Monday, 7 July 2008

Liberation Day in Gitarama

July 4th

Today is a Bank Holiday and the climax of a couple of weeks of frenzied preparations in Gitarama. Every tree in the town has had its trunk whitewashed. Every square inch of road has been swept. All tress have had their lower branches lopped lest a potential assassin lurk behind the foliage and take a suicidal pot shot at the Pres. All buses to and from Gitarama have been suspended for the duration – the whole town is under lockdown.

Last night we had thunder and some rain, but not really enough to lay the dust. The distant hills are still just as hazy as earlier in the week. What we need is a whole day’s steady rain. But it ain’t gonna happen ‘cos we’re well into the long dry season now!

From half past six there are pick up trucks with loudspeakers touring the streets exhorting us to do, well, we don’t know what because it’s all in rapid fire Kinyarwanda and so distorted as to be unintelligible. One of the pick-up trucks is the District vehicle and I can see Alphonse driving and some of my District colleagues smirking as they wake up the entire town.

By half past six the streets are full of people converging on the stadium. This is a far, far, bigger event than the Heroes’ Day parade in January. The whole country is coming to Gitarama. Tom’s FHI people were told they had to march, and to dress for the occasion (white shirt, tie, black trousers), have now been bumped off the parade because there are too many groups wanting to take part and FHI isn’t deemed important enough. (VSO never even got asked, but we expect to be ignored).

By seven o’clock we are off to collect Christi and Tu Chi. Ah, but the police have instigated a one-way system for traffic in the town (really good idea), and totally closed the road past Christi’s house to all pedestrians. We have to wait for half an hour before she arrives, and Tu Chi too. By this time the crowds are ridiculously long and we know it’s going to take for ever to get into the stadium. We wait, and wait, and wait. It’s well after nine o’clock before they even open the gates of the stadium. There is only one entrance for spectators, and everyone has to be frisked, especially those like us who have bags. In true Rwandan style, people form orderly queues, and then after a while decide to abandon the queues and just surge in the general direction of the stadium. Some police send them packing; others just stand and look on.

Several of our friends and VSOs from outside Gitarama arrive, some because they have partners who are involved in the parades and therefore have official invitations. After two hours the queue starts to move. By now it’s very hot and I’m wilting fast. For the next hour a steady stream of buses, army and police vehicle and private cars streams past our queue as the VIPs arrive. Many cars have CD plates, and we recognise the British Ambassador amongst others. The queue grinds to a total halt. It gets hotter and hotter, and I’m beginning to seriously wilt. My back is hurting after yesterday’s long journey. After more than three hours, during the last thirty minutes of which the queue hasn’t moved at all, I decide to give up. Several times we have been invited to jump the queue as muzungus and be ushered into the stadium, but Tom and Christi have Rwandan colleagues with them and are adamant they won’t be treated more favourably than the Rwandans. I can’t leave them to suffer and take advantage of my colour, so I’ve stayed too. But at one point I worry that I might actually pass out, and I’m certainly not going to give the Rwandans the spectacle of a muzungu falling into the dust. That would make me a talking point for ever.

So I go home. After all, I’ve seen the President already at close quarters, in January. And a military parade is a military parade wherever you are.

Back at the flat I wash out my fleece, clean some sticky pineapple juice off the floor, clean out my water filter, listen to music, read and generally take life easy. It’s deathly quiet all around; the hairdresser, like all shops, is firmly shut and without his music blaring, I can listen in peace to my laptop.

After the parade Tom and all the FHI people have been invited to a party, so I know he won’t be back till late afternoon. When he eventually arrives, I discover that the parade was nothing too special – lots of karate demonstrations (seen it, yawn, yawn), but no things which make me kick myself for having missed them.

Janine arrives late afternoon to clean the flat; once again she looks as if she’s just stepped out of a modelling catalogue. I retreat to my room and do my ironing while she cleans the lounge.

In the evening neither Tom nor I feel like cooking, and the fridge is virtually empty. Tom’ still full of tilapia and other goodies from the FHI party, so I go down to Tranquillité for a meal. While I’m there it rains again, but still not enough to really do anything but lay the top layer of dust and make it into a slippery paste under my feet.

So all in all it’s been a funny old day. The only good part has been watching the Rwandans as they cope (or don’t) with queues, officious officials, and interminable waits. In the queues, the worst offenders for barging in are the elderly women and young women with babies on their backs. The men are relatively orderly.

Next time there’s one of these compulsory events I’m either going to miss it completely (like Karen), or else I’m going to take full advantage of my muzungu status. I’m getting too old to be herded around like animals!

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