Thursday, 3 December 2009

Saying goodbye is so hard

December 1st

Today is my last full day in Gitarama. This will also be the last daily entry on the blog, although I’ll try to summarise two years of a life changing experience when I get home.

The rainy season seems to be ending; we haven’t had a heavy downpour from some time. This means the weather is absolutely idyllic. I wrote a couple of days ago about how clear and fresh and sharp the air was; well today is even more so. Gitarama has a fabulous climate and these days during the transition period from wet to dry are simply the best. No Garden of Eden could ask for better temperatures, sunlight, and general loveliness of nature around it.

Mind you, you’ve got to look over the choking traffic fumes, the throngs of people hanging around waiting for anything to happen, or trudging to and from the market. You’ve got to close your ears to the constant din from many sound systems, all tuned into different radio stations, all turned up way beyond distortion level, and all broadcasting different types of music from Tammy Wynette to Congolese dance. You’ve got to walk quickly past the free evangelical church, a couple of rooms above a parade of shops, where there’s always a service going on at half past six in the mornings and where the preacher is bellowing at his flock like a headmaster trying to cow a bunch of naughty schoolchildren. You’ve got to zip past the market with its revolting smells of fermenting cassava and the riper, sweeter smell of decomposing unsold fruit and over-ripe fish.

This is Africa – colourful, noisy, frenetic and indolent at the same time, hopeless and ambitious at the same time, grasping and giving. I love it here.

I have to stay at home till half past seven because Dieudonnée, the head at Rutarabana, stopped me in the street yesterday and demanded I give him a leaving present for his school. Sheer cheek, but it’s very Rwandan and if I were in his position I would do the same. I decide I can afford to give him a very small sum to buy dictionaries for his senior classes, and have the money all set aside in an envelope for him. But he never shows up. That’s a nuisance because it means I’ve missed the golden time of 7 – 7.30 in the office when it’s easy to collar people and get things done. I’m miffed at his no show, and decide I’m not going to pursue him. If he really wants this money then it’ll be his job to come and find me. I’m the one with the deadline.

In the town centre it looks as if a vehicle has lost its oils sump or fuel tank; there’s oil or diesel spread right across the road and the stench is overpowering. It’s nobody’s job to clear up the mess, so it will just remain forever there, a stain on the heart of Gitarama.

At the office there’s no sign of Claude. This is the day when I’m supposed to be saying all my formal farewells, but Claudine isn’t there either, and Valérian is in and out all the time, so there’s not a lot to do. Soraya and I stay for two hours. Claude’s been and gone, and left his modem behind so I’m able to do some internetting. Both power points in my office have stopped working, so I sit at Claude’s desk and use his wall socket, much to everyone’s amusement. (But hot desking is common here, and Claude’s computer is always being shared around the other District Office people. At one point someone comes in and thinks my computer is Claude’s and demands to use it in ten minutes’ time).

There’s no post for us, either, and when Karen comes in from Shyogwe the three of us go to the little café across the road for a fanta. Meanwhile I’m waiting to collect some money from Marin from last weekend; eventually she sends a driver specifically to find me and give it to me.

By this point I’m getting worried that I still haven’t started putting things in my suitcase, and I’m also worried about how heavy it’s going to be. So I abandon the office and leave word that I’ll come in first thing tomorrow before I set off for Kigali. Charlotte has come up trumps and is going to take me to Kigali on her way back from Shyogwe; I’m mightily relieved that I haven’t got to juggle a suitcase and two rucksacks on the buses, especially those in Kigali town.

Back at the flat I find packing relatively straightforward. I’m leaving behind almost all my clothes except those I’ll wear for the journey; I’m leaving all my toiletries and medicine, and, of course, my motor cycle helmet. That means that even with souvenirs there’s no problem of space in the luggage; it becomes a question of weight. Tom arrives with a spring balance and when we weigh all my stuff I’m below the flight limit so all’s well.

Épi texts to say she’s meeting me in Kigali tonight; that’s perfect because we can swap photos and music.

I have a packet of cake mix from my sister, and the plan is to bake it up into little buns and take some to Janine to make her feel better. But for some reason the only adaptor plug I have left out and available decides not to work, so I can’t get our oven to operate. No matter, I’ll bequeath the cake mix to Tom and he can sort it out at the weekend.

For my final lunch in Gitarama I decide to go to Nectar and have omelette special; it’s one of my favourite delights of Rwandan cuisine. Then I get a moto round to Janine’s house. At last she is back home from hospital, and starting to make progress. She is out of bed, and has been walking around in the house and garden. But sitting up for any period of time is painful, and after twenty minutes I can tell she’s had enough. The room is full of people, her brothers and their friends are watching a DVD on a laptop. It’s an odd feeling – you’re having a private conversation in a room full of people because everyone except Janine and myself is glued to the Kinyarwanda soundtrack on the DVD.

Saying goodbye is always hard, but in Janine’s case it is particularly difficult. She’s such a lovely girl, and has been so unlucky. Things have really knocked the stuffing out of her. But she has Tom, Christi and all the FHI volunteers looking after her, and a supportive fiancé and family, so she’s not cut adrift. She is signed off work for at least three weeks, but Tom’s inviting her to drop in at the FHI office now and then, unofficially, to keep up to date with what’s happening rather than to do actual work.

Back to the flat. My bedroom cupboards are bare; the walls are bleak except where we’ve agreed I’ll leave my Dorset calendar pictures and clippings from newspapers as decorations. It doesn’t feel like my space any more.

On one of the chairs there’s a big pile of clothes to go to the FHI office for the artisans to help themselves when they bring in their offerings next week. I really brought far too many clothes, and definitely far too much medicine. But as for the medicine, when you come to Rwanda as a VSO you have no clear idea what your living conditions are going to be like, and had I been way up in a remote place or more unlucky with my health, then I would have possibly needed everything that came out with me. In general we always come to Africa as if we’re on an expedition to Antarctica. The reality is that almost everything you need is available here, but it might take you a year to find out just how to get things. And clothes here are ridiculously cheap, and after a few months all the men get African shirts made up and so on, so there isn’t a need to bring more than a week’s worth of clothes!

In the evening Tom and I go up to Green Garden for brochettes and ibirayi. Even with two orders of these, they still manage to screw up the quantities, but we just laugh. We’re joined by Nathan, Marin, April and Helen and stay for a couple of hours. Marin has her bodyguard with her; he also gets brochettes and stays in the shadows a discreet distance from us. It’s a hell of a situation for her; let’s hope the catch the man who is threatening her and lock him away soon.

Back to the flat and to bed. My last night in Gitarama and there’s at least a couple of mosquitoes in the room. I really can’t get my head round this. Joe Walk’s right by the lake, at a lower altitude, and yet he has almost no trouble with mozzies at all. But we always have them in the flat – not swarms but enough to make it uncomfortable to sleep without a net – and Moira has them as well just up the road in Kavumu. I’m looking forward to being able to sleep without a net in England. The news from home is that the rain and floods seem to have finished for a while, but when I land at Gatwick it will be bitterly cold with snow across the whole of the north of England. So it looks as though there’ll be no mistaking where I am when I land!.

Finally, as a full moon rises across the town and Africa glistens under its light, a word of thanks to all those of you who have been reading the blog. According to my tracker there have been some 15000 visits to the site, from around 30 different countries. If it has given you some insight into what Rwanda is really like; if it has shown you what it means to be a volunteer in one of the poorest countries in the world, then it has served its purpose. I started it for my family and friends back in England as an alternative to writing endless letters, it then spread to prospective volunteers about to come to Rwanda.

I came to Rwanda absolutely petrified that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the heat, the crowds, the language, the work, the insects and diseases – my biggest fear was that I would collapse and be sent home in ignominy as a failed volunteer. Two years later I find that Africa has become home; the strangeness of everything has become normality. I’m operating well within my comfort zone, and I find I’m apprehensive about returning to an England where there is economic recession, political lethargy and general malaise. I feel out of step with the way of thinking in the west and I’m going to find the materialism difficult to adjust to. For all long term volunteers the “re-entry” period is not easy; perhaps I’m lucky in that I’ve got all the Christmas business to distract me.

Would I volunteer with VSO again – YES! I’ve been lucky, but I’ve had a tremendous time.

Out in the sticks - pictures fom Rutarabana village


One of my absolute favourite shots of Rwanda. This is the kind of footpath you follow if you step off the earth roads to take shortcuts. Deep under the banana and mango trees it's difficult to see where you're going!


It doesn't take long to leave the town behind, leave the earth roads, and get deep into solid greenery. This is a long shot across a sea of banana plantations and crop fields towards my part of Gitarama (Gahogo). Double click the image to get it enlarged.




Another view looking towards Gitarama in the distance

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Fighting the same old battles

It's World Aids Day. This is an extract from Wednesday's "New Times" and applies to my own district of Muhanga, showing that we've got a long way to go to change people's attitudes.

Religion hampering condom use

MUHANGA – Religious teachings in Muhanga district are causing residents to shun condom use and thus involve in risky sexual behaviours, Joel Serucaca, the district health coordinator said yesterday.

“We need combined efforts in educating residents on the dangers of HIV/Aids because it has become evident that few people are using condoms due to religious conviction.

This has impacted on the HIV prevalence levels,” Serucaca said during the commemoration of the World AIDS Day.

Residents in Meru trading centre, in Muhanga sector noted that condoms are easily accessible, however, they said, recent increase in condom prices has subsequently affected their use.

“The price of ‘Prudence’ condom has increased from Rwf50 to 100, while the ‘Life-Guard’ condoms have increased from Rwf200 to 500 in the past weeks. The condoms are expensive and we cannot afford it,” one cyclist said.

Other youths who spoke to the New Times said they are afraid of buying condoms for fear of being ‘regarded people with multiple sexual partners.’

Over 10,000 condoms were distributed in Kibangu sector during the world Aids Day commemoration, according to Serucaca. The district has planned to distribute over 100,000 condoms in the next three months during promotion campaigns.

The HIV prevalence rates in Muhanga district are estimated at 3.9% according to 2007 report.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Fresh strawberries in November

November 30th

Claude has asked Soraya and I to go into the office for a meeting, but when we arrive we find the meeting doesn’t take place. Also the internet is down. At least Claude seems to have shaken off his malaria and is back in the saddle. The problem is that he’s now besieged with people all morning, and there’s the big meeting of everyone who works in the akarere after about eight o’clock. So Soraya and I are left to our own devices.

At eight o’clock I take a moto out to Mushubati and pay the remaining money into Nyarusange’s school so that they can complete their water tank. That’s the absolute last slice of water money – three complete systems, and about five repairs or improvements in other schools. 8500 pupils with access to clean water.

It is turning out to be another of the beautiful mornings at the end of the rainy seasons, the visibility is pin sharp. Muhabura volcano is clear and well defined from my lounge window, and the mountains around Gitarama look inviting. If I had my own moto I’d be sorely tempted to cut work today and go off into the hills for a good walk.

I have to wait a while at the office for some money I’m owed, but then I take off back to the flat and pack a bag with clothes that I won’t be using any more. I’m going out to Rutarabana to say goodbye to Delphine and her family (in Rwanda goodbyes are very formal occasions), and I might as well give them my unwanted clothes. The alternative would be to give the clothes to a market trader to sell, or leave them in Tom’s FHI office for his suppliers to pick through. But I decide if I’m going out to Rutarabana to say goodbye to her family I might as well give them my cast offs and save time. With eight children there’s no question but that they need them, and even though I’m twice the size of some of them they’ll either cut and adapt them or sell them. I’m welcomed like a hero and fed.

Delphine repays me the loan she took out from me to buy beans a couple of months ago. I lent her 100,000 francs and she bought a huge consignment of beans at the height of the season when prices were low. She has since sold them to secondary schools with boarding accommodation in Ruhango District to feed to their pupils and has made a return of 30% on her outlay. She’s what we call “une bonne commercante” – she’s got a head for money. Clarisse, the next youngest sister, has just finished secondary school and has applied to join the police. She’ll be fed, given a uniform, accommodation and generally well looked after if they accept her. (It’s very competitive; at least 74 people are applying for around 12 places). The oldest son is in his final year at ETEKA technical school and will also be looking for a job soon.

In the afternoon we take lots of photos, and I’ll print some off when I get home and send them to the family via Moira (Delphine is Moira’s domestique). I notice that getting photos printed here is hideously expensive, so photos become a luxury. Everyone has a small album which is trotted out whenever there are visitors. Even at Claude’s house, all the pictures of Keza which I printed off last time I went home are up on the walls in places of honour; it’s as if the only pictures he has are the ones Soraya and I have taken of her.

As we walk back home we pass the family’s patch of strawberry plants; they are just coming into fruit again (in Rwanda most growing things have three or even four seasons a year), and we stop to sample the crop. Just imagine – fresh strawberries on the last day in November. Britain is bracing itself for frosts, snow and goodness knows what else; I’m sauntering around in shirtsleeves with my hands stained red from strawberries!

In the evening I go round to see Helen and April and we swap pictures from the weekend, as well as stuffing ourselves with honey pancakes. Then April tests my hearing (she’s an audiologist and for all I know may be the only one working in schools in the whole of Rwanda). I have significant high end hearing less, which is apparently normal for someone my age. It explains why I’ve been finding it difficult to follow conversations in noisy bars where the TV or sound system is at full blast, or where there are bare concrete walls and very echoey sound. It’s tough getting old and decrepit!

Teresa rings and we talk through the final lists of what to bring and so on. I’m running out of time fast, and really need to start throwing things into the suitcase tomorrow.

Mugged by a monkey at Kibuye

November 27th-29th

Into the office to tidy up a few odds and ends. It’s a glorious morning; bright and sunny. The mist is rising as usual from the valleys. The sky is clear blue, and all the buildings in Gitarama are glowing in the low angle sun (this is half past six in the morning, folks). Just when I think it’ll be a quiet morning I find that Claude is not in; his malaria is getting him down. So Valérian is in charge. I tell Valérian that I want to be able to say a few words to all the heads at the big meeting, and he agrees. Claude also wants me to summarise what I’ve found over the past two years and do a report to all the heads. This is not as easy as it sounds. There’s so much variation between schools that whatever I say, either in praise or criticism, won’t apply universally. And, of course, I’ve only been dealing with the primary and new tronc commun schools.

I quickly note down some things on a power point, but there will be no digital projector at the meeting so it’ll be all wind and bluster when I speak. As it happens, Valérian puts me on almost the first item on the agenda, so I’m able to do all my bits. It seems to go down OK; they all agree with me about the things I praise; there’s some toe-shuffling moments when I tell them what I think should be the priorities for the next year or two, but that’s understandable. If three quarters of them haven’t finished their strategic plans after a year in office they’ve got every reason to feel uncomfortable. After all, none of these heads teach; they don’t have anything like the workload of an English primary or secondary head, and there’s really no excuse for not getting some of these key parts of their jobs done. I know that this probably sounds presumptuous on my part, but then it’s exactly what Claude has been asking me to do, and what some of these heads have been asking for is an outsider’s take on how well they’re doing. No doubt most will ignore what I say, but if even a few take it all on board their schools will be improved and eventually their jobs as managers will be made more effective.

I say my formal thanks to all the heads, and get a very fulsome response from both Valérian on Claude’s behalf, and from Emmanuel on behalf of the heads. They’re seem really serious when they’re asking me to come back at some time in the future.

I nip back home quickly for some lunch, then pack up ready for the weekend. I’m taking Delphine with me to the Kibuye weekend, and we end up sharing a small matata all the way. She’s never been to Kibuye and in going as part of a big group it will all be very proper; it’s not as if we’re running off to spend a weekend together. The big coaster bus is already fully booked, and until the last minute I haven’t been sure whether Delphine’s parents were going to give her permission to go. As things turn out she has one of the best weekends of her life. This girl has never been across the Nyaborongo river before, and that’s only 20km from Gitarama. In the course of twenty four hours she discovers the western province of her country, discovers Kibuye town, sees Lake Kivu for the first time, has the first boat trip of her life, visits an island in the lake, gets her first experience of swimming in deep water, eats western food like pizza for the first time ever, and generally gets accepted by a bunch of sixteen muzungus. That’s all heady stuff for a young Rwandan girl, and she’ll be telling the tale to her family and friends for weeks to come! Rwanda is a small country, and it turns out that one of the staff at Home St Jean, where we stay, is a former classmate from the secondary school in Karama. So she’s even got someone to talk to in Kinyarwanda while she’s there.

The weekend is lovely and gets better as time goes on, except for Friday’s weather. Friday turns cold and grey by the afternoon, and even down on the lakeside it is decidedly chilly in the evenings. The wait for food at Home St Jean is interminable, but the rooms are cheap and the view and general ambiance make up for the delays (and we can eat elsewhere tomorrow).

On Saturday we decide to hire a boat and all go across to Peace Island. We are decidedly “out of season” here at Kibuye at the moment, which means we can hire a boat very cheaply. Joe and Nathan are a bit late getting down to the boat, and by the time they get to the jetty our boatman has already left without them. This is because he’s trying to earn more money by piggybacking us onto a group of local government official who are visiting one of the tiny inhabited islands to do a census. (I suspect they work for Rwanda Revenue, the income tax service of the government). We drop them off on a tiny shore, like castaways, with the islanders cautiously coming down to the water’s edge to see who is visiting their little patch. The islands in the lake are the tops of submerged hills. There’s virtually no flat land at all, just steeply sloping mounds of rock which rise straight out of deep water. They’re only fit for goats, and it’s surprising to see a few cows in places. There seems precious little cultivation of crops and I really can’t work out how they scrape together enough to eat. The vegetation looks very dry and scrubby, surprisingly so because it is within feet of a huge lake and in one of the wettest parts of the country. Houses are on little ledges hacked out of the hillsides. I don’t think any of the islands have the slightest trace of running water from streams; they’re far too small. You just use the lake for your water supply; let’s hope they don’t use the same area as their toilets!

Having dropped off the officials we persuade the boat crew to go back to the jetty and pick up our two colleagues. So we get an extra long boat ride for the same money. The boat rocks in swell from a passing launch and Delphine grips the sides with white knuckles; she’s never realised that boats aren’t as stable as buses. The water is crystal clear and calm; in the lee of the dozens of little headlands there are patches of water like glass, which mirror the encircling islands perfectly. It’s turning out an idyllic day. We reach Amahoro (Peace) Island and disembark. Our boat is going to do other runs, but one of the crew is staying with us; when we’re ready to return he’ll phone his mate to come and collect us. I don’t want to be cast away like Robinson Crusoe just a few days before I’m due to fly home. It is getting very hot, so we strip off and swim. There’s a tiny ramshackle jetty on the island which sticks out just far enough to use as a diving platform. The water is clean but cold, and we only stay in for ten minutes. It doesn’t compare with Zanzibar, but then we’ve been spoiled by our fortnight in paradise there…. We do have little fish swimming around our feet, and cormorants are diving after them just a few score feet away from us. The views in every direction are breathtakingly beautiful; from time to time Karisimbi and Mikeno volcanoes shed their cloud cover and peep out at us in the distance. The far shore of Congo, and the edge of the rift valley, is just visible as a blue line against the sky. Every so often a dugout canoe paddles away in the distance. There’s no sound of engines, no planes, and above all no crowds of people. Peace indeed. By this time it is seriously hot in the sun, so we come out of the water and toast ourselves to get dry and work on our tans, but the wise ones among us are covering up after fifteen minutes or less. We’ve ordered food, but everything on the island is exorbitantly expensive and many of us opt not to eat until the evening.

While the food is arriving I go to explore the little island. It consists of two little hills, each about a quarter of a mile across, with a rocky beach joining them. It’s shaped like a figure “8”, and the swimming place is in the middle. On the far end there are ledges cut into the hillside for camping, and a path goes all round the shore line. From the furthest point the views out across the lake are breathtaking and it’s the only place I know where you can begin to visualise just how vast this lake really is.

But Amahoro Island is also home to a monkey. The beast is usually kept chained up, but unknown to any of us it has managed to untie the rope from the tree and is roaming the island. I encounter the monkey at almost the furthest point on the island, and for some reason it really goes for me. I haven’t done anything to provoke it; it just decides to launch a full-on attack at me. I’ve got nothing to protect myself and get a whole series of deep scratches on my back and arms trying to throw the thing off. It is amazingly agile; leaping into the little trees at this end of the island and launching itself down onto my neck. Fortunately I manage to stop it biting me. All I have to defend myself with are stones from the path. I’m trying to run backwards while defending myself; the ground is uneven and I fall backwards once which gives the monkey another chance to attack. Three times I have to fight it off. Where there is a clear space on the path there is a stalemate between us; I’m picking up rocks from the edges of the path and hurling them at the monkey to keep it at bay, but whenever we pass under a tree it leaps up and comes within striking distance. Eventually I get out of the tree cover and onto the rocky beach in the middle of the island; The monkey doesn’t dare attack me anymore because it has no trees for cover; I have tons of rocks all round me, and the rest of our group have seen something’s wrong and are beginning to gather. It’s been quite an experience. I’ve been prepared to find snakes, or scorpions or things like that in Rwanda but never to be attacked by a monkey.

I later discover that the animal also attacked Marion a few weeks ago, bit her, and that she needed extra anti-rabies jabs to make sure she was OK. The monkey never bit me (we examined all my wounds very carefully). I have several deep scratches but no bites. So far as I know it is only saliva which carries rabies, so even if the animal is infected it won’t have been able to pass rabies on to me. My tetanus jabs are up to date, and we swab the wounds thoroughly with antiseptic wipes, but I’ll see a doctor when I get home.

I have no idea why the monkey attacked, nor why it should choose me. I was not taunting it, or threatening it. I don’t think the monkey has a territory into which I was intruding – it usually lives next to the island owner’s house at the other end of the island. Either it has been mistreated in the past, possibly by a muzungu, and is taking its revenge on any other muzungu it can reach, or, more frighteningly, there is something seriously wrong with it which is making it attack people.

We come back from the island to the mainland. The weather is changing fast – the skies are cloudy, there’s a lot of wind, the lake is no longer glassy but full of little waves which strop and splash over the sides of the boat. We ask the driver to drop us at Béthanie and walk back to Home St Jean to warm up. In the evening the intention is to do salsa dancing to Marin’s music, but by the time we’ve eaten we all feel overdone with sun, swimming, fresh air and general excitement, so we settle for an early night.

Kibuye is a magic place and remains my favourite spot for a relaxing weekend. To anyone reading this who is a volunteer about to come to Rwanda – don’t let the episode with the monkey put you off. The beast is usually tied up and harmless if you stay out of range. But if you do go to the island and it is loose, then stay with the rest of your crown and beware!

Final postcards from Kibuye

A few shots from last weekend's trip to Kibuye
All aboard for Peace Island


April and Helen.


Soaking up the sun on Peace Island


Catherina and Tom at Hotel Bethanie. Catherina is one of two very young German girls who have been placed to work in our Gitarama special school with handicapped children.

Some last views from Gitarama


Pretentious gateways like these are all the rage in the houses of Gitarama's elite. This one controls the entrance to the Lando bar and nightspot, but many private houses have similar gates. They remind me of medieval castles with barbican towers.

A typical quiet sidestreet in the upmarket part of the town. This shot is about 500m from the District Office.

The "Hotel Spendide", set in a leafy part of town near the small stadium. When the Scottish teachers arrive in March they will stay here.


Very few buildings in the town have any form of decoration on their facades, so these lions stand out as being unique.


The little triangular patch of grass near the small stadium; Gitarama's only approximation of a park. Can you see our brand new public clock?




A row of shops; they include tailors, cobblers, a knitting workshop, dressmakers, a stationery shop and the usual alimentation or two.

Keza at One

Keza is Claude and Immaculee's little girl, just one year old and an absolute poppet. Soraya and I went to see them one evening last week.

Daddy's girl!

Look, I've got lots of teeth

Cuddles with mum


Only one year old and toting two mobile phones already!

Friday, 27 November 2009

Maxime and Giudi's wedding


Maxime and Giudi


Dancers....


Singers and drummers




Maxime's worried that his model on the cake looks a bit too "muzungu"-like!


All smiles!




With Kersti at the meal in "Republika"

Final postcards from Gisenyi


Sunset over the Congo - 1


sunset over the Congo - 2


April, my Australian colleague


Tropical lushness at Rubona


Afternoon sun on Kivu

Staring into my suitcase

November 26th

A quiet day today. In the morning there are a lot of letters to write, and I decide to work from home. We’re almost completely out of vegetables and most other food, what with me being away in Gisenyi and Tom up and down to the hospital to see J, so I go to the market and do a big shop-up. What I buy will probably last me until I leave.

I spend the rest of the morning cooking up an enormous batch of vegetable stew, which we can either liquidise for soup, or use as stock to make a base for other meals. From previous experience this system works well, and the cooking is child’s play with Tom’s pressure cooker.

By now its late morning. Soraya is preparing one of her final training sessions before she goes home. April is down at the internet café trying to download the latest iPod software to run on her new machine. She gets half way through when there’s a power cut and she loses the lot. Oh, the joys of going online in Rwanda…. I ring her and she comes round for lunch to sample my cooking.

I start dusting off my rucksack and suitcase; the real goal for today is to start packing, but as soon as I start I realise that there are too many days left before I go, and too many variables, to allow me to make a sensible job. I even think about trying to put all my stuff into two piles (take and leave), but there’s not enough floor space to do that. “Nakibazo”, as they say here, it will all fit in the case and I’ll set aside some time early next week. But with suitcase and rucksack on the floor, and a steadily growing pile of souvenirs by my bedside, it really feels like final days now.

In the afternoon I go to the internet café; power seems reliable and I’m able to get all my messages sent. Karen and Léonie come round to ask me to deal with a problem over mail – the women at the post office seem reluctant to give Karen a parcel which has arrived for her and we can’t put our padlock on the new outside mailbox until Becky comes back from Zanzibar. So tomorrow first thing I’ve got to go to the post office and sort things out.

Then in the evening Soraya and I are out to eat at Claude’s. (Our guard is smirking at me; Soraya is the fourth young woman to come round to my flat today….) There’s some catching up on news to do. Rwanda is starting to resume diplomatic relations with France after two years of bitter hostility; that will make a huge difference here. (But things will never reach their former level of closeness because of the country’s switch to English as its second language). The disturbance in the market yesterday was not over a fight, but to enable a meeting to be held, in the stadium, of all the market traders. All the licensed traders, more likely, because as far as we could see the vast majority of fringe traders were continuing to see as usual and steered well clear of the stadium. The market was closed and locked to prevent any thieving from unmanned stalls, and to force the registered traders to attend. Very Rwanda, that!


Claude fills us in on more details about the “Global Links” exchanges next year. There will be just three Rwandan teachers – Claude and two others yet to be determined – travelling to Scotland; dates yet to be fixed but at the end of May or beginning of June. There is a set budget for the exchanges, and Rwanda is penalised in its links with the north of Scotland because of the extra cost of having to travel from London up to Inverness. If Rwanda had been linked with, say, Essex or Dorset things would possibly have allowed another person to travel. And the Scottish delegation will be in Rwanda at the very end of March. They’ll be here for the last couple of days of the first term, but leave just before Genocide week.

Keza, Claude and Immaculée’s daughter, is growing up fast. She has plenty of teeth, is almost able to stand unaided, is vocalising well and has already learnt to say “papa”. She’s still amazingly well behaved but doesn’t miss a thing. Whatever is happening in the room, she follows it intently. And she’s a born mimic. If we clap or rub our hands, she does the same. If we blink our eyes at her, she blinks back. If we touch our noses, she touches hers. She’s going to be a very bright little thing. She’s much more wary of strangers than last time we saw her, and my glasses unsettle her. So we take pictures but she’s nervous about letting us cuddle her.

Claude’s illness on Tuesday turns out to have been a case of malaria. Now that’s worrying. Claude has lived for 32 years without ever needing to take time off work for illness. So why has he suddenly succumbed to malaria? Soraya and I immediately put it down to the stress of his new job – being the chief of education, health and good governance is a ridiculous workload and I think he is running himself into the ground. Even Claude admits that the job is too big to keep on top of, and that if he doesn’t keep up his major input into education, then Valérian won’t be able to cope with all the work on his own. It’s an untenable situation, but at least all the country’s directors are feeling the same pressure. The degree to which they’re getting stressed out will be down to the level of commitment they put into their work, I suppose. I wish Claude wouldn’t talk to often about finding another job, too – he’s absolutely on top of his game as education director and he’s exactly what Muhanga needs to run the system efficiently. I think our District is beginning to get a good name within Rwanda for being organised, and it would be a shame if Claude left and everything crumbled.

During the meal Claude says a very generous thank you to me for all the things I’ve done during the two years at Gitarama. He’s become a real friend, and I have no doubt that we’ll meet up again at some time in the future. Possibly he’ll come and stay a few days at the end of the Scottish visit in June.

Tomorrow there’s one of the big meetings of all headteachers and Claude wants me to talk to them and give them a summary of my “end of year report” which I wrote for the District. This is also the perfect opportunity to say farewell to all my friends, the headteachers of a hundred and fifty schools scattered among the mountains and valleys of the beautiful part of Africa. Things couldn’t have worked out better if we’d planned them years in advance!

After the meal Soraya and I walk through the empty streets back home – two miles on a cold, starlit night. There’s a ring round the moon, and you would never ever think you were living on the Equator. Soraya’s bundled up in layers of jerseys and a coat, and even I’m glad that we’re walking to keep warm!

Best thing about today – a chance to start thinking back over asll the things I’ve done during the past two years.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

A glimpse into our local hospital

November 25th

A very busy day today. This may well have turned out to be my last “working day” in any normal sense of the word. Into the office well before seven. No sign of Claude or the modem. Valérian is there, and I have some files to put on his computer for him. There’s no other work to do; Soraya has a few trainings left but they tend to be at weekends and I can’t share them with her.

At the post office there are a couple of packets for April, one of which contains her new iPod to replace the one which was stolen just after she arrived. Not only that, but she can use the iPod for a lot of her audiology work, so it’s very much one of the tools of her trade and certainly not just an entertainment device.

And there’s more news from the post office. They have installed a new batch of outside post boxes, including ours. This means that we have to fit a lock to it, but when the lock is operational we can access our mail at any hour of day and night. I have a combination padlock on loan to Becky; that will be the ideal one to use. (With so many volunteers using the box, we can’t use keys and we will have to use a combination lock). I take the opportunity to say farewell to the post ladies and explain that Tom is taking over as the “titulaire” for the box. So BP146 will remain the muzungu mail address for the Gitarama gang, especially all the VSOs.

Next I go to the FHI office where I have some artefacts waiting to be picked up to use as presents back home. Tom’s there and I’m able to quickly check my emails on his laptop. In doing so I discover there’s a volunteer coming to Ngororero, the next district over from me in the West of Rwanda, and I’ll send her some info. She’s going to feel very isolated to begin with in Ngororero, and we will be her nearest fellow volunteers.

Back up through the town to one of the little clinics which have sprung up. Here comes the highpoint of my day. I deposit a little pot with a poo sample and wait a few minutes while they analyse it to see what manner of nasties I’m carrying inside me. I’ve convinced myself that I’m going to need deworming, or at least that I’ll have vestiges of amoebae crawling through my guts and multiplying.

To my considerable surprise the technician tells me that he can’t find any evidence of worms, or of amoebae. Apparently my bacteria count is high, but that’s nothing serious and it should adjust itself back to normal when I return home. So my immediate reaction is not one of relief, but rather of doubt – does he know what he’s looking for; has he been thorough? I think a bit more deeply and conclude that I’m just being irrational. He seems to have all the kit; I’ve explained to him exactly what I want him to check for and I’ve no reason to doubt his competence. Certainly it means that I can’t be badly infested with anything nasty or he’d have seen it.

A bit of shopping on the way back to the flat; then it’s about turn and off to Kigali. I’m not staying long in Kigali but I need to draw out money to finish the water tank at Nyarusange. Moira’s in on the project with me, too. I celebrate both getting the money and being “clean” with lunch at BCK, the first time since my family came out last summer. Club sandwich and “thé africain” – how’s that for fusion food? Kigali is hot and stuffy as usual and there’s a storm brewing. I get straight back home, all the way to Kabgayi to see J.

J is in the hospital at Kabgayi and will be there several more days. The details are not for a public blog, but she’s going to need all the support we can muster, and I’m cursing the fact that this has happened just when I’m about to leave. The timing couldn’t possibly be worse in so many ways. She’s become a very close friend and it really hurts to be on the point of leaving when a friend is damaged and needing support.

What depresses me further is how bleak the hospital is. Tom explains to me that they are desperately short of money – the volume of patients is so great, and the amount of funding they get to buy drugs and equipment is so low, that conditions are appalling. P has just come back from Uganda and apparently had to smuggle quantities of drugs into Rwanda just to keep the hospital going. They have used up all their credit with local pharmacies, who will no longer supply the hospital without cash up front. It’s a desperate situation. There’s no catering in the hospital; if you are an inpatient it is expected that your family will effectively camp at the place and bring a charcoal stove to cook all your meals. Doctors and nurses are in short supply, overworked, and can’t cope with complicated cases. For specialist care you have to transfer to the King Faisal hospital in Kigali, but that is very expensive and way beyond the means of almost any Rwandans. Honestly, before any English person reading this ever criticises our NHS again, they ought to come and spend a day at Kabgayi.

Back at the flat I write up some notes from yesterday’s Global Links meeting and I’m just about to go shopping when the heavens open and it pours for an hour. By then its dark and Tom’s home, soaked through.

All day long there has been trouble in the market. I don’t know what’s happening; perhaps there has been a major fight between stallholders. The police have weighed in and closed the market down, but all that means is that the women have set up stalls all along the side of the main road. They’re not going anywhere until they’ve sold their produce. It’s absolute chaos trying to get through the town. All late afternoon there seem to be gangs of men hanging around in groups; there’s lots of shouting and you get the feeling that it wouldn’t take much to start a riot. None of the tension is directed against muzungus and we’re safe unless we’re unlucky enough to get caught in crossfire, but it’s unsettling.

Because of this we decide to cook a meal from left overs, and as usual we dine in style. It’s my turn to cook tomorrow and by then I’m sure the market will be back to usual.

It’s been a busy day. Best thing – discovering that I’m in good health after two whole years of living in equatorial Africa and doing a lot of eating out.

Worst thing – J is in a desperate place both physically and psychologically. The physical side is short term; she will come home by the time I leave unless there are major complications. The emotional side is going to take years to heal and will need lots of love from everyone around her. Life in Rwanda is harsh; early deaths are common and if they threaten someone close to you it hits you like a thunderbolt. (Fortunately J seems to be getting stronger each day, but the sooner she’s out og Kabgayi and back home, the better).

November 24th

To anyone who has just discovered my blog it must seem that being a VSO is a sort of permanent paid holiday. Not so. It’s just that I’m at the very end of my placement; I’m also in the situation where it’s the school holidays, so I can’t visit schools, and all my office work has been completed. So I’m spending my time doing some travelling and saying my goodbyes to various people.

Today finds me waking up in the men’s dorm at the Presbyterian Guest House in Gisenyi. I’ve come up with April, an Australian VSO, to get away from Gitarama for a bit and to have a last look at Gisenyi before I leave. We had intended to go to Lake Ruhondo, an extravagantly beautiful lake hidden away in the hills of northern Rwanda. Unfortunately the only accommodation there is a church guest house, and this weekend it is closed to the general public because they are running a retreat until next Friday. So it’s Gisenyi for us, not that Gisenyi should ever be thought of as a second best choice. It’s one of my all-time favourite places in Rwanda.

We have spent a lazy Monday swimming in Lake Kivu, eating well and doing the sights. The Congo looks peaceful and affluent (appearances are so deceiving!), and watched a fabulous sunset over the Congolese side of the rift valley. Nyiragongo volcano is steaming well, and the red glow from its lava lake against the night time clouds is just as spectacular as ever. Lots of buildings in Gisenyi are being demolished and it feels as if they are planning major improvements. If only these would extend to the roads – dusty, sharp edged lava stones which tear your shoes to shreds.

All this has been rudely interrupted by a phone call from Claude past on Monday night. He’s not feeling well and there’s a big meeting tomorrow of the people involved in our Global Links project. He wants me to deputise for him, and to be at Gitarama for 9.30 on Tuesday morning. I have to explain that I’m up in Gisenyi; I’ll get back as quickly as I can but it will take me most of the morning. He agrees to that, but it means we have to leave Gisenyi on the first available bus and clatter back to Gitarama like a couple of naughty schoolchildren.

“Global Links” is a DFID and British Council supported programme (VSO are also heavily involved) which links schools in three countries. In our case there are three schools in Lilongwe, Malawi, three in Muhanga District in Gitarama, and three in the far north of Scotland (one in Nairn, one in Inverness and one on a Hebridean island). The plan is for the Scottish group to visit Rwanda in march, and the Rwandans to return the visit in the summer. The meeting is to see what progress has been made in establishing links so far, and to work through everybody’s expectations of how the links will operate and what they’re for. (This is crucial for the Rwandans; global links don’t work if there’s a donor-recipient relationship, with one country using the link as a vehicle to ask for financial aid all the time). There has to be equity in expectations. The problems lie with language, and the physical difficulties of communication. Gahogo primary, one of our three, still doesn’t have a laptop. It has electricity, but will not have a modem in the foreseeable future, so any internet linking will have to be done through one of the café’s in town.

The meeting goes right through until half past five. I’m unshaven, and wearing tee shirt and jeans – not exactly the formal wear which I’ve been so conscientious in trying to present myself throughout my placement. Claude comes in for the afternoon session; ill or not I’m as always impressed by his grasp of details and his speed of thinking. This guy is definitely going places.

Fortunately we are fed at lunchtime, because in the evening it is Charlotte’s last night before she flies home at the end of her service in Gitarama. We all pack into “Orion” and wait ages for brochettes from a waiter who behaves as if he’s a stand in come off the street. You want cutlery? – OK, I’ll bring cutlery for one. You want salt? OK, I’ll see if I can find some. You want serviettes? OK. I’ll see if there are any. And so on.

Our numbers are thinning rapidly. Moira back home for Christmas; also Christi. Charlotte finished and gone. Me about to go. Nathan going home soon. Becky on Zanzibar. Michael going home for Christmas on the same plane as me.

I’m glad I was able to take part in the Global Links day. Even though it won’t concern me – I’ll be long gone and finished before any visits take place – it’s nice to know what’s being planned. If only Inverness was not so far away from my part of Dorset (it must be about 900k; about as far away as you can get within the British isles) I might be able to help by giving the Scottish group some idea of what they can expect in Rwanda.

We’re also going to miss Charlotte. The clothes, the diet, the sense of fun, the couch surfers…. Lots of happy memories. VSO is such a transient experience – when you sign up you think that two years is a ridiculously long piece of your life to be committing to Africa. In reality it’s all far too short. And you seem to spend all your time either getting to know new arrivals, or saying farewells to friends you’ve just got to know.

Wedding in the time of umuganda

November 21st

Today is G’s wedding, and today’s blog gives you an insight into the fraught world of trying to plan anything in advance here in Rwanda.

G and M have been planning their wedding for months and months, and have all the arrangements in hand, all the bookings made. They are going to have the civil ceremony at the district office, followed by a reception in the grounds of St Paul centre in the middle of Kigali. Everything’s ready for the big day. Then, about three days before the wedding day, an official rings them to say that the government has decided there will be a complete shutdown on Saturday morning because it’s part of tree planting week, and that all public buildings must be closed for the morning. It’s too late to rearrange things, so they decide they’ll postpone the civil wedding until the office reopens after twelve, and the guests will just have to hang around a while before the reception starts. OK, here we’re used to “African time” and people would be content to wait a while. Next, a couple of hours before the wedding, they are rung again to say that the office staff have some function to go to in the afternoon, so the wedding will have to be at twelve sharp. By this time everyone needed for the wedding itself has been contacted to put them off until half past twelve, and because of the transport shut down they won’t be able to start making their way to the district office until after twelve, when public transport resumes and the police stop blockading all the roads in the town centre. So they say to the office staff they will stick with twelve thirty, and explain why. At twelve o’clock they are rung again by the office, demanding to know why aren’t they there, and saying that the officials are waiting for them and unless they get here immediately they’ll lose their slot for the wedding….. But eventually the ceremony happens at half past twelve. But not exactly the relaxed run up we would have wished them

Meanwhile, prompt on twelve, a massive rainstorm and thunder has broken out over Kigali, there is torrential rain and everybody is pinned down for two hours until the rain eases off. Nobody travels in heavy rain; it’s a perfectly acceptable excuse for lateness. Meanwhile the dancers have all arrived for the reception and are hanging around St Paul’s.

I’ve gone in to Kigali very early to beat the bus shutdown, but find myself with three hours and nothing to do until life resumes at twelve. Police are everywhere manning roadblocks and turning people away from the city centre. Even if you’re not actually planting trees (and I don’t see any being planted all day), they have orders to prevent normal life continuing in the capital. I have to walk all the way up from Nyabugogo to the town centre, which is a long, hot, sweaty distance, three kilometres, uphill all the way, on a sticky morning. I go to St Paul to see if I can book a room for the night, but the reception is closed, and stays closed for the entire day. I’ve decided St Paul’s is a waste of time if you try to get a room on a Saturday.

Fortunately I meet Eric, who has come up the night before and managed to get a room at St Paul’s, and we go to see a friend of his to pass the time until the shutdown ends. The friend is a woman living in one of the very poor areas of town. She has a five year old daughter, Joie. The woman’s home is tiny – two rented rooms, about ten feet by eight feet each. There is electricity but no water. There is almost no furniture and few possessions. The woman was about to move elsewhere, had all her possessions boxed up ready for the move – and was then robbed. Thieves took her mattress, clothes, even some of the little girl’s toys. All the houses in this part of Kigali are so on top of each other and so intertwined that it’s inconceivable that someone could carry off a mattress and not be seen. I think it must have been somebody local. So much for community solidarity. The destitute are robbing the poor.

We just get back to St Paul’s before the storm breaks, and shelter in the Economat – the supermarket and café attached to the big catholic church next door. While we’re sheltering we’re found by Nick who tells us the wedding reception is expected to start at 2.30. By now it’s already close to 2 and we know full well what it’ll be at least 3 before people venture out after the rain and get themselves in position for the reception. We both need to use an internet café, so we race up into the town centre, where everything has reopened and business proceeds as usual. So I find myself sending emails home two hours after I’m supposed to be at a wedding reception….

We get back to St Paul’s for three, and people are gathering. Catherine is a maid of honour, also Polly; both are in formal Rwandan robes. M’s family (Rwandans) are sitting to one side, a solid mass of people. We’re on G’s side, and the gathering is much thinner. There’s a handful of VSOs – Kersti, myself and Eric, Épi (who shared a house with G all last year) and G’s mum who has come all the way from Canada. It’s her first visit to Rwanda; she arrived here about six days before her daughter’s wedding.

The reception finally starts around four o’clock. And it’s wonderful. G looks stunning in a simple white dress with lots of gold decoration. M can’t keep the grin off his face the entire afternoon. They look absolutely right for each other, and I’m so pleased that everything seems to be coming right for them. The dancers are superb; the speeches mercifully short and most of them translated into English for us; we are fed very well indeed, and because most of this is happening in daylight we all get some good pictures. By the time we have cut the cake and given presents, though, it’s dark.

I still haven’t got anywhere to spend the night. The reception at St Paul’s has never opened. I had intended to get the last bus back to Gitarama, but by the time the reception has finished it’s too late. Fortunately Kersti and Nick come to my rescue, as usual, and offer me a bed at their place for the night. But meanwhile I’ve left my backpack safely locked away in Eric’s room, and he and Becky are off to Zanzibar early tomorrow morning. Things are getting complicated.

After the reception we gather up the wedding cakes, presents etc and pile everyone into two cars, and set off for the Serena Kigali hotel. Kersti, Nick and Catherine have clubbed together to book a room for the newlyweds on their wedding night. This particular wing of the hotel has only been open a fortnight, and the room is opulent beyond belief. Outside there is the heated swimming pool. Glass lifts swish up and down between the floors. The ground plan of their room is about the same size as the flat I share with Tom. The bed could easily sleep three or four people without being cramped. There are eight of us in the room and it doesn’t even feel remotely crowded.

The maids of honour change out of their robes into something more practical and we go round to Republika, one of the best restaurants in town. Here we have a really super buffet meal –so two big meals today in a very short time, and sit and chat until nearly midnight. Then it’s time for the bride and groom to leave; Nick and Kersti’s car is being used as the runabout to ferry people around the town. We also pile into the car for a second run and leave, the youngsters off to Cadillac to club the night away; the old stagers (i.e. the over 30s) back home to get some sleep.

It’s been a crazy, crazy day, but the wedding was lovely and despite all the interruptions – officialdom, rain, lack of transport etc – everything has gone to plan.

G and M will stay in Rwanda until next November, by which time we hope M will be given a Canadian visa. By next Christmas we hope they will be in Canada and that everything will go well for them.

The key to organising a major event such as a wedding in Rwanda is to allow lots of time between the various parts of the affair, to expect delays and last minute frustrations, and to be patient.

Human shuttlecock

November 18th

There’s still no word from Paulin as to whether the student teacher mentor training at Kavumu is taking place or not, so I have to assume it’s on. I get there, and I’m just walking up the steps to the staffroom, when I receive a message from Paulin saying the training has been postponed till January. So I won’t be involved in doing it after all. Well, I’m pleased I don’t have to hang around till ten o’clock this morning to discover there’s nothing to do here. I have a “plan B” for the day because I had a feeling this was going to happen.

So I go back on the bus to the town centre, and Gatete who is passing on his moto takes me for free up to the Akarere. He has some form to hand in there and get signed, so it’s not totally altruistic on his behalf, but it’s certainly a very nice gesture.

In the office I sort out some documents and get another blog, the final one of the Zanzibar holiday, ready to send. Meanwhile I’ve booked a ticket to Kigali on the ten o’clock bus, and off I go.

On the way, as we leave Gitarama, I notice there seem to be a lot more traffic police about than usual. Then, some way further on, there seem to be an unusually large number of people waiting at the road side. We just get round a sharp bend and onto a relatively straight stretch of road when the police pull us over, and suddenly there’s loads of motor bikes and sirens and flashing lights. It’s the “Tour De Rwanda” cycle race again, and from the raised seats in the bus we all get a grandstand view. There must some sixty riders, many of whom are muzungus. (I’m later told that many international professional cyclists are using the Rwanda tour as a training ground ready for the Tour de France and other better known events). As happened last year, I don’t have my camera with me, so I don’t take any pictures. However, unknown to me Soraya is also on her way to Kigali in the previous bus; she is better organised than I am and takes some pictures which I’m posting for you.

So it’s an exciting run in to Kigali today. At the VSO office I return DVDs and books, and give Charlotte the l.ist of furniture and other equipment VSO needs to arrange to pick up from Tom’s flat when I’ve gone. That’s another two boxes ticked off on my pre-departure list!

There are several other volunteers in the office, some, like Els, are getting ready to go to Zanzibar as their end of service holiday; others are just working. I meet up with Eric and we go together to the Ministry of Justice to hand in our papers for police clearance. For once the office isn’t too busy, and they tell us to come back later in the afternoon. Now that’s a turn up for the books – to get any official document the same day is most unusual!

For the rest of the middle of the day I post blogs, check emails and generally do boring things. I send my ideas for the mentor training to both Paulin and Moira, hoping they might be able to improve on it and adapt it for their January training day. At least they’ll have a starting point to knock around!

Having picked up my police clearance documents in the afternoon I head into the town centre. It’s been threatening to rain heavily all day; it comes on a few drops and everyone runs for cover, but then the sun comes out again and normal life resumes. My purpose in the town centre is to change a large amount of money for a third water tank, this time at Nyarusange School. Time is running out for me and I need to move quickly. When I leave the forex I have nearly 2 million francs in my bag, and I feel vulnerable. I had it in mind to do some shopping, but decide with all this money I’d better get back home as fast as possible. So it’s back to Gitarama on the next bus.

Back home I recount the money and stash it away. The situation is complicated. The tank will cost 2.67 million francs. I have told the school that we will provide 2.5 million, and the head has pledged to get his parents to find the extra 167000 francs (no easy task in a poverty stricken secteur, but at least if they have had to stump up some of the money they will feel more of an ownership of the tank and my plan is that ownership will make them look after it). Then Moira has some money left from her community in Bray which she will contribute, but I don’t know how much. It’s certainly less than the 600000 francs the project still needs. So I’m going to have to send her an email and find out how much she’s putting in. What a shame she’s had to go back home just at this time.

I think the best thing will be for me to draw out all the remaining 600000 so that I know that all the project money is in the school’s bank account before I leave, and sort out the Irish contribution privately with Moira. That’ll make for a lot of emails flying around, but I’m up against a deadline of two weeks’ time and there are many other things to get done between now and then. I’ll be in Kigali for Giudi’s wedding on Saturday so I hope I can draw the rest of the money providing the banks are open.

In a further complication to life it seems that somebody has decided to make umuganda this coming Saturday to align it with national tree planting week. I’m not doing a blog entry for November 17th, but on that day all the district office staff, including Claude, were sporting natty teeshirts and off to plant trees in Shyogwe. Why Shyogwe? – easy to answer – the illegal brick making that’s been going on there has resulted in large-scale felling of trees without the authorities’ permission, and the damage is being put right to teach everyone a lesson (and stop any erosion that hasn’t already taken place). Claude’s name is prominent in today’s “New Times” with a picture of somebody’s backside as they bend over to plant saplings. According to the government everyone in the country is supposed to plant three trees this week – that’s up to 30 million trees.

So umuganda this Saturday will pose problems for me – not only might the bank not be open, but also we might have trouble getting to Kigali for the wedding. I think we’ll have to leave Gitarama really early – before eight o’clock – to be sure of arriving. It just shows that even when you think you’ve got everything here planned down to the last detail, someone in Government changes everything to suit their political agenda and everyone is thrown into confusion.

In the evening we all go round to Becky’s. Not only is it April’s birthday but it’s also Becky’s big day. The girls have made us a feast with “chapizzas” – pizza toppings on a chapatti base – and very nice they are too. Tom’s brought fresh bread from Kigali and I come with a whole cheese and biscuits to go with it. The evening is livened up with power cuts, but that helps when Becky has to blow out her candles. Sneaky Christi has put two of the re-igniting ones in with the others and by the time Becky has finally blown them all out the candle is almost down to cake level!

The original idea was to show a film, but what with power cuts, Piet being very late arriving with the digital projector because he’s had another series of days with 30 eye procedures per day (how on earth does he manage to keep that up?), and many of us are really tired and feeling the strain at the moment. So we play silly games like “Humdinger” and set off home relatively early.

It’s been another good day overall, and for any potential VSO reading this it’s a classic example of how you always have to have a “plan B” for the day and just shrug and get on with the alternatives when your intended programme falls apart.

Best thing about today – getting police clearance done in one day.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Preventable hospital infections

I've been asked to publicise this website giving information about how to prevent hospital based infections such as MRSA. I take no responsibility for the contents of the site, but it seems a worthy cause.
Follow this link:

http://haiwatchnews.com

The "Tour de Rwanda"

Soraya's pictures snatched through the windows of the bus en route to Kigali


Bikes and chapizzas

November 18th

There’s still no word from Paulin as to whether the student teacher mentor training at Kavumu is taking place or not, so I have to assume it’s on. I get there, and I’m just walking up the steps to the staffroom, when I receive a message from Paulin saying the training has been postponed till January. So I won’t be involved in doing it after all. Well, I’m pleased I don’t have to hang around till ten o’clock this morning to discover there’s nothing to do here. I have a “plan B” for the day because I had a feeling this was going to happen.

So I go back on the bus to the town centre, and Gatete who is passing on his moto takes me for free up to the Akarere. He has some form to hand in there and get signed, so it’s not totally altruistic on his behalf, but it’s certainly a very nice gesture.

In the office I sort out some documents and get another blog, the final one of the Zanzibar holiday, ready to send. Meanwhile I’ve booked a ticket to Kigali on the ten o’clock bus, and off I go.

On the way, as we leave Gitarama, I notice there seem to be a lot more traffic police about than usual. Then, some way further on, there seem to be an unusually large number of people waiting at the road side. We just get round a sharp bend and onto a relatively straight stretch of road when the police pull us over, and suddenly there’s loads of motor bikes and sirens and flashing lights. It’s the “Tour De Rwanda” cycle race again, and from the raised seats in the bus we all get a grandstand view. There must some sixty riders, many of whom are muzungus. (I’m later told that many international professional cyclists are using the Rwanda tour as a training ground ready for the Tour de France and other better known events). As happened last year, I don’t have my camera with me, so I don’t take any pictures. However, unknown to me Soraya is also on her way to Kigali in the previous bus; she is better organised than I am and takes some pictures which I’m posting for you.

So it’s an exciting run in to Kigali today. At the VSO office I return DVDs and books, and give Charlotte the l.ist of furniture and other equipment VSO needs to arrange to pick up from Tom’s flat when I’ve gone. That’s another two boxes ticked off on my pre-departure list!

There are several other volunteers in the office, some, like Els, are getting ready to go to Zanzibar as their end of service holiday; others are just working. I meet up with Eric and we go together to the Ministry of Justice to hand in our papers for police clearance. For once the office isn’t too busy, and they tell us to come back later in the afternoon. Now that’s a turn up for the books – to get any official document the same day is most unusual!

For the rest of the middle of the day I post blogs, check emails and generally do boring things. I send my ideas for the mentor training to both Paulin and Moira, hoping they might be able to improve on it and adapt it for their January training day. At least they’ll have a starting point to knock around!

Having picked up my police clearance documents in the afternoon I head into the town centre. It’s been threatening to rain heavily all day; it comes on a few drops and everyone runs for cover, but then the sun comes out again and normal life resumes. My purpose in the town centre is to change a large amount of money for a third water tank, this time at Nyarusange School. Time is running out for me and I need to move quickly. When I leave the forex I have nearly 2 million francs in my bag, and I feel vulnerable. I had it in mind to do some shopping, but decide with all this money I’d better get back home as fast as possible. So it’s back to Gitarama on the next bus.

Back home I recount the money and stash it away. The situation is complicated. The tank will cost 2.67 million francs. I have told the school that we will provide 2.5 million, and the head has pledged to get his parents to find the extra 167000 francs (no easy task in a poverty stricken secteur, but at least if they have had to stump up some of the money they will feel more of an ownership of the tank and my plan is that ownership will make them look after it). Then Moira has some money left from her community in Bray which she will contribute, but I don’t know how much. It’s certainly less than the 600000 francs the project still needs. So I’m going to have to send her an email and find out how much she’s putting in. What a shame she’s had to go back home just at this time.

I think the best thing will be for me to draw out all the remaining 600000 so that I know that all the project money is in the school’s bank account before I leave, and sort out the Irish contribution privately with Moira. That’ll make for a lot of emails flying around, but I’m up against a deadline of two weeks’ time and there are many other things to get done between now and then. I’ll be in Kigali for Giudi’s wedding on Saturday so I hope I can draw the rest of the money providing the banks are open.

In a further complication to life it seems that somebody has decided to make umuganda this coming Saturday to align it with national tree planting week. I’m not doing a blog entry for November 17th, but on that day all the district office staff, including Claude, were sporting natty teeshirts and off to plant trees in Shyogwe. Why Shyogwe? – easy to answer – the illegal brick making that’s been going on there has resulted in large-scale felling of trees without the authorities’ permission, and the damage is being put right to teach everyone a lesson (and stop any erosion that hasn’t already taken place). Claude’s name is prominent in today’s “New Times” with a picture of somebody’s backside as they bend over to plant saplings. According to the government everyone in the country is supposed to plant three trees this week – that’s up to 30 million trees.

So umuganda this Saturday will pose problems for me – not only might the bank not be open, but also we might have trouble getting to Kigali for the wedding. I think we’ll have to leave Gitarama really early – before eight o’clock – to be sure of arriving. It just shows that even when you think you’ve got everything here planned down to the last detail, someone in Government changes everything to suit their political agenda and everyone is thrown into confusion.

In the evening we all go round to Becky’s. Not only is it April’s birthday but it’s also Becky’s big day. The girls have made us a feast with “chapizzas” – pizza toppings on a chapatti base – and very nice they are too. Tom’s brought fresh bread from Kigali and I come with a whole cheese and biscuits to go with it. The evening is livened up with power cuts, but that helps when Becky has to blow out her candles. Sneaky Christi has put two of the re-igniting ones in with the others and by the time Becky has finally blown them all out the candle is almost down to cake level!

The original idea was to show a film, but what with power cuts, Piet being very late arriving with the digital projector because he’s had another series of days with 30 eye procedures per day (how on earth does he manage to keep that up?), and many of us are really tired and feeling the strain at the moment. So we play silly games like “Humdinger” and set off home relatively early.

It’s been another good day overall, and for any potential VSO reading this it’s a classic example of how you always have to have a “plan B” for the day and just shrug and get on with the alternatives when your intended programme falls apart.

Best thing about today – getting police clearance done in one day.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Reliving Zanzibar through writing

November 15th

I’m up early and get stuck into writing up my Zanzibar blogs. Not going to church today; there’s too much to do at the flat. Each day’s write up is like a small essay; even with notes I made during the trip it seems to take forever to explain all the things we saw and did. When you’re travelling you live life much more intensely than back at home, and when you’re writing for people who were not there with you it is even harder; you have to put everything in context and explain the background.

Tom was really ill last night; didn’t properly get off to sleep to 4 and not awake again till mid day, so it’s very much a “morning after the night before” scenario.

April comes round in the afternoon with our dishes which we left at her place yesterday. We chat about possibly going down to Bujumbura next week – she is at a loose end and if I can get all my final chores done I’ll have some days free. Failing that we might go up to Lake Burera which is one of the places I really regret not visiting yet in Rwanda.

I go to try to send some emails and post some blogs, but everywhere is closed – unusual because Sunday afternoon is usually a busy time for them.

At the muzungu meal there are only seven of us, yet it still takes the best part of two hours to get served. I really can’t understand why everything seems to take so long. I order goat stew (kumumdera); it turns out they don’t have that so I get a cow brochette instead with no explanation. We’re all fed up with the waiting. Next week Charlotte will have gone, then it’ll be my final weekend, so the numbers are dwindling fast.

Back to the flat and try to catch up on some more writing before bed. I’m also listening to some of the music from Helen’s iPod. Stuff which I should have listened to years ago but somehow never made the time – Portishead; Ben Harper and an outfit I’ve never heard of called Badila. Some I like, some I don’t, but I’m never going to get another chance to access to so much music.

Best thing about today – reliving our Zanzibar trip as I write it up. It’s like going there all over again.

April and Helen's party

November 14th

A very lazy Saturday today. Tom gives me a bunch of DVDs from home including a whole series of Torchwood and a three part Doctor Who mini-saga. I start the day with all sorts of expectations of writing up the Zanzibar trip, but in the end I spend most of the day watching videos – and feel much more relaxed at the end of it! There’s something about Doctor Who which is quintessentially English, and I think Russell T Davies’s imagination and the gee whiz special effects are unbeatable.

I also spend a long time sorting through papers in the flat, making a pile of stuff to go to VSO office in Kigali and others to go to the District Office to wait for Ken to arrive. I’m almost at the point where I could start stuffing things into my suitcase and it’s nice to feel on top of events. If I can carry on like this I’ll have a couple of days when I could do some more visits before I leave Rwanda.

This evening is April and Helen’s party. We have to bring pot luck food and dress in bad taste. The latter is relatively straightforward. My shorts are droopy where I’ve lost so much weight. If I wear socks with sandals and pull them half way up my legs it will look spectacularly bad taste. I find my most “square” shirt to complete the outfit with my baseball cap. I suppose I look like an elderly rap star on a (very) bad night, but it’ll do. Tom wears his USA shirt, saying that to many people America is the height of bad taste. A bit of a cop out in my book!

We make separate forays out to buy ingredients for our food offerings. Tom makes a juicy salsa and mini bread pizzas. I experiment. We have a tin of condensed milk lurking in our cupboard, close to its “best by” date. There’s a recipe in my VSO cookbook for banoffee pie, and that’s what I make. The worst part is that I have to boil the milk, in its tin, for two hours to convert it into toffee. But (I’m really bragging here) the final result is wonderful. I had no idea that banoffee pie would be so easy to make.

We meet Soraya and Léonie just as we’re setting off, and Nathan too, and we descend on the girls’ house. Most of Helen and April’s batch of volunteers have come, as well as established friends like Ruairi and Martine. The French and Irish contingent leave after a while to watch the football (France beats Ireland, much to the chagrin of the emerald volunteers). We dance away the night. By the end of the party Tom is plastered and dancing with April and most of the food has gone.

We lurch unsteadily on foot through the lanes up to the main road at well past one in the morning. All the moto drivers have gone home, but at the plateau there’s somebody washing a car – in the middle of the night! It’s been a great party.

Oh dear - back into the real world at last!

November 13th

Into the office fairly early, but I miss Claude and with him I miss the internet modem. I spend the morning writing up my final placement report for VSO. This is the last of the formal documents I need to produce. When its done all that remains is some procedural stuff like getting police clearance and personal stuff like buying last minute souvenirs.

By late morning I’ve written emails to all sorts of people and been to the internet café in town to do all my business there. Unfortunately there are a couple of messages I don’t have time to deal with; they can wait till Monday.

In the afternoon I work at the flat and one of the things I do is try to plan for next week. If all goes well I can most of my remaining business done by the weekend; that’ll give me a relaxed final week to say my goodbyes to people.

In the evening we cook and watch videos. For once we decide not to go out for Friday night because there’s a big party tomorrow. Tom’s tired from work and I’m still getting over the Zanzibar trip. My stomach is still delicate; I don’t think I’ve got a bug, it’s just that three days of virtually constant travel and meals at funny times are catching up with me.

In which we spend our second day on a bus

November 12th

So now we’re sitting in the coach through our second dawn. The road seems endless. Outside the scenery is getting greener and hillier as we approach the Rwandan frontier. Armed soldiers stop us and hitch a ride to their duty post somewhere close to the border. Crops are being planted and in some places early planting are already sprouting in flushes of green. Life continues; there will be a good harvest in a few months. It’s a marked contrast to the landscape deep within Tanzania where, despite all the rain and standing water, the land still looks parched and unproductive. I’m so fortunate to have spent my two years in a place as green and fertile as Rwanda. We’re finished with baobabs now, we’re beyond the donkey carts.

In the bus they crank up the music to a ridiculously loud level. After a while the driver puts on a compilation of Congolese stuff and lets it cycle through about three times; at least I like the music even if the volume is almost painful. We ask them to turn it down, but after a few seconds somebody else decides to turn it up. We don’t want to get into a game where they can feel they’re baiting us or controlling us, so we endure it for a while and then look for clothes to stuff in front of the loudspeakers in the rear of the bus. At that point they turn the volume down a fraction and keep it down.

The floor of the bus is rolling in litter; there are no bins so everybody either throws their rubbish out of the window or onto the floor. At the last stop before the border a lad comes onto the bus selling peanuts; they’re just off the oven and almost too hot to hold. We stuff ourselves silly with them for about 50p a time!

As we get within a few miles of the border the land becomes seriously hilly. Our bus labours up the hills in low gear, then charges down the other side. It’s all a marked contrast to the flat, hell-for-leather progress of yesterday evening. The downhill sections right on the border are notoriously dangerous and many, many lorries have come to grief here. Drivers overtired and waiting to rest at the border have frequently misjudged these hills, and simply run off the road wherever there are bends. There are rumble strips everywhere and graphic signs warning everyone to slow down.

At Rusomo our personal formalities are done very quickly (after all, the bus is only half full), but we have to wait more than two hours for the coach to come through. I know the luggage compartments are probably stuffed with sacks of rice etc, but it still seems an inordinately long time. If people want to increase trade and promote free movement of people and goods within the East African community they’re going to have to speed up the bureaucracy at these frontiers. I think of the borders within Benelux countries which are usually unmanned; you just drive through without stopping…

We drink tea, fill our stomachs with heavy pancakes and wait, and wait. The waterfall is even better than on the outbound trip; Rwanda has had a lot of rain while we’ve been away. But nothing can hide the feeling of depression as we leave the relaxed atmosphere of Tanzania and enter the more opaque ambiance of Rwanda. Within seconds of crossing the bridge we’ve had “muzungu” yelled at us and been asked for money.

Eventually we embark and move on. The speed limits in Rwanda are enforced rigorously and the driver is taking no chances, so our progress back towards Kigali is sedate, to put it mildly. We pass Épi’s house at Kibungo; the easiest thing would be for her to get out here but we tried to contact Jeannot in Kigali and we don’t know if he’ll be waiting for her there, so we decide to carry on in the bus.

By the time we reach Nyabugogo we’ve been on the road for 35 hours – easily the longest bus journey I’ve ever made. It’s not been physically difficult – even in the ordinary seats there’s plenty of legroom. The stops every four hours or so mean you never get seriously uncomfortable. The secret with eating and drinking is to have plenty of water and sip frequently rather than swig masses at any one time. Eating also is better if done little and often, but in truth if you’re not exercising and in tropical; heat you don’t need to eat lots. The worst problem is toileting, especially during long segments between stops or where the toilets are so disgusting as to be unusable. People simply disappear into the nearest bush, and if there’s an emergency the bus will usually stop for you; it’s just a case of having to have the nerve to go and tell the driver you need to stop NOW!

I get the first bus back to Gitarama. Tom’s already at the flat and very surprised to see me; my phone battery has gone flat and I’m also out of credit so I haven’t been able to warn him I’m coming home. The evening I spend unpacking my festering kit and generally getting sorted out. I download my photos and find I have some really nice ones; tomorrow I’ll get Soraya’s and exchange with mine and between us we’ll have around 400 pictures of this adventure.

Despite all the dozing on the bus I find I’m tired and I sleep well, but my stomach is very unsettled and I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to do tomorrow. Irregular meal times seem to wreak havoc with my system!

In which we start a thirty five hour bus journey

Wednesday November 11th

I’m woken up by the night watchman at half past four and I’m showered and ready before five o’clock – before even the morning call to prayer has sounded over the sleeping city. The morning is cool, a few puffy clouds dot the sky but even in the middle of Dar you can see a skyful of stars. When the girls are ready we get a taxi out to Ubungo bus terminal. In the city centre the roads are almost deserted, but even in the ten minutes or so that we take to get to Ubunbo the place comes alive. By the time we arrive dawn has well and truly broken, the matatas are jostling each other up and down the road, and Ubungo is a heaving mass of peop[le, cars, taxis and muses.

For some reason known only to Tanzanians they have arranged that just about every long distance bus leaves at the same time – six o’clock in the morning. So whether you’re going to Mtwara in the far south, to Mbeya near Lake Nyasa, to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika or in our case to Kiugali, everyone is trying to find their bus. Even sores, just before six all the buses try to pull away to get ahead of the queue, then wait, blocking the exit, for their final passengers to arrive. The result is mayhem – even the local bus terminal in Kampala is orderly compared to this shambles. Instead of a six o’clock departure it is well after half past six before we’ve travelled the few hundred yards out of the terminal and onto the main road. The dual carriageway is blocked by traffic trying to get in and out of the bus terminal. Everyone seems convinced that if they just edge that bit close to each other they’ll be able to spot a gap and get through. Everything is assertiveness and testosterone fuelled. The result is gridlock. Of course there’s not a policeman in sight, and where are traffic lights when you need them? Not here, that’s for sure.

We have ordinary seats on the bus. The legroom is adequate (just); it’s a lot more generous than you get on a charter flight but will be a tough call for a very long journey. Let’s hope there are the same numbers of leg stretching stops as on the outward run. We can’t see very much out of the windows, and the scenery on this first leg of the journey isn’t anything to write home about, so we doze all the way to Morogoro. Here there isn’t time to get out of the bus. We fill up with extra passengers so that every seat is taken. We buy rolex omelettes in foil boxes through the bus window and eat out first meal of the day at about ten in the morning.

Four hours later we arrive at Dodoma; this time we have a half hour stop and get some exercise. We buy more food; by the time we leave we realise that two greasy omelettes in one morning isn’t such a great idea and my stomach keeps reminding me of the fact for the rest of the journey home.

This time we are able to see something of Dodoma. The new government buildings are suitably impressive, but the town feels very spaced out and the kind of place you’d need a car to be able to live in. I wonder how many of the people who are forced to live and work here can afford to run a car?

As we leave Dodoma the sky clouds over. It is cool – excellent for us on our journey. All the passengers are either dozing or glued to the Nigerian soaps on TV. We pass the same blocky mountains again as on our outward trip (well, they wouldn’t have run away, would they), and pass from them to the dry savannah. Soon we blow a tyre in the middle of the bush and lose another half hour while the crew change it. With the slow departure from Ubungo we’re now a good hour behind schedule.

Eventually we reach the long stretch of earth road between Dodoma and Singida. By now it is raining intermittently, and there are large pools of water over the countryside, evidence of heavy rain in the past few days. (We later learn that the drought has broken here with a vengeance; while we are on the bus there is a major landslide up in the far north of the country with an entire hillside giving way under the weight of rain soaked earth, and lots of casualties). The earth road becomes slippery and treacherous to drive on; the bus slows to jogging pace, sliding and slaloming from one side of the carriageway to the other. It is difficult to hold a line and steer accurately, and we have some close brushes with articulated lorries coming the other way. At one point a huge wagon lies completely on its side. Goodness knows how anyone’s going to get it back up again. The ground is like porridge. In places there are shallow lakes and we begin to understand why on the outward journey we crossed bridges and culverts where there seemed to be no evidence of running water anywhere around.

Late in the afternoon we reach Singida. By now we’re all jaded with the journey; Tanzania is losing its appeal and we all just want to get home. People leave the bus, others join. After Singida we have more heavy rain, but at least we are on a proper road.

During this journey I have been sitting next to a middle aged Tanzanian who speaks good English (he’s reading an English novel). He’s on his first visit to Rwanda but is buying all sorts of things through the bus window at every opportunity. Sandals, a walking stick, a big flagon of cooking oil, a woven basket to put everything in. His main concern is whether the puddles of rainwater we’re ploughing through will have seeped into the coach’s luggage compartment and ruined the clothes in his suitcase. Other people are coming on board wish massive sacks of rice. These get laid out along the gangway like a carpet. Tanzanian rice is much cheaper than in Rwanda (a lot of our rice comes from Tanz) and people are stocking up on cheaper items like oil, rice and similar before we cross the border. So many people have disembarked by this time that the bus is only half full, and to my joy I see that the entire back seat is empty. I can lie down along it, raise my feet and try to sleep.

Unfortunately the driver uses the next stretch of road, and the night-time lack of policemen, to try to catch up on his schedule. We race along the road at full speed. We have to slow down for the big speed bumps, but the driver just ignores the smaller ones. That’s OK for the folk in front of the bus, but the bounce effect is magnified the further back you are sitting. I’m at the extreme rear. Every time we go over one of these bumps I get catapulted into the air and land with a jolt back onto the uneven seat. It’s exciting for a while but means I don’t get properly off to sleep.

Somewhere, perhaps at Nzega, we stop for a longer break. It’s still raining heavily outside, so there’s no point in getting off. I make myself as comfortable as I can on my back seat and try to snatch a few hours dozing. In Dar es Salaam I’ve torn out a small map of the country from a tourist magazine. We have been travelling for eighteen hours already, and we’re still a long way from the border at Rusumo.

Best thing about today – I always enjoy travelling because I like to watch the changing scenery. But this particular journey is something of an ordeal. It’s not that it has been uncomfortable, far from it – I’ve had worse experiences on far shorter plane journeys – but we’re tired and rather deflated after our precipitous exit from Zanzibar, and all we want to do is be back in Rwanda.