Thursday, 30 April 2009

Piggies and free lifts

April 28th

Up early, boiling beans for fifteen minutes while I’m trying to eat breakfast! The intention is to cook up a kilo of beans tonight and freeze most of them (but, in true Rwandan fashion, things don’t work out that way). Into the office well before seven to give the internet modem to Claude. He’s standing outside the office looking helpless; turns out he’s left his keys at home and we’re all waiting for either Innocent or Valérian to turn up and let us in. Valérian is late, but Innocent not only turns up on time but gives me a spare key to the big office. (I’ve been moved out of my little office so that it can be used for the “inscriptions candidats libres” – for external candidates to fill in forms, pay their fees and register themselves for the state exams at secondary school level later in the year). Eventually I’ll get the “bureau bazungu” back for myself and Soraya! In the meantime there’s a steady queue of people waiting to register themselves; they congregate outside my window and peer over my shoulder to see what the muzungu is doing in the office.

I hurriedly print off my prompt sheets for inspections, then charge back down to the town centre to go to the bank. I’m waiting for twenty minutes for the bank to open and dodging the cleaner who is swilling buckets of water over the concrete apron outside the building, but at least I’m the first customer and by the time people realise the bank is open I’m served and out of the door. What a contrast to the usual hour long wait….!

In the bus park I meet up with Kerry and we hire motos to take us out to Gikomero. I’m back in Inspector mode, and this time I’m doing a proper Inspection of a primary school. I’m fed up with spending all day in front of a computer: I want to get out into the hills and visit a school. Gikomero is your typical average Rwandan primary. Its results, its buildings, its staff age and experience profile – everything is average.

Kerry is the Australian VSO working at the teacher training college near Kabgayi. The college works a two semester year, and at the moment they are between semesters which means she’s at a loose end for a couple of weeks. While she might be training teachers, she doesn’t get to visit many schools, so she’s jumping at the opportunity to come with me and see a real live primary out in the sticks.

It’s a lovely drive through the Mushubati mountains and down a long lane; by the time we reach the lane the morning mist has risen out of the valleys to meet us and its damn chilly on the pillion of the bike. We pass Gikomero Protestant school and head on another half mile downhill to the catholic primary. There are workmen digging a trench all along the main road to lay fibre optic cables. Rwanda is getting connected to the East African section of the global information highway and when everything is finished the new high speed data link will revolutionise communications here. We will have broadband even in the land of a thousand hills. In the meantime, the land along the Kibuye road is far too steep to use any machinery so the high tech cable to bring Rwanda into the satellite age is being laid by literally hundreds of men sweating away with picks and shovels!

When we reach Gikomero Catholic school the head comes out to welcome us, and we get on with the inspection. Gikomero has a huge site, and grows cassava, maize and peas. They also have five pigs (last year fourteen), so we get taken to see the piggies in their sty. All Celestin’s paperwork is in order, and we have time to chat before going to see some lessons. I’m tickled by the fact that this Catholic primary school runs a family planning club. It turns out that the secteur is demanding that all schools get heavily into family planning, and is a sign that the government is at last getting seriously worried about the burgeoning birth rate. But a family planning club doesn’t sit easily with the Catholic ethos of the school and Celestin is visibly uneasy about talking about it. I wonder how effective the club really is.

The school sits on a hilltop with astounding views in all directions. For 360 degrees you see a panorama of ranges and ranges of hills; near ones rearing up in front of you, with distant greyer ones filling the gaps in the horizon. It’s simply heartbreakingly beautiful, but poor, too – some local children who are too poor to go to school come to stare at us; their clothes are filthy and hanging off them.

I watch an excellent year one English lesson. The woman is teaching “stand up, sit down, open the door, shut the window” etc, and it’s made into an intensely practical experience. All the children are standing up and sitting down like jack-in-the-boxes, and the woman makes a game of the learning. They start by singing a little song in English, and their accents and pronunciation are spot on. She makes children come out and pretend to be the teacher and give instructions, all in English. In this rural backwater it’s heartening to see such a good lesson.

The year five English lesson is a disappointment. The young girl taking the class starts by saying “today we are going to do “indefinite pronouns”. My heart sinks. What in God’s name are indefinite pronouns? I hope she doesn’t ask me to start things off. The woman is nervous and unsure of her material; she keeps consulting her file of notes, but conspicuously doesn’t use the pile of English textbooks on the table in front of her.

We end up covering vocabulary such as “someone/anyone/no one, something/anything/nothing” etc. Most of the children get the idea, but we end up with sentences from children like “What is in my bag? – Nobody is in my bag”. Oops, we need to review this lesson next time!

I’m intending to watch a third lesson before lunchtime, but while I’m walking back to the head’s office for instructions, the heavens open and it pours steadily for half an hour. The lovely landscape disappears in a veil of grey rain, and the earth turns liquid in front of our eyes. Even the fifty yards from Celestin’s office to the nearest classroom block is out of the question in this rain. We stand on the porch of the head’s office, dodging the drips coming down from holes in the roof. The earth road in front of the school becomes a river. You can see stones being rolled over and over in the force of water coming down hill and wearing deep ruts in the road surface. A man and woman pushing a bike heavily laden with potatoes come in from the road and shelter with us. They’re both soaked to the skin, with cheap sandals from which mud and rainwater are oozing with every step. But they’re cheerful and content. Rainwater cascades from the gutters of the head’s office, all over the sacks of spuds on the back of the bike.

Eventually the rain stops and the neighbouring hills reappear through the murk. Kerry and I take our leave and walk up through the long lane to the main road, with the usual tail of children following us. As we pass the Protestant schools we see two muzungus on motor bikes – it turns out that Michael and Tina have decided to visit the Prot school today, so unbeknown to us there have been two other VSOs working within half a mile of us. Michael and Tina have ordered motos to take them home. Cheapskates me and Kerry are going to walk to the main road and wait for a matata. All along the road people speak to us – adults, children, singly or in groups. Interestingly, nobody asks us for money. One muzungu on foot is a rarity; two are going to be a talking point for the rest of the day!

And when we reach the main road, wait for a matata is exactly what we do – we stand by the roadside for nearly forty minutes. The only vehicle that passes going in our direction is a lorry, and lorries never pick up passengers. Two small children stand and gawp for a good twenty minutes. They are both carrying the prickly tops of pineapples, but we can’t work out why. Eventually a pickup truck appears. I flag it down, and the two men give us a lift to the middle of Gitarama. The two men are going to Kigali with what looks like a truckful of charcoal. They are intrigued as to what two muzungus are doing in the middle of the countryside, so we explain (or at least I do; Kerry doesn’t speak much French). I offer the men money to buy a fanta in payment for our ride, but they refuse all money – the first time that’s ever happened to me in Rwanda!

We eat in “Tranquillité” and I go back to the Office. Emmanuelle has phoned me about the missing census sheets for Shyogwe, and I think she’s saying she’ll bring them in during the afternoon. Needless to say this doesn’t happen. I’m also missing data for Musambagiro school. I know the school must exist, but I have no phone number and no contact information for it. I even have its maternelle statistics, but the primary school figures seem to have disappeared into a black hole. I know there must be information to come, because the secteur rep’s “synthese” for Kibangu secteur doesn’t match my figures, and it appears I’m about 200 children short. I’ll have to get their phone number from Claude tomorrow.

I get all the secteur summary sheets of census information to check back at home. The secteur reps have done summaries for their patches, and I need to see if my figures agree with theirs. As I’m leaving the office a “Horizon” bus is just leaving outside the building. It stops, and I’m invited in. Inside is Nadine, the booking clerk from Gitarama, and the local manager. They recognise me as a regular customer and give me a lift back to the middle of town. I think that’s really lovely – two free lifts in one day. I’m clearly becoming something of a fixture in this town!

Back at the flat, as the second thunderstorm of the day bangs and crashes around us, I try matching up my census figures with those of the secteur reps. Most of them tally, but two are miles out and I’ll need to spend a lot of time combing back through the information to see who is right and who has made mistakes.

All afternoon the phone has been ringing. Kersti wants information about a VSO working at the holocaust information centre in Kigali. Becky, the new Canadian volunteer, rings to say she isn’t allowed out of Kigali for the time being, so can’t come and stay with us. Jenny, the VSO on leave from Eritrea, rings to say she’s in Kigali with a friend and can she come to stay for a couple of days. Hayley rings to say the girls now have a second “couch surfer” guest and do Tom and I want to join them for evening meal tonight at Nectar.

I try ringing the head at Gasave school which I want to inspect tomorrow. I get through to him but there’s so much background noise I can’t understand what he’s saying to me. Either he’s in the middle of a noisy party, or he’s on a bus with everyone having to shout their conversations over each other. That’s twice in one afternoon I’ve had conversations in French with headteachers without really being able to understand what they’re saying to me. It’s getting a bit worrying. Is my hearing going, or my French? My ability to understand Kinyarwanda French doesn’t seem to be improving much with time, which is a bit disheartening.

Needless to say, I never get round to writing up my Gikomero inspection report. We eat at “Nectar” and it’s late when we get home. Tom and the two couch surfer boys – Steve and another Tom – are going to the Orion club for more drinks. I’m a tired little soul and more than ready for bed. Inspection report, cooking beans, ringing schools – they’ll all have to wait for tomorrow. After all, this is Africa not England. There’s always another day.

I’m trying to plan what I’m going to do at the weekend. We have Friday off (Labour Day), so it’s a three day break, and I ought to do some travelling. Tina is already committed to going to Nyungwe, and Joe from Nyamasheke is going to Butare, so most of my planned excursions are not on. Épi isn’t sure what she’s doing; it would be a good time to do a painting party at her house if she’s serious. Or perhaps the two Eritrean girls would like to come to Kibuye for some R and R by the lakeside? Oh well, that’s also going to be tomorrow’s problem.

Best thing about today – going out into the countryside to do a school.

Worst thing – not being able to get all the follow up work done. I’m creating a lot of loose ends.

Number crunching

April 27th

I’ve decided to work in the office today and see if I can get through all the backlog of primary school census sheets. So I’m there just before seven, with Claude, Valérian and Védaste all waiting to use the internet modem!

I do a full working day – slogging through at the computer from seven till mid-day, and from one till three thirty. That’s a lot of time to be keying in information, and my eyes are feeling the strain by the end of the afternoon. But when I leave the office I have done all the primaries except for four schools which have not sent us their data. Three of them are in Shyogwe secteur, and I text Emmanuelle to ask her if she has the figures. My guess is that she has them somewhere in her papers, and I don’t want to embarrass her by going to the schools directly when they have already given her their papers.

There’s a “Guardian Weekly” come in for Hayley and I, and it’s a recent one, so I take half an hour out when I reach home and sit and read the paper. Then I start to go to work on supper. I have bought a kilo of dried French beans (ibishimbo) at the market, but they need sorting bean by bean to remove grit, mud and anything worse which might be mixed in with them. That alone takes a good half hour, and eventually I boil them. The way to do dried beans is to boil for fifteen minutes and then let them cool slowly. Rest them overnight and do the same again next morning. Then when you need to cook them to eat they’ll only need another twenty minutes or so. It saves on gas.

Tom is working very late indeed at Kigali, so I make a meal for myself and the guard and then listen to music for the rest of the evening. I’ve transferred so much music from other people onto my laptop that I’m continually discovering stuff I didn’t know I’d got! (Tonight I listen to an entire Orishas CD which has escaped me).

During the evening I ring Gikomero Catholic primary school and arrange to go out to inspect them tomorrow. After all the statistics today I decide I need to be out in the fresh air and away from my laptop all tomorrow!

Best thing about today – getting through an enormous pile of paper in far less time than it took me last year!

Monday, 27 April 2009

Party animal

April 25th – 26th

Umuganda again. It seems to come round more and more often. Tom is off to the Burundi border with one of the FHI interns, so I’m on my own all day. A nice relaxing time. I go to the market and make up a massive coleslaw to take to Irene’s party in the evening. On a whim I put some chicken madras curry powder in it and it lifts it nicely!

Irene’s do is a cool party; but it’s the one party where I’d definitely expect to go clubbing afterwards – but we don’t. There’s good food, including brochettes made with some kind of cheese that when it’s grilled fluffs up like savoury marshmallow. Absolutely melt in the mouth.

I’m supposed to be sleeping at Kersti’s, but Nidhi’s friend Jacob is totally wasted as a result of late nights and early starts and a school trip to Akagera. By mid way through the evening he’s out for the count, and on “my” bed. So I go home with Nidhi and sleep in her spare room. She lives right in the middle of Kigali, barely a couple of hundred yards from the main bus park. Couldn’t be more convenient!

Sonya is at the party; there’s been a reception at the house of the Irish ambassador or chargé d’affaires in Kigali. She’s gobsmacked at the luxury these diplomatic types live ion, and the extent to which they’re all insulated from and ignorant of the daily realities of Rwandan life which we all face as volunteers. I reckon we know far more than they ever will about the daily grind in the countryside!

Becky, the new volunteer, has only been in the country for 48 hours, and is sitting in “Beau Séjour” guesthouse with nothing to do. She’s been to present herself to the Canadian chargé, but that only takes a few minutes. So I ring her up and Épi and I walk the few hundred yards from Kersti’s place to the guest house and bring her to the party. Within a few minutes she’s met three serving VSOs and two or more former ones, and she’s beginning to get integrated into the gang. It really is the pits for volunteers who come on their own in between the main group arrivals. There’s no inc-country briefing and no chance to bond with friends. And the people you arrive with become your closest friends and allies during your time here.

Nidhi and I take a taxi to her place around half past two, dropping Sonya off at the place she’s crashing in on the way.

Sunday is a late start to the morning, and a leisurely chat with Nidhi before making my way back to Kigali. Back home I’m tired, but manage to get a bit of Office work done so while away the time before our evening meal.

Tonight we’re trying the “Green Garden”, which scores well on every count when there are just a couple of you using it. And it's only a few hundred yards up the road from us.

With twelve people it’s a different story. We wait for two and a half hours for our food. When it comes it is good, and they’ve got the orders all correct, but by the time we’re eating we’re mostly past hunger. We decide that next week we’ll come in and warn them earlier in the day so they can at least start to get stuff ready. This wretched Rwandan tendency to work on tiny margins so that they’ve barely got the charcoal stoves lit just in case nobody orders food and they’ve wasted fuel in vain…..

All in all it’s been a good weekend. And I’ve got a full day of work at the office tomorrow, so I feel relaxed and unstressed.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Gitarama nightlife reaches take off point!

April 24th

Into the office before seven o’clock and working hard at census data for four hours. By eleven o’clock I’ve entered up almost all the maternelle data dna a few extra primary school sheets and I’m feeling pleased with myself. But I need to stop because I’m getting eye strain and my wrists are aching with all the repetitive keyboarding.

Védaste has gone off with the internet modem, but it doesn’t seem to be working in our building. We can get a connection but nothing is uploading or downloading. I’m convinced that someone else in the District Office is downloading videos or some such and taking up all the bandwidth. So I persuade Valérian to let me take the modem home to see if it works better in Gahogo. And it does in the afternoon!

I make a batch of potato and carrot soup for lunch; it’ll do me three times. But next time I really must put less chilli in – this batch is to hot it makes my lips go numb after a while!

In the afternoon I do another hour or two’s data imputing, then I have done six hours and I feel I’ve earned my keep for the day. I make a big batch of bean salad (dried beans and French beans) ready for the evening.

Tom’s been to the post office today and there’s a bumper batch of mail for just about everyone except him.

In the evening we go to Kavumu to Kerry and Moira’s party, complete with bean salad (me) and a big bag of teddy bear biscuits (Tom) and we’re partying till around eleven. At the party are around 12 VSOs or FHI volunteers, and about twenty lecturers and senior students from the teacher training college. There’s great food and tons of beer, so we’re pretty merry by the time the beer finally runs out. Then we persuade the Dean of the college to let his driver take around twenty of us to the new Gitarama nightclub in the college pick-up truck. We’re most of us sitting in the open back section, and the few Rwandans out on the streets have the spectacle of a car full of whites chugging past them.

At the nightclub we have a live band, and a pretty good one, too. Now this is revolutionary for Gitarama. In sixteen months I’ve only seen one live band before. The music is good, there are around 400 or so people jammed into the outside drinking area where the band is playing. But there are only a dozen or so women there apart from our VSO girls and a couple of very brave female college staff. (All good Rwandan girls are expected to be home by 8pm; in traditional families the father would bolt the door at eight. If his daughter was not home by then it was assumed that she was carrying on with a man, and that she had therefore lost her good name. The family would react by disowning her, and bolting the door was the symbolic act of repudiation). Some families still take the whole thing very seriously, and Janine’s is one of them.

There’s Manchester City playing Hamburg on the telly (without sound, and much better that way), and thudding music, and some very drunk Rwandans who immediately try to latch on to our volunteer girls. When the locals get too attentive (i.e. every couple of minutes) the girls come to me or Tom and we give them a proprietorial cuddle as if we own them, and to discourage the Gitarama gallants. Sometimes it works.

At midnight our muzungu crowd starts to split up. Some people want to go clubbing, but I know I’ve got a heavy night tomorrow so decline. (YES, I decline a chance to go clubbing. How sad is that?) I’m convinced there won’t be more than twenty people in the club anyway. So it’s back home having drunk too much and feeling badly dehydrated

But hey, look what’s happening in Gitarama – Friday night party; live band, a viable nightclub….. Verily this place is moving into the 21st Century. Tom’s gone to the nightclub; I wonder if he’ll dance. (I wonder if he’ll get grabbed and pushed onto the dance floor by a Rwandan bloke…).

It’s a really great end to the week.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Some of Soraya's pictures of Kampala

These pictures show you what Kampala is like at street level. They don't need captions! Double click to enlarge.





Some more portraits from Soraya's camera


sunset on the beach, SSese

Shaking our bones in the world's crummiest matata, om Ssese


Our colleague Els, a second generation VSO!

Action stations; it's good to be busy again

April 23rd

Today I spend the entire day at home, entering census data into my laptop. It’s not difficult work but you need to keep checking everything because if I transcribe anything wrongly it will mess up the District data, and I know that Claude and everybody else will be relying on my figures being accurate. Its not helped by the fact that the primary heads seem to be using at least four different versions of the census form (every year they fiddle around with the layout and add or delete one or two questions; most of my schools are using photocopies of previous year’s forms so the new questions for this year aren’t addressed at all). Then there’s the forms with so many crossing out and typex alterations that they’re almost impossible to read. Then there’s the script these people use when they write numbers – 1 and 7 are difficult to distinguish at times, as are 2 and 9.

By the end of the day I have details of around 40,000 primary children and around 10,000 maternelle pupils. That’s about two thirds of the total, but there are various schools which haven’t sent their forms in and which I know will need weeks of chasing. By and large the secteur reps have done an excellent job, and for some secteurs I have all the census sheets, in alphabetical order, and a secteur summary as well.

Janine is working all day for FHI so she send her sister Rosine round to do our cleaning and bring back my massive pile of washing. I’ve never seen Rosine before; she doesn’t look anything like Janine at all. Janine is tall and slender; Rosine is much shorter and stockier. If she hadn’t introduced herself I would never have imagined who she was (just another young woman coming to my door…..). She does a very thorough job of the cleaning.

Tiga texts to say she’s back and that she’s brought some spices etc for Tom and I. Somehow I’ve got to get my bones to Butare and link up with her.

Kerry and Moira have invited us all to a party at their place on Friday (tomorrow); I’ve said I’ll make a bean salad and bring it with me. Good lord; that’s two parties in two days!

In the evening I do a quick whip round the market and cook for us. The American gospel singer who came with an FHI visiting team a month or so ago has sent Tom a clutch of her CDs, so in the evening I listen to one. The sound engineering is excellent, and it makes nice background music. The words are a bit too worthy and twee for my taste, but if this CD is anything to go by, then Christian music has come on a long way.

I was going to write a separate entry for yesterday (Wednesday), but I can’t be bothered and I’m too busy. More of the same – working mainly from home with visits to the office to see if anything’s happening. On the way home from the office, twice now this week, I’ve been picked up by the two Chinese road engineers who gave me a lift home from somewhere out on the Ngororero road last month. They are about the rebuild the main road inside Gitarama (hooray), and they seem to have adopted me as a local. When I can arrange it I’ll have them round one evening for a beer. They’re nice lads.

Charlotte and Hayley are safely back from South Africa; they brought me a big packet of roibosh tea as arranged, and for Tom a bar of Toblerone. The choc is still in the fridge after four days, which is something of a record for Tom!

Wednesday afternoon was mad here at the flat. First of all I have Delphine round for an English lesson. The, as soon as she’s gone, Soraya comes round to bring me some census papers that have come in during the day. Then, before she’s even left the building, Moira and Kerry come round to ask me if the MINEDUC training is on or not. It isn’t – we’ve had yet another message from Charlotte saying it’s been postponed. That could mean I have to drop out – knowing my luck they’ll re-schedule it during the period when Catherine is here staying with me.

Then as soon as Moira and Kerry leave, John-Robert arrives for his English lesson. For each of these visitors I have made cups of tea, and had one myself. I’m running to and from the bathroom all evening and half the night.

Final nice thing about Wednesday – Tom and I can’t be bothered to cook, so we eat out at the “Green garden” which is a nice new eatery half a kilometre up the main road towards Shyogwe. Very nice brochettes and ibirayi, beautifully served, prompt service and ice cold beer. Life is good, except that it turns into an amazingly cold night, with mist. Our breath is clouding in the air, and we’re sitting out in the garden to eat…. I wouldn’t mind betting it was hotter in Dorset on Wednesday night!

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Worms

Here is a charming extract from the front page of today's "New Times" newspaper. And we're not talking about garden worms here... Where else in the world would worms make the front page?

The Ministry of Health in partnership with Access Project are set to launch a mass de-worming campaign for the adult population in villages situated around lakes Ruhondo and Burera in the Northern Province. The two-day de-worming operation will begin with the population around these lake areas because they have the highest number of people infected with worms,” Kayumba told The New Times.

Nationwide surveys carried out recently also revealed that most of the people living around fresh water bodies where water snails and those parasites breed, suffer from intestinal worms or bilharziasis. “This is a parasitic disease caused by trematode worms (flukes). Such diseases are called NTDs because other diseases have more attention and funding compared to these diseases.”

A statement from Access Project also indicates that this campaign will be the second round against Bilharzias which is prevalent in the two Northern Province Districts.
“About 40,000 adults from the same villages were treated in the first deworming campaign that was held in April 2008,” the statement reads in part.

In a related development of fighting NTDs, over 3 million children countrywide have been treated for intestinal worms and schistosomiasis in the last three weeks.
An estimated 3,239,000 school children were treated for intestinal worms while more than 90,000 were treated for schistosomiasis. The ministry in conjunction with its partners ensures that all people countrywide get treatment against NTDs every six months through mass drug treatment.

Water tank for Cyeza School - a look at the site


A general look at the school with the older, substandard rooms nearest to you.


This is where the tank will be sited, where the flowers are, in the join between the two brick buildings.


The three secondary classrooms; these are far and away the best rooms in the school.


The near block is for the secondary students; the far one is the upper primary. The tank will be sited in the gap between the two blocks


The block for upper primary; we will draw water from this roof into our tank


Jeanne (left) and Jacqueline in their office

Doling out the dosh in Cyeza

April 20th

First day of term. Into the office well before seven. Claude’s already there, but nobody else. Unfortunately Claude’s forgotten his modem, so the first main job of the day is nullified.

A clutch of census forms have arrived during the holidays, so I spend two hours getting them all logged. Our new tronc commun sections are very quick in responding to requests for information, and half of them have already sent in their returns. (Perhaps it reflects the light work loads of their head teachers at the moment)!

It’s another beautiful day outside, warm, sunny, and with perfect visibility. The volcano was beckoning to me as I left our flat…..

By now it’s starting to cloud up and it looks as if it might rain. I leave the office and return to the flat. Janine seems to have changed her cleaning days from Monday and Thursday to Tuesday and Friday, so our bags of dirty washing are still in pride of place in the lounge.

I grab a bag of money and set off on a moto to Cyeza school, having first checked that the headteachers are there. It’s a long time since I ventured up the Great North Road. In places they have been filling in the ruts with fresh earth, but where we have had rain the earth has turned to mud, and the first lorries to go through have dug new ruts into the surface. The only solution is to tarmac the roads, and a road as important and well used as this one is desperate for an all weather surface. I’m beginning to think that little illustrates the extent of poverty in Rwanda as much as the state of our rural roads.

At Cyeza I spend some time talking to Jeanne (the head of the primary section) and Jacqueline (tronc commun head). These two women get on well together and work as a team. One has the degree, the other has the local knowledge and experience.

When I leave they are happy people, and with good reason. I have given them a wad of half a million francs, the first of four instalments towards building a water tank for the school.

We discuss the site – Jacqueline has done her homework and we identify the perfect position. There are no tin roofs at the school, but two big, long blocks with tiled roofs in good condition. If we put the tank on the gable end of one of these blocks we can lead guttering from both blocks to the tank, and it should fill in no time at all!

Cyeza has four blocks of classrooms. One, the oldest, dates back to the late 50s or early 60s. It is in semi-dur, riddled with termites; the roofs are too low and the rooms too small. These rooms are still very much in use but are beyond redemption, and any money spent in refurbishing them will be wasted. They need knocking down and replacing. Another block is also in semi-dur but the rooms are bigger, higher, and in much better condition. That leaves two blocks in brick which are in a reasonable state; one has three rooms and is being used by the three classes of the first year of tronc commun; the other has the older primary pupils.

Jacqueline and I talk about problems for the future – unless the government builds three more rooms this year and three in 2010 there will not be anywhere to put next year’s intake of secondary children. And another reason for siting the water tank in its proposed position is that it leaves room at the far end of the school site for more buildings. The only downside is that the site they have chosen for their tank is the school’s one and only little patch of garden which doesn’t get regularly trampled by hundreds of little feet. It is a riot of flowers at the moment and looks very pretty. Never mind; I’m sure they’ll find somewhere else for their plants.

I impress on Jeanne and Jacqueline that we need to get a move on with the tank. I’ll give them three more instalments of money when they need it. I make it clear the tank is for all the children, primary and tronc commun, and that the money isn’t to be used for anything else until the tank is finished. (If there’s a small sum left over at the end of the work, they can spend it on whatever they like). We agree that they’ll ring me when there’s progress so I can come and take more pictures for the Bridport community.

The only thing I regret about today is that there were no children out of classes to pose for me in the pictures, but I’ll sort that out when I come next time. At least people in Bridport can get an impression of what the school looks like.

Sally, the short-term VSO who was working at Cyeza last term, has also given the school a small sum of money, and the women want to use it to refurbish the “admin block” (i.e. mud brick hut). The room they are using as their office they want to make into a staff room, and the small store room behind it they intend to convert into their joint office. It’s a sensible idea, and realisable with the money they have. But the Bishop quite rightly points out that the roof of this building is in bad repair, and when it rains heavily they have to reposition furniture away from the drips. The roof needs re-tiling, and a proper ceiling putting in to replace the roseaux (elephant grass canes) which at the moment are all that separates the room from the roof tiles. Periodically bits of bird dung drop down from in between the roseaux. So what they have decided to do is to hang on to Sally’s money for a few months and see if Kabgayi Diocese can come up with some funding for the roof, and then use her money to make the internal alterations.

I leave the school feeling very positive. It’s nice to see the two heads working as a team, and it isn’t always like this, believe me!

While I have been visiting the school my moto driver has been lounging in the sun out on the dirt road. I’m paying him the usual rate for a trip to Cyeza, so he’s on to a good thing and knows it. The sky is getting even more cloudy when I finish at the school, and we get back to Gitarama pronto before it rains.

Back at the flat I start to do some analysis of the census data. The tronc commun returns are only half there but already you can see trends. The teachers are overwhelmingly male. There are a lot more girl pupils than boys (I’m pleased with this because it is the education of girls and women which will eventually change Rwanda’s culture); the average age of first year secondary pupils is 16, reflecting the number of times they have to repeat years, and the extent to which the lack of free secondary schooling in the past has held children back. Less than 10% of the teachers have degrees, and for around 80% their only qualification is to have finished secondary school themselves. Very few indeed have received any formal training in how to teach.

And you all know from my previous blogs that there’s barely a single textbook in any of the tronc commun sections in the whole District. It’s no good expecting miracles from such a situation, and progress in Rwanda will come in little bites while the rest of the world moves ahead in giant strides…..

Tom is late returning from work; I’m getting quite concerned about the hours he’s putting in and the stress he’s putting himself under. He desperately needs a proper holiday. I start the cooking and we dine in style – avocado, a mega main course with eight vegetables including imboga boiled with peas and French beans (takes the bitterness out of the imboga), and for a pud we treat ourselves. I have an enormous Christmas cake which I’ve been saving for a rainy day (Ed: you mean you just forgot about it), and we break into it. It’s perfect!

I spend the evening watching a video (The Usual Suspects), and by the time that finishes it really is time for bed!

Best thing about today – everything except not being able to post blogs and email home. It’s been a good, productive day.

Worst thing – Teresa hasn’t rung either on Sunday evening or Monday. I hope all’s well at home.

to church at Momma's orphanage

April 19th

As I’m getting up I notice its grey outside. I need to nip across to the baker’s and get fresh bread, so have a quick shower and dress. By the time I’m dressed you can see cloud coming up the valley opposite, and it’s so thick that it’s just like a curtain being drawn across the far side of the main road. Immediately the cloud reaches us its starts raining heavily. We wait nearly an hour until the main downpour eases, and then I run across the road to get bread

By now it’s time to leave for church. We’re going to have to miss breakfast. We get motos to Tom’s office because it’s still drizzling at Gahogo, but by the time we reach his office, a hundred or so feet lower in altitude, it’s not raining. At the office we get one of the FHI pickup trucks, and pick up Nathan (Tom’s new FHI intern), and then go to the “Hotel Spendide” to pick up two more young Americans who are on a very short, fortnight, placement with FHIU in Gitarama. So we descend on the “church of Momma” at her house as five muzungus. We are something of a distraction to her orphans!

The service is lovely. Just one hour long, informal, with the main bits being translated between English and Kinyarwanda.

After church Tom has to go to Kigali to sort out problems and attend a volunteer’s leaving party, so I go back to the flat and cook up a big dinner. In the afternoon I finish writing my Uganda blogs ready to post, and catch up on some emails I need to send to people.

At the muzungu meal in the evening we have some of the new FHI people, plus Ulrika’s successor. Ulrika finishes her tour of duty and leaves for Germany in a fortnight or so. Her successor is Andre, who is fluent in English and French as well as German. She has her Senegalese partner with her, and her 18 month old son who is a real cutie. So we have twelve eating which is one of the largest for some time (and that’s excluding Soraya, Hayley and Charlotte who are away at the moment).

It’s been a quiet weekend and I’m more than ready to start some proper work tomorrow!

Vegetables galore and a fishy tale for the evening

April 18th

A bright and sunny Saturday. Tom’s off to Kigali to meet some people arriving at the airport; it turns out their flight is delayed and he’s stranded for most of the day at Kanombe waiting for Ethiopian Airlines to fix their plane and get it to Rwanda.

We have absolutely no vegetables left in the house so I go round the market and do a big shop up. The Saturday market in Gitarama is getting bigger and bigger and taking up more and more space. In the “informal” section the sellers are jammed in so close together that it’s really difficult to get through them. Its not helped by the number of people who stop in the only available piece of unoccupied land and have a good gossip for thirty minutes at a time. Then there are the small children and teenagers who are so bored that the sight of a muzungu doing the market is an irresistible attraction; I end up with a “tail” of a dozen or so kids all peering at me buying avocadoes as if I was doing do magical business.

Back at the flat I have Delphine coming round for her English lesson, and I have to quickly prepare some materials. Then I set to and make up a batch of soup; it feeds Delphine and I and makes two boxes full to put in the freezer. That’s two lunchtimes sorted for next week!

In the afternoon Tina comes round to collect her post and we catch up on each other’s news. Tiga is back after her operation in France, which is good news. Almost everybody is back in town now; just Charlotte and Hayley who don’t return from South Africa until Monday.

The afternoon is beautiful weather, hot and clear and without any threat of rain. I take myself off for a walk in the countryside, but it gets jading as nearly everyone I pass asks for money. Much worse than on any previous occasion. Some are saying it for fun, others really mean it. If things are like this across Rwanda then we‘re far more into a “dependency culture” than I realised.

In the evening Tom and I decide to eat out, and we go to the bar just up the road from our flat. There’s a music system playing a lot of our favourite East African music, but the sound is so distorted it sounds as if the speakers are under water. Tom orders fish brochettes, I order goat brochettes and ibirayi. The waiter returns after five minutes and he and Tom try to have a conversation in Kinyarwanda which I can’t really follow. The only bit we both understand is that we’ll have to wait quite a while for our food. That’s no problem – we usually do!

While we’re waiting for our order, the lights keep going on and off. There seems to be a problem at the restaurant – all the rest of the area is still lit up. I think what’s happening is that a fuse has blown because the circuit is overloaded, so in good old Rwandan tradition they just keep putting in new fuses without reducing the load on the circuit. So each new fuse lasts about ten seconds and then blows. Eventually the penny drops and somebody does something to the circuit. We’re lit up. Then a few minutes later somebody obviously plus in the extra gadget and we start the whole fuse blowing process again. Well, it helps while away the time it takes our meal to arrive….

When the food comes we realise that what the waiter was actually saying was that they had no fish brochettes left, but would he like a whole Tilapia fish? And Tom, without fully realising what he was ordering, had said yes. So suddenly we’re faced with a meat feast – brochettes and a full sized fish. Of course, we agree to go halves and we attack the food with gusto. By the time we’ve finished we’re bloated. It has cost a lot more than we expected, but its good food and we can afford it.

Back at the flat we both decide we’re tired and opt for an early night. Meanwhile the nightclub near to us is just getting started and pumps out the beat until after the call to prayer tomorrow morning!

Best thing about today – just enjoying a quiet day.

Teacher training in Kigali

April 17th

Off early to the District Office to pick up teaching materials, and then on a bus to Kigali. Britney has persuaded me to come and do some training for the teachers at her school in the city. (Britney is an American girl who started off working for Momma in Gitarama, but then left and has ended up working in a little school owned and started by Meg, who is one of the original Rwandan VSOs who has settled down in the country and made it her home).

We have a tense few minutes while I’m trying to find exactly where the school is; it sits close to the city centre in a part of Kigali I usually pass through without stopping. Britney comes down to meet me and escorts me through a maze of alleyways which I would hardly dare to venture into by daytime, and certainly not at night. As we climb up the hill Britney is besieged by children who attend the school; obviously she is popular with all the children.

At the school I’m introduced to the teachers, and get started on the training session. Outside the classroom there are a dozen or so women working on sewing machines; they are being trained to earn a proper living. Many of these women are former prostitutes, and the regular income they can earn from the needle skills will hopefully keep them off the streets (not to mention keep them AIDS-free) for the rest of their lives.

One big bonus of doing this training is that we negotiate a special discounted rate for cutting and sewing rice sacks if I need any doing in the future. Since I must have around 400 left in the office, that could amount to a tidy saving over the year.

At the end of the morning I say my farewells. I hot foot it up to Remera and the VSO office, and pay off my emergency loan to VSO (see the blog entry for April 3rd). I catch up on emails, and in the afternoon there is a meeting of the Capacity Building working party. We have a long discussion about our role, and eventually decide we’re going to disband (the group hasn’t met in many months). There are new working groups for those volunteers in education and disability, and I seem to be on all of them, so I’m getting worried about the number of days I could potentially have to trek in to Kigali. Claude wouldn’t be happy. (In fact he texts me this morning while I’m on the bus, asking me to come in to the office with my laptop, and I have to put him off until Monday).

Bad news in one email – the Dutch Randstad company isn’t able in the present circumstances to send any more money for our Shyogwe School building project, and we’re left with four partially completed rooms. Sometime next week I’ll have to break the bad news to Stéphanie; in the meantime there’s a block of 2200 Euros which seems to have got lost in the ether in transit between VSO Holland and VSO Rwanda, or between Kigali and Shyogwe Diocese. That might even need yet another trip to Kigali to try to resolve.

Worse news is to come. I’m able to fight my way through the rush hour traffic back to the city centre, and catch a bus home to Gitarama. Soraya turns up on the same bus, so we can chat as we travel. She tells me that Shelina, a lovely Pakistani-Canadian volunteer who was with us in the summer, has had a horrific car accident while doing a short-term stint as a volunteer in Sierra Leone. The poor girl has had to be helicoptered to hospital, and then flown home for facial reconstruction surgery. Judging by the tone of her emails to Soraya she’s making light of the extent of her injuries, and certainly her mental faculties and sense of dry humour are all there. But poor girl – it’s a terrible thing to happen to anyone, and certainly to someone as hard working and as intelligent as Shelina. I shall send her an email.

Nathan comes over once more for a meal, and we make a big feast mainly out of left overs from yesterday. Quesadillas, fresh salad and Spanish omelette with fried rice make a filling meal, washed down with a Primus. Just as we’re finishing Kerry, Moira and Bridget come over to collect Kerry’s parcels, and we chat with the girls for a while. It’s nice that our flat is becoming a drop-in point for all the Gitarama volunteers.

By nine o’clock I’m definitely winding down, so I write a couple of quick blog entries and decide it’s time for bed.

Best thing about today – feeling that I’ve done a proper day’s work.

Worst thing – getting up at half past five is a real wrench after all the lazy starts in Uganda.

Brucey the Gitarama postman

April 15th-16th

Two days in which I do very little. I’m tired after the holiday, and I’m trying to sort out all my belongings. I go up to the District Office. Claude isn’t there, but Valérian is, and some of the school census sheets have arrived. So I decide to take them home and work from home. On both days we have heavy rain, so I can’t get out to Cyeza, and so I spend my time transcribing the census stuff and starting to write up my Uganda blog entries. This takes forever – I can remember everything that we did in great detail, but it just takes so long to get it all written down.

I manage to watch the DVD of our rafting trip; there I am in geeky glory with my pink crash helmet, always the last one to get crouched down in the boat and always the first one to start paddling away from danger…

I call in at the post office and there’s loads of post – 5 letters just for Tina, and Kerry has amassed 4 parcels. I think she’s keeping e-bay in business. There are also newspapers for myself and Hayley. I deliver hers to the house and get savaged by the dog, which has sharp claws and if anything is getting even more jumpy and out of control.

I meet Nathan, who is the latest intern working with FHI. He’s an American from Los Angeles, and has been living in Kampala for a while so we have plenty to talk about. We’re texted by Moira and Kerry who have Bridget staying with them for her birthday, so in the evening we go out to the Orion club for drinks with the girls and the staff of the teacher training college.

And that’s about it, really – nothing much else happens.

Homeward bound; the night bus to Kigali

April 14th

When you’re waiting for a midnight departure, the evening seems to last for ever. We are warned not to go to the Jaguar bus station on boda-bodas as their drivers are all likely to be drunk at this time of night. Most matatas will have stopped running, so we haven’t much option but to hire a taxi. Our backpacks are not particularly heavy, but we’re so weighed down with shopping that walking the mile or so to the depot won’t be a pleasant experience. Also, Épi’s not feeling on top form.

The taxi driver is one we’ve used before, so we trust him and off we go (just me, Soraya and Épi – Tina’s decided to stay on for a few days and get her hair cut), arriving at the bus station a good half hour before departure time. It’s a good job we don’t leave it any later. The bus is pretty well full already, and there’s no space left for our rucksacks either in the baggage racks or in the under floor stowage. Worse than that – it appears the bus company has sold our seats to other people, and Épi and I find a couple of Pakistani gentleman claiming the same positions.

This sets off a right old argument with the bus company, and I’m feeling tired and jaded and generally bolshie so I’m not backing down. Off we go to the ticket office across the yard, and I point out to the man our names which I have written very clearly on his booking form. Our tickets are reserved, paid for, and claimed. A Ugandan guy next to me tells me quietly that there’s been a lot of this double selling recently; it seems to happen because there are a lot of people doing the bookings; they’re all far too happy to take people’s money and make promises of seats, and sometimes they just hope that everything will work out rather than doing a proper check of what’s available.

As we booked first, we’re allowed onto our seats. (We make a particular fuss that we don’t want to be separated from our friend Soraya, whose seat isn’t in dispute). There’s a relief bus running a couple of minutes behind ours, and our Pakistani friends get transferred to this second bus. It all makes for some unexpected stress just when we think we’re home and dry.

The bus is absolutely full; our rucksacks are in the gangway (which would be illegal in England because they’re blocking the emergency exit). There seems to be at least five crew members – the driver, a relief driver, and three others. Why they need five people is beyond me. Two of them don’t have seats, one drapes himself in the very front, just behind the windscreen, and the other one is beside me and keeps trying to use my rucksack as a cushion to sleep on. The man stinks of B O and I’m not too keen on getting yet another rucksack ruined by stinky people, so I resist.

Épi and I heave a sigh of relief when we pull away exactly on time at 1.00 a.m. We have a near fatal accident before we’ve even left Kampala. Either a boda-boda tries to squeeze past us too close and cut us up at a junction, or our driver doesn’t see him coming up behind. There’s a big bang as we sideswipe the boda-boda, and its two passengers – young women – are tossed into the road. It’s a near miracle that neither of them goes under our wheels. Nobody – driver or passengers – is wearing a crash helmet. Our bus crew stop to see if anybody is hurt. Fortunately all they seem to have is bruises and dented dignity. From then on our happy little crew laugh like drains about the accident.

Once we’re outside of Kampala and the interminable speed bumps in the main road, we chase along at a ridiculous speed. We overtake everything on the road. There are a few police check points, but the night bus seems immune to any controls. The journey is organised for the crew’s benefit. We stop at one point so that they can buy take-away food and sodas. We stop further on to refuel; passengers are allowed off to relieve themselves, but the toilets can’t cope with all those who need them so most men line up just beyond the bus’ headlights and let fly into the night. The driver’s in such a hurry to get going that the last couple of people have to sprint back so as not to be left behind.

Of course, we can’t see anything out of the windows. Uganda seems to be more lit up than Rwanda at night, but between the towns it’s just an inky blackness. We’re not bothered because we saw the scenery on our inbound journey.

Some parts of the journey are scary. The tarmac surface of the road isn’t really quite wide enough for two big vehicles to pass, so when we cross a lorry, or overtake something, we have to lurch out with our left hand wheels on the tarmac and our right side ones on the earth verge. There’s a massive bump and jolt as we leave the road, and again as we rejoin it. We can quite see how so many fatal accidents happen with these long distance buses. They drive so fast; they have a “king of the road” mentality, and expect everything to give way to them. When you see the size of the loaded petrol tankers and huge container trucks we’re crossing, you realise that in a full scale collision we wouldn’t get away unscathed.

At least on this run everybody wants to sleep. We’re spared the Nigerian video soap operas of the inboard run. Lights are out and we try to make ourselves as comfortable as we can in an extremely cramped space. When you’re as tall as I am, “comfort” doesn’t come into it. My knees are jammed into the back of the seat in front, and our seats are so narrow that neither Épi nor I can get comfortable without jamming our hips into each other. My neck has no support at all and every time I try to go to sleep I can feel the muscles getting strained. In other words it’s just like a transatlantic charter flight!

All bad things come to an end, however, and eventually the sky starts greying as dawn approaches. We are in the beautiful south-west hills of Uganda, close to the Rwandan border. Outside it’s foggy, and the temperature must be about twenty degrees colder than in Kampala. It feels like a very different place.

As the sky lightens we can start to see colours, the beautiful deep greens of well-watered grassland. People are up and about; children still seem to be going to school and are scattering out of juggernaut’s way in their uniforms. (Do Ugandan schools have any Easter holiday at all? – everywhere we’ve been on this trip we’ve seen children in their uniforms).

As we come to the frontier there’s a desperate scramble to be first off the bus and at the head of the passport controls. (Stupid really, because the bus can’t leave until everybody has been processed, even if they’re the very last in the queue). Outside the bus the weather is cold, damp, dewy and drippy. We’re herded in the open air onto a steep, muddy, slippery bank lined with sacks of potatoes awaiting their sellers to arrive. As usual, many passengers think they’re too important to need to queue and these people simply barge into the front of the line. Of course, being British, I take my place in the queue and wait. And wait. It takes more than an hour to exit Uganda and enter Rwanda, with two forms to fill in, to very serious scrutinising of our visas, and a lot of stamping.

While we are queuing, all our baggage is removed from the bus by the crew and lined up in the wet road for customs inspection. We have to claim it after we’ve been processed, and re-stow it on the bus. And, of course, the Rwandans have this mania about not letting plastic bags into the country. Épi has her shopping and her food for the journey in a plastic bag; the bag has been confiscated and all her stuff is scattered over her seat in full view and just inviting any thieves to come and help themselves. Somehow, in the process, they’ve also partly emptied my cloth bag, and it occurs to me that I was a bit naïve to hide my iPod inside it. The earphones are there, but the iPod itself is missing. I curse myself for a fool. I should have known that nobody would be able to resist a rummage through muzungus’ possessions at any opportunity. Then, as I’m sitting down, I see a bump in a piece of cardboard on the floor, and find my iPod under it. Now this couldn’t possibly have been caused by accident. Someone has deliberately been through my bag, found the iPod, disconnected the speakers, and “accidentally” hidden the iPod in the hope that I give up on it and leave it for them to reclaim when we reach Kigali. Any travellers reading this blog – take note!

All three of us have plastic bags in our rucksacks, containing wet towels and such like. Mercifully, our main rucksacks are not interfered with. I expect the Rwandan authorities just give them a squeeze and see if they can hear plastic rustling inside.

Britney and Kathie, from Gitarama, turn out to be either on our bus or on the relief bus, so we nod to each other in the queue for passport stamping. Nobody wants to talk; we just feel too tired and sleazy. The money changers are out in force, see us muzungus, and pounce. They seem positively affronted when we tell them we live in Rwanda and we have all the francs we need on us – some of the men really don’t want to believe us. Mind you, what a job – out at dawn every day with your life savings in your pocket and desperately hoping some gullible westerner will fall for your glib chat line and sleight of hand as you count notes.

It’s a relief to be back in Rwanda, even though we know that Uganda is a better and easier place to live. We bump past the tea plantations and up to the pass near Byumba, and then rattle down past the sugar cane fields and rice paddies until we can see the outskirts of Kigali in the distance. The day is heating up fast; those people who seemed so sensible in their fleeces at the border crossing are now sweating and straining inside too many layers of clothes.

At the Nyabogogo bus terminal we say farewell to Épi, and Soraya and I catch a “Horizon” bus home. It’s the first time we’re tried to catch one other than at the main depot, and we’re really lucky because we both manage to get a “proper” seat rather than a tip up one. However, we’re holding our rucksacks and shopping in our laps and once again the ride isn’t comfortable.

Tina texts us to say it’s a beautiful morning in Kampala and that she’s enjoying herself, and after buying some phone credit I can make some calls I need to do.

On my way back to the flat I bump into Janine, who’s just finished cleaning and is taking Tom’s washing with her. My stuff will have to hang around for a week and poor Janine will have a mammoth laundry to do next Monday! She’s so lovely – she makes a fuss of me and tells me she’s happy to see me back in Gitarama. At the flat I just flop out; unpacking; washing smelly towel and filthy cloth bag; then a shower and shave and collapse on the bed for a couple of hours of proper rest. Tom’s in Kigali and won’t be back till late, so I go shopping round the market and make a pretty good lentil stew for me and the guard.

I’ve got time to download all my Ugandan pictures, and I’m pleased with them (you’ll see a lot of them on the blog in due course). Even better is that I know I’ll have some lovely pictures from the girls to add to them.

I just about manage to write up today’s blog while it’s fresh in my mind, but there are about ten previous days to do and I’m certainly too tired to do any more tonight.

Best thing about today – being home after a very special holiday with good friends.

Worst thing – after all the excitement of holidays and travel, I’ve got that “down” feeling everybody has when the fun has ended and you are about to pick up the pieces of normal life.

This is my 500th blog posting!

Portraits from Uganda


Amy and Eric with two friends at the source of the Nile in Jinja


Epi strikes a pose at the very start of the Nile


..... while Amy's in a more thoughtful mood


Tina in relaxed mood at the "Adrift" camp site beside the Nile in Jinja


Ruarai nurses his cuts and bruises at the Backpackers' Hostel


Does this really suit me? Is it too sheer? Will it wrinkle? What about the neckline?.....

Shopping till we're dropping; buying till we're dying

April 13th

Our last day in Uganda. We have booked our tickets home, and therefore all we have to do today is relax and enjoy ourselves. The girls are counting their shillings and trying to work out if they need to change any more money; I’m relatively flush so I treat myself again to an enormous cooked breakfast. It’ll be the last sausages and bacon I eat until I go back to England in the summer!

It’s raining hard once more, so there’s no point in trying to make an early start. There are relatively few touristy places in Kampala (so far as I’m aware); it’s the city centre itself in all its teeming life which is the attraction. So we decide on a leisurely day of shopping, eating, getting some final souvenirs, and yet more shopping.

While we’re eating, we’re entertained by the owner of the Backpackers’ Hostel, an Australian man the same age as me. With him is a squad of Ugandan police, dripping puddles onto the floor from their rain capes. The squad is introduced to us as the Ugandan counter terrorism unit, and they seem to use our hostel as a base for making their daily report on suspicious activity in and around the capital. While they’re doing this they’re being fed on tea and toast courtesy of the hostel. The hostel owner seems to be very much in the know in terms of what’s happening politically, and I suspect he may have more roles in life than just running a hostel.

The owner tells us some of the fun and games that is going on in our part of the world – the Americans have done a gung-ho rescue of a ship’s captain held hostage by Somali pirates, and the French have done something similar to free the crew of a yacht. Therefore the terrorists are swearing revenge against all things French and American, and hence the Kampala anti terrorist people need to be even more on their toes than usual. Al Qaeda has already committed terrible atrocities in East Africa, and there is a big Moslem population here, within which there are undoubtedly plenty of extremists and sympathisers.

When the rain stops we venture forth, back to the city centre. On our first day Kampala seemed enormous; far bigger and busier and more in your face than Kigali. By now we’re used to it; we know enough of the city’s geography to find our way around and we’re beginning to enjoy all the hustle and noise and constant milling of people. It’s just like the pre-Christmas shopping period in England, or the January sales, when you get jostled all the time by the sheer volume of people. Except that here in Kampala the crowds are there on the street by soon after seven and it’s this hectic every single day, including Sundays and public holidays. I like it – when you’ve adjusted to it, it feels fun. People are friendly and almost never hostile towards us. We rarely hear the word muzungu in Uganda, and when we do it’s specifically because they want to catch our attention to tell us something or try to sell us something.

Épi’s got some weddings coming up locally, and Tina’s fiancé graduates from college in a few months’ time, so the girls want to shop for clothes. And, boy, do we shop. There can’t be many clothes shops in the city centre which we don’t visit, and some of them two or three times. The shops are tiny – ten feet by six feet is the norm – and there are no changing facilities. If you are lucky, the shop owner will hold up a piece of cloth to shield you from prying eyes, and if you’re unlucky then you ask Brucey baby to turn his back to you and use his bulk as a shield. Most places seem to have mirrors, but we take a picture of Épi in one creation to show her what she looks like. (And even after all that, she decides against buying it…..)

OK, now for a lesson on how to buy clothes in Uganda. When you have found the dress you like, you have to start haggling. “What is your starting price?” Yeah, right, and if you think we’re going to pay that, you’re joking. We screw up our faces and look as if we’ve just tasted a mouthful of acid. “What is your final price?” Just over half the first price…… OK, that’s getting better, but, hey, we’re experienced Africa hands and the fun is just beginning. We try to beat them down by any means, fair or foul. We tell the shopkeeper we’re living and working in Rwanda; we aren’t rich American tourists. If that has no effect we tell them that we’re volunteers living on next to nothing. (So put your camera away, Soraya, it doesn’t go with the poor muzungu image we’re trying to create). We sigh and huff and make our final offer and tell them that if they accept our price we’ll buy it on the spot. We cheat and say we’ve seen the same thing cheaper in another shop. Sometimes we win; sometimes we don’t. The competition among the Kampala clothes shops is intense, and the best strategy of all is to state a price at which we would certainly buy, and then start to walk away. It takes a really intransigent shopkeeper to see ten thousand shillings walking away for the sake a few more thousand profit….

The clothes shops really are quite something here. You find entire three or four storey blocks of shop units, amounting to several hundred tiny shops in all, and every single one selling clothes. The colours are vibrant, and the designs range from conservative to extremely daring. Most of the goods are made in China; most clothes sold in these shops are new. The shopkeepers are patient and courteous; you don’t get pressurised or hassled. It’s a pleasure to shop. (For second hand clothes you go to the city pavements where sellers will spread a groundsheet over the filthy paving and tip sack after sack of charity-shop goods out. Each item of clothing is smoothed out, held up, and if a fresh sack has just been opened there will instantly be a wall of women two or three deep looking for bargains and delicately handling those things we parted with in England a few weeks ago….)!

I’m looking for CDs of Congolese dance music, but the few I find seem to be such poor quality rip-offs that they aren’t worth buying. I’m also looking for a few more presents for people back home, and we make another swing past the craft shops until I get what I want.

Then we go to a cheap supermarket to buy food items. Things in Uganda are much cheaper than in Rwanda because there’s less transport cost involved. We all buy up luxury food or things we can’t get at home – garlic salt, condensed milk for making bannoffee pie, stock cubes, roiboosh tea and suchlike. We have to be careful because we’re carrying all our purchases home in rucksacks, and we already know there won’t be a lot of spare space on the bus to Kigali. Otherwise we would do a simply massive shop-up and get a couple of months’ worth of provisions!

After all this effort we’re all starting to feel a bit overdone from the heat and bustle, and I think we’re getting genuinely tired by all the holiday excitement. We find a café up on the first floor of a big block and chill out with cold drinks for a while. I take advantage of the raised viewpoint to sneak some pictures of the city centre.

Next to the café is the biggest Sikh temple I’ve ever seen. Almost next door to it is a Jain temple, and immediately alongside that there is a mosque. Meanwhile a few hundred yards down the hill is a massive Hindu temple. It shows just how big the Asian influence is in Uganda, and especially the Indian Asian presence. With Idi Amin’s overthrow and eventual death in exile, many Ugandan Asian refugees have returned to reclaim their property and businesses, and there’s little doubt that it is they who are the driving force in the Ugandan economy. And, predictably, there is a lot of envy and muttering from the black African population. (I know this because the two security guards at the supermarket were grumbling loudly at how arrogant and self obsessed the Indian shoppers were, and how rude they are to the blacks).

The road by the temple is lined with beggars, one of whom is unpleasantly assertive and tries to block the girls’ path until I step in and tell him in no uncertain terms to back off. This turns out to be the only place in the whole of Uganda where we are pestered by beggars. Put it into perspective – there are more beggars in Gitarama bus park than we saw in the whole of Uganda.

The Sikh temple doesn’t seem to be open to visitors, and neither does the Jain one – a pity, because we’ve none of us been inside a temple of either religion and we’d have willingly made a contribution to their funds in return for a look round and a chance to take some pictures.

We return to the city centre bus park via a few other shops; Épi wants to buy bed sheets for her Rwandan boyfriend because he seems incapable of doing it himself (after all, he’s a mere man), and as a final stop we go to a petrol station shop which stocks a wide range of really tasty treats to eat on the bus on the way home. (Its little things that make travel more enjoyable, like a bottle of water which has been frozen solid and which will give me a supply of chilled water all through the night journey as it defrosts). The banana chips sold in this petrol station are absolutely the best, as are the sesame biscuits. But watch out for the red hot chilli flavoured cassava crisps – they’re like eating dynamite!

Back at the Backpackers’ Hostel we drink beer and chill and talk with the other travellers. The three American teachers we met on Ssese are here. So are two of Els’ girl friends from Nyamata. There’s our Californian room-mate Andy, who’s planning the next leg of his world tour (Kilimanjaro), and a Spanish Basque from San Sebastian. There’s Sarah, a beautiful Italian girl working in a water supply project in the remote and lawless north of Uganda, and her Danish companion. There are various other people, several American girls included, and every single one of them is intelligent and good company. They’re interested in our news from Rwanda, and especially because with two year placements we’re here in Africa for a much longer time than virtually anybody else. We swap email addresses with some of them and invite them down to stay with us if they ever feel like experiencing Rwanda. (And who knows; it means we could do some couch surfing if we come back to Uganda later on). Oh, and there’s a weird and rather kinky Japanese man who turns out to be sleeping in the main female dorm. He says he’s a teacher, but within five minutes he’s asking us about relationships between girl pupils and male teachers. Hmm; that’s a funny conversation topic to make with people you’ve only just met, isn’t it? Then Tina, who is sleeping in the same dorm tonight as this guy, finds him lying on his bed wearing just a tiny pair of underpants. That’s not what you do in a mixed dorm, sunshine – you just don’t behave in that way. He’s definitely sleazy. Within ten minutes the word has reached every girl staying in the hostel tonight…. Tina’s not particularly worried; she’s travelled all round the world on her own and she’d send him packing if he tried anything on her. But she moves her things to another bed further away from him in the room.

We’ve almost always managed to have a dorm for just the four of us everywhere we’ve stayed, and hence we’ve avoided all this potential nonsense during our holiday. And me being with the girls means they definitely get less hassle than would otherwise be the case.

As the sun sets we go for a walk away from town, along the main Nateete Road. Somewhere we’ve read that there’s a hotel with a swimming pool close to backpackers. Try as we might, we can’t find it. The hotels along the main road range from classy to desperately run down. Everywhere there is litter and rubbish in the street (reminding us just how pristine and tidy Rwanda is, even in Kigali). We buy avocadoes to have for our supper. Everything in Uganda is more upfront and in your face than in Rwanda. Here there is a Moslem doctor advertising circumcisions in a huge poster. On most road signs there are pasted flyers coyly inviting you to “increase your manhood – no side effects”. It appears that penis size – or lack of it – is an issue among Ugandan men! Other flyers advertise for, or are seeking, houseboys and askaris, and girls as domestic servants. We realise that there’s a huge unregulated labour market in this country.

For my final meal in Uganda I blow out on a steak (again) but why not? I’m on holiday, and for the next three months the highlight of my cuisine will be chewy goat or gristly lumps of cow at “Tranquillité”.

We all have to re-pack our rucksacks to get rid of as many plastic bags as we can (see tomorrow’s entry about Rwandan border controls), and we have a shower before we leave. I refuse point blank to put a soaking wet towel in with the rest of my dry clothes (and presents) in my backpack, so I decide to smuggle at least one plastic bag into Rwanda. If the border guards want to poke around inside my smelly towel, then good luck to them.

The main activity in the evening is planning our next trip as a group of volunteers. We want to do “Zanzitan”. We are planning to travel through Tanzania, preferably by bus (though by train would be even cooler), and end up in Zanzibar. We know it’ll be expensive, but then it’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so we’re all up for it. Eric and Els might want to come with us, and six would be a good number socially. The problem is dates. Austen (Tina’s fiancé) has his graduation at the start of July, and Tina doesn’t want to miss it. I’ve booked to fly home to England on July 18th (but could change my flight so as to leave from Dar es Salaam rather than Kigali). Épi might have teaching commitments in the last week of the school term, but I think these could be negotiated. Tina finishes her VSO service at the end of the summer, so we can’t wait until November. If Kersti leaves her teaching job at the American school in Kigali, Épi would be interested in taking it, and would be in with a very good chance. She would finish her VSO service early but stay in Rwanda and move to Kigali. But she, too, would be bound up in school dates and not as free to travel as Soraya and I. So it has to be July, and we’re trying to find a ten or twelve day slot within which we can accommodate everyone.

And hence as we leave Uganda we’re already starting to do our homework for our next big adventure! Uganda has been really lovely; a big part of us really doesn’t want to leave it and return to austere Rwanda.

Easter Day on the Equator

April 12th Easter Day

I always seem to be travelling on Easter Day. Last year I was with Marisa, coming home from Gikongoro and thinking we were much acclimatised to Rwanda after spending a few days at Tiga’s house. This year I’m in a different country, returning on a car ferry after a few days in Paradise!

The day begins at about 4a.m. Outside our banda the wind is roaring and it’s obvious that the storm is about to hit us. Neither Tina nor I is properly asleep, and we both have the idea of going for a pee before the rain lashes down.

While we’re out of the hut, the lightning puts on a tremendous show for us. The sky is almost continuously lit, and you could just about read a book, so frequent are the flashes. As yet there’s no thunder and only a few drops of rain spitting in the wind. The entire camp site is deserted, and even the thumping disco music from other camp sites has ceased. It’s beautifully wild. There’s a couple of hurricane lamps left burning all night, usually outside the main huts or bandas; otherwise it’s pitch dark African night with just the fireworks in the sky for illumination. I take Tina down to the lake side and for a few minutes we watch the light show. But soon we start hearing thunder and the drops of rain blown in the wind get more frequent. Nature’s grandeur is all very well, but we haven’t got enough dry and clean clothes to risk getting caught out by a sudden deluge. And for the first time in Uganda I feel really cold – I have goose pimples.

So we run back to our hut and scramble into our beds; I just about demolish my mosquito net in the process. I close the side hatch above my bed so that the rain won’t come in, but at the same time it makes our hut stifling hot and totally dark inside. Even the little lizards and geckos that patrol our bandas have disappeared. A pity, because they do a good job of keeping the place free from mosquitoes. Soraya has brought a coil but we really don’t need to use it.

I try to plug in my iPod to recharge, but the solar panel electricity is too weak at this time of night to register as charging.

For the next three hours or so we sleep fitfully as the storm rages above us. The thunder is very loud and concussive – the entire banda shakes and rattles to the vibrations. We have alternate very heavy downpours, then lighter phases when it is merely raining as opposed to pouring. The thunder and lightning fade away across the lake towards Kampala and we’re left with endless rain.

Before dawn the Indian campers are awake, but when they wake they do everything with shouts as if there’s nobody else on the site and as if they’re all half deaf and nothing can be communicated without bawling at the tops of their voices. The women are as bad as the men.

Also, the Danish people next to us are awake early, and the walls of the banda (ours is a semi-detached one shared with them) are so thin you hear everything. So what with the storm, the Indians, and the Danes neither Tina or I feel rested and it’s a relief to have to get up.

There has been a leak through the slatted wooden walls, right onto my mobile phone, but fortunately it still works. Even more fortunately my spare clothes, piled up on the floor next to my rucksack, are also dry. Outside everything is dripping; the grass is saturated with big puddles around the wash place and the main routes inside the camp. The soil is a quagmire.

As it’s still raining we don’t bother with much washing. I have to go and bang on Épi and Soraya’s door to wake them up, and we squelch through soggy grass and gluey mud across a couple of fields to the big car ferry. The ferry is already crowded. It is licensed to hold a hundred passengers, but there are already far more than that number and people keep arriving. As it’s the only sailing of the day the crew don’t turn anyone away, but it doesn’t bear thinking about if the thing hits a rock and sinks mid-lake.

The Indians have taken over the first class section; all our friends from the camp site – Danes, Germans, and some stray others, are in economy of course. The floor’s awash with rainwater and there’s not enough room for everyone to sit.

As we board the ferry we are checked with a metal detector and have to empty pockets and Tina and I have to undo our rucksacks (in the pouring rain, of course), to have their metallic contents checked. You don’t have to put up with that on the Isle of Wight ferry!

We set sail promptly at eight, with every inch of floor space occupied by people and their baggage. One Ugandan is loud and friendly with everyone; a Dutch girl sitting with us tells us that he has been drinking continuously since Good Friday when he arrived. Here he is on Easter day, bottle of “Nile” in hand, trying to chat up all the unaccompanied women and scrounging sandwiches off people he’s met in one of the other sites.

The ferry crossing takes more than three hours; there’s nothing much to look at and the sky, lake, and waves are all a uniform grey. It rains for the entire crossing. The boat sells hot drinks and food, and periodically we all have to squeeze out of our seats to let people through. Tina buys a hardboiled egg and a piece of cake, and that’s the only Easter Egg we have in 2009. A bit galling when Austen rings Tina to tell her that he’s making some headway on an enormous chocolate bunny he’s bought himself back in London.

Among the other passengers on the ferry are Britney and Kathy from Gitarama; it really is amazing that in all of Uganda we should be bumping into people from our own town in Rwanda. Kathy seems to have some children with her; whether they are from Momma’s orphanage or from elsewhere I never discover.

It takes a long time for us to get tied up at the slipway in Entebbe, but at least the rain is fading out to drizzle. Everyone is pushing and shoving to be the first to get ashore, long before the ramp has been lowered. Two of the rally car drivers are revving up their engines and sending exhaust fumes straight into the passenger cabin on the boat.

We let the impatient rabble get ashore before we make a move. And then we’re lucky because we find a matata who is going all the way from the ferry to Kampala town centre. We bargain hard for a price, but there are few other passengers left and the driver wants to leave, so we get an extremely good fare.

Entebbe is just like the guidebooks say – beautiful, laid back, a sort of tropical Lymington. There are a lot of working boats along the lakeside; fishing boats and cargo boats. Very few yachts or pleasure boats – quite a surprise, that, given the amount of wealth and the number of expats living in the area. There are some beautiful little bays around the lakeside with bungalows lining them, and also some green parks and open spaces. In fact it’s the parks which really make all the Ugandan towns we’ve visited pleasant to stroll around, and the lack of public open green space in Rwanda which makes Rwandan towns unfriendly places for visitors.

Entebbe never quite ends and then we’re in Kampala. Ribbon development is rife here in Uganda. We pass through some very run-down districts and eventually are decanted exactly where we want to be – the central bus park. After all the rain, the mud and puddles and general filth in the bus park is grotesque. We are glad to escape to the relative security of a busy shopping street.

We decide that what we need to do is get back to our hostel and drop off our baggage, and then come back into town for some excitement. At Backpackers we are greeted like old friends, but there’s a problem with our room. Four people are already in it; they have gone off today to do Kampala without saying if they’re staying the night and without returning the key. There’s a five bed dorm next door; are we prepared to have it and share it with an American man? No problem, we say, and David, the American, is a charming guy. He’s a computer professional from California who is taking a break from work to travel round the world and extend his horizons. He proves good company and it’s nice to have a different voice to listen to.

Back in the town centre we walk round and round. Unfortunately most of the craft shops are shut, but lots of food and clothes places are still open and there aren’t so many people about. We hire boda-bodas and endure another hairy ride up to Garden City; Épi and I have a frighteningly close encounter with the edge of a bus at one crossroads.

In Garden City we manage to withdraw some money, then return to the town centre. There’s a live music concert in a stadium exactly in the middle of town, but we decide we’re too tired to go in and see what it’s like. We’ve found a little bar with a raised seating area, and we sit there and have a beer while it gets dark.

We decide to walk back all the way to the Backpackers’ Hostel; on the way we pass the Jaguar bus station and I manage to change our booking to the right day with no extra charge. It doesn’t seem to take us too long to return home, and on the way we stop at a street side market where they’re doing rollex for supper. A rollex is an omelette inside a pancake roll. It’s very filling, absolutely clean and hygienic and a good way to eat. And you can eat in the street in Uganda; none of this eating in secret that we have to put up with in Rwanda.

I try some brochettes, too, but they aren’t as nice as the Rwandan ones. In Uganda they cook the goat meat with the bones still in place; you get chunks of goat leg with the skewer going through the bone marrow.

Back at the hostel we chill for an hour or so, and then it’s off to bed. After a disturbed night and a very early start this morning, we’re all tired out.

Fine dining, Ssese style


Our favourite restaurant. It looks as if it once was bigger, but had both ends chopped off. The kitchen and washing up facilities are outdoors, too! Nevertheless the food was good and we had service with a smile. You rarely get that in Rwanda!


We're hungry volunteers - bring us food! Preferably fish, too....


Throughout Rwanda and Uganda, all restaurants have some sort of facility for washing your hands before eating. We liked the stripey teapot!


Fish with posho (at bottom), rice (left) and matoke (top and right). It tasted pretty good to us!

Picture essay on the Ssese Islands

These pictures show you why we all fell in love with the Ssese Islands. Double click to enlarge each photo.

The Government ferry to Buggala Island. It is free, but very slow!


You'd be forgiven for thinking this was the sea, and not a lake.


Inter-island taxi


The herbal doctor peddles his wares on our ferry


Well, fish might be "de best", but when we tried to eat here we found it had been turned into a gambling hall...


This is the town centre of Kalangala, the biggest settlement on the islands. You're not exactly swept off your feet by the bustle of traffis.....


..... and it's even less busy facing the other direction!

Our dormitory hut comes complete with dusky maiden..... (sorry Epi!)


Our own private beach


Everyone staying at the camp lined up along the beach to watch this sunset


An egret struts along the shore as the sun sets over one of the islands


Posing by the old cabin cruiser


Sunset over Lake Victoria


Our sandy beach at the "Hornbill" camp site


Two of the American "World Teach" volunteers outside Soraya and Epi's banda


Typical view anywhere on the islands. Like the Scillies, but in the middle of Lake Victoria. Paradise or what?


Typical rural houses on Buggala Island


Boats alongside the jetty at Kalangala harbour


Looking from the ferry jetty towards our little paradise beach


This is the banda (l h side) Tina and I shared with several geckos