Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Phisto's Eucharist Party at Rutarabana

July 5th

A lazy morning, opting out of church and sorting out my things at the flat. Becky’s preaching at Mommas, and I decide to give her room.
Just before mid day Tom and Becky come back to the flat. Becky and I are out to a Eucharist party at Rutarabana, the first we’ve been invited to during our time here. It’s a roasting hot day even in Gitarama, and Rutarabana is a long walk out in the countryside. So we decide to take a moto from the town centre. Just as luck would have it, Becky’s moto diver happens to live in Rutarabana village, so we wave hello to his mum who is threshing sorghum at the front of their house as we pass.
When we get to the school at Rutarabana we get off and pay our drivers; the path to Delphine’s place is a little track only accessible on foot. I’ve only ever been there once before, and Becky’s never been there at all, and I’m very pleased with myself that I can remember how to wind up through the field boundaries and hedgerows until we emerge from a canopy of banana trees more or less at the front entrance to their place.
We’re immediately made to feel welcome, and introduced to all the family; endless brothers, sisters, school friends, aunts uncles, grandparents, work colleagues of the dad etc. There’s just one problem: they only speak Kinyarwanda, and we only speak French and English. Only one of the men is reasonably fluent in French; absolutely none of the women speak anything but Kinya. So conversation is limited to greetings, and everything proceeds by gestures. Delphine translates now and then, but as the oldest child she is busy helping in the kitchen and only appears occasionally. She is lovely – very proud that her muzungu friends have come to support her, and at the same time very flustered by our being there.
We go outside to help pass the time until all the guests arrive, and I show Becky the animals and all round the smallholding. All the little piglets which were free ranging everywhere last time I visited have gone except one, which the sow is guarding very closely. She becomes dangerously aggressive if we get close to try to take a picture. The little calf, though, is gorgeous and we feed it chopped up banana leaves while tickling its nose.
We take a lot of pictures of the children too. Phisto, the star of the show, is not here yet; he’s been to his Eucharist at Kabgayi cathedral and is still walking home with various relatives. Dad arrives on a little moto; it’s the first time I’ve met him, and he’s tiny alongside me but very pleasant. We get the impression that they’re very proud of Delphine for having been accepted into the Gitarama muzungu society (she’s met nearly all our gang at one time or another), and the fact that we trust her to work as a domestique in one of our houses, with access to all our possessions etc, shows we rate her. She’s also earning a very decent wage from Becky and that’s being put away to go towards her eventually university fees, (we hope).
Delphine shows us the little bedroom she shares with her sister Clarisse, who has just returned from boarding school down in Ruhango District. In a corner of the bedroom is a huge stone pot full of homemade sorghum beer. I’ve never tasted this stuff (we’ve always been warned off it), but she tells us to try it while it lasts. So we suck some of the beer up through straws from the common pot. It’s quite an experience. The beer is lumpy and gritty; it’s like a thick stew which you chew as much as you drink. I’d never in a million years go out and buy some, but I’m really pleased I’ve had the chance to experiment with it under controlled conditions! It doesn’t taste anything like ordinary beer. It is earthy on the palate; you can tell that it’s alcoholic. It’s slightly vinegary; I don’t really know how to describe it. Definitely an acquired taste!
Becky and I have agreed that, while we have no specific present to give to Phisto, the most useful and acceptable gift to the family will be cash to help pay for all the entertainment today. So as discreetly as we can, we give Delphine two envelopes with cash in them. We don’t want all the neighbours to see we’re giving money, and especially we don’t want them to see that we’ve given 5000 francs each. Five thousand is more than a week’s income for an average rural family, and we know that with eight children, all of whom are being put through secondary school, Delphine’s family need every penny they can earn. And all of them seem to work hard, and work well together with each other, too.
Back in the living room, rows and rows of wooden benches are filling with guests as neighbours arrive. Every arrival means a formal greeting and handshake and “muraho neza”; “amakuru? – ni meza” greeting. We have been given another homemade drink - strawberry juice, made from the family’s strawberries. It’s wonderful stuff – thick, syrupy and more-ish. Quite the opposite to the sorghum beer.
Phisto and his escort of grannies and aunts and uncles arrives, and takes the seat of honour with his dad and the dad’s parents. Granddad walks with a stick and is delighted to be able to welcome muzungus into the house. The dad formally introduces everyone to us; that takes a good ten minutes and I can’t remember any of the names for more than a few seconds. We then stand up and introduce ourselves. Delphine has been translating for her dad, and I can see him really proud that his little girl can talk to the muzungus, if not in their own language (her English isn’t yet up to it yet), at least in French so we can understand what’s going on. Becky and I introduce ourselves in Kinyarwanda; we can only manage two or three sentences each but it’s enough. We get a thunderous round of applause for having tried in their language. The ice has been broken, and we feel we are being welcomed as honorary members of the family and friends.
Out comes more to drink; this time it’s the dreaded “urwagwa” – home brewed banana beer. This is the stuff which is made by digging a hole in the ground, lining it with banana leaves, then filling it with overripe bananas and leaving them to ferment under a pile of soil for a week or so. Of course, they give me some to try in a glass. It tastes unbelievably foul, but after a while it’s so foul that your mouth just gets anaesthetised to the taste. I make Becky take a couple of sips; we both pull faces and the room erupts at the muzungus trying to cope with the rough beer. Becky, in an inspired move, tells them that Bruce actually likes the beer despite pulling faces. Delphine is sent straight away to fetch more, and I end up with a glassful. I try to sip delicately while wondering if I could lose some of it through the window (No chance). Urwagwa makes vinegar taste bland. It is yellowish brown, the colour of Bailey’s, but that’s where any resemblance ends. It isn’t gritty and chewy, like the sorghum beer, but there is a scum of bits of banana leaf and whatever floating on the top. At the bottom of you glass a thick yellow sediment collects. The beer is bitingly acid and very, very strong. I hope to god I don’t get made to drink loads of this stuff and then get sent out into the blazing sun….
Meanwhile a big calabash is being passed round, full or urwagwa, and also one of the yellow cooking oil containers, also full of the stuff. Men and women alike drink it, sipping it through a single, communal straw. Honestly, if tonight my stomach survives the onslaught of strawberry juice, sorghum beer and banana hooch, all made with unfiltered water and god knows what else, it’ll prove my innards have well and truly adapted to rural Africa!
At this point there’s a big commotion. A local man, clearly not quite right in the head, comes into the room. He’s dressed in filthy rags, with a jacket that is virtually disintegrating as we look at it. He announces that he is hungry and thirsty and wants food. He sees us, and speaks to us in English. Goodness knows what his story is (and I wonder if he is someone who has been traumatised by things that happened fifteen years ago here). He is obviously an educated man, well known and tolerated in the village; nobody makes a fuss but they sit him down and make him welcome.
Meanwhile the girls and their friends have been out of sight for a while; now they come in with plates of food. Within three or four minutes, forty odd people have been served. It’s a very impressive piece of organisation. We have rice with a peanut sauce, beans, cabbage and carrot mix, and peas, and chips. In rural Rwanda food is taken extremely seriously; there’s a long winded grace before anyone touches the food, but as soon as the grace ends all conversation stops and the serious business of eating begins. Within a couple of minutes every plate has been polished clean, and Becky and I, despite being among the first to be served, are almost the last to finish. Our gatecrasher friend is fed and given banana beer; all the time he’s eating he speaks in English. Not directly to Becky and I, but to the room in general. They can’t understand a word he’s saying; I wonder if they even know he’s speaking English. Next time I see Delphine I’ll try to find out something about him.
The sorghum beer is brought out into the lounge, and a bundle of bamboo straws put into the neck of the pot. These straws are about three feet long and reach right down to the sludge at the bottom of the pot. You can’t drink the beer without dredging up some of the sludge, trust me!
In turns we are called up to drink the beer; it is part of the sharing and brotherhood process and to refuse would be a serious slight to the family. So we take our turn and everyone’s happy that we join in. At the same time they’re very understanding that all this is new to us and that we’re not quite sure what we ought to do. After a few mouthfuls I’m beginning to feel definitely mellow.
So we go outside for some air. It is a seriously hot day and with forty people in the room it is getting unbearable. We take pictures of a lot of the children, and then we decide we’ll take our leave and leave the family to themselves (and, no doubt, to talk about us).
The Dad tries to persuade us to stay longer. The ceremony and partying will go on for a long time, and we don’t want them to feel constrained by our being there. At the same time we don’t want to seem rude, or to give offense. So we explain that Becky is going off to visit schools early tomorrow (which happens to be true), and that she hasn’t a clue about how to get home, so Bruce needs to go home with her. There’s a lot of token toing and froing with them asking us to stay and us saying we really must leave. Eventually we leave, and make sure we say our thanks to parents and grandparents and to everyone in general.
Delphine comes with us down to the edge of the village, at which point I tell her we know the rest of the way home and she’s to go back to the party. “Knowing the way home” is not quite true; I’m not sure of the first mile, and as it happens we take one wrong turning. When I realise we’re heading towards the far side of the valley I gaily set off down a side track which looks promising. The track gets smaller and smaller, and we end up traipsing through somebody’s farmyard. The whole family are sitting out enjoying the Sunday sunshine, and you can imagine the looks on their faces when not just one, but two muzungus suddenly appear walking towards them. We explain where we’re going and they direct us through their fields and through a patch of woodland, down a steep, stony slope until we regain our proper path.
There’s this problem with roads and tracks in Rwanda – there are no signs anywhere, and people are constantly trying to find shortcuts. So when Delphine brought me along this route last time we followed any number of little cutoffs and short cuts that went alongside people’s houses, and there’s no way I can remember all of them three months later!
Back at the flat, via the brickfields and past the stadium where we’re mobbed by children from an orphanage and not allowed to pass until we’ve hugged and cuddled every single one, I have a quick shower and we set off for the muzungu meal. The Tear Fund volunteers who have been based in Gitarama for a while return to England on Friday, so this is their last chance to meet up with us. We end up as a group of about two dozen; easily the largest group of muzungus seen in Nectar, and it takes forever to get served.
After all my afternoon drinking, sinking a bottle of Primus now feels rather tame.
And I haven’t told you the best of it. When I get home I find that Delphine and her dad have been at my rucksack. When Becky told them that I liked urwagwa they must have decided she was telling the truth. Hidden down in the back of the rucksack is a small cooking oil bottle, neatly stoppered, and filled with urwagwa. I have my very own stash of banana beer to bring home for my Dorset friends to try.
What a wonderful experience this afternoon has been, and isn’t it lovely to be made so welcome by a family which I barely know! Come to think of it, I’ve had a marvellous few days since last Thursday. You could take the last four days’ blogs and put them forward as a perfect example of what the VSO experience is all about. I know that I haven’ done much work in terms of going to schools, but from the point of view of experiencing other cultures, and getting along with all sorts of other people, it has been absolutely perfect. Africa rocks!

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