Rwandan Ramblings

Friday, September 14, 2007

Final posts (& over and out from me)

The Scottish Highlands of Rwanda
Hills rise up either side of the steep valley, bright green but interspersed with dark patches of brown and red. It is more green than brown right now owing to the rain that has for the last month, lashed down uncompromisingly on the tiled houses scattered amongst the fields and cows. In the evenings you will often find men sat around in the local bars sharing a beer; often silently contemplative, often gruffly cackling over some bit of news just heard on the radio. Others watch the football on the TV in the corner, completely immersed in a game many miles away from where they are, but nonetheless vehemently supportive of one of the two sides. And for those not watching, there is always a heated match going on at the local football pitch, even if using trees or jumpers for goalposts.
This is not Rwanda. But it could be.

When I was a child, my family would drive back up into the highlands of Scotland to visit family and friends at least once a year. There are of course many differences between Scotland and Rwanda, but when near the beautifully wild Nyungwe forest, I often think of the towering mountains of my mother’s birthplace and the hawks that circled the sky spying for mice. The national dance of Rwanda involves extending the arms outwards in a graceful imitation of the statuesque horns that adorn the country’s prized cows. How far is that from Highland dancing, where both men and women hold their arms up high, fingers firmly locked into a position representing the noble stag’s antlers? Men wear kilts, and yes, while the tartan may not entirely echo the zigzags of the male Intore dancers’ loincloths, the gesture towards history is the same. And the stomping of feet and jangling bells bound around ankles could even remind one of the clumping of English Morris dancers.

Food, dress, language and accents, politics and entertainment change the world over, country to country, region to region. But some basic elements of life are sufficiently replicated that they can be judged inherent. Sharing a drink with friends, trying to continue your education or get a better job, worrying over your daughter’s safety, dancing and singing during festivities, following the news, rebelling against parents, bemoaning having to do chores; all these happen and more, all around the world. Yet, we can also add ‘being ignorant of other cultures’ to the list too. We are all guilty of demonising, patronising or romanticising customs in different countries without often acknowledging that our rituals and habits are often remarkably similar, binding us as one. The number of times I have seen astonished faces in Rwanda when I say that there are homeless people in Britain equal the number of raised eyebrows of people back home when I show photos of elegant high rise buildings in Kigali or friends wearing sharp suits.

Karaoke in Rwanda is much less about singing, than miming and having a good dance routine. Japanese karaoke involves sitting in a small booth and singing the night away with friends, and British karaoke is made popular by inebriated football teams and star struck “wanted-to-be"s - but the overall objective of each nation is of entertaining the audience and having a good time! There is much to be said for doing in Rome as Romans do, but there is also a need to discuss, share and be proud of our own culture. By discussing the differences we will inevitably find that they are more superficial than the similarities


Snaked around the hill is a line of brightly clothed backs, flashing up and down in time to the irregular heaving and plunging of a hundred hoes. Parcels of obedient baby are strapped to backs here and there, blinking in the strong sunlight and bobbing up and down according to the rise and fall of their strong cradles.

It is the final Saturday of the month in Rwanda, and in every town and village and scattering of houses the whole neighbourhood is out for Umuganda; government initiated community work. Blazered but barefoot men and broad teenage boys in vests work alongside military men and tiny weathered women each having brought some sort of tool to help with whichever task has been assigned this month.

Headway is being made – an old ditch is slowly being weeded by the machete wielders and re-furrowed by the hoe brandishers. The next time the rain falls it is hoped the water will slope off here and not score further huge trenches into the partly impassable track. Rattling bikes will find it easier to navigate by the afternoon and when it is levelled next month cars may be able to make the descent too. Not that many people in Sovu own cars but that doesn’t matter.

Umuganda is obligatory – maroon uniformed Local Defence Force guards rap insistently on your door with their truncheons if your household is not represented, though in the larger towns and amongst better-off people who are unfamiliar with hoe brandishing, you often hear the excuse “oh, I do Umuganda at home”.

I’m doing Umuganda at home this month too. Why? Of course it is not the relentless sun, or the stinging nettles or the blisters that burn your hands for weeks after that puts me off. Nor is it the lack of a machete or having to get out of bed early. My problem is that my presence does very little to advance proceedings, and not necessarily for want of effort. Pushing strands of wet hair away from my face and pausing for a moment to regain grip on a borrowed hoe, I realize no matter how hard I hoe little progress will be made with since the majority of the village is gleefully watching my every stuttering move. Two walls of wide-grinned and incredulous onlookers stand tall either side of me, hoes hanging loosely by their sides and machetes resting upon heads.

So for the good of the cars which may one day roll down that road, I’ll do Umuganda at home this month too.

PHARE; Prevention of HIV and AIDS in Rwanda through Education
Imagine a major personal problem you have had in the last year. It could be something embarrasing to do with your health, or the possibility of losing your job or university spot. Perhaps a pregnancy scare? Or were you afraid at one point that your partner was cheating on you?

Who did you turn to for advice?

If you are male and in Rwanda, there is a strong chance you did not speak to anybody. More than 1 in 5 boys in a recent study in Nyamagabe district said they do not speak to anybody about personal issues. Speaking openly is obviously difficult, but amongst all the boys and girls who do seek advice, 93% said they turn to their friends. This proves just how important activities focusing on HIV prevention, sexual health and life skills are “peer-led”.

The VSO PHARE project (Prevention of HIV and AIDS in Rwanda through Education) demands active participation from students. Across 2 districts, and set to start in 2 more in September 2007, students are now co-leading their anti-AIDS clubs having received training on basic sexual health, reproduction, HIV prevention and transmission, contraception and importantly, peer counselling. They have an experienced trainer to guide them, but they run sessions together, with the aim of eventually empowering the students to run their own clubs themselves, without need for outside help. Sending in a volunteer from overseas or even a Rwandan member of staff from Kigali to facilitate discussions in the middle of the Rwandan countryside would be as useful as an ostrich preaching to a fish in a pond. Both may lay eggs, eat, breathe and eventually die, but they come from vastly different environments, often unaware of the challenges that each other face. Also, by giving ownership to the students, they themselves become proud to be the leaders, proud to teach their peers, and proud to share their knowledge – even leading activities with their own teachers and headteachers!

Since the start of the project funding in September 2006, PHARE has run trainings for headteachers, teachers, students and Anti-AIDS Club leaders, as well as sourced and trained young motivated facilitators who help with following up the good work. A manual was written specifically for use in local schools and published in all three of Rwanda’s national languages to help guide the students. A theatre, music and danse competition was run in both districts to motivate the students and congratulate them for their hard work. The 4 winning schools are set in a few days to perform in Kimironko, Kigali’s busiest market place, as well as in the Union Trade Centre in the heart of the capital. It is hoped that this way, the message will spread even further – not only how important it is to protect oneself and one’s friends from HIV and reduce discrimination, but also that the future of Rwanda is in the hands of the youth...and that they are more than capable of securing a bright one.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Ringuistic Lifts

“Sorry Maggie, I can’t come round. I’ve come to Kigali because I had a rift”.

I puzzled over this text message, worrying who gentle giant Félix could possibly have argued with and what on earth about. I called him immediately, hoping he’d be able to speak. “Yes Maggie, I left straight away, I was offered a lift”.

Ahhhh. Once again linguistic confusion between Ls and Rs leaves me in the dark.

However, this is not quite as bad nor potentially embarrassing a misunderstanding as happened to one of my friends recently. Her employer was worriedly informing her about just how dangerous he thought the forthcoming nationwide erections in Congo were going to be...

Karaoke Classics

There are many things I will find hard to miss when I leave Rwanda. I can’t see myself grimacing as I ease myself into a hot bath, and I doubt my mouth will curl up in disgust upon cheesecake passing between my lips. The mere thought of buying a bunch of carrots without an audience excites me. But there is one thing that is sadly lacking from British culture and if only I could, I would transport it in less than a jiffy.

How often do you wince when you realize it is “karaoke night” in your local back home?

Not here. Never here.

Rwandan karaoke is a joy to behold. I say behold rather than listen to because that is where the absolute joy resides. No screeching from enthusiastic, plump wanted-to-be’s with bleached hair. No groups of red-eyed football lads on a boozy night out who see inebriation as a passport to self-embarrassment. No, Rwandan karaoke is all about miming, looking chic and having a good dance routine.

Slick turns, impossible hip jiggles, bendy bodies and dress changes are at the core of this profession. The funniest part must be the seriousness of it all. I guess it really is a job, but since the songs generally revolve around the playlist of the National Rwandan Appreciation Society for Enrique Iglesias, Westlife, Celine Dion and Cheese in its Purest of Forms it does sometimes appear slightly weird to watch these muscular guys gyrating away to a British pop ballad.

It is a shame in a way that you can’t pick up a laminated floppy book of “songs we do”, lying on the bar and sign yourself up with those weenie pencils to communal humiliation as in normal karaoke. This is all performance – no amateurs allowed unfortunately. How I would like to shimmy and shake my stuff on stage for the pure hilarity of it all. You wouldn’t catch me doing it back on the Isle of Wight, but out here people stare enough as it is...

Now personally I think there would be far fewer groans from locals come Karaoke night if the inebriated football boys had to strut their stuff to a Westlife theme tune and try to retain some dignity at the same time. You might even have trouble finding a table.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


It’s easy to be famous here. I would like to credit my emergence as a regular on various Rwandan radio stations to my electric personality and crafty use of the media to serve my every need but tht would be truly misleading. Journalists just seem to appear every time I’m running something – be it a competition, summer school or a training. And so I give interviews – none of which I have actually heard myself, since they are normally broadcast on the Kinyarwanda stations. Instead people tell me later that they heard me babble enthusiastically about young people and energy and motivation and health on this or that station. I even had the big boss VSO Rwanda Country Director congratulate me for a good 5 minute interview he heard on Radio Rwanda a few weeks back (they obviously couldn’t be bothered with editing any of it...unless I have forgotten that I really was bestowing pure nuggets of golden information upon the nation!).

Shalking hands with participants at the end of a training - as if I'm actualy important...

I’ve even become pretty good at giving nice little catchphrases; “Why have a music competition to spread messages about HIV? Well everyone knows all of Beyonce’s lyrics – these kids too now know their lyrics through and through!”. “Do I think the kids are capable of spreading the message? They have proven today that they are great ambassadors for their schools, and so now they are equally great HIV prevention embassadors in their schools and communities too!”, “The energy in that room is just astounding, enough to knock you out – be careful on entering!”.

The other day Richard, one of my colleagues called me into his office and switched on a 3 minute radio clip he has saved on his computer which has been aired several times a day for the last couple of weeks. It was of course all in Kinyarwanda, but I could get that they were talking about the summer school that is currently going on in my town, with the dates, the people invited and the location...and then I heard the name of my town. It was immediately referred to as “Kuwa Maggie” – “Maggie’s place”. Now that made me feel special!

However, this doesn’t even come close to the fame of one or two VSOs living in the capital city who can count amongst their closest Rwandan friends various DJs, members of the national basketball team, journalists and actors. Two of my friends have recently recorded the new jingle for one of the biggest radio stations in the capital. So their voices will now be aired 50 times a day every day for the next how many months!?!

Ah well, back to the electric personality drawing board for me...

And on the high table whilst singing the national anthem. No, I don't know the words...but the army guy obviously does. The Mayor is right in the middle.

Monday, July 09, 2007

So there they arrived at the airport looking like they always did.
Unsurprisingly I guess. I was part wondering whether Sue would have checked whether “Safari Style” was in vogue this month and turned up in leopard print wedges with lion tooth motif. But no. You may laugh, but she obviously didn’t realize that footwear appropriate for gorilla trekking up a volcano may not include puma “no-grip sandshoes” or that she might need trousers slightly more rugged than those from Topshop’s “Summer Linen Range”. She can explain that one.

Having 4/7 of the Murphy clan come to visit the 1/7 marooned out here since September last year was actually a treat (and not just for the shampoo, chocolate and cup-a-soups that they brought in a specially designated Maggie Suitcase). Although there was a definite golden lining to the cloud that was our grotty little guesthouse’s tardiness in serving any food on one of the first evenings. I gave up waiting and launched into a ham and lettuce on seeded brown bread sandwich. A little bite of heaven.

It was a whirlwind of ten days, partly since i was still working in preparation for a district competition in dance, theatre and music that I organized and stressed over.

One of the welcome elements of their visit was that they re-opened my eyes to the kaleidoscope that is Rwandan Life. It is very easy to slide into a way of living and forget just how different things are out here. And often it’s nice to know many things are different (I’ve just been called fat again by my landlord).

“Look! A woman with a basket on her head AND a baby on the back”
“Why do prisoners wear pink?”
“If I just say Papa Maggie, they seem to understand”.
“How can he carry a saw on his head?”
“Look at those guys on bikes hanging on to the back of the truck up the hill”
“Why is there a boy hanging off the truck of cows?”
“And why are their tails tied to the canvas sheeting?”
“There must be 30 people in that minibus”

“”God Will Save Us” is written on the back of that minibus roaring around the corner!”

All this whilst my screwed up eyes are identifying the next pothole on the horizon and trying to avoid the crazy kids and awestruck goats in the path of the car. I was petrified for much of the time on the road, I didn’t tell them that I had seen a man killed in front of my eyes in a horrific car crash just a couple of hours before they landed, though now, having been here for a few days it probably won’t surprise them.

Spot the Mzungu. No seriously. He's at the back.

And it was great for them to see my life out here – however short and sweet and skin-deep the visit may have been.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Another culinary delight in Rwanda. Very small fish, grilled to a crisp.

You’re meant to eat the head (they’re shorter than your little finger) and tail, but I couldn’t really face it.

The glazed eyes are really quite pretty aren’t they?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

And thanks for all the comments. Sometimes you wonder if anyone reads - it's nice to have the encouragement to go on!

In response to some questions;

My contract is until the first week of September so expect to see me back on British soil, eating ham sandwiches on brown bread with mustard around that time!

Tom, I hope you are happy that I safely retuned my "delicate" sister to you. Despite being slapped by a gorilla (maybe she deserved it), I hope you find her in peak condition.

Monday, June 11, 2007

I don’t know who is more nervous about my parents impending arrival in Rwanda
my mother “Shall I pack a toaster and some corned beef???” or me “Don’t do that, don’t touch that, leave that alone and just keep calm!”. Or Rwanda.

With a Murphy clan about to hit, I am trying to think of some important hints and tips for them. Zingalo was lesson 1 in Kinyarwanda, but here are a few friendly bits of advice I’ll share with them – and with you...

1) When you see me greet my friends, you may think that I am about to get violent. But, three headbutts, one to the left, one to the right, and one back to the left, before a handshake is about as respectful and polite as you can get. It’s not a Glasgow kiss. So don’t try to restrain me.

2) You don’t know my friends well enough to do this. What you guys need to do is shake hands whilst holding your right elbow wth your left arm. Instant good marks for politeness guaranteed.

3) Dessy. Men hold hands here. Do not see this as a threat to your sexuality – just go for it! It’s friendly! You never know, after a little while, you might start to like it. It usually starts with the handshake, which then turns into the hand hold. There’s also the “we’re friends walking down the street” man-hold too.

4) Unfortunately, men and women cannot hold hands....mum and dad, go easy. That’s disgusting.

5) Plastic bags. As soon as you arrive in Rwanda all plastic bags on view will be stripped from your person. This is part of their drive to environmental cleanliness; “Our country is very small. We do not need to choke it with plastic bags”. Unfortunately they will probably all languish in the entrance area to the airport where a growing mountain festers. Dad, this means that you may need to invest in a bag of some sort. They’re fine for Ryde Saints and St Mary’s hospital but plastic bags are so un-chic here...

6) There is no need to buy various khaki coloured three zip trousers, or a beige multi pocketed safari jacket just because you’re coming to Africa. You’ll look like an eedjit. And what are you going to put in all those pockets? Sue, this applies for Nike Air Jerusalems too.

7) Don’t take photos without asking people first! Don’t ask what ethnicity people are! Don’t believe the newspapers!

8) Bring rain jackets. Might be Africa but it rains. Lots.

9) Don’t give food/money to the kids that ask for it. Mag’s policy. If they ask for a bonbon they probably don’t need it...

I promise to entertain you all with just how the Murphy clan copes in the so called heart of darkness. I have been told, that if you prepare them for the worst – the whole trip may just go that little bit smoother...


Is one of the most important words you can learn in Kinyarwanda. What does it mean? Intestine.

It is closely followed in importance by “sinshaka” – “I don’t want”. Put the two together and you have hopefuly avoided a rather unpleasant culinary surprise. Intestine on a stick is not really what you want arriving to your table having waited at least 90 minutes for its arrival. So when they ask you what type of kebab you are after, make sure you know your inyamas (meat) from your zingalos.

Everything just takes longer.
Washing hair, peeling carrots, sending letters, going to work... I guess here you have a cup and a bucket with which to wash hair, a very knobbly carrot and a semi blunt knife with which to peel it, incredible bureaucracy at work requiring the mayor’s signature and an array of different coloured ink stamps from various different offices (generally vacant) to get the go ahead for any work letter, and a stream of kids dragging ou back from work by hanging on your hand or hugging your thigh. Is anything quicker out here than at home?

Well maybe bus rides around steep hills. I once was on a minibus which overtook a minibus which was overtaking a lorry which was wider at the top than the bottom due to its big banana cargo. Three in a row. Around a corner. Here it’s not about valuing life day by day but second by heart jolting second.

What do you do when your gate padlock breaks and you can get neither in or out?

No, not a John McGee riddle, but the question I recently faced. So I asked Agnes to help me out. Where in Gikongoro does one go to break open a padlock?

“There is just one person in Gikongoro who can open padlocks. And he is in prison”. Great. So now what?

“I’ll go and send for him”. Huh?

And lo and behold, an hour or two later a prisoner dressed in the ubiquitous pink uniform donned by every member of the unavoidable Rwandan prison population turns up to my gate, with his very own specially commissioned armed guard. He then sets to work – I was expecting a great big saw and some brute force, but oh no. This was an intelligent job – click, click, tuck, ping! A few seconds work – and he took it away for a day to fix it too so that the key would work again.

We paid him a bit of money – the guard of all people said it wasn’t enough, so we raised it a little. It was only a few days later that I heard the guard stole it.

The prisoners are put to great use out here. Free labour for the government! They are everywhere, hoeing and carrying and digging and building. The track up to my house was de-weeded (and de-flowered) by a band of prisoners for last month’s Umuganda – which was a welcome surprise for the one single benficiary. Me. They are usually out in the fields cultivating the land lazily watched over by a single armed guard – unless the guard nips into one of the small mud houses to treat some poor girl to an unwelcome “visit”. But then you see the prisoners doing the same from time to time too - doing up their unfortunately comical pink pajama-type trousers as they emerge into the light, the girl trailing a few seconds later re-tying her pang. Who are the losers here? The women living in the houses near me are incessantly pregnant and have broods of children – but there are rarely any men around for longer than it takes to empty the fresh batch of sorghum beer.

Friday, May 25, 2007

And some more...

Nyungwe Forest.

The Volcano near Congo - where the gorillas live.

Terrassing on one of the 1000 hills in Rwanda.

View over Rubona, Gisenyi. Lake Kivu.
Kigali houses

Thursday, May 24, 2007

And then you fall back in love.

It only takes a couple of days – a couple of smiles, a couple of “Hi Maggie’s” when you’re in the middle of nowhere, a startling sunrise or star-scattered night sky, and a couple of fun exchanges in the market to give you a smack and get you back into the swing of things.

It’s been about a month now since I found myself in a rut. I found work exasperating because the more involved and passionate I got about my project, the less I wanted to accept that setbacks occur more frequently here or that people you work with are not quite as passionate as you. I hated being a novelty. I wanted black skin so I could walk down the street anonymously. News from home served to make apparent how far away I am from those I love - despite internet, telephones, blogs, letters, newspapers, email...

I was in a rut – I tried climbing out of it at first, but then felt content to sit back and wallow in feeling sorry for myself. I’m now climbing out. I still find the gimme gimme game frustrating. I find the ungratefulness of the culture a wall I feel my head banging against. I’m tired of being treated as a plastic human being who can be talked about and laughed at but not have their feelings considered. But now, I’m remembering I didn’t come here because it’d be breeze. And that’s so far from what suits me anyway. And I chose to come here and be the outsider. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. And culture (what does one mean by culture? I hate that as an excuse) really is different. Just because somebody doesn’t say thank you doesn’t mean they aren’t grateful. And if people don’t work as hard as you do – then face up to it, it’s going to happen again, be it London, Ryde, or Ouagadougou.

I’m back in love with Rwanda.

A report was carried out by UNICEF in 1995 where children were asked a variety of questions about how they felt during the genocide. These are just a couple of the findings.

88% of the children asked say they saw dead bodies.

16% said they hid under dead bodies to survive.

children thought they would die.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Merryls’ Food mishaps. Part III

So, Merryl and Vicki are in a hurry. They need food fast because Vicki lives on the other side of Kigali, it’s almost 9pm and the small minibuses stop shunting people from place to place very soon. It’s also very dark, and it is not the safest part of town. After waiting about 20 minutes for a brochette and salad, Merryl asks how long it will take.

“It’s coming” – great. No need to leave to catch a bus and go hungry tonight.

5 minutes later – “where is it?”
“It’s ready now”.

Ten minutes after that, Merryl and Vicki catch the sight of a man shuffling into the kitchen holding a couple of carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes. The salad might not coming just yet.

Gimme gimme gimme

A couple of classic examples of the gimme gimme gimme culture...

A little old man with very few teeth is shuffling up the stony path. I pass by and he grins widely – “Muraho” he says. I reply in Kinyarwanda to which he exclaims in shock – “You speak Kinyarwanda!”. And the convesation continues a little – him beaming wide-eyed in surprise that I can get by in his lanugage. Then suddenly something seems to click in his mind and his face suddenly transforms. The transition between the broad smile and the now baleful - pitiful even, droopy eyes is incredible. The click is the sudden realization he is talking to a mzungu and he really should be able to profit somewhat from this chance encounter.

“My brother is sick. Money.” He holds out his hand.

Yesterday I was driving along the road on my motorbike when I saw a guy ahead of me tumble off his bike pretty badly. I stopped my bike to make sure he was ok. He was lying by the side of the road and had obviously hurt his ankle. I was wondering whether if needed it would be possible to take him on the back of the bike to hospital twenty minutes drive away. Then he looks up at me, registers my skin colour and from the ditch by the side of the road next to his collapsed bicycle stretches out his hand and gives a baleful stare. Then rubs his stomach.

Another time my motorbike broke down. I didn’t even realize – perhaps stupidly since I’ve been riding one for 9 months now – that motorbikes have chains. Well, what do I do in Britain when my bike chain falls off? Turn it over and spend a couple of minutes huffing and puffing and clicking chains back on to spikes. You can’t do that with a motorbike... But I’m learning. So I took off my helmet to a small audience of a couple of bemused women. 1) Motorbiker in trouble. 2) Motorbiker is mzungu. 3) Motorbiker is female mzungu. Makes for an exciting feast for the eyes apparently.

I rest the helmet on the dirt, take off the gloves, squint into the oily unknown entrails of my poor little bike, wondering where to start. The I do. I work out the chain, try to hook it back on to the spoke parts. My hands are covered in oil, I’m not a happy bunny and this is probably more than evident. I look up at the grinning woman as I realize one of them is coming over, maybe to lend a hand.

“Money. I’m hungry. Give it.” She smiles at me, stroking her stomach.

Well, since you asked so nicely...

Don’t think badly of me. I am doing my best by being out here. When I spray freezing cold water over my shivering body at 6.30am in preparation for the day to come, it is easy to wonder why I am here instead of in a hot shower back home, going to a job where things work and you don’t have to schedule in several hours a day for “unforeseen problems”. But I am here, and I work bloody hard. The first time I was running around like a madman coordinating a free training week and weekend for secondary school children on HIV knowledge, reproductive health, and peer counselling. I provided each school with valuable training resources and education materials costing hundreds of pounds. Not a single person came to me to say thankyou. I get paid much less than the guys I work with – they find it hilarious when walking with me – “they always ask you for money even though you have none! Isn’t that funny!?” Actually no. I love my job. I love many people out here. There are some fantastic people doing some incredible work too. Rwanda has a horrific history, one that we can not really come close to understanding. But every so often, a thank you would do a world of good.

Merryl’s Food mishaps. Part II

So being a veggie isn’t that much fun out here. At least a good old carnivore (such as moi) can tear into the skewered grilled goat in just about any eating establishment (restaurant, bar, hut, shack) on the road, but a veggie has it hard – especially if they are fed up of omelettes (or if there are no eggs in your town that week).

So Merryl asks for a salad. Setting; the same place as the previous egg-related disaster. After, lets say an hour, the salad arrives alongside the goat brochette for the friend. No problem there –aside from often each bit takes ten minutes chewing before it can be swallowed. Seeing as it is just a small side salad, Merryl asks if it’s possible to bring a bigger one – she doesn’t mind paying for it, but would prefer one larger than one that would only sate the appetite of a malnourished Rwandan rabbit. “Na Kibizo” – No problem (there is NEVER a problem in Rwanda. This is a stock phrase).

Ten minutes later the waitress re-emerges with a bigger plate. It is empty. She picks up Merryl’s salad and tips it onto the bigger plate.

“Akira” –“There you go”

Merryl’s incredulous grin grows larger with every day.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


...and other such titles were on offer at the one and only cinema in Arusha. I had often passed it by 5 years ago, but it always seemed dark, dingy and a sure-fire breeding ground for porn or Jackie Chan ‘classics’ or a combination of both and not much else. But a soggy day and a free afternoon resulted in Max pestering me to the point that I realized he was being serious. After 8 months, this American boy needed a movie. And so for the first time, I didn’t shuffle by the Metropole head down. We checked out what was on offer; a single film, all week and next and probably the week after, which promised the best of India – Bollywood dancing, romantic ponderings

However, first of all we had to make an important decision. Hanging around in the foyer, waiting to pay whoever would take our money, we had just had the misfortune of seeing a huge rat bumble its way into the pitch black auditorium. We then heard the squealing and rustling of what must have been an entire three generations of rat family in the roof, but which sounded more like a small child let loose with a pneumatic drill. Do we go in to the pitch black cinema to watch the film knowing that our legs might be gently caressed by the bristly back of a disease infested beast??

I rolled down my turned up trouser legs, put on a brave face and said “let’s do it”. Max acquiesced. Fortunately we were told to go upstairs where the great unknown seemed a better choice at that moment. The cinema was huge! Upstairs, we picked our spot by the front banister (so we could put our feet up out of rodent’s way). We looked down and saw hundreds of seats in the gloom – who built this place? Upstairs there were at least 200 red upholstered seats too, evenly shared either side of a generous aisle. Did it ever fill? Not with prices such as the ones they gave us (ok, around £2). Nobody would really be able to afford to go and see a film there – and the owners would never be able to buy the rights to show any blockbusters. But the cinema was beautiful! I guess it must have been built in the heyday of colonial occupation and when cinema was new and fresh and one of the only ways to see the outer world.

And there was no need to sharpen elbows to get the pick of the chairs; in this 600 seater cinema, there were just three of us. And the other guy watching was the guy who sold the ticket to us – and he evidently couldnt care less for Indian heartbreak and intrigue. By half way through he was already swinging on his seat and jabbering to himself. Maybe he was trying to pre-empt the Hindi lines, having seen this film countless times before.

And what a film! It touched all the right places – love and beauty, modern marriage and breaking away from family tradition, racism and inter-ethnic racism...and a nation’s obsession with cricket.

Maybe we actually got true value for money – the film was long. There was even an interval (no ice-cream ladies, mind) and we were only too glad to stretch our still propped-up, rat-avoiding legs. And what else could one do when in a huge theatre sized cinema with booming Bollywood music streaming out to its 2 man audience, but give a little wiggle and a shake and pull off our best Bollywood moves? Like a couple of Indian wannabe-star 10 year olds we performed to the watchful eyes of the surrounding shadows of the entire empty auditorium. Boom shackalacka!

But after a little while we wondered why the film wasn’t re-starting. I was now admittedly hooked on finding out just how the bedridden ex-Indian superstar cricketer would watch India in the World Cup final (topical eh?) when he was meant to be undergoing a life-threatening operation, unfortunately being carried out by a cricket-detesting mean and moody doctor. And what about the girl whose new husband was more in love with cricket than her? What would happen now that she had started watching it to try to share his passion – but had ended up sharing it just a little too much by falling in lust with the star cricket player?

Aside from that, we were ready to restart because we were a little out of breath after our attempts at imitating Indian boogying. Why was the interval taking so long? It was only us in there!

“Maybe if we sit down it’ll start”.

We sit. Lights dim. Hey presto.

The guys reeling the film must have been watching us all along, shimmying and sashaying our socks off – and were probably thoroughly entertained by such bizarre mzungu behaviour too!

Long live Bollywood.

And an added bonus...

Here is Max in slightly more authentic and traditional Rwandan dance mode... He takes it seriously that boy.

Arusha Ramblings...

I spent the last week back in Arusha, a town in northern Tanzania where I lived 5 years ago. I spent the week marvelling at the changes that have occurred since I was last there. I left in May 2002 and returned for ten days in September 2003. At that time I remember being amazed at the new parking spaces that had been painted along the main road. Development in action! This time however, huge new fancy hotels, a new covered market place and a relaxed atmosphere were cause for surprise. The UN has now been here for around 6 years and the changes are marked.

Other welcome surprises were the range of food you could eat – Ethiopian, Chinese, Italian, fast food – all of which had more than one outlet in the town. My surprise can be attributed not to there having been a lack of all this 5 years ago – but a lack of all this for the last 8 months in Rwanda. And the food! So good! So quick! A meat skewer and grilled potato can take over an hour and a half in Rwanda. One timed meal in Arusha (pizza and pasta) took literally 5 minutes. It was incredible – did they read our mind when we walked in the door as to what we were going to order?

I got to catch up with some friends, walk the old paths in the hills I used to know (the stream having been replaced with a roaring river ensuring wading wet legs all round) and visit old haunts. Memories flashed in front of my eyes at times, as though walking into an old photograph. It was such a welcome break.

We also visited the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda – the UN courts which are trying the big players in the genocide. As I shivered in the air conditioned viewer’s section of the court, I thought of the thousands of local trials, gacaca, going on all over the country in the burning heat. It was interesting to see the fear on one witness’s face – a big guy who used to be in charge of one of the northern towns in 1994. He wasn’t even on trial – but his outburst at one point to the judges “You don’t understand how frightening it is to be here in front of you big people – ça me fait trembler!” showed how close the line between witness and defendant could be.

“I’ll just have an omelette please”

This was the request from Merryl in one of two main eating establishments in Nyagatare one night a few months ago.

“Ok, no problem”. Waitress hurries off. Over an hour later, as Merryl begins to wonder whether they’re birthing the chicken, the waitress returns. “Sorry, tonight we have no omelette”. Merryl asks why they hadn’t realized the distinct lack of the single ingredient required for her meal more than a few minutes earlier. “Sorry”.

“Ok, I’ll just have chapati”.

Chapati is flour and water. Maybe a pinch of salt if you’re lucky. This is then fried up in shallow oil. Admittedly, eggs shouldn’t be too hard to come by, but Merryl was pretty sure that a simple chapati would be pretty easy for the restaurant to make.

Forty five minutes later, the waitress returns, with a shy, slightly embarrassed look on her face. “Sorry we have no chapati tonight”. No flour? No water? No eggs or oil?

Merryl giggles a little but says not to worry, it doesn’t matter. What can she have then?

- Pause –

“Sorry. Today, we have no food”.

Now, you’d think that the restaurant might have known that 105 minutes before...

Monday, April 23, 2007

I have just realized the completely contradictory tone of the two previous postings.

Like I say, it is permanent PMT here...

I was all for packing it all in yesterday. If I came anywhere near a Rwandair flight I would have hopped right on and said “home please”. And if not home, anywhere close.

It was a combination of the natural low on returning home after a refreshing week off, of handling a work related phone call within 30 seconds (I kid ye not) of turning my phone on once in the country (I was still by the baggage rail), and of immediately returning to the outstretched arms of Rwandans young and old, (truly needy and handout hungry) wanting wanting and wanting. Then I was called by the son of my little old man house guard, Venuste, to let me know he had just died that very day from some sort of brain infection.

Little did I know that within the next 24 hours I would go on to lose my credit cards, driving licence, money and memory stick. I would also have my translators turn up over an hour late to give me the finished manual – only for me to realize nearing midnight as I frantically tried to format it in time for a publisher’s deadline that it contained glaring omissions. Next week’s training has had to be cancelled which means a couple of hours or so of calling, writing and informing people all over my district and re-issuing invitations that demand hours of time to find the right person who has the right coloured ink stamp to verify that the new dates are approved by the mayor.

Oh, and then there was the matter of a fleet of shiny red and black acid bugs that moved into my house whilst I was away. Their bites burn through your skin. I now share my house with several hundred.

Welcome back to Rwanda.

I wondered in the first few months of arriving here whether I was just imagining a whole different attitude to mzunugus and money harbouring in Rwanda. In Senegal and Tanzania people still begged. Often they were homeless, desperate or crippled by polio. Yet, in Senegal people would not outstretch their hand. It was shameful for them to do so. Instead, as is customary in Muslim society, people who were able to, gave where and when they can to people simply sitting by the street. Here in Rwanda it is not unusual for a well dressed child to saunter over having spotted you and gleefully cry out “mzungu” followed by a single word; amafaranga. Money. If you say no, they’ll reply “bon bon”. No again? “Pen”. Woe behold you if you are carrying something. Even if it would be entirely useless to them, they’ll often ask for it anyway. Yesterday, a bunch of young guys, dressed in baggy jeans, bling chains and basketball vests demanded money from Max for “guarding” his truck for an hour. Guarding meaning that it was parked outside their barber shop. There were about 6 of them – I mean, how bloody demeaning! The going rate for “guarding” a car is about 10p. They didn’t need it. They couldn’t have done anything with it. I just felt like shouting at them to have some self respect.

The papers are littered with articles denouncing the West’s behaviour in the weeks during the genocide. Phrases such as “How can the West/UN/America/France live with themselves?” flit up and strangle the already politically strangled articles. Sorry, who killed who again? Who killed whose wife/child/next door neighbour? Who rounded people up and told them they’d be safe in that school/church/stadium, only to then go and tell the guys with the machetes, grenades and guns?

Yes, I am being unfair too. There is definite fault on France and the UN’s side – and all our sides for not being more aware of the situation as it unfolded, and for not rallying our governments to intervene. But it is so frustrating to be living in a country, working to reduce rising HIV infections, working to improve health and education and then to have a literal hand constantly thrust under my chin demanding something, anything and a metaphorical hand extended outwards in the same place from the government and society as though I owe them something for being white.

Perhaps it is ironically due to the fact there is less of a presence of Mzunugus exploiting tourism, agricultural or mining opportunities. Unlike in Kenya, Congo, South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, the vast majority of Mzungus here are NGO aid workers whose job it is to coordinate handouts from donor countries. Therefore I wonder whether we are all seen as one big handout. Elsewhere, the Mzungus really do make a decent living from what the countries offer. Perhaps they do owe more to the nation they profit off and the gimme gimme gimme game would be found to be less frustrating and demoralizing than to me right now.

Then again, maybe it is what we deserve. You could argue that we are all here working and earning a living from other people’s misfortune. This is what we ask for.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I’ll run you through my morning.
Today is market day in my little town Gikongoro. I had to take an invitation for some HIV training I’m doing at the end of next month to a school about 40 minutes motorbike drive out west into a rural village which borders the rainforest. As I bend my way around the hills I normally have to avoid scattered gap-toothed goats and small children who play perilously close to the road. But on a Wednesday there are hundreds of new obstacles. These are the bikes that jitter along the roads which if they were cartoons would have droplets of sweat flicking off their agonized faces as they struggle up, down or round the hill weighed down with sacks of potatoes, coal, banana branches, aforementioned goats or squawking chickens. Vested men heave them up and over. They are no cartoon and sweat dribbles down their faces and arms as they watch me sail by on the motorbike. A mass of baby-carrying women balancing baskets of avocadoes or pineapples neatly on their heads and teenagers carrying multiple bags of bread or deep-fried cakes pound the hills surrounding my town, all making for the central market on a Wednesday morning. Old men in blazers but without shoes, smoking pipes saunter along the road to chat and gossip. Some will have walked for hours. Many are carrying a single branch of bananas which once sold, earning less than a pound, but enough for them to tide their family over another week, means they will be on their way back home again. The exodus starts in the afternoon. The same brightly swathed, barefoot ladies and Manchester United shirted boys start the descent back to their hill.
Today, as I rode to the school, I saw a man carrying a saw on his head, longer than he was tall, as he passed by the children playing on the verge around his feet. I also saw a guy trying to strap a stepladder on to the back of his bike. Vertically. These are the little things I see all the time, but I never mention anymore because they are no longer very surprising to me. Most of the time I don’t even notice, but every so often you are reminded that yes, even though I go to an office and I work, and then go home, eat dinner, relax and go to bed, things really are different here. You forget that most people back home needing to transport 20 kilos of coal, would borrow a van from somebody.

It was one of those mornings where I felt really reflective, which is why I’ve been able to write this. For a while now I’ve wondered what I could write about on here, because for me everything is the same, or else I’m busy with trainings and meetings and workshops that I don’t think will be that interesting. But today the sun was shining down on the hills – even though right now, just a few hours later the roads have turned into rivers and the rain is pelting down – and everything looked glisteningly green. I arrived at the school which shares its grounds with a primary school and was immediately swarmed by over a hundred tiny children amazed at the sudden appearance on their turf of a motorbike riding mzungu. I’m sure I came close to running some of them over – they were everywhere! Behind the wheels, in front of the wheels, next to the brakes, touching the clutch, hooting the horn. I gave a little boy a lift down the dirt track at the end and I could see in my wing mirror his mouth wide open in scared glee as he sat, proud as a king behind me.

Then back at the office, I bumped into a couple of guys I haven’t seen for a while. On managing to hold a 4 minute conversation (I’d like to say 5 – but that would be exaggerating!) with them in Kinyarwanda, one remarked –“You’ll have to take a Rwandan name soon, you are almost a national!” To which I replied I already had a Rwandan name – Umulisa, given to me by another friend. It apparently means “A person who makes others happy”, which was very sweet. They laughed and slapped my hand and wished me a good day, asking if they’d see me down at the stadium for football later.All feels like it’s fitting into place. I have been here for almost 7 months. Time is seriously slipping through my fingers. I am enjoying (almost) every moment, loving my job and my small town, and now believe that if I wasn’t returning home to do a MSc next year, that yes, maybe just maybe I would stay another year. My mum will be pleased though that that will not happen just yet...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Agnes came to me last week to tell me my landlord had just been put in prison “for genocide”. Harsh as it may sound this didn’t surprise me in the slightest. He is/was a horrible guy who used to raise his hand to Agnes in a joking manner, and whose iron grip on my upper arm made itself known that anything he really wanted could be got. My roof still leaks. My windows leak. The tap leaks. I never wanted him around my house so I didn’t chase him up over things that didn’t work.

He was giving evidence at a gacaca (local courts that try genocide suspects all over the country. It’s a very slow process seeing as there are hundreds of thousands of cases to be put forward) when somebody pointed the finger at him and implicated him in the same killing. Two days later the police came a knocking and he was put in prison. He’s already served one prison sentence but this was for a separate crime. A few days later he was allowed out to get a lawyer – a huge luxury that only the very wealthiest could even dream of. But Agnes told me today that he’s back in. I have a feeling it will be like this for a while. He awaits his trial, but as Agnes said, “it is very very serious” and he could be given a 25 yr sentence.

Then two days later she mentioned that her dad had just been taken to prison too. He had also been implicated for actions back in 94. This didn’t surprise me either too much – I knew Agnes had spent a year and a half in Congo in 96, which would correlate with when Hutus extremists left - either fleeing the Tutsi insurgance or going to strengthen rebel parties outside the country. Anyway, her father being in prison now adds to two of her uncles (whose wives were killed – possibly by them) as well as two of my guard’s sons. This war affected everyone.

Not a soul could live in Rwanda without knowing the effects. The guys I work with were either in prison themselves or lost some family... or both – it goes both ways.

Agnes said to me “At the moment Gacaca is gaining strength. By July there shall be no men left in the hills. Everyone will be in prison. This is very bad for all the families. My mother cannot cope cultivating green beans all by herself”. The worst thing, she said, is that people who have enemies in the country accuse each other as a sort of revenge – truth doesn’t matter anymore. If you have a land or cow problem with your neighbour then you can tell the courts that you saw him kill a neighbour back in 1994. “My father is one of 5 men accused of killing all the Tutsi on my hill, but maybe he just has rivals”. Who’s to say? Gacaca is definitely needed but it cannot be foolproof. How do you even start to try to attain justice – or even better reconciliation?

Chez Agnes

Agnes climbs a mountain every month or so and spends the night praying and fasting. This mountain towers above the others which encase my little town and so I decided that we should climb it together sometime – Max included, since Agnes has more than a soft spot for him. I have a soft spot for his vehicle which would knock an hour and a half off the walking time each way.

And so we made a date; first Saturday of January. We made a rough time plan. Morning. We said “See you at your house Agnes!” We did not make a map. But I knew Agnes lived one hill behind the one I can see from my house out North West.
Saturday is market day in my town so before heading out into the country where Agnes lives we stopped off to buy a gift for the family of some food they would not normally buy themselves – ie, anything resembling fruit, vegetables or anything healthy whatsoever. So we loaded up with avocadoes, mangoes, pineapples and green beans and set off on our way. After we had driven for about 25 minutes Max asked whether I knew where I was going. He was not quite so impressed with my knowledge that she lived over the next hill yonder. So I said not to worry, everybody knows everybody here so I called out the window to somebody passing if he knew where Agnes lived. Blank stare. Dont worry, I said to Max, he probably doesn’t understand my Kinyarwanda accent!

Next person...Where does Agnes live? Blank stare. Incomprehensible Kinyarwanda babble back.

Next. Where does Agnes live? She has a brother called Fidelis and a sister called Liberé. (You mean you don’t even know her surname???” said Max). Blank stare.

Where does Agnes live? Agnes? Yes, she lives down there! (smug grin at Max).

Does Agnes live down here? Yes, keep going, just down there!

Where is the house of Agnes? Down there! The road peters out so we have to leave the car by the side of the road. This is after a woman with no teeth directed us to the path. Directed meaning she babbled, pointed and grinned profusely. So I gave her an amandazi – a small deep-fried cake which costs about 3p. She clasped my arms up to the elbow, smiling and thanking me with tears in her eyes. It was more than humbling.

Once out of the car we saw three old men sat in the shade outside their mud hut. I went over and greeted them before asking the same questions about Agnes’s house. They doffed their caps to me (now when does that happen In Britain!) and then sent us down the hill with a small bare-foot boy of about 8 years old.

We tried to keep up with the little boy as he wove between packs of goats and mats of sorghum and beans drying in the sun, down the rubble slopes until we came to the very final hut and he stopped and pointed at it. Of course it would be the final mud hut! It couldn’t be the first!
“Agnes’s house?” He nodded

Then a tiny little old woman came out into the sun, she had a tattered t-shirt on and dirty once-bright cloth wrapped around her waist. She came towards us smiling broadly – wide open mouth displaying very few teeth. She really was happy to see us – I guessed that this was Agnes’s mum who had come to greet us, smiling because of finally meeting the umuzungu girl who had made her daughter the main breadwinner of her family. When she came closer I realized she was blind in at least one eye – one was completely grey, as though a paintbrush had swept over the eyeball, and the other was weeping as though badly infected. She gripped our arms in the formal handshake but went one further hugging us closely to her, muttering happily all the while. Our basic Kinyarwanda didn’t really help, but I looked at the hut and wondered how Agnes and her 7 brothers and sisters could ever have grown up there – indeed, only a few of them have flown the nest. It could only have been one room, was loosely thatched and had a single bucket outside. More and more kids, having heard of the surprise visit had wandered into her dusty yard to watch us. So we played being the living exhibition again, letting them stare, asking questions to which they giggled and shrunk away from us. I wondered if Agnes had already left to try to find us on the main road. She hadn’t come out so she couldn’t have been in.

Then a strange look came over Max’s face...

“Mama, mwitwe nde?” (What’s your name?) He asked.

Pause, as the old lady turns to him still grinning;

“Nitwa Agnes!” she happily exclaimed.

And Max and I just looked at each other, realizing that yes, we had found Agnes’s house, just not the right Agnes. And I felt humble again, at having wrongly guessed she was happy because of meeting the so-called benefactor. And I felt humble for her complete joy at seeing us. And I felt humble because she was probably hoping for something other than a mango on hearing that she had visitors searching for her.

And aside from all that, my smugness dissipated quite quickly, having realized that better directions than “She lives on the hill the other side of that one” are probably needed in future...