Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Umuganda at Gahogo

February 28th – March 1st

Today is umuganda day. This means a nice lie in, very much appreciated.

After breakfast I make up some Permethrin solution and douse my mosquito net in it, draping it over our rear balcony rail in case it pours with rain again this morning. As the solution drips out of the net and dries it leaves an oily mark all over the balcony; I must try to rinse it off with soapy water in the afternoon.

Christi and Danielle (one of the American gap year girls – the other one has succumbed to a tummy bug) come round at about half past eight armed with picks and shovels, and we set off to do umuganda with the Gahogo brigade. Our guard seems us leaving and rushes to his little store room, coming back with a shovel for me.

The sight of four muzungus walking up the main road obviously equipped for umuganda brings Gahogo to a standstill. We get laughed at, cheered on, but most of all just gawped at by everyone.

There always seems to be a lot more women doing umuganda than men, but in this particular little group we seem to have landed with the Atraco people – the taxi bus drivers and convoyeurs, who are overwhelmingly men. There must be well over a hundred people descending on a little dirt road in Gahogo, down near the school, where we are to dig out the roadside drains. These are getting choked with grass, and by turns have deep pot holes where a lorry could sink in and break its axle, or shallow runs where the torrential rainwater sluices over the road and wears away gulleys in the earth surface.

Of course, being Atraco, many of them have driven here in their taxi buses and we also get a lift to the final working place – all of a hundred yards away!

It’s a carnival atmosphere. We get a lot of ribaldry but now we’re able to give as good as we get; Christi especially because she’s pretty fluent in Kinyarwanda. Espérance, the head mistress of Gahogo primary is there, and comes up to welcome us, as do two of her teachers. It’ll do me no harm at all to have been seen doing umuganda by some of the teaching fraternity.

Within a few minutes we’re all getting stuck in and showing the Rwandans that we can indeed handle a shovel. It’s all good bonding stuff, and the fact that we’ve bothered to turn out is very definitely noted. (Later in the day, while I’m going round the market, one of the market women tells everyone around her that she saw me digging out the ditches this morning). It’s a humid morning, but fortunately without the burning sun that we had the last time we did umuganda.

The work’s not particularly hard; we dig for ten minutes and then rest while someone else who doesn’t have a shovel borrows ours and takes his or her turn. Where the rainwater has made deep gulleys it has exposed water pipes running down the road; I try to restrain a couple of the men from swinging their hoes too vigorously in case they chop right through the pipe. I’m also worried about electricity cables which might be buried just a few inches down, but fortunately we never find any.

By mid morning there are so many people working that someone decides we have done enough, and the immediate job of unblocking the drains is finished. There’s the usual confusion for twenty minutes while everybody waits for someone to make a final decision (and accept responsibility for the decision), and then all the Rwandans go off for a meeting. Now we know from last time that this means a two hour harangue in Kinyarwanda, so we are allowed to escape back to our flat. The girls can’t go back to their houses because just down the road we can see policemen stopping anyone from passing, and sending them back up to Gahogo for the meeting. So we hide in the flat, drink maracuja juice and discuss the state of religion.

Eventually normal life resumes; the hairdresser’s stereo comes on, taxi buses start passing, and women head towards the market with their bowls and sacks of produce. The girls leave, and after a few minutes I go out to do the market and buy some veg.

I make yet another of my soups for lunch, changing the recipe slightly and making a double batch. Tom wants to do his own thing so I freeze the second half of my soup; it’ll come in handy for lunch tomorrow when I get back from Kigali.

We spend a lazy afternoon; Tom makes a bean salad as his contribution to Christi’s party; I make an enormous fruit salad as my contribution to Kersti’s. It just fits into our biggest Tupperware box; getting it all the way to Kigali intact will be a logistical problem but I’ve double wrapped it in paper bags and then again in plastic bags.

I get the last bus into Kigali; there’s no point in arriving early. I’ve double wrapped my box of salad in two paper bags, two plastic bags and my big laundry bag – if the blasted thing leaks I don’t want fruit salad sloshing around the bottom of my rucksack! When I arrive in Kigali the whole town is lit up – except Kersti’s district which is in the middle of a prolonged power cut. We think it might be due to there having been two big sporting events at Amahoro stadium, both needing floodlights, and that this has caused the local power to trip out.

Irene and I light loads of tea lights to illuminate the room and the driveway, including a carefully arranged “kink” to avoid a muddy patch on the path! Meanwhile Nick is negotiating to hire a generator – not an easy job because half of the other families in the neighbourhood are doing the same thing.

The party is good fun, except that we don’t actually get the generator till late, which cuts down on the dancing, and the food doesn’t arrive till even later. Lots of people have brought puddings – we have the best collection of puds at any event I’ve been to since I arrived in Rwanda. Home made pecan and fudge pie is sensational!

Unfortunately I only know a couple of people at the party; most of them are Kersti’s colleagues from the American school, but towards the end of the night Cathryn and Marion arrive, Cathryn’s just given up her job at Mineduc because they will not get their act together and sort out what she’s supposed to do; and Marion has fallen out with her landlady and has been given notice to leave her lovely little house near theVSO office.
We decide to forgo clubbing this time, and eventually we all subside to bed at about half past two. A bit of an early night for Brucey’s partying weekends….

Nobody stirs on Sunday till well after ten; Kersti’s got up to go and give an English lesson to people in the town. The houseboy has cleared up most of the party debris. Irene and I put all the furniture back, and we want to make breakfast but there’s still no power. So we cheekily text Kersti and ask her to bring us back some proper coffees from Bourbon, and lo and behold, she does!

Breakfast is the remains of my fruit salad, lashings of it, and we pig ourselves on the remains of the puddi8ngs and cakes from the previous night.

We spend a lazy day, discussing the politics of Kersti’s American school. First of all she’s treading a very difficult path between evolution, intelligent design and out and out creationism – a difficult job for a science teacher, but faced with a faction among the parents who are bigoted and armoured inside their evangelistic leanings.

Secondly, the parents are intrusive into the staff’s domestic arrangements, and can’t understand that whether someone’s married or not has no bearing on their ability to perform their job as a teacher.

It reminds me how lucky I have been to spend all my teaching career in a state system with well defined rights and practices, and how vulnerable people are when they are teaching within the private system, especially when a religious foundation is hijacked by fundamentalists.

Back to Gitarama on a sweltering bus; the passengers always shut all the windows as soon as the bus pulls away; they’re terrified that the slightest draft will give them a chill or worse. In full sun, and on plastic seats, the journey becomes a bit of an ordeal and I’m glad we’re only on the bus for an hour or so.

In the evening we go to “Orion”, the posh new bar, to give it a second chance. Moira and Kerry are there with a whole bunch of colleagues from the teacher training college. We order our drinks and then see about food. The melange is stone cold. So new ask to warm it up in the microwave. The microwave is broken. So we ask for a plate of chips. No, can’t do chips – we need to order chips in the afternoon if we want chips…. We order samosas: no, can’t do hot samosas… And all this is after Tinks told them we were coming on Sunday and they had to get it right or else….

So we leave the place and go to Nectar and because only four of us are hungry enough to brave the wit at Nectar, we do quite well. Just what does it take to get a meal around here?

It has been a relaxing Sunday and we’ve all caught up on all the gossip. Funnily enough, many of the people I was expecting to see either at Kersti’s party or at the muzungu meal weren’t there, and I’m suddenly aware of just how many muzungus there now are in Kigali. When I first arrived we were a real rarity; now there are muzungus around every corner and you barely get glanced at in the capital. The villages, of course, are another matter altogether. And tomorrow I’m off up country.

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