Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Christmas time and Rwamagana banana wine...

Well its nearly a month since my last posting. I can hardly believe it but I've been back in the UK for more than a month now. While it was strange at first its amazing how quickly everything normalises. But I have not forgotten Rwanda (I don't think I ever will!) and I am really looking forward to continuing my work there. In the last month I have been busy visiting friends and family, talking to children at my old school about Rwanda and having a totally ridiculous number of hot baths. I have literally put on half a stone since arriving back in the UK through eating glutonous amounts of rich food. So it seems that in many ways I haven't changed.

But then we did drink the wonderful Rwamagana banana wine with the Christmas pud this year, something which wouldn't have happened any other year. And I have to say it is a cross cultural marriage made in heaven! If any of you ever get the oportunity to try Rwamagana banana wine it is to be recommended. More like a sherry than a wine, it is very sweet but packs in a good flavour. Oh dear god I'm beginning to sounds like that wine critic off the telly, Jilly Goolden with my poetic ramblings about alcoholic tipple. Talking of which, I have definitely had my fair share of that lately. Gone is the Primus beer belly, only to be replaced by the wine wobble. Oh dear, oh dear. Its a good job I am going back to my diet of moderation in Nzige.

Well I'm off to look up what antiquated films are being shown on the TV for Christmas this year and I'll be flying back on the 6th of January so not long until this blog once again has a more accurate title xxx

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Camilla’s eight signs of reverse culture shock

So now I’m back in the UK for a visit (I am going back to Rwanda, I haven’t finished yet!) I thought I’d write about all the things that have struck me since my return.

1) Its bloody freezing
I know that this was to be expected but I honestly thought I was going to be frozen to the spot when I changed planes in Brussels. The cold air in my ears was distressing too, its like the cold air was going straight through my head and causing my brain to freeze.  I need to buy some of those fluffy ear muff things even if they do look daft.

2) There are so many things to buy
I probably shouldn’t have tried to enter a supermarket my first day back. All the things on the shelves sent me into a kind of stupor. I couldn’t choose anything because there was too much choice. All I could do was stare and back away. Why do we need 6 different kinds of baguettes? A whole entire section of different kinds of baked beans? Argh!!!!!

3) Its so colourful
The autumn leaves are so lovely. I didn’t even realise I’d missed them until I saw them carpeting the side of the road. Reds and browns and oranges and yellows, beautiful. In general I miss the changing of the seasons in Rwanda. It gets dark at almost exactly the same time each day year round and while there is seasonal variation in rainfall, the temperature stays largely the same.

4) Its so empty
I can’t get over the lack of people in the British countryside. In Rwanda there are people absolutely everywhere you look. You are never alone at any time of day. The dirt tracks are constantly full of people going about their business, whereas in my parent’s village there is no one. I can drive the whole length of it without seeing a single soul walking by the side of the road.

5) Its so downbeat
The UK is in the middle of an economic crisis and that sucks. I fully support the strikes and people trying to change things. However there is a definite climate of misery here...I’m finding it hard to reconcile. Of course there are some deeply unhappy individuals in Rwanda, but on the whole society appears happier, although there is an air of fragility to it. I guess happiness is a complex thing.  

6) There is so much media presence
Its something I both love and hate in this country. I love all the news, the magazines, the newspapers, the entertainment of the written word and reading lively opinions and debates. I love all of the TV shows. I love the freedom of speech. However it does also feel like a constant noise. Sometimes the media here is a bit much, it goes too far and invades our lives too much.

7) Its so white
After experiencing a whole year of being an ethnic minority it is strange to go back to being part of the masses. Even in Kigali, the capital city, people were always watching me. They looked at what I was doing, where I was going etc etc. But here, its back to being invisible. The anonymity is quite liberating in some ways as I feel free to do exactly what I want and don’t suffer the anxiety of whether I need to greet that person along the dirt track or not, but in some ways do I actually miss my celebrity status?! Muzungu, muzungu!

8) Water
Its so easy. You switch on a tap and water comes out of it. You switch on a hot tap and hot water comes out of it. There are no jerry cans. When you flush the toilet you know it will work. Showers, baths, its all so amazing. I’ll never take it for granted again, I swear.

Camilla in Zanzibar

I was very excited about going to Zanzibar, even the name of this tiny Tanzanian island sounds exotic and cool. We flew into Dar es Salaam before getting the ferry so we could have a quick look at the biggest city in Tanzania. The first thing that surprised me was the heat. You see, Rwanda feels like the Norway of East Africa a lot of the time. Thats not to say its not warm, but in the rainy season in particular you can certainly catch a chill, and I know some volunteers that actually have proper duvets on their beds. So me and my travelling companion Rose spent a sweaty first night in the YMCA  in Dar es Salaam. I tried to restrain myself from doing the dance when we checked in as I wasn’t sure that the man on the desk would see the funny side.

Another thing I noticed about Dar was that there was a good book shop. I know its a sad thing to get excited about, but while they do exist in Kigali, they usually only sell a bizarre mix of out of date French books and imported Economist and Oprah Winfrey magazines at the most ridiculous prices. But the main difference I noticed between Dar and Kigali was that there was much more happening on the streets. You tend not to have street vendors in Kigali, but in Dar they were everywhere selling grilled corn, bits and pieces for your mobile phone, biscuits and bottles of water to name but a few things.

So the next morning after having our little exploration of Dar, we headed for the ferry to Zanzibar. As soon as we started to look for one, it became a game of ‘dodge the touts’. The touts are like lions circling impala, they sense the fear, they smell the fresh meat of tourists who don’t know where they are going and they go in for the kill. But sometimes you can lose them by hiding behind lorries or hanging back and going down a different path and....well...that’s about it. Unfortunately being white is an extreme disadvantage when trying to shake off these people as you stand out somewhat.

But once we were on the ferry, the journey to stone town in Zanzibar passed without event, unlike the ferry journey on the way back where both of us had to fight to keep our breakfast down. One of us managed it, the other didn’t...There is definitely a reason for sick bags other than for writing the essentials of Swahili on, which is what Rose did because we didn’t have any proper paper to write on on our flight. Talking about Swahili, after a year of trying to learn a bit of Kinyarwanda I have to say that Swahili totally messed with my brain. Every time I tried to speak it only Kinyarwanda would come out of my mouth, its like its got a hold on me that language.  

So we arrived in Stone Town, the main town on Zanzibar, ready for some rest and relaxation. Fortunately for us there were lots of lovely little coffee shops and restaurants to chill out in, and the food on Zanzibar was really good. As much as I love Rwanda, its not really a gastronomic paradise if we are honest. I like brochettes and chips very much, but you can get a bit fed up of them. So it was amazing to eat couscous and Zanzibari stews and curries with spices in them. Stone town was a maze of little narrow streets with children running along them wearing colourful headscarves or the stitched caps of the traditional Muslim dress worn by the vast majority of the population here. And it was so nice to drink cocktails on the beach, watching local boys play football as the sun went down.

During our time in Zanzibar we went on a spice tour, sat on the beach and swam in the sea and generally chilled out. Good times!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

A time for reflection

As I prepare for my holiday in Zanzibar and then my journey back to the UK for a Christmas visit, I can’t help but reflect on the past academic year. I’m now half way through my placement and in some ways it has gone by very quickly. There is so much I want to achieve at work, but also in other spheres of my Rwandan life. So I have composed a list of 20 things I still want to do in Rwanda to make sure that I return in January with a spring in my step and a sense of purpose. Some of them I can’t believe I haven’t done yet, while others could prove more of a challenge.

20 things I still want to do in Rwanda:
1) Drink banana beer (not to be confused with banana wine)
2) Successfully balance a pot on my head
3) Go to a Rwandan wedding
4) Know all of the words to the Bella song
5) Have a party in the TRC
6) Have a go at making at least 1 Rwandan handicraft, perhaps basket weaving or cow dung painting
7) Get my hair braided
8) Surprise someone with my Kinyarwanda
9) Hold a dinner party at my house for my Rwandan colleagues
10) Go to Nyungwe national park
11) Try to make melange
12) Get something made out of Primus fabric
13) Wear a Mushyanana (Traditional Rwandan ceremonial dress for women)
14) Make a picture out of banana leaves
15) Put on an Intore headdress
16) Buy a Rwandan desk flag and put it on my desk at the TRC
17) Blow bubbles at lots of kids
18) Get a copy of Lindsey’s tunic made out of African fabric
19) Watch gorillas in the mist
20) Make something with Piripiri sauce that actually tastes good.

Phew that’s quite a list! It Now its on this blog it will serve as a constant reminder that there is much left to experience in this place, and I’m sure things will continue to surprise me.  

Thursday, 10 November 2011

From Romania with love

Yesterday I went to pick up a parcel that despite very clearly having Rwanda marked on it, got sent to Romania instead. I thought something was up when I noticed that it was in a plastic bag marked ‘Bucharest’. I wish I could see similarities between the words Rwanda and Romania other than the fact that they both begin with R and end in A but I just can’t. Its a good job that at least the people who work in the postal service in Bucharest can read English, otherwise I fear half of the parcels that get sent here from the UK would never arrive as this is the third incident of this happening amongst vso volunteers that I know of.

I wish I could put a secret camera on a parcel coming from the UK to Rwanda as I do wonder about their journey. One time one of my parcels had a big bite taken out of the corner of it and another time a parcel had this strange blue sticky stuff smeared on the outside...I can’t help but wonder where in the world these things happen...

Starbucks in Rwanda?!

This week I heard a rumour that Starbucks exists secretly on the top floor of the vso building in Kigali. I must admit it had never occurred to me to actually continue up the stairs past the vso dorm and volunteer resource room.  So yesterday me and Lindsey decided to investigate if the rumours.  Sure enough, after climbing two more flights of stairs we came across an innocuous wooden door with a tiny, barely visible Starbucks logo on it. On the outside of the doors were all these security machines to stop the hot chocolate/coffee/brownie deprived souls from entering. What a shame, and I bet the staff hiding out in there get access to Starbucks stuff. It really is true that you learn something new every day here...

After a bit of probing I discovered that the office had been there for a couple of years. I think it exists to talk to the coffee producers and arrange exporting the beans. Around my way in the East there is a huge amount of coffee plant cultivation. Rwandan coffee is ‘award winning’ according to Starbucks and I don’t doubt it, yet Rwandans themselves usually tell me they can’t stand the stuff. They are like me in that they would rather gulp down copious amounts of tea. In fact outside of Kigali I don’t think you can even buy coffee, other than in a few places where you can buy small tins of imported Nescafe. For me that is one of the contradictions of life here. I kind of can’t imagine something being produced in the UK that the people who live there don’t even like. I guess it really is a global world. I just wonder how many of Starbucks’ mega bucks get invested into the rural poor areas where it is grown? It’s just something I’d like to know....

What lies beyond this door?

Friday, 28 October 2011

A school trip with a difference...

Yesterday was the TTC trip to Akagera national park and we were supposed to be leaving at the ungodly hour of 4.30am! Now those who know me will know that I generally only get up at that time to leave the country. Not being a morning person I am barely civil at that hour, in fact I can’t really communicate at all. Needless to say it was more like 5.30 by the time we all squished into the matatu (we had to wait for the restaurant guy to finish making our lunch) and trundled off along the dirt track.

At breakfast time we took it in turn to hug a fake zebra at this place called home land motel. I unsuccessfully tried to follow the news in French (yes there was a TV, such a rare and exciting sighting!) And at that place I have to say there was the most frightening plaster lion I have ever seen. Restaurants in the east of the country like in Kayonza and Rwamagana often go for these plaster animals on the side of the building, but this one was a shocker, it really was. I’ve included a photo of it so you can see what I’m on about.

So on to Akagera we went, stopping for beer and live chickens on the way. And said beer bottles and live chickens rolled around our feet in the bus for the duration of the day. Occasionally I would forget that there were live chickens on the bus and when they appeared from under the seat it gave me a shock, far more scary than the baby buffalo which charged at us. When we arrived at the park my colleagues argued for half an hour about what they should pay for me. ‘She’s Rwandese!’ I heard them say but the park people were having none of it. There is no getting away from being muzungu, unlike my Burundian and Congolese colleagues who don’t arouse suspicion...

Now one thing that was really odd about the animals on that day was they kept standing in lines. There was a line of zebras which formed a kind of living bar code, a line of impala and a line of people. There was definitely something going on. Perhaps it was animal queuing day or something, or perhaps they just like order? Who knows.  I have to say that fairly early on my knees got bruised in the matatu, there is no suspension to speak of on those buses. However we did get an opportunity to escape for lunch which was very delicious. I ate balanced precariously on the side of the priest’s pick up truck and had a lesson from him in how to rip open chicken wings. I am so feeble at that. I never like to get my hands covered in chicken mank so I always try to do it with a fork and you just can’t, it doesn’t work.

It was a long afternoon back in the bus as we trundled our way down to the southern entrance, which took 4 hours. After a while, we cracked open the left over Primus from lunchtime and began to drink in the matatu. Drinking in a matatu on a rough dirt road is an interesting experience. Every time you hit a bump the beer froths right over the top of the bottle and you have to catch it with your mouth or it goes everywhere. And after a while you get a bit dizzy from the smell of lots of beer in a small, squished, enclosed space.

It was a long and eventful journey back to Nzige. Most of my male colleagues had had quite a bit of beer by this point so there were numerous comfort stops, and some very bad singing. It was dark and bumpy and at one stage the boot flew open and all of the stuff from our picnic lunch went rolling down a hill and people had to go and run after it. We went down some random dirt track to give a random lady I had never seen before one of the chickens (boy that poor creature looked relieved) and finally ended up back in Nzige at 9pm. We had spent a total of 16 hours in a matatu. This is a record for me and a challenge I put out to everyone in vso Rwanda: can you beat 16 hours? We will see. But all in all I had a good day and we actually got closer to the animals than I did last time, despite being in a load clattering bus where people stamped their feet on the floor to make the impala run away!

The hideous plaster lion.

A zebra barcode
 A line of impala
 A line of people. The staff at TTC Bicumbi
 The giraffes doing their whole two headed thing.

Bambi! Impala are so cute.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Party time at the TTC

So exams are pretty much finished and attention turns to the end of the year celebrations and having fun. In the TTC each class has a party, and yesterday I gate crashed the one organised by senior 6 languages, who in my opinion, are the friendliest class in the TTC. The first thing that struck me was the enormous amount of care and time they took to prepare the room. They made it look lovely, and all they had at their disposal was toilet paper, bed sheets, flowers and grass from outside and chalk. 

They wrote words in chalk on the floor, and arranged the flowers into blocks of colour. The toilet paper was strung up from the ceiling like garlands and the board was decorated with coloured chalk drawings. They had borrowed a tutor’s laptop and music collection and they danced in the middle of the class in groups. I’m pretty sure some of the parents were there, but I must admit it all got a bit confusing because the students were wearing suits and their own clothes instead of their uniform, and it really makes them look a lot older. Somehow I managed to escape dancing this time, which was good as there was never more than a few people dancing at a time while everyone watched, and I (and the audience) were sober.

Well next up is the TTC staff trip to Akagera national park on Thursday....in a minibus....in the rainy season....happy days.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Sharing food, sharing lives...a typical meal in Rwanda

It is difficult to think of a social gathering in Rwanda that does not involve the ubiquitous brochettes (goat kebabs) and chips.  In fact in most local bars and restaurants brochettes and chips are the only things on offer. I must admit I’d never eaten goat before coming to Rwanda, but its actually quite good once you get used to it. Its like beef but a bit chewier, especially when it has been on the grill for a fair while. Now trying to eat it in a ladylike fashion is not easy. The first time I tried to eat one I nearly impaled myself on the stick it came on because I tried to pull each piece of meat off the top of the stick. Thats not the way to go. When observing my Rwandan colleagues I noticed that you have to nibble at it from the side. But now, many brochettes later, I’m something of an expert. In fact I can now hold down a conversation and chew on a brochette.

But the thing I love about meals of brochettes and chips is that they come on big communal plates put in middle of the table to share. The communal nature of meals here makes for quite lively conversations as you wait for 1 to 2 hours for the much desired brochettes to come, and then have a debate over who should get the last brochette or the last chip. In fact I think that brochettes and chips bring people together. Whenever you go into a bar you see big groups of people sat around tables, either waiting for or devouring plates of brochettes, and peels of laughter echoing off of the brick walls. There is no feeling that 17 years ago this was a country where divisions ran so deep that a genocide erupted killing millions of people.

 As I sit in a Rwandan bar surrounded by friends or colleagues, engaged in jovial conversation waiting for our brochettes to come, I am reminded of the importance of eating together with friends and family. It is a time for sharing stories, news and jokes, and talking about the day, wherever in the world you are, and remembering that you are all in this life together, for better or for worse. So next time I am waiting for what feels like an eternity for those brochettes and chips to come I’ll remember that the fun is those conversations huddled around a small table in a dimly lit bar, sharing the stories of the day.

This blog post was for blog action day on world food day, and the topic, unsurprisingly, was food.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The muzungu princess and the toad, a modern day fairytale from Rwanda

Once upon a time there was a muzungu princess who lived far far away in the kingdom of Nzige, the land which time and public transport forgot. However the muzungu princess was a modern kind of girl. Sometimes she went off to visit the land of Kigali which time and public transport forgot slightly less. Life can be boring for the princess in the kingdom far far away, and she can become bad tempered without her airtime to call the other muzungu princesses who live in other far away kingdoms. One day on her return from the land which time forgot slightly less, the princess rode back to the kingdom of Nzige on her steed of a shiny red motorbike. When she unlocked the gates to her palace and returned to her bedroom she found a visitor waiting for her. A small green toad stared up at her from the bedroom floor.

The muzungu princess had read a story about another princess who had kissed a frog and it had turned into a prince. The muzungu princess wondered if it worked with toads because they look kind of similar. But she just couldn’t do it. The toad was ugly, uglier than the most ugly frog, and unlike the frog in the other story he didn’t seem able to speak to her. So it seemed unlikely that the magic would work. Instead she got a large stick from the palace gardens and tried to chase the toad out of the palace. The toad was stubborn and continued to look up at her with those big sad eyes. The muzungu princess felt sorry for him. What if one day he had been a prince and now he had fallen on hard times? So she decided to leave him there, staring at her from the corner of the room.

Well in the end the toad lost patience with the muzungu princess. Maybe she wasn’t a real princess after all? The toad was expecting a beautiful girl with long flowing locks of hair, wearing a long silk dress and jewels around her neck. But this princess looked different. She had greasy hear which had been squashed by a motorbike helmet. She was wearing jeans stained with red dirt and the only thing around her neck was mosquito bites. Surely a real princess would never allow herself to look like this?! So the toad sadly hopped away to be by the pond outside. Who knows how long he will have to wait now for a more credible princess to move to the kingdom far far away.

The end

Monday, 10 October 2011

Fire in a Nido tin and other tales of domesticity

For various reasons I’ve done all of my own housework for the last week. Now washing dishes and clothes by hand is hard work but easy. But the one thing that has really challenged me is what to do with my rubbish. There are no bin men here! And the stupid thing was that I just kept throwing it away not really thinking about it like you do in the UK where (if you’re lucky, the ones in Bristol were getting increasingly lax) some nice men with a big truck will come and take it away and it is no longer your problem.

Now it was easier when I had a pit latrine. That hole was good for one thing (other than the obvious), you could tip or throw things down it that you no longer wanted to think about. Out of sight, out of mind. But now I have a flush toilet that doesn’t flush instead, that option is no longer available. So I’ve tried to burn the rubbish. I decided to use an empty Nido (powdered milk) tin as a fire container. The trouble is it takes AGES. Especially in the rainy season where the rain keeps putting it out. And some things just don’t seem to burn. For example, Cadbury’s chocolate wrappers and plastic film. If I have to keep doing this I think I will have to only buy fire friendly goods. I mean seriously, just how many times can you try to make a Cadbury’s wrapper catch on fire before you start to get very angry? I feel like shouting at Mr Cadbury’s  ‘ For God’s sake why do you make your chocolate bar wrappers so fire retardant? Don’t you realise that some people in the world have to burn them in a powdered milk tin?

Fortunately for me I had the great expert at burning trash, Lindsey, to advise me on how it should be done. Nido tins are not the way to go. You’re better putting it all in a paper bag and setting it alight. And all the things that are bad for the environment turn the flames the most amazing colours. Cup a soup sachets produce a green flame and plastic sweet wrappers turn the flames blue. And on the subject of heat I discovered what looks like a medieval cake oven in my compound today. What I thought was some boarded up window on an outhouse was in fact an oven, complete with loaf and muffin tins. I nearly died of shock when I found it. However my excitement was short lived when I realised I had absolutely no idea how to use it. I just can’t understand how it works. The only thing I can think of is that you light a fire in the bottom, but I’m afraid that would produce horrible burned Smokey cakes. When I get more energy I’ll try to experiment.

My last attempt at becoming a domestic goddess has been sewing. Thanks to Sarah, a lovely friend from back home, I had a wonderful parcel a couple of months ago filled with great goodies. One of the things she gave me was a peg doll kit and I finally finished making her at the weekend. My sewing is about at the 5 year old level so don’t look too closely at the stitching. Here she is seeing the gorillas in Rwanda.

Does this look like and oven to you?

Well it is!

My peg doll getting up close to a mountain gorilla

Kigali nights

Before coming to Rwanda I thought I’d be living like a nun. I thought I’d never be able to drink. There would be no parties, no dancing and no cinemas there surely? And definitely women won’t be out swigging beer. They would be chained to the kitchen sink, if most Rwandan houses had a kitchen or a sink. But surprisingly I think I’ve had more nights out on the town than I had in Bristol in the year before I came. Yes if I confined myself to Nzige there is no doubt that I’d be wearing a cross and habit by now and singing badly in a choir (sorry I watched sister act at the weekend) but all I can say is thank God for Kigali.

Ok so the other women out at night tend to fall into three categories: vso/peace corps/NGO crowd, prostitutes or rich young Kigalian women who have mostly lived elsewhere and returned to Rwanda. But if you know where to go a good dance and a beer can definitely be had. And this weekend we even went to the cinema. Its a BYO cinema in the sense of Bring Your Own film, and the cinema seats are very interesting. They have numbers on the back of them but they are in no way consecutive. For example they got 1, 2, 4, 26, 31, 29. I’ve no idea why. My theory is that they were ripped out of a cinema somewhere and someone didn’t notice the numbers before putting them in. Or perhaps they drank too much waragi while doing the job? Who knows, I guess it will always be a mystery.

The other major event of the weekend was the Mutzig Kigali beer festival. I think just about every young muzungu who lives in Rwanda was there. They had a band playing Kirundian songs from Burundi and a severe beer shortage. In fact by the time I got there they had ran out. Well thats not strictly true. You could wait in line for an hour to get a dribble of it in a plastic cup, or you could try to open an impossible to open beer canister. There was also no food and there was supposed to be. It was like a drought and famine in one night. But hey, we still had a good time dancing in the open air and drinking Tammy’s whisky and vodka that she smuggled in. Mark even brought a hip flask, genius. I had never appreciated hip flasks until now but I think I will be buying one.

The view from the cinema in Nyamirambo, the muslim district of Kigali

Distant view of the stage at the Mutzig beer festival

Me with two random drunk men who insisited on having their photo taken with me. At least they gave me flowers. Who says chivalry is dead?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

National teacher’s day

Today was the ‘day of teachers’ which ironically meant that I did no teaching. Instead we went to a big district wide celebration at a place called ‘the house of shalom,’ a home for orphaned children only about 8km from Nzige. They have a wonderful big hall which was totally packed out with teachers. There were teachers as far as the eye could see. I can safely say I have never seen so many teachers in one place, there were literally thousands. 

So we arrived late and meekly stood at the back. But I was not left there for long. Thats the unfortunate thing about having white skin which makes you stand out like a big white beacon of light. There is no subtle entering of a room, its just not possible. I was grabbed and dragged right to the front where I knew I would be in the danger zone for being made to do stuff. So I sat for more than two hours through some very passionate speeches in Kinyarwanda given by the high up people in Rwamagana district. And I understood about 3 words, ‘abanyishuri (students)’, ‘amafaranga’ (money) and ‘capitation grant’ (no idea what this is but head teachers are always going on about it). The rest of the time I did a mixture of people watching and staring at the lovely paintings done by the children at the house of shalom.

The speeches were broken up by a load of head teachers and district staff dancing and a few teens doing a song with their keyboard. At the end I knew they would drag me up to dance. I knew it was coming. So I waved my arms around to this Rwandese song which I’ve no idea what it means but I keep hearing. I think seeing the muzungu dance made the morning for some people and gave my colleagues a good laugh. And fortunately because I was the one taking pictures there was no photographic evidence of my awful dancing that I’m ever likely to see at least.

But when all is said and done I think its lovely that they have a day of appreciation for teachers. Generally I think they are under appreciated both in the UK and Rwanda so it was really nice to have a positive get together like that.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

People come and people go, but oh how I will miss them so!

One of the hardest things about doing vso is that you have to say a lot of goodbyes. This is especially true if you are a mad fool like me who signed up for more than one year as everyone else’s placements finish before yours. Today I said goodbye to Stephen and Mary, my vso Rwanda mum and dad. Stephen and Mary have had to return to the UK quickly for family reasons so there wasn’t a lot of time to say goodbye, but for the sake of closure we just had to have one last dinner at the Dereva hotel in Rwamagana on Monday night before they left.

Getting all the way to Rwamagana on Monday evening was an adventure. There is no doubt the rainy season had begun as it totally pissed it down with rain all afternoon. That coupled with the fact that I had to leave late as I had a class to teach until 4.30 meant I was in for a hair raising moto ride...or so I thought. Well it turns out that the usual road was so bad that, wait for it, we went A DIFFERENT WAY. I didn’t even know there was a different dirt track that could be used to get to Rwamagana, so I was freaking out that my moto driver was in fact a crazy kidnapper that wanted to imprison a muzungu and demand a ransom from my long suffering family. But alas it was just a different way and a much more comfortable one at that. So why I have to get white knuckles on the scary route all of the time is a mystery, perhaps they do it just for fun.

Now continuing the theme of the unexpected, there was another twist in the evening’s events. The Dereva had RAN OUT of steak with mushroom sauce. Me and Mary couldn’t hide our looks of disappointment as we scanned the menu once more for another suitable option. Mary, Stephen and I have become very well acquainted with the menu over the last 9 months and there some things are not as they seem. For example, the ‘cordon bleu steak’ is made with processed cheese and the chicken almost certainly died of natural causes before being served to you. But we braved the beef fajitas and apart from being a bit chewy (the cow almost certainly died of natural causes) it was very nice.

So it is with sadness that a say goodbye to Mary and Stephen. It remains to be seen if any new volunteers will be recruited to Rwamagana district office (aka the container truck) and live in the Bijou residence. I credit them with introducing me to Rwamagana banana wine (truly an interesting tipple) and for encouraging me to drink far too much waragi. So I’m already a little jealous of all that nice food they will be eating and hot showers they will be having, but they will not have primus, the Dereva hotel or snowman marker pens, so its swings and roundabouts really. Good luck Mary and Stephen xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

I am famous

Yesterday was a first for me. I was on the radio! BBC Bristol rang me all the way from the UK to talk to me about my work with vso. Now I must admit I was pretty scared because I am not the most articulate person on the phone with people I don’t know. In particular I have a problem with insurance companies. I hate the way you have to read out all those numbers and answers to secret questions and stuff. I know they are trying to catch me out and it usually works even though I am not a fraudster. But amazingly enough it actually went ok. I do sound terribly posh on the phone and I had never even realised which was very interesting.

For the curious my interview is on BBC iplayer for the next week. I was on BBC radio Bristol at about 10.50am on Monday the 26th September and the presenter was John Darvall. I am on about 1hr 49mins into the broadcast. I tried to post the link but it just didn't want to let me.


Sunday, 25 September 2011

When the unusual becomes usual

Just recently I’ve become aware of how things that previously would have seemed really weird now don’t. For example, I was on a moto the other day going towards Kabuga and I passed a man with a shoe balanced on his head. Just one shoe at that, not even a pair. And while I did glance that way, my gaze did not linger for long and soon my mind went back to bacon sandwiches and chocolate fudge cake, both of which are the object of my current food cravings.

 And this evening I have been burning rice sacks in the dark (power cut as usual) while listening to Dolly Parton. There was a thunderstorm outside, and while water came flooding in through the humongous gap under my front door I continued to sit there on the floor burning the edges of my rice sacks, only adjusting my position every time the water got a bit too close. And the little voice inside my head that used to tell me ‘this is a bit eccentric’ no longer speaks. Its just normal, a new weird kind of normal.

There are many tiny things that happen throughout the day that used to grab my attention and now don’t. Its a tiny imperceptible change. For example, I no longer think of the TTC tea at breaktime as unbearably sugary, I actually don’t really notice when people stare at me anymore and I never expect the toilet to flush. But for the sake of this blog and my own warped sense of humour I will carry on trying to find the little things in this life that remind me that I am a fish out of water, a cultural alien trying to make sense of things.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Scare birds, wobbly women and badly drawn henna

This week has been a week of creativity. First of all I have made umpteen bird paper bag puppets with my senior 4 students. They are everywhere. It’s kind of ironic because the real birds have come back. They started to fly into my resource centre AGAIN with bits of twig in their gobs, clearly intent on rebuilding their nest which I so unkindly destroyed before. Now if you read my blog often you might have remembered an episode a while back entitled ‘revenge of the birds’ where the birds got angry at me for driving them out. So this time I’m trying a different tactic. I’m going to use the puppets as scare birds. They are like scarecrows except for they are multicoloured bird puppets with freakishly large eyes and strange rectangular feathers which I’ve hung all over the walls. Now if the birds know what is good for them they will stay clear. I mean if they were real birds there would be something seriously up with nature.

I also tried to be a bit creative myself this week. After watching a whole entire series of America’s next top model in less than one week I tried an evening of TV series cold turkey. I began by writing no fewer than 6 letters to people back home but even that did not fill the whole evening. So I decided it was time I used that henna which I bought from the Indian store in Kigali. I tried to copy this design on the internet that was supposed to be ‘simple’. Well it was not simple enough! How they get it to go into those intricate designs is totally beyond me. I could only make a few squiggles that ended up looking like the fat forest worms we saw in the mud last weekend when we climbed the volcano. Maybe I just need more practise. I couldn’t make chapattis until the fourth attempt, maybe it’s one of those things that gets easier with time.

And a final creative wonder of the week was the apparent emergence of handicrafts in Nzige. Who would have thought it this far off the tourist trail? Today a bought a wobbly woman statue off a gap toothed man who was a friend of one of my work colleagues. He brought round a couple of wobbly statues and wooden masks in a rice sack for me to look at and it was the woman who charmed me the most so I did buy her. Its just like she has had one too many waragis, but she can still balance a pot on her head which is impressive! She can stand just about but needs a bit of assistance.

Paper bag 'scare birdss'

My fat henna design

The wooden lady of Nzige town, propped up by a box of elastic bands

Sunday, 18 September 2011

4 women and a volcano

After a night of rain me and 3 other vso vols decided to go for it and climb our way up Bisoke, the second highest volcano in the Parc Des Volcans in the north of Rwanda. We woke up tired at 5am on a Saturday to undertake this feat. After some confusion over which of the two drivers who came to pick us up was actually the one we booked, we bumped our way down an impossibly rocky road to the place where we were to start our climb.

Now to say it was slippery underfoot was an understatement. The porters and soldiers who accompanied us on our climb frequently had to grab us to stop us from sliding all the way back down the volcano...in fact there were very few parts of my anatomy which my poor porter didn’t have to manically grab at some stage. And unfortunately I was made to pay for all that chip gobbling, chocolate eating and primus drinking as it was damn hard to force my legs to keep going. In fact there was a point near the top where they just decided to stop for a bit. But nonetheless we did all make it to the top, something which our guide says actually happens quite rarely!

The top of the volcano had a crater lake which we were able to just glimpse through the clouds. But by far the most magical thing for me was the all the strange plant foliage that formed these eerie silhouettes against the clouds. It was like being on another planet, one which most of the world hasn’t discovered yet. Rwanda on the whole is surprisingly free of mist for somewhere so high up in my opinion so it was quite amazing to literally be walking inside a cloud. It was so cold though, after 20 minutes of shivering we actually wanted to begin our muddy descent....

And what goes up must come down. And for us this mostly took place on our backsides as we continually fell down in the mud. As I stepped in a particularly large puddle I felt mud ooze into my socks and work its ways through my toes. I guess a bit like a cold mud compress for my feet. As unpleasant as it was at least it eased my aching feet a little after more than 6 hours of stumbling up and sliding down. After a while we all decided that skis or snowboards would have been a far better bet than our hiking boots alone. The thick black volcanic mud coats absolutely everything and gets inside the treads of your shoes. The effect is like walking in slippers on ice going down a very steep hill, and then periodically stepping in quicksand. The whole thing took us around 7 and a half hours and I feel absolutely awful today, the day after. I would do anything for a nice hot bubble bath to sooth the aches and pains instead of a cold bucket shower. But as they say ‘no pain, no gain’ and I had a fantastic experience.

Volcanoes waiting to be climbed by the brave/foolish

We made it to the top!

 Trying to get back down again
 A volcanic landscape
 One of few rest stops!
 Judy's leg. The mud was so thick afterwards we found it difficult to tell who's hiking boots were whos.


Wednesday, 7 September 2011

‘Sent from God’

I got a new name today, from a Catholic priest no less. He decided it was time I had a Rwandan name on account of the fact that I’ve been here a fair while. The name he chose for me was ‘Uwimana’ which apparently means ‘sent from God’.  Well at least I hope it does. Surely a priest wouldn’t lie to me? It would never be worth the hours spent in confession. I’m not sure that God made the best decision sending me though, surely he could have sent someone with slightly fewer faults. As he is all powerful he could have sent Angelina Jolie, Madonna, The Dalai Lama or Bob Geldof, all those people are interested in saving the world too. But no, he sent me. A somewhat scatterbrained, ordinary looking non millionaire with weak spirituality. If I was them I’d feel short changed. But nonetheless here I am.

Talking to the new TTC volunteers yesterday made me realise I’ve actually been here a little while.  In a couple of months I’ll be returning to the motherland for a Christmas visit after nearly a year away. I’ve nearly made it through a whole academic year. And what have I achieved??? In some ways a fair bit but in many ways very little. The TRC is up and running. I can teach classes in there and resources are being made. I have gotten much better at teaching the students. However on the other hand, the students still don’t usually teach in a child friendly way, I still wonder whether any of what I say actually goes in, and I still haven’t gotten very far working with the tutors...I still have days like today when I wonder why on earth I am here.

But that is the rollercoaster of doing vso. There are ups and downs and twists and turns and you never know where it s going to take you next. Wow I am profound for a Wednesday. I don’t know what it is about Wednesdays. Not teaching on Wednesdays gives me too much time to think, a very dangerous activity. Thinking is not safe, and having time to do it makes you realise that. They don’t warn you about thinking on the vso pre-departure course. There should be a disclaimer ‘when you step off the treadmill of your life in the UK you may have time to think. Thinking is a dangerous activity that can lead to self reflection and you might not always like what you see.’ So beware!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The king’s bed

Over the weekend I visited the King’s palace museum in Nyanza. This complex had a replica of a traditional king’s house and also the most recent residence of the King of Rwanda. The traditional king’s house was the really interesting one. The king’s bed was HUGE! Now I know where the term ‘king sized’ comes from.  It would be the perfect place to re-enact the time honoured ‘there was ten in a bed’ rhyme. Seriously you could fit half of a village in there. I did enjoy sitting on it though, right next to the ‘pillar of shame’ which young wives used to hide behind...Talking of wives, there were so many that they had to create a timetable in order to avoid each other when visiting the king.

I also found out about a job which gave women the strangest excuse not to get married. This job involved tending to the milk and making butter. Apparently it took so much time and was so labour intensive that any girl who did this for her job would be left without enough time for marriage. I’m just wondering how the line ‘I’m sorry I can’t marry you I’ve got to make butter’ would go down. Although in this part of the world butter is such a luxury perhaps it would be worth it. I succumbed and bought some in Kigali today. Mmmmm so creamy, its endlessly more appetising than blueband margarine which tastes like melted plastic and wax candles.

The outside of the King's traditional house

Inside the King's house

Our guide tending to the butter

Me pretending to tend to the butter

The king's bed

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Dirt roads are like ski runs...

Yesterday I took Steven and Mary’s friend, Helen, out to the TTC for the day. When describing what the road was like for moto riding I found myself thinking in terms of ski runs. The route from Rwamagana to Nzige can best be described as a blue run. Not as challenging as the deadly black, but not exactly an easy green route either. It has a few horrid hills and twisty turns but most of it is fairly bearable. Helen coped admirably well with this blue route after only one week and a bit of moto riding, in fact much better than the first time I tried it where I fell off. This was in spite of having slightly over zealous moto drivers, or in my case the third moto in a row which ran out of petrol (fortunately it did just about make it this time), I think I must be cursed.

The road from Nzige to Kabuga is a green run. Even though it is long the road is fairly flat and wide. Now as a TTC volunteer I mostly manage to avoid the black runs as I seldom do school visits, but most of the district based volunteers have to contend with these on their way to remote schools and I must say, they sound terrifying. On these routes, you may well have to get off and walk part of it, you may suffer the indignity of the muddy fall or the prolonged, bone shaking jarring of very rough and stony patches. They are not to be attempted on your first ever moto ride by the way. But I guess they are satisfying if you arrive at your destination still intact.

However even green runs can become a challenge if you are trying to carry a ridiculous amount of luggage with you as I have found. Today I tried to balance no fewer than 100 big rice sacks on the back of the moto. The pile weighed several kilos and took up so much space that my backside was wedged on the uncomfortable metal bit right on the back of the seat. Now this was ok on the flat bits but as we went uphill I could feel a nice half moon shaped bruise being formed. Now I don’t want anyone to say that I don’t suffer for my profession!

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Boredom and bookcases

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that returning to work has been a shock to the system. It seems over the past few days that while I have returned to work hardly anyone else has. The TTC is like a ghost school. I’ve still only seen about half of the tutors and my class of 52 students only had 21 present today. Small groups of students drift about aimlessly or can be found sitting and chatting under trees. The classrooms are mostly empty and the students are reluctant to do any work. The staffroom is far too quiet and the notice boards are full of exam timetables from the term before. It’s taking a massive amount of self motivation to be the all singing all dancing enthusiastic teacher in this general climate of lethargy. But fortunately for me a couple of golden moments have kept me going.

The first was when a student spent his whole morning yesterday making me a sign to welcome people to the TRC. He wrote that it was ‘a good place to visit’ which was so sweet and reminded me that despite appearances some of the students actually are interested in the resource centre. And the second moment of joy came today when the bookcases were delivered. I now have four large bookcases which is actually somewhat life changing. I can’t wait for the varnish to dry overnight so I can spend tomorrow putting things on the shelves. Jeez I’m a tragic case, what has become of me?! I’ve just re-read that sentence that ‘I can’t wait to spend tomorrow putting things on shelves’ and realised what a weird thing that is to be excited about. I don’t think I have ever said such a thing in my whole life. People who knew me before will remember generally I leave everything on the floor and couldn’t care less about arranging stuff neatly on shelves. So there we go. I am a changed woman....well....as long as you don’t look in my house...

Monday, 22 August 2011


Well today I found out something very interesting. We might be getting an American Peace Corp volunteer at the TTC, starting in January, it hasn’t actually happened yet but it is being discussed. I was shown all of the pre-arrival info that gets sent out about them and they get a whopping 10 weeks of training before they arrive in their placements, compared to our 10 days which we get with vso. So I’d better brush up on my American in preparation for their (possible) arrival. My American friend in vso, Lindsey, had been learning to speak British and she is doing very well. She so far has learned how to say ‘gobbledygook’, ‘anorak’, ‘proper’ and ‘brilliant’. She’s so good soon she’ll be appearing on downtown abbey or some other period drama. But my American lags behind, except for I keep saying ‘awesome!’ all of the time.

Another surprise is that I seem to have got fat in Africa. A woman stopped me on the dirt track and said something to me which I didn’t understand. And then unfortunately she decided to mime what she meant which was definitely the universal sign for ‘you have become a right porker’. I blame mum and dad. We ate too many chips and drank too much Primus on holiday. Chips are evil. The thing is when you eat out in Rwanda, every meal comes with chips. Brochettes (goat kebabs) and chips, steak and chips, omelette with chips in it, melange (mixed plate for people even less francophone than me) and chips...need I go on? So a sort of chip fatigue sets in. You wolf them down still, but their magic greasy appeal that sent me running down to the chippy in Bristol every Friday armed with my £1.50, has gone. They become routine, even dull, but they give you a spare tyre all the same. So I am going chip cold turkey for the next two weeks. Not a single chip will pass my lips!

I also think I’m starting to get a beer gut which is most unladylike, ewww. Now I’m faced with the task of trying to rid myself of it. As avid readers of my blog will remember, my attempts at running were definitely not without event. I do have some awful exercise dvds I could do on my laptop behind closed curtains (far too shameful to do in public view) which is a possibility. And there is always the Nzige tomato based diet. Or I could go on a Rwandan style Akins protein diet which would consist of...umm..goat and eggs...hmmm maybe not!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Giraffes, gorillas and good times

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been a tourist in Rwanda showing my parents around. As I’ve said before, it makes you look at things with fresh eyes, but it also allows you to do all the touristy things that you don’t normally get to do because you are too busy with daily challenges such as trying not to burn yourself trying to seal the edges of rice sacks with a candle flame or trying to invent yet another tomato and potato based creation that you haven’t tried before.

So the gorillas. Well in theory we should never have seen them. I couldn’t get gorilla tracking permits from the tourist office because they are booked up for August months and months in advance mostly by American tour companies that charge a horrific price. But not to be deterred we still showed up (we had golden monkey tracking tickets anyway) and played the waiting game for no show standby tickets. And because fortune favours the brave we got lucky and got to go.

Now to say we got close to them was an understatement. I was at the front of the gorilla tracking group and as we got close a gorilla literally fell from the sky above my head which was something of a shock. Fortunately it had absolutely no interest in me whatsoever, merely regarding me with curiosity as I madly tried to photograph it. They were amazing actually. If you ever go to this part of the world you must see them! They are so cute, to me they resembled furry black beanbags wedged up in trees. I would have loved to run my fingers through their fur, but I didn’t think it was worth facing the wrath of the 222 kilo big lump of the daddy silverback gorilla, who incidentally spent most of the hour we were watching them sleeping or rubbing his balls!

And from one wildlife experience to another, we also went on safari in Akagera national park. We saw a really interesting array of animals including giraffes, zebras, hippos, buffalo and lots of gazelle like creatures called impala. Now unfortunately the car that was called for us by the safari lodge was somewhat dilapidated. It had a flat battery, a hole in the radiator and no suspension at all. And to top it all off it came with a driver who didn’t speak any English or French and appeared to have no idea how to drive. I must admit I was actually quite relieved when it broke down.  Being sat sideways in the back being constantly thrown from one side of the car to the other, I think I was only about 20 minutes away from losing the battle to keep my breakfast down. Fortunately there were no hippos or buffalo around at that point as we would have been easy pickings if they decided to try tasting human instead of grass. But all was not lost, the car did eventually start (with help) and the show did go on. And what a show it was. Giraffes in the wild are amazing, so graceful.

We had many good times over the two past weeks. My parents were introduced to the local beer, Primus, and much of it was drunk.  We chilled out in Gisenyi by lake Kivu (on the border with the DRC) and they tried ‘brochettes’ in Kigali. And now its back to reality. I’m back in Nzige filling up jerry cans with water and doing a crap job of bargaining for my tomatoes. The term starts again on Monday and its back to work. I’m sleeping in my own bed tonight for the first time in ages and trying to ignore the huge pile of oompa lumpa coloured clothes that I’ve just pulled out of my rucksack.

Up close to a mountain gorilla

Sleeping in the morning sun instead of getting up, a creature after my own heart


Dirty zebras. I'm glad I'm not the only thing that gets covered in red dust all of the time

The parents in Akagera