Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Let’s talk about the blog

September 19th

Into Kigali early and straight in to the many changers. Today the rate is 915 to the pound. Then in to the internet café next door. This is reputed to have the best connection in town, but this morning the service is intermittent and sluggish. I don’t manage to post any blogs, and in a way that’s just as well. There’s a formal reprimand waiting for me from VSO, in the form of an email, about the content of the blog. That comes as a bolt from the blue. In all the 21 months I’ve been here I’ve only had two requests either to change something I’ve written or to anonymise individuals, and in each case I’ve done just that. Someone, or some people, have been making formal complaints to VSO without having the courtesy to speak to me first.

OK, they’ve had their say. Now let me have mine. Firstly, I’m aware that there is a very wide readership of this blog, and that the parents and friends of many volunteers read it. I’m also aware that it seems to be the one Rwanda blog potential volunteers are able to find before they come out. That is not something I have engineered. It’s because of the way the google search engine works, and I can’t do much to change it except leave place names out of the titles of posts.

Secondly, my blog is my personal diary; it’s my confessional. Anyone who has read the September postings will see that my life here is a mixture of the exhilarating and the intensely frustrating. The blog is where I celebrate the former and work the latter out of my system by writing about it. It’s my diary. It’s not intended to be a formal factual account. Again, reading the September entries there is at least as much positive about the country, its schools, and its teachers as there is negative. The sub title is “the ups and downs of life as an education adviser”, and that describes exactly what I’m writing about. I’m not about to airbrush the negatives or hardships away, and the whole integrity of this blog lies in it being honest and in its immediacy. If you want a scholarly account of life in Rwanda, or an official presentation, then you need to look elsewhere.

Thirdly my blog is not, and never has been, an official VSO affair. I have included the mandatory disclaimer.

Fourthly, I write the blog primarily for me, and not for other people. The pace of life here is fast; things we did last week seem months ago, and even the zaniest events of last year are half forgotten. I write in my language to make these two years in Rwanda come alive for me when I go back over it in years to come. The reason I post the blogs is so that my family back in England and elsewhere can read it and follow what I’m doing. Letters take weeks to reach home; blogs are instant and include pictures. I have many friends in my home area who want to learn about life in Rwanda, and many people have raised money for the various projects I’m funding here to bring clean water to schools. I never set out to write it as a briefing document for potential volunteers or their families.

Having said all the above, I’m genuinely hurt if people have taken offence at things I have written. It’s not my intention to lampoon or undermine people or institutions. I’m giving two years of my life as a volunteer to build them up, and by and large I think I’m doing a good job. So apologies if I have offended you; no doubt you’ll stop reading the blog, and the problem ends.

It seems to me that I have a choice of four routes with the blog. One is to remove the entire thing so that nothing remains accessible on the internet. I’m reluctant to do that because it means that one two people will have effectively had the power of censorship over me, and will have destroyed something that the majority of people who speak to me feel is useful and entertaining. Another is to remove all the text postings, but leave the pictures on the assumption that people are less likely to take offence at photos with short captions. That won’t work in the long term because you need the text postings to give context to the pictures. The third option is to make the blog private, with a password to gain access. This means that only people who correspond with me will be able to access it, and it removes any chance of people coming upon it by accident. (So, for example, the Danish architect who wrote to me last week asking for photos of traditional Rwandan buildings so that he could gain ideas for his firm’s building project in Rwanda – people like this man would not get any help). The fourth is to write the text in such a way that it will be difficult for anyone to take offence. I’m not sure whether this is practicable – it would mean writing two blog entries for each day, one private one for me which reminds me of what exactly happened, and another milder version which conceals most of the gritty things that make life here both amazing and exasperating.

At the moment I’m not sure which option to choose. I am discussing the problem with my volunteer colleagues here, who are my main support network. I’m still blogging, but may not be posting text for a while.

And, finally, if the person or people who felt offended is/are prepared to identify themselves, maybe we can get together and discuss things. Anonymous complaints from your volunteer colleagues or staff are insidious because they destroy the trust which we need to operate as the VSO community here.

This incident puts a dampener on the day. I have some shopping to do, and the plan is to meet up with Tina and Becky and have lunch together. In the event I go back to Gitarama on an early bus and bury myself in work for an hour, and then try to catch up on some rest.

Moira, Kerry, Charlotte and students from Kavumu are doing Akagera today; I hope the park has had some rain in the last week, otherwise it’s going to be an exceptionally dusty experience for everyone. I think it’s a tremendous idea to take all the students round the park; as westerners we tend to assume that most Rwandans have been to all their National Parks. The reality is that even many of the wealthiest and most educated section of the community have only been to one or two. And for pupils in the rural schools Rwanda’s parks are about as accessible as the surface of the moon.

In the evening it’s Karen’s birthday party. The theme is “wear a tee-shirt with a catchy slogan, a tee-shirt you’ve picked up in the market”. Becky and Karen have found an extra large one and have it waiting for me at their house. It’s bright red with the slogan “rather have hog’s breath than no breath at all” (oh dear, did I forget to clean my teeth this morning?). No doubt you’ll see the pictures eventually.

Christi has made an enormous birthday cake, and we have iced tea and homemade pizza rolls. Helen has found a house to live in which is only a hundred yards or so from Cathie’s old place; about the same distance from me as Soraya but in the opposite direction. Tom’s due back in a fortnight; there’s a rumour that he has shaved his head completely. Tom – if you’re reading this, make sure you’ve got some photos when you return!

Today marks an entire month without any water in the taps. The reservoir which supplies Gitarama is, so I’m told, completely dry. There is a spring somewhere in the vicinity which is still flowing, but there’s no way it can supply the whole town. I’m told that they are putting water through to particular parts of the town for a couple of hours at a time, and only then to particular taps. This probably explains why the SORAS houseboy tends to take my jerry can each evening and bring it back first thing the next morning. We’ll need at least a week of heavy rain before the reservoir fills enough to be usable, and I imagine water for the first few days will be unusable because of the amount of muck in it.

Speaking of water, Karen and Becky found, in their daily bucket of water, an enormous pink worm, like a piece of string. We’re not sure whether it was a species of tapeworm, but you certainly wouldn’t want the eggs from that thing hatching inside you! They’ve been boiling water for 20 minutes at a time ever since!

Back home with Léonie; the night air is cold and there’s lightning flickering in the north west, but a clear sky overhead. I watch a video “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and fall into bed, but the nightclub is thudding right through to five o’clock again, so sleep is intermittent.

Not my best day in Rwanda. Were it not for the support from our local volunteers and my colleagues at the District and the schools, I’d be tempted to leave Africa to its own devices and get the first plane home.


Alex said...

I have started reading your blog relatively recently. I am a member of the Rwandan Diaspora. I have no idea who has objected to your blog. It is not inconceivable that the govt is monitoring it.

Last weekend I read some of your postings from trips to inspect fairly remote schools and the text and photos were fascinating. You have gone to areas where few people go and you are shining some light on the schools and life (and the beauty of Rwanda) there. Although some may be embarrassed by the deficiencies in the schools and teaching - Rwandans are very proud - it is good to see the reality which of course might stimulate readers to help improve things.

Members of the Diaspora send remittances back home and paying school fees is one of the more common ways of helping. It can be quite a struggle to get sponsored students to send school reports so we get to know very little about the reality of the schools that we are paying for.

The One Dollar Campaign (to build hostels for orphans) is still going but maybe the Diaspora could be asked to help with the funding for all the new classrooms that are needed for S1 to S3 and education funding generally. I know that teachers for example are not well paid. It is humbling to read of the teachers who are doing so much with few resources.

Anna said...

Keep writing Bruce. I read your's before coming out here and was nothing except excited about starting my volunteer experience in Rwanda. In fact, it was your blog that helped me choose between Rwanda and another placement!

Ingina y'Igihanga said...

So what's biting you, Bruce, that you should develop such cold feet?

I am a Rwandan here in Kigali and have been enjoying your blog since you started 'rwandering'. It is so educative and informative even to me as a Rwandan.

My fellow Rwandan in the Diaspora couldn't be further from the truth when he says it's the government pushing for the stoppage of your blog. Rather, methinks, it could be VSO's unfounded fears.

Keep up your interesting blogging. I can only slight you on your unwillingness to respond to comments, especially the harsh ones like mine of sometime ago!

Ian said...

Well I recently became a monthly donor/supporter of VSO and your blog was key in helping me appreciate the life of a VSO volunteer and the value you can add. You tell things as they are and that's what makes it so real.