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