Rwandan Ramblings

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Road Trip
Here is little Emanuel and his tiny sister trying my motorbike out for size. It excites Emanuel so much to see me scooting out of my house, that he usually runs after me trying to clamber on – so in the interests of public health and safety I usually stop, let him climb aboard and then drop him off about 30 metres along the dirt track. Makes him happy for a moment (and stops him asking for biscuits too).

On Sunday, Max and I decided to see how roadworthy Mookie the moto really was. Well, more likely to see how roadworthy Maggie was as the bike seemed to cope fine and Max got to just sit on the back and enjoy the views whilst my brow was furrowed as I dodged the gorges hacked out of the mud roads; roads which become rivers in torrential rain and then repeatedly bake to a crisp when the sun emerges. Not that I was complaining, it was a beautiful day when we left and the sun shone down on the terraced hills. Our arms became tired from waving to so many people strolling along with bales of fronds or bags of potatos and coal on their heads, and children scampered after us, relishing in having been the first to have spotted the mzunugu, not least two who spoke Kinyarwanda to them!

We were aiming to get to a small town called Kibeho. I call it a town, but it was 1 hour 45 minutes from a tarmac road (and that’s with an exceptionally competent driver too I may add) and consisted of several huge churches and a few shacks selling fanta and that was it. Why the huge churches? Between 1981 to 1989 (and some say since then too), several apparitions of the Virgin Mary were recorded, generally to school girls – in fact, it was the first place in all of Africa to have recorded appartitions, sitings verified by the Church too (though how you ‘verify’ an apparition I don’t know). It has become a site of pilgrimage and dotted around the area (and can I reemphasize just how rural this is) there are small handmade signs which I assume point to where the visions were.
There are two huge churches, one which is extremely modern and packed with tiny wooden bences the width of a very small bottom which are probably jammed on Sunday morning. The other has a sadder story – during the genocide it was badly hit, burned down with people inside I believe. Kibeho is also the site of a huge old refugee camp which was important for all sorts of political reasons. To look at it today you would never know – just a small dusty town amidst rolling hills.Unfortunately we then heard the equivalent of a BBC weather forecast – rumbling in the distance. Turning we saw a bank of huge black clouds rolling ominously towards us. The rain is bad for bikes – not because (as I though at first) it gets wet and it doesn’t appreciate that, but because of the aforementioned transformation or road into river. And being almost 2 hours from tarmac we had no choice – race the rain. If we sat it out we’d have had to stay overnight until the sun had a chance to bake the road dry again. I estimated that we could be safer if we perhaps took a different track back which was technically longer, because it took us out close to the Burundi border, but meant we would be on tarmac sooner.

We raced back. The roads being better meant that rather than 10k an hour, we managed to stretch Mookie’s legs a bit – hair streaming out behind us (the straggly bits that poke out of the helmet that is), and Max has hair about 1cm long, so maybe not his either. Racing rain is difficult enough at the best of times, but when black clouds hover menacingly, eating up the air between you at them, you could be forgiven for claiming unfair advantage – as you circle around hills, down into valleys, around the cows picking their way along the track, across bridges made from skinny logs linked with twine, and between the kids that in their excitement nearly end their days.
Twice we had to stop and ask for directions – as soon as the motorbike slowed, thirty, now forty people leapt up to help, crowding around us on the bike. As I chattered away to a bright-eyed woman with four teeth, proud thatI could explain what we’d been doing and where we’d come from all in Kinyarwanda, I assumed Max behind me, was having as much of a ball with his toothless but hatted old men. Until I felt a dig in the small of the back and heard a hissed “Lets go Maggie...LETS GO” through gritted teeth. I believe the old man’s alcohol soaked breath had offended him as much as the demands for money and the grabbing for my camera. So we zoomed off again, over the hills and far away, and with the last twist of the road, and over the final log bridge we saw tarmac – we heard a clap of thunder and the pattering of rain on banana leaves that got louder and louder as the clouds got closer and closer and then overtook us. It was nice of them to wait. We still got an absolute drenching as we were down by Burundi, 30k from Butare town, but at least the wheels didn’t slide and slip through muddy marsh. Visor down, whoops of joy at being in the heart of sunny Rwandan country having subsided, teeth were once again gritted, brows furrowed and jeans soaked on the final leg home to a nice cold bucket shower.

Scooting past houses...

....waving to all and sundry like the queen...

I now have 22 school headmasters wrapped around my little finger.

Myself and Andrew, my Rwandan boss who runs the HIV prevention project from Kigali ran a meeting 2 weeks ago to outline the plan for 2007, get all headteachers on board, ask some controversial questions (such as whether you could talk about condoms in church schools), and basically get them to like us as much as possible so that they’ll help us out when required. Headmasters are the key to making things happen.

So we ran a workshop outlining the importance of the work we do (HIV prevalence in Rwanda being about 250,000 which was 31 times the number of secondary school students and teachers and headmasters in our district), and what activities we think are important. We then got them to discuss and prioritise them so that they have ownership of the project. This is not about us coming in and doing things – this is about them deciding what they want to happen and helping to enforce it. Though I received the mandatory smiles by introducing myself in Kinyarwanda, I spoke in French for the rest of it and Andrew – whose English is better than his French because he grew up in Uganda, spoke in Kinyarwanda. We carried out a bunch of activities and group work, ran some games to waken them up and facilitated some discussions and presentations. On one activity, I tried to make them think about all the problems we would face such as cultural values (eg, polygamy, the reticence to talk openly, the practice of a widow being married off to her brother-in-law) religious problems, or logistical problems (size of the district, the rainy season etc). To show them what I meant I drew a chart on some paper and stuck it on the wall of the room. An arrow-head whose stem started with ‘current situation’ and whose head ended with ‘ideal situation’. On top we would draw the challenges and on the bottom we would mark in what we already had in our favour. But to lighten the mood a little, I chose a different sort of project; “Le Projet Maggie Marriage” which had them all immediately giggling, marriage being more than a hot topic here. I started with outlining how the current situation was that I was 23 and without a husband (shocking indeed). I asked them what the ideal situation would be and drew their suggestions; “You need a husband!”, “And children!” – ok, a boy or a girl? “Both!” (in unison). Then I asked what challenges I faced – “You have no money!”, “You are far from your home culture!” “You do not speak kinyarwanda!” – and Andrew chirps up from the side with a smile on his face “Maybe you’re not beautiful...” I had to hold them back, jokingly saying “ok, ok, you are finding way too many challenges for me!”. They made up for it though by finding a few things that I had to my advantage – being “dynamique” was one, having been to school was another.

Since then, I’ve spent two weeks going over all the feedback from the session, the plans for 2007 we made, and constructing a breakdown of all the info to write up in French for them. Today and yesterday I’m acting as a courier and biking around some of the schools to hand over the letters. It has been really really nice however going into the schools – which are shut at the moment for the long holidays – and having the headmasters leap to their feet; “Maggie! How are you! What news have you of your family... etc etc”. It was great to be active and run my own sessions, making them as lighthearted and interesting as possible, with games and group work, especially since here, meetings are very much the same as in a classroom. You sit, you listen and when you are asked you may perhaps respond to the question, effectively you listen to what’s decided without deciding for yourself. This will often last 4 hours. Having said that, I see much improvement from the old days 5 years ago in Tanzania where it was even worse. Rwanda are making some fantastically huge steps. All credit to them.

Here I am with my wonderful 'powerpoint' presentation...Rwanda-style.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Here's some hip wriggling action from World AIDS day 2006..

The morning after Agnes broke down crying, I woke her up just before 5am. After saying a round of prayers she left to find her sister. It was still dark and would be for another hour. She had a look of determination on her face and I remembered how she’d said the night before; “Tomorrow I will look for my sister. Tomorrow I will find my sister”. Agnes’ strength and awareness continues to surprise me. Though she lives in a small hush-hush polygamous community where shame descends upon the woman, not the man, even when a victim of rape she is fully aware of the wider picture. She knows that it is the man “who has many faults” and she sighed; “my sister is not the first to get pregnant. And of course she will never be the last”.
Agnes’s sister has since been found. She returned to the village – but aware of the shame heaped upon a single female like herself she is now staying at the house of the father of her soon to be born child. Her parents – and Agnes are not happy with this, not least because “How can a poor man have two wives? It is difficult enough to care for one and her children”. Her father is going to go to the village chief on Thursday if Liberé (ironic eh? “Liberated”) does not come back to her family home. Agnes says that the problem is a little better – if only because they at least know now where she is.

There is still so much to say!
I feel as though I write for too long, I worry about boring you. I wonder who actually reads this. I try to judge which paragraph is the one which sends you back to the kettle, or diverts to more interesting things such as flossing your teeth.
And yet there is so much to say! I can ony ever write a smidgeon of what I do on this blog. Plus, lots of the time, it would be too dull to detail.

I have never mentioned the conference of young Rwandan writers that I participated in back at the end of October, run by VSO. Every year there is a competition run in all the schools to encourage kids to be creative in their writing – education here is very much old-school – copy from the board, do as I say, learn by rote and repeat. Every kid can accurately identify an adverb of time or place or manner - but ask them to describe their family and blank stares ensue. This was a conference rejoining winners from the last few years and finding out what people were up to now – it was incredible. One girl who’s published two novels this year, a guy who works for the English language paper and reports on the radio too, several who were now working for French or Kinyarwanda papers. But these guys are the lucky ones – their language skills were great and could easily converse in French and English, the girls were articulate and bold – they didn’t shy away from talking to me as the headmistress of a secondary school did here in my district. In the afternoon people took turns to read poetry or prose that they had composed, others sang – I had a song dedicated to me – and when the young guy with baggy jeans, converse trainers and a beenie hat started rapping, the whole room went crazy - “No way! That’s him! I never knew!” – It was Rwanda’s number one hip-hop star, a rapper called Adolphe (he has a stage name too don’t worry!). I was star-struck too, a singer at number one in the music charts dedicating a song for little old Maggie. Blush.

I also had fun running some sessions for the VSO World AIDS Day activities on the 1st of this month. The Rwandan national theme centred around the responsibility of the family to break the silence which strangles progress in the fight against HIV. Household members of all the staff who work in the Kigali VSO office were invited to an all-day awareness-raising training which used activities and stories and one of the HIV positive group leaders also shared her experiences of the virus, the stigma and the problems she has faced - and faces on a daily basis. But running a session about breaking silence inevitably starts in silence. Mothers, brothers and sisters arrived and quietly sat alone as they waited for the session to start. An awkward silence and sense of apprehension settled in the room. I too was apprehensive – because I was in charge of breaking this silence with an icebreaker. Less than ten minutes later the whole group were giggling away and some wiped tears of laughter from their eyes. I had decided to introduce myself by writing my name with my hips only and then getting everyone around the circle to do the same (i’s are very fun). The silence began to fall away and the more serious subject were broached. And hopefully the silence will continue to fall away.

This is a copy of an article I wrote for a VSO publication trying to attract new volunteers by showing what type of Christmas they could be enjoying next year...

I am not Rwandan. I have no Rwandan relatives. I had not a single Rwandan friend to speak of prior to my September shipment courtesy of Flight VSO-YfD. But I know exactly how Christmas day will unfold on every slope of this thousand-hilled country and what ingredients will go towards making it the most Rwandan of celebrations. A few thousand years ago Mary may have ridden a donkey to Bethlehem, shepherds may have watched over their flocks by night, but every Rwandan knows that wise men keep cattle not camels.

On passing each other in the muddy quagmires, sometimes known as roads, that wind around the hills from village to banana tree grove to town all over Rwanda, little old men in tattered pinstripe blazers or bent-backed old ladies break into toothless grins. They grab each others’ elbows, touch foreheads three times and say “Amashyo!”- “have herds of cows” to which the other replies “Amashyongore!” -“have herds of female cows!”

And in the market place, never before has buying a bunch of carrots been so exciting for the crowd of thirty spectators watching an umuzungu (a trouser-wearing female no less) giving Kinyarwanda bartering her best shot. But on being given yet another vastly inflated price, the popular exclamation which will guarantee gasps and giggles - as well as a reduction of at least 5p is “Yampaye inka!” – the very ironic ‘He has given me a cow!”.

Christmas day will necessarily involve the cow dance. The cow dance is the traditional dance of Rwanda and Burundi, and as such is technically reserved for special occasions. But any occasion can be judged special enough if it means a green light for public cow worship and so it is practically a staple of any community gathering. Girls have the serene job of swaying from side to side, arms held up in a V shape mimicking the horns of the cow. The guys have slightly more fun - protecting their hypothetical cows they stomp and jump, jangling - and breaking the bells strapped to their ankles. They creep and shriek, wielding spears and shields and flick their necks from side to side, to which are attached billowing blonde wigs. All this is performed to the thumping and pounding of an array of drums made from hollowed tree trunks and goat hide. Every so often screams and hollers of praise for their herd sound out followed by threats to steal the cows of their adversaries. These shrieks serve as a war cry which triggers stomping which is twice as animated.

Now, the second most cherished activity in Rwanda is going to church. Sunday masses last at least three hours– but if that does not satisfy, there are nightly prayer sessions, daily choir practice to attend, and there are more religious denominations than you can shake a cow bell at. Here, a little Rwandan artistic licence is taken as regards general Christian worship. The drums are out and people sing and clap – as is usual in many parts of the world, but then, just after the consecration of the Christ, Rwandan hands stretch above heads and the congregation instinctively and communally starts swaying from side to side, arms waving in a graceful V shape which is suspiciously reminiscent of the horns of the cows wandering outside.

Cows are not just milk and meat. Cows are dowries, gifts, tokens of persuasion or blackmail, status symbols and even markers of ethnicity as ill-judged by the Belgians early this century in what was to have dire consequences. Ten cows or more and you’re a Tutsi. Less than ten and you are obviously Hutu. Cows are not ushered away from local football pitches – they become the third team, an extra obstacle in case the dust ridges, gaping holes, ditches and clumps of stone are not enough of an impediment to scoring that winner. Cows, Christmas and Christianity complement each other and all will be necessarily involved come the big day. But just as in the market place, screams of pleasure not that different to the dancers’ threatening wails, will sound out on Christmas day when the umuzungu is naturally pulled up in front of the crowd to replicate the homage being paid to the cows. Funny though, my arms as graceful horns may not translate too easily and look more like electricity pylons, but I have stumbling around on hooves rather than feet just about down to a tee. Merry Christmas.

Well you can imagine my excitement. Receiving two small packets from my Mr Post Office Vincent, which, on the custom’s tag declared “Seasonal fare” in my father’s scrawl (sorry Dad, but it is). Seasonal fare! All kinds of images flooded into my mind – roast turkey (not big enough), stuffing (would it survive?), a Yule log (surely melted), glass of mulled wine (probably spilt by now)... But imagine then my frustration! Even though my eyes and nose were just as upturned and sniffing as the bisto kids’ I had to drag myself through a meeting lasting the whole day, with all the local govt officials and aid organizations such as the Red Cross etc. We were creating the Nyamagabe District HIV reduction strategy plan for 2007. Sometimes for these meetings you are very very lucky to be offered a lift by somebody extremely unreliable. Because this means that you will not have to sit through the ‘opening words’, nor perhaps the VIP’s introduction. But only if you are very very very lucky. My lift was probably less unreliable than actually very astute. We arrived an hour and a half late, and they had only just sat down. The rest of the meeting was ok, I had to rely on sparse translations but I did get a round of muffled cheers and smiles when I introduced myself and gave the basic outline of VSO’s project in Kinyarwanda.

Anyway, back to the important business. Food.

So, exciting it was indeed, and when I got back home I tore into the parcel (‘tore’ is perhaps a bit generous. Tree conservation is not high on mum’s list of priorities, nor is she prone to economizing on roles of selotape) and lo and behold it was my merry Christmas day! A tiny wee Christmas pudding! Wow! One to share with at least 8 on Christmas day methinks – that’s if I can find the means to cook it. There were lots of little sachets of this and that, some crisps and chocolate. But of all the things in the parcel, there was a little something whose unsaid but implied significance was immediately evident to me – a small packet of Scottish full butter shortbread.

“Don’t forget your roots Maggie – and make sure you come home!” the piper on the front seemed to smile at me.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


How do you console a girl who’s just had everything she ever based her life on turned upside down?

I have rarely felt so useless as just now when Agnes, my house girl broke down crying and a story tumbled out which with every twist and turn got darker and more dispiriting. Each time I thought that was it, that there couldn’t possible be another fold in the story, another event or fear was voiced, and tears welled. I don’t know if it is a Rwandan way of telling a story – parts are repeated over and over – and then comes the next part, which is repeated once or twice, before the next twist is uncovered but it makes for a wild-eyed audience, and I had a lump in my throat. She is in the room next door to me, she said she had too much ‘sorrow’ to go home but that she will leave at 5am. She started by saying she has not seen her eldest sister since Sunday. Then it turns out she was pregnant. She left her parent’s house in the middle of the deep country after dark. She stayed a few nights at a friend’s house in the town, but then today this friend, Godasse told Agnes that she was no longer there.All she knows is that she wanted to go to the river, but Godasse tried to stop her.
All this was being recounted in broken French. It’s almost a type of French pidgin we speak together. I break down my French grammar to make it easier for Agnes who never finished secondary school, and so some of the sentences are always slightly contorted. And several times I had to ask exacty what that meant in a Rwandan sense, such as ‘going to the river’. Agnes wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me. Instead she just looked away and said it was a big big problem and she was very very afraid. The tears were still there but stubbornly not slipping over.
Agnes’s sister was not married. If Agnes is anything to go by the family are very religious. My house is currently adorned with messages and pictures drawn by Agnes telling me God loves me, and with various biblical quotations. She goes to church at least three times a week and is in the choir and runs the prayer sessions –all this at the age of 21. Last week she spent the night at the top of the highest mountain you can see for miles praying with 3 friends, on a mini-retreat. So perhaps having an unmarried pregnant sister would have brought shame upon the family. Were the parents angry? “Yes but now they are afraid. They ask where their child is and nobody can answer”.

Only then did Agnes say that her sister had been raped.

But far from removing the shame, this merely increases it. How can a 28yr old woman not be married? Was she asking to be raped? Who would then want to marry a soiled woman? The man who raped her then apparently asked her parents whether she would marry his younger brother – at this point the parents knew nothing and said yes. This was 6 months ago but the sister kept herself hidden and didn’t let anyone know about her condition – apart from Agnes and a few close friends. Then Agnes mentions how the rapist, Fas, who lives amongst them still is already married, and has 5 children.

Something went wrong with the idea of marrying the brother, so then Fas, the rapist, offered for Agnes’s sister to become his second wife. Can you imagine marrying your rapist?

“Maggie, now I know that all men, all all men, all of them are bad”.

Aged 21, Agnes has lost all faith in half of humankind.

And then it continued. This man turns out to be the church leader in the very church that Agnes devotes half her life to. He is the co-leader of the prayer groups and the choirs. “How can this man, this Christian do this? I don’t understand”. And so her belief in the church is now tainted too. This Christian leader, with 5 kids and a wife, a so-called respected member of the community rapes a girl, and then (the story continues to unfold) threatens Agnes with the same fate. Since Agnes wants to stay out of trouble, he then tells her parents that Agnes is ‘fooling around’. When she goes to prayer group she speaks to all the men. And she spreads propaganda. Bad things all about him (ie, if you ever hear anything bad about me in the coming weeks it’s all lies and nothing to do with me).

I am sure the story will continue to unfold. But what makes it wose is that it isn’t a story. And yet here I am writing about it. I have no idea what to do. I have a sobbing girl in the other room terrified about where her sister has ended up. And all I can do is write about it. And that makes me feel ashamed, as though I am using it as some great ‘scoop’ or something when in fact I just have no idea what to do. I think I find writing quite therapeutic, but will it help she who needs help most?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Sorry, just a quick aside. I’ve just heard on the BBC World Service that Take That are top of both the album chart AND the singles chart too. What’s going on? Are we back in 1992?

Ok, I lied.

Sorry. I did. In my defence, it was only a part lie. Yes, I get up, go to work and come home. Often that’s just how it is. But actually, there are not many times I go to work back in Britain and you’re in front of 300 villagers in the middle of nowhere who have been waiting for you for days, give them health info (‘disseminating’ being the development operative term – I’m learning so much jargon), receive questions, and then be treated to several cow-dances. These guys were great, I’m sure I’ve described the dance before, but it’s basically where the guys wrapped in bright cloth stomp their bell-adorned feet both joyfully (in praise of their cows) and threateningly (“we’ll steal your herd of cows if you don’t watch out!”). The women sway gracefully. But these guys were good. The best I’ve seen. There was a troupe of guys, but some of the best were these tiny boys, no more than 8 years old who faux fight against the old men, wielding their spears and shields and flicking their blonde wigs aggressively. They were fantastic. Like I say, Rwandans need no real reason to do their national dance. If they can find an excuse – be it a HIV awareness session in preparation for World AIDS day then fine, go ahead.

We were a good 45 minutes away from anything resembling a tarmac road. I’d created a bit of a stir rocking up on the motorbike.Uunfortunately when the final closing comments were being made myself and Dany, a Congolese guy who works for the Red Cross, having spied rain ahead, and knowing we’d be trapped on our bikes if we didn’t flee right away, made to leave. Doubly unfortunately, I don’t think half of the three hundred crowd ever heard what the village chief was saying in his closing remarks, because a large proportion of it shifted over to the patch of dirt where I’d parked my bike. I have a magnetic force which draws people generally close enough to touch me but without actually giving them the courage to do so. You can’t be self-conscious out here. I had over a hundred people watch as I (fascinatingly) strapped my helmet on, put on my gloves, checked the sky for rain clouds, started her up and kicked off. It was actually quite difficult what with trying to avoid the forty kids within inches of the tyres. It didn’t stop there. The kids came streaming down the stone strewn path after me, trying to touch the bike – or me – as we made off to race the rain home.

The day had consisted of giving information about HIV, how it works in the body, how to prevent it, where to get tested and how to get drugs to lessen the effects. We had one woman give a testimony, talking of her own experiences. The person giving the testimony rarely comes from the area because the stigma would be so bad that they would be marginalized from the community. HIV is seen as a dirty virus for amoral people. Who cares if you contracted it through birth from your mother who was gang raped? Who cares if it was your husband who gave it to you because he likes ‘the sweet stuff’ too much to receive it from only his wife? Nope. Somehow HIV is either got from having too much sex out here and or it is God’s revenge on bad people. Either way, you’re going to find it difficult to have neighbours’ children playing with your kids if you are HIV+.

In this tiny village, far from cars, TV, health centres, hospitals, it was difficult to justify trying to persuade these people to watch out for themselves in such a way. Why spend 5p on condoms when that 5p could be enough to feed 6 of your children with cassava that day? How can you preach abstinence to women who have absolutely no power over what happens to their bodies nor who uses them? It’s a daily conversation I have with myself, but then HIV is so destroying, it is linked to these same factors of poverty, orphancy, lack of food because of being too ill to work in the fields, rape, gender inequality, state insecurity etc etc. So actually, it is as important as feeding your kids. Otherwise you may not be able to feed your kids tomorrow. Nor when you’re dead.

These kids were the kids of a charity appeal’s dreams. Bloated bellies full of air, bare feet, muddy faces, gape-tooth smiles, torn clothes, traditional tribal name it, Geldof would have had his camera out. All in the middle of nowehere. But it’s not always like that. Not at all. I will have to take photos of the skyscrapers in Kigali, or the fancy architecture of the banks or embassies. Or of the rich Rwandans licking their ice creams, in a cafe with blind beggars at the doors. The contrasts are incredible. Also there are plenty of people at work who cannot believe that I sit contemplating the world on my front step – it is after all, a front step, and I am a person who has been to secondary school. I must sit on a seat! And they probably think I am more than unhygienic for picking bits of cake up in my hands. Where is the paper serviette!

I’m off on a tangent once again. Returning to work. Indeed, I often sit in an office, tapping away at a computer. I have lunch, go home and do it all again. But yes, I agree, there are those incredible moments when you realize just how far away you are. And ok, I agree, that maybe then people can be right to say that things must be ten times more exciting over here.

I’m perfectly content at the moment out here. Rwanda is exciting, challenging, frustrating, boring all in one go. But at least it makes the boring far from monotonous! Yes of course I will miss friends and family at Christmas, and yes, I would love a hot shower - or even a cold shower so long as it's not a cup and a bucket, yes a ham sandwich made from wholegrain granary bread with loads of lettuce and ground pepper would make my day, yes it'd be great to stroll down the street once or twice without a thousand eyes following my every move. But I'm perfectly happy.

Not least because I’m avoiding short days and too much electronic “Dashing through the snow” ringing out in Woolworths all over Britain right now.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"Anyway, this must all sound really pretty dull, compared to what you’re up to".

Wrong. You have no idea how captivating tiny titbits of news have become to me. I am more excited than ever about what the WI were selling at their jumble sale on the weekend, or whether the annoying woman with the big brown hat ever gave her daughter any rest on the coach trip, or whether dessie’s learnt to boil an egg yet, or whether the feuds over church flowers were ever settled or whether a certain football manager has quit again and who’s fault it is this time. True, this might not ever have captivated me before, but because I can imagine the gossiping going on, or my friend’s indignation at not being asked to a certain party, or the hesitation of a friend who’s walking an interview process which will lead him to a career he doesn’t care about, all this becomes fascinating for me. This is why I hate the phrase above which people right way too often in emails to me. This must be dull compared to what you’re up to.

Nope, I get up, I have breakfast, I go to work, I sit in an office, I joke with my colleagues, I have lunch, I go home, I eat dinner, I read, I go to bed. The only difference being that I’m doing this in Rwanda.

So, no more apologies please! Thatcher’s burning down opposite my house on the island was just as exciting for me as for you!

Friday, December 08, 2006

About two weeks ago I was given a curfew. I think my last ever curfew existed of not staying over at Cristy’s house past 10pm, when I was about 14. So, to be given another one, of 10pm as well seemed a bit strange. (But am I a woman or a girl after all??)

“Mum, if you see anything about Rwanda in the press in the next few days, don’t worry, I’m safe, everything’s ok, please don’t worry”

Suffice to say, mum slept well. She had no idea of anything going on at all. Whilst French and Canadian friends were having long, urgent daily phonecalls, the floorboards at Redworth remained untrodden. Little emerged in the British press. Meanwhile Rwanda was plastered all over the French front pages, and those in Canada and Belgium.

The reason I was given a curfew was not for bad behaviour. It was not because the streets were abounding with terrorists or ASBO benefactors. No. I was not to walk the streets of Kigali past 10pm in case somebody thought I was French.

The French were forcibly ejected from the country two weeks ago. The embassy has shut down, the French school has locked their doors, the NGOs have closed. Even Radio France International has been taken off air. The Rwandan embassador in Paris has returned to Rwanda. Many of the 240 French expats have left.

This is because a French judge issued a warrant for the arrest and trial of 9 of the top govt officials claiming their implication in the assassination of the president in 94 which sparked the genocide. He has also implicated our president, Kagame but because he is the leader of the country he cannot be hauled in front of the courts (French law, not Rwandan law). It is actually a delicate situation whose history is very very old. There is no evidence for the French judge’s claims. In fact, reading the report, there are some very basic errors, even with regards to the spelling of key players which – for the strength of the accusation – devalue much of it. What’s more, the French had quite a horrific impact in the genocide, funding the Hutu extremists, supplying their weapons with which up to a million people were killed with in 100 days. The school opposite my house which was in the British papers recently (see the link below) was ‘safeguarded’ by the French (between 40 and 60 000 were macheted to death there). When things calmed down a bit, the French soldiors used one mass grave as a volleyball court.

I don’t want to appear as though I have been brainwashed by the incredibly indoctrinating Rwandan media. (Letters here run something like; “I must congratulate the wonderful government for all the hard work....the great President for his.... the wonderful nature of......oh, and please would people stop spitting in the street?”). The pictures I saw in the French media of 50000 demonstrators brandishing placards were true but false at the same time. Yes, 50 000 pounded the streets all over Rwanda including in my little town. Demos were held in stadiums countrywide. Placards called for immediate French departure. The French were ‘genocidaires’ and guilty of complicity. Yet, speaking to friends, the turth is that many were forced out at 7am to demonstrate. Local Defence Forces came storming houses to pull people out to do their duty to their country and their president, a bit like for the community service days. It’s not voluntary, you do it because your country demands it. People were in tears at being forced to demonstrate.

I don’t want to comment too much on what happened or is happening. There are no truly safe places to talk of Rwandan politics. All I know is that 2 new VSO volunteers are not coming in January because they are French and their visas will probably be denied, and the girl who may be moving into my house may not be able to stay after her visa runs out which is on the 2nd Jan. Many Rwandans working for French NGOs have lost their jobs. I don't speak in French in public. I have been challenged as well, all fizzling out when I said I was British. Rwanda is losing out. But, importantly, the French have been extremely arrogant, and are perhaps treading dangerously if they don’t want to be taken to court themselves...

We’ll see all in the news. Or not, if you’re in Britain! (So watch this space instead)

I need a man.


People’s faces overshadow with obvious perplexity and concern when they ask if I really truly live alone, without a man. It seems that the mere fact that I can breathe outside of marriage is a wonderful feat of westernization. Sometimes I am even consoled; “Don’t worry Maggie, we will find you a husband” with the touching reassurance; “even if you are almost 24”.

It’s a strange thing, marriage. Amongst the top five questions that are asked of me* is the confusing “Are you a girl or a woman?”. In what sense I might wonder... It is sometimes asked because the level of respect you give to somebody depends on it. And apparently you are not a woman (ie, worthy of respect) until you are married. When I replied to somebody that I was a woman last week, a friend listening in burst out laughing, grabbed my hand in front of the other guy and said “Maggie! You are so funny! Of course you are not a woman! You are a girl!”. Absolutely hilarious indeed.

I thought I was meant to be propositioned night and day, suitor after suitor begging me to ease the way to my dad so that my hand in marriage could be sought for and gained. Not so:
“Maggie, do you have a friend who might marry me?”.

Is it because I am not the highly prized blonde? Is it because to marry me would really be beneath them? Are they confused about my gender? I mean, I not only hurl myself around on a motorbike and wear trousers but I also don’t shirk a tackle on the football pitch. What am I?

Maybe my problem is that I am too fat. “Maggie, you are sooooooooo fat!” said my nice employer, the District Directrice of education. “Oh yes, so so fat!” with such glee on her face it makes me swallow my pride and limply reply ‘Thanks. That’s...very kind”. All intended to be complementary. I’m still hoping it just means ‘healthy’ in an African sense, seeing as by now, I’m actually used to being called a fatty by Tanzanians and Senegalese alike.

So maybe that’s not the reason for the lack of marriage proposals. I’m hoping it is from finally having broken some sort of boundary to the point where they know me as me and not as Issue 1 Type Muzungu. Who knows.

*The other four questions/demands consist of;
Give me money.
Donne-moi l’argent.
Where are you going?
Where are you coming back from?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Happy World AIDS day everyone!

I haven't been around on the blog for a while because of meetings (endless meetings), training sessions, trips to Kigali, security advice (more info soon!) etc etc...

But I will write soon. Promise.

So get out there with your red ribbons and support World AIDS Day!