Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Sunday on the go in Kigali

September 14th

I wake up to the sound of church choirs in no fewer than three neighbouring churches! One has the usual karaoke drum and chord accompaniment and is boring. One sounds like children and is weak. But the third is unaccompanied, four part harmony and is spot on. Every now and then one of the other choirs drowns it out, but when you can hear them clearly they are just simply the best!

Neither Eric nor Mike are up and about, so I shower and have a cup of tea. The others surface just as I’m ready to leave.

Outside it’s misty, and the last thing most people are expecting to see at this time on a Sunday morning (eight o’clock) is a muzungu with a rucksack. I plug into my iPod and stride on at a brisk muzungu walk, hoping I don’t make a tempting target for muggers.

Walking up the hill towards Remera centre you pass an area of small bars and little restaurants. There’s nothing quite as dispiriting as night-time businesses at the start of the day. The ground is littered with beer bottle caps and paper rubbish (but no empty bottles, glass or plastic – these have deposits on them or can be traded for cash, so are recycled instantly). At night the bars are lit by bright lights or fairy lights; in the foggy morning light today they just look tatty and grubby!

I call in at the VSO office but Karen is on the computer with her god-daughter who has just arrived from England, so I collect mail and move on. I walk up to the Amani guesthouse and pinch some breakfast from the new VSOs in residence.

Motor cycle training is supposed to begin at nine. By twenty to ten we are just about ready to get started. Two mechanics have brought a Yamaha 125, a big machine (the same one as the PHARE VSOs will use every day) and they park it inside our classroom. For an hour and a half we’re given a lecture on all the theory of the bikes – how to maintain them, how to use the gears safely etc. I’m glad everyone’s thinking of proper bikes and not those piddly little motos!

Four volunteers have had CBT training before leaving England; for them all this stuff is old hat. And it’s delivered in fractured English and Rwandan French, so we have two goes at understanding it but none of us fully understands everything even after two languages! Anyway, I learn how to use the gears, how to check the oil, where the choke is, and basic safety tips.

At the end of the session I get a chance to sit at the business end of the bike (first time ever for me) and play with the controls. I’m going to have to work on my arm/foot co-ordination in order to work the gears smoothly. The others say it takes at least a couple of days to get the hang of it.

Then Enias and the mechanics take the four volunteers who have already done training up to Kicukiro stadium to put them through their paces on the bike before being let loose in the wilds of Rwanda. The rest of us have to return on Tuesday morning to begin our practical training. That means I’ve got to cancel one of the few schools I’ve managed to fix a date with, and if the training continues all week I’ve got four others to cancel as well. Never mind, I’ve been grumbling about not being trained on bikes ever since I got my posting to Rwanda and VSO refused to train me in England, so I’m overjoyed it’s finally coming to pass. The other District VSOs like Els are jealous that I’ve been included and they haven’t; I fancy Charlotte and Mike are going to get some “why him and not me?” phone calls on Monday.

Eric rings from the VSO office; like Els and I, he’s been looking into flights to England at Christmas and has found a cheaper one with Kenya airlines, but it doesn’t leave until December 8th and returns January 3rd. That’s later and earlier than I would like. He also tells me that Brussels Airlines is having a sale this week, but that you have to call in at the Mille Collines office to get the deals – you can’t do it on line. Eric will be back teaching in Kabarondo after today, so I volunteer to go into the office on Tuesday on my way back in for bike training.

From Amani I walk back up to Remera through mid-day heat. The fog has lifted and the sun is really burning hot. I’ve arranged to see Kersti and go through the Earth Science module she’s required to teach at the American School to see if I can help her with anything.

The problem is – she’s not there. She’s double booked herself and is down at UTC in the town centre talking to Paula. Never mind, this is how Rwanda works. We have a quick phone conversation and agree to meet at the end of Tuesday’s training.

Then I walk back in the heat to the VSO office to use the computer. Amanda is on the machine; she’s just had her hair done in braids; thick ones at the front fading into tiny thin ones at the back of her scalp, and it looks lovely. I while away half an hour going through the library books and finding a couple to read. Then I’m able to use the computer and blog photos of the Shyogwe building project, and email the Dutch end of the operation to say things are going well; here’s the photos for proof; we need the second slice of money immediately because the building is going so fast that unless they send it right away the builders will stop until it comes!

The practise here is to pay builders after each stage of operations – after the foundations, the walls are up, the roof is on etc. And after each step you need cash to buy materials for the next stage. There’s no such thing as builders working on their own credit until the money comes in as a lump sum at the end of the project. Nobody has enough capital to do that. This is one of the real effects of desperate poverty. As I blog my pictures I start looking at them as a Westerner would – a Dutchman for instance. Nobody is wearing protective clothing. There are no helmets; the women are wearing headscarves to protect their braids. Nobody wears goggles even when they’re chopping bricks in half or cutting the quartzite stone blocks (there break into edges as sharp as glass; a splinter in the eye would blind you for life). Nobody wears boots; the women are up and down rickety ladders with heavy loads on their heads and just wearing the cheapest plastic sandals. Nobody wears any kind of overalls, just their normal clothes. The women mixing mortar end up covered with cement dust all over their skirts and feet. That must burn them after a while. Ladders are made of tree branches, the rungs held on with bent nails, and the ladder tied in position with banana leaf cords. Scaffolding is made of tall saplings, in some cases so recently cut that one still has green leaves sprouting from it. The upright poles are far longer than necessary for the height of the school; I assume they don’t want to cut perfectly straight long poles in half and that they’ll take them for use in a subsequent building project. There’s no wastage except for hundreds of brick fragments (the Rwandan bricks are a lot softer than ours, especially the bricks we used on our vocational training courses at Bridport), and piles of stone shards littering the ground.

I like the master builder; he’s a tiny little man, softly spoken and gentle, but he sees everything and nobody messes around on the site. I think he’s bemused to have a white man coming to take pictures of him and his workers. I must remember to take my laptop with me next time so I can show everyone their photos I’ve just taken! I wonder what the young women workers would say if they realised their pictures are on the internet and that people in at least three continents are looking at them!

After the internet I walk up to Stella Bar where we’re finally saying farewell to Shelina. She’s only been here a month, but everyone likes her and we’re sorry to see her go. It turns out that tomorrow, just after she’s stepped out of the plane in Nairobi, she has an on-line interview with VSO for the post of National Volunteer manager for East Africa. The only problem is that as the afternoon goes on she starts to feel really unwell, and eventually has to abandon her own farewell party. Giudhi and her boyfriend are just leaving so they walk her home. Poor Shelina, I hope it works out for her – she’s such a hard worker and I know she’ll be exactly the right person for the job!

While we’re there we’re joined by Paula. First of all she announces a party at Gahini in mid-October. That’s a must to go to. Then she produces another stash of jewellery and handbags made by rehabilitation clients at Gahini, just as she did at Mel’s Kibuye party, and we all buy enthusiastically for presents for our families. Then I discover the reason why Kersti missed my meeting with her was that she was talking to Paula about her (Paula) taking over Kersti’s old job in Byumba. So I’m able to also talk to Paula about the Byumba setup and I think between us we’ve convinced her to stay another year and go up to Byumba. The scenery there is stunning; the church authorities are supportive and proactive; there’s Irene for company and I know that she and Paula will hit it off together. Finally, Paula’s fed up with being a teacher in just one school and wants a wider role like mine and Els’s. Go for it, that’s what we all tell her!

As if I haven’t done enough walking for the day already, I traipse back down the cobbled road to Kicukiro and get a matata to the town centre, then have to wait nearly an hour for a bus to Gitarama. Late Sunday afternoon is a very busy time to travel in Rwanda; churches are finishing their afternoon services and everybody like me who’s come into the capital for the weekend is leaving it to the last minute to go home. But we have a brand new bus, a really big and comfy one with air conditioning (switched off, of course), and it’s a glorious evening ending in a full African moon hanging over the endless hills. I think it’s by far the most beautiful sunset and evening since I got here. I’m sitting in real comfort, plugged into my music, in a bus whose driver has not bothered to turn on the bus radio (that’s almost unheard of here), and it’s a fast run home.

By the time I get to Gitarama its time for the weekly muzungu meal; Karen and god-daughter are there, but we’re down to a select bunch of six people. The air’s full of big flying ants; must be something to do with the combination of full moon and recent rains); they look alarming but don’t bite. They just make a mess when you squish them.

By the time I get back home I’m absolutely dead on my feet, and I pile straight into bed.

Best thing about today – nearly everything. Lots of networking, lots of meetings with friends. It’s so nice to be one of the crowd and a part of everything.

Worst thing about today – I’m tired. My feet are sore. My knees ache from walking on uneven surfaces. I’ve got to cancel school visits I’ve tried hard to arrange. Never mind – I’m enjoying myself!

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