Monday, 12 January 2009

Lost keys and squashed eggs

January 8th 2009-01-08

Well, I’m back “home” in Gitarama. And, yes, it does really and truly feel like coming home. Mind you, so does Bridport also feel home, so I’ve become a person with two homes. As I whiz through the streets of Kigali I realise I know every corner, every street I pass, and on the hour long bus ride to Gitarama I knew every bend, every place where the bus coughed its way through the gears and ground up to a summit only to plunge giddily down, so fast that there would be no way its brakes could hold it in an emergency.

It is a day of mixed fortune. On the down side, I manage to leave my Rwandan key set in Dorset – I return to Rwanda having no house key, office key, or the little key to the secure section in my wardrobe. That’s because I always work from lists, and I’m using the same list that I had last year when I first arrived and had no keys to worry about. I first realise this about three hours into the flight. The bedroom key is no problem; I have a duplicate and rarely lock the door. The house key can be got round because Janine has a key for when she comes to clean, and provided she is around in Gitarama I can get her to come and open up for me. The wardrobe lock is weak and I can spring it with a knife blade. The office key is the main problem, but Claude has his own key and we’ll have to arrange to get another one cut. And as soon as possible I’ll get Teresa to post me out the originals.

Also on the down side I manage to completely squash a caramel cream egg inside my brand new rucksack (on its first day of use). At Heathrow they scan your bags with the laptop inside. At Addis Ababa they make you take the laptop out (in some cases they insist on you switching the thing on to prove it hasn’t had the works taken out and replaced by explosives). As I put the laptop back in the bag, with an impatient queue behind me, I forget that I bought four eggs and the computer ends up sitting on top of one of them. That takes a good fifteen minutes to clean once I’m in the flat. Fortunately I have wrapped the laptop in bubble wrap, so no mucky filling has reached the new computer.

On the good side, I rendezvous with Janine for the house key, and clean all traces of goo off the rucksack. I get the gas and electricity switched back on, and there’s water running in the taps. I can’t believe how much chocolate I’ve brought this time – Bourneville bars, mars bars, kit kats, cream eggs – there’s a good 3 kilos of chocolate in my stuff.

The flight has been flawless and more or less to time. I’ve had a good chance to look at Ethiopia from the air, and I’m mighty glad I chose Rwanda (I was given a choice of Rwanda or Ethiopia and this is the main reason why I have chosen to fly via Addis at Christmas). Ethiopia is in the middle of its dry season, with three more months to go, and it is already uniformly brown and dusty. There is a thick layer of haze in the morning air; by nine o’clock individual mountains close to Addis are no longer visible through the muck. It just looks hot, forlorn, uninviting, especially from the air.

As you fly from Addis to Kigali you expect a gradual transition from brown to green, from sun drenched to cloudy and equatorial. But the change is really quite abrupt. Within five minutes the sky goes from clear to full of dotted cumulus, and in a few more minutes it’s a solid mass of cloud with towering summits reaching even above our cruising height of about 26000 feet. And then, when I’m hoping to look down and see the volcanoes and give a cheeky wave to the odd gorilla and spit on the odd guerrilla, we’re actually flying inside the clouds and its raining. As you sink through the clouds on your final approach to Kigali you are met by a carpet of deep green vegetation, with neat little villages and four-square houses. Rwanda looks welcoming and civilised. Welcome home indeed!

We leave London on January 7th, which is not only the exact anniversary of my first flight to Rwanda, but is also the Ethiopian Christmas Day. Our plane is decked with garlands, and the cabin crew are in a good mood. By being one of the very first people to check in at Heathrow I have a perfect seat – loads and loads of legroom, and I’m able to fly in absolute comfort. I like the food on the Ethiopian flights, too – succulent chicken and lots of interesting spices.

The day has started freezing cold, and Teresa taken me to Dorchester to pick up the coach; I’ve been swaddled in hat, gloves, scarf, and the thickest coat I own. (These, of course, are all to leave in the car). By the time I reach Kigali I’m down to a short sleeve shirt and I still feel as though I’m walking fully dressed in a sauna. It’s a pretty extreme difference in temperature.

Because the weather in England has been atrocious everyone flying has arrived early, and all of us are hanging around Terminal three for hours and hours trying to find something interesting to read or do. The plaza outside the terminal has been decorated with blue lights, but the terminal entrance has deep mauve lighting which is eye catching, but rather overwhelms all Christmas decorations.

I have been expecting to meet Épi on the London flight, but she isn’t there. Instead, as we’re waiting for our Addis to Kigali leg, I meet Chris, who’s a “retired” VSO with her own house in Kigali (we met and sat next to each other on the homeward flight). And, sure enough, Épi is at the terminal at Kigali. But she hasn’t come to welcome me; she’s trying to find two of her suitcases which have vanished in transit between London and Kigali. And her third case has arrived, but has been ransacked and anything valuable removed from it. Two days she’s been waiting, and the bags still haven’t arrived.

Fortunately all my luggage is intact, and the huge amount of cash raised by church and choir and schools in West Dorset has arrived safely. Phew! Lost keys are just a minor irritation for me by comparison with Épi’s troubles – she has only the clothes she’s wearing!.

Even better, Chris is being met at the airport by a friend with a car, and they agree to take me to the town centre which saves me a taxi fare. Within twenty minutes I’m on a “Horizon” bus and on the road to Kigali. During the last few days there has been much talk in the Rwandan press about fuel shortages in Gitarama, and companies putting fares up to three times the normal level. But it’s all been resolved, and I get from the airport to my flat for just 70p.

During the afternoon I unpack, sterilise my water filter, and generally try to settle down into “Rwandan mode”. I text Hayley, and she comes round to collect some things I have brought out for her, and to share the gossip.

There has been a huge Gacaca while I’ve been away; a case so horrific that virtually the entire town was summoned to the stadium to observe justice in progress. Someone is accused of burying an entire family alive at Shyogwe. The court concludes that the evidence indicates there is indeed a case to answer, but that the case is so serious the accused will have to stand trial in Arusha (Tanzania) before the highest level of justice.

The petrol crisis was caused by the Government in Kigali trying to force down fuel prices to reflect cheaper oil from abroad. But apparently the Gitarama area garages had just taken delivery of massive amounts of fuel at the older, higher prices, and were set to lose money if they followed the Government line. So they simply locked their pumps and refused to sell until the Government relented. At one stage everyone was rationed to RwF5000 worth, which doesn’t last one day on a thirsty 4x4 behemoth on these dirt roads!

Épi has finished working as a science teacher at Gishanda, and will be doing her second year at Kibungo. Kibungo is on the main road to Tanzania; it’s a town in its own right and much more like “civilisation” than where she’s been all last year. However, it has been decided that she will be doing two days a week teaching English in secondary schools in Kibungo, and three days working as primary teacher trainer. She’s not worried about the latter, but Épi is a secondary science specialist, and a Francophone Canadian, so she’s apprehensive, to put it mildly, about being asked to do two days’ English a week. And none of this was discussed with her over the Christmas holidays…..

Piet, the Belgian eye-doctor, has had a second bout of malaria, which is bad news. Soraya is up in Kigali at the moment writing teacher training materials for the Government’s big push on English teaching due to be launched across the whole of Rwanda in the spring. Good for Soraya; sounds as if she’s mixing with the influential people.

Hayley and I are the only two volunteers in Gitarama at the moment. Tom comes on the 10th, as does Tiga; Tinks on 13th, Christi on 29th and Michael – who knows! Tinks and I decide to go out for a meal. I have no veg in the flat; it’s my anniversary and her birthday, so we whoop it up with a special omelette and plenty of Primus beer.

During all this there’s a flurry of texts to and from colleagues; Kersti’s had a great time in Zanzibar with Nick, but while they’ve been away Janneau has borrowed their car and crashed it….. Els has just arrived back from chilly Birmingham. By the end of today I’ve done more texting in a couple of hours than during the entire month I was at home. Just shows you how much we rely on texts to communicate with each other here.

VSO in Kigali is in economising mode because of the unfavourable exchange rate between the pound and the Rwandan franc, so all the training for the new batch of volunteers will be done by Kigali-based people who won’t need accommodating. So Els and I, among others, are redundant this time. On the plus side there’s a “family meal” coming up for us to meet all the newbies and get to know them.

Its been very wet this week in Rwanda, and as I sit writing this at half past nine I feel really tired. I am noticing the altitude – walking home from “Nectar” with Hayley I was gasping as I tried to keep up with her. The air feels heavy and so humid compared with Bridport.

Finally, everyone has welcomed me back, from Athanasie in the bakery to everyone at “Nectar”. Even the girl in the Horizon ticket office remembered me. That’s a nice, comforting feeling as I start out on my second year as a VSO.

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