Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Way Down South, Close to the Border!

May 24th

Down the town early to the internet café, and hooray! – the power is on and the connection is working. Send the latest lot of blogs; catch up on email and send a special letter to Teresa. Today is our 33rd wedding anniversary and I want to make sure she knows I haven’t forgotten her. I just get well into sending the latest batch of photos from our training sessions at Nyarusange and Kabacuzi when the power goes off. So that’s the end of internetting for today!

Up to the post office before it gets too hot, and lo and behold there’s another newspaper waiting for me. Walk back to the market relishing the prospect of a good read with a nice cup of tea, sitting out on the balcony and forgetting I’m in Africa for an hour. I nip into the Office since it’s almost next door to the Post Office, and discover there’s a huge new pile of text books come in. A lot of secondary English books, this time produced for schools across the whole of East Africa and not specifically for Rwanda. There are teachers’ guides for them, too. So I take one of each and stuff them into my rucksack; I’ll have a look through them when I get home.

But first it’s to the market to collect my second shirt. The girl hasn’t quite finished it, so I have to wait around for ten minutes while she finishes off a couple of seams and snips off all the excess fabric. She works amazingly fast. By this time there’s a crowd of ten or so people, adults and children, just staring at us. I suppose it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a muzungu having clothes made in the market. At the same time every clothes seller within ten yards is trying to sell me jeans, belts etc – all second hand stuff from charity shops. Second hand jeans, with a bit of obvious wear in them, are prized possessions here. More so than immaculate denims which (in order to be cheap enough for people to be able to afford) are always rip-offs from Taiwan or China. That’s Rwandan fashion logic for you – better a second hand pair of real levis than a brand new pair of imitation wranglers!

Eventually the seamstress takes me into one of the little clothes stalls where there’s a rudimentary fitting room and a mirror. The shirt seems to fit OK; the neckline is lower than on a western shirt so there’s some very white skin and grey chest hairs showing, but they’ll get taken care of by the African sun in a matter of days!

I decide to keep the shirt on and wear it home, and as I leave the clothes stalls I get a cheer from the other women, about thirty all told, who are all working on their sewing machines or just stopping to gossip.

By this time Marisa’s texted me and our meeting time at Kigali has been put back a couple of hours. It means I can have the luxury of a quiet read of my paper and a cup of tea on the balcony!

In the afternoon I get a bus straight away to Kigali so I’m there earlier than I planned. I have a mooch round the town centre and eventually weaken and buy a wall poster map of Rwanda from one of the street hawkers. I’ve thought about getting one for some time; I might even send it home so that Teresa and the others have a bigger map to use to follow my wanderings. The trouble is, that every map you see of Rwanda misses out some places and puts in others on an arbitrary basis. This map leaves out Nyanza altogether – and Nyanza’s the equivalent of a county town – but puts in a couple of big villages close to it. I just don’t understand the logic.

In town I bump into Irene from the Gihembe refugee camp, and then Marisa herself. We decide to get an earlier bus out to Nyamata, so fortunately it’s still daylight as we drive into new territory for me!

Once again (you’re probably bored with me saying this by now), as soon as you leave Kigali in this direction (due South) the landscape changes. It gets a lot flatter, and a hell of a lot hotter. But the biggest change is in the vegetation. All the way I from Gitarama there’s not a square yard of land left unused. Everything is down to food crops, or to trees for firewood on steep slopes or roadside verges. Here in the south, there is empty land. Just scrub, with occasional farms in the most favoured places. Acacia trees dot the landscape, but there’s a lot of bare soil visible around individual bushes. It looks dry and dusty and we’re still in the rainy season!

There’s a history to all this. Until very recently nobody wanted to live in this part of Rwanda – it’s the least favoured part of the country. There are large areas of swamp where the Nyaborongo river flows into a series of lakes and then leaves them as the Akagera river on its way to Egypt. The swamps are very malarial. Many have been drained for farming within the last twenty or so years, but others remain. The climate is hot, dusty, dry – who would choose to live there when you could have the cool heights of Gitarama or the south west? There were wild animals around up to the size of elephants until they rounded them up and moved them all into Akagera National Park. There are snakes, too (though neither Marisa nor Els have seen one in 5 months there).

So the Government of the day decided it would be a cool idea to forcibly deport thousands of Tutsis from the rest of Rwanda into either settler homes for those who went willingly, or concentration camps for those who protested. The logic was that they would either open up this area for habitation, or die of famine. If the latter, then it didn’t matter because they were only Tutsis and one dead Tutsi means more land and food for the Hutus.

The deportees managed to survive, until later on, in February and March 1994, the area became the test bed for the plans of genocide. With a huge concentration of Tutsis, very few Hutus, and almost no roads in and out of the area, you could hone your skills at killing thousands of people without the rest of the country knowing about it. And that’s just what happened.

Fourteen years on, the town of Nyamata still has a Wild West feeling to it. The side roads are like something out of a Hollywood film set. They look flimsy and temporary, as though a good wind would blow them over. The main road through the town is brand new, tarmac covered, and well graded. This is because it’s the road to the new airport being built with American money, to serve both as the new international airport for Rwanda but also as an American military air base and the centre of a huge American military camp.

The existing international airport is too small and too close to the housing areas of the city; it’s an accident waiting to happen.

The Americans want to move into Rwanda because they see it as the ideal power base from which to control their interests in East Africa, and because they’re worried about the influence China is exerting in the region. Having been bombed out of their embassy in Nairobi they feel Rwanda, with its tightly controlled society, is a safer haven for their staff and troops.

Sooner or later, though, I’m sure there will be a major global stand-off between America and China, and East Africa could well be the flashpoint. And it could all come within twenty years or so.

The side roads in Nyamata are wide and unpaved; everywhere there’s a feeling of space, of new-ness, of temporary-ness. Old buildings are being torn down and replaced by grander ones, so some people, at least, are thriving here.

We cross a football field devoid of a single blade of grass, and with a row of electricity pylons along one side of it, and then dive down a grid of streets where all the houses have hedges of succulents. Marisa and Els’ house is in the middle of a residential area and about as far removed from our flat at Gitarama as it’s possible to be. There’s no traffic at all; you can’t even hear traffic on the main road half a mile away. There are swarms of little children, who rush up to greet us and have a hug, and older children who come up and ask me for money.

The house is a huge bungalow. There are five bedrooms, a kitchen, a lounge and bathroom where nothing works because every single tap, and blocked off water pipe, is leaking water all over the floor as soon as the mains are turned on. Washing up is done at an outside tap in the back yard. The yard is enclosed, and there’s a further range of buildings – two decent sized rooms and at least two smaller rooms – which seem to have been intended as quarters for servants. The best feature of the house is a shady veranda at the front, with a row of massive pot plants. Like most Rwandan houses, the place hasn’t been finished off; there’s no front gate and there are gaps in the brick wall where somebody intended to put either decorative metal grilles or bamboo screens, but these have not been done. Outside, on the edge of the street, there’s a pile of unused bricks, sand, and gravel for making concrete.

However, the electricity and water are both on, so we set to making our evening meal. Marisa and Els use an electric hotplate for cooking; it’s not as efficient as our gas cooker but miles better than using charcoal or paraffin. Els has tried her hand at making bread, but has encountered the same problems as me. The stuff is edible, just, but like mine it has an aftertaste. We wonder if it’s something in the flour we’re using. The girls have acquired a bottle of urwagwa – banana beer. It’s 15o proof – stronger than wine – and tastes like vinegar. Very much an acquired taste, and I think we’ll all three be sticking to the Primus beer for the immediate future. (Though I notice that Els has developed a taste for Waragi – our East African gin)!

After tea we chat and share music files among our laptops. Outside it’s thundering and raining. A huge cockroach appears in the lounge, so I thump it with a book. There are massive ants a centimetre long. After the rain we get invaded by the huge flying ants like we had at Gitarama – they look scary but don’t do any harm. But rain plus flying ants means it’s time for bed. I’m on the floor, on a mattress, but with a mosquito net and I just hope the assorted cockroaches, ants, snakes etc won’t discover me tonight!

Best thing about today – my new shirt (both the girls think it’s OK); going somewhere new and seeing different scenery.
Worst thing about today – nothing at all. It’s been a good day!

1 comment:

Mark Benson said...

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