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 a 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