Rwandan Ramblings

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


...and other such titles were on offer at the one and only cinema in Arusha. I had often passed it by 5 years ago, but it always seemed dark, dingy and a sure-fire breeding ground for porn or Jackie Chan ‘classics’ or a combination of both and not much else. But a soggy day and a free afternoon resulted in Max pestering me to the point that I realized he was being serious. After 8 months, this American boy needed a movie. And so for the first time, I didn’t shuffle by the Metropole head down. We checked out what was on offer; a single film, all week and next and probably the week after, which promised the best of India – Bollywood dancing, romantic ponderings

However, first of all we had to make an important decision. Hanging around in the foyer, waiting to pay whoever would take our money, we had just had the misfortune of seeing a huge rat bumble its way into the pitch black auditorium. We then heard the squealing and rustling of what must have been an entire three generations of rat family in the roof, but which sounded more like a small child let loose with a pneumatic drill. Do we go in to the pitch black cinema to watch the film knowing that our legs might be gently caressed by the bristly back of a disease infested beast??

I rolled down my turned up trouser legs, put on a brave face and said “let’s do it”. Max acquiesced. Fortunately we were told to go upstairs where the great unknown seemed a better choice at that moment. The cinema was huge! Upstairs, we picked our spot by the front banister (so we could put our feet up out of rodent’s way). We looked down and saw hundreds of seats in the gloom – who built this place? Upstairs there were at least 200 red upholstered seats too, evenly shared either side of a generous aisle. Did it ever fill? Not with prices such as the ones they gave us (ok, around £2). Nobody would really be able to afford to go and see a film there – and the owners would never be able to buy the rights to show any blockbusters. But the cinema was beautiful! I guess it must have been built in the heyday of colonial occupation and when cinema was new and fresh and one of the only ways to see the outer world.

And there was no need to sharpen elbows to get the pick of the chairs; in this 600 seater cinema, there were just three of us. And the other guy watching was the guy who sold the ticket to us – and he evidently couldnt care less for Indian heartbreak and intrigue. By half way through he was already swinging on his seat and jabbering to himself. Maybe he was trying to pre-empt the Hindi lines, having seen this film countless times before.

And what a film! It touched all the right places – love and beauty, modern marriage and breaking away from family tradition, racism and inter-ethnic racism...and a nation’s obsession with cricket.

Maybe we actually got true value for money – the film was long. There was even an interval (no ice-cream ladies, mind) and we were only too glad to stretch our still propped-up, rat-avoiding legs. And what else could one do when in a huge theatre sized cinema with booming Bollywood music streaming out to its 2 man audience, but give a little wiggle and a shake and pull off our best Bollywood moves? Like a couple of Indian wannabe-star 10 year olds we performed to the watchful eyes of the surrounding shadows of the entire empty auditorium. Boom shackalacka!

But after a little while we wondered why the film wasn’t re-starting. I was now admittedly hooked on finding out just how the bedridden ex-Indian superstar cricketer would watch India in the World Cup final (topical eh?) when he was meant to be undergoing a life-threatening operation, unfortunately being carried out by a cricket-detesting mean and moody doctor. And what about the girl whose new husband was more in love with cricket than her? What would happen now that she had started watching it to try to share his passion – but had ended up sharing it just a little too much by falling in lust with the star cricket player?

Aside from that, we were ready to restart because we were a little out of breath after our attempts at imitating Indian boogying. Why was the interval taking so long? It was only us in there!

“Maybe if we sit down it’ll start”.

We sit. Lights dim. Hey presto.

The guys reeling the film must have been watching us all along, shimmying and sashaying our socks off – and were probably thoroughly entertained by such bizarre mzungu behaviour too!

Long live Bollywood.

And an added bonus...

Here is Max in slightly more authentic and traditional Rwandan dance mode... He takes it seriously that boy.

Arusha Ramblings...

I spent the last week back in Arusha, a town in northern Tanzania where I lived 5 years ago. I spent the week marvelling at the changes that have occurred since I was last there. I left in May 2002 and returned for ten days in September 2003. At that time I remember being amazed at the new parking spaces that had been painted along the main road. Development in action! This time however, huge new fancy hotels, a new covered market place and a relaxed atmosphere were cause for surprise. The UN has now been here for around 6 years and the changes are marked.

Other welcome surprises were the range of food you could eat – Ethiopian, Chinese, Italian, fast food – all of which had more than one outlet in the town. My surprise can be attributed not to there having been a lack of all this 5 years ago – but a lack of all this for the last 8 months in Rwanda. And the food! So good! So quick! A meat skewer and grilled potato can take over an hour and a half in Rwanda. One timed meal in Arusha (pizza and pasta) took literally 5 minutes. It was incredible – did they read our mind when we walked in the door as to what we were going to order?

I got to catch up with some friends, walk the old paths in the hills I used to know (the stream having been replaced with a roaring river ensuring wading wet legs all round) and visit old haunts. Memories flashed in front of my eyes at times, as though walking into an old photograph. It was such a welcome break.

We also visited the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda – the UN courts which are trying the big players in the genocide. As I shivered in the air conditioned viewer’s section of the court, I thought of the thousands of local trials, gacaca, going on all over the country in the burning heat. It was interesting to see the fear on one witness’s face – a big guy who used to be in charge of one of the northern towns in 1994. He wasn’t even on trial – but his outburst at one point to the judges “You don’t understand how frightening it is to be here in front of you big people – ça me fait trembler!” showed how close the line between witness and defendant could be.

“I’ll just have an omelette please”

This was the request from Merryl in one of two main eating establishments in Nyagatare one night a few months ago.

“Ok, no problem”. Waitress hurries off. Over an hour later, as Merryl begins to wonder whether they’re birthing the chicken, the waitress returns. “Sorry, tonight we have no omelette”. Merryl asks why they hadn’t realized the distinct lack of the single ingredient required for her meal more than a few minutes earlier. “Sorry”.

“Ok, I’ll just have chapati”.

Chapati is flour and water. Maybe a pinch of salt if you’re lucky. This is then fried up in shallow oil. Admittedly, eggs shouldn’t be too hard to come by, but Merryl was pretty sure that a simple chapati would be pretty easy for the restaurant to make.

Forty five minutes later, the waitress returns, with a shy, slightly embarrassed look on her face. “Sorry we have no chapati tonight”. No flour? No water? No eggs or oil?

Merryl giggles a little but says not to worry, it doesn’t matter. What can she have then?

- Pause –

“Sorry. Today, we have no food”.

Now, you’d think that the restaurant might have known that 105 minutes before...

Monday, April 23, 2007

I have just realized the completely contradictory tone of the two previous postings.

Like I say, it is permanent PMT here...

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.