Sunday, 27 April 2008

Inside one of the brick rooms. Furniture is stacked in the middle to allow the floor to be cleaned. The door is open but the wooden rain shutters are closed. If the door was closed as well, for example against rain, you can see how the place becomes too dark for work. Even whitewash on the walls would help, and ideally if the walls were plastered and then painted you would have the ideal situation. But this is the relly when money is desperately short and everyone has to cut corners.
This is a new mud-brick classroom with a tin roof, but it still suffers from all the problems of durability and lack of light. It's not the answer to Shoywe's needs

Here's a close-up of the replacement rooms in brick. You can see the ventilation holes above the windows. But why, oh why, have they only put windows on one side? The room is still dark and gloomy inside, even on a day of brilliant sunshine!

This is part of the block of brick classrooms built to replace the mudbrick ones which collapsed last year. In true Rwandan style they salvaged most of the roof tiles from the old building; you'll notice the've only neede to buy a small patch of new tiles! There's by far the best rooms in the school - but they lost five and could only afford to replace four. Some one class is always being taught outside at the moment. The children migrate around the schol buildings during the day, trying to find a patch of shade. Since the only shade is the sahows of the other existing buildings, it means the class is ranged in a long thin line right outside the windows of another room, with all their noise and distraction. Not exactly a brilliant teaching environment.

This is a close-up to show you details of the wall construction. The mud bricks are crumbling away, and it seems as though the only thing supporting the enormous weight of the tiled roof is the thin skin of plaster on the outside of the wall. What happens to this room, and the children inside it, when we have the next earthquake?

This is a block of 6 toilets. During a hot day you can smell them from twenty paces, and a stream of effluent runs out of the doors and away down the hill. (I took this photo during the Easter holidays when the toilets weren't in use). There are 14 loos for 2103 pupils, and no separate loos for the 30 staff. The ratio of people per toilet is well over 150:1.


At least there is water next to the toilets

There are serious cracks in the walls, and if you knock on them with your fist you can hear a void behind the skin of plaster. One classroom block at this school collapsed last year. What's holding up the roof in the building? And how sfe is it for the 300+ children crammed into the rooms inside it?

The Shyogwe School project

On the other side of these rooms they've put up buttresses because the wall is collapsing outwards.

This is the oldest block of classrooms and the one in urgent need of replacement. Notice ther windows - no glass, but wooden shutters. There are only windoes on one side of the rooms. Because the rooms are made of weak mud bricks, the windows have to be as small as possible to maintain the building's structural integrity. But if you shut the windows because it's raining, the rooms are almost pitch dark inside - too dark to work in!

Welcome to Shyogwe Anglian Primary SChool, near Gitarama. This is what a primary school with 2103 pupils looks like! The water tank is a gift from the pupils of Marchwood Primary school, near Southampton

8 million francs richer......

Apr 23rd

Into the office; no post for me (yet again); give Claude two secteur’s census results nicely printed but he barely seems interested; he wants to wait until I’ve got all the results done. OK, but that means I’m going to have to text the various secteur reps and put a bomb behind them!

Take a moto to Shyogwe school. Geert has told me it should cost RwF500 from our flat; from the District Office it’s a lot further and I manage to get him down to 600 which makes me feel good. (In English terms I’ve saved 20p, but it’s a little victory for my bargaining power which will come in handy when I’m bargaining for longer and much more expensive runs). It’s nice to be out into the countryside again. Geert lives at Shyogwe in a tiny little cottage; there’s a shared kitchen with the cottage next door. It’s cosy and feels very homely. He’s got a very young domestique, Chantal, who cooks beautifully and cleans up after his every move. They absolutely worship Geert in Shyogwe village and he’s going to be such a difficult act to follow. By the way, at Shyogwe you just ask for “la maison du muzungu” – everyone knows him, and everyone knows where he lives.

Shyogwe is a simply delightful little community. It’s only a couple of miles outside Gitarama, but is surrounded by lots of trees and feels sylvan and rustic. Birds are singing in the trees; the senior priest in the place introduces us to his cows and some of his children (in that order). Both Tom and I agree that if we were going to buy a house in the Gitarama area, we would ensconce ourselves in this village.

The Bishop’s away on tour in Europe until June, so we’ve got his permission to get on with our work without him. We meet in Geert’s office in the Diocesan compound. (Whereas I work for the District, Geert works for the Anglican Diocese and his patch overlaps at least three Districts, but only the Anglican schools within them. Since most schools in Rwanda are owned by the Roman Catholic church, any Anglican officer has to do a lot of travelling because his schools will be few and far between. Both Kersti and Ghislain are also volunteer education officers attached to the Anglican Dioceses of the North and East provinces of Rwanda).

With the help of Jan who climbed the volcano with us, Geert has transformed a spare room at the diocesan centre into a computer training centre, with about six machines all linked to the internet. Unfortunately today MTN phone reception is down (there’s a surprise), and the internet is totally not working, so we can’t do exactly what we wanted. But the personal reception I get at the diocesan H Q sums up the difference between Diocese and District. The District feels huge and bleak and impersonal; the Diocese is all about warm personal relations. Within five minutes I’m introduced to about six people and have swapped phone numbers with all of them.

The purpose of the meeting is to agree how we’re going to administer a huge grant from the Dutch charity Randstad. It’s 20,000 Euros, which sounds much grander at well over 16 million Rwandan francs. We’ll know on Thursday or Friday whether we’ve got some or all the money, but it’s a rushed job because Geert is leaving for home this weekend, and we have to make plans on the assumption that we’ll get the money. (If they refuse us we’ll just gnash our teeth and try to carry on as usual). My job is to act as the VSO liaison person with the Dutch charity, and send them progress reports plus photos of how the money is being spent, on a monthly basis. The school and the Bishop will decide how to spend the money, but we have a shopping list including new classrooms, staffroom, meeting room, furniture, glass for the windows, new toilets, and even electricity for the classrooms if we can stretch the money that far!

After the meeting I go on a tour of the school with Stephanie, the Head. She’s a mother of seven children, does a full time job in the biggest primary in the District, and copes without her husband who is in prison (presumably on Gacaca related charges. Even Geert doesn’t dare ask for details….). She’s chatty and friendly, and it feels as if I’ve known her for ages. I wonder how on earth she coped with the INSET Boot Camp, or, rather, how her children coped. The oldest is 22, but the youngest is only 5. Juliette, one of the other teachers, has four children and a husband who was hacked to pieces in 1994. Yet she’s cheerful and smiling. She’s been to England and knows Southampton, so we’ve got something in common straight away. Emmanuel, the senior priest, has even been to Sherborne, as well as London, Hereford, and also Southampton.

The school has a more tangible physical connection with Southampton, too. In the centre of the courtyard there’s a huge water cistern, built with money raised by Marchwood primary school. It’s exactly what the place needs, and three cheers to the Marchwood school. Just imagine the alternative – two thousand children and forty staff in a place without any drinking water during hot summer months!

The purpose of going round the school is for me to take a bunch of photos of the present state of the buildings to send to the Dutch charity. The classrooms are almost all in “semi-dur” around a courtyard; along one side there’s a block supported by buttresses to stop the wall falling outwards down into the valley. The walls are cracked, and when I tap on them I can hear voids behind the outer skin of rendering. One wall is certainly made up of rubble which is crumbling to dust and even I, with my lack of architectural know-how, am wondering what’s holding up the roof. There are six toilets for 2103 pupils. At the end of break times there is a small river of urine trickling away down the hillside (Geert has a photo).

There is no staff room, no store room, no staff toilet, no office. The head teacher in a school of 2000 does her admin jammed into the corner of whichever classroom has the smallest number of pupils. There’s no electric light, or power points, no duplicating or photocopying facilities. There’s not a blade of grass in the courtyard where children play at breaktimes. The classrooms only have windows on the courtyard side, so they’re dark even on a sunny day. (Because mud bricks (“semi-dur”) are not as strong as fired bricks, it’s important to minimise the size of any openings in the structure. Windows are as few and as small as possible). I’m intending to put a photo-essay of the state of the school onto this blog.

Last year, during the rainy season, one entire block of classrooms collapsed. Fortunately there weren’t children inside it at the time. The Diocese has replaced the rooms with proper brick (“dur”) rooms, but can only afford 4 rooms where they need 5. So each class, in rotation, has to do some lessons outdoors. Geert has lovely photos of children sitting on blocks of fallen rubble and big stones, writing in their exercise books as if this were perfectly normal. When it rains, or when it’s blazing hot, the outside class is packed into the other rooms, but this makes them so crowded the children can’t write properly in their exercise books.

They’ve salvaged most of the roof tiles from the collapsed building; there’s a vivid contrast between recycled and new tiles on the roof. But somebody decided only to put windows in one side of the replacement rooms, so when it rains and they have to close the wooden shutters, even these new rooms are just as gloomy as the ones they replaced. I’m going to insist to Stephanie that they must have windows on two sides in the new rooms. That way, whichever direction the rain comes from, they can have some windows open and enough light to teach by! And if we can afford glass for the windows, the lighting problem will be all but solved.

We go back to Geert’s cottage where Chantal is making dinner for all of us. Stephanie is so worn out that she lies down on the spare bed in Geert’s living room and dozes off. (Isn’t that a nice touch – you feel so at ease with your education adviser that you can lie down on his spare bed while you wait for dinner). I load a whole bunch of photos from Geert’s laptop onto my flash drive; before he goes I must give him some of mine including the gorilla picture. Various head teachers and others call in; the house door is always open. It’s such a contrast to our flat which is guarded like a fortress and where no Rwandan can just drop in on us.

Eventually I take my leave and hail a bicycle taxi – the first time I’ve used one. The cyclist sweats and strains a couple of miles up to the main road, and there I decide to walk home because it’s breezy and there are plenty of shady trees alongside the main road.

When Tom comes home we spend most of the evening cooking and making up our big fruit salad. We’ve barely finished before Geert comes banging on the door; he’s been celebrating in one of the Gitarama bars and his Rwandan friend has already confiscated his moto keys because he’s too drunk to drive! Geert’s wife has phoned to say the Dutch charity has agreed to give us 10,000 euros (over 8 million francs) straight away, and up to another 10,000 later in the year depending on its own fund-raising success back in Holland. So now I’m part of a 16 million franc contractual agreement with a Dutch charity (Randstad) and duty bound to visit the school each month and send in a written report and photos. Fortunately I don’t have to write them in Dutch.

The avocado I scrumped from the Amani guest house is just starting to ripen, so I text Teresa for a recipe for guacamole (we’re feeling ambitious in the kitchen department this week) and for pizza dough (I’ve an idea of how I can make an oven. With a working oven we could even bake cakes…… drool, drool!)

Best thing about today – everything. What a wonderful day. I couldn’t think how it could have been better.
Worst thing – nothing.

Rwandan care in the community - a crazy in our office

Apr 21st

No more emergencies during the night, so up and off to work, leaving George to spend a lazy morning exploring Gitarama. Only about one day’s work has come into the office during my week’s absence, so I get straight on to entering it on the census spreadsheets. It also means I don’t feel guilty about having a week away at last week’s training course. Mid morning Cathie and I get a chance to talk to Claude. He eventually agrees to our scaled-down plans for teacher training – he really doesn’t have much option. You’ve got to give it to Claude, he’s sharp and very quick to look for easy ways out which won’t cost him. “Why not do the training on Saturdays from 8-1; then you won’t have to pay for lunch for the teachers and we won’t disturb their classes?” Yes, Claude, but when you take out all the umuganda days there are only about half a dozen Saturdays left before Cathie goes. So no can do. So he eventually agrees to half days on Thursdays and Fridays; if the schools are willing to put some of their own money , then we can stay all day. We hastily reschedule our work. Then one of our secteur rep friends breezes in and tells us that next month’s “head’s jolly” (AKA mass inspections), will be up in Rongi secteur (in the far north) on a Wednesday. Good – we’ll do our training there the next day. We might even arrange to stay in the priest’s house overnight.

We also briefly talk about my plans and he agrees to them – statistics all this week, plus visit to Shyogwe to talk to them about this big grant from VSO Holland. Then school visits locally until the end of the rainy season, when I’ll go on tour for a week or so up to Nyabinoni in the extreme north of Muhanga. That will be a real adventure, but impossible until the roads are reliable and before it all gets too hot! Tomorrow I must ring up schools and tell them the good news that I’m about to descend on them!

At mid-day I scoot off back home to sort out George and Épi. She’s been travelling from Gishanda; crazy, really – Épi’s given herself almost the longest journey you can make in Rwanda! We all meet up in the middle of town; neither has had anything to eat so I take them to Tranquillity. Shock, horror – it’s put its prices up during the week I’ve been away. (Inflation is starting to take off in Rwanda; everyone’s trying to get rich quick by putting their prices up. There’s going to be heartache for all the poorest people and a hard landing eventually for the middle classes who are trying to live Western lifestyles on African incomes). The “jus de fraise” is good, but not as good as our “fruit cocktails” in Butare.

Eventually I put them onto a matata for Gikongoro; it’ll take them all afternoon to get there and on to Gasarenda on a second bus, but they’ve got the front two seats by the driver, and it’s such a pretty journey. And they won’t be able to do any discussing with Han until tomorrow. They’ll stay with Han and Mans and she’ll spoil them with her cooking…..

Back to the office where another disturbed, deranged person is shouting the odds at Innocent and Venantie. He’s demanding something, producing loads of crumpled bits of official looking paper. Then he sits on the office floor and refuses to move. Claude disappears, fast; he’s acutely embarrassed that we’re witnessing the display. (If only he had any idea of what was happening last night). This man can’t hold a conversation; he just shouts at everybody. It’s frightening to listen to him to even when we can’t understand anything he’s saying. He’s gabbling, repeating himself and waves his fists around to emphasise his grievances. He so angry with us all, and obviously with a system that’s shunting him round and round the bureaucratic circle without giving him anything. I’ve no idea what he wants. Eventually Innocent persuades him to leave the office, but he comes back twice more, just as angry and just as vocal. Finally we get him out of the office at quarter to four and hastily we all leave and lock up! It’s the first time we’ve ever all left en masse. And that’s two mentally disturbed people I’ve encountered within twenty four hours.

Back at the flat, Geert rings up and I go out for a drink with him and Ward. Tom joins us when he gets back from work, and we spot Cathie and Elson tramping home so they too join us for a quick beer. The local drinkers are bemused that their bar has suddenly been taken over my muzungus. It’s a bittersweet occasion because it’s probably the last time we’ll have Geert for a quiet chat – he flies back to Holland next Sunday.

And guess what – there yet another twist in the tail of the Boot Camp INSET story. Apparently the teachers are being asked to contribute to the huge costs of the exercise (at least a billion and a half francs) by having money deducted from their wages. So not only have they forfeited most of their Easter holidays to eat bad food, do forced runs and dancing, build houses for genocide victims and the rest, but now they’ve got to pay for it as well. What cheek! At first Geert and I are convinced that we’re having our leg pulled, but it really seems to be true.

Best thing about today – being able to sleep in my own bed after virtually a fortnight!
Worst thing – where’s my “Guardian Weekly”? Two letters for Tom today, but none for me. BOO!

Super Saturday; Christi nearly gets murdered on Sunday

Apr 19-20th

To the VSO office Saturday morning with Soraya; they’ve already bought her and Épi a Terracom phone each, so as soon as they can buy some calling credit we’ll find out whether we can contact them more easily in their houses! Feel very pleased about this because it’s one development I can take some credit for, having really laid it on thick with Heather about their isolation! Soraya’s definitely not quitting – hooray! She had a long phone call with her mum the other night and her mum’s persuaded her she ought to stay.

Fortunately the Office is very quiet so I have time to do all my blogs, read emails at leisure etc. Many of the others are up at Kimironko market or gone swimming. I feel a bit of a chicken that I haven’t been to either of the really big Kigali markets at Nyabogogo or Kimironko, and I must make a point of going some time soon. Problem is, that whenever I come to Kigali I’m preoccupied with getting to the Office and doing internet, or I’m rushing to meetings. I must buy some material and get a couple of African shirts made; none of the other men in our batches has done it yet and it’d look really cool. They’d certainly add a splash of colour in Bridport when I come back! Cathie’s told me where there is a super shop in Mu Muji with mountains of bolts of batik cloth. You buy material in lengths called “pangs”; one pang is the amount needed to make a wrap-around garment for an adult woman. I can get shirts made up at my friendly dressmakers in Gitarama; all I need to do it take in one of my existing shirts to give them size and pattern. Watch this space!

Not much more to report for Saurday – I know that Irene from the Gihembe refugee camp is coming into Kigali to party the night away; she agrees to bring her laptop with her. I’m hanging around most of the day waiting for her but we finally meet up and in half an hour or so over a glass of ikivugoto we’ve swapped vast amounts of music. I’ve transferred nearly 4 gigabytes of data onto my laptop – that’s the equivalent of about 36 music CDs. Isn’t life wonderful! I’ve got all sorts of West African, Cape Verde and South American music, plus a lot of Dutch stuff too (Irene is Dutch). Only problem is that many of the some titles are in Dutch so I’m rapidly getting a Netherlands vocabulary to cope with them!

Marisa shows me where there is a bank in the middle of Kigali which you can use to get money with Mastercard. It isn’t an ATM machine; you have to go inside and do it with a cashier (so I can’t use the system out of hours), but it’s nice to know that in an emergency I can get money on my plastic. I bet Goldfish’s security system blows a fuse when there’s suddenly a transaction on my card from the middle of Africa.

Back home on the evening bus; there’s no food in the flat. Tom’s had a dreadful week and has consoled himself by going out to watch football (Gitarama has just got a proper professional team together and if you’re willing to sit in the open in the stadium you can watch for free). Within the last five minutes of the game there comes on a heavy tropical rainstorm, so they just decide to abandon the game there and then. Mind you, most of the spectators have already gone. Just before it comes on a heavy rain you feel the temperature drop rapidly, and it gets very windy and gusty. Cue all the new loyal fans legging it up the road into the nearest bar!

So we dine out at Delta, a café-bar attached to Gitarama’s one and only nightclub. Either it doesn’t come to life until about 1 a.m. (as in Kigali), or it’s truly the most dire nightspot in the southern hemisphere! Even the MTV in the bar is playing better music, and the dance hall echoes as if there are only about three people in it.

On Sunday Tom’s off to Kigali on his moped for a meeting, so I go to church on my own. Arrive at ten after things have already been going for an hour, but the service doesn’t finish until half past twelve. Fiery preacher who barely pauses for breath in a 20 minute sermon, and loads of choirs – about 6 different groups. The student choir is, as usual, excellent and a treat to listen to. Many of the others are like bigger versions of our Bradpole Music Group. I really must get some of the songs, and the karaoke thudding backing tracks, and try them out at Bradpole….. I tell my translator to use French because it’s easier for him, so I’m well in touch with what’s happening. And people at the church are beginning to recognise me (but few, yet, to try to speak to me).

Cathie and Elson come round after lunch to talk about her teacher raining programme. There’s so little time left before she goes that we need to condense it from a two day to a one day programme (times twelve for the twelve secteurs), but if the District budget doesn’t arrive soon from Kigali then even this amount of training will be impossible. Elson looks very fit after twenty days of boot camp!

That leads me to the final instalment in the Boot Camp INSET saga. It was decreed that all the teachers should be taken to the Amahoro Stadium in Kigali for the final session of the training (the address by President Kagame). In order to get them there, and back home afterwards, virtually every matata in Rwanda that could turn a wheel was commandeered. This meant that there was total traffic chaos on the roads, and that virtually every Rwandan who was not a teacher had no means of transport for two days. People were stranded everywhere, couldn’t get to market etc. Many teachers stayed over in Kigali on Thursday night to see relatives or go shopping; this meant that the buses on Friday were also full to bursting and many local people were stranded again. (Hence Samira’s travel troubles while we were at the Ethiopian restaurant).

I race round the market to get some food in the flat, and hastily do nearly a fortnight’s worth of ironing and tidy up. Then George arrives from Kibuye; he’s enjoyed himself there but is tired. When Tom gets home (his moped is very, very sick and using huge amounts of petrol), we cook up a massive meal and just as we’re getting ready to flop in the armchairs we get a dramatic phone call from Karen, saying there’s an emergency at her house and can we come, quickly.

So we down tools and leg it, all three of us, to her house. Takes us ten minutes or less. There, on the living room floor, there’s a young Rwandan in his early twenties, unconscious and with bloodstains all over his shirt. His hand is heavily bandaged. Christi is leaning over him, holding his inert hand, reading verses from her bible. Several Rwandan neighbours are standing around, and children coming in to gawp.

We’ve been expecting some sort of confrontation with people who won’t take no for an answer, but its clear this young man doesn’t pose any further threat, and everyone else is there to help or simply for the entertainment.

The story emerges. Claude often comes to the house; he’s a young man with both physical health problems and definite psychological problems. He’s overseen by the “Bureau Social” which is the local equivalent of Social Services (but virtually penniless). Tonight he’s come to the gate and been let in because he’s known to both Karen and Christi – they counsel him and have arranged care from him during previous bouts of ill health. But tonight he’s clearly very mentally disturbed; he says he’s been told by the devil that he must kill someone, and that he’s come to kill Christi.

Christi isn’t in the house at this stage, so Karen manages to text her and warns her to be on her guard. Karen then tries to talk Claude down out of his rage, as she has calmed him down on previous occasions. Christi, good Christian soul, doesn’t stay well away and leave Karen on her own, but comes home at once. I’m not exactly sure of the next sequence, but Christi manages to get safely inside the house, and Claude is out in the courtyard, and the women lock the door while they ring for help (to us, and to neighbours they know). Meanwhile Claude gets into a frenzy. He produces a knife and rattles the front door until the key falls out of the lock and he can get inside. He comes at Christi with the knife and both women wrestle with him. Eventually they get the knife away from him, but not until he has stabbed himself through his hand, and tied to kill himself with a stab to the chest. Somewhere in all this he goes unconscious and falls to the floor.

Karen has a small nick on a finger. We know Claude’s brother is HIV positive, and it’s reasonable to suspect Claude himself might be positive as well. So Karen’s flooding this cut on her finger with antiseptic, but will have to sweat it out for three months before she can have a reliable HIV test to find out whether she’s been infected. As well as treating herself, she’s bandaging Claude’s bleeding hand and generally trying to mop up any blood which might be on furniture, the floor etc. (You have one HIV test within twenty four hours; if it shows positive then you’re definitely HIV positive; if it shows negative then you have to wait a few months for a second, more reliable confirmation. So a “negative” at this stage is not a definite negative. It makes for a hugely stressful period of limbo when you’re convinced that you will end up HIV positive and you’re trying to confront all the stigma and future problems….. You see why Karen is going to need a lot of support and friendship this spring).

Tom and Christi sit hunched over Claude’s bulk in the middle of the floor, saying prayers for him. It’s a completely surreal sight – this man has come with the express intention of murdering Christi and its only good fortune that has saved her; he may already have condemned Karen to a horrible, slow, lingering, painful end; but here they are saying prayers over the wretched man. Nobody wants to call the police because when the police find out he’s tried to kill a muzungu, and a female, American muzungu at that, they’ll probably beat him to a pulp and may well accidentally kill him in the process. Whatever he’s threatened the women with, they don’t want his death on their conscience as a result. The rest of us are milling around, waiting for transport to arrive. One of the neighbour’s husbands is a taxi driver, and he eventually cautiously comes into the yard and does a seven point turn in pitch darkness. (Karen lives down a narrow alley which is a challenge for cars even in daytime. I certainly wouldn’t like to negotiate it at night). We bundle the unconscious Claude into the back of the car as if he were a sack of bananas. Two Rwandans are in the front, but who is to travel with him in the back to Kabgayi hospital? Christi wants to. We persuade her that’s not a good idea. Claude might come to and resume his murderous intentions. Tom insists on going with them. What Claude needs is someone sitting on each side of him, to prop him up and restrain him if he comes to and gets violent again. But the driver is adamant – the law only allows him three other people in the car. So it’s just Tom and Claude sitting in the back.

George and I escort Christi up to the town centre, through milling drunks from all the local bars, and she takes a moto to Kabgayi. I’m very impressed – even though she’s in shock, she still manages to knock down the price of the moto and dismisses the first driver because his spare crash helmet doesn’t have a strap. Attagirl!

After this, George and I have a quick beer in one of the more salubrious bars, then it’s a long phone call with Teresa relaying all the evening’s drama and off to bed. Tom comes back from the hospital round midnight; Claude is resting and will be OK; Christi is still on autopilot and will need support when the full implications of the evening hit her, and Karen also will need a lot of friendly support over the next few months.

So that’s my Sunday evening, folks. As they say, “expect the unexpected”.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Miscellany from Kigali

George, my VSO colleague and amateur barber extraordinare makes me human again! George is a science teacher in a school in the far north east.
Alicia, fellow volunteer, leads us in early morning Yoga during the training week at Kigali

DON'T LOOK DOWN!!! "aerial photos" of Kigali taken from a tower crane. The Dutch workmen putting up the crane were staying in the same place as us, and I arranged for them to take photos for me.

building in the middle is the "Hotel Mille Collines"


Chopping yet another load of veg in the flat
Epi trying out her carrying ring in the flat

Soraya and Epi on the way to getting lost

Volcanoes in the late afternoon sun

Gorillas on the Piste. Double click on this to enlarge it and you'll be able to see the baby gorilla

I knew I was tired, but why do I look so worried? Bishoke summit and crater lake

Volcanoes at dawn

The old washer-man of Gitarama!

Haircuts, aerial photos, gorilla poo and Ethiopian food

Apr 18th

Final day at Amani; we’re all getting tired and jaded. In the last Kinya-rwanda lesson we split into groups; while my lot gets extra vocabulary (I doubt if I’m ever going to use it but it shows willing; I’m amazed at how much grammar some people like Soraya and Épi have managed to learn), the others do role play. Cue an amazing performance by Cathie, Erick and Els of coping with a stroppy customer at a restaurant, all sung to the tune of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Talk about a tour de force! Must be the first opera in Kinya-rwanda!

Well, all good things come to an end and by lunchtime we have the final speeches. During this week I seem to have become the group’s spokesperson and I give the vote of thanks to all the staff, saying that if we seem a good group it simply reflects the level of training they’ve been giving us etc. Some staff are close to tears.

Then we all charge up to the programme office to get mail and try to use the internet. I manage to download a load of emails from home, but there’s too big a queue to even think about sending blogs – I’ve got a fortnight’s worth or more of stuff all waiting to be posted online, including some pictures. Never mind, I’ll try again tomorrow morning.

While we wait to go out for the evening I’m conscious that my long, fuzzy hair is now looking quite ridiculous. George, bless him, volunteers to give me a snip and he does a wonderful job. I’ve got a professional quality haircut from an Indian volunteer who lives in Australia and is working in the far north-east of Rwanda, right up close to the Akagera Game Park. In fact his school and entire town stands on land sequestered from the Game Park to accommodate the country’s growing population. In return, I’m putting George up on Sunday night on his way back from Kibuye. The teachers are planning what to do with heir extra week’s holiday; I know I must get back into the office and normal work routine or I’ll be I serious trouble at Gitarama!

No sooner has my hair been cut when the two Dutch guys who have been putting up a tower crane right in the middle of Kigali return from work. (They’re also staying with us at Amani). Épi and I were hoping for a chance to climb the crane and take photos, but our week has been so full that we haven’t had a chance. So I arranged that one of the "Flying Dutchmen" would take lots of pictures with his camera (it’s almost identical to mine), and sure enough he comes back with a whole bunch of amazing pictures which we download onto my laptop. I’ll post one or two anon.

In the evening we all go up to Kimironko to an Ethiopian restaurant to celebrate the end of the course, to eat food different from Amani’s, and to celebrate Els’ birthday. The Ethiopian food is great – an enormous pancake with various meats and sauces dotted over it. Doesn’t look a lot at first, but, my, it was filling! At the restaurant we get joined by more and more volunteers and staff (word gets around), and soon we’re a group of seventeen and we’ve virtually taken the place over. We’re joined by Chris and Nicole, the two primary head teachers on NAHT ten-week placements who’ve just finished their post-service holiday and are off back to England tomorrow. They spent a fortune watching gorillas, but are full of it.

Nicole relates how they’re all crouching still in the deep grass, watching a huge silverback chomping away at the grass just a couple of feet from them. A juvenile climbs a tree so he’s vertically above them, then decides to do a poo and is audibly straining away in the branches right over their heads. With the silverback almost within touching distance nobody dares move, so they all hope the juvenile is either constipated or that they’re not directly in the line of fire……

OK, so in a couple of days this blog has gone from genocide to gorilla poo, but that’s Rwanda, folks!

After the meal we adjourn to a bar and then most of the gang decide to go clubbing. I’m not in the mood; don’t know why, but I wouldn’t enjoy it, so I trudge home at midnight through the streets back to Amani. That’s what’s nice about Kigali – even at midnight, on my own, on some pretty dark streets, I feel safe. The only pestering I get is from taxi drivers after custom, but I want to walk off some of the huge meal, and it’s a warm, calm night.

Best thing about today – haircut.
Worst thing – knowing all the others are going to have a blitz at the clubbing.

A little levity and a lot of dark thoughts

Apr 17th

Today is the last day of the INSET “Boot Camp” for teachers. And guess what! Round about 2pm we get a series of texts from colleagues that the President has granted teachers and extra week’s Easter Holiday so that they can recover from their studies and prepare lessons for next term. But, hey, you heard a whisper about this right here in this blog two weeks ago when the Boot Camp started. Just goes to show that what you hear as a wild rumour tends to be officially confirmed a fortnight later!

So all our VSO teachers don’t know whether to be pleased that they have an extra week’s holiday, or dismayed that they’ll somehow have to squeeze the same amount of teaching into a week less time when they eventually go back. (Says a lot for our lot’s integrity that they even think about the latter).

For me, it means that the inspection at Shyogwe that I’ve just fixed up will have to be postponed. And that might be a problem because we’re doing it at the same time that a Dutch Aid organisation is considering whether to make a grant of 20 thousand Euros to Shyogwe and its surrounding schools. I’ll have to consult with Geert as soon as I get back to Gitarama.

Today has been another round of Kinya-rwanda lessons (telling the time), followed by some really heavyweight sessions on child abuse and Gender Related Violence in Rwanda, and a session about the whole issue of ethnicity, especially relevant at the present time!

To explain the latter; according to the newspapers (which are not independent but heavily obedient to Government will), there have been five grisly murders around the country recently. Most of the victims have been genocide survivors, or closely related to them, and have previously been subject to heavy intimidation and threats before they were murdered. It looks as if people who have been punished for their crimes in 1994, or who have relatives imprisoned for their roles, are taking it out on witnesses who gave evidence against them. It goes a long way to explaining why the Government is so fanatical about the anti-genocide boot camp for teachers, and also why the powers that be try to keep such a tight control on what people say and even think. This isn’t a free society in any way an English person would recognise, but we are constantly reminded that fourteen years is a very short time to expunge the awful things that happened in 1994. It’s a huge issue here. Films like “Hotel Rwanda” (see yesterday’s blog) almost sanitise what went on. The reality is so indescribably awful in every respect – the methodical planning that went on before it; the vicious and deliberate savagery of what people did to each other; the lying and cover ups by officials from Government, church, foreign NGOs, the UN – that it is unfilmable. It’s all but unbelievable. If you don’t believe me, just read about what some of the various churchmen did in 1994. For every brave pastor who hid people or gave his life to try to save them, there is another who aided and abetted the slaughter. Can you believe that there was a priest who actually bulldozed his own church onto the packed mass of refugees inside it, then allowed the army and militias to move in with hand grenades, automatic rifles and machetes? No, of course you can’t. We associate priests with tolerance and love. But it did actually happen. The more we lift the lid on what took place in 1994, be it from books, or from personal accounts, the more we volunteers feel the ground slipping away from under our feet. You wonder how any society could possible hold together given the amount of sorrow and anger only just held in by all the police and army and security guards around the place. It makes us as Volunteers feel very uncertain about our roles; we are trying to model education here in our “western” image when people’s priorities are a combination of day to day survival in one of the world’s poorest countries, and trying to comes to terms with trauma so deep that even now a visit to the National Genocide Memorial leaves them screaming in terror in public, and unable to sleep for days. I kid you not; anything that you’ve seen or read about the Nazi Holocaust can be matched much of what went on here. On Saturday night there’s a special film showing at the Gisozi Memorial Centre. We’re wondering if we can stomach it.

The present-day stuff on Gender Related Violence is frightening. We were specially briefed by the head of the Rwandan Police’s gender desk, and by a woman from Action Aid, a specialist in gender issues. They’d prepared their power points completely independently of each other, but it was a frightening session because their two viewpoints were saying exactly the same thing. We saw slides of battered, tortured and abused children, of infanticides and aborted babies, and bare statistics which reduced us to total silence. In Rwanda there is a culture of women suffering in silence; they simply do not report most of the violence meted out to them, whether it be sexual or physical or psychological. Rape is common, and forced sex an everyday occurrence for young girls. You can easily see why – houses are overcrowded; when your uncle of nephew comes to stay he is often put into the same room or even the same bed as the young daughter because there simply isn’t anywhere else for him to sleep. The daughter isn’t really aware of what’s being done to her, and there’s simply no concept of “Telling someone” if you don’t like what’s happening to you. Way to go, by British standards, but at least it’s a step up from chopping one another with machetes.

To this you need to add forced marriage when the girl is about fifteen (her parents need her space for the numerous younger siblings); there is polygamy in a few places (a hangover from pre-Christian days) and daughters of the less dominant wife are habitually abused. There is forced prostitution, neglect, and over the last three years an average of 60 cases of infanticide. But how can we point the finger at a mother who is too young, who probably never went to school, who is illiterate, who has never been beyond her hill or valley, and who is so desperately poor that the murder of her child makes the difference between the other children living or dying of malnutrition? Tiga says there have been cases in the South of children dying of malnutrition while attending state boarding schools. At Hester’s school in Rusomo there were riots by the students earlier this year because of the lack of food for them. Once again, you suddenly find all the moral framework you take for granted cannot be relied on here.

On a lighter note, myself, Tiga, Épi and Florence (a Kinyarwanda-speaking Ugandan volunteer who has just joined us) have agreed to serve on the Volunteer Committee. This is the official vehicle for communication between volunteers and “the management”, but it only involves four Saturdays each year, and we get travel expenses paid and a free lunch at a Kigali restaurant.

Everyone is getting tired and feeling flat; we need to bet away from here. A week’s course is very tiring, and I know that by Saturday we’re going to be just as exhausted as we were on the first course back in January. So it’s a night in with my book tonight – tomorrow is Els’ birthday and we’ll hit the town. There’s talk of going to an Ethiopian restaurant. (OK, so what do Ethiopians eat?) We’ll see.

Best thing about today – the food at Amani. We’re so stuffed we can hardly move! Worst thing – having to confront the issues described above, and feeling so powerless to act – we can’t speak the language; as guests we have precarious authority, and yet we’ll all see the effects of violence in our schools. We were actually told that any amount of physical punishment is, in effect, OK as long as it doesn’t leave marks.

Mended laptops, and stuffing ourselves at Amani

Apr 14-16th ICT 2 Training Course at Kigali
To Kigali with Épi, then changed a load of Euros so I reckon I should be solvent for the rest of the month after the extravagances of the Volcano trip!

Epi had to collect her laptop from the computer repair shop, so decided to see what they could make of mine. Charming Ugandan Asian (Moslem) set up with patriarchal shop owner and son, but the young woman working in the shop treated as a skivvy.

Épi’s laptop is repaired and running well, so she’s a really happy bunny. And within 10 minutes the technician had identified the problem with my laptop (any laptop users reading this, take note!). The hinge along the lid had loosened, allowing the lid some free play as it opened and closed. This put pressure on the motherboard below (the clearances are tiny), and cracked a corner of the motherboard. The crack was very small, and right in a corner, but nevertheless it has fractured one of the tiny printed circuits, giving a precarious connection which breaks easily and causes the computer to go blank. The motherboard is like a sandwich in three layers, and it’s fortunate that the crack is in the topmost layer. If it had been in the middle layer we’d have had a really difficult and expensive repair job. Interesting to see inside a laptop, though, and the sheer amount of stuff there is crammed inside. But a bit worrying to see the amount of chalk dust and other gunk that has accumulated in three years.

He’s fixed the problem by soldering in a short piece of wire to repair the broken circuit, and has strengthened and repaired the lid hinges. He says I’ll have no more problems with it, but it has cost me RwF40,000 (£40) which is a lot, but much less than having to buy a new laptop out here. So I’m glad I changed those Euros; they didn’t last long, but they’ve come in useful!

Our training course is O K, neither deadly dull nor wildly exciting. Best of it has been the prodigious amount of eating we’re doing at Amani; I guess I’ll have put back some of the weight I’ve lost over the past three months! Best session so far has been one on the Rwandan education system with a rep from MINEDUC, another from an NGO and one from DFID. Yours truly weighs in with questions about school fees, teacher training etc and I think the MINEDUC guy was rather taken aback that we should have got so much to grips with the system in just a few months. Just you wait till I’ve got my entire census statistics organised!

Worst sessions are the (advanced) Kinya-rwanda. Each individual session is fine, but I just can’t carry the stuff from one day to the next. As soon as we’ve finished the lesson we’re straight into some other topic, and by lunchtime it’s as if I’ve never done the stuff at all. I’m beginning to understand how so many children must have felt during my French lessons at Beaminster. (Sorry, kids, all is forgiven).

It’s nice being part of a bigger group (we’re here with the ten February arrivals and various ones like George who have arrived later. One person, Berthe, only arrived this afternoon. She’s flown in from Australia and is replacing a youngster who chucked the placement in because her boyfriend was pining for her back in Australia).

In the evenings we’re either going out to a bar or in watching videos (or both). Last night we saw the third of the videos about the Genocide. (First and worst is “Hotel Rwanda”; second and marginally better is “Shooting Dogs”; this third one is called “Sometimes in April” and is worth seeing. I understand there’s a fourth just out which covers the French intervention (or lack of it) called “Operation Turquoise” towards the end of the conflict.

“Sometimes in April” is good because it flits backwards and forwards between the atrocities of 1994 and the reckoning at a Gacaca court in 2004. It also manages to avoid having to create a love affair to sustain people’s interest. And its set in Rwanda so all the locations are perfectly authentic. It’s definitely worth seeing because you can take it for granted that Rwandan people are watching it. (By contrast, “Hotel Rwanda” was filmed in South Africa and arouses fury here). The copy we watched was in Kinya-rwanda without subtitles because it was one which Elson had loaded at the INSET boot camp and transferred to Cathie’s computer just before we came to Kigali. Cathie’s here as a trainer; she’s the only volunteer being used as part of the training team. Anyway, I’m rambling. If you get a chance to see “Sometimes in April” then take it, but don’t expect happy endings or enjoyable viewing.

The avocado trees at Amani are absolutely laden with ripe fruit; I’m wondering if I can scrump one or two before we leave on Saturday morning!

The social scene is already winding up; it’s Els’s birthday on Friday so there’ll be some sort of booze up that evening.

They want new people to stand for the Volunteers’ Committee, which represents our interests with the Programme Office in terms of our welfare, and I’ll offer to stand unless there are loads of other takers. There’s plenty of people from the south already, and too few from the east, so they might decide to put some of the others on it. And I reckon I’m pretty likely to be asked to do some of the welcoming and training when the September volunteers all arrive; that’ll mean committing myself for a week of over eating at the end of August. Tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!

This morning a bunch of us got up very early to do yoga at dawn on our veranda, led by Alicia (one of the volunteers). Then I got a rush hour matata to the town centre to wait until the computer shop opened to collect my machine.
It’s amazing what a difference a short time in Africa makes to you. I can remember how during our January training the guest house felt like a protective cocoon against the wild Africa outside. Now we just want to escape from it into the outside world – no longer wild but something we understand and enjoy. Crazy, crowded buses; people yelling in Kinya-rwanda – no problem; I enjoy them! We’ve come a long way!

Best thing about these three days – mended computer, socialising, eating.
Worst things – earnest discussions about Disability policy and such like.

Epi's vigil

Apr 12th

Épi’s off to Kibuye today with members of her family, and their Pentecostal church group from Kigali, to do a tour of Genocide memorials. Apparently the trip involves staying up all night in a vigil, and they won’t be returning home until Sunday evening. We’ve agreed she’ll be dropped off here at Gitarama and stay the night with Tom and I in order to have some respite from what we know will be a very gruelling time for her. She both wants to go, and at the same time is apprehensive at whether she’ll be able to cope. It’s a huge load for her to be carrying, and I feel helpless to help her except by simply being around for her. Also, Soraya is coming up from Gikongoro and staying the night; then we can all go together to Kigali tomorrow for the week’s training course. Cathie’s coming tomorrow because she’s helping run the training course. I feel as though I’m playing Dad to all three lovely girls!

Cathie comes over for a chat and we arrange that on Sunday night she’ll come over and we’ll play Newmaket with the girls (though I suspect all Épi will want to do is crash into bed when she eventually gets back here).

I walk with Épi through the town and up to the District Office where we’ve agreed she’ll be picked up (it’s at the junction with the road to Kibuye). I have a package from the Post which turns out to be my iPod formatting disc (moment of truth approaches) and other goodies including instant custard and jelly crystals. While we wait, and wait, and wait for the two buses to arrive for Épi, I show her round the Office and pick up some census forms to process. I don’t feel so guilty at taking the week off because there’s barely a day’s worth of work come into the office all the time I’ve been away!

Instead of eleven o’clock as arranged, the buses finally show up at half past one. I hurriedly buy vegetables as the market is closing; the celery and tomatoes are a bit manky but I’m lucky to get anything at all (even on Saturday everything is closing for the Genocide during the afternoon). There’s storms all around us and I just get home before the deluge.

Rest of the day is boring. You all know that flat feeling when everything’s been busy and then suddenly everyone else is gone and you’re left on your own! Back home trying to write up these blogs and remember what happened a week ago. Try to re-load my iPod but I’m afraid it looks as though the machine itself is broken. Curses! Work late into the night on the laptop. Tom’s in Kigali; I’m not expecting him home until Sunday but he turns up just before one in the morning.

A bunny with very little brain

Apr 11th

Slept so soundly that not even the school alarm bell at 4.45 nor the thud of running feet at 5.00 could wake me! Just had the soothing noises of earnest singing, slightly off key, and the odd mutterings about muzungus. Just as well I didn’t understand what they were saying about us. Épi, though, had a rough night. Too many spuds and matookes for supper, I say……

Breakfasted in style on cold roast potatoes from last night, bland biscuits and tea and peanuts (notice the 5 star luxury chez Tiga). Even Suerte was down to a few stale bread rolls and a mouldy cabbage – and them to last him most of next week, too. Stupid rabbit – he started by eating the most blackened, revolting looking cabbage leaves. Truly a bunny with no brain. He’s getting used to me, though, and eating out of my hand – another day and he’d be letting me stroke him. Come to think of it, at one time he was trying to nibble my hand. Are rabbits carnivorous? I think he deserves a photo for the blog, so I’ve taken one. When Tiga eventually puts him in the cooking pot I’ll print a copy of the picture for her lounge wall.

Enough about the rabbit. We spent a while sweeping out the house (how is it possible to tramp so much grit into the place in just 2 days?), then set off for Samira’s to link up with Soraya and hand back the key. The long march uphill past recreation ground, stinky prison and sullen army base feels nearly as familiar now as walking to and from work in Gitarama. Showed Épi round Samira’s; her garden is looking really good, too, but there’s a problem with the water supply to her house. When she gets back from Kibuye she’ll have to get it sorted quickly!

Said our farewells to Soraya; neither of us feel sure that she’ll continue with her VSO placement; she seems so depressed and it’s possible she’s already made up her mind to leave. We both hope not – when someone as close to you as Soraya decides to go, we all feel the loss.

Back in Butare we mooched round the craft shop and then back to the Lebanese supermarket for a quick snack. The “fruit cocktail” drinks (i.e. yoghourt and fruit smoothies) really are quite something!

So far we’d been lucky with transport, but that all changed on the way home. We got the slowest matata in history, stopping for long breaks all along the route and even deviating into Nyanza town in a desperate attempt to find more custom. Still, being dropped outside your front door has its advantages.

Tom had a tremendous supper cooking, and before we’d finished eating Geert dropped by to collect his boots and waterproofs. Wanlam over in the east hasn’t been well, and still hasn’t had confirmation as to whether his daughter has been accepted for Bangalore University.

Épi’s very apprehensive about her family trip to Kibuye tomorrow, not least because they’re planning to stay up all Saturday night. So early night for everyone.

Best thing – nice to be back home, after a week of gadding, with a hot meal from Tom.
Worst thing – long, slow matata ride in the heat of the day. Not even having the two front seats could make it pleasant. Still, once again I marvel at how green and fertile this countryside is. Truly this place could be the Garden of Eden if only the people could all live in peace and harmony.

Getting lost in the countryside

Apr 10th

At quarter to five there’s a hammering outside my window. Takes a while to come to, then I realise the din is coming from the school next door. (The “school bell” in most Rwandan schools is an old car wheel centre, hit with a metal bar). At five o’clock there’s lots of talking noise and feet noise as hundreds of reluctant primary teachers are taken off for their morning run. I think they’re making them run round and round the track inside the recreation centre just above us on our hill. Épi sleeps with ear plugs, so misses all this commotion.

It’s a dull, wet morning with heavy showers. Mist is down over all the hills, and it’s clearly not worth going outside until the weather improves. Soraya comes down to join us from Caroline’s house, and we chat until mid morning when the sky is clearing and we feel we can risk going out for a walk.

Samira’s described a circular walk and we decide to try to follow it. We descend down into a little valley; the road seems to be slipping down the hillside and there’s a huge chasm alongside it. If you fell into it at night you’d break a leg and nobody would know you were there! Good job we don’t have to pass this way to get to and from town! After a little log bridge we wind up and up and round and round the hillsides. At every bend there are impressive views across to misty mountains; in the far distance we can see the beginnings of Nyungwe forest like a green bedspread over hundreds of peaks. It’s so quiet – no traffic noise; just the yellings of children excite that muzungus have visited their little plot of Rwanda. Some are shy, some demand money or sweets. Most adults stop working in their fields to stare at us. And, I have to say, we must look like one of those politically correct photos you get in Government publicity blurbs. There’s me as the white man, Soraya as the Asiatic woman, and Épi as the black person. Gender balance, age range – we tick all the boxes! Perhaps we ought to pose for VSO and get us some more money.

At some point along the way I’m sure we miss a turning, and we go deeper and deeper into the countryside. No matter; quite apart from the view, there’s lots to see. Coffee trees with berries turning ripe, a goatherd and his flock of ten plus a suspicious dog which I swear was looking longingly at our ankles. Little houses lost among their bananeraie. Big pieces of mica along the path, so that I could split them into thin layers and show children how you can have a rock which is both flexible and transparent. (Yes, it’s that boring geologist in me again). We end up with a flock of twenty or so children crowding round us; then some of the men come across from the huts and want to know if there is a market for the mica and whether they could sell it. You can almost see the dollar signs swirling round their heads….. Sorry guys, there’s no market value in muddy mica that I’m aware of.

Eventually, after getting conflicting directions to the village we’re aiming for, we decide to call it a day and return home. We’ve just passed through a hamlet, very poor and remote, and the biggest building turns out to be a bar. You can smell the alcohol from twenty paces outside it. We think its banana beer, and some of the men are already (late morning) looking decidedly glazed, so it’s time to beat a hasty retreat and get the girls out of range of unpredictable Rwandan drunks.

It’s a long walk back home, but at least it isn’t raining. The distant views are wonderful, but it’s too dark to get good pictures (the ones I’ve taken on my camera’s “landscape” setting seem to have a greenish tinge to them as if there was mould on the camera lens). We still have around a dozen children following us – proof if it were ever needed at how rare muzungus are in these parts, and how dull life must be if three strangers passing by can excite so much interest!

Back at Tigas we finish off the last of the food Épi and I brought up from Butare, then while the girls have some time out together I go up to Gikongoro to see if any shops are open and to take some pictures from the post office hill. Well, nothing’s open, but the views are superb. The post office sits on the top of a conical hill just above Samira’s house. It’s a circular building with 360 views, and has a huge transmitter mast towering over it. It’s also the district office (like where I work) for Nyamagabe District. Outside one door there are five brand new Chinese bicycles (“Flying Pigeon”); I ask the guard who they are for and he tells me that they’re for the district staff. I assume he’s pulling my leg and make some flip comment about how on earth people are going to use them with their three gears on these enormous hills. He just looks at me as if I’m stupid, and it dawns on me that, yes, they really do expect their people to slog up and down hills on these heavy machines. Rather them than me, that’s what I say!

In the evening we mooch back up to the guesthouse for supper; after all our walking we’re starving hungry so we have an enormous meal. We can’t get through all the ibirayi (jacket potatoes), so I wrap a couple in serviettes and stow them in my rucksack. It’s just not done to leave food on your plate in a country where people go hungry.

We escort Soraya safely past the aimless group of men and youths in the town centre, then leave her to go home and we return down the hill to our place. On the way, children ask us where is “shinwa”. Shinwa is the Kinyarwanda version of “Chinois” (“Chinese” in French); just as we get fed up with being called muzungu, Soraya gets “shinwa” all day, every day. Rwandans have met Chinese engineers who have built many of the country’s roads, but instead of being respected as hard working and intelligent aid workers they are treated as something of a joke. I can see how this must really get on Soraya’s nerves. In any case, she’s a Philippina, not a Chinese (But that’s far too fine a distinction for people who’ve little idea what lies outside their own district in Rwanda, never mind in another continent). What I think is so funny about all this stereotyping is that Épi also gets called muzungu even though, to me, she is black.

It’s been a good day – a long walk or two or three; plenty of time to talk. We’ve each learned a lot about each others’ families and situations; it’s brought us close. I count myself so luck to be posted to a country where communication (for most of us) is easy and we can readily meet up for a bit of R and R. Épi tells us a lot about her family’s history during the genocide and after. It’s her private history so it’s not for this blog, but the more she tells us, the more poignant is the contrast between one of the loveliest pieces of land on this entire planet, and the stupid, senseless, vicious, pointless cruelty of so many of its ordinary people when they’re brainwashed by evil men. When you think what this country could have achieved given wise and humane leadership, it makes you want to weep.

Two things, though, we’ve definitely agreed on. One is that we MUST have a return group weekend at Kibuye, probably sometime in June, just before the teachers get bogged down in exams. The other is that we must go to visit the far south east of Rwanda while there is a big group of volunteers there and accommodation will be straightforward. We must pin down a date for the Kibuye trip during the training week just looming.

Both Épi and I also want to have a look at Cyangugu in the extreme South West at some time, and also Gisenyi in the far North West (where her family lived in another age, before people started hating each other for no good reason). Well, I’ve got at least nine months left to go wandering, and more if I stay a second year.

Best thing about today – just chillin’ with two beautiful girls.
Worst thing – nothing. You mean, I’m being paid to enjoy myself like this…..

Fruit cocktails at Butare

Apr 9th

A leisurely breakfast and packing, then Épi and I go to catch a bus to Butare. The bus stop is only 50 yards from our door, but we just miss a matata. While we’re waiting for the next, a Rwandan man who is buying petrol in a jerry can asks us if we’d like a lift in his car for the same price as a bus fare. We look at each other and agree that we can’t come to much harm if there’s two of us, so we say yes. A few minutes later we’re driving in comfort down the main road, passing matatas jammed with people, and once again I can’t believe my good fortune in terms of transport!

It’s nice to be able to point out to Épi all the sights along the way; I’m very used to this road now, but it’s all new to her. (However, I’m really determined that I must go and explore more of her area at some time in the summer, before things get impossibly hot there. It turns out we must have almost driven past her front door on our way into Akagera Park back in early March).

At Butare we pay a call at the museum. I’ve already been round it twice, and Épi decides not to go round it until her brother or sister comes out from Canada later in the year. But we confirm that all craft objects are far cheaper at the museum than at the craft shop in town; she buys a load of palm leaf cards for half the price in COPABU.

I then take her on my “Brucey’s Tour” all round the Belgian quarter, the high street and the Catholic Quarter, and by then its getting really hot and we’ve walked a fair way, so we double back to my other favourite place – the Matar Lebanese supermarket. Here we find that the café is at last open, and we decide on a quick lunch here. (Blow the Hotel Ibis; they need some competition and this place is new and clean).

I have Ikivugoto to drink; it’s sweeter than any other I’ve had so far (I think they’ve put honey in it) and tastes wonderful on a hot day. Épi goes for the “fruit cocktail” drink, which turns out to be a raspberry and strawberry smoothie with yoghurt. It’s the best thing we’ve had to drink since we got here – better even than “Tranquillité”’s jus de fraise. We order salads; they take around 40 minutes to arrive but the food is beautiful and the presentation is to 5-star standard. Typically Middle Eastern, with little strips of red and green pepper as decoration round the rim of the plate. It’s not too expensive either. This café is good news for Butare. We chat to two of the brothers who run the place; they remember me from previous trips and they deserve to have a lot of patronage from all our VSO “family”.

The matata up to Gikongoro is hot and sweaty, and we’re glad to arrive at a cooler altitude. We plod up the hill to Samira’s house, but there’s no sign of Soraya with our key. Vincent, the guard, remembers me from last time; he thinks she’s gone to Tigas. So downhill nearly a mile to Tigas, past the road to Murambi genocide site (with a ceremonial arch draped in purple. Purple is the colour of Genocide mourning here, and you see it everywhere. Many people are wearing little collars of purple cloth); past the army barracks, past the prison (its noxious effluent dribbling into roadside drains and stinking to high heaven in the blistering sun), and down past the new recreation centre to Tiga’s.

Soraya isn’t there, either. She must be at Caroline’s house which is somewhere up in town and too far away in this heat. We text her and sit on the cool porch, admiring T’s vegetable garden (everything’s coming ready to harvest) and making conversation with the Head teacher’s family next door. I don’t know whether Tiga has warned them that other volunteers might be using her house while she’s away, but they seem to do this usual Rwandan thing of just assuming that all muzungus can be trusted but behave in their own peculiar ways!

Tiga’s house is right next to the school – there’s literally only a hedge to separate them. The school is being used for the local primary school “Boot Camp” and there’s the sound of singing from hundreds of teachers inside. It sounds just like the singing we often hear coming from within the prison as we pass it. Come to think of it, all that’s missing is the prison smell!

Soraya arrives and we chat for ages. She’s desperately unhappy at Mushubi, and lonely as well. We do all we can to give her a lift, but the problem is just that her school is so isolated. VSO is giving her some extra money to cover her moto costs, but it’s the sheer time and weariness of getting to and from Mushubi that effectively imprisons her there. But we agree we will do all we possibly can to get her more into the general social scene next term.

There’s no food at Tiga’s so in the evening we mooch back up into town. That’s about a two mile trek, so we’re all keeping trim. In Gikongoro the word “flat” doesn’t exist; it’s just a case of how steep the slope! Unfortunately the brochettes place I used last visit is shut (everything in Rwanda is closing for the afternoons during the whole of Genocide Week), so we try the guesthouse on another hill. This turns out to do a very good “omelette spéciale”, and we dine well. We escort Soraya to Caroline’s house where she is spending the night; it’s a lovely modern bungalow but the approach to it is over mud and rubble and it’s a treacherous path in the pitch dark. My wind up torch is paying for itself!

Then with heat lightning flickering all around us, Épi and I saunter down through the warm evening air to go home. Some furniture workshops are still hard at work even at this time of night. At one point there’s that “Queen of the Night” flower out of sight in someone’s garden, but with a scent so potent you can smell it for yards. As in Gitarama, there are dozens of people walking, singly or in groups, from one part of town to another. Even more so than in Gitarama, it’s so dark at night you don’t see people until you’re almost walking into them. The street lights are more out of action than working, and there’s too little moonlight to do any good. But the stars here are lovely. It’s funny to see the Plough upside down (we’re just inside the southern hemisphere), with Polaris below the constellation.

We rig up a mozzie net for Épi’s bed, check on Suerte the rabbit (he’s very suspicious of us, cowering in his cardboard box with a litter of stale bread and cabbage leaves all round him), and I have to deal with an enormous moth that’s somehow got into my bedroom. All this fresh air and altitude and walking in the sun has tired us out, and even the din of heavy rain most of the night doesn’t stop either of us sleeping!

Another really good day today. The only dark spot is Soraya’s state of mind. While both Épi and I are talking about plans for meetings involving Soraya, I think we both feel she might resign before the start of next term. I really hope we can persuade her to carry on, even if it means a sudden change of placement.

My Private Army

April 8th

Leisurely breakfast today; Geert and Jan both still chatting up the Dutch TV girls. I don’t blame them; they’re very attractive women and other than fellow VSOs you don’t exactly fall over Dutch people here in Ruhengeri. We wondered whether they might be interested in doing something about the good works the Dutch VSOs are doing in Rwanda, but, alas, the real problem is that all our good work isn’t as sexy as one woman rescuing child prostitutes. Somehow, arranging training in English teaching or management training for primary heads doesn’t have the same audience appeal. Maybe we should introduce them to Samira and her collection of wooden dildos for her HIV programme. Now that would make good viewing, especially in Holland…..

I agree to take Geert’s boots, cagoule etc and Jan’s boots back to Gitarama while they continue their travels around Kibungo in the far south-east of Randa. They’re going to see Wanlam, the Indian VSO who came round Akagera with us, and won’t be needing any mountain gear. This is all very well, but by the time I leave the hotel I’ve got three pairs of boots dangling by their laces from my leki sticks. They prove an irresistible magnet for Rwandan men; I get accosted by shoeless street kids begging for one of the pairs; I get asked straight out “how much” to sell them; I get asked “give me my boots” by one brazen individual. They all think I’m such a loaded muzungu that I need three pairs for my own use. Also, what I can’t see is that the boots have pulled my lekis down in my backpack so that they’re almost jutting out horizontally and likely to take someone’s eye out if I turn quickly. So a quick re-pack is called for.

By the time Geert has been to the bank we’ve missed the Atraco express bus for Kigali and are faced with over an hour’s wait on a very hot morning. So we decide to try our luck at hitching a lift. Within five minutes we’ve been picked up in a United Nations jeep. What we don’t realise until we actually get going is that the jeep is escort to a U N convoy of 6 lorries, carrying about 200 armed Indian troops to Kigali. The Indians are part of the U N force based in Goma, in the Congo, keeping the peace around Goma and stopping Rwandan rebels infiltrating back into the country. The troops do a 6 month rotation; their officers stay a year at a time. These troops are off to Kigali airport and then home to India; the plane taking them home will have brought the next contingent of 200 to replace them. So we’re heading to Kigali with our private army of 600 Sikhs, their blue turbans looking very fetching in the morning sun. In our jeep is Lieutenant Rao, a charming Hindu, and two taciturn Sikhs. Rao speaks excellent English (“I was educated at a Catholic convent school in India. If I made any mistakes with my English I had to write it out 200 times. So everyone became very good at English”). He’s witty and the journey passes quickly. That’s just as well because the jeep is not designed for people my size. It has a canvas roof, and anyone looking at it from the roadside would have seen an amazing head-shaped lump where my brains were pushing up the canvas. We must have looked something like a motorised camel.

Lieutenant Rao certainly knew his way around Kigali. I don’t know who was the most impressed – him that an ancient Englishman like me should have been clubbing at Cadillac; or me that an Indian officer stationed in a neighbouring country should regularly drive about 70 miles each way for a good night out. And what do you discuss with an U N officer in his car – why, whether Cadillac is a better nightclub than KBC, of course!

Seriously, though, Rao was very kind to us. He dropped us literally at VSOs front door and I can’t thank him enough for his friendliness. Épi had texted while we were on the road, confirming that she was coming to Gitarama, and I had replied telling her and therefore everyone else in the Programme Office about our good fortune. What a pity I didn’t think to text everyone at the office just before we got there so they could come and see the grand arrival. Who else has rolled up at VSO Kigali with an armed escort?

So far in Rwanda I’ve been very cautious about accepting lifts from anyone except for very short rides around Gitarama. Others, including Tiga, have had good experiences flagging down NGO vehicles around Gikongoro. For me this ride home from Ruhengeri was yet another of those “I can’t believe that this is really happening to me” experiences. They’re coming so thick and fast at the moment that it’s quite surreal.

Cathie was also at Programme Office; likewise Samira. Ah, but Samira’s about to go to Kibuye for a rest, so won’t be able to let us into Tiga’s house in Gikongoro. Cue Soraya, who texts to say she’s looking after thee houses and two rabbits for the week. (Yes, and this story gets wackier by the minute). Caroline’s gone back to Belgium to see her long-suffering boyfriend; Tiga’s gallivanting round Ethiopia, and Samira’s breaking the VSO photocopier and then off for a swim in Lake Kivu. And Soraya has escaped from her wilderness at Mushubi to the bright light (singular) of Gikongoro. Caroline and Tiga both have pet rabbits that should have been eaten by now, but somehow……. Soraya can’t wait for us to come and join her; from nothing at all five minutes ago, we’ve now got a choice of three places to live in. Except that there’s some big problem with Samira’s water supply, and Tiga’s got the nicest place. So there you are. As long as I don’t have to share sleeping space with a bunny!

At the Atraco depot they seem to have spent Genocide day repairing the concrete ramp into the bus station – about time too, before someone gets run over by a bus lurching over the potholes. We sit next to a woman with a sick child; Cathie turns out to have an astonishing memory for faces and recognises the woman as a teacher in one of the primary schools we’ve inspected together. The woman has escaped the INSET Boot Camp for a couple of days to take her son to the doctor in Kigali. So we can chat to the woman, and Uncle Brucey can try to keep the baby amused, till we reach Gitarama.

Cathie stays for supper and we cook up a huge meal and talk far too long into the night before we all subside. It’s so nice to at last have Épi across to explore our southern province, and all the domestic arrangements have fallen into place at the last minute.

Best things about today – just about every single thing. Roll on more days like this. And next time you hear people slagging off the U N remember that they were very good to us!

Bishoke Volcano, or "Gorillas on the Piste"

April 7th

Apologies – this is another very long entry, but read it through and I’m sure you’ll see why I’m so enthralled with this magic place.

Up just as dawn is breaking; last night’s volcanoes just emerging from the dark. Take a few snaps of the dawn scene while shovelling down breakfast. The two closest volcanoes are remarkably free from cloud. Our driver materialises at the right time, and we roar off through Ruhengeri – to find a garage. Why on earth can’t these people ever get themselves organised and get fuel before they pick up their clients. Do they really think we’re going to do a runner and leave them with a bill for a tankful? He’s charging us 60 dollars for taking us about 25 miles in total, and hanging around for us while we’re on the mountain. That’s an extortionate charge by any standards; it’s about 50 times an average Rwandan daily wage. It would be nice to take photos out of the window, but the window winder handle has fallen off. I’m so annoyed!

At the National Park headquarters we find ourselves with two fellow-climbers. David and Lika are two Americans working for an aid agency in Darfur, and they prove to be both good company and good, experienced mountaineers. David tells us about his work in Darfur (not as hairy or as confrontational as CNN news would have us believe), and the role of the Sudanese Government (cynical in the extreme – they rule by pitting one group against another – with unlimited weapons to the group they want to prevail). But his idea of an aid agency is very different from ours. While we live among the locals and struggle on minimum wages, his lot live in a secure compound without any local contact, and travel from place to place by helicopter. Talk about feeling the poor relations!

Also at the Park Headquarters we find that all the day’s groups – gorilla watchers, mountaineers, lake walkers etc – are all booked to start at the same time. Something tells me this is for the park staff’s convenience, rather than for any pressing need in terms of the experiences.

We pay a small fortune in park fees (entry to the park fee, climbing the mountain fee; the man is bureaucratic to a fault and simply will not accept that I’m a Rwandan resident because I don’t yet have my green card). Yet in Akagera they were more than happy to accept my VSO card as evidence of resident status. I get the distinct impression that they couldn’t care if anyone came to the park or not. They’d probably prefer to be without visitors; they’d still get paid.

We set off again in the car to approach close to the volcano Bishoke. At 3711m (11875 feet) it’s a serious mountain in its own right, and the third highest of all the volcanoes in this group. You can only climb one other at the moment; Karisimbi (the highest) requires a 2-day expedition for which you have to provide tents for the guide as well as you etc. Talk about a system designed to deter rather than encourage visitors!

As we bump over more and more stony tracks we pass mile after mile of potato fields. In this colder, higher air most of Rwanda’s spuds are grown. Also there are fields and fields of Pyrethrum flowers, with their essential oils extracted in a local village co-operative and used to make insect repellents.

One unexpected bonus is that we find that circular, thatched huts are not only still in use here, but actually being built from new. They make some super photos. I thought these traditional huts were a thing of the past, just museum pieces. Not here. This is a much poorer part of the country than around Gitarama; people’s clothes are that much poorer and a far bigger proportion are barefoot. There are plenty of trees and grasses to make thatched huts, so they are cheaper even than semi-dur mud bricks.

Eventually we stop and get out of our cars. For we five climbers there are around a dozen men desperately seeking work as porters. But after being stung so hard for park fees we’re none of us in the mood to contribute any further to the local economy. We have a guide, plus a second National Park member, and three regular Rwandan Army soldiers to escort and protect us. One of these three speaks French and is chatty; we learn that he’s one of the Rwandan contingent which recently served a tour in Darfur with the African Peacekeeping force. And David and Lika confirm the Rwandans gave good account of themselves in Darfur – the regular army is highly thought of.

We start walking through the potato and pyrethrum fields as the morning mist is lifting from the ground. Cows are being herded in the distance; you almost expect them to have bells round their necks in this mountain region. (But they don’t). Potato fields extend right up to the park boundary, which is an impressive stone wall, intended as much to keep gorillas and buffaloes from wandering into the populated areas as much as to keep people out of the protected areas. You find potatoes growing in the tiniest spaces between huge blocks of lava bedrock, right up to the very stones of the park wall.

Once into the park proper, everything changes. No cultivation, no habitation, no people. Buffalo dung all over the path, which means we need to walk quietly and be aware of what’s around us. Fortunately we never come across a buffalo all day, which suits me fine because they’re such vicious and temperamental beasts.

We wind up through heavy woodland until eventually there’s an open glade and a fork in the path. One branch goes a few miles up towards Karisimbi to Dian Fossey’s grave. There’s a hefty extra park fee if we want to detour to the grave, so we take pictures of the sign and plod on.

Now any normal mountain path zigzags to give an easier climb and reduce erosion. Well, not in Rwanda. The Bishoke path runs straight up and down the mountain. This means it becomes a river after heavy rain. Even after several dry days it’s very muddy and slippery. At the height of the rainy season it must be all but impassable. We are amazingly lucky that not only is today perfect weather for the climb, but that we’ve had a run of dry days to give the path time to shed some of its surface water. It’s clear that at some time in the past they have made steps on the worst part with little logs; this reduces erosion as well as helping climbers. But over several seasons most of the steps have been dislodged, and nobody has made any attempt to renew them. As a result the “path” consists of steep steps of around 18-24 inches, and deep slots which can easily hold and twist your ankles. To have to keep taking huge steps on such a steep slope requires far more energy than on a graded path; this makes Bishoke the equivalent in terms of physical wear and tear of a far higher mountain. It’s a ludicrously stupid way to manage a mountain path. We are paying ridiculously huge sums to climb this thing and they can’t even be bothered to maintain a safe path.

Not only that, but it becomes clear that the guide has no emergency kit (first aid etc), and he sees his job as consisting of walking up the slope as fast as he can until we’re all but out of sight behind him, then waiting for us to catch up. He almost never explains anything of interest along the way. Geert is fuming; I’m ready to blow a safety valve! We’re not even half way up Bishoke and we all agree this guy’s going to get just a minimum tip at the end of the day!

There’s lots of dung along the path; so much so that we have to be careful where we put our feet. I ask the guide what sort it is, and he tells us it’s Gorilla poo. In other words, the gorillas are using our path as a highway, and therefore we might expect to bump into some. And if I hadn’t asked, he wouldn’t have even bothered to tell us.

The climb gets very steep, and in the humidity it’s clear that Jan is struggling. I’m finding it very hard, and I thought I was used to high mountains!

After a few more minutes the guide points out the only thing all day which he managed without prompting. Right next to the path there’s a big area of flattened grass about 6 feet diameter, liberally coated in squashed gorilla poo. It’s one of their sleeping nests, and we’re very lucky to chance upon it. So we dutifully take pictures, poo and all, and stumble on up the mountain.

After a while Jan agrees to call it a day and return down the slope. It must be a terrible disappointment for him, and I blame the silly way the park is managed for causing a basically very fit person to have to give up. He would never have had such problems on a properly graded path.

We go from dense broadleaf forest into a much more open vegetation, with giant lobelias prominent. There’s still far too little bare rock and far too much slippery mud for my liking. Then in the next zone we come onto a hanging bog, and the going gets squelchy. I discover my new boots aren’t as good as I needed them to be; the treads get clogged with mud and they slide alarmingly easily.

I’m nearly ready to abandon the climb myself; I feel so cross with the way everything is run that even some spectacular views across into Uganda don’t lift me the way they lift Geert. And the stupid guide never says things like “see that lobelia on the skyline – when we reach it we’re only ten minutes from the top”. Those are the things a good guide does to keep up his group’s morale – you need to try to ensure that everybody makes it to the summit!

But reach the top we do, and the view across to the other volcanoes is brilliant. There’s a deep crater with a big lake inside it, and wisps of cloud swirling round the top. All morning there’s been cloud threatening to come down on us, but our luck has held steady and the cloudbase has been rising at roughly the same rate as we have been ascending. We pause for photos. The far side of the crater is, of course, in the Congo, but we realise that one of our military escort’s jobs is to make sure we don’t set foot outside Rwanda. Can’t blame them, but it’s galling.

We spend about forty minutes on the top, then start down. If it was hard work going up, it’s just plain dangerous coming down. I’m slipping and sliding all over the place on the slippery mud, and it’s a minor miracle that I don’t twist an ankle or worse. On one occasion I fall completely base-over-apex and end up muddied and bruised. Fortunately I don’t bang my head, so I’m not concussed. The two guides, of course, are nowhere around to help or to break my fall. At intervals along the path I see pieces of twine tied to trees; I remember from Nyungwe that these mark unusual or valuable trees which are regenerating themselves with side shoots, and so I tell the others. The guide never says a word.

We’re almost out of the park when, quite suddenly, the guides shush us to quiet, and one of the soldiers makes a good impression of gorilla grunts. We must be very close to a group of them. In fact, now we’ve stopped and are standing still, we can hear them: there’s a hell of a lot of crashing around going on somewhere just off to our right in a zone of dense bushes. At the same time there’s an intense smell of gorilla in the air.

OK, Épi, so you want to know what gorillas smell like. It’s like very strong B O (think market porters), but with vegetable overtones (think fresh cow dung). Difficult to put any other way, but it’s very distinctive and even if you’d never smelt it before you’d easily be able to put it down to gorillas.

And there, coming towards us on our path, and about fifty yards away, is a female adult gorilla with a baby on her back. We snatch pictures. She ambles along, totally unfazed by our presence and then, when she’s no more then a few yards away, she veers off to our right and disappears into thick undergrowth to join the others hiding there. Any just as we’re all giving each other the “did I really just see a gorilla or am I dreaming” look, a massive male silverback swaggers along at the rear. He’s too close even for me to take a picture; his head and shoulders alone fill my viewfinder but there’s too much vegetation obscuring him for me to get a picture. Fortunately the Americans, to my left, have him in clear shot. The gorilla gives us just one unconcerned stare before he, too, ambles into the dense grasses on our right. It’s amazing. For an animal so big to be able to totally disappear into bushes – it’s just like shutting a door on them.

For a few seconds nobody moves. We’re just so amazed at what we’ve seen. We’ve had a spot of gorilla watching for free……

Despite sore feet and aching knees, we’re all walking on air the last couple of miles back to our cars. There’s the usual reception committee of children asking for sweets and adults begging for money, but we’re all comparing photos of apes. I’ve got just one decent shot of the female. Geert’s camera is playing up and hasn’t registered his shot at all. Jan, of course, is not with us. So we beg David and Lika to send us emails of their pictures, which, predictably, look brilliant. Wonder if it’ll happen….

Back at the hotel, and after a hot bath, we drink too much, and discover a Rwandan woman being filmed by a Dutch TV crew comprising two nice looking women. Now Geert’s never one to resist a challenge, so he goes straight into chat-up mode. Turns out the Rwandan woman has lived in Holland and speaks Dutch, though with a Rwandan accent (I’m getting this from G himself; how ever else would I know?). She is on a project to get street women out of prostitution and back into education, and within a few minutes we’re all taking about “catch-up centres” and sources of educational materials.

Several beers later, we crawl into bed. After a day like today we’re almost ready to forgive the smarmy manager and inept guide and rapacious Park Authority. Almost.

There’s something about seeing two adult gorillas coming towards you which is just impossible to put into words. It’s different from the organised tracking safaris, where the trackers know where the animals are, and you’re warned when you’re getting close. On those trips you feel that you, the tourist, are in charge – that you’ll meet the gorillas when you want and when you’re ready. We, in contrast, had the real thing – a chance encounter with a family group, unplanned, and on their terms, not ours.

It’s difficult to see what, if anything, in this beautiful country is going to top that as an experience. I’ll post my gorilla picture a.s.a.p.