The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Rwandan wrap up

Nearly a year has gone by in a blink. The Rwandan adventure is drawing to a close. On Monday I sat in an austere mud home in a remote part of Ngoma district talking to three old men about their lives as youngsters under the Rwandan monarchy which ended in 1962 when the country became independent. Those were days of lions, leopards, antelopes and warthogs and all three men were glad that every last one of them had been locally exterminated either because of the danger they posed or the damage they did to crops. This was one of the success stories of Belgian colonialism and their powerful guns - that and the introduction of Christianity and cutlery! They discussed, unsentimentally, the pre-Christian belief system of Guterekera its potions made of tree flowers, cow fat and urwagwa (banana beer). Ubupagani (paganism) said Justin, our guard, with derision when I mentioned it to him afterwards. I was with a Japanese student from Edinburgh University doing research for her PhD and friend Theo was the translator. I felt sad on the way home to think that this would be the last time, at least for the foreseeable future, that I would career through the Rwandan countryside on the back of a moto with shouts of 'muzungu', from raggedy squadrons of children, ringing in my ears. It made me think about the things that I would miss (or not) about living here.
75, 81 and 91 respectively
What you miss may also be linked to what you dislike about a place. I will miss the simple life and slow pace of doing things but not the time keeping at meetings and workshops. Four teachers waltzed into a workshop last week at 11 o'clock when it started at 9 - and one was a presenter. No excuses, no apologies just normal behaviour in a country that aspires to be the Singapore of Africa by 2020. I love the mobile phone coverage and the cheapness of making calls yet get frustrated at the addiction to them. Nobody turns off mobiles during a workshop so you just have to try to mitigate the impact with pleas to be as sparing as possible, please leave the room if you must answer a call and don't start a private phone conversation while addressing the class or answering a workshop question. Yes, that actually happens because a mobile phone call always trumps any other kind of discourse. The arrival of the new technology - with about 80% population coverage from next to nothing at the beginning of the century - has not been matched by new protocols relating to interpersonal behaviour.
Home made scooter
I will miss the waves and smiling faces of children, who make toys out of sticks, wood and piles of dirt. Participating in the UK Xmas extravaganza is going to be interesting. I will not miss the relentless stares of passers by who find minutes of blank fascination in my peelywally presence. Better, I think, to be prodded and probed in good humour the way that some children touch or rub against you when passing. Mostly children get into your slipstream when walking and suck up the muzungu vibes - either that or they've put some Sticky Willie on my back and are having a good laugh. An alternative to tailing is 'parallelling', usually a young male phenomenon, where he insists on walking right next to you for the duration of the stroll. Frequently no words are exchanged but attempts to speed up or slow down are often responded to equally by the 'parallellor'. Call me weird but I might miss that.
Walking with a 'parallellor'
I am definitely going to miss the climate which is never too hot or cold. Rude shocks await in the British winter and then the Far North Queensland summer. It is so easy to forget how painful the latter can be and how dependent most people are on air-conditioning. Trips to national parks and into the nearby valley for picnics and birding will linger. Ross's and Purple-crested Turacos feeding in the same fig tree next to the path was a special moment. There have been many others in Rwanda and countries we have been lucky enough to visit while here - Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia. Getting around is so easy, with a bus or moto almost at your beck and call. The moto drivers are my particular favourites with a good and loyal friend in Janvier (guess when we was born) and the ever-smiling Tuyisenge who unfortunately didn't know where the schools were and so didn't get so many rides. I will miss Janvier's patience and good humour on dusty roads with frequent long waits outside schools.
I will not miss the passivity of so many people I have worked with and their lack of initiative and imagination. The inclination is to say yes to everything. But this is a very controlled society and the reluctance to express an opinion or idea may also have its roots in the genocide. Who knows what complex inter-personal or power relationships, as well as individual suffering, may be at play? A Rastafarian - very unusual in Rwanda - got picked up with 120 others in a Kibungo evening police and military sweep about six weeks ago to remove the streets of so-called undesirables. Families were not informed. He has his own business as a sign writer, is educated and speaks four languages. The authorities locked him (and the others) up for a month in the local prison, depriving him of his livelihood and shaving off his hair. Now we know which group was loudly chanting and running up and down the street at 5 a.m. for a while recently. If he gets picked up again, he could be sent to Iwawa Island in Lake Kivu for as much as two years of re-education and training. I won't miss hearing these kinds of stories.
Naturally I will not suffer withdrawal symptoms from lack of the Evangelical Restoration Church and their manic hallelujahing pastor; nor will I develop a craving for the six kinds of starch presented at melange meals; but Rwandan coffee I will miss, and pineapples and avocadoes are very fine especially the avos off the garden tree. It's much easier to grow vegetables in Kibungo than Cairns and Stella has produced some outstanding beetroot and broccoli, funny shaped carrots and passable cauliflower. I will not miss the slow Internet and the wretched 'your message has failed' seemingly always when you have forgotten to save the text beforehand.
Justin doing a 'hygienic activity'
Rwanda has an obsession with 'hygienic activities'. It's taught in different school subjects. If the downside of this is chopping off a poor Rasta's hair then the upside is the simple fact that Rwanda must be (visibly at least) the cleanest country just about anywhere. Armies of blue-uniformed street sweepers and a home yard brushing addiction make sure of that. It doesn't mean that people litter less given the chance. You should see those fizzy bottle tops fly and mandazi (fried bread) serviettes dropped whenever I throw one of my famous workshop Fanta parties. It's just that there will always be someone to sweep up afterwards. There is the entertaining story of the Rwandan customs officer who, on catching sight of a tourist's plastic bag on crossing into the country from Uganda by bus, said 'those are banned here' opened the window and threw it into no man's land. It is advisable not to litter because it's a rule but over the fence will do if no one is watching. Ah, I will miss these contradictions, although I know there are plenty to look forward to back in Australia!
Bike boy and Theo with beer and fanta supplies arriving for party
But most of all, I will miss Theo and Justin my two best Rwandan friends. We chuckle a lot. Apparently mooning to Big G is guaranteed to bring good weather for our farewell party. It's amazing what's in the catechism! Rwanda has just beaten Djibouti 5-2 so that will also bring good luck. I didn't even know that Djibouti was big enough to have a national football team. Theo is possibly the kindest and most helpful person I have ever met. Nothing is too much trouble. (Nassim, seemingly the only Pakistani in the whole south eastern region of Rwanda and our chef for the party, says that he couldn't go back to Pakistan because people are not obliging enough there.) We will follow Theo's progress through life very closely. It will be harder with Justin because he doesn't speak French or English and has no email but we will keep in touch through Alice a British volunteer who arrived in September and is moving into our house. Justin will therefore keep his job which is good news in a society where guards are often unceremoniously dumped when the occupants leave. Overall, the year has been a blast. Thank you for reading this blog.
The party rave up
p.s. True to our weather arrangement with the Big Lady upstairs, the rain stayed off for most of the day with just a sharp shower and a bit of drizzle to start off the dancing. You can view the pictures on https://picasaweb.google.com/denis.walls. It was a fantastic day, with great food and a real festive atmosphere. We hope to put a couple of the videos on YouTube when we reach London.

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