Rwandan Ramblings

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I’ll run you through my morning.
Today is market day in my little town Gikongoro. I had to take an invitation for some HIV training I’m doing at the end of next month to a school about 40 minutes motorbike drive out west into a rural village which borders the rainforest. As I bend my way around the hills I normally have to avoid scattered gap-toothed goats and small children who play perilously close to the road. But on a Wednesday there are hundreds of new obstacles. These are the bikes that jitter along the roads which if they were cartoons would have droplets of sweat flicking off their agonized faces as they struggle up, down or round the hill weighed down with sacks of potatoes, coal, banana branches, aforementioned goats or squawking chickens. Vested men heave them up and over. They are no cartoon and sweat dribbles down their faces and arms as they watch me sail by on the motorbike. A mass of baby-carrying women balancing baskets of avocadoes or pineapples neatly on their heads and teenagers carrying multiple bags of bread or deep-fried cakes pound the hills surrounding my town, all making for the central market on a Wednesday morning. Old men in blazers but without shoes, smoking pipes saunter along the road to chat and gossip. Some will have walked for hours. Many are carrying a single branch of bananas which once sold, earning less than a pound, but enough for them to tide their family over another week, means they will be on their way back home again. The exodus starts in the afternoon. The same brightly swathed, barefoot ladies and Manchester United shirted boys start the descent back to their hill.
Today, as I rode to the school, I saw a man carrying a saw on his head, longer than he was tall, as he passed by the children playing on the verge around his feet. I also saw a guy trying to strap a stepladder on to the back of his bike. Vertically. These are the little things I see all the time, but I never mention anymore because they are no longer very surprising to me. Most of the time I don’t even notice, but every so often you are reminded that yes, even though I go to an office and I work, and then go home, eat dinner, relax and go to bed, things really are different here. You forget that most people back home needing to transport 20 kilos of coal, would borrow a van from somebody.

It was one of those mornings where I felt really reflective, which is why I’ve been able to write this. For a while now I’ve wondered what I could write about on here, because for me everything is the same, or else I’m busy with trainings and meetings and workshops that I don’t think will be that interesting. But today the sun was shining down on the hills – even though right now, just a few hours later the roads have turned into rivers and the rain is pelting down – and everything looked glisteningly green. I arrived at the school which shares its grounds with a primary school and was immediately swarmed by over a hundred tiny children amazed at the sudden appearance on their turf of a motorbike riding mzungu. I’m sure I came close to running some of them over – they were everywhere! Behind the wheels, in front of the wheels, next to the brakes, touching the clutch, hooting the horn. I gave a little boy a lift down the dirt track at the end and I could see in my wing mirror his mouth wide open in scared glee as he sat, proud as a king behind me.

Then back at the office, I bumped into a couple of guys I haven’t seen for a while. On managing to hold a 4 minute conversation (I’d like to say 5 – but that would be exaggerating!) with them in Kinyarwanda, one remarked –“You’ll have to take a Rwandan name soon, you are almost a national!” To which I replied I already had a Rwandan name – Umulisa, given to me by another friend. It apparently means “A person who makes others happy”, which was very sweet. They laughed and slapped my hand and wished me a good day, asking if they’d see me down at the stadium for football later.All feels like it’s fitting into place. I have been here for almost 7 months. Time is seriously slipping through my fingers. I am enjoying (almost) every moment, loving my job and my small town, and now believe that if I wasn’t returning home to do a MSc next year, that yes, maybe just maybe I would stay another year. My mum will be pleased though that that will not happen just yet...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Agnes came to me last week to tell me my landlord had just been put in prison “for genocide”. Harsh as it may sound this didn’t surprise me in the slightest. He is/was a horrible guy who used to raise his hand to Agnes in a joking manner, and whose iron grip on my upper arm made itself known that anything he really wanted could be got. My roof still leaks. My windows leak. The tap leaks. I never wanted him around my house so I didn’t chase him up over things that didn’t work.

He was giving evidence at a gacaca (local courts that try genocide suspects all over the country. It’s a very slow process seeing as there are hundreds of thousands of cases to be put forward) when somebody pointed the finger at him and implicated him in the same killing. Two days later the police came a knocking and he was put in prison. He’s already served one prison sentence but this was for a separate crime. A few days later he was allowed out to get a lawyer – a huge luxury that only the very wealthiest could even dream of. But Agnes told me today that he’s back in. I have a feeling it will be like this for a while. He awaits his trial, but as Agnes said, “it is very very serious” and he could be given a 25 yr sentence.

Then two days later she mentioned that her dad had just been taken to prison too. He had also been implicated for actions back in 94. This didn’t surprise me either too much – I knew Agnes had spent a year and a half in Congo in 96, which would correlate with when Hutus extremists left - either fleeing the Tutsi insurgance or going to strengthen rebel parties outside the country. Anyway, her father being in prison now adds to two of her uncles (whose wives were killed – possibly by them) as well as two of my guard’s sons. This war affected everyone.

Not a soul could live in Rwanda without knowing the effects. The guys I work with were either in prison themselves or lost some family... or both – it goes both ways.

Agnes said to me “At the moment Gacaca is gaining strength. By July there shall be no men left in the hills. Everyone will be in prison. This is very bad for all the families. My mother cannot cope cultivating green beans all by herself”. The worst thing, she said, is that people who have enemies in the country accuse each other as a sort of revenge – truth doesn’t matter anymore. If you have a land or cow problem with your neighbour then you can tell the courts that you saw him kill a neighbour back in 1994. “My father is one of 5 men accused of killing all the Tutsi on my hill, but maybe he just has rivals”. Who’s to say? Gacaca is definitely needed but it cannot be foolproof. How do you even start to try to attain justice – or even better reconciliation?

Chez Agnes

Agnes climbs a mountain every month or so and spends the night praying and fasting. This mountain towers above the others which encase my little town and so I decided that we should climb it together sometime – Max included, since Agnes has more than a soft spot for him. I have a soft spot for his vehicle which would knock an hour and a half off the walking time each way.

And so we made a date; first Saturday of January. We made a rough time plan. Morning. We said “See you at your house Agnes!” We did not make a map. But I knew Agnes lived one hill behind the one I can see from my house out North West.
Saturday is market day in my town so before heading out into the country where Agnes lives we stopped off to buy a gift for the family of some food they would not normally buy themselves – ie, anything resembling fruit, vegetables or anything healthy whatsoever. So we loaded up with avocadoes, mangoes, pineapples and green beans and set off on our way. After we had driven for about 25 minutes Max asked whether I knew where I was going. He was not quite so impressed with my knowledge that she lived over the next hill yonder. So I said not to worry, everybody knows everybody here so I called out the window to somebody passing if he knew where Agnes lived. Blank stare. Dont worry, I said to Max, he probably doesn’t understand my Kinyarwanda accent!

Next person...Where does Agnes live? Blank stare. Incomprehensible Kinyarwanda babble back.

Next. Where does Agnes live? She has a brother called Fidelis and a sister called Liberé. (You mean you don’t even know her surname???” said Max). Blank stare.

Where does Agnes live? Agnes? Yes, she lives down there! (smug grin at Max).

Does Agnes live down here? Yes, keep going, just down there!

Where is the house of Agnes? Down there! The road peters out so we have to leave the car by the side of the road. This is after a woman with no teeth directed us to the path. Directed meaning she babbled, pointed and grinned profusely. So I gave her an amandazi – a small deep-fried cake which costs about 3p. She clasped my arms up to the elbow, smiling and thanking me with tears in her eyes. It was more than humbling.

Once out of the car we saw three old men sat in the shade outside their mud hut. I went over and greeted them before asking the same questions about Agnes’s house. They doffed their caps to me (now when does that happen In Britain!) and then sent us down the hill with a small bare-foot boy of about 8 years old.

We tried to keep up with the little boy as he wove between packs of goats and mats of sorghum and beans drying in the sun, down the rubble slopes until we came to the very final hut and he stopped and pointed at it. Of course it would be the final mud hut! It couldn’t be the first!
“Agnes’s house?” He nodded

Then a tiny little old woman came out into the sun, she had a tattered t-shirt on and dirty once-bright cloth wrapped around her waist. She came towards us smiling broadly – wide open mouth displaying very few teeth. She really was happy to see us – I guessed that this was Agnes’s mum who had come to greet us, smiling because of finally meeting the umuzungu girl who had made her daughter the main breadwinner of her family. When she came closer I realized she was blind in at least one eye – one was completely grey, as though a paintbrush had swept over the eyeball, and the other was weeping as though badly infected. She gripped our arms in the formal handshake but went one further hugging us closely to her, muttering happily all the while. Our basic Kinyarwanda didn’t really help, but I looked at the hut and wondered how Agnes and her 7 brothers and sisters could ever have grown up there – indeed, only a few of them have flown the nest. It could only have been one room, was loosely thatched and had a single bucket outside. More and more kids, having heard of the surprise visit had wandered into her dusty yard to watch us. So we played being the living exhibition again, letting them stare, asking questions to which they giggled and shrunk away from us. I wondered if Agnes had already left to try to find us on the main road. She hadn’t come out so she couldn’t have been in.

Then a strange look came over Max’s face...

“Mama, mwitwe nde?” (What’s your name?) He asked.

Pause, as the old lady turns to him still grinning;

“Nitwa Agnes!” she happily exclaimed.

And Max and I just looked at each other, realizing that yes, we had found Agnes’s house, just not the right Agnes. And I felt humble again, at having wrongly guessed she was happy because of meeting the so-called benefactor. And I felt humble for her complete joy at seeing us. And I felt humble because she was probably hoping for something other than a mango on hearing that she had visitors searching for her.

And aside from all that, my smugness dissipated quite quickly, having realized that better directions than “She lives on the hill the other side of that one” are probably needed in future...