Rwandan Ramblings

Monday, June 11, 2007

I don’t know who is more nervous about my parents impending arrival in Rwanda
my mother “Shall I pack a toaster and some corned beef???” or me “Don’t do that, don’t touch that, leave that alone and just keep calm!”. Or Rwanda.

With a Murphy clan about to hit, I am trying to think of some important hints and tips for them. Zingalo was lesson 1 in Kinyarwanda, but here are a few friendly bits of advice I’ll share with them – and with you...

1) When you see me greet my friends, you may think that I am about to get violent. But, three headbutts, one to the left, one to the right, and one back to the left, before a handshake is about as respectful and polite as you can get. It’s not a Glasgow kiss. So don’t try to restrain me.

2) You don’t know my friends well enough to do this. What you guys need to do is shake hands whilst holding your right elbow wth your left arm. Instant good marks for politeness guaranteed.

3) Dessy. Men hold hands here. Do not see this as a threat to your sexuality – just go for it! It’s friendly! You never know, after a little while, you might start to like it. It usually starts with the handshake, which then turns into the hand hold. There’s also the “we’re friends walking down the street” man-hold too.

4) Unfortunately, men and women cannot hold hands....mum and dad, go easy. That’s disgusting.

5) Plastic bags. As soon as you arrive in Rwanda all plastic bags on view will be stripped from your person. This is part of their drive to environmental cleanliness; “Our country is very small. We do not need to choke it with plastic bags”. Unfortunately they will probably all languish in the entrance area to the airport where a growing mountain festers. Dad, this means that you may need to invest in a bag of some sort. They’re fine for Ryde Saints and St Mary’s hospital but plastic bags are so un-chic here...

6) There is no need to buy various khaki coloured three zip trousers, or a beige multi pocketed safari jacket just because you’re coming to Africa. You’ll look like an eedjit. And what are you going to put in all those pockets? Sue, this applies for Nike Air Jerusalems too.

7) Don’t take photos without asking people first! Don’t ask what ethnicity people are! Don’t believe the newspapers!

8) Bring rain jackets. Might be Africa but it rains. Lots.

9) Don’t give food/money to the kids that ask for it. Mag’s policy. If they ask for a bonbon they probably don’t need it...

I promise to entertain you all with just how the Murphy clan copes in the so called heart of darkness. I have been told, that if you prepare them for the worst – the whole trip may just go that little bit smoother...


Is one of the most important words you can learn in Kinyarwanda. What does it mean? Intestine.

It is closely followed in importance by “sinshaka” – “I don’t want”. Put the two together and you have hopefuly avoided a rather unpleasant culinary surprise. Intestine on a stick is not really what you want arriving to your table having waited at least 90 minutes for its arrival. So when they ask you what type of kebab you are after, make sure you know your inyamas (meat) from your zingalos.

Everything just takes longer.
Washing hair, peeling carrots, sending letters, going to work... I guess here you have a cup and a bucket with which to wash hair, a very knobbly carrot and a semi blunt knife with which to peel it, incredible bureaucracy at work requiring the mayor’s signature and an array of different coloured ink stamps from various different offices (generally vacant) to get the go ahead for any work letter, and a stream of kids dragging ou back from work by hanging on your hand or hugging your thigh. Is anything quicker out here than at home?

Well maybe bus rides around steep hills. I once was on a minibus which overtook a minibus which was overtaking a lorry which was wider at the top than the bottom due to its big banana cargo. Three in a row. Around a corner. Here it’s not about valuing life day by day but second by heart jolting second.

What do you do when your gate padlock breaks and you can get neither in or out?

No, not a John McGee riddle, but the question I recently faced. So I asked Agnes to help me out. Where in Gikongoro does one go to break open a padlock?

“There is just one person in Gikongoro who can open padlocks. And he is in prison”. Great. So now what?

“I’ll go and send for him”. Huh?

And lo and behold, an hour or two later a prisoner dressed in the ubiquitous pink uniform donned by every member of the unavoidable Rwandan prison population turns up to my gate, with his very own specially commissioned armed guard. He then sets to work – I was expecting a great big saw and some brute force, but oh no. This was an intelligent job – click, click, tuck, ping! A few seconds work – and he took it away for a day to fix it too so that the key would work again.

We paid him a bit of money – the guard of all people said it wasn’t enough, so we raised it a little. It was only a few days later that I heard the guard stole it.

The prisoners are put to great use out here. Free labour for the government! They are everywhere, hoeing and carrying and digging and building. The track up to my house was de-weeded (and de-flowered) by a band of prisoners for last month’s Umuganda – which was a welcome surprise for the one single benficiary. Me. They are usually out in the fields cultivating the land lazily watched over by a single armed guard – unless the guard nips into one of the small mud houses to treat some poor girl to an unwelcome “visit”. But then you see the prisoners doing the same from time to time too - doing up their unfortunately comical pink pajama-type trousers as they emerge into the light, the girl trailing a few seconds later re-tying her pang. Who are the losers here? The women living in the houses near me are incessantly pregnant and have broods of children – but there are rarely any men around for longer than it takes to empty the fresh batch of sorghum beer.