Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Home through a new lens

So I have been back in Somerset, England for a few days now. It is the summer but it still feels cold. The days seem very long after the regular 6 o'clock darkness in Rwanda. But we have had a few sunny days, and today as I walked through my home village of Brent Knoll I found myself noticing things in a way I never did previously. I noticed the beauty of the houses in the village, some of which have been standing for more than 100 years. I noticed the greeness of the landscape and the variety of colour in the sky. In Rwanda I learned to appreciate all the little things I saw around me that gave me joy, and I don't want to lose that perspective I have gained.

So with my new touch screen phone I took some photos of a few things that caught my eye in the village. I photographed a 'beware of wandering' sign that just made me laugh for some reason. I feel thats all I've done with my life for the past year and a half. Wander. And perhaps it should come with a health warning. You never know where your wandering might take you! People who know me well outside of this blog know that my wandering in Rwanda is likely to lead to me wandering around other countries. So beware. Wandering can't always be cured.

I also took some photos of the new swan family in the water ditch near my parent's house. There are loads of fluffy grey ducklings and they really are very cute. However, they seem to be very agressively guarded by both swan parents. When I walked past the parents had them herded into a fluffy grey heap of beaks and feathers. I couldn't count how many there were or distinguish one grey swan duckling from another. But seeing them certainly did brighten up my day.

So I'm enjoying being back but it does still feel like a holiday. So far my time in Rwanda feels like a year and a half long dream. So far I haven't been able to reconcile my life there with my life here. Rwanda feels very far away. I know I have definitely changed as a person, but I'm still struggling to identify how. I know I have learned some lessons but I'm not sure if I'm ready to live by the lessons I've learned. But then I think it all takes time. Eventually I'll find my way again, but for the meantime I just need to remember 'the beauty is in the journey.'

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again....

So I know this is the exact same title of a post that I wrote 17 months ago on my last night in the UK before I embarked on this whole Rwandan adventure. So on my last day in Rwanda before my flight this evening I thought it was time to reflect again. I feel sad to be leaving a place that has been my home for nearly one and a half years. Rwanda has so much going for it. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful country I have ever, ever been to (and I am lucky enough to have been to many). It has the most amazing wildlife and the most stunning scenery. It is clean and well organised. The people here are incredibly strong when you think about the horrors of 1994 and the huge progress that has been made up to this day. They carry on with their lives and they continue to have hopes and dreams for the future. People care for their families and friends and look after one another. I think I was lucky to have been placed here and very few volunteers have a bad experience volunteering in Rwanda.

However the challenges faced by this small nation are far from solved. 90% of people are subsistence farmers and as far as I can see this percentage is not really changing much. The population is going up and up and soon there will not be enough land to support this large number of people who need to live off of it. Education is still a huge challenge. Most children have access to an education, but from what I have seen many children do not learn anything in the classroom, so they still do not get an education. The house pride and extreme diligence with which Rwandans look after their property (the compounds of even the most basic mud houses are immaculately kept) masks the reality that many people live on less that 300rwf (30p) a day and that is well below the poverty line. The conflict in neighbouring DRC is escalating and huge UN trucks of refugees are streaming across the border and refugee camps are springing up in many places.

I get the feeling that while things are relatively good in Rwanda at the moment, especially compared to the past, the situation is extremely fragile. If I come back to Rwanda in 10 years time I don’t know if I’ll find one of the most prosperous countries in Africa or a place dogged by sporadic conflict, instability and a shortage of resources like neighbouring DRC and Burundi. And I think many who live here also feel this anxiety about the future of Rwanda, which results in a very tense society and an ongoing lack of trust and confidence.
If I ask myself if I have made a difference to the people of this wonderful little country I would have to say ‘I don’t know’. I would love to think that my resource centre will still be at the TTC in 5 years time, but pressure to put more and more people through teacher training and secondary school means it will probably be used as a classroom eventually. But actually, that doesn’t matter so much. The resource centre is only things. I hope that some of the teaching skills I tried to pass on to my trainee teachers will stick and be used in the classrooms of Rwanda. The reality is that I will never know if this will happen. I need a crystal ball to look into the future, and that is one of the hard things about doing vso. You will never know about the influence you might have had. I remember one returned volunteer saying ‘Doing vso is like preparing a garden. You will prepare the soil and plant the seeds, but the flowers will bloom long after you have gone.’

And this is just a note to say that this will not be quite the end of the blog. I will continue to post for a little while when I return, because there is also a transition period as you adjust to being back home. I think it is important to cover this aspect of my volunteer experience, in just the same way that I started to post before I left. I feel that this part of the journey can be neglected a bit, and it is interesting for other future volunteers to know what happens after you return.

Scenes from Butare

My penultimate night in Rwanda was spent back in Butare, my base for the last month or so of traveling around. I’ve always struggled to get good scenes of Rwandan life. I get quite self conscious about taking photos because everyone stares and looks at you, so the photos can be quite unnatural anyway, or you get asked for money or something. So I was delighted when I went on a walk to Butare market with Kathy and discovered that it was in a multistory building. It gave me the perfect opportunity to take some photos with my camera of unsuspecting people down below.

Also, I had to take some photos of a very unusual street in Butare. We call it ‘deserted street’. All the shops have been closed down and the whole road has a gently decaying feel. The old colonial buildings have peeling facades and there is a general air of emptiness which is quite unusual in heavily populated Rwanda. It is a strangely eerie place and I wish I knew why they are plans to pull everything down. So I thought I should get some photos of it before they do.

Deserted street...
 Another scene from deserted street
 Downtown Butare

Butare market

A trip to the lake on the vomit comet

My last Rwandan adventure had to be to the lovely lake Kivu. So after the High Commissioner’s party I braved a ride on the vomit comet, the name that volunteers have given the bus that heads out to the town on Kibuye on the lake. This name is certainly accurate unfortunately. The bus journey from Kigali to Kibuye takes in endless hairpin bends amongst some very steep valleys. Also, there is a myth circulating amongst Rwandan people that you should drink lots of milk and eat lots of yoghurt to ‘settle the stomach’ before a long bus journey...needless to say it results in vomit. Vomit splattering the windows and vomit running down the aisles. Man I’m glad my bus journey out to Nzige in the East was flat and relatively straight, I don’t think I could have coped with a year and a half of that.

So when I arrived in Rubengera, the town where my friend Mary lives which is near to the lake, I was shown around the sights and we ate in a bar charmingly titled ‘Le shit’. Le shit was actually quite a nice bar and it is a mystery how it ended up with such a name. We could watch people walking around the hairpin bend on the road carrying all manner of things from our vantage point at Le shit. The rest of the weekend was spent in Kibuye by the lake, relaxing and watching the world go by. Kibuye has to be the most relaxing place I know in Rwanda. Unlike the other lakeside town of Gisenyi, Kibuye is much smaller and quieter and you can genuinely find some peace and relaxation there. Also down by the lake are some lovely bits of tropical forest which we walked around quite a lot in search of a short cut to very nice lodge where we spent the afternoon eating really good food and lounging by the lake.

But it wasn’t all about sunning ourselves by the lake. I had actually gone to do some work with Mary at her TTC as well. So on Sunday afternoon and all of Monday I helped her to make resources and organise her resource room for an exhibition that was happening later in the week. I made a shop, some rice sack tabards and various other little things. It was nice to be back in a resource centre for one last time before going off home. It made me feel all nostalgic for snowman marker pens, rice sacks and bottle tops. 

View from the window at Home St John, Kibuye

Me and Mary in the forest by the lake

Relaxing by the lake

Spraying bottle tops to make coins in Mary's TRC

The Queen’s Jubilee

Ok so while we didn’t get a four day weekend here in Rwanda, we did still get to go to a party. The Queen’s Jubilee party is my second and last visit to the British High Commissioner’s residence in Kigali. A good time was had by all with the free bar which had wonderful imported wine and pimms with lemonade. The High Commissioner’s house certainly looks very grand through the windows (they don’t let us into the actual house!) and it was suitably decorated with union Jacks emblazoned with the queen’s ever ageing face....well it was until all the vso vols stole the decorations...oh dear, I’m not sure they’ll be letting us back...

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The fresh mountain air of Gasarenda city

I couldn’t go home without one last trip to visit my friend Kathy who lives up in the mountains near Nyungwe forest.  I needed to remind myself how beautiful this place is and hang out with one of my closest friends.  Fortunately it is only an hour away from Butare so it was nice to go somewhere which didn’t involve shaking every bone in my body on a matatu for an unfeasibly long period of time or getting a moto into the back of beyond. 

When I arrived it was catholic education day at the TTC. This was an interesting new experience for me. My TTC is a 100% government funded school so we never celebrated it. We arrived long after all the speeches had finished, just in time for the food and beer...we didn’t plan it like that, honest, its just that Kathy had to spend the day getting me from Nyamagabe, the nearest district town, and we just had to hydrate ourselves in the country and western bar with the mountain views.  

When we arrived at the TTC there were benches and benches filled with teachers, as far as the eye could see. We were given some meat and potatoes and the beer was flowing freely. Me and Kathy perched on benches in the general crowd and we attracted a steady stream of glances and prolonged looks from the other teachers including a man who kept pretending to play an imaginary electric guitar and a woman who was giving her baby the occasional swig of Mutzig beer... 

The next day was a work day and we made some resources for the new curriculum ready for Kathy to start some tutor training. Next we had a day where Kathy had no classes so after doing some more work at the TTC we walked around Gasarenda on market day. We saw cows and goats being herded to the slaughterhouse and pigs and chickens on bikes. There was a general air of activity as people walked by carrying their wares in rice sacks and bags on their heads, men busied themselves repairing bikes and deals were done under the shade of shop porches. 

I stupidly bought a ridiculously large basket to take back home with me. I tried to leave it there but I liked it too much and at least its useful...well it will be if the baggage people don’t squash it beyond all recognition. We then went to the bar which has to have one of the best views in the world for a very long lunch. We watched a woman cultivating the hills in the distance and took in all of the shades of green in the valley. Unfortunately all good things have to come to an end so now I am back in Butare preparing again for more adventures, which I will post about soon. 

TTC Mbuga - I always think it looks a bit like a forest summer camp

Kathy outside her TRC

Inside the TRC at TTC Mbuga

A sign outside the entrance to the TTC

The high street in Gasarenda

People repairing bikes in Gasarenda

Gasarenda market

The view from a bar in Gasarenda

A beer with a view

Sunday, 3 June 2012

A trip down East

I have spent the last week in the east of the Eastern Province visiting and working with my friend Jen at TTC Zaza. I couldn’t leave Rwanda without paying a visit to Zaza because technically it is my nearest other TTC. Jen lives on the other side of lake Mugesera, a large many fingered lake which was mentioned in a previous posting. If we both stood on the highest hill on our respective sides of the lake and waved we could probably see each other, but the geography of the region means that there is no road to get between the two places. So you have to go via the main road which takes more than three hours. Those hills, so beautiful yet so inconvenient! 

So on the weekend Jen and I walked for a couple of hours to visit the frères’ pottery in a community near the lake. This was an interesting experience as we were followed by a wide variety of people including giggly teenage girls, cute kids and old women as we made our way down an ever narrowing dirt road. We passed through similar mud house communities to the ones I saw on my previous trip to the lake from the other side in Nzige, passing by banana trees and the odd cow here and there. We got lost looking for the pottery but fortunately for us a couple of smartly dressed young girls decided to escort us. 

Once there we were greeted by a young brother wearing his football shirt and a dog snoozing in the sun. The pottery and brother’s residence had a Mediterranean feel, and an Italian priest has lived there before the genocide. His grave is located just outside of the compound.  I suspect that’s how the pottery began. We were joined by some other brothers and escorted to their visitor’s room where we communicated in a variety of very broken languages. We were then plied with the brother’s own very strong pineapple wine and fed loads of fresh pineapple and banana. We talked about Rwanda, the UK and Canada (where Jen is from) and enjoyed resting our weary legs from the walk. 

We were shown around the pottery and we didn’t leave empty handed. The brothers also insisted on giving us some large and very heavy pineapples as a gift. These pineapples nearly crippled us as we tried to carry them back for more than two hours in the heat of the afternoon sun while also feeling a bit tipsy from the wine. 

The rest of the week I worked with Jen in her TTC. I helped out with a few classes and we planned a short afternoon workshop on the new TTC curriculum for a group of her tutors. The workshop was a success and her tutors were very receptive and involved. TTC Zaza is a beautiful building, very smart and colonial in the way it looks. The community itself is very interesting. It is much greener than my side of the lake and it is also home to one of the first Catholic Churches in Rwanda. It is circular in design and looks quite different from most of th other churches in Rwanda. 

I had a great time visiting my TTC neighbour and it was very interesting to see another area of the Eastern province which has been my home in Rwanda. Next I am going to Kathy’s TTC, TTC Mbuga, for some fresh mountain air and primus!

Our brother shows us how to use the potter's wheel

The brother's guest room

Trying the pineapple wine

Jen outside the entrance to TTC Zaza

The Catholic Church in Zaza

Inside the Church

Children watch us outisde the TTC

We saw a model lesson at Zaza B primary School

Jen outisde her home in Zaza

Jen leads an activity at the tutor's workshop in the TRC

The tutors are busy discovering how resources can be used

Jen shows an example of good visual aid made by a student

Tutors are doing it for themselves. A tutor at Zaza demonstrates the clean, clean, CLEAN! activity for using a chalkbaord effectively to his peers