Monday, 23 March 2009

Am I 61 or 31?

March 14th

Well, another birthday dawns – dark and rainy! Honestly – I’ve come to the hottest, driest part of Rwanda only to find low cloud, rain, and a thunderstorm arriving. I’m sitting on the terrace at the guesthouse reading, waiting to see what the weather is going to do. I don’t want to go down to “Seeds of Peace” and risk getting soaked in a deluge on the way. The old lady who can only speak Kinyarwanda is outside again; this time she’s sweeping dirt from one side of the path to the other, only for the wind to blow most of it straight back again as soon as she’s passed.

By nine o’clock it’s too dark to read, and the thunder arrives with a vengeance, as does a tremendous rainstorm. The lake, about a kilometre away, all but disappears from view behind a wall of rain, and the force of the drops hitting the ground is such that earth and tiny gravel is blasted up onto the pavement outside the guesthouse that the old lady has just swept. She comes to shelter under the terrace roof, and natters away once again to me in Kinyarwanda.

Its gone eleven before the storm abates and I feel I can risk going down the hill for some breakfast! Opposite the guesthouse is Gahini secondary school, and the boarders have done their washing early this morning and strewn it along the hedges and fences all round the site. There’s barely a square foot without somebody’s clothes on it. Now, after the storm, they’ve all been washed twice and hang twisted and limp with excess water dripping everywhere.

At Seeds of Peace I order breakfast and I’m shown to the “breakfast room” – an almost empty lean-to with a dramatic leak in the roof which has poured water inside the building. It runs across the floor in a stream carrying a steady procession of drowned beetles and flies.

After breakfast I mooch down to the lakeside, find a shady spot and sit and finish my book. I’m not expecting any people to arrive before about two o’clock, and I’ve earmarked this time either for resolving any last minute problems or to relax or swim or just chill. It’s still grey and there’s a hint of drizzle to come, so it’s not really boating or swimming weather.

Eventually my first guests arrive – it’s the Gitarama gang and they’ve brought a picnic with them. This really is a stroke of good luck because we can all hang out as “our gang” before any of the others get here. Soraya has decided to take loads of pictures, and arty ones at that (you’ll find them in a separate blog posting). Janine has brought me a beautiful piece of material for another African shirt – its brown and slightly lustrous fabric. Perfect, because I have one shirt which has shrunk in the wash and is only fit for giving away to someone.

Soon there are loads of people turning up, and we have already taken over the entire Jambo Beach complex. Apparently there are so many coming down from Kigali that as soon as they see them in the bus ticket offices they just say “Gahini – OK?” to the muzungus and start writing tickets.

As other people arrive I set to organise who is staying where. This is more of a hassle than you’d think. I’ve been warned of “a group of ten of us” who want to stay in the Palace, but I’ve got no idea who the ten are. One group arrives from Kigali with a tent and joins the campers at Seeds of Peace. Soon we have just about completely filled the upper guest house; I reckon it’s a long time since the place was so full. The Palace is all but full, too, and we have a spot of confrontation with the caretaker who wants to charge everybody 15000 a room. No, no, no – Paula did the usual deal with the manager to take over the whole place for 80,000 – that’s 10,000 a room. With two people sharing a double bed or even a single bed that works out very cheaply per person. Why oh why don’t these Rwandans communicate with each other, or at least have a uniform system so that everybody knows there’s a set reduction if we take over the whole place. Cue some straight talking along the lines of “look, mate, 80,000 is more than you usually take in a fortnight or so. And if you’re going to get arsey then you’ll find this is the last time we VSO people come and stay with you”. The result is something of a stalemate because James, the manager and the only person who can make a decision, isn’t there. I tell everybody to assume its 10,000 and if there’s any fuss tomorrow Paula and I between us will sort things out.

It is constantly either drizzling or threatening to, and we split up into three or so bunches each in their own little rondavel. Tina has brought the “Taboo” game, so we get playing it. Heloise has brought “boggle”, and we can hear the rattle of the letters each time they start a new game.

Teresa rings to wish me happy birthday; one of the nicest things about today is that she has been to Jambo Beach and can visualise not only exactly where we are, but also she can remember some of the people who are here with me.

As it approaches teatime a second group arrives; they are Rwandans and it looks like a wedding party. They are booked in for 3.30 but its well after five when they arrive. Fortunately we have been allocated the big rondavel under shelter; the Rwandans are in the open. By now it has definitely stopped raining but everything is still a bit grey. It’s a pity about the weather; Jambo Beach needs plenty of sun to work its magic.

We set to decorate the rondavel – balloons (I discover that Épi is terrified of balloons popping in her face); birthday confetti which we strew across all the tables. More and more people arrive just as it gets dark; the music starts playing and we’re all set. There’s a minor hiccup with the food – I remind the waitress that we agreed on seven o’clock to eat; that it’s now quarter past, and what time can we expect the food. “Ten o’clock” she replies. I decide she’s joking or thick or both and go to find Kazungu. “Half an hour” he says. In the event the food arrives well before half an hour and everyone seems to enjoy it. The thing about having fish is that most people like it – there’s only two people who can’t or won’t eat fish out of forty (whereas plenty of them are vegetarians and wouldn’t eat beef or goat or chicken).

Kersti and Nick arrive in the car from Kigali; Hayley and Charlotte have had a full day’s work to do and won’t be here till late. I try to save some food for them, but somehow it gets eaten by others and then the waitresses clear away plates before I can stop them.

When Hayley and Charlotte eventually arrive they give me another present – a hideous wig which I’m ordered to wear for the rest of the evening. That means everyone takes pictures of me looking dumb and no doubt every single Rwandan blog by now has a picture of yours truly….

Rachel rings to wish me happy birthday, and Andy to tell me that Ireland has just thrashed the Scots and are in line for the “six nations” grand slam if they can beat Wales next weekend. Unfortunately the big St Patrick’s Day ball in Kigali is on Friday night rather than Saturday – can you just imagine the scene with every Irish person in Rwanda in one room, with cheap drink, and Ireland thrashing the whole of the rest at rugby…..

After the meal we get down to some serious dancing. I had wanted to do some folk dancing but it just wasn’t possible to get the music up together. Never mind. The music being played isn’t brilliant, and the speakers are pretty rubbish, but its all we need to dance to. We bop away (well, most of us) until around half past one when by and large we decide it’s time to call it a day.

All the clouds have gone; it’s a clear moonlit night and the walk home to the various guesthouses is so, so different from the previous night.

It’s been a great day and things have got steadily better as the day has drawn on. We’ve had no gatecrashers, nobody has been offensive or silly, and so far as I can see we’ve left the place tidy.

OK, so I’m now a year older but certainly no wiser and I’m definitely not going to “act my age” as long as I’m in Rwanda. I said in my birthday “speech” that there’s the age you are and the age you act. In my case the former is twice the latter. Nine more months to go in this beautiful country – bring it on, folks!

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