Friday, 14 November 2008

Those blessed cones!

November 11th – 13th

Moto driving is easy. Manoeuvring round those blessed cones – a test of slow speed balance and exquisite clutch, brake and throttle control – is hard to the point of near impossibility! I’m writing this on Thursday evening; we’re all despondent and convinced we’re going to fail the test next Thursday.

We’ve been up to the VSO office and arranged with them for an extra day’s intensive training next Wednesday, the eve of the test. Even Jane, who has been driving her bike for a year already, can’t consistently do the cones without either putting a leg down to balance or without clipping a cone or two. On my worst form I can barely pass two without squishing them or stalling. It’s so annoying. And it’s not helped by having the usual crowd of envious Rwandan onlookers.

Either the police examiner will fail us all, or he will make a special exemption because we are muzungus. After all, we’re not likely to be driving our motos in Kigali, and we will be out in the wilds on dirt roads far away from heavy traffic.

Perversely we haven’t done any training at all on rutted country roads or on hills, which of course comprise most of Rwanda’s roads! The hills training is a farce – we are told how to do a hill start and then are told to imagine the level football pitch where we’re practising is a steep hill. We must have picked the biggest flat space in Kigali other than the airport runway as our test ground!

The hill start débacle makes me laugh. Its officialdom gone barmy. We can’t demonstrate a hill start properly unless there is a hill to do it on. But we can’t get to a hill without driving on a public road. But we can’t drive on a public road because we haven’t passed our test yet. But we haven’t passed our test because we haven’t shown we can do hill starts……

The stakes are high. If we pass, then everything’s fine and we will be deliriously happy. But if we fail then for one group of us – me, Els, Ruairi, Hayley and Amy – it will be a nuisance. We shall have to think about doing a CBT course when we next return to England for our holidays. However, for the PHARE team – Jane, Andy, Tom and Heloise – to fail will be disastrous. They are the four volunteers who already have their own bikes (supplied by Irish Aid and not by VSO England). So fare they have been using these machines because everybody thought that with an English CBT and car licence and International Driving Licence there would be no problem. But if they fail the test they won’t be able to use their bikes at all, which will prevent them from doing their job properly. Poor Jane has already been driving for a year, and she’s living a good hour’s bike drive from her working District. We don’t even want to think about failing.

Our instructor tells us we mustn’t be afraid, and that he’s sure we’re all going to pass. Then in the next breath he keeps on saying that the slightest flipped cone or foot on the ground for balance will fail us, and that we only have one attempt, and that we have to make a double run successfully up and down the line of about ten cones. Well, he can’t have things both ways.

We end up today really morose; one side of us says we should cut our losses now and not to even think of trying to do the test next week – why should we humiliate ourselves in front of every one? But then we say, OK, let’s give it our best shot, and if we do fail then we go down having done our absolute best.

What’s annoying for me is that I begged and pleaded with VSO to be able to do motor cycle CBT before I came here, and was refused every time. But now, having made the point that people working in Districts need motor bike training, VSO is demanding CBT for all new Rwanda postings.

The specific problem with the cones test is that you have to be able to drive very slowly and precisely. You have to use your clutch and throttle to balance power and control, and the footbrake to regulate your speed in and out of the slalom. If you go too slowly you lose your balance and either fall over (Tom) or have to put a foot down to stabilise yourself (the rest of us). If you go too fast you can’t control the machine around the cones. If you swerve too wide on a single cone it sets up a ripple effect which means that after about two or three more you’ve lost any chance of doing the rest. If your jeans are flappy around your ankles they catch in the footbrake pedal so that you can’t put your foot out to stop yourself falling (me, two times!).The instructor is watching you to see that you use brake, throttle and clutch all the time. It’s a very advanced test and those who succeed certainly know what they’re doing on a bike. But do we really need this level of skill for basic driving along dirt roads?

My English driving licence already enables me to drive the little motos (up to 50cc), but of course these are not powerful enough to get even me up the mountains of Muhanga. There’s no chance I’d be able to go anywhere outside Gitarama with Soraya as a pillion passenger. The test we are doing is for the next category of machines – proper, powerful bikes up to 250cc in size. These are easily adequate for one person on any of the local hills, and I’m confident I could cope with someone as light as Soraya on the pillion on anything except the steepest or roughest roads. (But I want to get a lot more practises in before I invite her to risk a lift with me…..) It’s a lovely feeling when you’re driving motor bikes and feel in control of everything, and I can quite see how people who normally drive cars get a vicarious thrill out of motor bikes – the feeling of wind in your face and the closeness of man and machine and road. It’s a whole different way to travel. Especially in good weather…..

I’ve got a couple of good photos showing the cones which I’ll post soon.

OK. That’s enough about motor bikes. What else is happening here? The decision of Germany to arrest Kagame’s Minister of Protocol has caused highly organised outrage, and has completely eclipsed the war in Congo in the Rwandan media. On Wednesday morning many of us got messages in Kinyarwanda on our mobiles, telling us to come to demonstrations outside the European Union building in Kigali. Of course, we are expressly forbidden to go by VSO office, and in any case we were too busy running over blasted cones to want to be bothered. But thousands of people demonstrated not only in Kigali, but also in Gitarama, Butare and other places. The Rwanda and German ambassadors in each other’s countries have been withdrawn, and German Embassy staff have all been sent home for their own protection. Everyone who sounds as if they might be speaking German – and that includes Dutch, Flemish and the Scandinavian languages – it at some risk. Fortunately we only know of two Germans here in Gitarama; Ulrike is on holiday in South America, but Marin is vulnerable. We hope she has put her salsa lessons on ice for the time being. Even we, as we were coming home for dinner from our driving lessons, had passers by making comments to us about “allemands”. And we were speaking loudly in English, which is a language almost all Rwandans recognise even if they don’t speak it themselves. We’ve just got to be a bit careful, especially if we’re on our own at night, until all the fuss and froth blows over.

The war in Goma seems to be starting up again. As I feared, the “cease fire” was just a pretext for the various factions to rest and re-arm and plan their next moves. Absolutely anything could happen. The real issue is over who controls the various mineral mines in the region, rather than about ethnicity or territorial gains in their own rights. As I write I don’t have access to BBC news. The computer at VSO office is so slow as to be almost unusable; I assume it has got a virus or two which is slowing it down. I tell this to Ruairi; he’s got a virus killer programme on a flash drive and I think he’s going to have a try at cleaning the machine tomorrow.

On Wednesday night Hayley and I joined some of the disability project team for Karen’s absolutely last evening in Kigali; we had pizzas at Sole Luna and it was a beautiful evening. (Quite nice to have a change from everlasting mélange at the Amani Guest House, even if the Amani food is very good and the portions huge). Marion was there; she’s very down at the moment because one of her cats has been killed and Electrogaz is trying to cut off her water and electricity over some unpaid bill that dates back before her occupation of the house. It’s all a mess, compounded by Marion not being able to speak French, and VSO’s reluctance to get involved in Volunteers’ domestic arrangements. It’s her landlord’s responsibility to sort this out, but (of course) where is your landlord when you really need him?

We’re properly into wet season weather at the moment. We have torrential down pours most days, after which the air is cool and clear. The sunsets are particularly fine, and the bowl of hills around Kigali is chiselled sharply in the evening light. There’s an enormous moon tonight, a full moon, and the stars are shining brightly. I’ll definitely need both my blankets!

Unfortunately we’re getting rather a plague of mosquitoes; they’re the worst they’ve been since I arrived here. Every morning we kill half a dozen in the house.

One piece of news dear to my heart. According to the official newspaper they are definitely going to build a railway line into both Rwanda and Burundi to link the two countries to the East African system. The line will run from Isaka to Kigali and Bujumbura. It almost certainly won’t pass anywhere near Gitarama; we reckon it will go through Nyamata because the land is lower there and construction will be easier, and also because Nyamata is in the last area of Rwanda to be opened up and it’s even now something of a “Wild West” frontier zone. The railway will certainly not be finished during my period of service in Rwanda, but if I ever come back in the future it would be a laugh to get the 9.55 from Dar es Salaam to Kigali, wouldn’t it!
The news from T in England is not good. (She has been unwell here in Rwanda for weeks, and was finally repatriated last week to London for tests). Today she’s sent Hayley a face book message which says they fear she might have caught some awful rat-borne disease. She did have a rat problem when she first moved into her house in Kibungo, but it seems monumentally bad luck to get a serious and obscure disease before she’s even got started in this placement. If she had contracted dysentery or malaria we could understand, but the disease seems so obscure that even London’s finest haven’t yet made a definite diagnosis. Let’s just hope she makes a full recovery, and soon, too. It just shows that while for most of us living in Rwanda is a routine experience – a change of pace, a change of diet, a change of style – for the unlucky minority it can become life threatening and not as a result of any wilful stupidity. It’s not like someone who refuses to take anti malarial tablets and who also dispenses with mosquito nets, and then gets cerebral malaria. Tina’s disease is a totally random visitation which could have happened to any one of us. Poor girl.

OK off to bed now. I’m tired and I’ve caught the sun today while waiting for my turn on the moto.

Best thing about today – feeding myself silly at Amani guest house; being with friends

Worst thing – it’s difficult not to feel that we’ve had a wasted week on this moto training. With 9 of us and only two bikes to practise on we barely get an hour each a day. So for the absolute beginners like me, Els, Ruairi and Hayley, we’re about to do a difficult test after about four hours’ or less of instruction. Perhaps we all need a good night’s sleep to put us in a better humour.

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