Friday, 12 June 2009

Hanging out with the Mwami at Nyanza

June 8th

By soon after seven o’clock Catherine and I are waiting at the Kobil garage just up the road from the flat, waiting for a matata to take us to Nyanza. This is Catherine’s last day and there is so much to do that the day is planned like a military exercise! Of course, nothing ever quite goes to plan – this is Rwanda! The bus is a very slow one, stopping (it seems) every couple of hundred yards to pick up or set people down. Rwanda looks green and fertile; the weather is just right – warm without being oppressively hot or sultry. Everyone is on this little matata – teachers and students going to Kabgayi university; secondary school students for Biyimina or other schools down in Ruhango district; market traders carrying enormous bundles of clothes or shoes which they stuff on their laps in the bus, usually spilling across into the laps of people sitting next to them; women with crying babies; old men with their walking sticks. And two muzungus looking very out of place in all this crowd. One street child in a village yells at me in Kinyarwanda; I answer him in Kinyarwanda and the entire bus erupts that the muzungu can speak their language. The bus takes us right into the middle of Nyanza, and from there we walk along the lanes and under the shade trees the mile or so to the Mwami’s Palaces.

The Mwami was the king of old Rwanda, and I’ve described the palaces in detail in last year’s blogs. I’ve posted mostly photos for this visit, so if you’re reading this and haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, look for the pictures of an enormous thatched, domed hut!

Catherine is bowled over by the architecture of the thatched hut. One of the smaller huts behind it is being re-floored (the grass floors under the matting only last a few years, and just as in the olden days the grass has to be renewed frequently). We can’t go inside the small hut but it doesn’t matter because we’ve just been inside the huge one, and we saw inside the hut in Butare museum last week. All the banana beer pots and calabashes for serving beer have been put out in the open while the hut is refurbished, and this makes them easier to photograph.

Our guide speaks beautiful French; it turns out that she comes from Nyamasheke in Muhanga District, so when I tell her what I’m doing here we’re on best friend’s terms within minutes. All the guides are women this time, and all are wearing traditional Rwandan robes. This is excellent because it’s the first time Catherine has seen women in their robes.

The 1930s palace is also looking good in the bright light; I particularly like the breezy and shady porch which runs all along the front of it. What a tremendous place to live in, receive guests in, and generally be a tribal king but live in western comfort. This particular king was relatively forward looking; he ran two Volkswagen cars (there’s a double garage with an inspection pit as part of the palace complex) and installed electric light throughout the palace, including the servant’s quarters.

Our tour done, we walk back to the centre of town and get an express bus back to Gitarama. So far we’re right on schedule! We have a hasty lunch; on the spur of the moment I go over to the bakery because I can small mandazis cooking, and sure enough we get a packet of ten mandazis, still hot to the touch, and light as a feather. Mandazis are the Rwandan version of doughnuts, but they’re just balls of dough deep fried. When they’re hot they’re light and beautiful; when they’re cold they’re so hard and solid you could use them as chocks to prevent buses slipping downhill…

Next we get motos to the District Office; Tom has phoned me asking for a couple of rice sacks. We walk down through the earth roads from the District Office top Tom’s FH office. He’s out on his rounds but Christi is there, and she unlocks the store cupboard to show us all the treasures they have collected from their artisans – and all are for sale. Catherine buys all the souvenirs she needs – earrings, necklace, etc; I buy a little wooden nativity scene. It has been carved by a craftsman from Cyeza and Cyeza is the secteur where my first water tank is being installed. Having an artefact from Cyeza will come in handy next Christmas at the Elizabethan singers’ carol concert!

Back to the flat, and Catherine does her packing. Needless to say, her bags weigh infinitely less than when she came out two weeks ago! I have enough cake and packet soup to last me months, and enough mosquito spray to kill every bug within miles. We get a fast bus into Kigali, then up to Remera, and saunter down through the late afternoon crowds to the AEE hostel. We’ve chosen this one because it is very close to the airport, within walking distance, even. Our luck holds; we are taking the town bus at rush hour and the driver takes us on a back route for the first half mile. He goes right past the “Mille Collines” hotel (i.e. the original “Hotel Rwanda” hotel), and Catherine is able to see it. I had completely forgotten to show it to her on our day in Kigali! Getting this bus out to Remera is fun, too – we’ve arrived in the thick of Kigali rush hour. There are a line of Remera buses in the town centre, and crowds of people fighting to get on them. The women are just as bad as the men, and nobody is the slightest bit interested in helping muzungus get on board. Least of all the bus crews – for them it’s happy hour; they just sit back and watch the customers fighting to get onto their buses.

It looks as if we’ll have a long wait for a ride. But then I see another bus arriving, and together with about thirty other people we charge it. The chaos has to be seen to be believed. It’s every man for himself. Some of the Rwandans won’t even let the incoming passengers off the bus; they’re so intent on getting a good seat that they bottle up the people waiting to get out from the rear of the bus. Honestly; if they were kids at school I’d throw everyone off the bus, lecture them for ten minutes to make them all late, and then make them get on silently, in single file etc…

The manager at AEE guest house knows Soraya because she uses the place quite a lot, so I introduce myself as a workmate of Soraya, and make sure he understands that Cat is my daughter and not my wife or someone I’ve picked up for the day. He’s amused at someone needing to be leaving at two in the morning to get a plane, but we make sure the night porter on the gate understands that we’ll be coming and going all night, and Patrick the manager generally makes himself helpful and pleasant to us. We have a wash and brush up (after sweaty Kigali and mayhem on the town bus we certainly need it), and we take motos up to “Chez Lando” and walk to “Sole Luna” for Catherine’s final meal – a treat with proper Italian pizza etc.

Unfortunately now comes the only disaster of the day. “Sole Luna” closes on Mondays. The place is all shut up, and it’s clear we aren’t going to be able to eat there. I could kick myself; of course a lot of these town restaurants shut on Mondays. I should have remembered, but I’ve been so pleased with myself for thinking to take her there on the last night that I’ve completely overlooked the fact that the last night happens to be a Monday.

So we have to go back up the road to “La Planète”, which is where we eat when we have big VSO meetings. Instead of pizza, Catherine has to settle for omelette spéciale and a chef’s salad. Still, she can always have pizza when she gets home.

We then go on to “Stella” bar and drink until about half past ten, when we decide it’s time to return to AEE and rest up for a couple of hours before trekking out to the airport. It’s a lovely night, and we’re in one of the safest parts of Kigali so we decide to walk the couple of miles to AEE. It’s all downhill, and it turns out a really pleasant walk. There’s an enormous full moon, and even the back alleys are lit so that there’s little risk of twisting an ankle in the ruts and gulleys. Back at the hostel we try to rest or sleep or read, but the room is seriously stuffy and there’s nothing worse than trying to fill in time before you have to go back out again. I’m still worried that someone will lock the main door so that we won’t be able to get out when we need to leave (it’s what happened to Tina when she was due to get the early morning plane to Kampala back in April).

Eventually we decide we’ve had enough, and we set off on foot up to the airport. It is still warm and pleasant to walk, but there are very few people around. There are loads of moto drivers, especially at the Remera crossroads, all desperate to give us transport. Quite why so many of them are still out trying to work at half past midnight is beyond me. There are almost no pedestrians to require lifts at all. We trek downhill, past the turning off to Kayonza and the far east of Rwanda, and start up the hill to the airport. Here we are overtaken by a man called Égide; I’m not sure whether he’s drunk or a head case or both, but he won’t leave us alone. I’m not sure whether he just wants to talk to us or if he’s asking for money – I assume the latter and I’m short with him. He follows us all the way into the airport and the security man ignores him, which I find strange. After all, he’s patently not someone waiting for a flight. He plonks himself down with us in the middle of the foyer and harangues us for a good half hour until eventually he gets the message and leaves. In the airport foyer the new Bourbon coffee shop is open 24 hours, but its prices are astronomical. Nigerian soap operas are being shown on the telly; full of violence and hammy acting, just as they were on the day bus to Kampala back in the spring. I can’t leave Catherine while Égide is hanging around, so I have to wait until her flight is called just after two o’clock. There are a handful of other travellers also waiting; most of them trying to sleep on sofas in the airport lounge.

But with Catherine safely inside the secure zone of the airport I can at last get a moto back to AEE and collapse into bed. It’s been a long day, but a really good one. With the sole exception of the “Sole Luna” restaurant fiasco, she’s had a lovely time and I’ve enjoyed having her out to see me.

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