Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Camilla and the Kamikaze lizards

I have a fairly tumultuous relationship with the lizards in Rwanda. I do find them quite cute from a distance. They have their big bug eyes and cute little tails. They are fine on the wall. But lately there has been a plague of the kamikaze kind. Not content with keeping their four stumpy little legs on the wall where they belong, they have started launching themselves at me at work. I don’t know if the ones at the TTC are a bit dozy or what, but twice this week a lizard has fallen from the sky and landed on my shoulder.

 Its such a horrible experience. One minute you are walking back into the resource room carrying your ‘journal de classe’ and white chalk like all good teachers do, and the next moment you are flapping around trying to shake off what you think is a lizard but you’re not quite sure as you never actually saw it land. If you don’t want to land on a human (and let’s face it, why would they, they can be quite unpleasant and unpredictable creatures), look before you leap you stupid, stupid things! I’m now wary of walking through doorways as that is where they tend to jump from. Perhaps they are a bit blind, as in fairness they do look pretty traumatised when I do finally manage to shake them off. I thought I’d killed the last one. When I got it off it just froze on the floor for ages. So I’m hoping they develop a bit more sense soon, for their own good.    

Buses and donuts

The other day I was the only woman on the bus. It was just me and 18 men. And predictably I attracted quite a bit of attention. I was gawped at for the entire half hour, some people don’t even blink when they stare which I find quite odd. And predictably, my marital status came up. So as usual I decided to marry myself. It’s just easier that way. Where I always come unstuck is my lack of wedding ring. Now why after all this experience out there in the world I haven’t got myself a fake wedding ring I don’t know. One with a big fake rock and a shiny gold band, the blingier the better. If you’re going to go fake you might as well do it in style. So the best reason I could come up with as to why I wasn’t wearing my ring was that it ‘gets scratched on the bus’. And when you think about it that is a bit ridiculous really. I think when you get to a lie upon a lie it gets harder to sound convincing.

That weekend I also made a very interesting discovery. There is a place in Kigali that makes fresh bagels and donuts and chocolate chip cookies! Ok so I have never seen so many muzungus in one place but it was still amazing. The donuts were warm and sticky and chocolately and fresh from the charcoal stove. I just had to take a picture of the woman cooking them on the charcoal stove. I think thats the best way to cook them as they were delicious. The fact that they were so nice combined with months of donut deprivation made me have to restrain myself from eating a whole tray. I remember once trying to explain what a donut was to a Rwandan and finding it difficult. So if I ever randomly have to explain that word again I have a picture to show them. The place is called the African bagel company if anyone reading this is ever in Kigali. If you are suffering western food withdrawal symptoms I recommend it.


It’s been a while since I wrote my blog. It’s not that nothing has been happening...well sometimes it feels that way and then when I haven’t written on my blog for ages a huge stream of things comes to mind.  I’ve just pulled back up from a period of feeling quite down and I think it stopped me from writing. It’s hard to write when you are down in that place. I don’t know why I’ve had a down period at the beginning of this year, I really wasn’t expecting it. Perhaps it is because I expected everything to magically be easier because I’ve been here some time already, but I still have days when I feel like a fish out of water, a totally displaced person in a community where I don’t belong or understand anything that is going on. I find myself feeling vulnerable and alone. I feel irritable, fractious and bad-tempered and I am not so patient, flexible or adaptable, all the things vso expect me to be...

But then I’ll have a moment where I wouldn’t be anywhere else. Some kid will hug me shouting my name, the students will almost make me cry with their lovely singing, I’ll see a student actually use a teaching aid in their lesson or a nice person will sit next to me on the bus and talk to me without any agenda. I thought the rollercoaster ride of doing vso would even out in the second year, but it hasn’t. It is an experience of extreme highs and lows, frustrations and joys, and hardest of all to experience – the flat part of the rollercoaster where nothing seems to happen at all, despite my best efforts.  As I have passed 13 months in Rwanda and I speed towards month 14, I am eternally grateful for all the life lessons I’ve learned, many the hard way, but all of which have made me a different person to the one who left the UK in January 2011.

So here are some of my life lessons from Rwanda:

1) I can survive with chocolate fudge cake, French stick or brie. Ok so I didn’t say it was easy, but I am still here and I have yet to eat anything that remotely passes as a decent chocolate fudge cake in Rwanda.

2) I can spend a lot of time by myself in the evenings and only descend into mild madness. I have not yet got to the stage of Tom Cruise in the film ‘Castaway’, but there is still time...

3) I actually have a culture. I know this sounds strange, but it is only by moving to a completely different culture that I have become aware of my own cultural background and influences. It is only when you experience living life where people behave in different ways to where you are from that you realise what your own cultural norms actually are. No matter how long I live here I will always behave in a European way to an extent. I will always walk too fast, get impatient from time to time and hate tea with too much sugar in it.

4) I can speak some words of a language that is not English. Ok so I don’t do it well, but as someone who always shied away from saying anything other than please or thank you in another language it has been quite a big barrier to overcome.

5) I can survive power cuts and water shortages and life goes on. You just wait or find another way to get what you need.

6) I have loved this experience, but life in a small village is not for me. I prefer the bustle of a town and living somewhere where just leaving my house in the morning doesn’t attract a crowd.

7) My love of chips is not limitless. Yep can’t believe I’m saying this but I have gotten fed up of them.

8) Relationships are everything. Friends and family, both new and old, in Rwanda or in England are what sees you through. I kind of knew this before, but I didn’t fully appreciate it.

9) My career does not define me or anyone else for that matter. There is more to people than the job they have or the salary they earn. When you take that away and you are forced to look at all the other aspects of yourself and your life you find out who you really are. In fact, here people are not even interested in what you do which is so refreshing. Instead they are more interested in whether you are having a good time in their country or the eternal question of whether you have a boyfriend...  

10) The future is important but the here and now is even more important. I used to spend so long thinking and worrying about what was coming next that I never appreciated the small things that happened to me every day. And here, because the future is so less certain, people live much more in the moment and enjoy today rather than always thinking about the next thing.

So there we have it. Some lessons have been learned, other lessons are out there waiting to be learned, day by day.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The end of the drought

I have been without water for nearly 2 weeks. It affects you in more ways that you could imagine. You put off the washing (other than underwear of course!), you use the dishwater and dirty clothes water for ‘flushing’ the toilet...and as for showers, you try to do it with as little water as possible and as infrequently as possible! Toilet paper goes into a bin instead as it takes lots of water to flush down. Shoes lose their shine as it takes water to wash them. Dirt collects in the shower tray as you only have a little water to wash it all down. Drinking is something that can’t be cut really. Being clean and healthy actually starts to become a real challenge. I got someone to fetch me a couple of jerry cans worth of water, but because it is scarce here it comes back a bit muddy. And this is from someone who had no running water at all for my first 7 months here. I wonder how I lived like that all the time now. 

The scary thing is that you can never be sure when it is likely to return. Every day you turn the tap on in the hope that something will come out. And usually what happens is the tap spits out a mouthful of water and that’s it. You know you’re in trouble when everything looks dry and parched around where the tap is. It’s quite frustrating really. To say nothing of people who end up having to walk for miles in the sun to find the stuff. So I was absolutely delighted when the water returned today. I filled up every bucket and water container in the house to the brim and enjoyed running my fingers through it. I must stop taking water for granted. Its so easy after a while to forget how lucky I am to normally have easy access to water. Life really does become difficult without it.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

A wonderful Rwandan-Irish wedding

Today was another great weekend because a got to see a friend and fellow vso volunteer, Brigid, get married to her partner Patrick in two wonderful ceremonies in Kigali. Now before I begin, a little about weddings in Rwanda. So there are usually three parts: 1) The civil or ‘legal’ ceremony; 2) The dowry giving ceremony known as a ‘Gusaba’ and lastly 3) A religious or church ceremony. For Brigid’s wedding I got to see parts 1 and 2 because the religious ceremony will take place in Ireland at a later date. 

So the civil ceremony took place at the sector office in Kigali, known as an umurenge. Brigid and Patrick had to make their formal vows here and sign the marriage register. Interestingly, it is also done with other couples at the same time and they take it in turns to take the ‘stand’ and make their vows. The bride of the other couple was wearing the most fantastically eccentric clothing to her wedding, we did try to subtly find out if this was ‘normal’...but it was hard! I think the conclusion was that it was unusual. This part of the day was actually quite quick once it started.  

Ruth, our programme manager at vso came and as she was sat with us she very kindly translated what was happening. Basically this quite stern looking lady tells the congregation and couples about the institution of marriage, about what they should and shouldn’t do and about the promises they make to each other. I would not want to cross her! The congregation is asked whether they know any reason why any of the couples should not get married and the bride is given an opportunity to change her mind. They actually explain that there are other people out there if the marriage isn’t right...which to me is quite late in the day to be floating this thought! Nevertheless there was of course nothing to worry about with Brigid and Patrick. 

In the afternoon we attended the Dowry giving ceremony or ‘Gusaba’. Lots of us vso volunteers got dressed up in traditional Rwandan ceremonial clothing called a ‘mushanana’ for the occasion. This is also what is worn by the bridesmaids and the bride for this ceremony. The men wore a plain piece of cloth and carried sticks like shepherd’s sticks. The mushanana is basically a skirt with a drawstring waist that you wear quite high up, a strappy vest top and a piece of material sewn or knotted over one shoulder and draped across the body. Brigid looked totally breathtaking in her bright pink mushanana with gold embellishment. She looked like a kind of Rwandan-Indian-Irish princess, just lovely! 

So the Gusaba ceremony is basically role play or theatre that is a very traditional part of Rwandan culture. The groom’s family and the bride’s family argue about the suitability of the marriage and the dowry to be given, in a very jokey, friendly way. In the olden times if a deal could not be struck, if the groom’s family did not argue well, the family did not get the bride. However nowadays its just for show and they do always get the girl. This goes on for about an hour. During this time the bride is hidden out of sight. Towards the end of the ceremony, when a deal has been decided and the bride’s family have accepted to give their daughter to the groom’s family, the bride is brought out with an entourage of bridemaids. A gift is presented to both the bride and the groom’s parents.  

Then there was some dancing and singing and celebration. The main wedding party ate some melange or ‘mixed plate’, traditional Rwandan food, then all of us got a chance to eat. The wedding party line up to give gifts to the bride and groom of food, household items, money etc and ceremony was officially concluded. I have to say it was one of my favourite days in Rwanda and it was totally fascinating to experience the dowry giving service. I wish Brigid and Patrick lots of luck in their new life together and I hope they will be very happy together.

Brigid and Patrick
Guest queing up to give gifts

Brigid and Patrick signing the register at the civil service
 VSO girls in mushananas!
 Me getting hot!
 The bridsmaids and male version
 Brigid looking lovely
 Patrick in traditional wedding clothes

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The student goat

Today was a first for me in my teaching career. Just as I was getting into describing why ‘give me paper’ is an impolite way of asking in the English language with a class of over 50 unconvinced looking students, this other enthusiastic bearded black goat hopped into my class. I suppose I should be flattered really, at least someone was interested in what I had to say. He just kept coming back for more...perhaps politeness is important to goats. But soon it became hard to remain polite to him. He hopped in and out of my class no fewer than 3 times and he was very casual about it, with some half eaten grass sloppily hanging from his jaw. Definitely not shy, I had to chase him out with a meter stick in the end. Still he was not as persistent as the birds (see prior entry: revenge of the birds for details on the latest me vs the birds situation).

Talking of goats, recently I’ve become morbidly curious about a particular goat issue - just how many goat brochettes can be made from just one average sized Rwandan goat? I first thought about 20, but a friend of mine thinks closer to 100. It’s just so hard to judge just by looking at them, but I do want to know...and just how does one find out? I’m far too much of a pansy to actually buy a goat, kill it, cut it into small chunks and see how many brochettes can be made. So unless I become friends with an English speaking goat butcherer and brochette maker I guess I’ll never know. Even though I am curious, all rationality tells me some things probably are best left to the imagination.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Beautiful Burundi

It has to be said that Burundi is not generally considered to be a popular holiday destination. Recent civil conflict has ruled out visiting most of the country, but the capital city, Bujumbura, is considered relatively safe by the British foreign office as long as you fly there. So on Friday night, I flew there with vso friends Tammy, Mark, Lindsey, Tricia and Geri. It was dark when we arrived by taxi and we wondered how close our bungalows were to the beach...that is until we pulled back the curtains the next morning...and wow! There it was. One of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, and I have seen many.

 Bujumbura is located on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, a really beautiful inland lake which borders the Burundi and the DRC. The white sand was dotted with palm trees and the sea was warm and blue. Lake Kivu in Rwanda is lovely, but it lacks the raw beauty of Lake Tanganyika in my opinion. There is not so much beach and it is not framed on three sides by green mountains like Lake Tanganyika. And what’s even more wonderful is that so few foreigners have discovered it yet! Yes there were a few expat type people around, but not the European winter sun crowd like there was in Zanzibar. And the beach was blissfully free of touts trying to sell you things and smart alecs trying to chat you up. There were a few security guards complete with their guns, but they seemed to spend most of the time playing cards with each other or studying so the atmosphere was relaxed.

So the first day of our weekend away was spent walking along the beach, drinking cocktails at Hotel Du Lac, probably the only posh hotel in the whole of Burundi, and swimming. What a hard life. In the evening we saw some Burundian drummers on the beach. Burundi is rightfully famous for its drummers and they were brilliant. We could feel the pulse of their beat through our feet and I never knew that drumming involved such acrobatics! The lead guy literally performed back flips around his drum. 

The next day we convinced Eric, the guy who had picked us up from the airport, to give us a little taxi tour of the sights of downtown Bujumbura.  Eric spoke very good English, which is unusual is almost exclusively francophone Burundi and he was fiercely proud of his country. He claimed that people in Rwanda speak ‘Kirundi’ (while interestingly those in Rwanda say Burundians speak Kinyarwanda!). In reality both languages are almost the same just with some pronunciation differences, a bit like the difference between British and American English. He said that things had been slowly getting better for Burundians from 2005 when the war ended. There definitely has been some development by all accounts as my edition of lonely planet said that there were no souvenir t-shirts available in Burundi. Yet Eric took us to a small handicrafts place where there was indeed a solitary ‘I love Burundi’ souvenir t-shirt for sale.

Bujumbura town itself seemed quite different from Kigali. It may have been because it was a Sunday, but the town did appear to be quiet and ghost like. It might have been because of the security situation, or perhaps because everyone was at church. People didn’t appear to live so much by the road as they do in Rwanda. There were a lot of big walls everywhere which I think people lived behind. Bujumbura doesn’t have the cobbled streets and neatly manicured lawns of Kigali, but just like Kigali, it is built on a heart attack inducing hill. There is also a general feeling that you have to watch your back here a bit more than in Kigali. While Eric was convinced that Bujumbura was mostly safe, when me and Tricia were sat on the beach watching the sunset, the moment it got dark a security guy came to move us back inside. However as long as you are sensible, keep abreast of the current security situation and follow the advice of local people here, you shouldn’t be put off coming here. In fact far from it. The people in Burundi, like in Rwanda have suffered a lot and it’s good to support them in rebuilding their economy and seeing all the good stuff their country has to offer.

View from the hotel window

The Bujumbura crew

Burundian drummers on the beach

Downtown Bujumbura

Trisha with the Local brew (which we also love in Rwanda) Primus                                       

Me on top of a concrete jetty thing with lake Tanganyika in the background
 I love Burundi!

Palm trees at sunset

The lake at sunset