Monday, 4 May 2009

Kibuye in May

May 1st – 3rd

Today is May Day, and a public holiday. We are determined to escape from Gitarama for the weekend, and to meet up with as many other volunteers as possible. Here in Gitarama most of the shops are closed, and for any volunteer staying in the town a “jour férié” is a boring experience. Rwandan families will go visiting their local friends; we regularly meet together as a group of local (volunteer) friends, and to “go visiting” for us means going further afield. Also, having Jenny and Priya staying with us means that we ought to do something more adventurous than just hang around the town.

Eventually Tom and I decide that whatever happens we’re going to Kibuye. At the very least it means I can get Tom away from work for a weekend, and it’s a long time since either of us went to Kibuye to swim in the lake, sunbathe and generally chill out.

Soraya is keen to come as well, so that makes three. When Jenny and Priya arrived last night they were intending to go to Butare, but we point out that they can come with us to Kibuye and then go on to Kibuye, so they agree on the spot. Now we are five.

Nathan, Tom’s FHI intern, is at a loose end for the weekend and is more than willing to come with us. Six people.

Finally, Tina and Épi are both not sure of what they’re doing; when they hear that Soraya and I are off on holiday to Kibuye they get on a bus and come to join the fun. They come independently of us, but we are already a party of eight.

What we don’t know is that Sonya and Joe, from the extreme South East corner of Rwanda, are also coming to Kibuye and staying in the same guest house as us, and that at least six other volunteers are also on their way from Kigali, including Becky, the new Canadian volunteer. They are all booked into the posher Hotel Béthanie; we are taking a chance on there being rooms at Home St Jean. This particular place is where I stayed when my family came out, and is very much a “second home” to all Rwandan VSOs.

So, what I’m getting round to saying, is that there are no fewer than 16 VSOs all travelling to Kibuye. That means a party by any definition!

In the event, the two groups staying in the two hotels never completely get together, but we see each other in passing.

We have to travel in a stopping matata because there are no express buses to Kibuye from Gitarama. (There are expresses in the other direction). Because it’s a public holiday the bus park is roped off, and buses are furtively filling up with passengers in odd corners of the town centre. We just miss one bus, and resign ourselves to a long wait. Eventually another matata arrives and announces that it’s going to Kibuye. We are the first to board, so we get the best seats. Soraya tends to get car sick, so we put her in the front. The rest of us look for seats where there is a little extra leg room. For the next twenty minutes or so we play cat and mouse with the local police. There is a big meeting in the stadium today (last year Tom and I spent all morning there), and the police are rounding up everyone who’s hanging around on the streets and sending them off to the stadium. This includes anybody they find waiting for a bus, or (like us) actually inside a bus which hasn’t yet departed. We desperately don’t want to get sent to the stadium all morning. The bus driver desperately doesn’t want to lose the income from six muzungus, so we drive round and round, periodically coming back to the town centre to see if there are any more passengers. We dash off on the Kibuye road, only to turn round again and come all the way back to Gitarama bus park to find our last couple of travellers. By now the bus is at last full and we’re all wedged in like sardines. But no matter, we’re finally off and we’re on the road to Kibuye!

Now the road to Kibuye isn’t for the faint hearted. It is around 75km of constant twists and bends, with steep hills and hairpin corners just for good measure. The driver goes at it like a madman, and we drive through all the bends, crossing our fingers in case there’s something coming the other way. Fortunately the road seems to carry very little traffic, but we have the odd near miss when we’re thrown all round the vehicle as our driver swerves at the last minute to avoid oncoming traffic.

The views from the road are superb, and today the visibility is pin sharp. If the idiot at the wheel would only take his time it would be an idyllic journey. As things stand, we wonder whether we’re going to arrive at all, and the girls wonder whether they should write their wills onto their mobile phones.

The road corkscrews its way up to the ridge, and we cross the Congo-Nile watershed, then slide helter skelter down the steeper section into the Great Rift Valley. As Épi says, it’s just like being on an enormous roller coaster that takes two hours for the ride to finish. The air is so clear that as we start to descend from the ridge we suddenly see a panorama of the lake in front of us. It’s simply enormous; it fills the horizon and the whitish blue of the reflection off the water blends into the same whitish blue of the tropical sky.

As we rush down the endless slopes towards the lake we can smell the acrid stench of burning brake pads – our chauffeur is driving on his brakes all the time. When we stop at the junction with the Gisenyi road Tom looks out of the window and sees smoke rising from the bus wheels where the brakes are so hot they are almost at the point of catching fire. We tell this to the driver, who slows down a fraction for the remaining ten miles to Kibuye.

By the time we are decanted in Kibuye we’re all beginning to feel queasy from the ride, and it’s a relief to put our feet on terra firma and to realise we’ve survived the journey. It’s blazing hot. Kibuye is at a much lower elevation than Gitarama and you can sense it immediately you step into the open air.

We walk the kilometre up to the Home St Jean, and hope to God that they aren’t fully booked. (We would undoubtedly find somewhere else, but it would be more expensive and without the lovely views from this place). But we needn’t worry; we are almost the only people booked in for the weekend. I think the best rooms at St Jean are in the little annexe building, away from cooking smells and early morning banging and crashing by the staff; I ask if we can have these rooms and we get the whole block which is perfect. There are a couple of Swedish girls, medical students, sharing the main block, but they keep themselves very much to themselves. We’re warned that there’s a big party coming in for lunch from the local District Office, so we decide not to eat at the guest house but to get away and leave the official party to celebrate Labour Day in a muzungu-free environment.

We set off on the ring road round the headland, and arrive at Hotel Golf (Eden Rock) where we know the food is good and reasonably priced. Here there is another official party, but we’re tucked away in the shade round a corner and we tuck into sambasa (little fish like whitebait from Lake Kivu) and ice cold beer.

Suitably refreshed we head back to the guest house. The official party has been and gone, and we have the place to ourselves once more. Jean-Marie, the boss, couldn’t be more welcoming, and we know even at this point that it’s going to be a great weekend. We dash down to the lake and plunge in. Lake Kivu always seems so much warmer at Kibuiye than at Gisenyi, and we splash about for ages in the water, then drape over little benches on the grass to dry off and listen to music.

Soraya and I have just got nice and relaxed when we hear cackles of laughter around us – Épi and Tina have arrived. The rest of the day we chill and chat and chill and drink and chill and eat. The restaurant does a “pizza Bolognese” which is a doughy pizza base but with a deep layer of meat in Bolognese sauce and a cheese topping. Its great value and unbelievably filling. And nobody would be able to swim after the giant helping of spaghetti Bolognese they dish up, either.

For Nathan, Priya and Jenny it’s their first visit to Kibuye, and they all agree, as we sit on the terrace and watch the sun sink over Congo and the lightning flicker around us from storms, and the beautiful lake spread out in front of us – Kibuye is a very special place and this guesthouse is pretty hard to beat anywhere in East Africa.

What makes Kibuye so special is that it really is very undeveloped. There are remarkably few hotels, (almost none at all if you discount the half dozen on the “ring road”), and very little tourist oriented things like boat hire, souvenirs etc. In truth it’s just a small African town that happens to sit in a perfect location by the edge of the lake. The whole place reminds me very strongly of when I was in the West Indies as a young student; it could be for all the world a forgotten corner of Grenada or St Vincent.

One of the best things about a three day weekend is that it gives you a complete day at your destination; as we go to bed, with the lights of fishing boats on the lake below us, and the absolute stillness of the lake spread out on three sides of us, it is wonderful to know that the next day is going to be completely for relaxation.

Saturday starts with an early morning swim. The wind hasn’t got up and the lake is calm, so it’s the perfect time for being in the water. Nobody much is about; as you swim you can hear fishermen singing in the distance from their dugout canoes, and cattle bellowing from farms up in the hills surrounding our big inlet of the lake. Smoke drifts upwards from domestic fires. Distant cars drone their way up and down the endless bends towards Kigali. Herons, cormorants, kingfishers plod or swoop over the lake. In places you can see the water surface ruffled by shoals of little fish coming to the surface to take flies. The water is warm; the lake is safe (no crocs, snakes, other things that bite or sting; no dangerous gas in this part); I have absolute peace and quiet for a change and life is good.

When I come out of the water and climb the steep slope back to the guest house terrace I can see Mikeno and Karisimbi volcanoes on the northern horizon, and just the eastern slope of Nyiragongo with its plume of steam clearly visible. The air is remarkably clear, and for the millionth time I wish and wish that I had brought my family out at this time of the year in 2008 instead of in July-August when visibility is rotten and the air thick with dust.

We have a lazy breakfast on the terrace and debate how we are going to spend our leisurely day. Tom, Nathan, Jenny and Priya want to do the town and explore other beaches; our “gang of four” want to swim at Home St Jean. So we split up for the day. Tina and I swim right across the bay and back; this is fast becoming a sort of initiation ceremony for visiting VSOs. (Last time I did it was in February 2008 with Marisa, Tiga and Caroline). While we’re swimming an enormous group of people descend on the guesthouse and the water side is full of young people. Fortunately Épi and Soraya are out of the water and guarding all our things. We sunbathe for a very short time, until we realise that today the sun is exceptionally, dangerously hot, and that we have got quite seriously burnt in just ten minutes. We slather on sun cream and head off up to the guest house terrace.

Oh dear; we’ve hit it at a bad time. Between our little annexe accommodation and the guest house proper stands the mass grave of the 11,400 people who were murdered at Kibuye during the genocide. And today, of all days, there’s a big memorial ceremony at the grave. We have to try to sneak our way inconspicuously past the throng to get into our rooms, than back again to get away and leave then to grieve in peace. The dozens of young people at the lake edge are supposed to be at the ceremony, but young muzungu women in bathing costumes by the lakeside has proven a much more interesting distraction.

Épi’s afraid that one of her relations, who lives in Kibuye, might see her. It’s an awkward little interlude and we’re glad to get away from the grave. (The front gate of our little annexe is within ten yards of the graveside; there’s simply no other way in or out and we can’t leave the place unobtrusively. We whisper apologies and try to be as silent as we can). We dine once again at the Eden Rock and walk all round the ring road. Lots of local people are swimming in the water – here in Kibuye, at least, it seems that many people know how to swim. One guy is clearly a champion swimmer; he does tumble turns and effortlessly ploughs through the blue lake as if swimming were the most natural way of movement.

Idjwi Island, blue and mountainous on the far side of the lake, reminds us that we are close to Congo. Water busses and inter island ferries weave their way from landing point to headland and back again. Down at the jetty the daily beer boat has come in from Gisenyi; a dozen or so men are forming a human chain and passing crate after crate of Primus from the boat’s hold into a warehouse. We are just so totally pleased to be here by the waterside; completely relaxed and at ease. The girls are wearing sun dresses or new tops bought in Kampala a couple of weeks ago on our last time together. We’re all getting badly burnt from the relentless sun; it really is a different magnitude of heat from anything I’m used to in Gitarama. Despite wearing a hat, the top of my head gets burnt and my neck is stinging with sun – I have to borrow Épi’s shawl to keep the worst of the sun off me.

Kibuye town feels languid in the afternoon heat; the memorial ceremony at the grave has ended and dozens of cars, lorries, matatas, pick up trucks rattle past, each packed to the gunwales with people. Most people are wearing purple neckerchiefs or purple armbands. Purple in Rwanda is the colour of mourning, of grieving. Some people greet us enthusiastically; others stare at us suspiciously.

Once we arrive home at the guesthouse it’s time for another swim, and time to flop out and read, or retire for a doze. There’s a storm coming across the hills from the east; the sky darkens dramatically, and lightning flashes in the distance. The rain takes a long time to arrive, and never amounts to very much, but the temperature plummets and from absolutely nowhere there is suddenly a howling gale across the water, with waves crashing onto the rocks around our little beach.

There have been loosely laid plans for the two groups of VSOs to get together to eat this evening; we are expecting the Béthanie group to come and join us, but in the end only Becky arrives, and we catch up on her gossip and she meets at least half of the “Gitarama mafia”. The others either don’t want to risk getting caught out in a storm, or they have already eaten at Béthanie. Becky is still having real problems in trying to start her placement, to the extent that it is being seriously considered whether to switch her to some other part of Rwanda. At last she has been able to open a bank account, and has been able to get some of her basic household equipment. We agree that she will come and stay with us in Gitarama from Tuesday for a few days; staying either with Tom and I or with Soraya and co depending on whether Jenny and Priya are still with us.

One little vignette which shows just how un-tourist oriented Kibuye is – it becomes quite an operation to find a moto to take Becky back to Béthanie around ten at night! In Kigali you can get motos all through the night, and at Gisenyi they operate right up to midnight or beyond. But its Kibuye’s underdevelopment, and the air of a sleepy little lakeside backwater, that give it its charm. It takes a lot of persuasion and three phone calls to get a driver up the hill to our guesthouse to collect her.

Nathan and I are sharing a room; we’re just in bed and lights out when my phone rings. It’s Tina and Épi from the room across the landing. Épi’s been trying to load my Uganda pictures, and Sorayas, onto her laptop, but the computer has done something unforeseen and is telling her that the operating system has crashed. Épi’s distraught; she only bought the computer last Christmas, and without it she will find it difficult to work and impossible to use the machine for relaxation. It’s almost the worst crisis we can imagine out here. But cometh the hour, cometh the man. Nathan is a knowledgeable guy around computers, and for the next twenty minutes he works hard to fix the machine. Tina, in the meantime, is fielding a long phone call from a rather drunken fiancé in London, and we’re trying not to let him know that right at this moment she’s sharing her bedroom with two strange men and a panicking Épi.

Good for Nathan –he gets Épi’s machine working again, but there’s something wrong with the sound card and the computer won’t recognise any flash drives plugged into it. She can download my Uganda photos from the camera chip, but not Soraya’s from my flash drive.

We all go to bed once more, but not until after some wind up phone calls – I phone Épi to order breakfast in bed tomorrow (She’s not best pleased; she has to get out of bed and ruck up her mosquito net to get to her phone), and in retaliationTina rings us to ask one of us to come and wind up her torch for her….. (Well, this is what happens after several beers and too much sun, folks. It was hilarious at the time). And so to sleep, painfully in my case with a bad dose of sunburn.

Sunday morning dawns grey and showery. Nothing’s going to keep me from my early morning, pre-breakfast dip, not even rain, and I have the lake absolutely to myself. And if all the others think I’m mad for swimming in the rain, then, who cares?

We enjoy a last, leisurely breakfast and a photo call on the terrace. We’ve already sent Soraya down to the town to buy bus tickets for all of us – we Gitarama folk don’t have far to go, but Épi and Tina have a much longer journey and a change of bus at Kigali and we can’t hang around too long by the lakeside. With ten of us aboard a little matata we muzungus are in the majority, the remaining Rwandan passengers are very subdued the whole way home. (Good job, too – makes a change). The driver is much steadier than on the outward run, and the combination of short steep uphill and long gentle downhill ride is easier on the stomach.

It’s most unusual to have a matata ride without the stereo on full blast; in this bus the stereo isn’t working and the driver tries to fix it. He takes the ignition key out of the ignition, but the bus engine keeps on running! He fiddles around with the radio, poking the key in and trying to adjust it, but nothing seems to work. As he’s doing all this we’re swerving round a vicious series of reverse bends and all of us passengers are having heart attacks as we belt towards first a rock face and then an almost sheer drop down into the void below. Somehow the driver manages to steer and poke at the radio until eventually even he has to admit defeat. We all heave a sigh of relief!

But we’re about twenty kilometres out of Gitarama when we realise the driver is falling asleep at the wheel and we are wandering all over the road, even in straight sections. (On the bends we are so far over to first one side and then the other that it’s difficult to work out which wide of the road we’re supposed to be on). And our nerves get frayed when we see a petrol tanker crashed on a bend, with its cab fatally crushed. A big crowd of people are staring morosely at the unfortunately lorry. We notice that the petrol tank caps have been removed; no doubt thousands of litres of petrol disappeared into people’s houses within a few minutes of the accident and were either buried in the little fields or stashed away among the rafters for use or resale later on.

Soraya and Tina are in the front seats and have most to fear from a crash, so they take it on themselves to keep the driver awake by singing to him and talking to him. The poor guy is woozy from sleep; suddenly he’s got two very attractive muzungu women chatting him up, offering him a banana (NO, Tina, don’t offer him banana ‘cos he’ll have to take his hands off the wheel to eat it!). This ruse works; his steering improves and we live to return to Kibuye another day. By the time we get to Gitarama the driver not only drops us Git folks off in the town centre, but he’s laughing at the whole incident.

Back at the flat there’s a few hours of sorting out laundry, writing blogs, then it’s time for evening meal at “Green Garden”. This time we have to wait two hours for our food, so we make a decision to try somewhere else next Sunday. “Green Garden” is the best place to go if you are just a couple of people, but despite prior warning they seem unable to gear up for a large group.

While we’re eating Kerry tells us a funny story from Australia. The government is so paranoid about the risk of accidentally importing alien plants or diseases that it even screens all incoming mail. Kerry had sent several banana leaf cards to friends in Australia; the cards were intercepted and opened. The greetings page was photocopied and sent on to its recipients, with a request for payment to have the actual card fumigated if they wanted the original…… And all that despite the banana leaf being dried to a crisp in Rwanda before use.

After all the excitement of Kibuye we get an early night.

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