Sunday, 4 May 2008

How to use a May Day

May 1st

Feeling better enough to venture out today. It’s a Public Holiday, so nobody’s at work. However, there’s a three line whip to attend the Big Stadium by 9.00 at the very latest. I breeze in just before nine and the place is almost deserted. There’s music blaring from the loudspeakers, and hundreds of schoolchildren and others beginning to collect round the back of the stadium. So it’s a “Rwandan nine o’clock”, then. It means I can get a good seat with a prime viewing position at the back of the stadium, shielded from any rain or hot sun, and read my book for half and hour. It’s just before ten o’clock before things get properly started.

We begin with a really impressive demonstration by a karate club from one of the local schools. Their ages range from about eight to around thirty, and there are just two girls among them. What a pity the stadium’s almost empty for them.

Next come some dancers, accompanied by singers and drummers, from St Joseph’s school at Kabgayi. They are also really good; there are twelve girls dancing and two of them are exceptionally graceful, with hand movements worthy of kathkali. One of the young lads doing the drumming is also a brilliant dancer and swirls around with his heavy drum as if it were a feather.

Next we have the highlight of the morning, the Grand Parade of representatives from schools, local businesses and public services. Included is the staff of the SORAS insurance office on the ground floor of my flat. (Imagine a similar parade in Bridport with the staff of, say, Nationwide, marching down South Street). The stadium is now getting pretty full. Everyone applauds their work colleagues or friends as they march past. Most groups are carrying emblems to represent their trades. One local bank has its women staff carrying wads of real banknotes. That certainly gets the crowd going! One of the schools goes to town with chemical apparatus, set squares, globes, a dictionary, textbooks. One agricultural co-operative has a man with a wheelbarrow full of seeds, and another man carrying a piglet in his arms. Another local outfit are brandishing bottles of maracuja juice, or jars of jam.

Among the highlights are some of my colleagues from the District Office; girls and teachers from the Islamic secondary school in full Islamic dress, and at the very back of the procession a couple of hundred moto drivers. The security guards in red dungarees show that they haven’t the foggiest idea of how to march in unison – it’s absolutely comical to watch men in uniform so completely out of step with each other and the music. The whole stadium is laughing at them. Karen is the only muzungu in the parade; she’s wearing her Rwandan robes (a lovely pale blue wrap) and is with the school for handicapped children where she works most of the time. The children marching with her, on crutches or in wheelchairs, get a big round of applause.

Everyone else comes past quite solemnly with just the odd wave or two at friends in the watching crowd. But the motos take the place by storm. They overtake each other, they weave in and out. A couple of drivers are showing off by sitting on the floorboards of their bikes. And they do two circuits of the stadium whereas everyone else does just one. By the time they’re finally shepherded out of the arena, the whole place is blue with their exhaust fumes.

Now come the speeches, one after another. In between each speech there’s more karate, and more dancing. The karate gets even better, with individual displays from the very youngest warrior, and the dancers are riveting – the absolute high point of the morning for me. The young man sitting next to me gets up and reads his poem. It’s all in Kinya-rwanda, but even I can work out it’s something domestic about relations between children and their parents, and gets laughs in several places. When he returns to sit next to me I start talking to him; I thought he was a teacher at one of the local schools but he tells me he’s a fifth year pupil at St Joseph’s. He must be at least in his early twenties. He’s one of these bird-like Rwandan men with amazingly delicate features, quite distinct from the stocky figures sitting all around us. He’s also wearing a spectacular pair of “Elvis” shoes!

Finally Madam the Mayor gets up and makes her speech. This is her first big public engagement since her swearing-in ceremony. She goes on for a long time. She uses the word “ishuri” (school) a lot, and I think she’s got her sights firmly on education as her main priority. She gets warm applause for some points, and some gasps in others. By Rwandan standards I think she’s a very plain speaking woman and is telling everyone they’re under new management and they’d better not forget it!

Back home to the flat for lunch just as it comes on to rain, then down to Cathie’s where we make final arrangements for our primary teacher training day tomorrow. We’re busy planning a lot of flipchart sheets as prompts, and also Cathie’s been doing pictures on rice sacks to use as classroom teaching aids. (I’ve referred to these already in the blog; I’m making sure I get some examples for myself before Cathie goes so I can carry on the work. When I eventually return to Dorset you’ll see them for real!).

Then it’s off to do the market; it’s surprising to me how quickly I’ve adjusted to the market. There is all the haggling to do; there’s the crowds of people who seem to find it unmissable to watch a muzungu buying vegetables; there’s the two or three people in the market I always speak to (the old lady selling garlic and spices; the young lad spending all his day pulping leaves in a grinder); there’s the ladies selling tomatoes who are determined to fleece me; there’s the lady selling peppers who knows that I know it’s three for 100 francs and all we’re haggling over is whether she can slip me a tiny little runt pepper in with the two others…. Today I discover that potatoes have gone up 10%, and as well as French beans, that peas are in full season. Peas here are almost always sold shelled and by the kilo. But I don’t want a kilo, all I want is 50 francs worth (we’ve never had real peas since I arrived, and I’m not sure whether Tom even eats them). So my waving a coin confuses her and there’s a hurried conflab with her rivals sitting around her before she scoops a small bowlful into my bag: exactly the amount I need!

I still can’t get my head round this idea that fruit and vegetables are seasonal on the Equator – I’d assumed everything grew all the year round. I suppose the seasonality must be linked to the rains.

Tom’s in Kigali trying to fulfil mission impossible in collecting a big load of craft samples for some wealthy Americans who want them, like, yesterday. He’s totally stressed out; if he fails to get the samples he’s in trouble. If they like his samples and put in a massive order, then he’s in trouble again because there isn’t (yet) the local organisation to supply orders in bulk. The only product we’re pretty sure about for bulk production is the banana leaf greetings cards I’ve sent some of you (we’re gearing up for a massive Christmas order between us).

In the evening I prove to myself yet again that I really am a hopeless cook, and that even given fresh ingredients and a drawer full of spices I can still produce a meal that tastes bland and looks like – well, let’s not go there.

Best thing about today – the Big Parade. A real community celebration which we would do well to try to imitate in England.

Worst thing – why can’t I cook properly?

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