures of Akagera and Gihembe, and lots of emails to sort out and see if there’s anyone not aware of our change of birthday party plans. Lots of business-type things sorted out in the office. Thursday is obviously a good day to come, because all the teacher VSOs are working. Fridays are very different….

Just made it back to the city centre before the heavens opened and it poured. So marooned in the Bourbon café with coffee and cake –what a hardship!

On the way back we pass an overturned articulated lorry and trailer. It blocks the main road so all traffic has to creep round the verge. The lorry has been there a week, now. The containers on it have either been looted or emptied. I suppose nobody in Rwanda has got the kind of heavy lifting gear needed to right it. I wonder if they’ll eventually cut it up on site?

Nix tells me that this particular bend on the main road is notorious for accidents and has seen several fatalities. And a local woman has come forward and confessed that she’s in league with the devil, and that it’s she who is causing the accidents. We don’t know what the authorities have decided to do with her, or whether the locals have taken things into their own hands. Just shows that, despite all the fervent Christianity, there’s something much older lurking just below the surface.

Back home, spent the evening cutting up veg for a massive cook-up – we now have several days worth of tomato base, and an enormous meat and vegetable stew which we’ll box up and freeze. Should last us half way through next week!

Good news on the birthday front. Tom’s got permission to take the FHI pick-up truck, so we have transport at our disposal. You’ve got no idea how jealous that’s going to make everyone else! We’re taking Tom and Christi from FHI, me, Karen and Geert from VSO, and Janine our domestique is coming as well.

Best thing about today – just spending time, uninterrupted, on the internet.
Worst thing – nothing really. You need days like this every now and then!

Primary school or warehouse full of children?

Mar 12th

Off with Cathie to Kivumu primary, almost the last school in the district towards Kigali, so a nice long drive on good roads on motos. When we arrived the place looked far too small; brick buildings in an amazingly decrepit state with one section’s roof partially collapsed. Oh no, I thought, here we go again! Turns out that this is merely the annexe to Kivumu school, the overflow part in buildings rented from the church.

The school itself has 1700 pupils. That’s about as many as Beaminster and Colfox secondaries (or all their feeder primaries) put together! Its roll is growing, and Agnès will soon lose the classroom she has as her office. The buildings on the main site are almost all OK, and the Head teacher is one of our squad of head’s reps who came with me on the mass inspection back in February. Agnès is a smashing person – acute, jolly, interested and really, really nice to be with. Fortunately she’s obviously on the ball with all her documentation, so I’m able to give her a good write up in the Inspection Administratif” section. She’s got 30 teachers – that’s almost as many as at Beaminster secondary – and they all look so young! It’s like a student conference, or, rather, a group of young medics in their white coats! The children are amazing – imagine what it feels like to be mobbed by a thousand youngsters at break time, all standing round you in massed ranks staring at this phenomenon of two white people who’ve come to see them!

Cathie observes a couple of lessons and does a model lesson as usual; I observe one. Then - get this - while over a thousand children are good as gold and looked after by one auxiliary, we have our usual “pearls of wisdom” session with Agnès and the rest of the staff. They’re attentive listeners, and we’re beginning to feel more confident in what we’re going to say and what they can reasonably implement.

As at Bilingaga, this school has real problems with poverty. Many children don’t eat at mid day. There are 400 who are officially considered “enfants vulnerables” by Rwandan criteria. A nearby Franciscan church foundation feeds 36 each lunchtime, but it’s a drop in the ocean of need. Agnès tells us that last year one child, too ill to attend school, eventually died of acute malnutrition. Seems incredible in this day and age, and suddenly all the performance criteria and exam results targets get relegated to the background.

I don’t want to dwell on the unfortunate side of things – it’s a good school struggling in the face of all the usual problems; its staff are kind and humane. They just need a lot more training and the kind of intense, ongoing support which we could give if we were just looking after one sector of six or seven schools, but not when we have 106 primaries alone on our patch! Sometimes it makes you want to cry; you just feel so overwhelmed by the level of need that you don’t feel able to do anything.

It’s even worse when you consider that Rwanda is slowly coming out of the trough of appalling trauma at the end of the genocide. What on earth must this school have been like after 1994, with most of its teachers murdered, with none of its old 1950s mud-brick classrooms replaced, with no money, no organisation, no materials, no hope?

You just have to tell yourself that things are getting better, and the problems of overcrowding are due precisely to the amount of progress the country has made.

Best thing about today – being welcomed like old friends at this huge school.
Worst thing about today – discovering that even in 2008, in Rwanda, primary school children are dying of malnutrition.
By the way, I think there’s an even bigger school in Shyogwe secteur. And the Gihembe refugee camp school has about 4200 pupils, but that’s a special case….

Thursday, 13 March 2008

The President comes to Gitarama

The ceremonial arch has been built, but oops! the banner is upside down. Need to change it, quickly, before the big man arrives....

For me, the best thing by far were the Intore dancers and drummers. Hence a whole wodge of pictures of them

These ceremonial head dresses are only worn for the most warlike dances, usually at the end of their performance. By boy, do they look the part!

Working the crowds

Some pictures of people

Children follow you everywhere. I managed to amass this little lot just walking half a mile to Cathie's house!

The old Git in Gitarama, standing outside my office

Tom looking pensive in Karen's lounge. There's a beard which comes and goes....
Geert and Kest. Geert is education officer with Shyogwe diocese, near me in Gitarama. Kest is a retired primary head who visited us for three weeks. They're at Byumba, during the refugee week, planning maths games to use with our Congolese teacher friends
Kersti pretending to work (she's really loading a DVD to watch)!
Ghislain, a Quebequois diocesan education officer based at Gahini in the East

Why some schools fail

Mar 11th

Off on a moto again, this time to Bilingaga primary school, the next one across from Gatenzi which I did about a fortnight ago. From Bilingaga you can see Gatenzi and its coffee trees perched high on a hilltop.

Bilingaga is a problem school; its results are some of the lowest in the District. After half an hour with the head, I begin to learn why. Poor buildings, poor teaching (by some, at least), poor families. 32% of his children are too poor to afford shoes. 20% can’t afford uniform. (Also, this part of Muhanga was badly hit by the floods in February, which made a poor area even more desperate). A lot can’t afford to pay for exercise books or biros or any of the other things they need for school. Yet the head runs sports teams and a dance club as well as the obligatory environment and anti-AIDS clubs (and now, by Claude’s dictat, a “club anti-génocidaire” to counter any attempt at reintroducing ethnic hatreds).

But when I observe lessons there are problems evident. The English teacher is making a lot of mistakes in his pronunciation, and some of the sentences he’s using as examples don’t make sense in English. And the standard of writing of the children in year 5 is appalling – spidery writing (in whatever language they’re using). Last year his pass rate was less than 6% against a district average of 24%. He’s set himself a target of 22% this year. All very laudable but I can’t see how he’s going to get there short of divine intervention. What’s happening further down the school that these children are so poor at this stage of things?

When I go into the youngest classes I find they’re packed so tightly into the small classroom they can barely move. He’s got 138 in the first year and 120 in year 2. Both are taught as “double vacation” (i.e. each individual child comes either in the morning or the afternoon and therefore only gets half a day’s schooling), but the poor 1ère teacher still has two groups of 69 children to teach, and marking and report writing for 138. It’s no better in year 2, with two groups of 60. The teacher there is Abel’s wife; she’s lovely, but when we look in the door she’s so jammed in with the kids that she can’t reach me to shake hands.

I want to take photos of these classes; you’ve got to see them to really understand what this pressure of numbers means. Unfortunately by the time I’ve finished elsewhere (giving an impromptu English lesson to year 5 to correct some of their appalling pronunciation), lunchtime has begun and the school is emptying.

Bilingaga’s parents are lethargic and apathetic. In Rwanda parents are very important – they can get head teachers removed – but Abel has problems getting them to come to the formal meetings where they can exercise their power.

Abel, the head, is a genuinely nice guy. He’s got a good sense of management and his documentation is some of the best I’ve seen. He’s doing all the right things. He must be getting let down by the quality of teaching.

So I praise wherever I can, and promise to make sure his teachers get on Cathie’s training courses. Then I leave, walking all the way back to Gitarama. It’s about ten miles, but the weather looks OK and I’ve seen lots of things I want to photograph on the way back. Abel walks with me; his house is a mile or so up the road, and we’re pursued by half the school, who gradually dwindle as they branch off along footpaths through the banana groves and maize fields to their little huts. I’m the cause of endless amusement to people along the road – why is there a muzungu here? And why is he walking? But I speak to everyone and get kindness back. A group of young mums get really saucy; I can’t understand what they’re saying but there’s no mistaking the body language…

I talk to Abel about family sizes. He says that instead of having six to ten children, which has been Rwanda’s problem for a long time, there’s a lot of media pressure now for families to stop at three. Quite how this is going to be done is a mystery. First you’ve got to get contraception (and the knowledge of how to use it) out to these rural areas where the vast majority of parents have never been to school and can’t read or write. Then you’ve got to get round the various churches; almost all of them are seriously fundamental, and take “go forth and multiply” at face value. Even at three children, it means the population increases by around 50% in one generation. There’s just no way they’re going to feed them all. Everywhere as I walk back I see new mud-brick houses being jammed into corners, and in two places whole hillsides are being shaved off into terraces. It’s an enormously complicated and labour-intensive job; nobody does it unless they’re forced to.

Back home I write my report during an enormous storm. Water comes flooding in through the half inch gap under our French window and I spend half an hour mopping up. No wonder our tiles are lifting in the living room. Tom’s in Kigali all day, back late, so I cook a finishing-up mixture – rice, cabbage, carrots onions and tomatoes, with a bit of grated cheese on top. Not very sophisticated but its filling.

Best thing about today – the long walk back from Bilingaga. I’ve caught the sun badly, but, hey, who’s looking?
Worst thing – discovering that my birthday bash is clashing with the Irish contingent’s St Patrick Day binge over at Gahini in the East. It’ll be difficult for people to manage both do’s, so I might have fewer people than I’d like. Can’t be helped. I’m only 60 once and I’m not going to cancel!

Mar 9th

Up early and out with my camera to take pictures in the brick fields round the back of Gitarama. Even at seven on a Sunday morning there’s a couple of dozen people working; their clothes are filthy from the clay and contrast with a stream of other people who are on their way to Kabgayi cathedral for Mass. Everyone says hello; it’s a funny place for a muzungu to be, let alone so early in the morning; I think they wonder what I’m up to. One older man is kneading his mix of clay and water, and I greet him in French and start talking. He’s amazed that a muzungu wants to pass the time of day with him and readily agrees to be photographed. His wife is sitting on a pile of dried bricks nearby; she covers most of her face with a shawl and I think they’re probably muslims. He shows me how to make a brick by hand using a wooden mould, and I take a couple of quick snaps. He’s chuffed to bits when he sees his face in a picture and calls his wife over. Then several other people also working come over to look. Their hands and clothes are caked with grey clay and I start to get worried that someone will grab the camera and drop it in the mud. But I escape and walk on a few yards to where there is a kiln. It is smoking well; obviously the bottom is being fired. But at the same time there’s two makeshift ladders up it and a dozen or so youngsters throwing dried bricks onto the top ready for firing. I ask if I can take a photo; they stop work and agree but then ask for money. Everyone wants to see the pictures I’ve taken. I give them a hundred francs (10p) and leave them to squabble over how to divide it. If I stay any longer they might want a hundred each and I’m not getting into that!

I take a roundabout way home through fields and up to the cathedral at Kabgayi. One mass is just ending and people are waiting for the next. The service is broadcast outside the church; presumably on occasions there are too many in the congregation to fit inside. I’m greeted by a lovely bunch of young children from Gahogo; they remember me from my visit to their school, and two of them even remember my name and can say it accurately! They’re beautiful, well brought up children and it’s a pleasure to speak with them.

Tom and I have a planning session to finalise arrangements for my birthday do. Food is OK; invites must be emailed a.s.a.p; music is going to be a problem unless I can reboot my iPod. Spend the rest of the day chillin’, doing household chores and preparing food. I know my schedule for next week, but not looking forward to the usual battle to get a moto at a reasonable price.

Best thing about today – the man’s delight at seeing his picture on my camera
Worst thing – nothing really. Just a nice, easy day with no stress.

Lazy Saturday

Mar 8th

After the fun and games of the last week I need a rest! So spent a lazy day and hardly went out of doors except to the market at the end of the afternoon. (Getting better – carrots, celery, tomatoes, all good amounts for my money. Spuds and peppers are fixed quantities. Just onions where I thought I was getting short measure. This buying at the end of the afternoon when they’re all desperate to sell up and get home is definitely the way to do it).

So what have I achieved today – repaired a toggle on my rucksack. Tried, and failed, to get my iPod to re-load. Will get Teresa to send out the original formatting disc from home; if that doesn’t work then it’s bye-bye music except for what’s on my laptop. Boo. Done my blogs for Akagera and Gihembe. Found my VSO contract, which they urgently need to do my visa. I’ve got to go to the vice-mayor on Monday and persuade her to sign it.

Best thing about today: being lazy
Worst thing: I’m afraid my iPod may be broken. A real shame, because I’m just beginning to pick up loads and loads of music from other VSOs with similar interests. Irena has lived in Brasil and the Cape Verde islands and she’s giving me stacks of West African music. Nick is compiling me a CD of Congolese stuff he thinks I ought to hear. Oh well, all my iPod music is on the laptop and I can listen to it with headphones. Bit inconvenient to have a computer in bed with you, though….

Welcome to Gihembe refugee camp, Byumba. Don't forget to collect your water at the alloted time. Each hut houses one family group; average size of a family group is 8 people.

Camp children. The reason why we're here...
The area around Byumba is mountainous and the scenery is exceptionally lovely. Would you guess that this shot is taken in Africa, and almost exactly on the Equator
The camp seen from Byumba town

Sanitation is reminiscent of Glastonbury.....

The camp chapel; it's the best decorated church in Rwanda

The teachers we trained. Here they are preparing lessons in a mud classroom.

You get a sense of claustrophobia in the camp
Carpentry training workshop

The primary school in the camp. 84 classrooms; well over 4000 pupils

View from our gueshouse in Byumba across to three of the volcanoes
What's my future going to be like?