Tuesday, 3 June 2008

A Palace in a thatched hut

June 1st

Cathryn and Ken’s hospitality is amazing. Cathryn’s up and about in her pink pyjamas making tea and toast for everyone for breakfast. The eight of us virtually get through an entire jar of Nutella on toast, too. (But we’ve all chipped in some money to pay for drink etc at the party so we’re being quite good, really). People are drifting off at intervals; three are off to Rwamagana in the East and need to be back as soon as possible.

It’s a bright sunny morning so I take some pictures and have a look at the garden. At the back of the house there’s the empty, unfinished shell of another building, bigger than my flat at Gitarama. We think it was intended for the domestic’s quarters, but, in true Rwanda fashion, was never finished. This bungalow has been used for VSOs for several years now, and everyone in Nyanza refers to it as “the muzungus’ house”.

Els and I leave and walk into town, where the entire guest house crowd are having breakfast on the terrace of a restaurant. Anne-Miek and Soraya are supposed to be coming to see the Mwami’s Palace with us. However, when we get there Soraya’s not well – swollen glands, sore neck etc. We rule out meningitis but it could be a relapse of malaria. The best thing seems to be to get her of to Kigali and the polyclinique there for diagnosis. There’s no way she’ll be able to get home from Kigali to Mushubi in the afternoon, so a couple of quick phone calls and it’s sorted that she’ll go on to Nyamata and spend the night with Marisa and Els. That way, if she’s going down with something nasty, at least she’ll be with friends.

Anne-Miek discovers that she’s too strapped for cash to go and see the Palace, so it’s just Els and me after all. We walk through the town and way out into the suburbs. It’s a hot morning, and we’re grateful for the shade of trees planted all along the road. It’s about two miles to the palace because you have to contour round the hillsides in a horseshoe shape – in a direct line it’s barely half a mile from Cathryn and Ken’s house!

We pass Cathryn’s school, a lovely little secondary with a big building programme going on. Most of the playground is under heaps of sand and gravel, just like at Shyogwe.

We’re warmed up, to put it mildly, by the time we reach the Palace, and very glad that we’ve left our rucksacks at Cathryn’s house and are travelling light. When we get to the place we have a typically Rwandan experience. There’s nobody in the reception hut except a cleaner. Her job is to clean, and not to tell the Guardien that there are visitors, so she goes on cleaning. After five minutes we ask her to go and fetch him. If we had been Rwandans she would probably have refused point blank, but because we’re muzungus she’s terrified of any backlash if she does the wrong thing, so she downs her mop and goes. Another five minutes and the man appears. There’s one other group of people, a Belgian family with two very small boys, visiting the Palace, and the man is clearly flustered at having to cope with two groups of Western visitors at the same time.

We pay our entrance fee and our photography permit (nice little earner!), and start talking to him. It turns out that he’s another one of these Rwandan English teachers who have discovered they can earn more money and better conditions by abandoning schools and working as guides for the museum/national parks services. When we explain who we are and what we’re doing in the country he’s immediately friendly, and even though I’ve left my residence permit in the rucksack we both get the reduced Residents’ entry rate. Phew!

Firstly we get taken round the new Palace, and then the old, thatched one. At this point you need a bit of a history lesson. When the Germans colonised Rwanda in 1884 they left the royal family and traditional feudal system intact because they thought it would help them rule the country more easily. As far as the average Rwandan was concerned there was no change in status; apart from a few Protestant missionaries the Germans made little impact on the country. When the Belgians took over in 1916 they also kept the royal family and the feudal power structure in place. It wasn’t until the 1930s that things changed. The old king was fiercely resistant to Roman Catholicism, and was working hard to keep the old Rwandan traditions and religious beliefs alive. Under his leadership the Rwandan people were also resistant to the new religion, and the missionaries were having only sporadic and local success. This infuriated the Catholic Church, which saw the country as its acquisition and was worried in case the Protestants should gain ground. In effect the Catholic Church gave the civil administration an ultimatum – either the king had to embrace and endorse Catholicism, or he would have to go. The king stuck to his guns and was deposed. His eldest son was installed as the new Mwami, baptised, and Catholic churches spread like a rash all across the countryside.

As a reward for his services, the Belgians built the Mwami a new palace at Nyanza, on a hill just across from where the old king had held sway. The Queen Mother, meanwhile, who was a formidable political force in the country and still very traditional, was installed in a hut at Shyogwe. She was close enough to be able to visit her son, but not close enough to be able to influence him on a day-to-day basis, and also right under the austere gaze of the Catholic headquarters at Kabgayi (which is barely a couple of miles from Shyogwe). She was finally murdered in one of the outbreaks of genocide.

The new palace is very 1930s – bright white walls, clean, rectangular lines, and airy rooms with high ceilings and plenty of light and ventilation. There is some beautiful tile work, and some dazzling Rwandan geometrical patterns and animal/bird representations, mostly in the fireplaces. The Palace is in extensive grounds, on a small hilltop, with beautiful views across to the surrounding hills. If a King wanted to be reminded that his country is the “Land of a Thousand Hills”, this is an ideal place to do it. There is some original furniture in the rooms, but not a lot. There are some beautiful ivory carvings. A few of the original carpets are in place, and we have to leave our shoes outside. (The last time I had to do that to visit a royal palace was in Romania)!

I’m busy taking pictures when the guide tells me that photography isn’t allowed in the new palace. “But”, I say, “I’ve paid for a photography permit”. “Ah”, he replies, “but that’s for the thatched palace. There’s no pictures allowed inside this one”. Of all the daft restrictions! What on earth are they afraid of – there are no sensitive documents lying around. And later in the day Antonia tells me that when she went round (without a guide) she was able to snap away to her heart’s content. Sometimes this place is so infuriating!

All in all the palace is a very pleasant building, and we are impressed. I would have loved to live there. The décor is restrained; it’s a compact size and I think it would have been very comfortable. There are no servants’ quarters; the place is close enough to Nyanza for the servants to live in town and come out to work daily. Under the kitchen floor, however, is a secret strong room for storing valuables or as a last refuge in time of crisis. But then, doesn’t every Palace have one of these (or at least a secret passage to escape the place)?

Next, we move down to the real attraction, the old thatched palace. This is simply amazing. It’s at least four times the size of the biggest traditional hut I’ve seen so far. It’s enormous. And the guide tells us that all the materials would have been brought to the site like a prefabricated kit, and the Palace shell built in one day by teams of hundreds of labourers. The interior is no different from that of the other huts we’ve seen at Gahini and Butare; it’s the sheer scale of the place which makes it unique. There are three huts; the main living one, and others for storing milk and butter, and the third for the Royal beer. At the entrance to the hut there is a semi-circular area; commoners were not allowed to cross the threshold. In the actual doorway are two smaller horseshoes, one in white for the Mwami and the other in red for his wife. The Mwami would sit here, at the entrance to his hut, to dispense justice and hear the petitions of his subjects. These would be marshalled into a crowd at the outer edge of the big semicircle. The Mwami would point to a petitioner with his spear, and the man would be allowed to approach up to the king, kneel in front of him and clap his hands three times in greeting. Throughout the entire audience the petitioner would be on his knees.

As we leave the Palace the guide reminds us that his guiding fee isn’t included in the entrance money, so we’re into the tipping game.

Back at Cathryn’s I say farewell to everyone and get a matata to Butare. Just outside Butare we blow a front tyre, right under where I’m sitting. We coast on the wheel rim to a safe place, and the wheels are wedged with bricks from the roadside. The spare tyre is inflated but very bald, and the whole episode makes me late for my lunch appointment with Tiga. What’s surprising is that half the people in the bus don’t even bother to get out of their seats during the tyre changing and jacking up process. And, of course, we end up with the usual crowd of onlookers, who crowd in so close to stare that they get in the way of the driver and convoyeur as they’re trying to work. Cue much angry and sweating snapping at little boys who are virtually poking their noses into the wheel arch!

Tiga’s decided to take her braids and hair extensions out; she’s with Antonia and over smoothies and yet another omelette we discuss what we’re going to say to the new VSO director when he comes to see us during the week. We all agree that there are three key things which are making our jobs very difficult:
We are all supposed to be training Rwandan teachers so that what we do is sustainable when we leave. But VSO has cut back on its training budget, and the Districts say that have no money, so we are virtually hamstrung in what we try to do. We feel really frustrated and we worry that VSOs reputation will be undermined if the Rwandans see us swanning around but not seeming to do much work.
The whole issue of transport also hobbles us. There are no motos for us to use, and a heavy restriction on how much we can spend on transport each month. For those of us whose entire job involves going out to the sticks – like me – this is a major issue.
There are so many people who have left early because they either feel unsupported or because they’re the wrong people for that particular placement that the reputation of VSO could be damaged in the UK, and if that meant people didn’t come out as volunteers it would be disastrous for the whole VSO programme.

What is reassuring is that Tiga is going to see out her year at Gikongoro, and might well do a second year as a VSO but in a different placement and probably in a different country. I had feared that she might bail out early if she found a suitable job elsewhere. She’s just started an O U course in Managing Development, so is deep into written assignments and lots of reading. I can sympathise with her – the OU took up three years of my life a while ago!

Anne-Miek appears and joins us and we have a general natter about training and so on. The week when we’re doing our big training at Kigeme is “National Refugee Week” and I think there will all sorts of special events at the Kigeme Camp. Could be interesting (and photogenic).

Anyway, by now I was feeling a bit weary, so take a fast bus up to Gitarama. The stopping bus fare is RwF1200, and they only charged me 1500 for a luxury seat on a fast bus. The fares have actually got cheaper, it seems! It’s the first time I’ve used a luxury bus for months. Must do this when Teresa and co come over!

Back at the flat Tom and all the gang are out for the usual Sunday evening meal, but I’m feeling too tired to go and my stomach’s telling me to go easy, so I opt out and have a quiet evening.

Best thing about today – the palaces; also just socialising with so many people over one weekend.

Worst thing – nothing really. It’s been another really good day. But a blowout at full speed in a rickety old matata is an interesting experience!

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