Rwandan Ramblings

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Parties in a police station...

It was not all barbequed fish and frolics during the Christmas break. Prior to spending three days waiting for a boat to fill with beer, I had spent a day and a half in a police station. Why? On Boxing Day I had gone down to the lake for a swim with a few friends first thing in the morning. It was a guarded beach so I figured leaving my things there was pretty safe. Normally I wouldn’t take my phone down but we were trying to coordinate a trip with some others a bit later so thought I’d best be able to be contacted. As for the camera – it was a gorgeous day, still early in the morning so I thought I’d take a few photos of the lake, looking fresh in the morning sun.

Stupid really I know.

And while I was in the water I could see some guys – those who were meant to be guarding the beach – around my things and my heart sank as I realized they were probably not as trustworthy as I thought. When I came back to shore it didn’t even surprise me that much that they had gone. Over the next couple of days I walked from this beach to the police station or back about 6 times – to get the police, to come back with the police, to go with the suspects, to come back, to go to see the manager etc etc.

This is also why there is a lack of photos on this blog at the moment. I’m waiting so seeif the insurers will pay up – but til then I have to beg and borrow photos from friends to put on here!

The guys initially denied stealing, then when threatened a bit (I was impressed to see only a bit of kicking and slapping of the suspects – this might seem ridiculous but when I saw a guy who tried to break into my house in Tanzania, at the police station, he was covered in dried blood as he’d been beaten with sticks and boots and threatened with a rock to his head) they admitted that they might ‘know who did it’. So they were given half an hour to come back. When they returned they said the camera, phone and wallet were probably already in the Congo, which is only another hundred metes away from the police station.

Meanwhile I listened as two other complaints were brought forward, one of which was a man who brought in a guy whp he accused of raping a 15yr old girl. This poor girl was asked to detail everything that happened iin front of several officers, random other people (such as myself) who were there on other business and two suspects for another case. She spoke barely above a whisper and the only interjections made by the gruff police officer were for her to speak louder.

The previous case had involved a man in welly boots who had gone to the market that day searching for the guy he now displayed in front of the officers. A few days before he had apparently bought 10 kilos of sugar off this guy in the market. When he got it home he opened the sack and found that though there was much sugar around the ties on the top of the sack (and the man’s hands in the market had been covered in sugar) the sick contained a good ten kilos of sand. Which wasnt going to make anyone’s cuppa tea any sweeter.

Aside from this short entertainment, I still had to hang around much of the day – and the day after to wait for forms to be signed, stamped in blue ink, stamped in black ink, logged in a register and copied out three times scrupulously slowly.

Rwanda involves lots of waiting. And patience. I am learning fast.


During the few days between Christmas and New year, my only obligation was to get home early enough to help plan the party that I’d decided Max and Ruth would host. Having spent Christmas next to Lake Kivu there had to be a better way of getting back down South than returning on twisty windy roads back to the capital city and then back down South. I grew up on an island – so of course I was missing water transport!

Unfortunately, all the rich kids in Rwanda hang out in Gisenyi. And the rich kids think nothing of hiring a private speedboat to get around. On £130 a month I couldn’t see the attraction of spending the vast majority of my monthly pay packet on a 2 hour boat trip –the Isle of Wight to Portsmouth is meant to be the most expensive stretch of water in the world – not a paddle in a Rwandan/Congolese lake!

Fortunately, for several reasons, the national brewery is also stationed in Gisenyi. And fortunately Rose, Max and I are blessed with patience. We had heard that much of the national brewery’s booze is shipped from the northern port to the two others, one stationed midway down the lake and the other in the south – not too far from where I live. Perfect – we would just wait and catch a lift on the brewery boat! Seeing as New Year was fast approaching, they would surely have many cargo boats leaving. We met the captain and he said it was fine. It would cost us the grand total of 1000 francs – just under a pound sterling. All we had to do was turn up at 9am the next day. And so we did.

At midday we tried to find the captain. Rose and Max were sulking because they’d gone to ask for some free t-shirts at the brewery to pass the time and had no luck. They then sent me to ask and I was treated (after a little bit of Kinyarwanda ‘shikamooing’, ie flattery and flirting) to a tour of the brewery (well, the mountains of crates and cranes at least), a visit to the head of promotions and a free t-shirt too! Things got a little sour when I mentioned “my friends” wh also wanted them. It would probably have been fine for Rose but the darn French language gives away the sex of your friends, and they weren’t so impressed with the idea of hunter gatherer Max!

Midday no boat.

4pm no boat.

6pm dark. Find captain. He tells us to come at 10am the next day. Go home

9.45. Boat!

11am. Boat. No captain. No beer.

2pm. Boat. No captain. Beer in crates being loaded on. Crate by crate.

3pm. Captain tells us to go to another port. What we are doing is not 100% legal so he will pick us up at the port 100 metres away.

Go to other port. A boat which is struggling to keep its sides above the lapping water is in the dock currently having a thousand or so cabbages thrown on board to be shipped down south with industrious looking bare backed men. We halt progress as people stop to stare at us, we who are staring at the precarious situation of the boat.

Lots of staring.

We can see the beer boat 100 metres away. It doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. And why would it leave that dock and come to our dock just to pick us up? Isn’t that too much bother?

Yes. Basically we worked out that the captain was trying to shake us off in that Rwandan way of not really telling the truth for fear of it being too blunt and not to our liking. But we were a difficult trio to shake off. So we went back to the first dock. Rose and I used our best flirting techniques to get past the guards. I think we are now promised in marriage to about 5 men each. And we sat next to the boat and waited for the crates to be loaded. Several hours later, the captain having returned and realized the thorns in his side were still there, we were allowed to jump on board and sit amongst the crates full of beer and fanta. And slowly, after about three days of patient waiting and being told the boat was leaving ‘very soon’, we realized we had succeeded – the Rwandan flag was hoisted at the front of the boat, the mother and father and the baby and a teenager who were to be our stowaway friends for our journey settled down and Rose, Max and I couldn’t stop the huge grins on our faces from spreading. Dusk was almost falling as we left the little dock and we could see dry lightening very far on the horizon. We waved to our new friends – waiters at the local guesthouse where we had spent Christmas day a couple of days beforehand – and many a breakfast since then, waiting for the boat to leave.

The sun set as we skimmed along the sides of the lake – it was incredibly beautiful – and well worth it. Worth it because of the wait – we might not have appreciated it so much if it had consisted of buying a ticket from a grumpy man behind a desk, having a cup of stale coffee in a plastic cup from an overpriced cafe and sitting on plush seats complete with sick bags, emergency instructions and teenagers bawling on their mobile phones (take heed Wightlink!). We decided that the only thing you could really do on a beer boat is crack open a couple to sip as you stare at the mountains and hills towering above you.

Night is never as dark as you think it should be. As we sailed along, night fell but we could still see perfectly. We had time to adjust I guess, but from we could see other boats far away in the distance. When we came closer we realized they were fishing boats out for the evening, singing together to keep time for each stroke of the oar. Every so often there would be a stationary one in the middle with a fire burning to give a little more light – and this is the one where they seposited their catch. We had seen these boats come in to shoar that very morning from the previous night’s work, but hadn’t realized perhaps just how long they spent out on the water. I had been eating fish every day since I got to Gisenyi because it was so good! AN dnow I see just how fresh it was – being pulled ashore in the morning and being eaten a couple of hours later.

We arrived at the next port after about 3 hours. Time to pay our pound for the trip and a little more for the bottles and make our way up the hill to find some accommodation for the night. Well worth three days waiting! And I got a free t-shirt...

Sunday, February 25, 2007


There are several things I had never ever done before coming to Rwanda. Building a road was one, staring a dead pig in the eye was another. And cleaning gorilla poo off my trousers is another.

Last Sunday I became the ultimate tourist in Rwanda by going gorilla tracking. This is the best of Rwanda – people (admittedly those interested in primates perhaps) come from all over the world to see them here. This corner of Africa is the only place in the world where mountain gorillas exist in the wild. They live on one mountain – the west slope is Congolese, the northern slope is Ugandan and the South and Eastern side are Rwandan. In fact, the sign language sign for Rwanda is 5 beats to the chest, imitating a gorilla!

So at 6am I stood ready with my enthusiastic grin alongside Americans and Norwegians who had heavy trekking gear, waterproofs, pocketted hats and trousers (which can be unzipped at the knee and at the mid-shin too – just in case) and little dangly things you put over the ankles of your very expensive beige outfits you bought specially because you were coming to Africa and that’s what you do...

Anyway, to cut to the chase, we had two military guards with us who cut through the bamboo forest as our guide communicated by radio to the professional trackers who had been out searching for the gorillas since 5am. There are many different groups – and there are many rules too. 8 to a group, once you get there, you stay for an hour only, and you cannot get within 7metres distance. Keep quiet. Don’t point because the silverback might think you’re pointing at his hot bit of stuff. And we all know how jealous males can get...

So after almost 2 hours of hacking through bamboo forests, tredding in gorilla faeces (“fresh this morning!”) and climbing down river gorges and being hoisted up the other side (this is about as inelegant as you can get) literally by the seat of your pants, we came to a clearing. With a munch and a chew and a grind we came accross this family of wild gorillas, happily stuffing their faces with the leaves and grasses surrounding them. There were 22 of them – including the silverback – a mean looking beast who apparently ‘stole’ this family by beatng off the silverback who was in charge before he took a fancy to the lovely ladies that make up the group. There was even a 1 week old baby, and plenty of young ones running around, falling out of trees and beating their chest. Every so often one would wander near us, and the guard would hiss at us to get back, keep our distance – just in case. Meanwhile the gun was cocked – again, just in case.

The funny thing? They were so human! Staring at each other, swatting away the flies, the inquistive stares at us, these strange beings that had come along to watch as they ate, the young ones giving each other a slap when they got annoyed.

These brilliant beasts share 97% of our DNA!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

I built a road the other day.

I have mentioned Umuganda a few times before. Hands up who remembers what it is...

Every final Saturday of the month the whole village population meets in the market place and is told by the local head what community work they will be undertaking that day. This could be planting trees, cleaning schools, cutting bushes, clearing the road side of weeds etc. So I went along with Max and a couple of other friends to where he works – a small village called Sovu, which is much smaller than Gikongoro where I live.

When the villagers saw us turn up they looked a bit nervous. Well, we didn’t have any machetes or digging tools after all. I mean, were we inspectors? Nervous men and woman shuffled past us as they set to work levelling a grassy, weedy footpath. Then after speaking briefly to the army chief, a set of hoes was presented to us.

And then the villagers broke into big grins. Some doubled over and hooted. My Kinyarwanda was enough to set up the giggles, but then they saw me heave my hoe up above my head and bring it down with a thud on the baked ground in front of me. But I worked at it! I soon had a rhythm! Heave, hover, thud, pull. Heave, hover, thud, pull. Heave, hover, thud, pull. Wipe the brow. Heave, hover, thud, pull.

I do wonder though just how positive our effect was on the creation of that road. I mean there were four of us muzungus getting hot and sweaty, battling with heat and hoes - but whenever I glanced up, I could just see a wall of staring people with huge incredulous grins on their faces watching these strange white people getting down and dirty.

And after a while I really was making a road. The path was being levelled, widened and flattened to allow all the cars to go down it. The fact that there are no cars in Sovu doesn’t matter – Umuganda doesn’t have to be practical, it just needs to involve the community to make sure they are well disciplined and work together. Social cohesion and all that.

It really is interesting, these social cohesion projects though. A couple of months ago Rwanda abolished the death penalty, and rather than the decision be taken from high up above they sent people into every tiny village all over Rwanda, sat people down under a tree or in the market place or at the football pitch and asked their opinion. And the whole village decided together, and told the representative who then went back to the larger town and told the district leader and so on, Yes, ok a form of election – but it was a discussion rather than a straight out vote. It allowed people to properly ask questions – and have them answered rather than just be given a slip of paper and told to tick a box.

So, although I had blisters on my fingers and an aching back for a few days, I’m glad I helped build a road in Rwanda. That’s my contribution to social cohesion – integration of mzungus on every level! I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty...

The Place To Be.

My house is busting at the seams. You may remember that right back in the beginning (almost 6 months ago now!) that I hated the fact that I was all alone in a big house on the hill, opposite the prison. I was far from the village centre and had three rooms in the house that I just never went in. This house is beautiful – windswept and cold, but it’s actually a lot better than brash, burning heat or humidity that hangs on you like boiling mud.

In January everything changed. Number 1 arrival came in the form of a French girl, Morgane. Now this is good for several reasons (we’re talking tactics here, let’s not be pussyfooting around and saying it’s nice to have ‘company’). As a French girl, she has a French mother. Now, as we all know the French believe that their cuisine is 'tellement extraordinaire', that McDonalds in Paris attended a cordon bleu course before serving up his patties. This also means that her mother rates Rwandese cuisine just slightly above British cooking – and so regularly sends food packages to her daughter who cannot be coping without her snails.

On a serious note, it is very nice to have company!

Then a young lad came a knocking. He’s been accepted into the secondary school just down the road from me, which is a pretty good school. Only problem is that they accepted him on condition that he was an ‘external’ pupil – that he didn’t stay in the dorms. Here, every secondary school is a boarding school because kids are divided and shuffled and separated and allotted schools depending on their grades. So, seeing as I live in a big old house with an out house he came asking. So Valence now lives in a room out the back of my house. He’s 22 and brought me three eggs the other day to say thank you! Very sweet (I accidentally then broke one of them immediately. Heartless and cruel. Or just clumsy?).

Then two days later a friend of his also joined the gang. He’d been asked to leave the dormitories because there was not enough space for him. He’d been sleeping 3 to a single mattress so I couldn’t exactly turn him away. I think he’s 21 (yes, people finish school here very late because they often go a couple of years where they can’t get the money to pay school fees, or maybe they failed and retook the year or had to stop because the parents died so they looked after the young ones until they were old enough to look after themselves and then they return).

Then today I find out that my landlord has just been sent to prison. Any of you who have spoken to me will know how much I hated this guy anyway. He was a really sleazy guy, and used to grab me by the arm in a ‘friendly’ way but he was so strong I remember thinking that there is no way that any woman could stand up to him. Anyway he was accused last week in the local genocide courts and is now in prison awaiting his trial. I’ve been told it’s serious, which could be a 25 year stint.

It really is all go. Work is extremely busy at the moment because I’m coordinating the project in the whole of the district as well as writing a manual on sex education, reproductive health, personal and social health, decision making, human rights and HIV to be used in Rwandese secondary schools. Oh, and then my project manager quit two days ago. Leaving the entire project in my hands and the hands of another volunteer Merryl who lives on the opposite side of the country to me, coordinating a completely different district.

So everything is busy busy, but it is a challenge. I am absolutely heartbroken Andrew is leaving because he is probably my best Rwandan friend, and an absolute star - the only person who gets things done on the project. But it is a challenge, so I have to do it. Get over it, start again, take on more responsibilities. (Yes this may sound like my own personal pep-talk. I still haven’t quite figured out how we’re going to cope!)

So that is me now up to date with today, but I still have things to report back on from the last few weeks...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

New Year’s Eve involved being stood over a bucket of dead body trying to figure out whether you could eat a pig’s nipple.

I had kindly offered to host a New Year’s party at somebody else’s house. Max and Ruth were obliging when I told them this – and then Ruth found herself a visa and scuppered off on some fancy safari in Kenya – leaving Max, a researcher who had not a single connection to VSO prior to September 2006 hosting a party for 25 very energetic volunteers – as well as friends from Butare town.

That day Max and I had kindly been donated a gift of “some meat” for the party. Now nobody in Rwanda would ever turn down such a generous gift. Meat is for the wealthy out here. We built a charcoal grill from bricks, encasing coal and paper soaked in kerosene and put the grill on top. Then we started on the meat...

4 buckets of body parts was our gift.

I could not make out any remaining flesh on billy the goat. I found a heart (found in so much as it was lying on top of the liver and kidneys) and identified its haunches. Though there was little more than gristle on its hind legs the joint was still able to swing back and fro – as if galloping up a Rwandan hillside.

Then came the pig. The pig head. I don’t think I have ever stared out a dead pig. It’s eyes gazed up at me and there seemed more than a hint of chesire cat smile on its lips as if to say “Well here I am – whatchagonna do?”. And what was I going to do indeed. Head intact but there was no way I was delving inside. Then beneath the head were three or four layers of square patches of skin and fat. The skin was extremely hairy and the fat very fat. The nipples lay unobtrusively on top. I couldn’t touch them. They were too...lifelike.

Meanwhile Max next to me was repeating a mantra to his Jewish grandmother “I’m so sorry, I’m so so sorry”.

We washed our hands and went for it. Find the flesh! Find anything edible! After about an hour and having created three measly kebabs of fat we gave up.

The smiling pig had his way.

The party went very well thank you. We danced, drank, ate, sang Old Lang Syne all night (not all at the same time). And nobody minded the lack of meat. Most VSO volunteers are bloody vegetarian anyway!

5 gold rings!!!
Singing at the British Embassy just before Christmas. Rose is also getting into the spirit of things with her glitzy antlers. No shame!