Rwandan Ramblings

Thursday, January 25, 2007

By the way - don't cheat.

You can't read about Christmas day before reading about what happens first! Go back to where you left off - otherwise the gruesome bits won't follow on properly!

Christmas day was honestly a very civilized affair

– I went to an amazingly colourful church in the morning with three friends. There was bunting strung up from beam to beam over the small wooden benches which were packed bottom to bottom. Babies bound to the brightly clothed backs of women – and girls. Clashing colours mix on the same patterned cloth that is wrapped around the waist. But they are always incredibly well-tailored to exact measurements with incredibly flouncy sleeves and intricate waistbands. Skirts are flared, fishtailed or tubular, short or long and tops are sleeved or strapped, laced around the neckline or sliced straight across. The mix of bunting, baby and blaring colours created quite an intense atmosphere inside, doubled, if not trebled by the vibrant singing and dancing shared amongst choir and congregation alike. Anyone who has been in an African church will probably be nodding their head as I mention this. I don’t want to labour a point – partly because I don’t want to step into the arena of patronising exoticism – yet sometimes just listening to the deep voices bandying about beneath the church’s corrugated-roof gives you that fluttering heart-expanding feeling.

We joined up with some other friends over on the other side of the bay, where I produced possibly the most exciting and necessarily element of the day – Christmas crackers and mini mince pies, courtesy of a package from mum. There were 12 mince pies and twelve volunteers (a set of parents and a UN worker were deigned to be unworthy of receiving one). Six crackers worked out perfectly – though I did threaten to steal a hat if I didn’t actually win one (It’s ok, my strength and natural skill at Christmas cracker pulling shone through despite little festive practice this year and I didn’t have to commit the first sin of Christmas day).

We went swimming in the lake before feasting upon tasty Nile perch and sharing the small Christmas presents we had bought for each other, Secret Santa style. In fact we were so comfortable in this small lakeside restaurant we didn’t really leave – we were playing charades in camp-fire light right up til about 11pm (which for us is massively late out here!), most of us having been able to speak to family too back home.

This is just really to prove that I can do classy. Because the next few days couldn’t really be classed as being too chic...

Then, comes Christmas Eve. A bunch of us volunteers (and aquaintances) had travelled out west to Gisenyi, a town on lake Kivu which borders the Congo, right next to Goma (which is unfortunately in the news quite often for the unrest there). I say “travelled’, but that’s like saying “travelled” to get from Southampton to Brighton. It’s not even as far as that, though trying to reach your destination, stuffed between sweaty armpits and suckling babies on a bus sometimes makes it feel like you’re trying to find a Catholic church during Mecca. Complications, halts, problems, lateness, cancellations, wide-eyed incredulous looks that you're not flying by in an air-conditioned 4x4 like the other muzungus...

Anyhow, Christmas Eve evening I was sat with Max and Jean-Pierre, a Rwandan friend, in his uncle’s house. He’d invited us for dinner and whilst the others went out for cocktails (worth about a 20% of their weekly pay), we thought it’d be nice to spend the evening there – and/or rude to refuse. Max had mentioned Jean Pierre’s family were also pretty well renowned for being good cooks.

Which is why the intestine came as a bit of a shock.

Have you ever tried to eat something so obviously recognizeably a part of a body which is more used to digesting than to being digested? It had small suction bits on it. It was a very pale white-pink as though the blood had been sucked out. It seemed to have a fleshy rubber band wrapped around it.

I forgot to mention that these entries – especially around Christmas time, are probably not for the vegetarian. Indeed, perhaps not for those of the weak stomached. Those who this does not apply to, may now continue...

I rolled it around on the plate. Past the chunk of brown goat liver. Indeed. Not a favourite either. But if you douse it in chilli sauce you can either make the taste go away (and your eyes water), or you can start coughing and pretend you poured on the sauce completely by accident and now it’s too hot, silly you, for a mere muzungu mouth - and thus avoid having to eat it. Just make sure that the dish from whence it came is already finished, otherwise you might find a friendly fresh fat dollop on your plate in recompense for your ‘stupidity’ – and a smiling host eager to see your pleased and satisfied face as you roll it around in your mouth. I sponged it on to the fork, raised it to my lips, closed my eyes, and thought of how I could convince myself that it was beautiful garlic and lemon encrusted calamari. Nope. Squidgy intestine it was.

Now, there are some beautiful things that friends can do for one another. Friendship can be unfairly seen to be loosely based around having a natter over coffee, the lending of a couple of quid, a pat on the back when one has done something to be proud of.

Prior to Christmas Eve of 2006 I had never thought that friendship could include the spearing of one’s second portion of intestine and eating it to save you from having to do so. Thankyou Max.

I admit this was a noble thing to do. I must have been obviously struggling. Personally though, I do wonder whether its value has decreased with the number of times I have been reminded of this act of friendship...Any time I refuse or complain about shutting the door, or washing up I have the wonderful “I ate your intestine for you” thrown back at me.

And how can you refuse to soap a couple of cups after hearing that??

So, which bit to start with?

A few days before Christmas, I was stood in the British Embassy courtyard supping (in a very genteel manner) from a glowing glass of mulled wine. I even munched upon a mince pie! I sang Ding Dong Merrily on High. I laughed, and chattered and giggled away – as far away from Rwanda as you almost possibly could be. When mum heard about the invitation to all Brits to come and be festive at a Christmas carol servie she gave possibly the best advice one could give to a VSO volunteer; “Make sure you take a doggy bag!”.

I didn’t need to be told twice.

Unfortunately, last year’s VSO volunteers (of which there are still many still here) had probably received the same advice, and I am positive that as the trays of canapes (yes, really!) came wandering around, there was a distinct swerve away from our huddled mass of volunteer vultures. We came in droves – free food and drink! Oh, and of course the urge to be festive and get merry. But it was unfair if they really did swerve as much as I think they did. We were officially the Life and Soul of the party. Seriously. I don’t know what getting a large salary (ridiculously inflated as regards a local rate), does to your personality but these guys working for the UN or for the British Department for International Development or whoever else, refused to really get into the spirit of things. I mean, if you can’t shout and holler at the “Five gold rings!”part of the twelve days of Christmas, then you either are stupidly self-conscious or are overly aware of your boss standing just inches away. The true value of being a volunteer I guess.

Anyhow, I’d been working right up til that very day – the 22nd or 23rd and was about to take my first few days of holiday since I got here back in September. I was very up for a good old shin-dig and managed to comfortably stuff myself on a large mince pie in the process. Mulled wine has never tasted so good (as when it tastes not really like it should??).

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Umwaka Mwiza! (Happy New Year indeed)

Christmas has involved a long whirl of lake swimming, eating fish and intestines, becoming a stowaway on a boat jammed with crates of local beer, sorting through a pig's body trying to find edible flesh from nipples and hearts, spending a day and a half in a police station and pulling Christmas crackers kindly sent by my mum. All in all, there is a lot to say, and I am aware I have fallen behind. This is just to let you know that these adventures are all to come ( I know how you must all be on the edge of your seats after all...) and that I have not forgotten you. My absence has been partly due to the aforementioned police visit (don't worry, it wasn't me being knocked about for bad behaviour) but rest assured I shall be back with a bang.

Hope all your Christmases and New Years were jolly affairs.