Rwandan Ramblings

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Today is National Tree Planting Day. Therefore nobody is at work. The shops are shut, the market place empty, the post-office closed. But people are nevertheless industriously busy, stomping around carrying small saplings to be planted in a mass gardening session all over Rwanda. Everyone is involved. Everyone is planting. It’s just like an extra day of Umuganda this month. I mentioned earlier about this community day on the final Saturday of each month when people pour out onto the streets to build walls, or paint buldings, or clear weeds or chop down trees as one huge community service session. The Local Defence Force ensures that everyone takes part by checking to see that at least one member from each house is present. Once again I start to wonder whether MP Andrew Turner, back home on the Isle of Wight would be very successful in issuing a radio announcement declaring that all Wighters had to be out on the streets at 8am sharp on a mass litter-collecting day.

Last week there was a national meeting on Saturday morning. Again, everything was closed, and all members of the community assembled in the market place or in the stadium or by the river to hear what news was being brought from Kigali. I find it difficult to find out about things because all the info is passed by radio, and all in Kinyarwanda. Occasionally on a weekday, word goes out at 6am that the day is a national holiday and muggins here turns up to find the offices locked and nobody about. Just as the French enjoy a good monthly strike, national days are frequently arranged with very little notice and very little reason. Today tree planting, last moth, patriotism day, before that women’s day - next week is National Industrialization Day. Yes, in a country where 95% of the population are substinence farmers...

The meeting last weekend appears to show that the government really are interested in decentralizing power, and hearing what people have to say. I am often so stunned by how democratic it appears to be – or is trying to appear to be. It is obviously difficult for people living far away from the capital to make their voice heard but here was an attempt to listen to what people living in the middle of nowhere thought about national government issues. The subject of the day? Whether Rwanda should keep or get rid of the death penalty. Each person was allowed to express their views and there was an open vote and discussion. This is a particularly complex issue because of all the people technically on Rwandan death row because of their actions during the genocide. Apparently the overwhelming vote was to abolish it for being inhumane and a violation of human rights.

It is difficult to judge exactly how democratic these meetings are though – many of the genocide survivors live in absolute fear since they are still having to live next door to those who dismembered or killed or raped their brothers and sisters. Yet the people on death row are the brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of the community making the decisions today. Many of the victims are of course dead so their vote will never be registered, and yet the government - the majority of which are from the ethnic group that were decimated - still seem to be (at least on the face of it) attempting to achieve some sort of social cohesion by listening to the opinions of the population who killed their families. There is no way 1994 will be forgotten – it is too ingrained in the psyche of every Rwandan, but there is a need to be able to live together and look to the future. The right steps seem to be being made – but it will take decades before people will actually be able to put it behind them.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Fancy footwork

The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has just introduced a new law which demands that all schoolchildren wear shoes – or at least flip-flops. Fair enough I guess – looking after their feet - even if cynically you can see this as another part of his drive to make Rwanda ‘esthetically pleasing’ for outside donors who come for a week and for whom a good impression needs to be made. The shoe enforcement had already been in place for a while in Kigali the capital city, and is there are regular clear-ups of street kids and beggars to make Kigali look ok. Clear-ups to where - nobody is really sure...

Unfortunately, there are now an inordinate number of kids wearing shoes on their hands.

Why? Shoes are massively uncomfortable for many kids in the rural areas who have reached the age of 15 without ever wearing shoes before. They are too expensive, and anyway, why wear shoes when you’ve been scrambling along ok as a kid all your life anyway? When you walk in the country nobody has shoes, not even the old women huddled under their huge baskets of potatoes, nor the tiny old man with a torn blazer and tattered pinstripe trousers.

The kids have taken to wearing the shoes on their hands so that if the Local Defence Force comes along they can quickly drop them on their feet and avoid being fined or hauled off to some court or be ‘cleared up’.

And then I was thinking, surely that’s the same as suddenly being demanded by Mr Blair to wear gloves at all times – looking after our delicate hands because England is a cold country. Just as you might not be able to write a letter very clearly or eat a hard boiled egg, the kids now find themselves clumsily picking their way up hills which they were practically able to skip up before, getting the best grip by feeling every stone and rock beneath their toes.

Kinyarwanda is weird.
A lot of the time it sounds like you’re rolling your tongue around your throat – fine if you are Rwandan – Not so good if people are already laughing at you purely for being female and wearing trousers. Add to that your newly contorted face as you screw up your mouth into all sorts of weird shapes to try and make the right ‘rgh’ sound. Try and say r and g at the same time. Hmmm, difficult eh? Just another letter in the Kinyarwanda alphabet...

Now replace all ki’s with the sound ‘ch’. Therefore the capital city Kigali becomes “chigali’.
L and R are the same letter. L and R can interchange and it makes no difference. I was reading the scores of the European football the other day and couldn’t understand how they’d let in some Brazilian team; Riverpoor into the competition. Yes, L and R may sound completely different to you and me, but then ‘ejo’ with raised eyebrows and accent on the first bit means ‘yesterday’. “Ejo’, lowered eyebrows and softer tone means tomorrow. V complicated and leads into all sorts of temporal difficulties. Instant respect gained though when you do manage to contort your face and scratch your vocal chords just so.

Plus it means that you can have a serious conversation about the relative merits of a certain Wayne Looney...

Monday, November 13, 2006

This is a BBC story about the school I can see from my house. The story is shocking, the numbers incomprehensible.,,1946300,00.html

Thursday, November 09, 2006

And this is just for laughs...
Me having just been dragged up to perfom the sacred cow-dance. Sacriligous indeed.

Knut asked for more photos - he offered an old one of me, but I thought I'd use this one instead; me being swamped by the kids in the refugee camp - save yours for another day Knut.

I know photos make the world go round and brighten up my rants but it takes an absolute age to upload them and my internet connection isn't generally good enough but I'll keep trying!

Permanent PMT is one way of describing your emotional state here. Not in a constantly cranky sense, but more in that you cannot judge how you will react or what will set you off – will you be beaming in 5 seconds or bawling? Take a normal morning. I leave my house and the kids start screaming ecstatically “Maaaaggggie!” and run up to clutch my leg. Sweet. Now beaming. I walk 5 paces and then some guy will hiss ‘mzungu’ with intimidating glare. Maybe demand some money. Frustration. Anger. Then guilt at feeling angry. 50 metres on, meet a prisoner working in the fields. Chat for 30 seconds, all in Kinyarwanda. Pride, sense of ease. Then old lady. Demands money without talking. I’ll reply no in Kinyarwanda. Then she just starts berating me, mocking my Kinyarwanda, shouting things about me to the other people passing by which I don’t understand. Others start smirking, and reply, the only word which I understand is mzungu. Talk about being an outsider. Then another 100 metres, on to the tarmac road. Looks like heavens will open any second unleashing a torrent of rain. Great, it does. Trudging up the hill up to the district offices. Hear a car coming up behind me. Jealousy. Trudge on. Aforementioned car rumbles to a halt next to me, throws open the door and tells me to jump on in – and it’s Eve, or Innocent, or Muhire or Pascal or Dany, offering me a lift, laughing about the weather, wondering why they haven’t seen me for a day or two, congratulating Spurs for beating Chelsea, asking how the work’s going and whether I’ll come out for a drink later... And the beam is back.

But sometimes, this can be more serious. My work depends on people being motivated enough to change their behaviour to avoid getting HIV. Yet, I was nearly ready to throw in the proverbial towel when chatting to two university students last week. University students. This means they are in the top, I don’t know, maybe 2% of the country. They are educated people. People who will be driving Rwanda onwards. People who have the capacity to change things, to continue the good work going on so far, to promote education and good health and to safeguard the precarious future of their own citizens. Yet, on hearing about my job they ask what the point is of protecting themselves from sexual diseases.

“Do you believe in fate Maggie?” I replied no, I think we have the power to shape our futures. ‘Eh??! No we don’t. It is already decided. If I choose one partner - if I sleep with many, God has already decided if I shall have HIV or not”. I replied, that there are many things he can do to avoid getting into situations where that would be a problem.
“But why do that, when HIV is God’s punishment to African people”.

What?? Where on earth has he got this from? What poisoning text or person or organization has he been indoctrinated by to believe in such fatalistic and dangerous ideas? Punishment for what? For being treated like dirt by colonizers who rape and pillage their soils and people, who exploit their resources, take and then tut disapprovingly when asked for simple help when it comes to medication or condoms which will save millions of lives. Africans are no more promiscuous than any number of people in Britain. We are just able to avoid the consequences that disable these societies. I ask him, tongue in cheek, and expecting a rebuke whether God decided they should be poor too. “Yes! Of course! God decides all. He chose for us to be poor. He chooses that we suffer, we must accept it. We cannot change anything. If we work hard or not, we cannot change God’s will”.

Listening to these educated Rwandan guys made me realize just how much work there is to do – but is it even possible? How can I start convincing people to take charge of their lives when they don’t even believe that they have any power over them?

And then Permanent PMT Syndrome returned yesterday...
I was out in the field, in a tiny rural community on an information and training day in preparation for World AIDS day on December 1st. We were a team of 5, my VSO colleague and I were just observing, but there was a health professional, the coordinator and a person with HIV who were going to speak to this community. It took 2 and a half hours to get there, by four wheel drive, and there were points when I never thought we’d actually get through. It was more pond and craggy mountain than road. It was so muddy at times that the wheels just skidded around sounding like a huge electric toothbrush. Sometimes the water covered the wheels. I was freezing – Africa’s meant to be hot isn’t it? It was all about covering up and 4 layers. The village was in the middle of nowhere. It was raining and dreary – when we arrived there was a strip of closely packed in mud shack houses with corrugated iron roofs directing the gushing rain into nicely regulated chutes, smacking down onto the mud track. This was the ‘town’.

The meeting was called in the local office – this was a mud hut about the size of a classroom with an earth floor, and in which had been lined a bunch of wobbly pews, probably borrowed from the local school or church. People were called to the community meeting by the local leader, and soon people started filling up the room, pressed between each other on the benches. A proper community meeting – old men holding themselves up with sticks, young guys draping their arms around each other, girls pulling up their wraps and stealing glances at me, women younger than me with baby on back and one at the breast, then older women seemingly chewing upon their three teeth. It took a couple of minutes to adjust to the darkness, and after a while there must have been about 200 people crammed into the room. It made me think about just how important the community was here. Can you imagine somebody going out in the streets near where you live, calling all your neighbours to a community meeting – about whatever subject it might be that day? I’m sure it used to happen, though I can’t even think what the closest equivalent might be nowadays.

The trainers talked about HIV, how you become infected, how to protect yourself and where to go get tested and get medication and the reasons to know if you’re HIV+. All this in Kinyarwanda, and using local terminology – such as ‘the sweet stuff’ for sex, but I had Andrew my colleague there to translate for me. But above all the most interesting aspect came with the questions. When Fred the health pro told the men they needed to use the services more because women outnumbered them easily, one old man got to his feet and hoarsely cried out that ‘Them women, them women go to the health centres more than us men because they are the ones who sleep around!’. Cue lots of hooting and laughing from the male members of the crowd – but this is such a dangerous aspect of society – the women are always blamed for spreading HIV – it’s easier to point the finger at weaker people. The truth is that something like 70% of women infected has only ever had one partner – their husband – in their whole lives. It’s the men who go wandering. I wondered what would happen – women here never speak out, I have never seen such meek people. I was thoroughly disheartened after meeting my first female headmistress of a secondary school. She could not even look me in the eye and spoke barely above a whisper.

And then a women, stirred. She stood up slowly, having given her baby to the women next to her, retied her wrap around her and calmly replied amid the expectant hush; “I don’t know who you think we go to for the sweet stuff. Do you think we women have sex with ourselves? Can you explain to me mister how there are men with this virus too? Humph.” I cannot even explain how brave this woman was to stand up and say this, especially in direct response to an old – therefore respected- male member of the community. And more questions came and came – sensible ones – people wanted to know. If malaria can be passed by mosquitoes, why not HIV? And if HIV is also passed in blood, can I get HIV from eating meat or slaughtering goats? And is wearing two condoms twice as protected? I just wished Jean Marie – the university student could have been there so I could tell him – look at this. Count how many people here have shoes. Listen to the rakish coughing of these young men signalling probable tuberculosis. See these flimsy rags the kids are wearing which are soaked through because of the rain. And now see how they are ready to learn, how they want to learn and see how they are ready to change their ‘fate’. Now, go back to university and do something for them.

Permanent PMT like I say. From seeing Rwanda as a hopeless case last week I was back to beamingly positive yesterday.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Looking out to Congo
from Nyungwe forest. I'm only just getting the hang of being able to upload photos, so this is perhaps the first of many...or it could be a flop.

So, Mr Friendly at the Post Office has a name. Vincent. I know this because he always plays centre back on a Wednesday and always wears orange shorts – he makes my life easy by doing this. Many of the others enjoy seeing me squirm as I try to remember whether they’re Innocent, or Alphonse, or Benedict or Olivier or Muhire. It’s actually better to guess that his name is Jean. If you need to hasard a guess, and you’re in a slightly awkward social moment – just go for “This is Jean, ahem’ (cough cough, tickle in the throat, choke slightly, gesture for them to repeat their own name to your friend as you gag- as soon as it is repeated find that the frog in your throat has mysetriously hopped on its way) There are many Jeans (this is a Catholic, ex-French and Belgian nation after all) – Jean Marie, Jean Baptiste, Jean de Dieu, Jean Jean... I hate the question “have you forgotten my name?’ Well of course I bloody well have! I’ve met you once, and I meet 40 people a day!
Anyway, Vincent is lovely. Vincent is my bringer of good news. The most exciting thing that happened to me two weeks ago was receiving my first ever letter. Here you buy a postal box at the local post office and a lock to loop through the metal catches so you can check it at will. For the first couple of weeks I didn’t dare even try to see if my shiny key turned ok in my brand spanking new padlock because I was sure I’d disappoint myself in the process. Opening up your box and seeing its naked inside can be quite a tragic and humbling experience. Not so two weeks ago when cheeky Vincent with a gleam in his eye notifies me at football that I have a certain letter, airmail, from a male friend; “Maggie, his name is John, I see on the outside!’. John Smallwood – you may have inadvertently created a mini scandal out here in Rwanda without even knowing it! I tried to assure him it was a family friend but the gleam in the eye didn’t fade.
Even though John’s letter must have caught good winds and arrive after just 8 days, two days later I received two birthday cards (only 5 weeks late) and a Guardian weekly newspaper dated from a month previously. But that is fine – I managed to catch up on all the controversial news surrounding the pope’s inflammatory comments. In about three months I might mention the mid-term American elections...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


About an hour and a half up the road from where I live is a huge rainforest – which is the final set of mountains that make up the Rift valley that starts in Kenya. I went for a 6 hour trek through these the other day, clambering along mahogany lined paths, negotiating our way past wide waterfalls and over little bridges made by strapping skinny tree trunks together, and spying upon cheeky monkeys dangling from enormously tall trees. There are chimpanzees in the rainforest too, though you have to be up early to see them – we saw a chimp nest, their hiding places and some chimp poo too, presented neatly on the path. It reminded me of a certain story involving my little brother Dessie...(he can explain)

The views were stunning – at one point, you saw ten, twenty mountain peaks stretching out before Lake Kivu, with the Congo peeking out from behind – and five minutes later, having navigated your way around the curve of the slope, you see the elegant mountain slopes of Burundi, standing tall. Both Burundi and the Congo are strictly off-bounds for VSO volunteers for safety reasons, so it was nice to allow our eyes to break the rule and gaze away!

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