Thursday, 3 December 2009

Saying goodbye is so hard

December 1st

Today is my last full day in Gitarama. This will also be the last daily entry on the blog, although I’ll try to summarise two years of a life changing experience when I get home.

The rainy season seems to be ending; we haven’t had a heavy downpour from some time. This means the weather is absolutely idyllic. I wrote a couple of days ago about how clear and fresh and sharp the air was; well today is even more so. Gitarama has a fabulous climate and these days during the transition period from wet to dry are simply the best. No Garden of Eden could ask for better temperatures, sunlight, and general loveliness of nature around it.

Mind you, you’ve got to look over the choking traffic fumes, the throngs of people hanging around waiting for anything to happen, or trudging to and from the market. You’ve got to close your ears to the constant din from many sound systems, all tuned into different radio stations, all turned up way beyond distortion level, and all broadcasting different types of music from Tammy Wynette to Congolese dance. You’ve got to walk quickly past the free evangelical church, a couple of rooms above a parade of shops, where there’s always a service going on at half past six in the mornings and where the preacher is bellowing at his flock like a headmaster trying to cow a bunch of naughty schoolchildren. You’ve got to zip past the market with its revolting smells of fermenting cassava and the riper, sweeter smell of decomposing unsold fruit and over-ripe fish.

This is Africa – colourful, noisy, frenetic and indolent at the same time, hopeless and ambitious at the same time, grasping and giving. I love it here.

I have to stay at home till half past seven because Dieudonnée, the head at Rutarabana, stopped me in the street yesterday and demanded I give him a leaving present for his school. Sheer cheek, but it’s very Rwandan and if I were in his position I would do the same. I decide I can afford to give him a very small sum to buy dictionaries for his senior classes, and have the money all set aside in an envelope for him. But he never shows up. That’s a nuisance because it means I’ve missed the golden time of 7 – 7.30 in the office when it’s easy to collar people and get things done. I’m miffed at his no show, and decide I’m not going to pursue him. If he really wants this money then it’ll be his job to come and find me. I’m the one with the deadline.

In the town centre it looks as if a vehicle has lost its oils sump or fuel tank; there’s oil or diesel spread right across the road and the stench is overpowering. It’s nobody’s job to clear up the mess, so it will just remain forever there, a stain on the heart of Gitarama.

At the office there’s no sign of Claude. This is the day when I’m supposed to be saying all my formal farewells, but Claudine isn’t there either, and Valérian is in and out all the time, so there’s not a lot to do. Soraya and I stay for two hours. Claude’s been and gone, and left his modem behind so I’m able to do some internetting. Both power points in my office have stopped working, so I sit at Claude’s desk and use his wall socket, much to everyone’s amusement. (But hot desking is common here, and Claude’s computer is always being shared around the other District Office people. At one point someone comes in and thinks my computer is Claude’s and demands to use it in ten minutes’ time).

There’s no post for us, either, and when Karen comes in from Shyogwe the three of us go to the little café across the road for a fanta. Meanwhile I’m waiting to collect some money from Marin from last weekend; eventually she sends a driver specifically to find me and give it to me.

By this point I’m getting worried that I still haven’t started putting things in my suitcase, and I’m also worried about how heavy it’s going to be. So I abandon the office and leave word that I’ll come in first thing tomorrow before I set off for Kigali. Charlotte has come up trumps and is going to take me to Kigali on her way back from Shyogwe; I’m mightily relieved that I haven’t got to juggle a suitcase and two rucksacks on the buses, especially those in Kigali town.

Back at the flat I find packing relatively straightforward. I’m leaving behind almost all my clothes except those I’ll wear for the journey; I’m leaving all my toiletries and medicine, and, of course, my motor cycle helmet. That means that even with souvenirs there’s no problem of space in the luggage; it becomes a question of weight. Tom arrives with a spring balance and when we weigh all my stuff I’m below the flight limit so all’s well.

Épi texts to say she’s meeting me in Kigali tonight; that’s perfect because we can swap photos and music.

I have a packet of cake mix from my sister, and the plan is to bake it up into little buns and take some to Janine to make her feel better. But for some reason the only adaptor plug I have left out and available decides not to work, so I can’t get our oven to operate. No matter, I’ll bequeath the cake mix to Tom and he can sort it out at the weekend.

For my final lunch in Gitarama I decide to go to Nectar and have omelette special; it’s one of my favourite delights of Rwandan cuisine. Then I get a moto round to Janine’s house. At last she is back home from hospital, and starting to make progress. She is out of bed, and has been walking around in the house and garden. But sitting up for any period of time is painful, and after twenty minutes I can tell she’s had enough. The room is full of people, her brothers and their friends are watching a DVD on a laptop. It’s an odd feeling – you’re having a private conversation in a room full of people because everyone except Janine and myself is glued to the Kinyarwanda soundtrack on the DVD.

Saying goodbye is always hard, but in Janine’s case it is particularly difficult. She’s such a lovely girl, and has been so unlucky. Things have really knocked the stuffing out of her. But she has Tom, Christi and all the FHI volunteers looking after her, and a supportive fiancé and family, so she’s not cut adrift. She is signed off work for at least three weeks, but Tom’s inviting her to drop in at the FHI office now and then, unofficially, to keep up to date with what’s happening rather than to do actual work.

Back to the flat. My bedroom cupboards are bare; the walls are bleak except where we’ve agreed I’ll leave my Dorset calendar pictures and clippings from newspapers as decorations. It doesn’t feel like my space any more.

On one of the chairs there’s a big pile of clothes to go to the FHI office for the artisans to help themselves when they bring in their offerings next week. I really brought far too many clothes, and definitely far too much medicine. But as for the medicine, when you come to Rwanda as a VSO you have no clear idea what your living conditions are going to be like, and had I been way up in a remote place or more unlucky with my health, then I would have possibly needed everything that came out with me. In general we always come to Africa as if we’re on an expedition to Antarctica. The reality is that almost everything you need is available here, but it might take you a year to find out just how to get things. And clothes here are ridiculously cheap, and after a few months all the men get African shirts made up and so on, so there isn’t a need to bring more than a week’s worth of clothes!

In the evening Tom and I go up to Green Garden for brochettes and ibirayi. Even with two orders of these, they still manage to screw up the quantities, but we just laugh. We’re joined by Nathan, Marin, April and Helen and stay for a couple of hours. Marin has her bodyguard with her; he also gets brochettes and stays in the shadows a discreet distance from us. It’s a hell of a situation for her; let’s hope the catch the man who is threatening her and lock him away soon.

Back to the flat and to bed. My last night in Gitarama and there’s at least a couple of mosquitoes in the room. I really can’t get my head round this. Joe Walk’s right by the lake, at a lower altitude, and yet he has almost no trouble with mozzies at all. But we always have them in the flat – not swarms but enough to make it uncomfortable to sleep without a net – and Moira has them as well just up the road in Kavumu. I’m looking forward to being able to sleep without a net in England. The news from home is that the rain and floods seem to have finished for a while, but when I land at Gatwick it will be bitterly cold with snow across the whole of the north of England. So it looks as though there’ll be no mistaking where I am when I land!.

Finally, as a full moon rises across the town and Africa glistens under its light, a word of thanks to all those of you who have been reading the blog. According to my tracker there have been some 15000 visits to the site, from around 30 different countries. If it has given you some insight into what Rwanda is really like; if it has shown you what it means to be a volunteer in one of the poorest countries in the world, then it has served its purpose. I started it for my family and friends back in England as an alternative to writing endless letters, it then spread to prospective volunteers about to come to Rwanda.

I came to Rwanda absolutely petrified that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the heat, the crowds, the language, the work, the insects and diseases – my biggest fear was that I would collapse and be sent home in ignominy as a failed volunteer. Two years later I find that Africa has become home; the strangeness of everything has become normality. I’m operating well within my comfort zone, and I find I’m apprehensive about returning to an England where there is economic recession, political lethargy and general malaise. I feel out of step with the way of thinking in the west and I’m going to find the materialism difficult to adjust to. For all long term volunteers the “re-entry” period is not easy; perhaps I’m lucky in that I’ve got all the Christmas business to distract me.

Would I volunteer with VSO again – YES! I’ve been lucky, but I’ve had a tremendous time.

7 comments:

Alex said...

Thank you for your insightful and detailed posts (and the photos) from Rwanda and your hard work and support for education in Muhanga District. Thanks.

Ingina y'Igihanga said...

Bruce, Thank you billions for your VERY interesting blog postings. Surely, we are all going to miss you, the moto man and man of the people of Rwanda!

My desk top has been immensely enriched by the sumptuous variety of your breathtakingly beautiful pictures. Every week it has a new one! Think you can send me some more (ingina2@yahoo.co.uk)?

Caution: REACT to comments!

I am amazed at your ability to spell correctly all the Rwandan names and words. Hope you'll get ibirayi and brochettes (French!) back home!

Have a wonderful journey and give our (Rwandans)love to your good people back in UK.

Ingina, Umunyakigali
(Ask about the meaning of that one before you go!)

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Paul said...

Bruce, you were compulsive insight for us; we never met but were very close when VSO proposed me for Giterama last January. We are now 4 months into our placement in The Gambia but hope we will get to Rwanda, inshallah, as they say here.

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