Monday, 24 November 2008

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

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