Friday, 28 November 2008

roads, laptops and far too much sex!

November 28th

Although I don’t have an English class at the Office this morning, I’m up at 5.30 as usual and there by 6.45. I like these early morning starts; I’ve said before in this blog that it’s the best part of the day. Yesterday I realised that Mushushiro secteur hasn’t confirmed my training session with them today, nor told me which school to use. By the time I got back from Muhanga yesterday it was too late to contact them – the District Office was shut and Innocent would have gone home. When things get tricky I need a native Kinyarwanda speaker to clarify things for me! (Sorry, there’s about five different tenses in that paragraph. I’m beginning to mark my own writing as if it were an exam. And I’m failing the exam…)

So first thing this morning we try ringing Emerthe, the secteur rep. And we try and we try and we try. I have a go, Innocent has goes; finally I go to Claude with all my woes and he tries several times. Each time we get a pre-recorded message saying that the phone is either switched off or the person is not in the country.

Claude rings a couple of the other Mushushiro head teachers. Eventually we get the story. Emerthe has got a new phone, but she hasn’t told the District her new number. Since the head teachers’ mobile is the only way of contacting a school, we have a situation where Cyicaro (Emerthe’s school) is completely uncontactable from Headquarters. Not only that, but since Emerthe is the secteur rep, it means that it’s impossible to organise communication with any of the Mushishiro schools in a sensible way. Neither of the two heads Claude talks to has any idea about resources training today, so we decide to cancel. Claude’s hopping mad with Emerthe and embarrassed for me.

I’m cross, because it’s a wasted day, but at least this one’s not my fault. And I really need a rest. I can’t believe how three days’ training on the trot takes it out of you. My arm and shoulder is aching where I’ve been lugging heavy baggage on the back of motos, and despite an early night I still feel lethargic. Goodness knows what I would feel like if I had done 5 days consecutive training, as I had planned. Plus four day’s English lessons at the Office.

Anyway, I make the most of the morning reading up various reports in the Office, and planning some more English trainings for January. I try to make things relevant. Detailed instructions on a packet of medicine is a standard English Language training exercise out here. Instructions for loading a new programme onto their computers will also be applicable to all of them. And I spend some time creating a detailed job specification and advert exactly as it would appear in the “Nouvelle Rélève” newspaper. The job is for an EMIS and educational database manager – I might even be tempted to have a go for it myself!

I raid Claude’s office while he is out; there is a pile of “Nouvelle Rélève” papers on his table, covering September and October. Its very good practise for my French to read through them, even if to casual visitors to the Office it appears that I’m just sitting mucking about and reading the papers.

Firstly there’s an article about the new tarmac road from Gitarama to Ngororero. Although the road is being built by the Chinese, the chief engineer in charge of the whole project is Italian. I wonder what language they all communicate in. Apparently the locals along the route have been helping themselves to the blocks of stone used for culvert making and especially for the gabions. I assume they’re using the stone to build their houses. It has cost the project no less than 800 million extra Francs – a huge sum. The engineer is accusing the Muhanga population of being thieves; Yvonne, our Mayor, is stung to the quick and denouncing the thieves but promising to take action. It’s just like stuff in the “Bridport News” – parochial and defensive, but this is the national newspaper! The engineer also says that the road is guaranteed for ten years before it should need repair. But at the same time he admits that the section through the mountains just past Gitarama has been exceptionally difficult to build, and that there is a constant risk of “glissements de terre”- landslides, which become almost constant during the heavy rains.

The article confirms that the road will eventually go all the way to Gisenyi; Ngororero is about 45km from Gitarama, and Gisenyi is about another 50km further on. By around 2010 the route will have been done and a big chunk of the country will have been opened up. It’s just staggering how isolated most of these places are along the road. There’s whole areas the size of Dorset where it is so hilly, and the roads so poor, that people are simply shut in within their own communities all year round. You live in the community, marry in the community, go to market within about a 6km radius of your house, and during your entire lifetime you’ll almost never venture further than about 20km away from it. It’s just like England in the 1700s, before roads were surfaced and railways built. I dread to think what the amount of inbreeding is like in some of these communities! The whole idea of the new road is to open these parts of Rwanda to trade and to new ideas, as well as to take as much through traffic as possible out of Kigali. (All the heavy lorries from Congo to the south of Rwanda will eventually come this way, and what is currently for me a beautiful road with almost no traffic to spoil it will become one of the busiest highways in Africa).

Another article talks about a plan to give laptops to every school child in Rwanda. I’ve heard this mentioned before, and you’ll remember I wrote in this blog last week about an ICT training course being held at Gitarama primary school. But this is the first time I’ve seen stuff about computers for every child in writing. An outside, foreign aid organisation is making cut-down, cut-price laptops available; some 5500 will have been distributed by the end of this year, and thenceforth at the rate of around 50,000 a year. I’m still scratching my head over all this. Almost no rural schools have electricity, so they’ll either be spending a fortune on batteries, or the schools will have to buy solar panels (which are very expensive). I can understand that they will wire up schools in the towns, or wherever the main electricity grid runs close to a school (Munyinya and Nyarusange in my district are two prime examples). But can you imagine the wear and tear on laptops being bashed about over stone roads on their way to and from school? And if there’s a huge black market of parents, pupils, and even some teachers raiding their local primary school to steal textbooks and sell them in the local markets for food money, just imagine how tempting it will be to flog off all these computers. The average lifespan of a laptop is only four years or thereabouts, so in four years they will have distributed about 200,000. But there is an estimated 2 million children in primary schools across the country (up from 900,000 in 1994 – there’s a population explosion for you!), so you see the scale of the problem.

Any increase in ICT and in knowledge has got to be a good thing here; the “human capital” of Rwanda is at a desperately low level and I’m constantly surprised at how low the general level of education and understanding is. Rwanda is the first time I’ve been to a place where everyone is streetwise and cunning to the Nth degree, but abysmally backward in anything approaching formal education. It just seems crazy to be giving something as complicated as a laptop computer to households where neither of the parents can read and write, where the whole family lives in one room, and where the only source of lighting is an old tomato paste tin full of paraffin with a strip off somebody’s trouser hem as the wick. New roads – yes, definitely; rural electrification – yes, as fast as possible. But there are all sorts of other urgent priorities – hygiene, food security, health education and above all contraception, which are far more urgent than trying to shunt children from the 1700s into the computer age overnight.

Which brings me to the third article in the “Nouvelle Rélève”. The government here is beginning to square up to the Catholic Church over birth control. The Government really means it when it says you “must” not have more than three children per family. The average number of births per woman has gone down from 6.2 in 1992 to 5.5 now, which is something. And a 20% infant mortality rate means that on average every family loses at least one young child, usually to some combination of dysentery, malaria or respiratory diseases. At the present rate of increase the population will double to 16 million by 2020, and there will simply not be enough food. Rwanda will become like Bangladesh – a permanent “basket case”, forever dependent on foreign aid. Even if the population control measures are adopted with vigour, they expect the population will reach 13 million, and in a country not much bigger than Wales that’s a genuinely scary prospect. But I have grave doubts as to how well they can enforce their 3 children policy. The Rwandan male’s attitude is that is he’s going to get married he’s doing it for the sex and if he has ten or more children, well, that’s not his fault. It’s God’s fault. And therefore it’s God’s job to look after the children. “Je les ai mis au monde, mais Dieu s’occupe du reste”. In the very backward, rural secteurs it is common to see groups of children who are clearly not in school, dressed in absolute rags, and quite obviously fending for themselves. They raid their neighbour’s fields, stealing potatoes and plantains and making little fires to cook them. Children as young as six are living this way and often looking after even younger siblings. I can sometimes see these children when I travel up country, because a muzungu on a motor bike is so rare that these kids’ll break cover to come and stare. There is a prevailing attitude that God smiles on large families, and it’s undoubtedly true that women are judged on their fertility and see themselves as fulfilled in measure according to the number of children they manage to raise successfully.

Then last month the Pope, safely away from the realities of Rwandan rural life, repeated his line about every effective method of birth control being forbidden and that it’s celibacy or nothing. He should come to Cyeza or Kibangu.

Educated Rwandans are definitely having small families – they are no different from educated families in England or anywhere else in the developed world. But they are only a tiny proportion of the total population, and their forbearance does nothing to alter the overall demographic trends. I feel really sorry for the Catholic priests like Jean-Damascène who have to toe the party line from Rome, while at the same time trying to hold their exploding, and increasingly poor communities together. Make no mistake; rural Rwandans are getting poorer. Land is being subdivided more and more. Soils are getting so seriously exhausted that crop yields per hectare are falling fast. You can measure rural poverty by the proportion of people who have to buy seeds each year (because they’ve eaten their seed potatoes during the dry season, for example), or who buy artificial fertilisers to increase yields. The statistics for both these categories are going the wrong way, and a food security crisis is looming. While his Holiness waffles on about the sanctity of marriage and that it’s still a sin to disturb the intimacy of the act of union etc etc, I can see war, famine and disease galloping over the mountains towards us.

And what chance will a posh school laptop stand with these families?

The only hope seems to lie in getting girls as educated as possible. Educated young Rwandan women are very modern indeed. They’ll certainly not see life as an endless conveyor belt of pregnancies, and they want all the goodies of life, and they want them now if not sooner. They’ll tell the Pope exactly where to go. They’ll tell their menfolk exactly how many children they’re going to have, and when they’re going to have them. This sort of lifestyle is so much easier to do in towns like Gitarama and Kigali where you are safely away from pressure from grandparents and other tradition-bound relatives. In the villages things won’t really change for a couple of generations. And by then it could be too late. It would be ironic if the lasting legacy of the genocide was a subconscious desire to repopulate the country, and that this lasted so long that the country destroyed itself in an avalanche of hungry people.

OK, that’s enough on the subject.

Best thing about today – having time to relax, read, and think.

Worst thing – it looks as if by the time I come home next week I’ll only have done half my resource making training sessions instead of the three quarters I had planned. But it doesn’t matter; I have my whole second year before me! Nobody’s angry with me, and I can take life at my own pace.

Also, I’ve discovered that by not using the water heater and being sparing with lights and the kettle and leaving my ironing till next week, I should be able to keep the electricity flowing until Tom comes back on Sunday and he or I can get the meter recharged on Monday morning. So it’s not all bad.

whre's my dinner?

November 27th

Final District Office English training session for this term – there’s too much travelling in the next few days to allow me to fit any more in. In some ways this is a pity because I’m starting to enjoy myself and I know the sessions are going really well.

It must be towards the end of the week because they’re quite late arriving today, and its quarter past seven before I’m really quorate. But the Vice Mayor’s not only here all the session but is joining in with the rest of them, so that’s quite an achievement. I think they’re all terrified of him; when he makes a mistake on a wordsearch they don’t quite know how to react!

Another good session – a listening exercise involving the description of an imaginary island and its potential for tourism. (Oh dear, we’re back to this lack of imagination in education again. You can see them thinking “why don’t I know where the state of Cameronia is in West Africa, and how did I not know there were gorillas on the mountains there?”). We do twenty questions which is also an entirely new experience for these people. Mind you, they’re quick learners and smart cookies; it just says reams for the narrowness of the secondary education system here that all the games we play in England to encourage lateral thinking and stimulate the imagination are lacking here in Rwanda. So I’m a man with a mission – I will take you, drag you, hijack you by any means possible to a state where you learn to think outside your comfort zone!

We end up doing a wordsearch which is another new experience for almost every single one; as soon as get the hang of it they’re away and jostling each other to come up to the flipchart and identify words. I never got this degree of enthusiasm from any of my classes at Beaminster!

We all leave the room laughing and we’ve actually enjoyed the best part of an hour’s hard work, so I must be doing something right.

Then it’s off to Mata school in Muhanga secteur. This is one of my favourite schools; it has two cows and a huge acreage of coffee trees. I took Hayley there with me in the middle of September on her second day at work in Rwanda. I’m even better organised today, and the whole training goes very, very well. I would have come back on a tremendous high except that Ernestine seems to have forgotten to arrange lunch for any of us, and nobody gets anything to eat at all. I have a couple of boiled sweets in my bag and a small bottle of water, so by the time I get back in the afternoon I’m starving. It’s most unlike Ernestine to screw up on anything, she’s an excellent organiser. I wonder if some other training session got our food, or if they got two lots of food? If two lots turned up they’d scoff the lot without the slightest second thought.

I get overcharged on the matata when I come home; at these trainings I have a lot of baggage and the host school usually insists on escorting me to the nearest bus point. That makes it difficult for me to hitch a ride on a passing car, which is always my intention. Never mind, instead of 30p I had to pay 60p and in any case it’s VSO who is paying.

I have to buy more scotch tape and marker pens when I get back to Gitarama – I think some of these people are eating marker pens – and flake out at the flat with cups of tea and peanut butter sandwiches to keep me going. I’ve decided to treat myself to a meal out tonight; I reckon I deserve an omelette spéciale, perhaps with a side plate of chips….

Panic stations at 4.30 – our electricity is about to run out and Tom has the card and meter box key locked in his bedroom. I’ve got a horrible feeling I’m going to be without power very soon until Monday morning… So let’s get phone and iPod all charged up and minimise cups of tea; I’m already showering in cold water for a few days so I don’t have to use the immersion heater.

Best thing about today – all of it – two good training sessions and I’m feeling on a high.

Worst thing about today – I’m beginning to feel very tired already, and I’m only half way through the secteur trainings. But at least I don’t have to spend the evenings preparing more stuff for the District Office crowd!

busy, busy, busy

November 25th-26th

Well, these are training days with a vengeance. It’s my grand finale in Muhanga District before I set off home for Christmas. I’m up at 5.30 and out of the flat at 6.30. Tom’s sleeping on a mattress on the lounge floor, and won’t be awake until 7.00 at the earliest, so I’m trying to creep round the place and not disturb him.

I’m in the Office by just before seven, and from 7.00 to 8.00 I’m teaching the Office staff again. It’s suddenly a lovely atmosphere in the place. Everyone is shouting “hello teacher” as I enter, and people from every office and every department are pleased to see me. On Tuesday morning my numbers have gone up from 13 to 21, and on Wednesday they are 27 including the Vice-Mayor who drops in to give someone a message and then stays to check on what the muzungu is up to. He’s a very dour person, but makes a point of coming up and saying something nice as he leaves. That’s good news – if we are getting the stamp of approval from the very top then we know we’re doing something really worthwhile.

I’m trying to make things as relevant as I can in my teaching; for listening exercises I’m giving them mock phone messages; everything from requests that the mayor rings someone back, to reports of landslides on the main road, to requests for serial numbers for spare parts for the photocopier! I put in a plug for them to tell the English speakers when there are changes to the usual routine (like bloody tree planting days). We look at newspaper extracts for reading comprehension; I get them to speak for a minute about themselves and their families, or about where they would go for a holiday if they won a million francs. (Got to be careful on that one – holidays are just not affordable for virtually any Rwandan. They interpret the question in all sorts of odd ways – opportunities to go to London and do a language course, for example. That’s not what I meant by a holiday!).

Some things fall flat. The idea of using your imagination to create a story is such hard work that I cut it short. I start by saying “Last night, as I was walking home from Shyogwe late at night, I turned a corner in the road and saw…….”

But the person I ask is flummoxed. She wasn’t in Shyogwe last night so how can she know what I saw? These people go all the way through school without ever having to think creatively for fun; without having to imagine and fantasize. So I plough on by myself; the exercise is now for them to listen. I make up loads of crap about a frightening figure who looms out of the dark, with an eye missing, a scar all down his face, dressed in dirty rags, using a stick, and carrying a sack inside which something is wriggling….. You get the idea. Some of them begin to see that it’s a made up story, but I’m sure some of the older ones are convinced I really did have a close shave with some sort of highwayman last night! I work in a chase sequence; the writhing thing in the bag turns out to be a deadly green mamba snake….. They’re getting into the swing of it now. Finally I work round to it all being a dream. When I finish I get a round of applause – I’ve made a hit as a storyteller….

On both mornings I end up at 8.00 on a real high. Their pronunciation is improving; their confidence is growing, and every now and then somebody says something really clever and we all fall about laughing. It’s so much better than the deadly atmosphere in so many school classrooms. I only wonder how long I can keep the pace up.

On both days I catapult out of the Office just after 8.00 with a carrier bag and rucksack stuffed to capacity with goodies for my resource making trainings out in the secteurs. Tuesday is Cyeza; Wednesday is Nyarusange. Neither is very far out; but Nyarusange is on a hilly road and needs a big motard to get around Mont Mushubati. On Tuesday we are in Bwirika school, which I inspected back in March. Then, it was in a sorry state. This is the school where children were being made ill by polluted drinking water from the nearest spring.

What a change has happened since. Some other NGO has given them money. There is now a concrete water tank, roof gutters, and part of the tiled roof has been replaced with tin to give an efficient catchment for the water supply. Sorry Bradpole Church – we’ve been beaten to it. This is the school we thought we were going to supply with an Afritank. Never mind; there are probably around 70 other schools which still don’t have clean water, so we’ll simply find another one and get on with the job elsewhere!

The resource making goes OK; better at Nyarusange. It’s one of those things just like the English training with Cathie back in the spring, where you get better and better for the first few sessions, then reach a plateau after about three or four. For Nyarusange I have two enormous dice made out of Soraya’s old mattress (yes, the one with bed bugs in it). But we’re counting on the bed bugs not living on the extreme edges of the foam rubber, and I’m not keeping them in my flat. They’re spending the nights in the District Office. So if Claude and Innocent start scratching all next week I shall keep VERY, VERY quiet on the subject…..

At both schools I’m fed at lunchtime; this is part of the deal with the secteurs. If they organise the food it saves me a huge hassle and I know they can do it far more cheaply than me. At Bwirika a chap rolls up on a moto with two huge plastic tubs. One is filled with bottles of Fanta; the other has those foil dishes like we use at Chinese take-aways; inside is quite a good mélange with excellent cow-meat, and still warm, too.

At Nyarusange I go with Gaston (the head) and one of his staff to a nearby bar. The rest of the teachers have asked not to be fed at all, but to have the cash in lieu. In the bar we have warm fanta and rabbit and chips, in an incredibly hot sauce. The rabbit is roughly jointed for us and reasonably tender; I’m not sure about leaving the head as the centrepiece of the presentation, though! None of us feels up to crushing the skull and sucking the brains through, but no doubt the head will get eaten by someone when we’ve left. (The rabbit head, that is, not Gaston himself). Too many heads in one paragraph!

Nyarusange is my second biggest primary school, with 1844 pupils. It has a row of 20 classrooms which seem to stretch for ever along the hillside, and there’s an annexe or “école satellite” at Nyamabuye which will eventually become a totally separate school. Gaston’s therefore the head for at the very least 2500 pupils and staff. Yet he’s ridiculously young, dynamic and funny. He rides a beat up old moto, leaking oil like a sieve, but with a home-made foam rubber passenger seat which is by a long way the most comfortable in Rwanda. Go Gaston! He’s one of my secteur reps and, like most of them, quite a character. I’m beginning to really enjoy being out in the countryside again – but then I always do!

The teachers at the Nyarusange training are an exceptionally nice bunch of people and we have a real laugh. We start with logic exercises – towers of Hanoi and tangrams and there’s all sorts of laughing and ribbing as people try and try to solve them. And when we get on to snakes and ladders it brings the house down. We’re using fanta bottle tops as counters, as you do here, and the blue team are far in the lead and absolutely cock a hoop when they land on the longest snake on the grid and slide almost back to the start. There’s uproar!

The only down point of the day is that they’re too slap happy when they’re copying my rice sacks. Neither Bwirika nor Nyarusange schools have glass in their windows, so we can’t trace anything. This means the quality of reproduction is very limited. And where they’ve cut the rice sacks with scissors they’ve done it in a way which frays the edges terribly. I tell them they absolutely must get the edges sewn when they get home. I think some of the women will do it, but as for the blokes, well – who can say. As usual we have at least two babies yelling and being fed during proceedings; one of the little cherubs loudly fills his nappy in a quiet spot and everyone gets the giggles one more…..

The only problem with this training is that I’m having to do it all on my own. Normally there would be two of us, or even more, but Soraya’s in Butare, Michael and Tinks have their own trainings at Shyogwe primary, and everybody else who’s left in Rwanda is similarly occupied. To do a whole day’s training, in French, and to be responsible for every part of it is hard work. By the end of Wednesday I feel really weary, and I’ve got two more days to do this week and three next week.

Never mind. I’ve got the flat to myself; Tom and Luke have gone off to Ruhengeri to watch gorillas. I’ve got soup in the freezer so I don’t have to spend a long time cooking. I prepare Thursday’s English lesson and write up the blog. That brings me to this minute, and I’m off to bed at twenty to ten!

Best thing about today – everything. It’s been a damn good day.

Worst thing – nothing at all. Just give me enough energy to keep up the pace!

tree planting day

November 24th

Up early; I’m supposed to be doing a resource making training at Shyogwe but Emmanuelle has never got back to me to confirm the date or location, so it looks as if it isn’t going to happen. Last night Hayley said she’d been told by her boss that it was “National Tree Planting Day”, and that schools, District Offices etc would all be closed. Ho hum; we’re back to the last-minute public holiday routine again.

And Hayley turns out to be exactly right. When I get to the District Office (at seven o’clock in the morning) everyone’s either gone already, or going off to plant trees. Even Innocent, the sports secretary, is off to Rugendabari. For that matter, even Claude’s off but whether to plant trees of mind the baby or to official meetings – who knows!.

If I’d been told in advance I would have worn suitable clothes and brought my camera, and gone out and stuck some eucalyptus in the ground with the rest of them; tree planting is a pretty photogenic affair. But I’m smartly dressed for training teachers and I can’t be bothered to rush back to the flat and change. Besides, by the time I got back I’d miss any transport out to the wilds!

So at least my fears about Shyogwe training are answered, and I have a down day. Well, almost. Claude gives me the internet modem so I have a grand time getting caught up on all my computer business, including updating all my virus checkers. I get so bored I even mess around with Facebook – a sure sign of underemployment in any workplace around the world!

I get an email from Carmel, one of my fellow volunteers in Pakistan. She’s just been pulled from her original placement (giving health advice to sex workers in Khanewal city) because the set-up she is working for turns out to be totally corrupt – Almost no work is being done, but huge amounts of money pocketed by the directors! Another triumph for VSO vetting of placements before volunteers arrive!

Tina emails to say she is improving fast and it sounds as if she’ll be back in Africa well before Christmas, so that’s seriously good news.

I’m busy reading the “New Times” on line, and looking at the “up-country” section for local news, when I discover a long article about an education conference at Rongi, to set targets and raise aspirations in this remote secteur. And lo and behold the author is my mate Étienne, the secteur rep from Rongi and a real friend to me, Soraya and Cathie, too. Good for you, Étienne. This guy’s definitely going to go places! He knows how to publicise himself and he works so energetically for his little part of Muhanga.

Towards the end of the morning Soraya rolls up from Butare. She’s down at GS Butare for the MINEDUC teacher training programme in English (as one of the trainers). She’s come up this morning to meet Charlotte for a “progress check” visit. While we’re waiting for Charlotte we talk. Soraya’s getting paid (handsomely) for being one of the trainers on this course; it begins to look as if she’ll be the only VSO in Rwanda to make a tidy profit on the year (most of the rest of us are finding it really difficult to live on our budgets and are subsidising ourselves from private funds). And at GS Butare they have a brand new 25 metre swimming pool. The only problem is that nobody is allowed to use it yet because it hasn’t been officially opened. I’m not sure when it’s opening, or who is doing the opening. But it must be the biggest and best pool outside of Kigali and I wonder if the President will pay a visit….. I tell Soraya she’s got to try the pool out, even if it means midnight dips!

At the end of the afternoon I have my very first training session with the District Office staff. I am taking the “intermediates” – the people who think they have already got reasonable English and want conversation practise. There were originally 21 people on my list, and it’s gratifying to see that even on a “jour férié” I have no fewer than thirteen. The session goes very well, much better than I dared hope. The level of overall literacy is good, and their pronunciation is almost always better than that of most of the primary teachers I meet. Truly, the District Office staff are the crème de la crème!

I go home very happy, even if frustrated that I’ll have to reschedule Shyogwe in the spring term. But suddenly I’m a classroom teacher again, and I need to prepare material for the following morning. Tom and Luke, his brother, who has just arrived from England, end up preparing supper while I furiously type up listening exercises, vocabulary games and the like.

Best thing about today – succeeding in training adults. I’ve been quite anxious about it and it gives a nice feeling at the end of the day to know I can do it despite not being an English specialist.

Worst thing about today – at the moment I still haven’t started on my resource making trainings. Never mind; I start tomorrow…..

doing Geology with a gospel choir singing in the background!

November 23rd

A lie in this morning because we’re all tired. So a leisurely breakfast, and an opportunity to take more photos in the warm early morning sunshine. Outside our dining room there’s a gospel choir rehearsing their moves and being filmed; I think it must be a promotional video. The choir come from Ruhengeri and there are plenty of them – at least twenty five singers all in matching green tops and white trousers. Their singing is pretty good, too, but when I go outside to watch them I discover they’re miming to a tape, presumably one which they have already recorded.

We sit on the terrace at Kinigi with Karisimbi and Vishoke looming behind us and I do an hour long summary of everything I can remember on the geology of this part of Rwanda – the volcanoes, their effect on Kivu and Rwanda’s river systems; the petrology of the lava and the economic aspects of the volcanics. Even if I say so myself, these kids are leaving this place pretty well clued up on what’s going on, and there will be few other Rwandans who know as much in as much depth as these teenagers.

All good things come to an end, and we leave Kinigi regretfully because it’s such a nice place. Kersti has managed the budget supremely well and we are on the way home with a substantial cash reserve left in her purse!

This means that when we reach the “singing toilets” stop at Base we can buy everyone a cold drink; it’s getting noticeably hotter as we approach Kigali and it’s no less than 32 degrees as we enter the city.

Walt’s wife has made us a huge Tupperware box of cookies and these are steadily munched as we descend past the Nyaborongo valley on one side, and the deep gulleys of the mountains on the approach to the capital.

With the children safely off with their parents Kersti and I go to her house and crash out to doze for a couple of hours. Paula has texted to invite us to a do in town this evening, and we think it’ll make a nice way to end our weekend. (Nick is away in Kampala on a short business trip).

Unfortunately things go awry as the day wears on, and we don’t make it to Paula’s do. But the trip has been a great success, and we’ve both come back uplifted by the scenery and the sense of having achieved something worthwhile.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Life in the Congolese refugee camps

This family of eight registering at Lushebere camp, also in North Kivu, will have to stay in a single hut.
Pictures and text from the BBC website, with grateful acknowlegement


Aid agencies have struggled to reach some of those who have fled. The makeshift camps provide little protection, and leave residents exposed to health risks including cholera.

Civilians have been fleeing clashes involving rebel forces led by Laurent Nkunda and government troops. Both sides have been accused of atrocities. The displaced live in camps like this one in Nyanzale, North Kivu.


At Rutshuru hospital MSF carries out operations and helps victims of sexual violence and malnutrition. Mobile clinics also help deal with cholera outbreaks and conduct vaccinations. Few Congolese people can afford cars, so they improvise their own means of transport.

There's volcanoes at the bottom of our garden.....

Sunrise at Kinigi
Sabyinyo from the entrance to Kinigi. The oldest and most eroded of Rwanda's volcanoes.
One of my favourites - a dramatic shot of Vishoke and Mikeno

Karisimbi. By the way, it isn't snow covered - the white section at the summit is just a trick of the light

Karisimbi and Vishoke

Dense growth in the tropical forest just inside the National Park wall. This may look like "virgin jungle" but in fact this was cultivated land up until the late 1960s when people were evicted and the territory added to the national park to increase the "buffer zone" between farming and gorillas. P.S. don't on any account tangle with the stinging nettles here - they're really vicious!

Dead tree at about 3200m, covered in mosses and lichens.
Ornamental papyrus grass in the gardens at Kiningi. This is the first time I've seen papyrus as an ornament; usually you find enormous expanses growing wild in the swamps around the Nyaborongo river.

The volcanoes of Rwanda

This is what you see first thing in the morning at Kinigi. Gahinga on the left; Muhabura (14,000 feet) with wisps of cloud on the right. Two down; four more to go.....
Looking the other way, there are (L to R) Karisimbi, the highest mountain in Rwanda, Vishoke, which we were to climb, and in the background Mikeno which is inside the Congo. You also see the beautifully kept grounds at Kinigi.

About half past eight on a perfect morning, as we're on the run-in to the base of Vishoke. Left to right: Karisimbi, Vishoke, Mikeno.

Crossing the boundary wall to enter the National Park. Watch out for buffalo poo and see if you can smell any gorillas!

A beautiful mid-day shot of Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura. What looks like steam coming from Muhabura is (unfortunately) just a trail of cloud.

Pahoehoe (ropy lava) on our path. We're walking over the top of an old lava flow, and you can still see the wrinkles the liquid lava made as the outside skin cooled quicker than the runnier stuff inside it. Just like custard, but not as tasty.......

Mid afternoon. The same three volcanoes (Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura), but now the afternoon's storm is building up. You can see the potato fields on the fertile volcanic soils just outside the boundary wall.

Vesicular trachyte. Nature's version of Aero chocolate bars.

Getting in a lather over lava. Vishoke volcano

November 21-22nd

We’re up early on Friday, but with the benefit of hindsight not early enough, and as the day goes through our timetable slips further and further behind. I don’t realise this while its happening, but sitting here and writing about it a couple of days later I realise that we must have risen nearly an hour later than when I came with Geert, and by the time we actually started to climb the mountain we must have been a full two hours later. (This is why we didn’t all make it to the top. It’s not that we were incapable, just that we would have run out of daylight on the descent. That’s not permissible).

But there’s a silver lining to our tardiness. The weather is clear and fine; the sky is blue, and the views of the volcanoes are just so marvellous I wish I could fix it for ever in my mind. (None of my photos do it justice. The scale of the landscape is just so big; the colours so varied and fresh; the crispness of the air and quietness all round us just makes this place special.

Sabyini, the oldest and most eroded mountain, looms dark green just in front of Kinigi lodge. (Sabyinyo means “teeth” and is an apt name for a peak that resembles the gapped teeth of an old man). To the right, Gahinga and Muhabura are bright green against a pale blue sky studded with pink-tinged clouds. Wisps of cloud trail from Muhabura’s summit – at 14000 feet it is a very serious mountain, and it’s not until you get right up close to I that you realise just how steep it is.

To our left loom Vishoke – today’s climb for us – green all the way to the summit, flat topped, and very much the classic image of a volcano from a child’s drawing book. To its left Karisimbi towers above everything else. On the top is a patch of white, quite distinct from the thin clouds its trailing. At first we think the white might be a patch of frost or even snow reflecting the early sunlight, but it could equally be a structure of some sort. I don’t remember seeing it when I came with Geert in March. Perhaps it is some sort of military observation post to enable the Rwandan army to keep tabs on what’s happening down below in the Congo.

Behind Karisimbi and Vishoke we can see the summit of Mikeno, one of the three big Congolese volcanoes. Nyiragongo and Muxxxxxxxxx, the two very active volcanoes, are hidden behind Karisimbi. But we can see six of the eight peaks all lined up in front of us, all perfectly clear all the way to their summits. That’s a rare sight on any day and after all the traumas of the past few days it just feels so good to be out in the field and getting back to some mountaineering and some practical geology!

We have to report in to the ORTPN (Rwandan National Park Service) headquarters, and I have to but my permit to climb. I’m cheap this time because I have my resident’s green card as proof that I live here. Then after an intolerable wait we pile into Walt’s wagon, with Patience our guide, and set off along the bumpy track to the base of the volcano.

We set off through the potato fields, and already we are crossing lava flow after lava flow, and different textures and types of lava. Further out, the lava is porphyritic, with white, circular crystals of something inside the charcoal grey groundmass. (Why didn’t I pay more attention in my mineralogy classes forty years ago?); further up to the volcano you leave the porphyries and the lava become vesicular, with gas holes up to a centimetre across. All of this is so obvious and easy to explain, but for these children it’s the first time they’ve seen it for real. They’re so smart and can remember every definition and technical word, and you can hear the clicks as they match up what they’re seeing to what they’ve read.

We’ve almost crossed all the fields of pyrethrum flowers before it occurs to me that none of these children – nor the other two adults – understand what they are and how they’re used, so that makes another short photo stop and explanation.

Eventually we cross the stone wall which marks the boundary between cultivated land and the National Park. This wall is quite something. It’s made of drystone lava blocks, is about six to eight feet high, and stretches for miles and miles round the base of the volcanoes. It has been an enormous undertaking to build. It is relatively recent, because the original national park started by the Belgians was unfenced, and covered a much smaller area than the present set-up. After Dian Fossey’s murder, when world attention forced the Rwandan Government to get tough on poachers, the area of the park was extended by several hundred metres down the mountainside, and many families lost their homes and lands to the park. The reason for the wall is not so much to keep people out, but to keep animals (especially the dangerous buffalo and all-important gorillas) inside the park boundary. But every now and again they breach the wall, and people wake up in the mornings to find gorillas feasting on their potato plants or buffalo eating their precious cow grass!

Nobody lives within the park; it is the domain of the animals. Not just gorillas, but buffalo, hyenas, leopards, antelope, porcupines, and even elephants if the poachers and guerrillas to our West have left us any. We have three Rwandan soldiers to escort us. They’re not so much to protect us against armed rebels from across the border, but to keep us from harm from wild animals. If we are threatened with a buffalo, their orders are to shoot in the air to scare it away and only to shoot the animal itself as a last resort. In the afternoon we do come very close to some buffalo, and one of our guards is really nervous for our safety. (His name is Grégoire and he proudly shows us his identity card – in Roman and Arabic script – from his service with the Rwandan army in Darfur).

The going is extremely muddy underfoot; much wetter than it was last March. We’re being taken up the mountain a different way, presumably to minimise wear and tear on any one path. We squelch through deep mud, and have bruising encounters with giant stinging nettles. These are quite lethal, but fortunately there is a local equivalent of dock leaves to hand. If you pick the top leaves off giant lobelias they exude copious amounts of milky sap which quickly neutralises the irritation from nettle stings. At one point we have to crawl through a natural tunnel underneath a mass of fallen trees; I keep banging my head against roots above me and I’m glad I’m wearing a hat. At least it reduces the number of creepy-crawlies that fall down my neck….

As happened in March, we come across a giant earthworm which requires lots of photos. There’s plenty of buffalo dung on the path, and much of it very fresh. There are hoof prints of antelope, buffalo, and porcupine (three clawmarks clearly visible), but no fresh gorilla poo. Here and there are patches of delicate pink orchids, and even tinier blue ones looking just like vetch back home. Giant hydrangea trees loom above us, and lobelias twelve feet tall are dotted all around.

Eventually we reach the junction where the path to Dian Fossey’s grave splits from the Vishoke trail. From here on, after a short rest and drink of water, the going is steeper. After another hour we realise that we’re going to run out of time to make it to the summit. Patience says we must turn back at one o’clock. If we all stay together as a group there’s no way we’ll get there. Our two boys and Katie and Bethany are bursting to go on ahead, so we arrange that Patience, one soldier and one porter will go with them and make a dash for the top; the three adults and Cassandra will carry on until 1pm and try to find a good viewpoint on the trail so that we can take pictures. (One of the problems with the Vishoke climb is that you are so surrounded by tall vegetation that you get very little sense of altitude until you’re almost at the summit. All you get on the way up is glimpses in one direction; never a real panorama.

We plod on. I’m disappointed that I certainly won’t reach the summit, but then I’ve already done it once and my feet are hurting already. At the appointed time we make our descent, right down to the park boundary wall, and wait for a bit to give the others time to descend. On the way we pass a gorilla’s sleeping nest, complete with liberal amounts of dung. It’s not a fresh nest because the poo is very dried up and old (oh dear, how sad is this – I’m becoming a connoisseur of gorilla shit!).

We’re in radio contact with the children via their army escort, and we learn that all of them have reached the summit. That’s tremendous; they come back to us absolutely bursting with pride – it’s the highlight of their time in Rwanda so far! Later on we learn that on reaching the top, the four set off round the crater rim and made sure they actually entered the Congolese side before Patience realised what they were up to and summoned them back quickly. This gives Kersti and I a couple of seconds of queasy tummies – how would we explain that we had lost four fifths of our party, them having been arrested for entering the Congo illegally…..

But for the kids themselves it just made things even better. First they are driven to the border of Uganda and peer into the Ugandan night; less than twenty hours later they’ve actually entered Congolese territory. For Katie, whose dad is one of the security bosses at the US embassy, it’s an especial bit of daring defiance!

They’ve taken lots of photos of the crater because (unusually) there is no cloud inside it and the views are sharp. We decide that we are going to make a website all about the volcanoes and link it to the official KICS school website – this will be a nice technical challenge for them and consolidate all their geology. It also makes it less of an indulgence for Kersti and I to have had our expenses paid for the privilege of taking only five students!

We take lots of pictures of ropy lava, and I manage to find some lovely hexagonal mineral crystals in some of the lava blocks being used as field boundaries. I think they are tourmaline, but my mineralogy is so old and rusty I’m half guessing. It could just as well be hornblende or something much more ordinary. Also, there are some blocks of lava where you can see a clear gradation in the size of gas vesicles from tiny pinprick holes near the outer edge to over a centimetre across in the centre of the sample. All good geology for everyone! And yes, I know I’m a saddo to get enthused over the distribution of holes in a rock. But there you go….. The lava is trachyte (similar to basalt), and if you know what you’re looking for and look hard enough you can see just about every feature you need to make children understand how volcanoes work. In particular, everyone who comes here sees the six or eight main named volcanoes and they think that’s all there is. But we know better. By the end of the day my students can recognise literally dozens of little vents and fumaroles on the sides of the main volcanoes; many half eroded away, but plain as a pikestaff when you’ve “got your eye in”. The geology of these volcanoes is complicated and fascinating; I’ve done as much reading up in advance as I can and it’s paying off. I know, too, that I’ve got five children who are looking at rocks in a different way as a result of today!

Back at the car we rattle off down the track back to Kinigi. The afternoon storm is brewing up; we’re all constantly taking pictures as the patterns of cloud and shade creep across the volcanoes – you could take the same shot ten times in a day and every time the shot would look different, and every time it would be just as interesting.

Finally the storm breaks and thunder crashes round the peaks. We see lots of lightning, but the rain is all on the Ugandan side of the mountains. While I’m taking photos I meet a couple of Ugandan teenage girls who are also staying in Kinigi; they beg me to take their pictures, and so I do, with a promise that I’ll email the prints to them.

Our original plan is to have a geology “summing up” lesson after we’ve showered and before we eat, but we’re all too tired. There’s only one working shower, so it takes us about 90 minutes to all get scrubbed! The Kinigi staff whisk our filthy boots away to clean them – they come back good as new, except that somewhere coming down the lava blocks Kersti has lost half of the entire sole of one of hers!

Once more, by the time we’ve finished eating we’re all knackered, and just fall into our beds. One good thing about Kinigi is that we’re high up and don’t need either mosquito nets or sprays of deet.

Best thing about today – the views; being on the mountain; the views; not being stuck in Gitarama; the views!

Worst thing about today – my feet are aching…………….

Rwandan driving test

Heloise looking very competent. She passed.
Tom just about to stall and fail. You can see some of the crowds of spectators, and the two traffic police examiners in their black uniforms. The building in the background is Amahoro Stadium - the Rwandan equivalent of Wembly.


the singing toilets

November 20th

Up early and into Kigali. I’m not sure exactly where we are doing this moto test, and nobody has thought to text me to let me know. So far all the training has been up in Kicukiro, so that’s where I go first. But when I arrive there’s nobody around, so I try phoning some of the others; when I eventually get through to one of them I’m told the test is at the Amahoro stadium, some way away in Remera.

So I have to catch a moto across town, through the rush hour traffic. One of the big green Onatracom buses has broken down, full of passengers, right on one of the busiest junctions in town. The police are directing traffic, but every moto driver reckons he can do better, and to say its complete chaos would be the understatement of the year. Every time a gap of more than about a metre opens, a fleet of motos tries to squeeze through – in both directions – and I see more near misses in five minutes than I usually do in a month! It occurs to me that the Rwandan driving tests ought to include some way of measuring people’s patience in traffic jams – given this morning’s evidence the roads would be empty because everyone would fail!

We arrive at the main gates of Amahoro, but there’s still no sign of the others, and obviously I’ve come to the wrong place. Fortunately the guards on duty twig where I should be and send me off again with my grumbling moto driver to the official testing ground. This is just behind the stadium, a flat space where half of Kigali is queuing up to do their car test. There is no sign of any moto training. The car test consists of driving very slowly round a circuit, and lots of ultra slow speed manoeuvring into absolutely tiny parking spaces, and slaloming round cones. Just what is it with these Rwandans and the idea of driving around cones? There doesn’t seem to be any part of the test which involves driving into the city traffic and showing road sense, or emergency stops etc, or of showing that people have the right temperament to drive in a crowded city..

Once again, I can’t find my other VSO trainees, so I have to phone them. It turns out that the moto tests are in another field round the back of the car test circuit. I find I can see them, but can’t work out how to get to them – there’s a high fence between the car circuit and the moto field. Eventually I have to walk up the road, go round the back of a police station and Islamic school (madrassah – they’re all inside busily trying to learn English. I get some very funny looks, so I say “hello” in my best English accent and hurry past before they can nab me to help with the holiday school). There’s a hedge, a gap in the hedge and a piece of broken fence, and hey presto I’ve reached the rest of my VSO trainees.

None of this has put me in the right frame of mind for doing a test. I’m even more thrown to discover that the others pretty well all defied the lock down yesterday and came into Kigali, and they all managed to spend the entire afternoon practising for this test. I’m now the least prepared, and least competent pf any of them. I’m absolutely furious. I had a phone message specifically telling me not to come to Kigali and that the practise session was cancelled – but nobody else seems to have been sent that message. I’ve missed a whole afternoon of intensive practise which would have made all the difference in my skill and confidence levels.

We spend about an hour between us doing last minute manoeuvres. I improve a lot, but I’m certainly not ready to do the test. Then the police arrive and the official test begins. We very soon attract a crowd of more than a hundred onlookers. Driving tests here are always a public spectacle; to watch muzungus having a go is irresistible, and within seconds bystanders are phoning their friends to come and watch the fun. The police are friendly, but formal. The cones are measured to within a millimetre. We are having the test made easy for us; if we can only prove we can drive through the line of cones in both directions, we will be judged to have passed. We’re allowed one mistake only, and a second chance.

Since VSO submitted the original list of names there have been several changes of candidate, and Els and Hayley are substitutes for two other people. The police refuse outright to accept substitutes, and Enias, who has come to support us, spends the rest of the morning in negotiations with Kigali traffic police headquarters to try to persuade them to allow the girls to have a go. (The situation still isn’t resolved by the time I eventually leave in disgust).

One of the funniest moments comes when the police say that if we don’t want to wear our crash helmets to do the test, that’s fine with them. So on the one hand there’s VSO foaming at the mouth if so much as ride pillion without our skid lids; on the other hand here are the actual traffic police saying that as far as they’re concerned helmets are an optional extra. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up!

Needless to say I’m not in the best frame of mind to do the test. I’m put off by all the spectators, and I do some of the most rubbish driving since I first sat on a bike. No chance. Ruairi passes first go, but is the only one to do so. The police set the cones further apart to give us more of a chance, and this time another three succeed. But by the end of the morning, of the nine of us, two have been refused permission to do the test, and three of us are definite failures. Two of the failures are Andy and Tom who have motor bikes for their PHARE project work. It is likely they’ll now be banned from using their bikes, and exactly how much of their VSO work they will be able to do is in question.

The police have been very kind to us – they’ve given all of us two goes to do the test (which they were not bound to do), and at the finish they even say they’ll pass us if we can show we can do one line of six cones. It’s no good; I know that today I just won’t be able to manage more than two or three without either stalling or putting my foot on the ground. It’s simply not going to happen for me on this occasion.

We also discover that from now on VSO is insisting on volunteers doing a full English motor cycle driving test before they come here because the rules on bikes are being tightened up.

I leave the others to it; I need to get to Kersti’s school ready for the volcanoes trip. I’m feeling really deflated and angry; with myself for being so incompetent on the bike, and with everyone else for making such a screw up of our only chance to do the test. Too little time to practise.

It’s a ridiculous situation to be in. I can’t ride a bike till I’ve done the test. I can’t do the test till I’ve had a lot more practise on a bike. I can’t do practise on a bike because nobody will let me ride one till I’ve done the test. It’s a Kafka-esque situation to be in.

Oh well, I’ll just have to carry on hiring motos at their exorbitant charges and VSO will just have to carry on reimbursing me. And when I’ve used up my RwF40,000 travel allowance for a month, I’ll just have to stop travelling out to schools to inspect them or to do training in them.

As I’m walking disconsolately back to VSO Programme Office to dump my helmet I realise that yet again I’ve caught the sun badly while we’ve been doing our testing. I bump into Alicia and Amanda who are sauntering through Remera; they have no idea that the moto test has been going on. Alicia is finishing her service as a VSO and going home in just a few days; Amanda will stay until the end of January. But at least I’ve been able to say goodbye to Alicia; her farewell party coincides with this volcanoes trip I’m about to do.

I get a moto to Kersti’s school and enter a whole new world. KICS (Kigali International Christian School) is a brand new, American funded place which puts almost any English school to shame. Its facilities are just as good as Beaminster’s. It is, of course, a private school, and pupil numbers are tiny by our standards. Many of the pupils are Americans, from the Embassy or business or NGO communities, but there are also a lot of Rwandans. (One of the boys on our trip turns out to be the son of the senior surgeon at the King Faisal hospital). I’m able to put the moto exam behind me and concentrate on supporting Kersti.

We only have five children on this trip, and three adults – myself, Kersti and Walt, who is the father of one of the girls on the trip. We are going to Ruhengeri in Walt’s camper wagon, a huge American vehicle which has been imported into Rwanda following the US practise of not hiring cars locally but shipping peoples’ own cars in from the states.

We pile all our kit in and set off. The kids are simply delightful. All are sixteen or older. All are very sharp, extremely well travelled around the globe, but almost none of them ever seem to travel much out of Kigali while here in Rwanda. (The American children, like their parents, tend to be here for a two or three year tour of duty after which they’ll move on to some exotic location. Cue surreal statements like “we had to do special keep fit training for our sponsored cycle ride when we were in Mongolia two years ago” – and said as if it was the kind of normal experience that all teenagers took part in).

At the village of Base we stop to buy some food and to use the “singing toilets”. These are a famous Rwandan institution. As you enter the loo there’s a sort of electronic tune which plays. The tune is quirky and unrecognisable as any music I’ve ever heard of, but there’s no doubt that the loo sings to you as you enter it! The loos are unusual, to put it mildly! Two women’s cubicles and two men’s side by side in the same room – a unisex arrangement. There’s a sink with soap but no water, but an air hand dryer which actually works – the only one I’ve ever found in the country. There’s a shower cubicle also within the toilet room: this seems a weird place to put a shower but I’ve come across it before somewhere else in Rwanda. And opposite the women’s cubicles are two urinals, so that as our girls are leaving they are treated to the sight of men in full flow. Cue much squeaking and giggling…..

We have a good run to Ruhengeri and we are amazingly lucky with the weather. The views are pin sharp and the volcanoes look fabulous. Épi, and Teresa and co – I apologise to you. I should have made you come to Ruhengeri at this time of year rather than July. In July you could barely see the outline of a single mountain; today the view is perfect, with all the dust washed out of the air. The whole place is magic!

We get into Ruhengeri town and stop for a cup of tea and a rest at the Hotel Muhabura (the same place I stayed at when I did the volcanoes in March with Geert and Jan). Then we set off to find Kinigi, our guest house, which is right next door to the ORTPN headquarters. By now it’s pitch dark, and starting to rain. In the darkness we find our first turning but miss the second, and drive for miles and miles along a good tarmac road. I’m sure we’re going wrong, but I’ve only been here once before and I can’t recognise any landmarks. Outside the windows it’s totally black; barely a single light coming from any buildings to help us.

Kersti’s doing the navigating for this section, and I don’t want to embarrass her in front of her children, so I keep quiet. But eventually we come to a gate across the road, and realise we’ve driven all the way to the Uganda border! It’s both tragic and very funny at the same time! We turn round (the border is closed from sunset to sunrise; there is nobody around at all and just a couple of lorries parked up waiting for tomorrow to cross into Rwanda). Miles and miles of retracking our route ensue, and we eventually find our proper road within a few hundred yards of Ruhengeri. Happily it’s a quick and easy run to Kinigi, and when we get there the people are welcoming. Poor old Kersti – she’s going to take a long time to live down the excursion to Uganda. But Ian, one of our five students, is half Ugandan and is chuffed to bits that he’s been to within a couple of yards of his home country!

Kinigi is a beautiful place to stay, even if you’re not planning to climb the volcanoes or see the gorillas. The views are simply wonderful (I’m going to post some pictures taken from the grounds of the lodge). The organisation which runs it is dedicated to putting money into the rehabilitation of women and vulnerable children in this area, and it’s one of these happy combinations of good quality accommodation at a reasonable price, and supporting a worthwhile cause into the bargain. I’d certainly come here in the future and not to the Hotel Muhabura.

Some of the children are almost too tired to eat at this stage; we shovel down spaghetti in a mushroom sauce and tumble into bed. We’re in two dorms; this is the night I discover that Walt snores continuously, and that the two boys wake up at the very break of dawn…..

Best thing about today – the singing toilets; in fact everything about coming here to Kinigi

Worst thing about today – everything about the moto exam

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Under Lock Down

November 19th

It’s Demonstration Day. The whole of Rwanda is being ordered to attend stage-managed protestations of fury at the arrest of Rose Kabuye in Germany. While the official bile is being vented at the E U in general and Germany and France in particular, there’s considered a very real risk that people will take the opportunity to have a go at any muzungu they see in the street. It’s not just that we might get stoned, or spat on, or beaten up; there’s a real risk of robbery and worse. We’d be daft to take the risk. Here in Gitarama we think the protests will only last for the morning, and that it will be safe to venture out cautiously after about 2pm. All the Kigali volunteers are being warned to stay out of sight the entire day.

So as VSOs we’re under strict orders to stay indoors and keep a low profile. Tom, on the other hand, is off to work as usual; he will be in the FHI office behind closed curtains and as long as he doesn’t venture out onto the street he should have no problem. I don’t have that option – my District Office will be closed, and all the other things I want to do – go to an internet café, go to Kigali and do moto practise, go shopping – all involve going out onto the street. So I’m confined to the flat, bored, and frustrated because there’s so much I need to get done and so little time to do it.

It’s interesting – I’ve heard absolutely nothing from the District Office about today. Nobody at all has said anything to me about today’s fun and games; nobody has warned me that as muzungus Soraya and I could be at risk and need to take precautions. We could have left home this morning and got murdered on our way to work. They really are shocking at any form of pastoral care of their volunteers! But that’s nothing – Els texts to ask what time our moto practise is starting in Kigali, and the wording of her message indicates she doesn’t even know the protest is taking place! I send her a quick reply before she can set off and come to any harm.

8.30. Tom has been instructed to make sure he’s off the streets by 8.00. The bakery opposite and the hairdresser have been certainly operating as usual from 6.00 until 8.00; from then on all the businesses visible from the flat began to shut up shop. There’s a heavy police presence to make sure they obey. The District pick-up truck is circulating round the town broadcasting exhortations to come to the big stadium.

At 9.00, while I’m doing my ironing, a procession comes down the middle of the road from Kabgayi; hundreds of young men (I think they’re probably students from the university). Lots of placards, some in French and some in English (“Rwanda deserves peace, too”. Not sure exactly how that ties in to the arrest of a Government minister for possible crimes against humanity). There’s now no traffic at all going along the main road, so it has become a pedestrian highway.

10.00 – I can hear a lot of loud amplified shouting and speeches coming from the stadium. I can’t make out anything of what’s being said. I’m glad Karen’s back in England and that Christi’s at work; their house is more or less directly along the approach road to the stadium. When this little lot finishes there’ll be literally thousands of fired up, indignant Rwandans marching past their front door. Hayley and Soraya and Tinks live barely a hundred yards from the stadium; I text them to make sure they’re OK and laying low.

Our guards have spread a blanket on the front lawn and are sitting watching the world go by – it’s like a bank holiday atmosphere. There’s a few pedestrians walking in both directions along the main road, but in general the town is quiet as a mouse. Hayley texts to see if I’m OK and to confirm we’re on for our bike test tomorrow. We’ll need to get the 700 bus at the very latest; possibly the 6.30.

11.00 there’s two traffic policemen outside our front door, on the pavement. They’re stopping all traffic in both directions and asking them why they’re on the road and not at the protests. It really is a massively orchestrated protest campaign. The guards downstairs have their radio on now, it’s tuned in to one of the local stations and is broadcasting what sounds like a live transmission. I don’t know whether its coming from Kigali or from Gitarama but it’s the usual shouted indignation. The only vehicles the police are letting through unmolested are the big international buses going from Bujumbura to Kampala.

It’s a worrying thought how closely the sounds from these dangerous political speeches match the sounds from the hellfire-and-damnation sermons we hear from the local churches on Sundays.

12.00 we’ve got a little helicopter doing circles over the town centre; I assume it’s the police or security people checking up on us. It might possibly be the newspapers taking photos, but I think nearly all the press coverage of today will be Kigali-based. Low flying aircraft of any sort are so rare here that all the pedestrians outside the flat have stopped to watch the plane. Oops, it’s just done a very low pass almost directly overhead. I’m well tucked in from the windows; nobody could possible see me, even from the helicopter.

OK, so what’s all this about? Rose Kabuye is one of Kagame’s closest aides, and has been with him since the early 1990s. A French judge has accused about nine senior Rwandan government officials, including Kabuye and the President himself, of being directly involved in the decision to shoot down the former President’s jet in 1994. This killed the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi, and was the spark which ignited the genocide. The implication is that the shooting was a deliberate act, sanctioned at the very highest level, by Kagame. (Up to now nobody has known for sure who ordered the firing of the three missiles. Some accuse the French, most accuse the Hutu-led regime of the time, worried that the president was going to agree to some sort of peace initiative which would prevent their carefully laid plans for a “final solution” to Tutsi hegemony in Rwanda). Quite why Kagame, as a Tutsi, should issue an order which he could have predicted would lead to a mass slaughter of his own people is not clear, but this is what the French Judge is implying. It is highly ironic, because you can argue that Kagame and his aides are guilty of precipitating the very genocide that they claim the credit for stopping. Instead of the saviours of Rwanda, they would become the guilty ones, more guilty than almost any of the wretched people now serving life imprisonment in Rwanda itself or in Tanzania for the extremely serious cases.

The Judge issued an international warrant, and any E U country is bound to arrest any of these nine people if they visit it. If Rose Kabuye had come to London instead of Frankfurt we would have been duty bound to arrest her, and all the venom would be targeted on we British in the country. (We would have been hoiked out in an emergency evacuation just like the Kenyan volunteers were in January).

What makes the case more complicated is that, as a serving Cabinet Minister (she’s Kagame’s Minister of Protocol), Kabuye is entitled to diplomatic immunity whenever she travels abroad on diplomatic business. All she had to do in Frankfurt was to say that there had been an error and she was here as a diplomat, even if she only performed one single short diplomatic function during a mainly private trip. Tom and I can’t believe someone as experienced as Kabuye would allow herself to be put into this situation of being arrested by mistake; there must be a purpose behind it.

So we think this is all a calculated affair. We think that of the nine accused, either she is the one with the least evidence against her, or that she is considered the most expendable of the nine if she really does end up in prison. We think Kagame wants to see her come to trial (despite all the froth that is being broadcast) and that he wants to see what evidence the French have. If she is found guilty she will appeal to the international court of justice, and the case could go on for years. If she is found not guilty it will suggest that the French Judge doesn’t have sufficient evidence against any of the nine. In which case the accusations will have to be dropped, and Kagame’s reputation is not only vindicated but strengthened. He will be totally unassailable. It’s a high risk strategy for sure.

Meanwhile a Rwandan commission has issued arrest warrants for a group of thirty-or-so French army officers who were sent to Rwanda by the French as peace keepers in 1994. They were involved in “Operation Turquoise”, which was the French plan to create a “safe haven” in the south of Rwanda and to keep the warring sides apart. This was a disastrous miscalculation; it led tens of thousands of Hutu murderers escape into Burundi and the Congo, and it prolonged the period of mass killings of Tutsis by Hutus behind the French lines, protected from Kagame’s RPF army who had flushed them out of every other corner of Rwanda.

The official line here is that France is hopeless hypocritical in seeking the arrest of Rwandans while protecting its own army officers. It’s seen as a Colonial gesture in which black Africans are held to be worth so much less than white Europeans. And the rest of the west, especially all the Europeans, are seen to be siding with France. Only the Americans are seen as truly independent in the entire affair, and yet it was their refusal to intervene in any meaningful way in 1994 that allowed the genocide to proceed.

12.20 Pick up trucks driving by filled with men chanting patriotic songs, just like before the government elections a couple of month ago.

12.30 the demonstration in the stadium is over. Hundreds and hundreds of people are streaming past my flat towards Gahogo and Kabgayi. This is the most dangerous time of all for me, because many people know two muzungus live here, and if they’re full of righteous indignation then now is when we’ll get windows smashed or unwelcome visitors. I’ve locked the door just in case. But at the moment it’s just people walking quietly by; there’s no noise or chanting; there’s no organised protest. It’s more or less lunchtime and they’ve got other things on their minds.

So life goes on here. The daily rainstorm is on its way; there are dense clouds towards Kigali. There are women going to the market with baskets of vegetables on their heads. The hairdresser has just started playing loud music again. Traffic is starting to come up and down the road. Our next door neighbour is digging his garden.

In the afternoon I go shopping, and manage to get to the internet cafe with Soraya. The evening is spent cooking and getting my stuff up together for the next few days.

Constant changes of plan

November 17th

This morning I feel tired and it’s an effort to get ready and out of the flat by half past six. Claude’s in the office but just about to leave for Kigali, so I’m able to congratulate him on his fatherhood. But then Claude takes his computer modem with him so I’m stuck without internet all day.

Evalde comes in to the office and I’m able to at least positively confirm my Rugengabari training on December 1st. Nyarusange is also definitely on for November 26th, but Muhanga must be rescheduled. There’s a massive computer training course going on at the moment. All very well, but I can’t see how this fits into a district where hardly a single primary school has a computer in it. Do the secteurs know something I don’t? Is Kigali about to shower us all with solar panels and laptops? If it is, you can bet your bottom dollar they won’t be German products….. (see below)

I work hard at finding things to do with my District Office English classes; I’ve got John Robert, my journalism student, coming round to the flat this afternoon for a lesson and I’ll try out some of the District material on him!

I make up some posters and put them up round the Office; Soraya won’t be able to do any of her language classes this term because next Monday she goes away for a whole month on the MINEDUC training for Rwandan teachers. I think she might be the only VSO involved. She’s a brave girl. So I’m flying the flag for language lesson on my own.

During the morning I manage to get access to a computer with a working printer so I can print out my teaching materials, and lo and behold there’s a photocopier working in one of the other offices in the building, so I can get multiple copies done of the necessary sheets. I turn on all my charm and manage to get everything I need done. I have brought in duplicating paper in case they refuse to use their own stocks, but the guy waves my paper away and just gets on with the job. Hooray – I’m all set up for my District Office training next Monday!

By now its late morning and I’m running out of useful things to do. At this point Kersti rings to tell me not to come to Kigali this evening. Tomorrow (Wednesday) there are going to be huge demonstrations about the Rose Kabuye arrest all over Kigali, and the Americans are warning every muzungu to stay off the streets. The Rwandans don’t know how to identify Germans from other Westerners and we don’t want any of us to be caught out by mistake. I hear that in the last demonstrations some Europeans or Americans took part to show solidarity with the Rwandan government, but were beaten up by other people in the course of the affair.

This demonstration is a nuisance – will my day of moto training be able to take place? I text Charlotte in the Programme Office and ask for instructions. It appears I’ve caught them by surprise; she eventually says she thinks it will be OK and I’m to come in first thing in the morning.

Innocent asks me to help him sort out some cartons of French text books that need parcelling up and delivering out to the secteurs; the books are in Gitarama Primary School and we charge off there in a hired pick up truck. The “some cartons” turns out to be an entire classroom stacked with boxes of books – French, Maths, Social Studies, Civics (teacher guides only) and some English reading books. Also there are some newspapers sponsored by one of the local banks giving primary children a basic financial awareness. Of course, the cartons have been dumped in this classroom in any old order; there are boxes of Maths books mixed in with boxes of Social Studies; there are teacher guides mixed in with pupil books; there are year 1 boxes cheek by jowl with the other year groups.

We decide we need to first sort everything out by subject and year group; only then can we start dividing the stuff up by secteur. It takes us a good 40 minutes – and that’s Innocent giving the orders and four of us sweating with heavy boxes – before we have done the sorting. It takes us another hour and a half to sort out the allocations for five secteurs, and load them into pick up trucks ready for delivery.

Meanwhile it is looking increasingly stormy outside, and not all the trucks seem to have any sort of tarpaulin to cover these books. Lord knows what will happen if it comes on a deluge during the journey out to the secteurs.

Several secteur reps are here – Gaston from Nyarusange, and our friend Sylvère from Nyabinoni. I tell him to say hello from us to everyone in Nyabinoni and especially to Jean-Damascène.

It’s half past one before we ride back to the Office, four of us clinging on for dear life in the rear of a pick up truck. I’m absolutely starving, and Soraya (who I’ve left guarding all our stuff) is rattling too.

In the afternoon I get first a text from VSO saying the demonstrations tomorrow are going to be really big, and advising us not to come into town, and advising those living in Kigali to stay indoors all day. Them, as I’m walking home, there’s a phone call specifically cancelling our moto training. That’s a real blow. I’ve been banking on tomorrow as an intensive driving day if I’m to have any chance whatsoever of passing the exam. I’ll have been an entire week without setting foot on a moto – I stand absolutely no chance!

John Robert is three quarters of an hour late arriving for his lesson; the power has gone off and by the time we finish it’s almost dark. I won’t be able to see him again before the New Year because I’ll be out in the secteurs next week, so I wish him a Happy Christmas. It seems funny to be doing that before the end of November.

Outside its thundering and raining hard; it’s almost dark, and there’s mot a lot of food in the flat. I had assumed I would be off to Kersti’s in Kigali tonight, so neither Tom nor I have been out to get fresh veg. Fortunately when Tom comes in we find we have enough from the stash of goodies his recent visitors brought him to make another unconventional but very tasty meal. And pud is half a Mars bar each – how degenerate is that!

Tom’s been out with Christi on the FHI moto; he’s given her some practise riding on dirt roads with him on the pillion. Christi’s managed very well, but still she’s dumped Tom twice off the back of the bike. He’s tired and bruised tonight.

Best thing about today – finally getting something definite in train about the District Office English classes.

Worst thing about today – no moto training tomorrow. And it really feels as if everything – motos, the Geology field trip, my resources training, the District Office English lessons – is going to be crammed into a period of about eight days. I’ll be so tired at the end of it I’ll barely be able to pack my bags to go home!

Pictures from Chantal's wedding

My favourite picture of Chantal
Janine looking very beautiful; she's wearing her choir robes

Another of Chantal (Philippes's less photogenic so I cropped him out of the picture. But he's standing beside her - honest!)

The cooks preparing our dinner. If you double click on this to blow it up full size, you will see the cow just to the left of the woman in the white top.

How on earth can they dance so gracefully while balancing these baskets full of flower petals at the same time?

Philiipsand Chantal at the dowry ceremony. You can see her traditional headband well in this shot.

Claude's a daddy today!

November 17th

High point of today – we get a text from Claude saying that Immaculee has had the baby, and that it’s a girl. I don’t know any more details – names, weight; I assume everything’s OK. Claude, of course, isn’t in the office today. I imagine Immaculee must have gone into labour sometime on Saturday night – Claude would only just have got back from Chantal’s wedding!

Into the office early; I’m putting off arranging my training days and suddenly things are getting very busy. I only have eight working days to do some resource-making trainings, and if I get my act together and use all off them I’ll have done three quarters of all the District within ten days, which ain’t bad going!

So I plan dates and places and compose a long text message (in French) to send to the secteur reps. That’s the easy bit. Will they come back to me and confirm all the arrangements or will I have to phone and chase them at the end of this week?

I’m very frustrated with other things. The big photocopier in the Office is broken, so nobody can do any bulk copying (and I need some bulk copies both for my twilight English lessons and for the resource training sessions). And the little computer printer in our office is out of toner yet again and is only usable if you’re desperate. I’ve got loads of stuff ready to print off, but nowhere to print it. All the other printers in the buildings are being used and I’ll only get anything done if I can sneak in at the start of lunchtime!

With Claude off because of the baby, his computer modem is safely locked in the office so I can’t do anything on line either. It’s just one of those days!

The week is getting complicated and its only Monday morning. Tomorrow I have my little English lesson with John-Robert at 4; then as soon as I finish with him I’m off to Kigali to stay at Kersti’s and talk through with her what we’re going to do up at the volcanoes. All day Wednesday I stay in Kigali for the last day of motor bike training. Let’s just hope I get my balancing and cone exercise better than it was last Thursday!

Then on Thursday morning there’s the actual moto exam, and immediately I finish it I’m off to the volcanoes with the American School. I come back some time on Saturday to Kigali; I’m not sure whether to stay over with Kersti and Nick again or to come straight on home. I suppose it’ll depend on what’s happening in Kigali and who else is around. I haven’t seen Irene for ages and it’d be nice to catch up on the gossip from Byumba.

News from the warring tribes around Goma is mixed. The various rebel groups are going into schools and taking pupils and teachers at gunpoint. They say they’re taking them to act as “porters” for the soldiers’ luggage, but in reality as soon as they’re out in the bush these children get given a gun and told they’re soldiers. If they try to run away they’re shot. All this means that in the few schools still working, children are not coming to school because they don’t want to be press ganged into fighting a war they don’t support. Instead of doing their lessons they’re hiding in the elephant grass all day, getting bored.

On the other hand, the UN presence seems to have stopped anyone making a serious move to take the town, and the airport is staying open which means that aid can be flown in. The Uruguayan soldiers I saw driving through Gitarama a couple of weeks ago have been drafted in to Goma to reinforce the Indian and Pakistani troops.

Beate has finished her VSO stint at Kibeho and is flying home tomorrow; she’s staying with Soraya so as to be closer to Kigali. Kibeho is so isolated; it’s about an hour’s moto ride south of Butare and is close to the Burundi border. There’s very little there in the village except for a massive church. Kibeho is where some children saw visions of the Virgin Mary and the place is being built up into a pilgrimage centre. More lucrative for the villagers than growing bananas and manioc, no doubt! Beate came to our Sunday night muzungu meal yesterday; she’s glad to be going from such a quiet and remote place. She won’t be replaced there.

This weekend we’ve had a MTN (phone company) disco lorry in Gitarama. It’s been parked in the top of the market and blazing out loud music all day long. All the underemployed and bored for miles around have come into town to listen. There are dancers doing routines on a little stage, and every now and then they hand out phone credit vouchers to keep the crowds coming. At night it has been parked in front of our flat, in the little yard between the main road and our building.

Another lighter note – there’s an article in the “New Times” saying that a moto driving test has been cancelled in Butare because the examiners were demanding bribes from candidates. The paper’s doing its indignant wrath act, as it has almost daily for a couple of weeks since the arrest in Germany of Kagame’s aide. Now if it had been us awaiting our test on Thursday at Kigali I think we would have happily paid any amount to make sure we got through…..

We seem to have a price war among the big matatas running to Kigali. This morning the “Horizon” bus has a poster in its window saying fares are RwF700 instead of the usual 800. I bet the other operators are furious! It’s the first time since I’ve arrived here that a price has come down. The exchange rate between the pound and the Rwandan Franc has deteriorated hugely. When I arrived in January you got roughly 1000 Francs to the pound; now its not much more than 800. That’s a 20% cut. It means that our VSO organisation has in effect had a 20% budget cut, but Mike says he thinks we’ll be all right at least for this financial year because there is a cushion of money left over from 2007.

Agnes texts during the evening – she’s out of the country and to organise the training for Cyeza secteur I have to liaise with the head of Bwirika school. I’m spending a fortune on texts at the moment!

Tom and I buy some eggs and then make a good meal out of leftovers – fried potatoes with herby coating, carrots, cabbage, French beans, tomatoes, onions and garlic. All that with omelette and a thick peanut sauce. Sounds odd but tastes OK. I wish soy sauce (I use it to make the peanut sauce) wasn’t so salty!

Best thing about today – starting to get my trainings planned for next week. But it’s like drawing blood from a stone to get unambiguous confirmation from each secteur!