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?