Rwandan Ramblings

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Rwandan food is definitely not bad ( I think I ate the best pineapple of my life the other day though it was almost beaten to the title by the one I ate today). The passion fruits are also amazing, slice them open half way and suck out the pips and juice. Bananas are of course everpresent. As are rice, sweet potatoes and normal potatoes, beans, avocadoes, tomatoes and pasta. But there are some great vegetables too – green beans, spinach, carrots and tiny weenie celery which though are the length of a nail (I kid ye not) have an incredibly concentrated taste and so are used more like herbs. Cassava root and green bananas are another (yet another) source of carbohydrate, tasting generally like potato though you get strips of cassava root stuck in your teeth... I generally eat porridge for breakfast, then rice and potatoes, green beans and a sauce made from tomatoes and peanuts (it’s great, honest) for lunch and then bread and jam or ‘le cake’ for dinner (sweetish stodgy bread). If I’m in the big town, or if I’m eating out for lunch then Rwandans eat a ‘mélange’ which involves piling your plate as high as you can with food from a buffet table lined with big silver pots full of at least 5 different carbs (potatoes, rice, chips, spaghetti, boiled green bananas, baked cassava root etc), then some spinach, cabbage, boiled cassava leaves or beans, some watery tomato based sauce and some lumps of meat. This costs about 50p without meat, 60p with. The meat is generally goat, and either rock hard and will take a day to chew (and yep, you might find bits of it in your teeth three days later), or really succulent and juicy. And no, you can’t tell just by looking at it. So sink those teeth right in...
Drinks-wise, you can order a ‘fanta orange’, a ‘fanta citron’ or a ‘fanta coca’, or go for passion fruit juice which is actually a bit more like Robinson’s squash syrup with added sugar (50%). I have a water filter at my house, which leaks into a bucket – thus probably anulling any filter factor! There are a couple of bottled beers for about 55p which are almost a litre in size, Primus and Mutzig. However I do admit that one of the most thoughtful things an existing volunteer friend did quite early on was bring an imported bottle of wine to a picnic we had – it was decanted out into tumblers and plastic cups and shared between 8 – what a luxury!

“What do Rwandans like to do generally – you know, at weekends, or after work? Sport? Music? Dancing?”

“People in Rwanda...people in Rwanda, they like to go to church”.

This was the conversation I had had on the phone just a few days before I left, with a Rwandan lady who Seb’s mum had put me in touch with. She’s been living in London for 10 years already and so was my first touch-base for Rwandan culture. And it is true. Rwandans LOVE going to church. Services last 3 hours, the sermon lasts at least half an hour. It does feel more than a little self indulgent sometimes, and I wonder what the response woould be like in St Mary’s if Father Caitlin decided to do the same. It is all in Kinyarwanda so I have free rein to imagine or guess what is being said. Which can be a good thing. And a bad thing. There is a lot of music- apparently God cannot understand the spoken word (apart from the priest’s sermon) so everything is sung. The choir are good, and everyone joins in – there are no hymn books but everyone knows the words since the music that fills restaurants, bars, buses is usually religious. People have been hearing these songs since they were children. It is very different from the hip hop that filled Senegalese buses. There is a lot of clapping and at the final part of the mass a lot of waving arms around.

However, this arm waving may be evidence of a little artistic licence taken by the Rwandans as concerns general Catholic worship. In Rwanda, the cow is a sacred animal, sacred and to be worshipped. In fact, one greeting is literally ‘May you have many cows” to which the reply is something like ‘Let them be female and very fertile”. The cow-dance is a hugely important aspect of Rwandan culture – for every important guest/event/day there will be a troupe of dancers who staomp their feet in time to the pounding of a huge array of drums, who wave their arms in an extended v shape above their heads to represent the horns of the cow, and whose male members shout and holler their praise of the cow, and their threats to steal the cows of their adversaries. It’s quite a spectacle – I love it, but this has had a set of unfortunate consequences; my obvious fascination - tapping my feet in time to the drums and gawping at the dancers’ muscular calves as they twist, stamp and jump - has led to being pulled up from the crowd to join in. Bran, Ferg and Ken might remember the positive repurcussions of me being pulled up – if you jammily manage to make it look like you know what you’re doing. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case here. The hardest thing is the stomping aggressively, but elegantly swaying your hand-cow horns above your head at the same time. My attempts to match their twisting stomping bodies are once again very warmly welcomed as a hilarious form of entertainment, not only for the Rwandan dancers, but also for every other giggling spectator. It is a good thing my I have thick skin, and enjoy a bit of a wiggle and clomp.

To be honest, these guys twirling around in their skirts and headresses aren’t that far different from men wearing kilts and holding their arms aloft in the shape of antlers is it?

Any other questions??!


If somebody were to ask you the first 5 images that come to mind when you say Africa, what would you say?

A separate project which I’m involved in with VSO, over and above my HIV prevention work is one called ‘Global Education’ which aims - in broad terms - to confront the common stereotypes which instigate prejudice. Importantly the project focuses on prejudices held both in the developed world as well as the developing world. We all tend to generalize. Is it not true that in the UK we often ‘tragidize’ African nations as being ravaged by disease and famine, wracked by poverty, ruined by corruption and prone to suffering at the hands of dictatorial leaders? It is the same out here. If somebody sees a Muzungu, or mentions talk of the USA or Britain, the automatic response is to think money, opportunity, technology, half naked celebrities and maybe Arsenal football club. Few people here could comprehend the idea of a western nation having a bank of poor people, or even containing a population who do not all drive around in 4x4s or girls who do not want to take their clothes off at every opportunity...
Just as we often forget (or more likely, do not know of) the skyscrapers, chic nightclubs, karate clubs, rich businessmen, Italian restaurants and African humanitarian workers all over Africa, people here are often unaware of the poverty in Britain and/or our important social values - they are somewhat badly conveyed by blockbuster films and MTV.
This Global Education project involves not only my work with ABK students back on the Isle of Wight, but also students out here. Last Friday I went with the Rwanda Global Ed’ committee to Byumba refugee camp in the north east of the country, where plans are already in action to raise awareness of the reality of the situation in the camps (of which there are many in Rwanda. I live just ten minutes away from one containing Burundian refugees, the one in Byumba was a Congolese one). A video will be produced to be used for advocacy purposes but a team may also do some teaching workshops there. I was there for the moment just to see the situation as it stands.

We were welcomed by Maurice, a Jesuit priest whose Catholic NGO works with the UNHCR (UN High Council for Refugees), and whilst the current committee members were in their meeting, the new kids on the block (ie, me and 4 others) were shown around.

The camp is large – approx 19 000 refugees live there, 11 000 of which are under the age of 18. Of the rest, at least two thirds are women – the guys often get fed up and leave, dissipating into the Rwandan hills, hoping for something better. My feeling is that often these guys will be deceived and dissapointed by what they find. The camp is no California dream, but there are schools, a health centre, shops and facilities found in all Rwandan towns – the difference being that the UN pays. It wouldn’t be ridiculous to suggest that the camp has better faciltities than the average town. Psychologically of course, it’s not easy to be living in a camp, knowing that you cannot legally leave and try to make go of living in a foreign country, nor that you cannot return home without facing violence. The Congolese do not regard the refugees as Congolese, nor the Rwandans as Rwandan. Yet, what struck me (and this is a very personal point of view, which the others had less of an issue with - I am the only one working in HIV prevention) was what I believe to be better provision of health facilities. The camp has free HIV testing (as do many Rwandan towns) and also supply free ARV drugs which lessen the effects of HIV and AIDS on the immune system.

These ARVs are also technically available at no cost to any Rwandan citizen, if they have tested positive. Yet, in the whole of my district, which takes at least 4-5 hours to drive in a pick-up truck from top to bottom along the ‘main roads’, there is just one single hospital which supplies ARVs. Thus, it is a several day trek to get there for the average citizen to get there, they then have to camp outside the hosiptal gates for a few weeks and then have to return there once a month for the rest of their lives. This is basically impossible for most people – if not because they have no transport, or could not afford to take the weeks off work or from harvesting, then because their absence would result in their social death, since neighbours would identify them as being HIV positive and subject them to stigmatization. It often feels slightly like a government ploy to be able to tell international donors of their free ARV policy so that they can get continued funding for other projects – or maybe that is my cynical mind. Maybe they just cannot afford to decentralize provision of these life-prolonging drugs. Anyway, ARV availability is low, even if they are free, and yet, here on the camp, this population of 19 000 citizens have access at their fingertips.

It’s a complex issue and I am not suggesting that the camp citizens shoud not have such access – it would just be nice if the same opportunities were available all over the country – as they are in the West.

The kids in the camp were astounding. Bright, cheerful, and excellent communicators – their grasp of English and French was of a much better standard than that of any of the kids in my district down south, and appeared to substantiate the belief that both the Congolese and the Burundians are much better at language learning than the Rwandans. They were very excited to see us – there can’t be that many visitors in the camp, and though the skies opened and treated us to an absolute torrent of rain, soaking us through they stayed with us, skipping along, singing, giggling as I made out as if to grab one, and laughing hysterically when I nearly skidded right over in the yellow-brown gooey mud (Of course I did it to entertain – not at all because of inapproprate footwear or lack of balance...).

The camp reminded me of the idea of relative happiness. I heard a story about people in The Gambia who told a British doctor that they had no idea that they were poor until white people told them so. I don’t mean that since the kids were happy there is no reason to help, no need for access to health and education and freedom. I don’t mean that in any rose-tinted condascending colonial type fashion. These are basic human rights which should be attainable – not just attainable but the natural possession of every person on this earth. It is a testimony to these kids who remain cheerful without their father around, living for ten years with plastic sheeting instead of a roof, without toys, without stability, perhaps having seen members of their family macheted to death...
Of course, there is relative poverty and despair in Britain on an equally devastating emotional scale too. We’re often really not that far apart.

I’m aware that if I carry on like this I might lose a reader or two. So I’ll reply to some questions I’ve been asked. Feel free anyone else to ask questions and I’ll try and reply.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I’ve just become aware of the fact that many of you might start wondering whether I actually do any work out here or whether I’ve just enroled myself in an ‘alternative’ sports camp...

Well actually I’m pretty shattered at the moment from all the moving around I’ve been doing. I’m conducting some research into the levels of HIV awareness amongst secondary school students in my district. Most schools have “Anti-AIDS clubs’ and I am meant to be supporting them with training, peer education and peer counselling. But before we begin, I am trying to find out what they already have in place. Generally not much. Yep, ok, so it’s maybe a more serious type of school club than we’re used to, and they also have “Human Rights Club” and a “Gender Awareness and Female Empowerment club” (a friend working in one school noted that the girls that made up their Gender Awareness club didn’t really know what to do with themselves during their weekly meetings so used the time to clean their school. The irony).

This means that I’ve been buzzing around my district visiting schools, talking to headteachers, club organizers and the students themselves. Buzzing is probably far too industrious sounding a word. I do buzz – I go everywhere on my delightful motorbike (named ‘mookie’ by aforementioned American friend which is apparently the name of a deceptively small basketball player who is actually very powerful and makes up for size in attitude) but the roads are generally dirt tracks, or full of potholes that jar your back as you stumble and bumble along. Also, Rwanda is just a set of hills so you’re generally chugging up or down – it’s not always hair streaming out of helmet, and eat-my-dust-Africa.

I do love the bike though. It’s great to be able to whizz along (on the good roads) and drink in the beautiful Rwandan countryside. It really is stunning. Dusk setting in when the sun casts a warm glow on the hills is just the most beautiful time in the day. Importantly though you can get away from the constant peering eyes (most of which I have to admit are friendly, it just gets a bit too much sometimes) and the herds of children that follow you. It’s great because people often turn to watch the bike go by – then note the white skin, and you hear the common hue and cry signal go up; “MMMUUU-“ but you’ve already gone past them, and they’re just a tiny turned face in your mirror when the “ZZZUUNNNGGGUUU’ falls out of their gawping moouths.

Anyway, the school visits have been great, it’s nice to be out on the road, and talk to people about what they need in their schools. I’ve also been visiting health centres, which is actually a lot more difficult. Generally, I walk in and people assume I’m important because I’m white and even if there are more than 200 weary looking mothers with screaming babies on their backs, I’m often ushered in to speak to the people who work in HIV testing and counselling. These guys are so overworked, and seem as weary as the mothers outside who have travelled for miles in the hope they’ll be seen (yet often without a hope of ever being able to afford the medecine that the doctor will prescribe).

Today I was in one of only 2 hospitals in my district – and met a doctor whilst he was on his ward round. The ward wasn’t as overcrowded as the other hospitals, but a child made tiny by disease and formed seemingly just of skin strapped to bones lay in one bed, not moving as his grim-faced mother sat by him. I guess it happens all over the world. But this child would have been seen a lot sooner than out here. Fearing medical costs nobody goes to the doctor until it’s too late. And I’m sure it was too late for this kid. Quite often you see people walking through the town carrying bodies, generally corpses, in homemade stretchers made from tough grass stalks.

Anyway, it’s not actually all doom and gloom, so please don’t think it is. I hitched a lift with the American friend (God damn it, Max, there! He has a name!) up to a remote part of the district as I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be jarring my back on the bike for two hours. As it was I now realize that the point of bikes is that they actually jar your back less than a car – the bike can weave in and out of the craters, Hank the truck just has to plough right on through... Anyway, most people can only get about on foot – but because of the hills, it takes hours even if just to visit the next town over the crest of the hill. So people are constantly asking for a ride, and since Hank the truck has not only a backseat but a bit on the back for people to cling on, it soon became The Most Popular Truck in Nyamagabe. At one point there was myself and Max in the cabin bit, 4 in the back (including a breastfeeding mother and a very hungry sounding suckling baby), and 12 (I kid ye not) in the bit at the back, holding on and cadging a lift over the hills and far away. Despite the danger involved in hauling so many people over potholed mud tracks, it would be quite impolite to say no to people asking for lifts when they’re haggard old women, a charming guy on crutches and three smiling military men with AK47s. Jump on in!

Friday, October 13, 2006

The power of football continues! The post office here are renowned for being moody, uncooperative and inefficient. Each letter must be weighed separately, even if they are all going to the same country and consist of the same A4 sheet of paper. I have been told that a visit to the post office is not a 5 minute ‘nip down the road’ affair. If you have a letter to post, put aside at least half an hour. If you have 6... put it down in your diary as a full day’s work. So the day after my inaugeral kickabout with the mayor, I head up to post a letter to a friend in Tanzania, but needed to buy an envelope. I politely greeted the guy behind the counter in Kinyarwanda (asked if he passed the night in peace, asked what news he had, were his family strong...), then asked if I could buy envelopes there. He gruffly retorted ‘no’ as if I’d just asked if I eat his mother. So, I asked if he knew where I could buy envelopes. ‘Not here’ he growled. Charming. Suddenly I hear “MAAAGGGGIIIIEEE! HOW ARE YOU! MAAAAGGGGIIIIEE!”. This takes me by surprise, as I didn’t recognize the other guy working in the post office but guessed that it’s not difficult to learn the name of the new white kid in town. Then, still with a beaming smile on his face, this guy proceeds to babble away enthusiastically (asking if I passed the night in peace, what news I had and if my family were strong), then says, “football was good yesterday eh? You play good, you are coming next week, yes? What did you want, yes? An envelope? Yes, we have, I can get for you’ and walks away, gets a nice big brown envelope from the personal post office store, and just gives it to me without wanting any money for it. Beautiful. Made turning around to have the sodding letter weighed by Mr Grumpy just so much more satisfying....

So, admittedly sometimes it’s fun being a novelty. Football has meant everyone in the town now knows who i am (an american friend living in a town 40 minutes away got talking to somebody the other day, who dropped in the fact that there was a muzungu female who happened to play football in a particular small town in the country...I have no idea who he was though). It’s also fun when I reply to questions in Kinyarwanda as they don’t expect me to know any.

BUT, when I go the market, to buy one single sodding bunch of carrots, and I have 30 people crowd around me to watch the entire (unexciting) process, i just can’t help but think come on...i’m really not that interesting, am i?

And, when I walk from my house to the main road, I become a pied piper to the area’s kids, and I don’t even have a musical instrument. Again, come on kids... I’m not that interesting! And the novelty factor doesn’t seem to be wearing off. Though I did make massive progress the other day. As I left my house, taking a big breath for the onslaught of thirty tiny kids scrambling up to me shouting ‘MUZUNGU!’, I start to walk down the track, and there they are, the pounding feet, the silly grins, and the cry goes up (I’m sure they do it to warn the next bunch of kids at the next twist in the road so they too can get overly excited about me passing by, and then shout out for the benefit of the next bunch of kids and so on)...but what’s this? “MMAAAAAGGGGGGGIIIEEE!!!”. And suddenly it’s me beaming a silly grin, as I realize that finally, the kids have learned my name. Progress.

I haven’t felt that successful since I managed to wash my hair in a bucket containing only 6 cups worth of water.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Many of you will know I am not the most patient of people.

Please realize therefore just how hard it was to make it through a meeting on Friday. It started one and a half hours late. It lasted 3 hours 45 minutes. It was all in Kinyarwanda. I understood nothing.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The delights of football

You’ve just gotta love football.

Sorry mum, one day, when the legs don’t work any more I’ll get round to the sewing, but seriously. Plonk me in China, or the middle of the Amazon, or with the Inuit and I reckon I could probably raise a few laughs and conquer the old language barrier – on the condition I had a football.

Work last week was S L O W. Nothing happened, I was getting bored of reading Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, and had read enough about ways to tackle HIV propagation to make me sign up for a lifetime’s subscription to prozac. So when the dashing mayor of my district invited me to the weekly sports afternoon on Wednesday I asked...

a) was there football
b) as a female could I play
c) could I wear shorts

the answer was positive to all three! And if I ever needed a better way to network in a small community this was how to do it. Be white. Be a female. Play football. Hold my own on the pitch. I hesitate over saying pitch because it was part sand, part grass clump, part ditch, part cowpat. And that was for the first half hour. Then the rainy season started and it absolutely bucketed down for about an hour and a half (MENTAL NOTE; never wear white in a conservative country when the rainy season could hit at any time – especially if people stare at you enough as it is!). A few mere men ran for cover, I stayed, and avoided the lake in the middle of the pitch for the most part since I was playing in the knee high forest out on the right wing. Still, it didn’t suit the skilful nature of my team – we were easily 2-0 at this point, but they brought one back.

I’m still smarting actually from the fact that ironically with just a few minutes to go the aforementioned dashing mayor happened to score the equalizing penalty. Hmmm... What could the keeper do? More than his feet were on the line!

Next day I wander on down to the stadium again. Delight of all delights, there is a women’s team in the area (despite the fact I’m in a rural district, and the poorest province of the whole of Rwanda), and not only that, but they are currently in the semi-final of the national Rwandan cup and (since they are mostly students) have already won the secondary school national cup. I still have to admit that I thought they would consist of a few lethargic teens without much skill but making up for it with a bit of clout. I had images of big Tommy from Dover Park primary school, aged 8 booting the ball as hard as he could...and therefore being the best player. I had images of swarms of bees around honey. So I too turned up late, nonchalantly strolling on down, trying to converse in the international language of shrugging with the group of kids that tag along wherever I go and who have become a bit of a permanent feature. Time to pull up my socks though, as 24 young fit students were stretching in a circle, with their manager surveying and their coach giving a team talk. All had boots, except one, but you wouldn’t have said she was playing in bare feet the way she was running around.

And they had skill! Little turns, back heels, knock-ons...and they had the clout too. You can’t go in half hearted in a tackle here. Oh, and they love defensive footie –Ann Harvo, you’ll understand when I say that much as I love the old defensive playing it around the back, this actually scares me. Little one-twos with the keeper, and the back-heels around the box!

Anyway, I could go on, but I’m aware mum is still wishing I had the knitting needles out...

What’s best about that is the fact that for a couple of hours I don’t need to be able to speak Kinyrwanda and yet I’m socializing, these girls are great, they find any attempt to speak the language absolutely hilarious, they include me, they think it’s amazing that any white person would actually want to get involved. And it’s all down to footie!

The pitch is near my house down a dodgy dust track, and sometimes there’s a passing mini-truck which the girls get to stop, and then we all climb on the back, yes, all 24 of us. Precarious, and seeing as I’m the first off I sit at the back and enjoy the least comfortable ride possible, whilst my hand is held on to by some of the girls so I don’t actually fall out. Nice. But it does create a scene and everyone in my area now knows that the muzungu who plays footie is their very own novelty-factor neighbour...


In Britain where mindless rivalry still exists between Germany and England to the point where ‘the war’ gives justification for fistfights, bottle launching and joyful defecation on their flag after a mere football game (and you know how importantly I take football too!), it’s any wonder how Rwandans, just 12 years on, are living side by side with their family’s killers and rapists. But maybe it’s a question of necessity. There is no other alternative, but every single person who talks about the situation reinforces this national need by reiterating that they must live together, they must work together and that one day Rwanda will be as peaceful as it is often vaunted as being prior to colonisation, and the Belgian decision to create ID cards in the 1950s which divided and separate on often phoney ethnic terms.

It’s for this reason that the people I come into contact with almost most often in my area are the prisoners. I live next to the prison in Gikongoro and every day pass them as they work in the fields. The prison uniform is a delightful pink, so you can’t miss them. Just imagine a bunch of guys in a field, toiling with hoes and spades wearing pink pyjamas and that’s just about the situation outside my house. I don’t know whether this was an intentional effort to emotionally emasculate them or whether pink is not seen as a feminine colour here... after all why should it be? Surely red and white are both powerful strong bold colours... And why do we wear black to funerals in Britain?? Here the colour of mourning is purple.

So the prisoners work outside the prion, and I’m often shaking hands with them and trying to respond to their Kinyarwanda questions. You see them in town every so often on their way to a job – with a military man with a huge gun. They are responsible for building most of the public buildings in Rwanda and the prison is not completely closed off. After all, a good proportion of husbands, brothers and fathers wouldn’t see their families if they couldn’t come and exchange a few words in the fields.

This community feeling is also evident in the monthly ‘Umuganda’ sessions. I was sent a text message last Friday night demanding that i do not forget to get out there first thing in the morning to lend a hand with building fences, cleaning the town, preparing food for the toiling men... basically community service without robbing an old woman and having to wear a tabard like in the States, or Britain as John Reid would probably have.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


It was always going to be difficult to gage the scarring left after the ‘94 genocide before actually arriving here. The scars are physical, mental and now appear to run deeper into the Rwandan society. It’s difficult to talk in generalizations and of course I have been here less than a month so I cannot be taken as any form of authority. I also must state that I speak for myself and nobody else and I speak as though to friends and family to whom I give this blogger address.

It is perhaps easier to talk of the physical scarring I see all around me. Beggars in Tanzania were formed mainly of street children, those in Guadeloupe appeared ruined by rum, those in London/Oxford/Portmouth were the homeless, and those in Senegal appeared wracked by extreme poverty or disfigured by polio. In Rwanda, the vast majority who tap at bus windows and reach out on the streets of Kigali are seemingly healthy and often young. Save two lost limbs. Two hands no fingers. Eye sockets no eyes. Arms to elbows and no more. Stumps for hands, elbows, knees, fingers. Crutches. Walking or dragging oneself around on hands as legs have been cut off at thigh level. These people are healthy save these mass intentional disfigurements and can only have been caused by machetes, blades, knives and mass frenzy. Who can ever know the internal scarring? Who can know the real story behind the laughing woman on my bus last Friday who had a two centimetre wide scar running from ear to mouth?

The less visible scarring appears to have resulted in a type of ‘English stiff upper lip’ syndrome. We are advised and asked not to ask too many questions, not to go to local trials, not to ask ‘divisionistic’ questions about ethnicity or political leaning or actions. People talk in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’, sometimes mentioning ‘the war’. The word genocide never existed in Kinyarwanda before 1994. People are firmly Rwandan, not Hutu or Tutsi, though I have heard the term ‘Hutsi’ used once. They are often shy and reserved – lacking the vivacity of the Congolese or the openness of the Tanzanians here. Once again, I speak in generalizations all of which have exceptions and will be hotly debated, especially as despite the reserved nature of many, there is an intense self-awareness and I have often been keenly asked how I find Rwandan people – and my response – whatever it may be is often analysed and related in terms of genocide.


I promise not to dwell, but I want to note this, even if just for my benefit. As part of our in-country training we went to the main memorial site in Kigali – with thirteen mass graves, a museum and witness accounts, photos and heart-wrenching videos. It is easy to think of war or violence in terms of figures, economics and blame. Lives lost, numbers trialled, guilty parties, important dates... However, the memorial used this kind of almost blasé style of reporting in their memorial devoted to children’s lives lost to incredible effect.

Name; Agnes Age; 4 Favourite food; chips How killed; Macheted whilst in mothers’ arms.

Or, stabbed in both eyes then heart, or, as with a 9 month old baby; slammed against a wall. But, with this raw basic style of reporting, the starkness only makes it more shocking. The question of how though hovers over everything.

First impressions

So, it is now a month to the day since I took the train back to the Isle of Wight from London, having been at a wedding in the Tower of London followed by a champagne cruise down the Thames. I now sit here in Rwanda, night having fallen over my house in rural Gikongoro, gently blurring the outlines of the hills that surround me. Rwanda is also known as “land of a 1000 hills”, each one seeming to be carefully combed and parted into well-groomed terrassed sections. Rwanda also has the highest population density in all Africa meaning every scrap of land is cultivated as far as possible to yield as much as possible. You are never far from anyone here and eyes are always fixed upon you.

Two worlds. The wedding was courtesy of Helen, a friend from my Tanzania days. It nearly exactly coincided with the 5 year anniversary of my tearful departure at the hovercraft, on my first venture into Africa. Now I was doing it all over again. But the wedding was just one assurance that great friendships would be formed, that great experiences were to be had and that I would be doing a lot of learning once again. And that my family, my relatives, people from Ryde, my friends from the Island, and those from Uni, and those from Tanzania were all behind me once again and showed me such huge amounts of support.

I’m not wishing to wax lyrical, so I’ll get on with it!


Landing in Rwanda a few things struck me. Firstly – without wishing to get too political – how incredible it is that whilst Tesco spews out plastic bags to go round thrice-wrapped packets of biscuits, and Bush claims to doubt the existence of global warming, I could not enter the terminal building without stripping my world map of its plastic tubing; “We are a small country and we do not need such things to choke our country. All plastic bags must be left here before you can enter Rwanda”. Wow. Just inside the terminal entrance was a stash of plastic bags, collected from those entering the country by plane. Several weeks later, these stop-searches would start up by the borders to Uganda and Tanzania, with large swathes of plastic bags being dumped inside the other territory. Rwanda wouldn't have them, but Uganda and Tanzania weren't about to clear them up either.

We were also given a hero’s welcome by the VSO staff, who seemed almost to outnumber us though there were 17 of us (and we were only just becoming aware of how many we were as casual conversations started up around Heathrow, Nairobi and Kigali terminals).

In-country training ensued...

Here we were given practical advice on opening bank accounts, work related issues, cultural differences (pointing with lips being de rigeur apparently) and workshops on gender, HIV and education issues.