Rwandan Ramblings

Friday, September 14, 2007

Final posts (& over and out from me)

The Scottish Highlands of Rwanda
Hills rise up either side of the steep valley, bright green but interspersed with dark patches of brown and red. It is more green than brown right now owing to the rain that has for the last month, lashed down uncompromisingly on the tiled houses scattered amongst the fields and cows. In the evenings you will often find men sat around in the local bars sharing a beer; often silently contemplative, often gruffly cackling over some bit of news just heard on the radio. Others watch the football on the TV in the corner, completely immersed in a game many miles away from where they are, but nonetheless vehemently supportive of one of the two sides. And for those not watching, there is always a heated match going on at the local football pitch, even if using trees or jumpers for goalposts.
This is not Rwanda. But it could be.

When I was a child, my family would drive back up into the highlands of Scotland to visit family and friends at least once a year. There are of course many differences between Scotland and Rwanda, but when near the beautifully wild Nyungwe forest, I often think of the towering mountains of my mother’s birthplace and the hawks that circled the sky spying for mice. The national dance of Rwanda involves extending the arms outwards in a graceful imitation of the statuesque horns that adorn the country’s prized cows. How far is that from Highland dancing, where both men and women hold their arms up high, fingers firmly locked into a position representing the noble stag’s antlers? Men wear kilts, and yes, while the tartan may not entirely echo the zigzags of the male Intore dancers’ loincloths, the gesture towards history is the same. And the stomping of feet and jangling bells bound around ankles could even remind one of the clumping of English Morris dancers.

Food, dress, language and accents, politics and entertainment change the world over, country to country, region to region. But some basic elements of life are sufficiently replicated that they can be judged inherent. Sharing a drink with friends, trying to continue your education or get a better job, worrying over your daughter’s safety, dancing and singing during festivities, following the news, rebelling against parents, bemoaning having to do chores; all these happen and more, all around the world. Yet, we can also add ‘being ignorant of other cultures’ to the list too. We are all guilty of demonising, patronising or romanticising customs in different countries without often acknowledging that our rituals and habits are often remarkably similar, binding us as one. The number of times I have seen astonished faces in Rwanda when I say that there are homeless people in Britain equal the number of raised eyebrows of people back home when I show photos of elegant high rise buildings in Kigali or friends wearing sharp suits.

Karaoke in Rwanda is much less about singing, than miming and having a good dance routine. Japanese karaoke involves sitting in a small booth and singing the night away with friends, and British karaoke is made popular by inebriated football teams and star struck “wanted-to-be"s - but the overall objective of each nation is of entertaining the audience and having a good time! There is much to be said for doing in Rome as Romans do, but there is also a need to discuss, share and be proud of our own culture. By discussing the differences we will inevitably find that they are more superficial than the similarities


Snaked around the hill is a line of brightly clothed backs, flashing up and down in time to the irregular heaving and plunging of a hundred hoes. Parcels of obedient baby are strapped to backs here and there, blinking in the strong sunlight and bobbing up and down according to the rise and fall of their strong cradles.

It is the final Saturday of the month in Rwanda, and in every town and village and scattering of houses the whole neighbourhood is out for Umuganda; government initiated community work. Blazered but barefoot men and broad teenage boys in vests work alongside military men and tiny weathered women each having brought some sort of tool to help with whichever task has been assigned this month.

Headway is being made – an old ditch is slowly being weeded by the machete wielders and re-furrowed by the hoe brandishers. The next time the rain falls it is hoped the water will slope off here and not score further huge trenches into the partly impassable track. Rattling bikes will find it easier to navigate by the afternoon and when it is levelled next month cars may be able to make the descent too. Not that many people in Sovu own cars but that doesn’t matter.

Umuganda is obligatory – maroon uniformed Local Defence Force guards rap insistently on your door with their truncheons if your household is not represented, though in the larger towns and amongst better-off people who are unfamiliar with hoe brandishing, you often hear the excuse “oh, I do Umuganda at home”.

I’m doing Umuganda at home this month too. Why? Of course it is not the relentless sun, or the stinging nettles or the blisters that burn your hands for weeks after that puts me off. Nor is it the lack of a machete or having to get out of bed early. My problem is that my presence does very little to advance proceedings, and not necessarily for want of effort. Pushing strands of wet hair away from my face and pausing for a moment to regain grip on a borrowed hoe, I realize no matter how hard I hoe little progress will be made with since the majority of the village is gleefully watching my every stuttering move. Two walls of wide-grinned and incredulous onlookers stand tall either side of me, hoes hanging loosely by their sides and machetes resting upon heads.

So for the good of the cars which may one day roll down that road, I’ll do Umuganda at home this month too.

PHARE; Prevention of HIV and AIDS in Rwanda through Education
Imagine a major personal problem you have had in the last year. It could be something embarrasing to do with your health, or the possibility of losing your job or university spot. Perhaps a pregnancy scare? Or were you afraid at one point that your partner was cheating on you?

Who did you turn to for advice?

If you are male and in Rwanda, there is a strong chance you did not speak to anybody. More than 1 in 5 boys in a recent study in Nyamagabe district said they do not speak to anybody about personal issues. Speaking openly is obviously difficult, but amongst all the boys and girls who do seek advice, 93% said they turn to their friends. This proves just how important activities focusing on HIV prevention, sexual health and life skills are “peer-led”.

The VSO PHARE project (Prevention of HIV and AIDS in Rwanda through Education) demands active participation from students. Across 2 districts, and set to start in 2 more in September 2007, students are now co-leading their anti-AIDS clubs having received training on basic sexual health, reproduction, HIV prevention and transmission, contraception and importantly, peer counselling. They have an experienced trainer to guide them, but they run sessions together, with the aim of eventually empowering the students to run their own clubs themselves, without need for outside help. Sending in a volunteer from overseas or even a Rwandan member of staff from Kigali to facilitate discussions in the middle of the Rwandan countryside would be as useful as an ostrich preaching to a fish in a pond. Both may lay eggs, eat, breathe and eventually die, but they come from vastly different environments, often unaware of the challenges that each other face. Also, by giving ownership to the students, they themselves become proud to be the leaders, proud to teach their peers, and proud to share their knowledge – even leading activities with their own teachers and headteachers!

Since the start of the project funding in September 2006, PHARE has run trainings for headteachers, teachers, students and Anti-AIDS Club leaders, as well as sourced and trained young motivated facilitators who help with following up the good work. A manual was written specifically for use in local schools and published in all three of Rwanda’s national languages to help guide the students. A theatre, music and danse competition was run in both districts to motivate the students and congratulate them for their hard work. The 4 winning schools are set in a few days to perform in Kimironko, Kigali’s busiest market place, as well as in the Union Trade Centre in the heart of the capital. It is hoped that this way, the message will spread even further – not only how important it is to protect oneself and one’s friends from HIV and reduce discrimination, but also that the future of Rwanda is in the hands of the youth...and that they are more than capable of securing a bright one.


At 9:51 AM, Anonymous The Emrys said...

nicely done. are you sure you are not a journalist of international repute.


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