Rwandan Ramblings

Monday, April 23, 2007

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

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

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

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

Welcome back to Rwanda.

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

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

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

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

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


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