Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Four go wild in Kibungo

February 7th-8th

Sometimes the day’s news seems thin; on other days there’s just so much going on there seems no time to write it down. This weekend has been one of the latter!

On Saturday I’m enjoying my first lie-in for ages. It’s eight o’clock and I can’t sleep because of the noise from traffic, the birds, the day guards and the hairdresser opposite. I text Soraya, who has a training day at Kabgayi, asking her to beep me when she finishes so that I can be ready to go to Kibungo with her. In the meantime I’m planning to stay in bed for another half hour and read.

Soraya phones back straight away to say there doesn’t seem to be anyone there for the training, and that she’s cutting her losses and coming home. And that she’s all packed and ready for the off so that we can go to Kibungo this morning.

Curses! I haven’t even thought about getting ready so soon! So I catapult out of bed and into the shower, have the fastest breakfast in the world and start shoving things into my rucksack.

At which point she texts me again to say sorry, but people have begun to show up so the training’s on after all…….

So Tom and I spend a leisurely morning cleaning up and I’m packing my rucksack and we’re reading newspapers until Soraya finally phones to say she’s ready to leave for Kibungo.

I’ve never been further East than Kabarondo, and never beyond Kayonza in daylight, so it’s nice to see some new scenery, even if I’m jammed in the back of a little matata with my knees up past my ears. The scenery around Kibungo is beautiful. We were both expecting it to be flat and dry and brown, but it is green and hilly. The valleys are wider than here in Muhanga, and the hills lower. There is a general feeling of much more space, and definitely of less pressure on the land. There are much bigger areas of unused land, but at the same time there’s a huge amount of radical terracing to make use of sloping hillsides.

We arrive at Kibungo in the late afternoon and Épi comes to the bus park to meet us. Kibungo is one of those towns which is by-passed by the main road network – the main road from Kigali to Tanzania goes about three km to one side of it, along one hilltop while Kibungo stretch along another ridge perpendicular to the main road. Épi lives at the place where the two roads join. It’s a house owned by the Anglican diocese of Kibungo (Kibungo is the biggest town in the south east corner of Rwanda and the general administrative centre for a very wide tract). They are rebuilding the main bus park and market in Kibungo, and there’s a temporary bus park and market about 500 yards from her house, which is really convenient.

Épi’s house is small but easily manageable. There is a bare earth yard at the back in which she could put some pots of herbs or veg; there’s quite a big front garden with grass, pineapple bushes and poinsettia trees. In a small plot just behind her house there’s a clump of banana trees; we’re not sure whether she can help herself or not. There are houses on each side of Épi’s; when three muzungus arrive at the place they all go aflutter with excitement.

She has a decent sized rectangular living room with electric light and power points, and a reasonable bedroom next door. At the rear of the living room is a lean to with a stick and corrugated iron roof and roughcast walls, which is the second bedroom. It hasn’t been painted and is rather dark, but at least it seems watertight. There is a toilet with proper sit-down loo, and a shower room with reasonably reliable water. Compared to her previous place at Gishanda this is luxury for Épi, and it’s so much easier to get to and from by road. The only problem is that the loo doesn’t have a door, and we all have to be very discreet when using it……. Rwandan planning triumphs again!

Of course there’s no kitchen; there’s a ledge built onto the back wall of the house where you can stand a kerosene stove or charcoal cooker. We decide to cook for ourselves that evening, so we fall into our routine. I get peeling and chopping veg, and make up a Brucey special fruit salad; Soraya gets the stove lit, and Épi finds all the fruit and veg and whatever else we need. It’s a quick way to prepare a meal and we eat well. While we’re cooking we’re joined by Tina who lives about a kilometre up the road, right next to the main road. (Her house shakes when juggernauts drive past on their way to and from the border crossing). She shares a place with Tom, who has gone up to Nyagatare for the evening, so Tina’s at a loose end.

In the middle of all this, workmen arrive with a bed. Épi’s ordered a bed, and has been waiting in all day for it to arrive. It’s a nice, sturdy effort, and just fits perfectly in the spare rom. We already have a mattress for it, so she’s well set up. Also, the new pastor is very pleasant and when Épi tells him that she’s having visitors he offers her a spare mattress for me to use.

It’s nice to see Tina, and we spend hours planning all sorts of adventures. She wants to come with the three of us on our Uganda trip in April, and if that all goes well we’re thinking of all four going to Zanzibar at some time later in the year, perhaps in November at the end of the school term. Meanwhile, I suggest we all go to Rusumo tomorrow and have a look at the place and the waterfalls there. None of the other girls have been, so we agree on an early start. We walk Tina home; there’s a bar quite close to her house with has a bad reputation and while she’s probably safer here than in London, we don’t want to take any chances. Besides, it’s a balmy night and here, as opposed to Gitarama, you can see the stars and hear a deafening noise from frogs and crickets everywhere you walk. On the way back Épi goes to collect the spare mattress from the pastor, and Soraya and I mooch through the pitch dark lane to her house, navigating by moonlight through puddles of dubious smelling water and slaloming past local lads on their way to and from bars or visiting each other in their houses.

Épi’s house is almost opposite a secondary school, and there’s a big transmitter tower about a hundred yards away, so it’s probably the easiest place in Kibungo to find. Just as we get back Épi arrives on a moto with the mattress tied in a roll behind her – looks really comical. We talk about house furnishings; what this little house needs is a paint party where a gang of us descend one weekend and slap new coats of paint on the living room, bedrooms and anywhere else we can reach. It would transform the place.

We get sorted and bed down for the night. Épi’s taking on a local girl (vetted by the Diocese) as housemaid, and she will sleep in the spare bedroom when she eventually arrives. For now, Soraya is using Épi’s bed; Épi is trying out the new bed for the maid, and I’m on a mattress on the living room floor. It’s funny trying to get to sleep in somewhere totally silent.

(The arrangement with the domestique is really sensible – Épi will have her living in during the week, and on those weekends when she’s away in Kigali so that house is guarded at all times. On the other hand, if Épi is staying in Kibungo at weekends, and is having visitors, the domestique will go back to her family’s house in the town).

In the morning we meet up with Tina at the bus park and get overcharged on the matata to Rusumo (it’s a Sunday morning and there isn’t a great choice of transport, so we can’t tell the convoyeur where to go and jump on an alternative bus). The road to Rusumo is beautiful. Compared to Muhanga, the roads are very straight, and the surface is pretty good. The hillsides are terraced for the most part, but here and there are still big expanses of land which seems to be completely unused. This is the only part of Rwanda where there is scope to absorb extra population. The valley bottoms have been drained of their swamps and are intensively farmed for rice. Most of the plots are just being planted out; the water glints in the paddies and every plot has a tiny corner with brilliantly green young rice plants ready for transplanting. Rice really is the most amazingly vivid green colour when it’s young. On one bare hilltop there seems to be a resettlement camp for returning refugees. Houses are being built; there are organised canvas clad toilet blocks, but the people are living in tents or makeshift shelters while they build mud-block houses alongside.

In places there are dense stands of pine trees giving the place an almost Mediterranean feel. It’s a long way from Kibungo to Rusumo, well over an hour in the bus, and yet you only pass through a handful of big villages. One of them is where Joe and Sonya are based; they are a long, long way from Kigali, but having the main road on their doorstep makes everything manageable.

Eventually we reach Rusumo. It’s quite an anticlimax, really. There’s a long, winding descent down into a big valley, and we can see the Akagera River in the distance so we know we’re almost there. We can’t see any waterfalls. There are funny little conical hills around, and we can see where the river is heading straight through a lump of high ground. But that’s about all.

We’re expecting Rusumo to be a big town like Gisenyi or Kibungo, but when we get there we find there’s almost nothing to see. The bus seems to drop us quite arbitrarily at a roadside stop in the middle of nowhere. We have to be told to get off the bus because we’re all convinced there must be some bigger stop a few miles further on.

A group of transport lorries are parked up in a field; one has a prominent “Manchester United” badge, obviously its owner’s pride and joy. There’s a ticket office for a bus company in the middle of a maize field; I don’t think Onatracom has many services operating out of Rusumo!

Down at the border itself we come right next to the river. It’s chocolate brown and there are great clumps of weed floating down from the lakes higher up its course. Two men are swimming across it from Rwanda into Tanzania. We’re not sure whether they’re just having a swim, or smuggling stuff across the border. We assume the river is crocodile free; there’s quite a strong current even on the quietest stretch of water.

The road is jammed with lorries waiting to cross into Tanzania, and lorries that have just made it across the border bridge. There are a slew of bars, cafes, forex moneychangers; the usual stuff at frontiers. But compared to the Congolese borders at Gisenyi and Cyangugu this place is so, so relaxed! The border itself is a big metal bridge, built exactly next to the main waterfall. It is perfect for taking pictures. We hear the waterfall long before we see it. A troupe of baboons is playing next to the bridge, and a bored looking Rwanda policeman stands next to the barrier pole. We amble up to him, all smiles and politeness, and ask if we can go on to the bridge to take pictures. We’re fully expecting to be turned back, but the situation is so relaxed that he just waves us through. (By contrast, when I was at Cyangugu with Tu Chi we nearly got into trouble for insisting that we only wanted to take a few picture and not smuggle ourselves into the DRC…).

So we scamper onto the bridge and take loads of photos. It’s really hot now, but there’s a strong spray coming up to the bridge from the boiling waters below which is cool and refreshing. The water is the colour of milk chocolate, and I can now see exactly what Védaste was writing about in his master’s thesis – tonnes and tonnes of Rwanda’s best topsoil is being washed away downstream beneath our feet.

At some point a sackload of plastic sandals has been tipped or fallen into the river; they’re caught in an eddy right under the bridge and green and blue sandals swirl endlessly round and round in the vortex.

There is one main fall, and a series of rapids above and below it. The falls are not excessively high or wide, but the river is flowing high at the moment (we’ve inadvertently come at probably the best time of year to see it), and the force and speed of the water is very impressive. There’s no way you could shoot this fall in a raft or canoe.

Downstream a man is fishing with a round net on a long pole; the water is so opaque there’s no way he can see any fish down there; he’s just swirling the net around in the hope that an unlucky fish will get washed into his net by the current. In all the time we watch him, he doesn’t manage to catch anything!

When a juggernaut crosses the bridge the whole thing sways and creaks. A steady trickle of pedestrians is crossing in both directions, too. There are a few private cars and NGO vehicles, but there crossing is not busy and it just feels very pleasantly relaxed. Downstream of the bridge the river enters a gorge, and there’s a dramatic change in the scenery. (And a few miles further on the land will flatten out just as dramatically as the river enters the Akagera National park with dozens of lakes and swamps). Somewhere here is the point where the new railway line from Isaka to Kigali will, cross the river; I imaging they will build a railway bridge alongside this existing one. That’ll be a pity because it’ll spoil the view from the road bridge. That’s another reason why we’re lucky we’ve come here at the right time!

We take pictures upstream and downstream; photos of ourselves on the bridge; photos of lorries crossing it; photos of the baboons who are sitting next to the barrier pole as if they’ve been trained to wait for permission before going from one country into the other.

Eventually we decide we’ve had enough, and adjourn past our friendly policeman to a bar. It’s barely mid-day and we’ve already “done” Rusumo. (If we decide to go overland to Tanzania and Zanzibar, as some VSOs have done, we will have to walk across the bridge and try to find a matata on the Tanzanian side to take us along to the nearest town and a “proper” bus further east. That can take a long time and will take some thought)!

By now it has clouded up and the mid-day storm is arriving. Once again, just by luck we’ve even been fortunate in arriving early in the morning. We sit out the storm in the matata while we wait for it to leave; my only regret of the whole episode is that it’s raining too smartly to be able to take pictures out of the matata windows.

Back in Kibungo we explore Tina’s house (bigger than Épi’s, but it had rats when they moved in which wasn’t very pretty). Tina has a very lovely valley view out of her back yard; I take some pictures but just now the sun’s now at the wrong angle and I hope I’ll come back here again and take some more.

In the late afternoon we take a bus up into the middle of Kibungo and drift back on foot to Épi’s place. On the way we pass a bar which doubles as a sauna and massage saloon. That’s really unusual for Rwanda, and especially in a place as provincial as Kibungo. We’re all sure it must be some sort of sleazy joint or brothel, but as we’re all together we decide to have a look. (Just in case it’s legitimate, not just in case it….. oh, you know what I mean!). To our amazement it turns out to be a real, proper sauna and massage establishment with a delightful young owner.

This puts an even better gloss on Kibungo. Soraya and I are really getting to like this town more and more. If we do return for a painting party at Épi’s we’ll combine it with a sauna and massage, especially if we can negotiate to have the whole place to ourselves…..

In the evening we decide to eat out; it’s already quite late and the only place open is the most expensive joint in town. Its pleasant, but the service is slow. When out brochettes and ibirayi arrive we find that some of the brochettes are zingalo – goat intestines wound into a coil and threaded on the skewer. Now as you can imagine, some of the girls are not too keen on goat guts, especially at RwF 1000 apiece, so muggins gets to enjoy this culinary high point of Rwandan cuisine. I can report that they’re not unpleasant; not even chewy, but I can’t say that I’d squeak with delight if I saw them again.

We walk Tina home and then drift across the taxi park and up the slope to Épi’s place. Faustine, the domestique, has arrived with her stuff and already set to work washing up and cleaning. This creates a logistical problem; there are only three places for people to sleep and now we have four people. I offer to go and sleep on a siofa at Tina’s but we decide it’s better to send Faustine home on a moto and tell her to come back tomorrow. She’s quite happy with the arrangement, and we pay her moto fare. She only lives just up in the town and she can leave all her possession in the bedroom ready for tomorrow.

It’s been a really lovely day, and we all feel relaxed and happy. Épi’s getting anxious about work in the morning; we need to be up and away by half past seven.

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