Thursday, 2 October 2008

Doing umuganda in Gitarama

September 27th

Umuganda Day. Soraya and I have decided that we’re going to do umuganda this month, and that we’ll join Tom’s FHI party. So off we go to the FHI office. The first thing we discover is that the only FHI staff who are doing umuganda this month are – Tom and Christi. The second thing we discover is that we can’t find out where to go. We have an official letter, all in Kinyarwanda, which details where to go and what to bring, but the directions don’t make sense to any of us – even to Christi whose Kinya is pretty good. With the help of the FHI guard we can translate what tools we need, so we set off with rake, shovel and broom. We think we’re picking up litter.

We walk to where we think we should be, much to the amusement of hundreds of Rwandans who are clearly going about their Saturday business as usual and think it’s a huge joke that the muzungus are off to do community service. We walk miles; it’s getting hotter and hotter and we’re all beginning to wilt. Eventually we come almost full circle, past Cathie and Elson’s house, and within two hundred yards of our flat. At that precise point we see an umuganda working party, and Tom and Christi, all zealous and Christian, insist on going to join them. (Soraya and I are quite ready to call it a day and put it down to local incompetence or laziness).

We’re equipped for picking up litter. The group we’re with is mainly men, guarded by soldiers, and are digging trenches to intercept rainwater on a very steep slope round the back of Gahogo. I think these must be very reluctant umuganda-doers judging by the number of escorts they warrant.

OK, so Christi picks up litter, Tom borrows a pick and gets to work, and I shovel. The men think it’s a hoot that Soraya is working at all (as usual, they all think she’s about 16), and when she sets to with first pick, then hoe, then shovel just to show them, they gape at her even more. Soraya is a Philippina farmer’s daughter, remember, and knows full well how to use farm tools!

If anything it’s now even hotter; Tom and I are sweating like mad and thinking how stupid we were for having a shower first thing this morning. But we finish our little trench and get half way through another one before, at about quarter to eleven, the boss woman arrives and tells us we can pack up now. The rest of them are going to a meeting; we’re welcome to come if we wish.

We all look at each other. “Meeting” means a good 90 minutes of haranguing, all in Kinyarwanda. Thanks, but no; we’ve all got other things to be doing. Soraya and I have to get to Kigali; Tom and Christi also have FHI work to do.

So we call in at our flat for cold drinks. The others go on, and I have a second shower in less than four hours!

Off to Kigali on the bus, and I wait for Els, as arranged, at Simba café. Then Els texts to say she’s at “Blues Café”. The new batch of VSOs are there in force, about eight of them. It’s a nice place with a shady veranda, and the food’s cheaper than at Bourbon. So it looks as though it will become the natural meeting place for everybody from now on. As soon as I can tear Els away we go to the travel agents and book our flights home for Christmas. So far so good. The flight times couldn’t be more convenient if we had to set them ourselves, and we also avoid the overnight stay in Addis.

The problem comes when we try to pay for the flights. The travel agent won’t take credit cards, so I have to go to the bank which fortunately is almost next door. Then the system refuses my credit card. Twice. I can’t work out why. I’ve already used the card once with absolutely no problem. I can’t imagine that bank staff would be trying to do scams with my card details from that occasion, and have got the card blacklisted. We eventually decide it must be because the amount involved in relatively large, and because the card hasn’t been used for such a long time. (I deliberately told the company that I was going to Africa and to permit card transactions in Rwanda and the neighbouring states).

So that’s a blow. I have until next Saturday to pay, otherwise I lose the booking. I’m going to either have to sort things out with the credit card company (how? – emails – can’t do it by phone because phones here are so expensive. If I get put into the usual queuing system in England it’ll cost me a month’s allowance to make one call). Then I have a brainwave- I have a stash of Euros left over from Teresa’s visit and there might just be enough there to cover me. So can’t do anything more about my flights until I’ve got back to Gitarama and raided the piggy bank!

Up to Kersti’s to dump my bags and get ready for Cathryn’s party. We go in luxury in Kersti’s car, while the others are struggling with buses and taxis and legging it up steep hills. The party is at Giudhi’s house which in turn is Jo Nicholas’ house, high up in the hills surrounding Kigali. The night lights are superb; the view on a clear day must be quite something. Unfortunately just as we arrive there’s a sharp thunderstorm, the earth yard turns unto a swamp, and we’re trampling mud all over the clean tiled floors. Can’t be helped. Even the land cruiser in 4-WD mode can’t get traction in one part of the garden – that’s how muddy it is.

On our way we think we’ve found the place and try to park. Good job we can’t, because at the last minute we realise it’s a Rwandan wedding reception and nothing to do with us at all. (The guard at the gate has seen our car, and us being muzungus, and thinks we’re the distinguished guests and has diligently ushered us into the car park even though it’s hammering down with rain and flashing lightning all around him).

The rest of the gang arrive in due course, looking like drowned rats in some cases. We set to partying. Ken and Mans are both there, and within an hour we’re in a little huddle having a planning meeting for our next training days. How sad is that?

We dine in style on home-made pizza, and brochettes and ibitoke. There’s plenty of booze, too. There’s quite a crowd of Rwandan men and women, presumably neighbours or work colleague of Giudhi’s. (She finished working as a VSO this summer and is working as a consultant in a company in central Kigali).

Unfortunately some of the men start taking liberties with our new arrival girls – it really isn’t on in this day and age for them to get their bums pinched and worse by leering (probably married) men, and especially in the capital city they should know better. It’s time to be making a move in any case, and we’ve been invited en masse to another party at a country club way up in the mountains around Kigali.
We all pile into the cars – and I do mean pile. There are at least ten of us in Kersti’s car – and set off up the road. She quickly gets expert in hill starts with an overload of passengers and precious little traction from the tyres (there’s so much mud and sand in the treads that it’s almost as if they were smooth racing slicks). Every few yards there’s a police check point. We hold our breath to keep in the alcohol fumes and say nowt in case we offend. It turns out there has been a multiple murder in Kigali during the afternoon. A passenger on a moto had a disagreement with his driver, so shot him, and then shot five bystanders who tried to intervene. Six dead, we’re told. The police are trying to catch him, but why they should think he’s driving with a herd of muzungus up a mountainside in rain at around about midnight is beyond me.

The second party is something of a damp squib. The power’s gone, so the band can’t play properly. The singer’s doing his best but making himself hoarse; the guitarists are playing electric instruments without amplification so you can barely hear them. Just the drummer’s banging away as if everything were normal, and totally drowning out everybody else. But that’s drummers for you! There’s plenty of booze, and the bar’s also serving food for those who want it. Half of the muzungu population of Kigali is crowded into this one place.

Eventually we decide that if we want to dance we need to go clubbing. Irene’s had her jacket stolen; fortunately there isn’t anything valuable in it, just the garment itself. Back we go down the mountain, past more and more police checkpoints, and hit Cadillac night club. The second car doesn’t make it – a combination of tiredness and general “oh sod it – we’ve had enough for one night” means there’s just seven of us braving the hookers and flesh market that is Kigali’s premier night event.

In the event we too are too tired to do Cadillac justice, and within an hour we’ve all decided to go home. Six of us – Kersti, Nick, me, Irene, Épi and Janneau – are all staying in the same place, so it’s back home and flake out at four in the morning.

Best thing about today – booking flights. Partying hard. It’s been a gruelling fortnight of school visits and I’m more than ready for some entertainment in the capital. The VSOs are such a hospitable crowd that it makes socialising a real pleasure, too.

Worst thing about today – the blasted business with my *”@+*!%^ credit card!

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