Sunday, 18 January 2009

Santa Claus and a christmas carol

January 16th

Once again in to Kigali on the early bus. This time I’m so organised I even manage to get the 6.30 departure, but at the price of having to leave some things untidy at the flat.

The conference runs well, but the room becomes stiflingly hot by mid-day, and we are all wilting. Fortunately my group is doing its thing in the very first session so I’m able to do a tolerable impression of being keen and wide awake. We have to draw the curtains in order to see power points on a screen, and this gives everyone a heat headache and we all get steadily more dehydrated despite drinking as much water as possible. The afternoon is really tedious; I’m trying hard (and just failing) to stay awake.

On both the journeys in and out there has been someone knocked down in the road between Nyabogogo market and the town centre; there’s just too many people trying to cross the road and too much traffic all trying to be heroic and overtake in silly places. I just stand amazed that there aren’t more accidents, and those of you reading this who have been into central Kigali will know exactly what I mean.

After our session launching our “How to….” Guides, which goes pretty well, we have some input from the boss of DFID. This is the local arm of the British Government’s aid agency, so he’s a useful guy to know and one we need to cultivate. He needs our grass-roots information to inform his high level plans, and we need his influence on MINEDUC to remove some of the most stupid and regressive practices this country operates. I have a moan at him about the mismatch between syllabus and exam questions, and he immediately asks me to provide some chapter and verse to give him ammunition in the next joint meeting between DFID and the Rwandan Ministries. For the first time in years we, as VSO, now have an ally at the highest levels of Rwandan government. Richard, the DFID boss, has done VSO himself at some time in the past, so he knows exactly where we’re coming from.

I miss part of one session and take a moto up to the parquet in Kacyiru. This is the headquarters of Rwanda’s legal system and contains the Supreme Court and all sorts of other admin and juridical offices. My reason for going is to complete a police clearance form to say there are no criminal charges outstanding against me since I arrived here, and hence I am safe to be issued with a second annual resident’s visa. I’ve been dreading all the bureaucratic rigmarole, but in the event it couldn’t be simpler. The office is small, the woman in charge is friendly, we speak to each other in French (so much for all government departments going over to English from January 1st!), and the whole business is done in ten minutes. The clearance form amuses me – even for a foreigner to get his visa renewed they want information like the names and addresses of both my parents (Heaven, hopefully), and they make a distinction between my profession (teacher) and my occupation (education management adviser) which never happens in England.

I have to go back on Monday afternoon to collect the clearance form, and with that form VSO will actually get my visa done. I’m really grateful to VSO for that, because getting the actual visa can mean an awful lot of standing around in different queues, and it can be a trial unless you speak Kinyarwanda and have got on first name terms with some of the women in the issuing office…. Today is the last day on my current visa; in theory I become an illegal alien from midnight and could be deported. (Don’t worry, Teresa, it won’t happen!). In reality the worst that will happen is that they will fine me, but if they try that I will make a scene and argue that I have instigated as much of the procedures as possible before the expiry date on my visa, and then play the hopeless, helpless muzungu card. And neither Épi nor Soraya have bothered to get green cards issued for the previous year, so they could be in even greater trouble!

We have a sharp rainstorm at the end of the afternoon; the first proper rain in a week.

By the time I get back home its dark, and I feel absolutely whacked. Most of the rest of our gang are staying over in Kigali and probably going out drinking or clubbing, but I’m quite glad I’m back in sleepy Gitarama. It’s an early night for me! Tom, bless him, is cooking up a super meal with some spicy sausage he bought in Emmanuel’s store in Gitarama, and we wash it down with a beer or two.

Poor Tom’s had a dreadful day; he’s had to drive out to some of his craft suppliers. On the way the pick up truck has a flat tyre, and he discovers to his horror that someone’s “borrowed” the wheel nut spanner so he can’t get the wheel off to replace it. Cue much phoning up and wasting of time before he can get back on the road. He’s not a happy man by the end of the day, especially since FHI has put him in charge of logistics at the Gitarama end of the operation, which includes responsibility for vehicles, houses, equipment and just about everything else.

During the day I’ve been talking to Soraya. She saw Claude briefly on Monday and told him why I wouldn’t be in the office all week. She says Claude wants me to get out to as many schools as fast as possible next week and see how they are getting on with implementing all the changes to the primary structure. That’s all very well, but Claude and I need to have a little chat about what degree of compliance is reasonable at this early stage. That will occupy some of Monday morning, and then I’ll have to leave him and go charging back into Kigali for my police clearance form.

I think I need a quiet weekend; the following weekend is party central with Han and Mans’ leaving “do” on Friday night, and welcome meal for us to meet the new incoming VSOs on Saturday – no doubt followed by some clubbing or other antics. At my ripe old age I need to pace myself.

Épi and Soraya and I have all decided that firstly we intend to go and explore the far south east of Rwanda (Rusumo) as soon as possible, and also that we definitely want to all go to Uganda in April and do some white water rafting. It’ll be tricky, though, to get the dates perfected. The obvious time to go is during the Easter break, coinciding with Genocide week here. But we only have a fortnight’s school holidays at Easter, and Épi will be expected to travel to Kibuye for the formal memorial ceremony to the members of her family killed in 1994. We’ll fit things around all these constraints if we can; we reckon we need at least eight days to do things properly. Épi is still waiting to hear where she’ll be living in Kibungo; as soon as she’s decently installed Soraya and I will pay her a visit and see this part of the country, too.

All the eastern volunteers have been complaining that Kigali’s chilly; I’m complaining that it’s hot and stuffy. Good job I’m not based somewhere like Rusumo; I’d be melting.

Surreal sight of the day 1 – a pick up truck with its rear loaded at least ten feet high with foam rubber mattresses – dozens and dozens of them. While foam rubber doesn’t weigh a lot, I think the driver has no idea of the amount of wind resistance they produce, and he’s having trouble making it up the hill to the town centre roundabout. Talk about laying a smokescreen from his exhaust!

Surreal sight of the day 2 – on the edge of the roundabout in the very centre of Kigali is a huge billboard advert for Coca Cola. It’s still carrying their standard Christmas advert, featuring an African Santa, complete with wire rimmed semi-lune spectacles, white beard, red coat and knee boots, brandishing bottles of Coke to ecstatic Africans. They’ve had the sense to omit snow, but there’s tinsel and Christmas greenery. It just looks ridiculous here; I wonder how much some advertising executive got paid to dream up that one! Few Rwandans have long white beards, in fact long hair is completely absent except for the expatriate Ugandan rasta colony who seem to live in the nightclubs.

Surreal sound of the day – we’re in the St Paul Centre, a Roman Catholic combination of public guest house and conference centre, with an auditorium and chapel attached. At mid-day, while we’re deep in discussing AIDS/HIV strategy, a church service begins in the chapel, and someone is singing, loudly and flat, a hymn to the tune of “Once in Royal David’s City”. We all got the giggles.

So it’s been a good week, but hard work and I really feel as though I’ve earned my keep. Now it’s half past nine on Friday night and I’m off to bed. I can barely stay awake long enough to write this blog! Night night, everyone….

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