Friday, 7 November 2008

The priest of Nyabinoni

November 3rd Le curé de Nyabinoni

Sorry - another terribly long blog, but this one is a lovely description of what rural Rwanda is like!

I’m up early; Claudine the domestique is clattering around in the kitchen and bringing plates into the lounge. The kitchen is in a lean-to building at the rear of the presbytery; the presbytery itself is attached to the rear of the church. There is a big metal gate for privacy and security. I wonder what silly fool has left a light on all night; then I realise that what I’m seeing is daylight filtering through a Perspex panel in the ceiling above me. My mosquito net is suspended from a little trap door, like a loft hatch, and the hatch has become dislodged letting light in from the real roof above it. In the priest’s lounge there is a big sofa, armchairs, a very domestic looking sideboard and display cabinet filled with crockery, a drinks cupboard (the Protestants are notorious for being “dry” in Rwanda but the Catholics enjoy their booze. Hence I’m only too happy to be with them….).

In one corner of the room are three guitars. Father J-D is learning how to play, and each afternoon a friend comes in from the village and they strum and jam together for an hour or so. I think he’s one of those people who exist by setting themselves targets of new things to learn or do.

I have a cold shower and get dressed and venture out to see what the place is like. Inside the gated compound are two off-road motos, for the two priests. (Father Bernard is away on business and won’t be back until Thursday. We might miss him altogether).

Outside the compound, the church is built on a spur projecting over the valley. The view from the church is absolutely fabulous. (I’ve taken lots of pictures at different times of day; whatever time you go there to look at the view, it appears different. Our favourite relaxation this week is to go and stand on the edge of a step drop down into the village and just gaze at the range on range of hills stretching away from you in all directions).

Over to the right we can see three volcanoes – Karisimbi (the highest), another one which we think might be Bishoke (the one I’ve climbed), and Sabyinyo with its unmistakeable “broken teeth” appearance. Every person we ask tells us different names for the three peaks, and they all do it with such confidence…. In the end we perm the names that come up most often. Just think – one of the best views in Rwanda, with three volcanoes as a bonus, and it’s ours for the week. Very few muzungus have seen this view! The volcano summits are in cloud most of the day, but for a few minutes in early morning or late evening all three are clear, sharply defined, and just grand. Yet the villagers can’t work out why we’re looking at them. To the villagers they are just part of the scenery and taken completely for granted.

It’s 6.30. People are gathering outside the church, and Jean-Damascène invites me to join them for morning Mass. The service is all in Kinyarwnda and I don’t understand more than the odd word here and there, but they sing and clap to drums and the service short and business like and joyful. Very little children sway and dance in the aisles as if it’s the village hop rather than Mass. The congregation consists of old men on their way to the fields – outside the church door there is a collection of hoes, picks, shovels and mattocks, with the long handled hoes doubling as hat stands for their immaculate headgear. There are lots of young women with their babies, and every few minutes one or another baby starts snuffling and is immediately put to the breast. (They even go up to receive communion with their baby still suckling). There are the usual shoals of little children and teenagers; the later mostly girls. There are over fifty people in church – and its only half past six on a Monday morning! Eat your heart out, Bradpole – that’s almost as many as we get for our main Sunday morning service!

There are no pews or chairs, just low brick benches topped with smooth cement which double as both seats and kneelers. In a thirty minute service they are not uncomfortable; they are a cheap and sensible solution to the need for furniture. There are religious pictures on the walls, and the place is decked with bunting like a village fete in England. It feels welcoming. Even at this hour of the morning it is not cold. The church has no glass, just holes in the walls with wooden shutters. These are all open; as the service progresses we can hear cows bellowing in the fields and shouts of workers going about their business in the village. There is absolutely no traffic noise, or planes. It feels as if I’ve been transported back two centuries to late 18th century England.

Everyone is craning round to look me over; the adults try to be subtle about it but the children just gawp goggle eyed. One little boy leaves his mum and sits in front of me, facing me, so he can stare in comfort at this apparition which has appeared before him. He then calls loudly to his mates; he speaks in Kinyarwanda but it’s obvious that what he’s yelling to them is “come here and have a look at the muzungu”. The service only lasts 30 minutes. At the end J-D calls me up to the altar and introduces me to everyone, and I have to speak to them in my broken Kinyarwanda. They think it’s great that I know a single word of their language and I get a big round of applause. These are not sophisticated people like those in Gitarama; they look hard at your face and make a judgement as to whether you are a nice or mean person. If they think you are a pleasant and un-threatening person they welcome you with open arms. After the service absolutely everybody comes up to greet me and shake my hand; it appears I’ve passed the test.

Soraya hasn’t come to church, but I’ve clearly done the right think by showing my face. After the service, while we wait for Claudine to finish making our breakfasts, J-D takes us up the hill to show us his animals (three cows and some pigs), his new guest house for visitors, and his new church. The new church is being built of bricks on a high piece of ground with an equally breathtaking view over the valley. The building is simply enormous - like a small cathedral. Wonky wooden scaffolding is draped all round it, and just as at Shyogwe there are men and women clambering around with heavy loads of bricks and cement without any form of protective clothing and wearing just plastic sandals (or barefoot in a couple of cases).

We go on a tour of inspection through the new building, dodging falling scraps of cement, and greet all the workmen. J-D is not just the priest, he is the foreman of works and he is very hands-on in checking the building work and making sure the quality is up to scratch. Just below the church is a brick kiln; the parishioners are making their own bricks from clay which has been excavated from the foundations of the building. The bricks are a very reddish-orange and glow vividly in the low rays of the early morning sun. J-D says he is hoping the building will be ready for dedication around Christmas time; I think it’ll be more like Easter.

Down in the valley the Nyaborongo river is invisible beneath a thick layer of cotton wool cloud; the cloud is slowly lifting and every few minutes we can see a little bit more of the landscape underneath. From time to time we glimpse the broad, brown, twisting snake that is the river, far beneath us. On each side of the river are squares of brown water – paddy rice to feed the hungry people.

We are looking across the river into the Western province of Rwanda, towards Ngororero and Lake Kivu. If we look right, towards the volcanoes, we are looking into the Northern province and towards Ruhengeri town. So we are at the meeting place of three of Rwanda’s five provinces.

Our moto drivers are ready for the off; we had agreed on RwF12000 for the single journey, but in view of the weather conditions and their tenacity we agree to up it to 15000. That’s a big sum of money even by our standards, but the conditions were exceptional and few other drivers would have stuck it out to get us here.

We sit down to breakfast. Claudine has brought us home-made mandazis, still warm from the fryer. They disappear in a flash. The bread rolls at Nyabinoni are not such a success – they appear t have been steamed and are heavy and doughy. But we are fed like kings and queens all the time we are here at the Paroisse, and in every single way the hospitality of the church is just amazing – considering we are neither of us Catholics ourselves, and the priest has been press-ganged into doing us a favour by accommodating us.

Now the original idea was to hold the training courses at Gitumba school, some four kilometres away from Nyabinoni, but in view of our late arrival and the general state of the roads, Sylvère has changed plans and we will work at the brand new school in Nyabinoni. It is barely a hundred yards from the Presbytery, so couldn’t be any more convenient! We go across to the school and meet Simeon, who is the caretaker. He is 20, speaks a smattering of French, but adopts us as his personal responsibility during the time we’re here. I have this enduring image of him sitting outside in the sun on a teacher’s chair borrowed from one of the classrooms, with his transistor in one hand, watching the world go by while listening to pop music. Every so often he comes close enough to hear what we’re doing, but as he can’t understand English he can only guess what we’re saying. He is just so friendly and pleasant. Nothing is too much trouble for him, and as with the clergy, he makes our stay here so much easier than it might have been.

We are supposed to be starting at 8.00, but by 9.00 we only have about 8 people arrived. They are walking from Shaki and Gitumba, and after last night I will never again criticise anyone for arriving late at a training session. When they do arrive they’re sweating profusely; the last half mile is steeply uphill and the sun is already hot. Never mind, the mist has now all burned away from the river valley and we can see the Nyaborongo snaking along far, far below us.

There’s no bridge across the river for miles in each direction, but there is a little bac (ferry) which can take people, produce, livestock and anything up to the size of a moto provided you balance it carefully. But it’s the rainy season, the river is in flood and the current is fast. It’s not for the faint hearted. I would have liked to try it, just to say I’ve done it, but there isn’t time. It’s a good hour’s walk down from Nyabinoni to the river. It’ll have to wait for another time!

Our training course runs well enough; I won’t bother you with all the details. Many of the teachers are the same people as came on the July training I did here with Els; it’s good to recognise familiar faces. One young woman brings her baby with her, a little boy who is just at the stage where he vocalising continuously and trying to haul himself up on all the furniture. He’s a charming little chap (we both give him a cuddle at times so mum can get on with her written notes), but he is also very distracting when he shouts or bangs a board duster over and over gain on the concrete floor. There’s a cock-up at lunchtime; Sylvère is supposed to be bringing lunch for everyone but he doesn’t materialise. We’re OK; there is lunch for us at the Presbytery, but there is nothing to eat at all for the teachers, and only one little café down in the village itself. They grumble, and rightly so. However much we explain that the catering arrangements are the secteur’s responsibility, not ours, the teachers still think we ought to have magicked up some food for them.

We later discover why Sylvère is so preoccupied and hasn’t come with any food. Up at the end of the valley, at Kibingo, there has been a major mud and rock slide on account of the rain. The mud has partially engulfed the school, (amongst many other buildings) and it’s an “all hands to the pumps” job to rouse local teachers to literally dig the school out of the muck before it solidifies in the sun and sets like concrete. Kibingo is a brand new school, too, like Nyabinoni, so it’s imperative the buildings are not damaged. The mud has engulfed it up to window-sill level. That may not sound much, but it’s a huge volume of stuff to shift with nothing more than picks and hoes and shovels and your bare hands. Oh the joys of living in Rwanda! So far as we know, nobody has been killed in the mud slide, but things could easily have been much more tragic.

After we finish for the day (at not long after three; some of these people have a two hour walk home) I go around the village taking lots of pictures. Now my camera chip is full (why do these things always happen when you want to take loads of pics)? I have to go back through past pictures and delete a load which I have already downloaded to computer.

Fortunately there hasn’t been any more rain today, so the roads are starting to dry out. Transport is getting back to normal.

When it gets too dark to take pictures and I’ve stared at the views for an hour and a half, I go back to the Presbytery and read my book. I feel guilty using the electric light; I can hear the ticking of the meter on the solar panel control box and it’s reminding me that unless I’m careful I’ll use up all the electricity. Then not only me, but Soraya and Jean-Damascène will be ion candles for the rest of the night, and it wouldn’t be cool to do that to them.

I needn’t have worried. J-D is plugged into his laptop; he has 2 mobile phones because reception here is notoriously erratic and you have to juggle between Terracom and MTN networks to ensure you get a message delivered. One corner of the lounge is a mass of charging plugs and power leads!

As you can tell from the length of this blog, Nyabinoni is turning into a very special place for both Soraya and me. At night the silence is absolute; so much so that if a cow coughs half a mile away you can hear it in the Presbytery. It is unbelievably remote and isolated; it is England in the late 1700s. It would be murder to live here permanently unless you have a helicopter for transport, about 6 solar panels and a massive supply of books, DVDs etc. But for a short course training venue it’s the tops. We’re both so happy to be here.

No comments: