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...