Friday, 7 November 2008

A seven hour moto journey!

November 2nd

(Sorry, readers – this is a very long entry about a journey. But what a journey – this is one trip we’re going to remember for the rest of our time in Rwanda!)

Today I’m off to the far north of Muhanga, to Nyabinoni village, with Soraya. She has gone to Kigali this morning to see Els, who is feeling very low and needs cheering up. I’m having a lazy morning clearing up and packing for four days away from home. Tom’s away in Kibuye with his visitors and I’ve got the place to myself. It’s a nice, relaxed way to start the day. There’s a low, grey sky, and while it isn’t raining yet it’s clear that some rain is on its way.

I agree to meet Soraya at the bus park at 2.30; she has already booked two motos for us. By the time we meet and get loaded up onto the bikes and ready for the off it’s 2.45 and it has started raining. Not torrential rain, but a steady gentle rain which is penetrating at any speed on the bikes. We’re further delayed because in true Rwandan fashion our drivers have not filled up beforehand with petrol, so we waste ten more minutes in the filling station in Nyabisindu.

For the first 40 minutes we make good speed on the new tarmac road towards Ngororero. Yet another big articulated lorry has lost control and overturned on the mountain section; it is leaking diesel oil all over the road and the Chinese engineers are trying to right it with a heavy bulldozer and a fleet of smaller lorries. The little “ransom strip” at Mushubati junction has at last been tarmacked. Presumably that means the contractors have been paid!

We pass Nsanga school, which I’m going to visit on Monday, and where Soraya has a two day training session next week. Then Gasave school; both of these are on my hit list to visit in January. I like it when I can “fix” the positions of new schools; it makes negotiating moto fares easier and makes the journey out to them a lot less stressful. It means, for sure, that the moto driver won’t take me to the wrong place ever again!

We stop at the turn-off for the mountain road, but our drivers decide not to use it. The cloud is well down on the mountains, and the rain will certainly be stronger up there. Above all, there is absolutely no settlement other than charcoal burners’ tents all along the ridge, and it is safer, but considerably longer, to use the lower, valley road. So on we go.

Eventually, just before we reach the Nyaborongo River, we turn off on the “road to the end of the earth”. In other words, the dirt road which twists all the way up the Nyaborongo valley to Nyabinoni. The road goes on beyond Nyabinoni, to Kibingo which is my absolute furthest out primary school, and then curves round with the river, through Ntungamo and Rongi, and eventually goes back through Cyeza to Gitarama. In theory it would make a fabulous round trip of about 150km through some of the best scenery in Rwanda, but you would certainly need to spend two days on the journey, and with an overnight stop in Nyabinoni or somewhere close to it.

However, I digress. By now it is half past four, and raining steadily. The light is starting to go, and in this deep valley and under thick cloud it will get dark very early. We already know we’re in some trouble, and should have started hours earlier in the day. But we have no option but to continue. The road surface has turned into sloshy mud, about three or four inches deep in places, and our bikes are fish-tailing all over the place. Until today I just didn’t appreciate how even the tiniest amount of mud all over a road makes it useless as a means of transport. Wherever there is a steep section the bikes simply can’t manage it, and we have to get off and walk. Twice I am thrown off the back of the bike when we lurch viciously in the slushy mire. One time I land so heavily on my side I think I might have cracked a bone. I have landed right onto my mobile phone inside my trouser pocket. Miraculously the phone seems intact and still working, but I’m going to have the king of all bruises in a few days’ time!

Despite our troubles, we both register that this valley road is an exceptionally beautiful ride; it really does go through the depths of the countryside, and very few muzungus indeed have ventured far up here. The reactions of local people, and especially the children, are not like those close to Gitarama. Here they watch us in stunned silence and then suddenly yell out “muzungu” in amazement. There’s absolutely no hostility and certainly no hands held out for money (what a refreshing change!); just a shocked incomprehension that white people would be driving past their little huts.

From time to time we have to stop the bikes and use sticks to clear out mud that has jammed so solidly between front tyres and mudguards that the wheels can’t turn. Soon we are being chased by a gang of little boys waving sticks who are waiting for us to need de-clogging again, and who want to earn a few francs by clearing our wheels for us. By now the mud is so deep that we’re averaging a sort of slow jogging speed – a fit person can quite easily run fast enough to keep up with us over long distances.

We pass village after village; a roll call of my rural schools. Rugendabari, Kirwa with its Adventist and Catholic Schools facing each other, Gasovu and Muheta within a mile of each other, Jurwe, Muhororo, Nyakabanda. In each village there is a score or so of houses grouped around a crossroads (but hundreds more huts dotted around the surrounding hillsides). There are a couple of bars, lit with hurricane lamps or occasionally by solar panel. Invariably there are a few score men and occasionally some women standing outside talking. The smell of banana beer (urwagwa) is sickly and unmistakable; sometimes someone will try to get close to us and lurch or lunge unsteadily; the combination of thick mud and potent hooch does few favours for their co-ordination. However remote we are, there are people, including women on their own, walking home in the total darkness. Some of them must be covering long distances. They walk in silence; just occasionally someone will have a torch and wave it at us so that we know they are there.

We have to follow the best line in the road; sometimes this means we have to come dangerously close to these pedestrians. More often than not, on a downhill stretch, we are skidding barely in control, and people have to jump out of our way in the darkness. Now and then we drive on the extreme edge of the road in the darkness with the certain knowledge of a deep drop to our left. The slightest skid and lurch here will topple me and the driver down over the edge for goodness knows how far, until we come to rest. At which point several hundredweight of hot, muddy bike will land on top of us…..

Wherever there is a hill the bikes can’t cope with our weight, and we have to get off and walk. Our shoes are caked. Soraya’s wearing little sandals and her feet are barely visible beneath a mudpack of reddish-brown goo. She also hasn’t brought any kind of coat, and she’s getting saturated.

At quarter past six we arrive at Nyakabanda. It is almost completely dark and we are barely half way up the dirt road. My diver is grumpy and wants to leave us here to whatever shelter we can find. Quite rightly he says it’s going to be ten o’clock at night before he gets home. But Soraya’s driver is certainly not prepared to abandon his young muzungu female short of her destination, and no doubt he’s calculating that we won’t pay more than a portion of the fare if we don’t reach Nyabinoni. So there’s a quick fire argument in Kinyarwanda between the two drivers. As always, within seconds we are surrounded by locals standing staring goofily at the muddy apparitions fading away into the darkness. One of them is the local mechanic, and he tells my driver to take off his mudguard so that the wheel will turn freely however much mud we go through.

This seems a sensible idea, so by torch light, in the middle of the main square, and in inches of mud, he squats down with his toolkit and takes off the mudguard. To do this he has to remove the front wheel. Washers drop into the mire and we’re fishing for them in the slime and ooze. Soraya looks at me and we’re both thinking the same thought – what if he doesn’t get the wheel back on securely, and somewhere further down the road the wheel falls off…..?

By the time we leave Nyakabanda it is pitch dark. There is no moon (low clouds, still trying to rain from time to time); there are absolutely no lights in any houses except just occasionally from favoured places lit dimly by ultra low wattage bulbs. You could never accuse Rwandans of squandering electricity via over-intense lighting!

And this is the point where we discover that Soraya’s bike has no front light. Also, that he can only use one of his turning indicators. My guy’s bike is working properly, so we have to drive dangerously close together, with Soraya’s bike in front winking feebly in orange, and our headlight the only source of illumination for both of us. We’re still skidding from side to side, and time and again we come within centimetres of collision. A collision would certainly throw us all from the bikes, and maybe damage the bikes so we would be stranded here all night. We’re still not making much more than a brisk walking pace.

Another mad lurch and I’m thrown off for a third time, into a deep puddle in the pitch dark. My cagoule, trousers and rucksack are absolutely covered in mud. I can feel liquid ooze sliding down my legs towards my shoes. Fortunately it is a warm night, and neither Soraya nor I am cold.

Just to make things more complicated, I’m carrying a plastic carrier bag of Soraya’s teaching materials which is getting more and more difficult to retain hold of because my hands are slippery with a mixture of rain, sweat and mud. It is flapping about, too, and further upsetting the equilibrium of the bike. I know my driver’s cursing me, but I can’t do much about it because I can’t see enough to help position my weight to keep our centre of gravity forward.

My phone rings; it’s Sylvère, the Nyabinoni organiser, ringing to find out what the hell’s happened to us. We are supposed to have reached Nyabinoni an hour ago. There is food waiting for us; we are being put up in the Presbytery with the Catholic priests. Before I can say more than a few words we lose reception and don’t regain it for the rest of the night. All I’ve managed to tell him is that we’re through Nyakabanda and are trying to make it all the way to Nyabinoni tonight.

We go on for more than an hour; the road is an endless procession of wiggles up into little side valleys, seeking a place suitable to throw a log bridge across a stream, and alternating muddy, slippery flat stretches and steep, rutted hills. I don’t know which is the worst. Periodically there are short sections where hard rock bands outcrop across the road, which becomes a bone shattering series of jolts across sharp little ridge of quartzite.

Down one long, long descent we have to walk all the way. By now we’re beyond tired, beyond wet, beyond angry. It’s become a question of honour for all of us, VSOs and moto drivers, to reach Nyabinoni even if we have to walk all the way and push the bikes. And it looks as if it may really come to that.

Even in this situation we find things to wonder at. The road is alive with frogs, croaking at us and leaping across in front of us, attracted by the headlight. It crosses my mind that there might be more serious wildlife stalking us in the darkness, but on the other hand this is Rwanda and nearly all wildlife has either been eaten or just driven away. Soraya and I go on ahead on foot, using my little key-ring torch for illumination, while our drivers scrape mud away from their chains and try to free up their brake cables which are now jammed solidly. I can feel mud right up to the tops of my shoes; Soraya’s ankle deep and trying hard not to lose a sandal in the goo. Our chances of finding a small black sandal, if she lost it, in total darkness, don’t bear thinking about.

We come to a fork in the road. There’s absolutely nothing to say which way we should go, so we have to wait for our bikes. There’s one tin-roofed hut about 50 yards away; we haven’t seen or passed any other habitation for hundreds of yards. We have been descending steeply down through forest; the road is very wide here but every so often there are culverts which only extend half way across the road. In daylight these are marked with poles or shrubs so you can see them. Now, at eight o’clock at night, these poles and shrubs might as well not be there. Where there is no culvert there is a sudden drop of six to ten feet down into a stream. Real ankle-breaking stuff unless you move cautiously.

While we are standing at the fork, talking to each other and waiting for the motos (what on earth is taking them so long?), a man appears out of nowhere. He is courteous and welcoming, and heads us off in the right direction. (In three days’ time we will discover that he is one of the teachers we have come to train, but neither we nor he is aware of this in the darkness; he is simply a man who has heard us in the darkness and come out of his house, in the drizzle and mud, to see if we have a problem and to offer help where he can. How’s that for Christian kindness!)

So on we go, and after a kilometre we reach Shaki secondary school. This means we have at least entered Nyabinoni secteur, but Nyabinoni village will be several miles further on. I have to admit, I am all for taking shelter inside a classroom and waiting for dawn. But Soraya wants to go on. The school night guard hears us talking and comes across to see who we are. You should see his face when he sees two muzungus. He is an old man; he gives us a deeply deferential greeting. Unfortunately he only speaks Kinyarwanda and even Soraya doesn’t have the vocab we need to find out how far we still have to go.

At last the bikes catch up with us, and we go a few hundred yards into Shaki main square. Even at this time of night there are several dozen people around, and within ten seconds they’re all surrounding us. There are long discussion about why the muzungus are here, and why they’re out at this time of night, and how long it will take to reach Nyabinoni, and whether we’ll reach it at all. The beer fumes are overpowering and we are glad to get away from it all.

For another hour we go on and on and on. The road is lined with trees. We see lights in the distance; the road is so twisty that the lights appear first on our left, then our right. Now close, now receding, now getting closer again. We are contouring round an endless series of little gullies. I’m convinced that the lights are Nyabinoni, but I’m wrong. We never do reach the lights – it turns out they are from Gitumba secondary school; we go past it without seeing them because we are below them at the closest point.

In the middle of nowhere a man with a torch flags us down. It turns out to be Sylvère. He has spent most of the evening waiting to greet us at the Presbytery but has eventually given us up for lost. He has no car, no moto, no pushbike, and is walking about six miles home in the total darkness. But it means we are within striking distance of Nyabinoni at last.

On and on we go; we can hear sizeable torrents falling down from the mountains and every so often we have to negotiate a log bridge. The wet wooden beams and greasy mud make these treacherous. Some have no side railings for protection. Some are not even marked – you don’t realise you’re on one until you start sliding.

We rattle and slide up a steep slope of loose gravel and there in front of us is the Nyabinoni village sign (actually it’s the US AID health clinic sign but hereabouts they’re as good as village name posts). Now all we have to do is find the Presbytery.

I have been to Nyabinoni before, in July, but came over the mountain road in daylight and approached it from another direction, so I can’t give my moto driver any help. We struggle into the health centre because it’s lit up, and rouse the night guard. He directs us up what seems to be a bare mountainside, but turns out to be the steep main street of the village. It is now so late that most people have at last gone home to bed; just a few of the hard core drinkers are there to welcome us!

We pass the Anglican church, and at last I recognise the primary school (it is a brand new building and has a lot of Afritanks; I used photos of these tanks to show my local church what they were). A man is standing in the road; he is Father Jean Damascène, the curé of Nyabinoni, and at this moment the most welcome figure in the whole wide world.

We are ushered down the short drive to the Presbytery. The building is brightly lit. Our bikes are so muddy it is difficult to see what colour they were. Soraya and I are shown to our rooms. We have agreed we will ask the priest whether he can give shelter to our drivers for the night; there is just no way they ought to even try to return home till morning. The curé has already had the same thought, and our drivers are whisked off to the housekeeper’s quarters for a feed and bed.

Claudine, the priest’s housekeeper, brings us each a bucket of hot water and we have a cursory scrub down and change our clothes. My spare clothes have got damp from the rain (the waterproof membrane in my rucksack has finally perished), but they are not too damp to wear. We are shown into the lounge and given a fabulous meal, complete with beer to drink.

I just can’t find words to tell you how much we appreciate our welcome. Jean Damascène is the most welcoming host possible. He speaks English, too, and is eager for a chance to practise it. And Claudine turns out to be a super cook, with soups and sauces easily the best we have found anywhere in Rwanda. The parish of Nyabinoni is a relatively recent creation (the area used to be administered from Kibangu, about twenty kilometres away on these terrible roads). We are almost certainly the first non-clerical visitors in the Presbytery.

The building is clean and comfortable. We have (solar) electricity, flush toilets, and piped cold water for showers. My bed is clean, and has a mosquito net. The only thing missing is a TV set (the Rongi presbytery has TV), but we listen to BBC world service in English and concentrate hard on the news from Goma. We have been heading all afternoon in the general direction of Goma from Gitarama; we are more than half way (in a straight line) from Gitarama to Goma, so there’s an added urgency and a real sense of relief that the ceasefire seems to be holding and the fighting is not intensifying.

We left Gitarama at 2.40; we have arrived at the presbytery at 9.30. I think seven hours must be one of the longest moto journeys in the history of VSO Rwanda; I’d certainly like to hear of any that have exceeded it! Half of our journey was in pitch darkness. Both Soraya and I have learnt a valuable lesson about the need to start long journeys in the mornings, especially in the rainy season. We broke VSOs rule – “expect the unexpected”. Fortunately we have been amazingly lucky in our moto drivers, and Damascène – Soraya’s young driver – has been absolutely exceptional. It takes real guts to continue without lights, in the dark, with two foreigners on the back, in conditions where no Rwandan would venture out.

But, but, but….. What an adventure, folks! It sure beats a night in watching Sunday evening telly….!

I fall asleep to the sounds of Jean-Damascène playing his guitar on the other side of my little cell wall.

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