Monday, 9 March 2009

The Church of Momma - a walk on the wild side - "Slum Dog"

March 8th

A wonderful day today – just shows that the less you plan things, the more chance there is that stuff will work out fine….

We decide to go to church this morning. We’re fed up with the length and everything else about the Presbyterians, so we decide to go to Momma’s house service. Momma is the American lady – Arlene – who runs an orphanage up at Jacobiri on the Kigali road. We set off in good time and stop at the FHI office to pick up Anna, one of the two American gap year students. Turns out that she’s Armenian in ancestry, the same as Christi and also Tiga – what are the chances of finding three people of Armenian descent in a country as small as Rwanda and a circle as tiny as that of our volunteer friends?

Momma’s orphanage has about fifty children, but around half of them are away boarding at secondary school, so we have some two dozen on site with ages ranging from babies of less than a year to teenagers. The service is held in the lounge; there are no fewer than eight muzungus present which must seem a bit overwhelming for the children. All the muzungus except Tom and I have connections with the orphanage, but Tom and I are considered part of the extended family and we’ve already met all the other adult helpers.

The service is nice and informal; the children sing, with very young children showing consummate mastery of rhythm as they drum an accompaniment. (Momma won’t even consider having an electronic keyboard for worship, despite the pleas of all the children, because she knows it’ll descend into a loud, techno fest….. good for her!).

We have bible readings and two short “sermons”, both delivered by the children. It’s an unbeatable example of preparation for public speaking and knocks spots off anything I’ve ever seen in an English church. I can’t quite follow the thread of one of the older girls; she flits from the book of Job to Peter’s escape from prison in Acts, but she speaks without notes, fluently, and authoritatively. Most English teenagers wouldn’t know where to start….

The little children are allowed to roam round the room; the very small ones work their way round the adults for cuddles and attention. Two very little girls sing choruses in English and then collapse in fits of giggles as we all applaud. There’s lots of clapping to the drumbeats, too, and some of the boys are pretty well dancing as they sing.

At the end there’s a slot for “personal testimony”. One boy gives thanks that he has been selected for the district youth volleyball team. Someone else testifies that God helped him recover from illness; and another that he narrowly escaped serious injury when a volleyball post fell over and sideswiped him.

At this point Momma decides we’ve had enough personal testimony and ends the service. An hour and a quarter – just like Bradpole…..

Back at the flat we dine in style on leftovers from last night’s Mexican feast, and Tom cooks chicken pieces ready for Monday’s meal. Meanwhile Piet, the ophthalmologist, has rung and asked if we want to come for a walk in the afternoon. Tom decides he’s still tired; I’m up for it.

Piet has been out to Shyogwe in his car to pick up Michael and Tinks, and stops for me, too. The weather is very hot and sunny, but clouding up fast, and there could be a big storm on the way. So we decide to get our walk in as quickly as we can. We go all round Gitongati and Mushubati cells; they’re out on the main road towards Kibuye and I’ve been to all the local schools already. We walk further and further into the countryside, descending down into a stifling valley, with paths getting smaller and smaller until we’re on the tiniest track, zigzagging round the edges of fields. Piet’s houseboy has lived here all his life; he’s our guide.

Muzungus are as rare as hen’s teeth here, and four muzungus together brings everything to a halt. It’s Sunday afternoon; nobody is working. Everybody is either sitting in the sun, or dozing in the shade. Here and there we pass a little bar, with loud music and the air thick with banana beer fumes. We pick up the predictable train of followers, adults as well as children, who can’t resist tagging along to see where the muzungus are going. Some children run away from us in fear; others come up to us to greet us. We’ll be the talk of the area tonight.

In the bottom of the valley there is a beautiful stream with a series of small waterfalls. There’s also the remains of a very big house, with decorated, plastered walls, which looks as though it has been abandoned since 1994. It’s the most beautiful, tranquil spot, but I wonder what horrors happened here in April fifteen years ago…

After we cross the stream we have a long slog back uphill, past fields, through groves of eucalyptus, all the way back to Piet’s house. Much of the soil here is very sandy; there’s practically no humus left, and the bananas and cassava are meagre and stunted. Where steep slopes are being used, the heavy rains these last few weeks have resulted in deep erosion gulleys down through fields. The stream isn’t crystal clear, it’s brown with soil particles being washed away. This is another very poverty stricken part of the country. Most children are barefoot; some little children are playing naked in the road which is most unusual.

It’s by far the deepest any of us has been into the “real” countryside. Rwanda is like a fractal; the smaller and smaller scale you venture into it, the same patterns keep repeating. Even the tiniest little track is lined with huts where big families are trying to scrape a living off tiny plots of exhausted soil. Here and there are small plots abandoned – the soil has degraded into pure sand. I dredge the stream bed to see if I can find any bits of tin ore, but either there isn’t any or else someone has had the same idea before me.

Back at Piet’s house we drink beer and eat massive slices of his housekeeper’s pineapple upside down cake. Cécille, the housekeeper, is a lay sister and this weekend has been on retreat with her fellow sisters. She arrives back while we’re dozing and chatting on Piet’s veranda, and both Tinks and I have the same idea – to order a couple of cakes from her. I order two big pineapple cakes to take to my birthday bash at Gahini. Cécille is overjoyed; the money we give her will allow her a little pocket money profit, and we know the cakes will be top class.

Piet drives us back into town in time to eat at Nectar; he and Michael are both tired and don’t stay. Michael’s diabetic and is having some trouble with his sugar levels (most unusual because out here we eat very little sugar), and Piet’s just overworking himself. Sometimes he does 20 eye procedures in one day. They aren’t necessarily complicated in themselves, but the cumulative strain of doing twenty must be enormous. And he’s also heavily involved with trying to scrape up enough money to keep the eye department running at the hospital. For example, after checking eyesight for a group of Catholic priests, he managed to persuade the seminarian to let him come to Kigali and choose some artwork for the eye department walls at Kabgayi. All well and good, but everything takes so much time!

We are a big crowd for the meal – at least twelve, with Momma and two of the orphanage helpers coming. The food arrives promptly, too, and so everything’s going well tonight.

After the meal Moira and Kerry invite me back to their place to watch “Slum Dog Millionaire”. One of the Gitarama VSOs has a dodgy copy bought in Bangkok or somewhere similar, but it works, and we all want to see the film. The girls are working at the teacher training college attached to Kabgayi University, and it’s the first time I’ve been to their place. Their shared house is beautiful – big, airy bedrooms, a decent lounge, but with bathroom, loo and kitchen out the back under an awning. It’s rather similar to Tiga’s old set-up at Gikongoro.

So we make cups of tea, and take a long time to get the projector correctly working with the computer, but then sit down to watch the film. I’m not going to give the plot away, but it’s a riveting film and in my opinion it deserves all the praise and Oscars it has gathered. The sheer chaos of India seems a million miles removed from the relative calm and orderliness of Rwanda – it’s as big a contrast as that between England and Rwanda.

Part way through the film Teresa rings me; unfortunately the telephone reception at the girls’ place is terrible and we keep losing the line, so we have to put off our weekly “touching base” for another day.

Finally, at well after eleven o’clock, when even the Rwandan streets are almost deserted, I walk home in the moonlight and cool night air and fall into my own bed.

While I’ve been gallivanting, the flat next to ours has been re-occupied. It’s the new SORAS insurance branch manager. He’s a single man, so we won’t have to worry about screaming children (I assume), and provided he’s not a heavy metal fanatic we should be able to co-exist in peace.

Best thing about today – everything. A really nice Sunday. We’re planning another Sunday walk, this time an early morning one to climb Mount Mushubati before the dust spoils the view from its summit. Bring it on, I say!

Worst thing about today – not being able to talk to Teresa.

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