Sunday, 27 July 2008

Postcards from Cyangugu

The border with Congo in all its tacky glory. The old "colonial" part of Cyangugu, which the Bradt guide goes into raptures about, is the straggle of houses around the big white building.
This is the main international highway from Rwanda to both Congo and Burundi. The potholes are so severe that vehicles have to slalom their way up and down the hill. At night time it's dangerous for cars, and lethal for pedestrians!

Here's a pothole so deep they'veplanted a tree in it to warn drivers at night.

Tu Chi by the lakeside. Because the shore is so broken up by little islands and bays and headlands there are lots of these lovely little corners just crying out for a wealthy westerner to build their ultimate tropical paradise holiday retreat!

A distant shot of the fish market. We weren't allowed to take any close ups.

A typical atmospheric shot of the water's edge. In most places there's quite a steep drop down to the lake - cliffs in parts - and there's only so may places where you can easily get to the water's edge.

A hazy long distance shot from the road between Cyangugu and Kamembe. Foreground is Rwanda, background is Congo.

Another view of the fishing canoes. These have just unloaded the night's catch and their crews are drinking away their profits in bars round the edge of the fish market.

Shopping in the market

July 26th

It’s the monthly Umuganda day today, so I can’t get out and do shopping or anything else till the afternoon. I’ve got Tu Chi coming for lunch and to get copies of my Cyangugu pictures and blogs, and check whether there’s any music she wants on my computer.

Firstly I find the water’s gone off, so I’m reduced to using the jerry cans we store on our balcony. The water’s been in these cans for three months, but fortunately it doesn’t taste too plasticy so I’m OK. But I’ll empty and refill the cans tomorrow!

For part of the morning I do some work – I need to get it all ready for Monday morning and I know I’ll have to be busy on Sunday as well as today. With the hairdresser shut because of umuganda, and no matatas passing, it’s lovely and quiet and ideal for concentrated work. I have music on my laptop and get a lot done.

Then I set to with my cooking. The lentils have softened nicely overnight, so I make a big batch of lentil and tomato soup. Much better this time – I’m almost there in terms of recipe; just a bit of fine tuning with herbs to do. Tom’s made up some mincemeat into a Bolognese sauce, so that and pasta is the main course sorted. When Tu Chi arrives she’s bought fruit – Japanese plums and a papaya. So for pud we have smoothies made from bananas, plums, papayas, with honey and strawberry yoghurt. And grated organic chocolate on top! OK, so I’m showing off to her, but so what! She’s put up with me for three days this week and deserves a treat!

After lunch we sort out the photos; she shows me some pictures on her laptop of her family’s house in Hanoi (a beautiful building in French colonial style), and I show her some of my photos from Colombia.

At this point the electricity goes off, but the water comes back on. The pipes are full of air and you can’t use the taps without them spitting and spluttering.

So we leave the computers digesting huge amounts of swapped pictures and sounds, and decide to go to the market. Tu Chi wants to buy some fabric to take home (Vietnam is apparently famous for its tailoring, so she’s going to take the cloth with her and get it made up back in Hanoi). We spend a good hour mooching round the cloth section of the market; everywhere we go we not only have a queue of children following us but a scrum of cloth traders all trying to move us on to their particular stall, and also a bunch of seamstresses all hoping we’ll use them to make up the fabric. One of them is the woman who made my shirts for me and she’s really disappointed when we don’t use her. I’ve become the expert in what is good quality cloth and what isn’t, and it’s true I can identify the very cheap and stiff material easily enough. Most of the stuff we like and all three lengths we end up buying come from the Ivory Coast in West Africa.

We find a new section of market (I.e. neither of us realised it existed) which sells handicrafts, and among them some beautiful baskets. Tu Chi buys a couple; I make a mental note to get some in the future or at least make sure I remember to show Teresa and co round this little corner. It’s tucked away behind the hairdressers and easy to miss. Gitarama market really is huge on a Saturday, and today there’s a lot less stalls than usual because of umuganda. People won’t have come in from long distances because the half day available for trade won’t make their journeys economic.

I walk Tu Chi home via Karen’s house; we want to check up arrangements for tomorrow. Sunday is the last day for the two deaf women staying with Karen, and we’re having a lunchtime rather than evening muzungu get together to mark the occasion.

Back at the flat Tom’s arrived from Kigali and the power’s back on. We both spend Saturday night working, with minor pauses to eat up left overs from my lunchtime efforts!

And just when you want to work without distractions, something happens to thwart you. I’m rinsing out a soupy pan when there’s a huge splurge of air and water from the tap which blasts bits of soup all over the walls, curtains, clean washing up etc. So I waste half and hour re-doing everything, and end my Saturday night taking down curtains and soaking them in “Vanish” Honestly, I’ve gone from suave cook and entertainer to household skivvy! Serves me right.

Best thing about today – entertaining a friend and actually enjoying cooking.

Worst thing about today – no water. Then no power. Then a “redecorated” kitchen…

More postcards from Cyangugu

This is Tu Chi, my lovely travelling companion to Cyangugu.
The Peace Guesthouse where we stayed. Run by the Anglican Diocese of Cyangugu. Very friendly, comfortable, but no alcohol on the premises!

At the border at the extreme southern end of Lake Kivu. In the middle you can see the Rusizi river running out of the lake and southwards towards Lake Tanganyika. To the left is Rwanda, to the right is the Congo.

The palatial mansions of wealthy Congolese line the shores of Lake Kivu, and make a comfortable summer retreat by the cool and breezy lake shore. It's also quick and easy for them to escape Congo if the interminable wars threaten this little corner....

A souvenir of February's earthquakes. The epicentre of the big one was right here at Cyangugu.

Nose to the grindstone in Gitarama

July 25th

I decide to get in to work as early as I can and look busy, even if there’s nothing much to do. It’s possible that Anne-Miek’s driver will turn up with rice sacks at eight o’clock and I daren’t be late if he’s coming. She’ll skin me alive!

When I arrive at the office I find Védaste looking for me; he tells me he’s been looking for me for days and I’m never in the office. That’s true, mate, I haven’t had anything to do so I’ve been off gadding about. Claude also asks me where I’ve been; he doesn’t actually tell me off but I get the message. It turns out that Claude wants to do the big presentation on census results on August 6th. That’s all very well, but it’s the middle of the time when Teresa and co are here, and on that day we’re all up in Gisenyi. I explain to Claude, very apologetically. I’m not ashamed; if he or Védaste really wanted to get hold of me they’ve both got my phone number and could have rung me any time during the past week. I’d have cancelled all my plans and come in to work. I suppose I should have booked my holiday dates in advance with Claude, but he’s never there to ask. Oh well, can’t be helped.

What complicates things further is that Claude wants me to go through all the maternelle census forms and have stuff ready for Monday, and then have a big meeting with him and Védaste on Monday. I have to say yes to that, even though I’ve already promised Marisa I’ll help her with a training session in Nyamata on Monday. I will have to drop her in it for Monday (she’ll probably be able to get Paula to come in from Gahini), and I’ll go to Nyamata on Monday night and do my thing on Tuesday. It’ll work.

So I spend all of today working flat out entering up statistics for the maternelles and analysing the results. I can’t get it all done by the end of the afternoon, and it’s going to take me most of the weekend to finish it. Also, we’ve a real problem in that most of the maternelles have left out any chunks of the census forms which they find difficult, so there’s precious little data I can analyse except for the actual numbers of children.

The next problem is that I find a considerable proportion of the census returns aren’t there in the cupboard where they’re supposed to be. I know there are maternelles not covered in these figures – I’ve been to the schools and seen the children in them! So while I’ve got about 6800 children officially accounted for, I reckon there’s anything up to another 500 lost somewhere within the system.

If I’m right, the grand total of children “in my care” in Muhanga is 72000 primary, 12000 secondary and 7000 maternelle. That’s 91000 children – a heck of a lot to keep tabs on!

By the time I get away at the end of the afternoon (I’m working on my own in the office all afternoon because everyone else has gone to the stadium for Friday afternoon games – makes me feel as though I’ve put myself in detention) it’s too late to go to the bank and I’m low on money. Also, there’s nothing in the fridge or larder and I need to do a fair old sweep round the market. And I’ve invited Tu Chi for lunch tomorrow at the end of umuganda and I want to impress her. I won’t be able to go to the bank now until Monday, or buy any food until Saturday afternoon. Fortunately the market stays open late on the eve of umuganda so I whiz round and get most of what I need. What isn’t there can be adjusted for.

Back at the flat Tom texts to say he’s staying in Kigali overnight and not returning till tomorrow afternoon. That makes catering easier. I discover that sardines, tomato salsa and peanut flour combine quite well to make a rich fishy sauce on vegetables. Just thought you’d like to know that. (I must stop writing down everything I eat – this blog’s almost turning into a “what I did on my holidays” format). One important thing I do remember is to put lentils to soak overnight – I’m not going to get caught out that way again!

I work through the evening writing up our Cyangugu trip so that when Tu Chi comes tomorrow I can not only give her the pictures but also the blogs.

Best thing about today – being hard at work. Within 24 hours I’ve gone from trying to fill in an empty diary to being hard at work and with every day accounted for in the foreseeable future. Everything now – maternelle census, Nyamata training, Teresa’s visit, autumn term school inspections – is end to end without a break. So, really, the best thing about today is when I’m lying in bed thinking about my three short breaks with three lovely girls: to Gisenyi with Épi; to Byumba with Kersti; to Cyangugu with Tu Chi. Not bad, when you come to think of it. And “all in the best possible taste” and everything done honourably, too.

Worst thing about today – nothing at all. This is how I like things.

The boats of Lake Kivu

Fishing canoes. They always work in threes, with nets strung from the enormous poles at bow and stern. It's the crews of these boats whose singing you can hear across huge expanses of lake as they paddle their way home to sell their catch.
The port of Cyangugu, with beer boatsand sand and gravel ships prominent.

A dugout canoe battling against a blustery wind among the islands of Kivu

The cargo boat was in trouble. Engineless, it was at the point of running aground.

Coastal passenger ferry taking people to the fish market at Cyangugu. There are around 40 people in this big canoe.

Nyungwe forest by bus

July 24th

At ten o’clock, just as we go to bed, it starts raining. It rains continuously all through the night. I wake up thinking “blast, I’m only wearing sandals” and “we’re going to have to walk back up to Kamembe and even with a small umbrella we’re going to get soaked”. Then I think “ah, maybe the rain has cleared the air and I can take good pictures across the lake”. Alas, the visibility is murkier than ever. It’s worse than yesterday, and licks of cloud are obscuring the Congolese heights on the far side.

We’ve arranged a late breakfast (Tu Chi isn’t a mornings person!), and afterwards we sit and read while we wait for the rain to stop. Which it does, right on cue, about half an hour before we need to leave.

In all the traumas of this trip, the one really positive thing has been the Peace Guesthouse. Friendly service after the initial screw-up about bookings, and good food at very reasonable prices.

There’s a minor scuffle in our bus; we get there in good time so we can sit together and with Tu Chi on the left hand (scenic) side. Then the driver decides that since all our tickets are numbered, as are the bus seats, we must sit in our appropriate seat. Not next to each other, and on the wrong side. We grumble and make a fuss (we’re getting good at it!) and eventually he gives in and makes some unflattering comment about bloody muzungus. In seven months it’s the first time anybody has tried to impose a seating plan on a Rwandan bus.

Well, we bump and chug our way back home. No breakdowns this time, but the journey still feels as if it’s lasting forever. There are lots of monkeys by the roadside, and Tu Chi gets her money’s worth of greenery! At Nyanza we have one of those stops where everybody rushes out of the bus to buy food (read my blog for July 5th for more explanation), but since we’ll be home in Gitarama in half an hour we don’t bother. We just much our way through (even more) bananas.

Back in Gitarama we dine on brochettes and ibirayi at the “Petit Jardin”, then go our separate ways. We’re going to do the market together on Saturday, and Tu Chi is going to copy my photos (her camera is playing up). I need to show my face at work on Friday.

In the evening I just want to do something fairly mindless so I watch a DVD of “Brief Encounter”.

What’s been good about today? – everything! Once again, today just sums up the life I’m leading out here – languid breakfast on a terrace overlooking an exquisite equatorial lake. Lunchtime seems me in mountain jungle gawping at monkeys through a bus window. Teatime sees me doing urgent food shopping round our local part of Gitarama and haggling with the market women. And in the evening I’m listening to Noel Coward’s clipped, precise dialogue on my computer.

Bring it on, folks! VSO life is cool!

Seeing the sights of Cyangugu

July 23rd

Breakfast on the terrace at seven o’clock sharp! This is an Anglican Guest House; the driving force behind it and a lot else in the town is the former bishop. Right next door to us is a girls’ school named after his wife, and most of the new commercial and administrative centre of Cyangugu is on a hilltop which is church land and which has been planned by this energetic churchman. Africa needs more like him!

While we’re breakfasting, all the fishing boats are coming in to a point a few hundred metres beyond where we’re sitting, but tantalisingly out of sight. There are simple dug-out canoes – hollowed from single tree trunks. There are the characteristic graceful trimaran fishing boats, with enormously long poles projecting from bow and stern. These are the boats whose lights we saw last night. There are bigger canoes with planked hulls; very high, sharp prows and blunt sterns.

And across the calm, grey waters of Kivu you can hear the fisherman calling to each other and singing as they paddle in unison to bring the heavy canoes in to the shore. It’s an absolutely characteristic sound of this particular lake, and very romantic at a distance.

It is another one of these grey, murky, hazy days. Long distance photography is going to be all but impossible; everything looks dull and flat – grey sky, grey lake, grey mountains behind it. What a pity! Kivu should be blue and sparkling!

The distant (Congolese) lake shore looks for all the world like something out of the Italian mountain lakes. There are lots of little islands all round the lake’s perimeter, including a wooded, uninhabited one only a few hundred yards offshore from the guest house. The shore is further broken up by dozens of little inlets and promontories, so there are literally thousands of places where you could build a lakeside summerhouse for that idyllic getaway!

The Congolese side really is becoming quite urbanised (more so than at Goma). There are huge mansions so big they’re clearly visible across several miles of water.

In the middle of the lake a couple of passenger launches are chugging their way northwards from Bukavu, presumably en route to Kibuye or Gisenyi. (I don’t know of any big towns on the Congolese side except for Goma in the extreme north and Bukavu in the extreme south).

We decide that the first thing we need to do is go back up to Kamembe and book our return bus tickets. We try our hand at stopping matatas, but all are full, and we end up walking the mile (all uphill) to the town centre. It’s not an arduous walk, and there’s plenty to look at. Every few yards gives you a new perspective on the lake, and the air is fresh and cool. After spending most of yesterday sat on a bus, we need the exercise!

Well, we never do find the Onatracom office, despite asking bus drivers, but there are several other operators and with return tickets in our pockets we can relax about the journey home.

There’s not that much to see or do in Kamembe; the market is small but busy; there are the usual slew of forex places and banks, and it’s very much the office and administrative centre for the south west corner of the country. There’s nothing in it which is remotely historic or picturesque; on the other hand it’s as perfect an example of a Rwandan town in all its chaotic, mucky glory as you’ll find anywhere! But by mid-morning we’ve walked up and down the main street about four times, and are ready to leave it and go down to Cyangugu proper and the Congolese border.

We go to the bus park to get a minibus, but, of course, minibuses to Cyangugu don’t go from the bus park. That would be too simple. They go from a corner of the market place. Back we go for a fifth time up the high street. We seem to be the only muzungus in town, and Tu Chi especially attracts looks from everyone. While Chinese men are not that uncommon in Rwanda and are everywhere associated with road building, Asiatic women are so rare they really do rate a “come to a dead halt and stare and stare until she disappears” response.

We squeeze into the bus (and this time I really do mean squeeze). I have one buttock firmly on the edge of one fixed metal seat, and the other barely on a little tip up seat. Every time the bus goes over a rut in the road (i.e. every couple of seconds) the two seats jolt apart and then together. I’m glad we’re only going a few miles…..

We arrive in Cyangugu and jump out to explore it. Five minutes later we really we’ve seen pretty well all there is. There’s nothing here to see. The old part of Cyangugu consists of a couple of hotels (the Hotel du Lac in its faded glory and expense, literally right on the physical border with Congo, and the Home St François which we wanted to book in to but was full). Neither of these has the lovely view that we have at Peace Guest House. There’s a couple of petrol stations, a despondent little row of dilapidated shops, and a half hearted market. And the frontier post and customs house. And that, folks is it. OK, so there’s a lot of residential areas up on the hill behind it, and the Bishop’s new administrative area on the top of the hill, but they’re not exactly tourist magnets.

Cyangugu, in other words, is a place you go through, not a place you go to. Épi told me it was ravishing, and I must on all accounts come here. Cyangugu actually looks better the further away you are from it! All the modern development we could see from the Guest house – and I really do mean ALL of it – is on the Congolese side. As at Goma, it seems as if the rich Congolese are building their mansions on a three-nation border crossing (Burundi’s only just an hour or so down the road), so that they can make an easy getaway in times of civil unrest. And some of the Congolese houses are simply enormous. I wonder what (illegal) means has financed them. Diamonds? Smuggled uranium or the other rare metals that seem to plentiful in Congo?

The actual border crossing sums up the whole place. A rickety, temporary looking metal bridge, painted grey, is strung over a straight stretch of river about a hundred yards wide. The river is the Rusizi, and it is the actual border. You could easily lob stones from one country into the other. You’d think twice about trying to swim, because the water is cold, deep and fast flowing. On each side of the bridge is a bare, gravel wasteland. It’s right on the edge of the lake, at the outlet of the lake – a prime site for development, or some sort of park. Instead, it’s just neglected and abandoned.

People are queuing for the crossing into the Congo; Tu Chi wants to get a photo taken right on the border bridge but a Rwandan official isn’t having any of that and we get politely but forcefully moved on. We walk down the “High Street” (you’re joking!) and take photos in a patch of grass where a house or shop has been knocked down and the site left derelict. The Congolese side of the river rises steeply in such a straight line that the hillside looks artificial, as though the river was a canal. People are hacking terraces out of this steep slope (it’s about a 45 degree angle, so not for the faint hearted) and building more houses. The excavated waste is just being chucked into the river. It’ll probably foul up the Rwandan hydro station a few miles downstream…

The river Rusizi is a geological oddity. Once upon a time, about 20 million years ago, Lake Kivu was much shallower than it is now, and the Rusizi flowed north from Lake Tanganyika into Lake Kivu. Then Nyiragongo and the other volcanoes at the far (Goma) end of the lake threw out so much lava that sometime in the last 2 million years or so it completely dammed the lake. The level of water in Lake Kivu rose dramatically, so the Rusizi reversed its direction and now flows smartly out of Kivu and back southwards into Lake Tanganyika. There, end of geology lesson!

I can’t tell you how embarrassed I feel – I’ve dragged Tu Chi all this way on the promise of seeing a lovely lakeside town, and what we’ve ended up with is not much better than a slum! The Bradt guide talks about “Colonial languor” and uses words like “intriguing”; “an almost cinematic quality – coming across rather like an abandoned film set used years ago to make a movie about some colonial West African trading backwater”. The only words which don’t break the trades description act in that lot are “abandoned” and “backwater”! Whoever wrote the guide must have had several pretty strong gins, plus a hell of a lot of poetic imagination.

Never mind; we’re here and the lake itself is pretty. If only the cloud would break and give us blue sky, then the lake would be blue and even more beautiful.

There’s a little promontory on our way back to the Guest House; we set off to explore it. On the way we discover the deepest, biggest potholes I’ve ever seen even on African roads. One is so deep that someone’s planted a tree branch in it to warn traffic at night. If you drove even a 4x4 straight into the hole it would be wrecked.

On the promontory there’s a women’s centre which has a bar and restaurant. It has a magnificent view across the lake and we decide to have a mid morning Fanta and chill out. There’s a strong wind blowing, ruffling the lake’s calm and making it hard work for the canoes still paddling across from inlet to inlet. Cormorants are fishing within twenty yards of where we’re sitting, and black and white birds are diving onto the surface of the water to scoop up any sambasa rash enough to venture too close.

I’ve been looking for evidence of earthquake damage all morning, but haven’t seen a thing. If you’ve been reading my blog for a long time you’ll remember we had a couple of quite severe earthquakes in February; the epicentre of these was around Cyangugu. A lot of people were killed here and homes destroyed. Well, I couldn’t see any evidence, except in the little hut where we had our drinks. There was a neat, prominent crack right through the middle of it. Worth a photo, anyway.

The little promontory we’re on shelters a small harbour where some of the biggest boats on the lake call in – this is what passes for a port at Cyangugu. There’s barely a hundred yards of quayside, but several steel vessels tied up and at least two new ones under construction. It seems funny to see a shipyard with welding in progress and piles of steel plates among the banana trees around an equatorial lake! The only two cargoes which we can identify as coming by lake are beer (of course) and gravel. One boat, presumably with engine trouble, is being moved for repair by a man poling from the deck and another trying to push it from inside a canoe. They stand no chance against the wind; there’s a grinding sound as the hull grates against lakeside trees, and the boat finally ends up blown aground on the lake shore.

The next thing we find is the fish market, where all the canoes we have seen in the early morning are tied up on the shore. Rows and rows of racks hold piles of tiny lake fish no bigger than whitebait. A general market has attached itself to that for fish and is doing far more trade than the official market in Cyangugu centre. Flocks of egrets wheel around, perching and pinching fish when the market traders eyes are distracted by us or by other customers. We aren’t allowed to take any close-up photos (and I’m not getting into the game of paying to take pictures), so I have to be content with a couple of rather distant shots.

And so onwards and upwards all the way back to Kamembe again. We dine in style in a market café, huge portions of mélange; clean and filling. Then amble back down the hill to the Guest House. By now we are rather in a dilemma – it’s too late to cut our losses and go back home today, but we’ve “done” both Cyangugu and Kamembe and there’s nearly an entire day before our booked bus.

In the event I think we make a good choice. We sit on the airy terrace overlooking the lake and relax. I help Tu Chi translate some French handwriting in questionnaires she’s trying to analyse as part of her work here; we chat for hours; we read. I realise I know absolutely zero about Vietnamese culture, especially that of the north (Tu Chi comes from Hanoi), and I at least end the day a lot wiser than I started it. There’s always a boat crossing the lake somewhere. It’s just a pity the grey clouds never lift.

I must borrow some of Marisa and Stéphane’s pictures from when they came here.

In the evening a group of young English people arrive; they’re a Tear Fund party on a project somewhere in the western province. We order pizzas; when they arrive it appears the kitchen has run out of yeast. Instead of pizza dough with a topping, we’ve got pastry with a filling. It looks odd but tastes fine. Being by the lakeside we want to eat fish, either big tilapia or the little sambasa. But, in Rwandan style, this Guest House within a stone’s throw of both lake and fish market has no fish whatsoever to serve us!

During the evening we walk yet again down to the promontory in Cyangugu, back to the bar we visited in the morning. We want to take some night shots of the lake. The bar serves a wine made from pineapples, so we try it, agreeing that if necessary we’ll prop each other up on the way home. It’s smooth and quite tasty – infinitely better than the banana beer I had at Marisa’s. The Guest House, by the way, is dry – no alcohol. This is the rule in Rwanda. It makes me laugh when I think of Europe, where virtually every monastery seems to have a history of commercial winemaking or brewing strong beer….. Why can’t Christianity get its act together as regards alcohol?

It’s a beautiful night. There’s just a gentle breeze. The fishing canoes are all out with their lights; we can hear the fishermen singing as they paddle out to the middle of the lake. Congo is all lit up and looks civilised – you could be looking across the lake to Geneva or Stockholm. And despite the disappointment of Cyangugu, I’ve certainly had a good day.

Escape to the far south-west!

July 22nd

Today’s the day I’m making my escape to Cyangugu with Tu Chi. We don’t leave until the 2 o’clock bus, and I can’t go and buy the bus tickets till 1 o’clock, so I have a leisurely morning getting packed and doing housework. I even manage to get some more internetting done.

By a quarter to one I’m at the Onatracom office to get our bus tickets. But, of course, the woman says the bus is fully booked. Panic stations. Tu Chi will be here in a few minutes; how the hell am I going to tell her that we can’t go because this silly woman is so inefficient that she couldn’t reserve me two tickets yesterday? (I’m sure she could have reserved them; she’s just too lazy to get off her backside and make the necessary phone calls). I throw a wobbly and tell her it’s less than 24 hours since she assured me there would be tickets, and that she refused to sell me any yesterday when I came in good time etc etc. By now there’s two or three bystanders watching. Everybody in Rwanda loves to stand around and watch an argument or a fight. It’s some of the best entertainment they get.

The woman decides to phone the depot in Kigali to check whether anybody’s getting off the bus in Gitarama. Half way through her phone call she runs out of credit (one of the side effects of poverty here – people go around with barely five minutes’ talk time on their phones and barely five miles of fuel in their vehicles). Everything comes to a halt while she calls one of the street children hanging around the bus park and sends him off to get her another 5 minutes’ credit. Eventually she finds out that there are two people on the bus booked to Gitarama, and so she can sell me our two tickets. Phew! We’ve got the bus – but by the skin of our teeth! If I’d arrived at 1 o’clock as she said, instead of twenty to one, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Onatracom is a government subsidised bus service which specialises in doing the very long distance routes Gitarama to Cyangugu is 220 kilometres – 140 miles, and just about the longest main road run you can do here without having to go through Kigali. Onatracom also does the marginal routes on very poor roads. The buses are huge green Japanese things with coachwork made in Kenya. They ride very high off the ground, travel like greased lightning and give way to nobody and nothing. They’re also accident prone. Promptly at 2 o’clock the bus arrives, and our seats are immediately claimed by two hopefuls with their technique of getting on first and arguing until they’re allowed to stay. Unfortunately for them, there are two angry muzungus with tickets already bought, and the ticket woman and convoyeur summarily eject these two so that we can take our places.

In an hour and a quarter we’re already in Butare (the stopping bus takes two hours, and that includes some high speed dashes between stops). We drop off some people in the bus park, then grind along a dirt road to the prison. Tu Chi gives me one of those “hey, where are you taking me?” looks. We swing past the prison; next to it is the Onatracon depot. While we were stopped at Butare several hawkers of bread, mandazis, peanuts and water climbed on board; they’ve been trying to balance themselves up and down the aisle and sell their stuff while we lurch from side to side down the rutted road. They all leave at the depot. Now there’s something wrong with one of our front wheels, and for a good ten minutes the driver’s hitting it with a hammer. (Banging something with a hammer seems to be the standard repair technique here). I suspect the brake blocks are sticking. Not a good prospect, because we’ve got all the mountain section ahead of us with some steep descents and no garages for fifty-odd miles through Nyungwe Forest.

We leave the depot and go down the hill to the main Butare – Cyangugu road, but then head back towards Butare and stop in the garage at the road junction. Here the driver decides he needs to change one of the rear wheels. We spend the best part of an hour stopped, in the full sun, while he strains with a ten foot long lever to undo the wheel nuts. Cue even more vendors coming on board to try to sell us stuff. I’ve brought some bananas from home that need finishing up; the vendors look venomously at me because I don’t need to buy from them…

Most of the passengers get off either to stretch their legs (the women) or to gawp at the wheel change (the men). The men in particular are very adept at just standing around, watching. Not helping at all, and getting in the way at times.

So we are now a good hour behind schedule. We grind up the mountains through Gikongoro, Kigeme and Gasarenda. Now I’ve chosen these particular days to go to Cyangugu because nothing seems to be happening back at work in Gitarama. Guess what! Half way to Gikongoro I get a text from Stéphanie at Shyogwe. The Pasteur wants a meeting tomorrow morning to talk about the building project. I have to text back and say sorry, but I’m away till late Thursday. Then ten minutes after we’ve driven past her house, Anne Miek texts from Kigeme to say someone’s driving through Gitarama tomorrow and will drop off the rice sacks I need provided I’m there to receive them. More frantic texting, this time punctuated by long periods of lost contact. We’re now in Nyungwe Forest National Park, and not surprisingly the phone coverage is intermittent. By the time I’ve got back to her to say I won’t be there, but that they can just drop the sacks at the office, and texted Claude to let him know, and handled a call from him to say why am I on my way to Cyangugu and what’s all this about rice sacks, its’ too late for Anne Miek to make the arrangements with her driver. So after all that effort, my rice sacks will have to wait.

Nyungwe is just as green and lovely as the first time I saw it. Unfortunately Tu Chi, who’s never seen it before, is sitting on the wrong side of the bus to get the best views. Before long she’s dozing. Evidently, so are the forest monkeys; I only see one all the time we’re in the trees, and by the time I’ve realised it’s a monkey we’ve passed it. The road surface gets worse as you go westwards through the forest. At times the bus is down to walking pace, and despite all its springing we’re thrown around inside it. This isn’t a journey for anyone who gets travel sickness.

By now it’s getting dark rapidly, and long before we’re through the forest we’re in pitch darkness. Real African darkness – not a single light to be seen anywhere. Everyone on the bus is tired and jaded. As we leave the forest and descend through the little settlements strung out along the Cyangugu road, we stop and stop to let people off. Godforsaken looking straggles of huts, mostly made of timber planks, and with a desperately temporary air to them.

At one place we have another ten minute stop while the driver has a further set to with a hammer against the front wheel. I remember Marisa and Stéphane telling me they saw an Onatracom bus during their journey on this road – the bus had lost its brakes and come to grief against trees at the side of the road. By now I’ve lost any idea of how far we still have to go. Every time we pause I wonder if we’re there yet. All the previous chatter on the bus has subsided into a tired and sullen silence; the entire complement of passengers just wants to get wherever they’re going.

Eventually we crawl into the bus depot at Kanembe, the “native town” or upper town of Cyangugu. It’s well after half past eight, and I’ve told the Guest House to expect us sometime after seven. We’re both worried we might have lost our beds by now, and we’re also worried we won’t be able to find anywhere to eat.

The Peace Guest house is a mile down the road towards Cyangugu proper. It’s very dark, neither of us knows where we’re going, and it’s too far to walk at this time of night, so we’ve no alternative but to get a moto. The moto drivers know this as well, and rook us for a ridiculous price. We reach the Guest House, bang on the closed gate (not a welcoming prospect when we’re both tired and anxious), and eventually are admitted. Now the next farce begins. The Guest House doesn’t have any record of our booking. This is just surreal. I had a five minute conversation with someone at the Guest House yesterday, in English, and definitely booked two single rooms. The receptionist just shrugs and says “well, it wasn’t me”.

I daren’t look at Tu Chi. I know she’ll be imagining I’ve done this deliberately and will suddenly try to force a double room on her because there’s no alternative….

But once again we’re in luck. There are some rooms left, but without a lake view, and they’re double the price in the guide book. Never mind, they’re twin rooms, and we take a room each. The rooms are clean and perfectly adequate. There are no en suite facilities, but next door to our rooms is a block of washrooms so we’re as good as en-suite. It’s far better accommodation than Épi and I put up with at Gisenyi, albeit at three times the price.

Despite the bookings fiasco, I have to say that the Peace Guest House turns out to be an extremely welcoming place; very accommodating, and I would recommend it to anyone going there. But I suggest anyone reading this and heading to Cyangugu gets the early morning bus so that you arrive in daylight. That way, if the guest house really is full, you have some time to try to find alternatives. We were both very lucky on this occasion!

Even better, the restaurant is still open and willing to cook for us, and we heave a huge sigh of relief and order our suppers. By the time we’ve finished eating it’s about ten o’clock and we’re both tired. The bus journey lasted about six and a half hours, and we’re so, so jaded.

Fortunately, the lake, even at nighttime, is superb. The hotel is on the lakeside, but quite high above it. There is a beautiful garden, walled in, and you can’t get down to the water’s edge. (In fact there’s a twenty foot high cliff down to the water). But we can smell the lake air in all its freshness. What really makes this place special is the view. We can see right across the lake, and also see end southern end of the lake. In the distance we can see bright lights of towns along its shore; we assume (wrongly, as it turns out tomorrow), that they are the lights of Cyangugu and Bukavu. Beyond any doubt we are looking into the Congo and it looks quite attractive. Dark mountains rise from the far shore of the lake, which is calm. The lake is dotted with the lights of fishing boats; we can’t see the boats clearly or hear the fishermen, but it really is an attractive sight. There are far more boats than I saw either at Kibuye or Gisenyi, and spread over a far greater area.

So despite being messed about with bus bookings, hotel bookings; despite breakdowns en route and arriving very late, someone up there has been looking after us and all’s well with the world. We each tuck our mozzie nets round the beds and it doesn’t take long before we’re both dead to the world!

Best thing about today – Nyungwe again; I’d forgotten just how beautiful the trees are, and how huge it is. On the bus it seems to go on for ever. Travelling with a companion really is special; I’m so grateful to Tu Chi for agreeing to accompany this old man on what must feel to her like a sort of extended blind date! The night view of the lake – Kivu is very special wherever you happen to chance on it.

Worst thing about today – beyond any doubt the sheer inefficiency of customer service here. Cyangugu is well off the beaten track for most tourists, but it does get its share. You’d have thought that bus companies and hotels would have got their act together by now!

Absent guests

July 21st

It’s one of those frantic mornings. Off to the internet café (email is soooo sloooow that it’s barely worth trying, but blogging is straightforward, even pictures. Send another batch of photos from Gisenyi and Rubona). Then to the bank, then the post office. Monday first thing is obviously a good time to go to the bank here – the queue is tiny and I receive the quickest service I’ve ever had! At the post office there are two copies of the “Guardian” waiting for me. I’m sure that what’s happening is the post office in Kigali waits until it’s got a full sack of mail before it sends the stuff to Gitarama, so you may have to wait a full fortnight for stuff to get to you, or it may come in just a day from Kigali. Poor old Tom, he hasn’t had any mail since the day his parents arrived. Come to that, I haven’t had any letters for at least a month either. He says it’s like that – when you first arrive here everybody wants to write to you; after a few months they all forget.

In the District Office I print off my training letters for the schools, plus formal letter to the mayor and a copy for Claude, and send the school letters for distribution. Even this routine job of communication is a learning experience. There’s a “little man” who drops things off locally, but three of the ten schools in Nyamabuye secteur are judged to be too distant for him, and their mail has to wait until there’s a vehicle going out or until the secteur rep calls in. What a performance, and all because there’s no postal delivery system here. Once again, nobody tells you all these things, you just have to learn from experience. I just hope all the mail gets to its destinations before August 19th.

Venantie’s back working in the education office, I’m not sure what’s happening about her transfer to Family and Women department – whether it’s been rescinded or whether she’s just come in to tidy up loose ends. It’s all a bit political so I’m keeping out of it!

Back into town and round the market; some of the women now make a beeline for me with bowls of shelled peas or bunches of imboga. It’s nice to feel you’re recognised and to be able to joke with these women. Only a few months ago I was absolutely terrified of all of them!

I do a lot of shopping and race back home. The plan is that Els, who is with her parents, is going to come round for lunch and I’m going to cook for them. They’re at Kibuye and travelling through to Butare, and have to come through Gitarama. It’ll make a nice rest for them at exactly the mid-point of the journey. It’s also nice for parents to meet other volunteers and it shares the load. Els panics me by texting to say they’ll be here an hour earlier than I expected, and I’ve also forgotten that Janine comes on Mondays to clean for us. Never mind, I weave my way round Janine’s cleaning and by mid-day I’ve got a nice three course lunch all ready and the table laid.

At this point things all unravel, as usual. Els texts in a panic to say that despite asking the bus driver to drop them at Gitarama, he’s raced clean through the town. At this moment they’re well on the way to Kigali – in the opposite direction to where they want to go. I suppose she was sitting too far back in the bus to be able to shout to him. So for a few minutes we’re busy texting each other trying to reorganise ourselves. Els decides that when they get to Kigali they’ll get an express bus straight through to Butare, otherwise they’ll have too little time to see the town and museum. That means they’ll have to give my lunch a miss. So I’ve got lunch for four people and only me to eat it.

Now if I was clever I’d ring Tom and get him to bring some of his office crowd round for lunch, but I’m not clever and it never occurs to me. Some of the food I can leave for us tonight, and the rest can be boxed up and frozen.

In the afternoon I try my hand at making lentil and tomato soup. The result is edible, but I think the lentils need a lot more cooking than I’ve given them, and I’ve overdone it with Cathie’s dried basil! Next time I’ll try soaking the lentils overnight.

At this point things get better. I get a text from Tu Chi saying she’s on for Cyangugu this week. Yay – I’m off on my travels again and with a gorgeous and clever companion. I hastily book us into the Peace Guest House at Cyangugu, and buzz up to the bus park to book tickets on the only bus of the afternoon. The woman’s there in the Onatracom office with a wad of tickets, but says the system is that they only start selling tickets an hour before departure time. That’s a real nuisance – it means there’s a risk the bus will be fully booked even before it leaves Kigali tomorrow, and if that happens we’re stuck for transport. Why on earth can’t they do advance bookings like all the other operators? So tomorrow I’m going to make sure I’m there by one o’clock to get our tickets!

Not much else to say – Tom and I dine in style again – three courses – with some of the stuff I’ve prepared during the day. It’s not often on VSO that you can offer your colleague a choice of two soups and two puds on the same day! We both spend the evening watching DVDs. Word’s got round the FHI office that Tu Chi is going travelling with me and Tom’s been teasing her all afternoon. Poor girl, she’ll be terrified of me tomorrow!

Best thing about today – all sorts of things. Getting the letters out for my training (today’s only nod towards academic work!), successfully cooking against a tight deadline, Tu Chi agreeing to come south with me.

Worst things about today – nothing really. I’m not fazed even when plans don’t work out. I think I’m getting the hang of this VSO lark now. You just have to be infinitely flexible and adaptable, and every five minutes you have to change your plans and make the best of what’s available to you. (Stop being pompous – Ed!)

Monday, 21 July 2008

Postcards from Gisenyi

Fruit bats nesting in the palm trees along the lakeside promenade. They're really noisy, chirping and screeching continually.
The beach and Lake Kivu at Gisenyi. The land on the far side is part of the Congo.

Typical hairdresser's shop in Gisenyi. French and Kinyarwanda mixed on all the signs.

Rural kiosk at Rubona, by the lakeside. A typical village general store; there are usually a score of these all selling pretty well exactly the same things, and with precious few customers unless the storekeeper is an attractive young girl.....

Mama Chakula's restaurant by the lakeside at Rubona. This is lovely - about as good as it gets in Rwanda. Wish you were here?

Farewell to Cathie and Elson

July 20th

Off to church in good time this week. Past the football pitch where last week they were having the alfresco service. Today it’s all marked out for sport, and there’s a match in progress. Past Kabgayi cathedral itself; they’ve got round to cordoning off the entrance in case masonry falls down the outside of the building. I think it might be the bell tower where the problem lies – the cross on its summit is certainly at a jaunty angle. There are crowds of people in white robes shuffling into a big, low building like a parish hall close to the cathedral, so I decide to follow them and sure enough it’s where Mass is being held. The previous Mass has only just finished, and in true Rwandan style they don’t let the previous congregation get out; there’s a monumental scrum round the door with one group pushing and shoving to get out while the others, just as determinedly, try to elbow their way in. To add to the complications there are several steps up from the hall to the alleyway outside, and a deep storm water gulley. It amazes me that nobody is injured in the crush. Once again it’s the little old ladies who are the most unashamed pushers and shovers!

The Mass lasts a full two hours, and is all in Kinyarwanda, so I’m not much the wiser by the end of it. There’s some nice harmony singing by the choir- about thirty people, predominantly youngsters, and led by a very young man whom I guess is a seminarian. There’s an electric keyboard for accompaniment but the guy on it shows a lot of restraint and above all else he doesn’t ever use the drum ‘n’bass accompaniment which ruins so much Presbyterian music. The sermon is about twenty minutes long, as at “my” Presbyterian church, but much more low key in delivery. Only in the very last piece of singing do people start jigging around in the pews, and waving their arms about. There’s absolutely no acknowledgement whatsoever that there is a visitor in the congregation, and I don’t have to introduce myself. Needless to say, I’m only muzungu in the entire place.

As we leave the church, fighting out way through the incoming eleven o’clock worshippers, a procession is winding its way from another part of the Catholic complex of Kabgayi. There are several hundred people; at the front is a “Legio Mariae” banner, the most kitsch statue of Mary imaginable, and bunches of plastic flowers. But the number of people in the procession is easily the same as at the Mass I’ve just been to.

During the service Cathie rings me. I can’t speak to her, but during some of the prayers I crouch down as if deep in contemplation and text her back saying I’ll come round as soon as I can get out!

At Cathie’s house all is bustling activity; Elson’s family has arrived in force and everyone’s busy packing stuff ready for departure. There’s a lorry coming in the afternoon to take all their belongings they intend leaving in Rwanda; it’ll leave them at one of the relatives’ houses. Cathie’s VSO furniture is going to Karen’s house where no doubt Bosco or Enias will come and collect it in the next few days. Cathie and Elson are staying two nights in a hotel in Kigali. Cathie leaves on Tuesday. Elson’s visa has arrived at Kigali, and all he has to do is go to the Canadian Embassy and collect it. It’s too late for him to fly out with Cathie, so he’s going to spend the next fortnight with his family up near Gisenyi and fly out with Anne-Miek for company when she leaves Rwanda at the start of August. It’s a real shame – for the want of a week’s urgency at the Canadian Embassy in Nairobi Cathie and Elson could have left together as husband and wife.

Cathie has various bits to give me – her crash helmet to pass on to Soraya (the Philippine volunteers don’t get issued with them in the same way as we do), some cooking spices and herbs for Tom and I, and various papers which may come in useful. And an electric hotplate which is promised for one of the teachers at Ahazaza primary school. Joseph, Cathie’s houseboy, helps me carry it all to the flat; he parades through Gahogo carrying an electric hotplate on his head. Talk about how to make yourself conspicuous!

At the flat Tom’s busy cooking; we’ve defrosted two big loads of meat and he’s been cooking them up ready to re-freeze them. We’ve got a gallon or so of beef stew, and another big saucepan full of home-made Bolognese sauce done with mincemeat. They’ll pretty well fill the freezer for the first time since either of us has been here. See, I told you things were looking up on the catering front!

During the afternoon I try to buy bread, but discover this time that the bakery really is shut. They’re doing a lot of alterations inside it, and a man is busy painting all the woodwork battleship grey. Athanasie takes pity on me and goes to find a loaf from somewhere.

In the evening we dine out at “Nectar”. There’s a big crowd. Me, Tom, Karen – who’s just had her handbag snatched from her shoulder on her way to the restaurant. Her bag contains her phone, but fortunately not a huge amount of cash. She’s spitting rivets! There are three young Americans on short-term placements working in orphanages. There’s Marin, Ward, and two extra FHI people – Kathy who is working with Tom, and Tu Chi who’s back in town. Christi’s in Kigali, and the two deaf girls staying with Karen are somewhere on their way back home but haven’t arrived yet. Ulrika and Nix are both busy at their orphanages. So that’s a pretty impressive collection of muzungus for Gitarama. One German, one Belgian, four Americans, three Brits, one Vietnamese; and among the missing there’s one Candian, one South African, one German and one American.

During the evening I invite Tu Chi to come to Cyangugu with me during the week. She’s never been there and it would make an interesting break for her, as well as giving me a travelling companion. The fact that she’s very intelligent and completely gorgeous has absolutely nothing to do with it…….

Teresa rings quite late; it’s the last really useful phone call we’ll have before she arrives. I can’t believe the visit is coming so quickly – when we first planned all this, July seemed ages into the future.

Best thing about today – it’s been another one of those days when what starts off as a blank sheet with no fixed points, takes on a life of its own. The evening meal was really good tonight with new people to talk to.

How to almost travel in Rwanda!

July 19th

A lazy morning watching BBC world news on telly – Saturdays in Kigali always seem to start like this. Kersti and I take Buffet the dog up to the shops to get some bread and things. It’s so funny watching all these macho Rwandan men cower at the sight of a big dog. Useful, too, especially to Kersti when she’s on her own with him.

I’ve managed to buy better quality porridge oats and also split green lentils. These are unavailable outside Kigali, and in the capital you only ever seem to find them in the Indian run shops. It’s one of those aspects of Rwandan life where you’ve just got to know where to go to get certain things.

We have a slight misunderstanding at one shop where I buy proper steak haché thinking it’s for Nick and Kersti; what she actually wanted was the cheapest mince to use as dogfood. Oh well, Buffet’s in for a gourmet tea tonight!

Nick’s gone off to the garage to make sure they’re bothering to service his new car properly. He and Kersti are off to a wedding reception late in the afternoon, and it’s clear they’re determined to arrive in style. As Kersti herself puts it, after two years here you get jaded with the endless squashes into matatas and just want your own comfortable travel, whatever the cost!

It’s a scorching hot day and round about mid-day Irene and I take our leave to travel home, her North and me South. We part company in the seething mess that is Nyabugogo bus station, and I’m jammed tightly into a really old matata. Irene’s bus to Byumba will be bigger and with far fewer people in it. It’s one of the few journeys in Rwanda which is more expensive in one direction (uphill) than in the other. And funnily enough, there always seem to be fewer people in the bus for the uphill run than for the downhill one.

Twice on my journey we have to stop to repair the bus; there’s something very wrong with either a blocked fuel line or a malfunctioning carburettor. Finally, just past the “Great North Road” and only about three hot miles from home, the bus expires. We all have to get out. The convoyeur collects our money for the full trip, and then flags down a mate in another matata who takes us on to Gitarama. Never a dull moment.

Back at the flat I find Cathie’s reclaimed her mattress and portable mozzie net, and discover that she’s booked to fly to Canada for good on Monday. Wow – if I’d gone off to Cyangugu or Nyagatare I would have missed her and not been able to say goodbye properly. She’s also left me some Rwandan woven baskets full of spices to use in cooking.

For some reason I feel really weary and doze the afternoon away. In the evening Tom and I try another newish café in the town centre. It looks for all the world as soul-less as a factory canteen, but the quality of the food is really good. The woman in charge must have worked in a posh hotel at some stage; I have fish in a rich western-style sauce quite unlike anything else I’ve ever found in Rwanda, and at the end of the meal we are given complementary little sweet bananas with the bill.

We amble up to La Planète and meet up with Karen and Christi and natter, amongst other things, about wedding anniversaries and absent partners. Karen’s just coming up to her 16th and her husband can’t get a flight out to Rwanda to join her. Neither Tom nor Christi can envisage being married for 33 years, though!

It’s late when we get home, so there’s no time to watch a video before bed. My big wooden tangram is waiting for me, and Tom and I check it out. The cutting isn’t perfect, but quite adequate provided you do it “right side up”. Apparently it caused quite a stir – not to mention a distraction – in Tom’s FHI office during the day!

Best thing about today – being with friends. Kersti and Irene are good friends to have in Kigali and the North, and Karen and Christi always make us feel welcome back at Gitarama. I think I’d feel very lonely and isolated if I were posted out on my own at one of the extremities of this country. And just imagine if I were in a huge country like Ethiopia or the Sudan, with most colleagues a plane ride away…. Lucky me.

Worst thing about today – my original plans for travelling this weekend are all shot to pieces, and it’ll be a quiet Sunday. But having said that, I think I’ll go down to look at Cyangugu next week, on my own if necessary. Visiting the “Far East” seems to need to be one weekend in term time when everybody’s still in Rwanda. And I might yet find someone who wants to come down to the Congo and Burundi border with me!

When a woman speaks in public, you answer her with a machete...

July 18th

A good night’s sleep – Byumba is so high up that I have no trouble with mosquitoes despite not having a net. Even at eight o’clock in the morning, though, it’s so hazy you can barely see the hills on the far side of the valley. I’m getting tired of living in all this dust haze and murk!

We spend the morning making more copies of rice sack posters. It means Kersti will have one copy for her, and I’ll have another for me to use. She goes off to the District Office to collect her green card and do the market. (In general the Diocesan offices are far calmer and more civilised than the bearpit that is a District office. However, all the documents they need, like school results and school census sheets, are stored in the Districts and the Diocesan people find it hard to get the info). And for personal things like green cards it’s so much more convenient to be working in the same District office, because the people who do things like green cards usually are only in the office at certain times. It’s really galling, but typically Rwandan, to make the journey all the way to the office only to find that the person you want to see isn’t there, and nobody knows when he’ll return. I put some classical music on my laptop and get some curious glances from Kersti’s colleagues passing in the corridor – they don’t know who I am and I don’t think they’ve often had Bach playing in the background while they work.

By mid morning we’re getting jaded so we go to the diocesan guest house for tea and samosas and a chat with various of Kersti’s colleagues. I’m made to feel welcome.

More slaving away at our drawing until early afternoon when we’ve pretty well finished, and anyway we’ve both had enough. Back to the cottage where I make up yet another fruit salad – about a gallon of it! – and Kersti makes real tomato soup and another batch of coconut biscuits. It’s a rush to get the stuff cooked before we have to get the bus back to Kigali, and we end up hiring motos to take us to the bus park. That’s me bouncing over the bumps with my heavy rucksack dragging me backwards and both hands holding on to a bag full of food which will leak if it isn’t kept flat!

Irene joins us at the bus and it bumps and grinds its way back down the hills to Kigali. Now the plan is for us to have coffees in Bourbon and for Nick to come and collect us in the new car. Except it doesn’t quite work out that way. The coffee and more samosas is fine, but the car is having some spare parts done and a service, so Nick isn’t there to pick us up. And while we’re eating in Bourbon, he’s eating at Karibu. So we trek up the hill to Karibu where we stuff our faces with melange. Irene’s going to meet some friends and go clubbing, so we hire a taxi and go to Nick and Kersti’s place.

Here we meet Janneau, the elusive Épi and her brother Olivier. Olivier’s only been here a week, so he’s still at the shell shocked stage, especially because I think he’s trying to keep up with her hectic schedule. They’ve been to introduce him to the relatives, which must have been just as traumatic for him as it was for Épi back in January.

They go off to do the nightlife. They’ve spent the last few days out in the remoteness of Gishanda; Janneau’s a real city boy and feels completely lost outside Kigali. Cue much ribbing from the rest of us!

Kersti tells me a Rwandan proverb: “when a woman speaks in public, you answer her with a machete”! She once got asked what the English equivalent was…..

We’re feeling decidedly weary, so after finally eating some of the fruit salad and cookies we opt for watching a film on telly for the rest of the evening, and tumble into bed at midnight. The others come back at various hours of the morning, but I’m in the spare room and under a mosquito net, so I’m fine. Boy, but doesn’t Kigali seem hot and stuffy after cool Byumba!

Best thing about today – just enjoying being working in a beautiful place. It’s very relaxing and at the end of the day we’ve got stuff which will be useful to us and highly sought after by our schools. I’m leaving all my materials at Byumba so that Kersti will have more than one copy for the teachers on her course to copy. Provided they don’t walk off with my originals, that is. I’ll collect them sometime when I’m up and down to Kigali during Teresa’s visit.

Dining out at Byumba

July 17th

Early bus to Kigali to meet up with Kersti. Just outside Gitarama yet another juggernaut lorry has come to grief on the main road, tumbled down an embankment and on its side. The cab is badly smashed in, too, so I don’t think the driver would have been lucky enough to survive.

While I’m in the bus Kersti texts me to say she has bought our tickets to Byumba; we agree to meet up in Bourbon café and have a posh brunch together while catching up on all the gossip.

The bus ride to Byumba is very comfortable – it’s one of the big new buses but only half full of people, so not as claustrophobic as every other journey. They’ve also done away with the tip up seats in the aisle, so by Rwandan standards this is outrageous luxury travel! It’s only my second trip to Byumba and once again I’m impressed by how beautiful the scenery is, especially the last section as you climb steeply away from the main Uganda road and up the mountainside. Everything here is still fresh and green, and the sheer scale of the landscape never fails to impress.

We pass Gihembe refugee camp. Today is hot and sunny, quite unlike the dismal weather when I was here in the spring; even so the camp still looks squalid and overcrowded. A desperately unhappy place. (Irene later tells me that there’s a general water shortage in Byumba and the camp is particularly hard hit. Water is brought in by tanker lorries, and people’s daily rations are well below the UNHCR minimum). Needless to say, the weather is still murky and hazy and there’s absolutely no view of the volcanoes from Kersti’s cottage. We truly were far more lucky than we realised when we saw them so clearly last spring.

We do a quick flip round the market in Byumba and buy lots of fruit for lunch and ready for the evening. What I find interesting is that here, high up and in the extreme north of Rwanda, you find different things in the market. Different varieties of maracuja, for example – ours are small and have blackish skins; these are bigger, greener (and taste milder, too). There is plenty of cauliflower on sale at Byumba; I can’t remember ever seeing it at Gitarama.

For lunch we dine on beautiful avocadoes, doused in balsamic vinegar and eaten with rye bread! There’s not been running water in Byumba for weeks (because the town sits on top of a mountain there’s always an issue with water here – it has to be pumped up and so the supply is prone to power cuts, fuel shortages and more than its fair share of breakdowns). It’s funny how you can cope quite easily with either no water or no power, but if you lose both you feel severely constrained!

Just as we’re finishing eating we’re visited by Phineas, Kersti’s old boss. It’s nice to see him and chat. He’s trying to cope with numerous personal and professional difficulties but there’s not a lot we can do to help him, just sympathise.

Then we’re off to Kersti’s office to make copies of more rice-sack wall posters to use as teaching resources in our training sessions. Kersti has borrowed a whole set of posters from Irene, but Irene will need them back tomorrow so we need to make copies as fast as we can. Irene’s posters are the commercially made “Mango Tree” ones from Kampala and many of them are truly works of art. Beautifully shaded, artistic, and so, so pretty to look at. Our copies are hasty and not so impressive, but they’ll do for the time being. This is my whole reason for coming up to Byumba. We’re aiming to get as big a collection of resources as we can, and share then round as we do our various training sessions in each district. I’m leaving my entire stock of materials with her, and she will pass them on to Mans for his session in Nyamagabe, and then they’ll arrive back to me for my Muhanga bash on August 19th. Well, that’s the theory, anyway!

Copying resources takes us all afternoon. Kersti’s office is on the top floor of the diocesan administration block and has a panoramic view across the valley to Gihembe camp. Tom has texted me to say my wooden tangram will be done today; I just hope the craftsman has understood the need to make it accurately and to scale.

By five o’clock we’re just about finished. We’ve got posters of cows, chickens, fish, the human skeleton, the parts of flowers, the human respiratory system, the water cycle, and a rather inaccurate world map. But they’re done.

Back at Kersti’s cottage we draw buckets of water from a tap in the yard – it only comes out at a trickle but if you’re patient you get there. She borrows a mattress for me from the guest house next door – there’s a “World Vision” INSET course going on inside. It’s the usual Rwandan experience: every few minutes somebody abandons the meeting to deal with a call on their mobile phone. Next to the water tap in the yard is a strawberry patch, and while I’m waiting for the bucket to fill I pinch a handful of ripe berries to add to our fruit salad. Adjacent to the strawberries is a big fig tree; its fruit are just coming ripe. So Kersti has access to oranges, plantains, figs and strawberries (provided the guard doesn’t get there first and sell them all in the market).

Tonight we’re eating out with some Italians, and my contribution to the meal will be one of Brucey’s fruit salads, while Kersti’s making coconut cookie biscuits. I get chopping and peeling while Kersti mixes dough. Without power she can’t cook the biscuits, but we’ve phoned the Italians and discovered they’re on a different electricity circuit to us and so they’re not affected. For the last hour before we leave home we’re working by candle light. What we don’t realise is that our power is actually back on now, but we can’t see anyone else’s lights so we just assume we’re still in darkness! Oh well, it felt pretty romantic to me…..

The Italians – Stefano and Giuseppe and Stefano’s girlfriend – are water engineers building aqueducts and ensuring water supplies to rural areas all across Rwanda. Their organisation has been here since the 1980s. The boys have been to my area and installed a water project somewhere in Cyeza secteur, so we know places in common. Also with us for a meal are Irene, and Anna, a lovely young German girl from Cologne, who is working partly in a school and partly as a conflict resolution adviser here in Byumba. And she has met Andreas who is living with the Franciscans in Kivumu (Cyeza) and Andreas is someone I’ve met at our Sunday night muzungu meals in Gitarama. So, as you can see, it’s a small world and if you talk to any of the muzungus here for long enough you’ll discover people you know in common!

The meal is gorgeous – pasta made with real mozzarella cheese; tender brochettes of cow meat with salad fresh from their garden; fruit salad, cookies and jam tart all washed down with wine. We even have a massive block of real parmesan cheese to attack! We talk in a mixture of English, French and German between us and everybody seems to understand each other well. We have four nationalities represented – English, Dutch, German, Italian - but it’s interesting that French is the easiest language for conversation.

It’s late when we leave, and Giuseppe gallantly drives us all home, dropping off all round the town.

What a lovely day – I feel as if I’ve done something useful, but at the same time it feels as if I’m on holiday. I’ve met new people, had a fabulous meal better than in any restaurant in Kigali, and even managed to sort out with Kersti some of the logistics about picking up their car when I need it for Teresa and co.

The only down side is that I still can’t make any contact with Épi so I haven’t any plans for the weekend itself. I wonder about seeing if George or Chris are at Nyagatare this weekend – if I’m in Kigali tonight I’m half way to their place. I’ll give Épi one final try tomorrow, and then try the boys in the north east!

Brucey's kitchen

July 16th

I’m determined to do something today, even if it’s not anything to do with education. So first thing it’s down to the internet café and I spend a long time there. At least I’m caught up on blogging and with emails.

The bakery opposite us is still closed, but people are seem to be going in and out furtively and I’m fed up with eating my own stodgy, doughy, half-cooked attempt at bread, so I go over and investigate. Sure enough, behind the “closed doors” there’s half of Gitarama pushing and shoving each other in a pathetic parody of a queue and it’s completely business as usual. I stand at the back of the queue, act patiently and make eye contact with Athanasie’s husband, and sure enough I’m served quick as a wink!

In the market I buy more mounds of green stuff. I’ve decided to have a cooking day. Tom’s off to Kigali and won’t be back till late, so I’ve decided I’ll cook for him and I’m determined to do it in style. I suppose what I’m really doing is practising a “dinner party” menu so that next time we have people round for a meal we can really impress them!

I experiment and refine my green soup – lots of cabbage, Rwandan celery, green peppers and mountains of imboga, with some carrots and tomato paste to give it a bit of colour and enough potatoes to thicken it. Oh, and plenty of onions and garlic and a whole teaspoon of hot pepper to spice it up. This heap of vegetables is so big that I have to use our very biggest, most humungous saucepan to cook it in. After an hour it looks and tastes done, so I liquidise it and hey presto – its dark green despite the carrots etc, but it tastes fine. All it needs is hot bread, and it’ll be good to serve either hot or cold. This batch of imboga seemed very coarse to me, but when liquidised it doesn’t taste fibrous. Imboga is difficult to describe to you; it’s like a spinach substitute but it doesn’t look anything like spinach. It seems to be the tenderest leaves of quite a big shrub; you just have to pull the leaves off the coarse stems. If I didn’t have a liquidiser I’d have to cut the stalks off the leaves, too. It’s very cheap – you get two enormous bunches for 50 francs (5p). This whole soup – easily enough for ten servings – has cost around 25p in ingredients and about 20p to cook.

For lunch I finish off my last frozen block of a previous batch of soup. Last time I did this I found the wretched stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan really badly while I was trying to defrost it. So this time I rig up a bain marie with another big water pan, and lo and behold the problem’s solved. Absolutely stick-free soup!

As you can imagine, I’m on a roll by now, so I make up a big batch of tomato base ready for tonight – all this stuff I’ve cooked is far more than we need for one meal, and it’ll mean we can fill our freezer with boxes of food for those evenings when we’re both too tired to want to cook.

Tom texts to say he’s on the way back home, so Brucey’s diner goes into overdrive. By the time he gets here everything’s ready. Hot soup as a starter; pasta in rich tomato sauce with cheese, and today’s piece de resistance: a repeat performance of our banana smoothie, but this time with some of Kersti’s Byumba oranges squeezed into it and more grated chocolate on top. The orange adds a zing to the sweetness, and we’ve definitely got a winner there!

So that’s my day today. Listening to music, reading, but mostly cooking and keeping busy.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Snaps from Gisenyi and Rubona

When Epi and I went to Gisenyi the weather was far too murky to take good pictures. So here are some of Marisa's, taken earlier in the year when everything was clear and fresh. Epi and I went to all these places. This is Rubona, a beautiful little spot just outside Gisenyi and home to an enormous brewery.
The main mosque in Gisenyi. The lowest level contains an Islamic school.

It's not every town that's got a volcano at the end of the high street. This is Gisenyi at dusk. Nyiragongo volcano is one of the most dangerous in Africa and certainly one of the most active. That's not cloud on the top of it, but steam from the lava lake inside the crater.

The lakeside market at Rubona. It's the only place we've found in Rwanda where boats are used to transport goods across the lake.

And here's a nice pretty one for you!


These are some of Cathie's pictures, but they make a change from my everlasting snaps of schools or views! This is some of the very best coffee in the world. The beans are picked when they're red; each bean has to be picked individually so it's fiddly work. They then have to be washed, within an hour of picking. These pictures are from a washing station near Gasarenda in the extreme south mountains of Rwanda.
The red pulp is removed with high pressure hoses to leave the beans. each bean is the size of a big peanut and roughly the same colour. They don't smell anything like coffee until they're roasted.

A lot of the sorting and washing is done by schoolchildren either during holidays or at weekends. It's welcome extra pocket money in the poorest region of the country.

"Marabou" and "Bourbon" are the brand names of the very best Rwandan coffee.

Down time, big time

July 15th

Boredom I write up a couple of days worth of blogs. I go to the bank (long queues again, only one person serving and the usual scrum of customers, mostly trying to pay their electricity bills). I go to the post office (no mail for either of us). I take a couple of rice sacks to the tailors to get them cut and hemmed. The cheeky rascal asks for RwF500 but I tell him it’s 80 a sack, so RwF320 or I’ll go elsewhere. I go to the office – Claude is in but no sign of a replacement for Venantie yet. I go to Nyabisindu school to see if Florent is there – I need him to arrange a venue for my August 19th training. But the school is deserted, just children playing in the yard. Nearly every single window in the newer blocks is broken, too. What a shame.

I come back home via the market and stock up on vegetables. Not many onions today, and the French beans aren’t as good as they usually are. The bakery opposite our flat is closed; it reminds me of Gacaca Tuesdays in January and February but just about everywhere else is open. I wonder if they’re having more alterations made – if they’ve got the builders in they won’t want to be ankle deep in customers.

And that’s about it, really. I try ringing Épi to arrange something for next weekend, but she’s not answering her phone. I have another go at bread making; it’s better than the last lot but still won’t rise properly or cook properly. I read a lot, and listen to loads of music. There’s very little I can be doing in the line of work. Can’t inspect schools, can’t do any training at this short notice, can’t even make up any more rice sack resources because I’ve used all my stock of sacks. I’ll have another four tomorrow afternoon, but I’m going to need them when I go up to Byumba to see Kersti on Thursday.

What we need to do is get a massive job lot of sacks in ready for the next wave of trainings, and get them all hemmed, but the sacks are stored at Kigeme which is three hours’ bus ride away. I wonder if I can get anything arranged with Anne-Miek?

Inactivity here in Rwanda is odd. If I were back home I would presumably just “be retired” and pottering around doing very little and not feeling in the slightest bit worried about it. Here in Gitarama I feel guilty as if I’m still at work but skiving for the day. I think it’s also the fact that most of my colleagues are so young and energetic, too!

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to going up to Byumba on Thursday and seeing Kersti and Irene. I wish Épi would get back to me; if she doesn’t want to go anywhere this weekend I could venture out to the far North East if George or Chris are still around.

Making resources for primary schools at Nyanza

July 14th

Up early today because we’re supposed to be in Nyanza and ready to start at 8.30. There’s a big problem with my porridge oats – the whole packet seems to have mould in it and even when cooked they taste off. I’ve eaten the stuff for a week and it hasn’t made me ill, so it’s not a huge deal but I can’t offer it to Kersti. Fortunately there’s a box of fruit salad in the fridge, so I impress her with our healthy breakfasts….. (You’re such a poseur - Ed!)

It seems to take forever to get to Nyanza on a slow bus, but we eventually find the school. At the back of Nyanza there’s a “Rue des Écoles” which lives up to its name – at least two secondary and three primary schools all in a long line. Maybe even more schools – I lost count after five!

We discover there’s a problem – Ken, who is the local District Officer and should be leading today’s session – won’t be with us except to introduce us and get the day started. Ken’s father is gravely ill and not expected to last beyond the week, and Ken is arranging with VSO to fly home urgently to be with him.

So the team is Mans, me, Kersti and Marisa who’s been drafted in at the last minute to replace Ken, and is late arriving because she’s got to make a double journey from Nyamata to be here. Mans is willing to take the lead and Kersti and I more than willing to let him. We’re doing the day in French and none of us is Francophone, but between us we manage well on vocabulary. It’s quite funny how each of us seems to know the vocabulary the others stumble over!

We seem to be very slow at getting started (not the brisk start that Cathie and I are used to!). Also, the purpose of the day is to make the Rwandan primary teachers think about what teaching resources they need in their classrooms as well as what things they can make in a day, and we don’t want to start the day by putting all our wares on display. We know that if/when we do that, all that will happen is that the Rwandans will dutifully make copies of everything and they won’t do any thinking for themselves about what they might need or what things they could design and make for themselves.

So the first hour is an excruciating session, getting them to think about resources. It’s like drawing teeth. We divide them into groups; one group comes up with a load of theoretical waffle about the need for and value of resources which is absolutely not what we wanted today – the idea was to make the session as practical as possible. But another group immediately comes up with two ideas for maths including an abacus made from Fanta bottle tops, which is a brilliant idea and better than some of ours.

After an hour and a half we buckle and start to show them our resources. I talk about maps. I tell them that I think they should all have at least five good maps in the classrooms – a map of the local District (required under Social Studies yr 4 programme), a map of Rwanda, a map of the East African Community because of the political expediency and imperative the Rwandan Government is putting on membership of it, a map of Africa and a map of the world. This goes down well. I then show them the examples I’ve made and they’re all smiles. I explain that they must make their maps simple and only put the minimum of information on them, and also that they must use colours in their labelling but do it systematically, and finally that it’s very important that they make their teaching copies of the maps as accurate as possible. (What I usually find on school visits is that the teacher has drawn a very approximate freehand version of the map on the blackboard or on Bristol paper; by the time the children have done their even more inaccurate copies freehand into their exercise books the finished result bares hardly any resemblance to the proper shape of the country). But then I’m just a fussy Geographer, aren’t I? I show them the copies I’ve made of the Rwandan coat of arms (mandatory under yr 3 social studies) and a history timeline. This gets nervous glances; history is so politically charged here that nobody wants to have anything to do with it until they get the official accepted line from Kigali. They understand the idea of a timeline but I can sense that this is one diagram they won’t be rushing to copy. Never mind, I’m planting seeds in their minds! My music sheet also gets appreciative comments, but nobody rushes to copy it because most music theory comes in the secondary schools.

Marisa and Mans and Kersti talk about other resources – we have a “towers of Hanoi” logic exercise, beautifully made for us by a local craftsman, and a very big wooden tangram set with sides 60cm long! They prove extremely popular – like me, there a lot of concrete learners among this audience! I decide I need to get one of Tom’s local craftsman to make me a tangram set to use with my Muhanga schools. It’s only a few saw cuts when you’ve got the piece of wood, and I’d want it varnished because this tangram of Ken’s is already starting to get splintery along the edges because so many people have been using it!

I go back to show them our bottle tops for teaching counting – I have a string of 100 tops from beer and fanta bottles. The tops are in groups of 10, and each successive ten is a different colour. Fanta citron bottles have green tops, Mutzig beer is white, coca cola is red, sprite is blue and so on. This makes the resource colourful as well as useful. We tell the teachers to cultivate their local restaurant or bar, or alternatively persuade their heads to drink loads of beer!

But the real surprise is when we show them our carpet-sized snakes and ladders game. This comes as a complete surprise to our Rwandan colleagues, who have never seen anything like it. Once we’ve explained the rules (and answered the obvious questions like “why snakes?” and “why ladders?” – does anyone reading this blog know the answer to those questions?) we play the game. We do it as a maths exercise using two massive foam rubber dice. These dice are cut from an old mattress and are about five inches across, so we use a litter bin as a shaker! We tell the Rwandan they must behave as year 2 or yr 3 pupils. When they have thrown the dice they must either add the two numbers or subtract them – so we’re getting basic maths skills into the game – and then we play a complete games of snakes and ladders. Leading one team is a headmistress who’s a nun in full habit; leading the other is a young girl with seriously complicated braiding in her hair and a brilliantly colourful robe. Within seconds all the other twenty or so teachers have taken sides and are cheering on; the room is erupting with laughter every time someone has to go down a snake. It the game is this popular with teachers, we all know it’s going to be a riot with the children.

By now it’s lunchtime and everyone is happy. We have a picnic lunch locally cooked – beautiful samosas, little meat pasties like miniature Cornish pasties but with more meat and less veg, meat balls spicy enough to blow your fuses and freshly make “kek” – light sponge cake. And the obligatory fanta. By the end of lunchtime I’ve got another thirty fanta bottle tops to string up!

In the afternoon everyone falls on our rice sack wall posters. My maps are popular, also my Rwandan coat of arms. (Damn it – I’ve made a spelling mistake in my Kinyarwanda in the national motto of ubumwe, umurimo, gukunda igihugu – unity, work and patriotism). For three hours solidly, every single person is frantically tracing, copying freehand, adapting our resources.

Ken’s a maths specialist and one of his offerings is a game of “four in a row” with the grid marked out on a rice sack, and using dice. You throw the two dice, subtract the smaller number from the bigger, and put your counter on a square containing the resulting number. We pit two male teachers against each other, and for ten minutes the atmosphere’s as concentrated as if it were a chess match.

By half past four we’ve managed to prise our stuff from the teachers, done a quick evaluation, and we’re rushing to get buses home. Kersti’s invited me up to Byumba on Thursday do help her make some more resources in preparation for the next one of these trainings, which will be at Byumba but during the time when I’m on leave with my family.

Poor old Ken; he’d have really enjoyed today. We discover that today’s flight home was full, and he’s stuck overnight in Kigali waiting for a space on the next flight from Rwanda to anywhere in Europe, and then on home to Ipswich.

It’s been a good day, and I’m really tired. I decide to do the cooking and Tom lets me get on with it; we’ve got very little food left in the fridge but a lot of odds and ends to use up, so we make a concoction which comes out surprisingly well. And for pud – gourmet living here we come! Fresh bananas made into a smoothie with yoghurt and honey, and topped with grated chocolate thanks to Kersti.

Isn’t it nice when you have a good day and work turns out well! Come to that, isn’t it nice to be working hard again!