Monday, 7 July 2008

To the end of the earth (well, to Nyabinoni secteur)

July 3rd

Why do I always worry so much about things? I’ve slept badly, on the mattress on the lounge floor so that Els can use my bed. I’ve not been bothered my mozzies – it’s too dry for many of them to be around – but I feel as though I haven’t slept at all. Getting up at a quarter to five means I’m waking with the call to prayer from Gitarama mosque, so at least I’ve presumably got Allah rooting for me today!

Wellars and Damascène are ready bang on time at 6, and we set off on the Grand Adventure. Els’s boss has only just relented and let her and Marisa use motos to get around Bugasera district, and Els has no idea what’s facing her today in terms of terrain, or length of journey. Bugasera is much flatter than Muhanga, and we’ve got a minimum 3 hour journey ahead.

We’ve been going 40 minutes before the sun rises; it’s cool, the roads are clear and it’s that time when riding on a moto is the absolute best thing in all Rwanda. We have a minor panic just as we clear Gitarama. Workmen are replacing a culvert under the road. In England they’d do half the road at a time and use traffic lights to keep circulation flowing. Here in Muhanga they dig up the entire road, and all traffic has to find its way past the obstruction by using the verge, or through the roadside trees. It’s a hairy moment, and I feel sorry for a bunch of lorry drivers who are stuck for the foreseeable future until the works are done. Off the top of my head I can’t think of an alternate route either.

Now I’m expecting Wellars to go up the Nyaborongo valley, because on my map that seems the most reliable and likely route. However, Wellars has other ideas. We pass the Mushushiro turning, and then jump up onto the mountaintop road, the same one we used to go to Kibangu. This is very bumpy but I’m now sure is the most exciting drive in my entire District. We’re up at 7000 feet with morning mist in the valleys and the sun glowing red as it rises from endless rows of serrated hills. The air is far too dust filled for photography which is a pity. I’ve now travelled this route through dense fog, through heavy rain, and through thick dust haze. And it’s still absolutely amazingly beautiful. One day I must come up to Nyabinoni again, at the tail end of a rainy season when the air is washed clear. The road really does traverse the narrowest mountain crest. Every so often you find yourself at the edges of enormous drops down into valleys, the bases of which must be at least a thousand feet down. We pass the mine entrance I remember from last time. The road surface is totally different from then as well. Back in early June it was wet and slippery; today it is so dusty that our backs and rucksacks are covered in brown powder within minutes. Wellars has real trouble trying to get his bike up the steepest slopes, and from time to time Els and I have to get off the bikes and walk – that’s previously unheard of with these powerful machines!

A mile or so after the mine we get attacked by a wild dog. The damned thing won’t leave us, and we’re afraid it’ll bite our legs. Wild dogs in Rwanda are a very real rabies risk, and Wellars is definitely worried. We stop, on a slope so steep that he loses control of his bike and I get dumped onto my backside off the rear of it. Wellars takes out his embarrassment at dumping his passenger by slinging rocks and boulders at the dog which gets the message and slinks off. From time to time it turns and tries to creep up on us again, but we’re expecting that and hail the cur with stones until it gives up. Sorry, all you dog lovers, but if little poochie is a potential rabies carrier, then it kind of changes your attitudes to dogs!

Off we go along the ridge for mile after mile, past the charcoal makers and their huts; past endless old wheat sacks filled with charcoal, their ends plugged with wads of grass and bracken and tied with bracken stems as a string substitute. Past the neat stacks of sawn timber waiting collection and the makeshift sawyers’ frames alongside the track. Past potato fields (a sure sign in Rwanda that you’re up really high), and past fields of barley – the first I’ve seen here. There are pine plantations beside the track as well as the ubiquitous eucalypts, and the air is fragrant with resin from both types of tree. From time to time we have to dodge cattle along the track; their horns are extremely long and razor sharp and Wellars gives them a wide berth.

Despite this track being so high up, and with minimal habitation along it, we’re never out of sight of people walking along it. This man is a sawyer, balancing a huge saw on his head fore-and-aft, the vicious jagged teeth only just clearing his sandaled feet. Here are bunches of women clearly on the way to a market in one of the valleys; they face a descent of at least 500 feet on mountain tracks, all the while balancing huge tubs of tomatoes or manioc on their heads. Here’s a woman looking elegant in her robe, with baby on her back, a rucksack on her head, and holding an umbrella as sunshade, all the while walking with such nonchalance it takes your breath away.

Here’s a gang of men and women filling in ruts along our road; Els and I later find that just walking uphill with a rucksack is hard work at this altitude; these labourers are doing heavy manual work all day for about 60p. No wonder they lean on their shovels and stare as we pass!

Here are barefoot school children on their way to a school somewhere in one of the valleys below; despite the sharp stones on the track many are barefoot and they try to race us to keep up with us. Some of them, especially the girls, are carrying their shoes – they want to prevent them getting road dust all over them and will finally put shoes on when they get to school. Now just you try to find any logic in that!

We make a policy of waving to or greeting as many of the people we pass as we can; every single one acknowledges us and waves back.

We pass the track down to Kibangu, then a track to Nyabikenke. None of them are labelled, but Wellars knows I’m trying to get the hang of the landscape and points them out to me. From here on I’m on new ground. The ride isn’t as jolting as the valley road to Rongi, and the scenery is just so amazing it makes it worth any amount of pain. It’s so unfortunate that this particular ride is so long and expensive that I can only do it occasionally, and there’s no way any of my visitors from England would be able to cope with this amount of pillion travel. I quickly learn that on steep uphills I have to move my weight forward and snuggle against Wellars’ back, while on steep downhills I need to move as far back on the pillion as possible. Both of these are “unnatural” moves, and uncomfortable. The downhills are particularly hard on your spine, and where we cross rock ledges you feel every single bump and dent in the road, and get lifted airborne from the saddle. Its not travel for the faint hearted.

We come up to a primary school on a mountainside in the middle of nowhere, and I suddenly realise it looks familiar. Can’t be – I’m on new ground! But it IS familiar – it’s E P Burerabana, and we’re on the road to E P Kadehero. We’ve joined the route I came to by car on a recent head teachers’ “jolly”. I start to panic – has Wellars got it wrong after all, and is he taking me to Rongi instead of Nyabinoni? But no, we see the turning for Kadehero and go in the opposite direction. Phew! On the mountainside opposite I recognise the big swathe of virgin forest I saw here last time; it’s a pity I can’t point it out to Els. She looks uncomfortable on her bike, despite being lighter than me and so not getting so many heavy bumps!

Eventually we plunge down a ridiculous track – manically steep, strewn with razor sharp stones, and with tree roots corrugating the surface and throwing us up and down and left and right so we have to concentrate really hard to stay in the saddle.

And without any warning we come to a brand new – BRAND NEW – primary school. Brick walls, tin roof, concrete floors, glass in the windows, water cisterns (3 of them); new furniture, inside walls plastered and painted yellow, portable loos all in a line. My God, this can’t be right – we‘ve travelled to the ends of the earth and arrived at civilisation! The mood at the school is too subdued and confused, though – there’s an atmosphere. We soon discover that one of the staff died a few days ago and today is his funeral. They hadn’t wanted to cancel the training.

So Els and I get set up in a lovely classroom, one of the very best we’ve had. All it needs is a few power points and electric light and it would give some of your English primaries a run for their money!

The training goes very well. (Once again, why do I worry so much about things?!) We have a small group of only a dozen or so teachers. Nyabinoni has the least population of all my secteurs, and is actually losing population as people move from the hardships of mountain life to the cushy climes of Kigali and Gitarama. In the heat haze we can see the brown Nyaborongo river snaking down in the valley (although we’ve come a long way down the mountain, there’s a good thousand feet or so left to the floor). The weather is perfect – sunny but not burning hot; breezy without being windy. The teachers are young, several of the girls are extraordinarily pretty and I’m on to a good thing! They’re a happy, willing crowd, and it ends up one of the best trainings we’ve done. Isn’t it nice to end up 12 training sessions on a high! At the end I give them my usual little pep talk, telling them that as teachers they are some of the most important people in all Rwanda, and that they are working just as hard as their counterparts in England but coping with all sorts of extra pressures – huge classes, low pay, lack of resources, little training etc. I apologise for not having fought my way up to Nyabinoni before now, and say how much I sympathise with their isolation. It clearly is the right thing to say, and I know I’ve made some friends.

One thing I’ve definitely decided. Whatever the cost or hardships, I really am going to get up here for a block of time and make these little schools in Nyabinoni feel wanted and loved. There are three problems – getting there in the first place, finding somewhere to stay, and getting from school to school once I’m there. It suddenly occurs to me that the secondary schools here have boarders; I bet if I ask the right people I can scrounge accommodation and food in one of the schools. There must be somebody local with a moto who I can hire to get from one school to another, and if I’m staying locally then they are bound to be able to help me out with that. And as for getting up north in the first place, I’m sure there must either be a weekly taxibus (matata) or a vehicle from another NGO which makes the run. If only Claude and the District staff were more forthcoming I could get a week’s visit sorted inside a day! And so much cheaper than a day trip by moto!

Having finished our training Els and I begin the three hour trek home. The slope up the mountain out of Nyabinoni is so steep that we have to walk some of it, much to the amusement of local farmers and a policeman who are making the same trek. They’re nice, pleasant people; they are genuinely astonished to see muzungus on foot. But just walking a few hundred yards up the mountainside, with rucksack, bag of materials, helmet and fleece leaves us both panting!

Back at Gitarama we realise we are plastered from head to toe in brown dust from the road. Els grabs a quick shower while I beat some of the dust out of her clothes on the balcony. Then I have a scrub – the drainwater is chocolate coloured. My fleece is unusable until it can be washed; my rucksack has changed colour completely!

When we surface, we discover that there has been a last minute umuganda in Gitarama to prepare for the Presidential visit tomorrow. All shops are shut, and, worse, the bus station is completely closed with nothing running at all. This is disastrous. Els is supposed to be hot footing it to Gikongoro, to Tiga’s. It’s three hours to Gikongoro, and by now (5 o’clock) it’s crucial that she gets a through bus. If she tries to change at Butare, she’ll find the last connection has already left. We wait a while, but it becomes clear we’ve been beaten by this blasted last-minute umuganda. Els decides to go back to Kigali and sleep on someone’s spare bed there; she’ll not be able to get her hair done but will be able to travel to Kibuye for the girlie weekend without getting caught up in the complete shut down of traffic which will happen tomorrow morning here in Gitarama. I see her off on the bus, and then phone Épi. My own travel arrangements are also in chaos.

It gets worse. Épi hasn’t had her pay cheque; she’s arrived in Kigali expecting to get her money and stay in a guest house. Without any money she’ll be unable to go to Gisenyi with me. We decide that I’ll bow to the inevitable and stay in Gitarama until the Presidential visit is over. I’ll come up to Kigali early on Saturday morning and change my last big Euro note at a Forex to give us cash until the banks finally get their fingers out. Épi announces that she’s not required in school on Monday (why on earth didn’t she tell me before), so we can go to Gisenyi on Saturday and come back Monday. I ask her to try to book us in somewhere – she is Francophone after all, and it’ll be more reliable if she makes the bookings instead of me.

Finally, Tom and I cobble up something to eat, but by half past eight I’m so tired I can’t keep my eyes open. What sort of wuss goes to be at half past eight?

Best thing about today – everything about the trip to Nyabinoni.

Worst things – umuganda, inefficient banks, lack of matatas when you want them.

But hey, I’ve been to the farthest north of my secteurs, led a training session, and made new friends. Cool, or what?

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