Friday, 6 June 2008

To Kibangu by the high road!

June 5th

My alarm goes at ten to five, and I haul myself out of bed. I haven’t slept well because I’m still wondering whether we’re actually going training today or not. By six o’clock I’m all ready to leave and I’ve tried both ringing and texting Cathie several times, but all I’m getting is “number unavailable” or some even sillier message that her phone number isn’t listed. Obviously the MTN network is in crisis and I can’t rely on phone communication at the precise time when I most need it. So I have to walk up to Cathie’s where my worst fears are confirmed. They’ve received none of last night’s messages; she has assumed we’re not training and she’s fast asleep.

My first thoughts are to leave her and forget the training. But the Kibangu teachers would never forgive us if they all turned up for training and we muzungus left them in the lurch, so I feel we have to go. I bang and bang on Cathie and Elson’s door until they open up. An hour later, and after frantic phone calls to the moto drivers, we’re on our way at last. The drivers are charging us RwF12000 each, which seems an outrageous sum. (But when you read about where we go, it is actually money well spent and reasonable in view of the terrain).

The first part of the journey is the usual road up past Muhanga, and skirting round Mushushiro and Kabacuzi. I’m assuming we’re going to pass Nsanga and then turn off north. But no, we turn off on a steep mountain track and rattle and lurch up a scary slope until we’re right on top of the highest hills in the district. Mountains, really. The views are staggeringly good, but there are mist banks rolling up and around and every so often all views are blotted out. But then it clears – well, what views! Hills in all directions; it’s like being in a low flying plane.

The track goes on and on for miles. We pass a mine adit going into the hillside; I can’t work out what they are mining but it might be tin. We pass a vast area where every tree has been cut down, and men and women are making charcoal on dozens of ovens. Every single tree has gone, and the hillsides are bare. They are slightly terraced, with deep ditches parallel to the slope to intercept drainage and stop gulleying. I’m told that because they leave the roots in the soil, the trees re-grow from the root stock, and that the re-growth is very fast.

The charcoal ovens are piles of wood cuttings covered with soil and turf, and bound about by wooden planks. Everywhere you look there are plumes of smoke from them, and the air is caustic with the smell of partly burning wood. The trees they’re using are eucalypts, and it’s a slightly aromatic smell, but sulphurous at the same time. Not pleasant.

The charcoal makers are living in rough wooden huts dotted around the hillside but mainly along this one track which runs along the ridge. Every few yards there are stacks of sacks of charcoal ready for market, with a plug of grass in the mouth of the sack to keep any pieces from falling out.

Also, where the trees have been felled any decent timber has been sawn into planks and these are all stacked neatly in piles about ten feet high to weather. In some places it looks as though they are using the heat from the charcoal furnaces to steam the planks, or to speed up their weathering, but I can’t be sure exactly what’s happening.

The slopes are very steep in places, and the bikes are now teetering close to the edge. The track starts its descent and down and down we go, through wooded valleys, with bands of rock crossing the track every few hundred yards giving a bone-jarring ride. Through the trees there are more and more beautiful, rustic valleys opening up to our vision. Little houses dot the hillsides. There are precious few tracks in sight anywhere. It’s unbelievably rural and far from civilisation. Every few yards there are people walking, carrying ridiculously heavy loads up the mountain. Women with babies on their backs, a big bundle of wood or shopping on their heads, and an umbrella in one hand, walking as elegantly as if they weren’t carrying a thing. They all stop and wave at us as we pass. In about ten miles of mountain road we pass only one other vehicle.

Most roads and tracks in Rwanda go along the sides of hills, and not along the tops. And most of the very biggest hills are densely wooded. So this track is really rare – right along the ridge, for mile after mile, with wide open views for score of miles. I’m sure that if this mist would only lift we’d be able to see all the volcanoes.

We plunge on down and down again until eventually we reach “civilisation” – a health centre. Shortly followed by an enormous church, and a school. We’re at Kibangu, our destination. Just down from the primary school lies the secondary, with its Rwandan flag fluttering in the slight breeze. The day is clouding up and getting chillier by the minute.

Well, we’ve arrived. We’re on the right day, at the right place, and at the right time. But there’s nobody here to meet us. Its nine o’clock, and all the children are inside at their lessons. As we try to find the head teacher’s office, the usual chaos erupts. Teachers abandon their lessons and lounge in the doorways of their rooms while the children hang out of the windows, and in some case climb out of windows to come up close to us and stare. None of the teachers deigns to come and ask us what we’re doing here, or if they can help us. There’s no sign of the head teacher, who is also the secteur rep and the person responsible for making sure we have a room and an audience.

This goes on for a full five minutes while we begin to fear that, after all this journey and expense, there’s going to be no training.

At last one elderly teacher comes up to us and we explain to him why we’re here. Immediately he says they’re not aware of any training today. We’re both furious. What on earth was the head of Murehe up to when he told me late last night that the training was on, and at Kibangu. Was he just trying to tell me what he thought I wanted to hear?

We try ringing Viateur, the head at Kibangu. He’s not on site. I’m getting fed up with the head teachers who seem to spend as little time in their schools as possible. My phone’s still not working, and the whole network still seems to be only functioning sporadically. Eventually Cathie gets through and reminds him that he’s supposed to have organised a secteur-wide training session for today. Viateur plays the innocent and claims he never got the letter telling him about it. Well, if that’s true, then he’s the only one who didn’t. Every other secteur rep has organised the event, and most have done it well.

By now it’s 9.30, Cathie’s mutinous (I did dig her out of bed, and for a wild goose chase), so we get back on our bikes and decide we’ll go back home, take a load of pictures of the scenery on the way, and do some other work together back in Gitarama.

Just as we’re leaving the site Viateur turns up in his tee-shirt and gardening trousers. He’s making great play of phoning all the other schools in the secteur. “Don’t worry”, he tells us, “Just hang on half an hour and they’ll all come”. We’re doubtful; it’ll be more like an hour than 30 minutes, and it assumes that teachers in all the schools in the secteur can just abandon their classes at the drop of a hat and get themselves to Kibangu.

Cathie’s all for storming off and leaving them to it, but I persuade her that, now we’re here, we ought to stay and do a session. But we’ll abbreviate the session because our moto drivers won’t want to be leaving much later than half past one.

Eventually Viateur throws a class out of their room, and we get started. It’s an hour and a half before the last clients arrive, and by then we’re half way through the event.

Considering the inauspicious start, the session goes well. We leave in all the fun stuff- games and songs – and concentrate on the teaching pedagogy. I’m writing summaries of stuff on one blackboard while Cathie’s doing the talking, and this way they can copy down a lot of things what we won’t have time to explain I detail.

Just as we’re finishing and packing our bags for a quick getaway it starts to rain. It rains, it pours, it comes down a torrential downpour for a full 40 minutes. All of us are marooned in the classroom. Cathie and I are starving – I had my breakfast at just after 5 and it’s not half past one. We make a dash to Viateur’s office so we can chew a sambosa or two to hold us together till we get home. (We’ve given the Rwandans some sweeties to thank them for their good humour in coming at such short notice, too).

The rain will have made the earth tracks treacherously slippery, so we – and the moto drivers – are very anxious about getting home. It turns out to be a slow and slippery run. The tyres on my driver’s moto have very little tread left, and I can feel the back wheels sliding away time and time again. But both men are really excellent drivers, and we never once come near to being thrown off the bikes. These lads are really earning their money today.

I take lots of photos on the run home; most turn out to be unusable because they’re too blurred, but a few are really nice and give us a lasting memory of the fantastic panoramas from the ridge. I’d even think about paying this small fortune to do the ride again for fun, on a clear and sunny day when I’m not pushed for a deadline and can stop at will to take snaps.

When we’re about half way home it comes on to rain heavily again and within minutes we’re all soaked. I have my cagoule on, but I can feel rain running down inside my neck. Inside my helmet my head is completely dry, but all the rain from the helmet is dribbling down my neck. We can’t stop and shelter; the track will become completely impassable. As it is, there is a muddy stream erupting down the gulleys along its length, and manoeuvring the bike is becoming so difficult that we’re down to a slow jogging pace. And anyway, we haven’t passed a house or anywhere we could shelter since the mine entrance a mile or so back. It seems to take forever to return to the main road. At Mushishiro there’s a covered market stall with what looks like half the parish crowded in to shelter. We barge in, too, and they part to stare at us. The local “care in the community” type, an elderly man with a club foot and stick, tries and tries to engage us in conversation even though we keep explaining to him that we can’t speak Kinyarwanda. Eventually our moto drivers take pity on us and shoo him away.

Back at the flat I’m quite literally soaked to the skin. My receipt book is so wet the moto driver can barely sign it. Fortunately my camera seems OK. But it takes me a good hour to get warm again, and I’m shivering like mad at one point.

Can this really be the dry season, and the Equator?

Best things about today – making the best of things, and the very best moto journey of all so far. It’s difficult to think how any other run could possible best the combination of scenery and excitement at coping with adverse road conditions.

Worst thing – its very stressful when you aren’t sure whether things are going to happen; you’re constantly adjusting what you’re going to do. Being flexible and adaptable is what we’re all about in VSO, but today’s experience is definitely taking flexibility a bit far!

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