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

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Off to Work I Go

If I am not visiting a school a typical day in my job, as Education Management Advisor to the District of Ngoma in SE Rwanda, might begin as follows. I will load my backpack with educational paperwork, my laptop, complicated adaptors and surge protector and a sunhat, and then forget my bottle of water. I take a deep breath before crossing the threshold into the public arena knowing that I am about to go on show. In the morning I am fresh and full of energy so quite enjoy the barrage of greetings in Kinyarwanda and sometimes French (adults), and English (children mostly) as I make my way up the hill on the dirt path next to the bitumen road which joins the main town of Kibungo to what is called the Rompway (a distortion of Rond Point in French). It is actually not a roundabout at all but a three-way intersection with the main road from the north continuing southwards into Tanzania.
Outside, with Jehovah on the left

I quickly pass the evangelical and Jehovah's church signs on my left and the police prison on my right about which I have already explained how much I enjoy their morning and weekend medleys. I pass a shop where I sometimes buy a Fanta Coca (Coca Cola) with the promise to return the empty bottle. A couple of old men spend time in that shop and I chinwag with them in my fractured Kinyarwanda before lapsing into French. Fewer ordinary people speak the colonial language than I had imagined. Later in the day I will return the bottle, leaving it outside if the shop is closed whereupon the kind lady owner will thank me next time we meet for returning it. This country is an environmental beacon when it comes to bottle returns and use of paper bags instead of plastic ones which, like public smoking, have been banned. The beer shop lady in the other direction actually runs after me in the street to remind me if I have forgotten to return a bottle of Primus or Mutzig, the two main brands.
Fanta coca lady  shop

Progressing steadily up the hill I cross over to the right hand side of the road to avoid the possibility of being pulverised by careering bicycles, either groaning with produce (frequently six or eight huge bunches of bananas) - pushbikes are the donkeys of Rwanda - or with a passenger behind on the extended seat. If a male passenger, he sits legs astride tight behind the cyclist; a woman sits, legs neatly together facing sideways, seemingly calm and balanced despite the velocity. The cyclist himself often has a wide-eyed look of exhilaration combined with intense concentration. This is bungy jumping Kibungo style but without the safety features as neither cyclist nor passenger wears a helmet. (In a way this is odd as Rwanda is very safety conscious when it comes to motorbikes where driver and passenger must wear helmets and drivers always carry a spare.)
A wee skirl doon the brae

There is, frankly, another reason I cross the street and it is to avoid the Bicycle Bully Boys who hang out at the top of the hill, touting for business and who love to tease the plodding muzungu. "Fancy a ride". "C'mon, you know you want to". "Ha, ha, ha". And so on, I half imagine. It is only 'half' because I was offered a trial by one of the Bike Boys for 100 francs (or less than 20 cents) and was severely tempted but common sense, and knowledge of VSO's insurance policy, put a stop to the dreaming. The boys can be fine on their own but just gang up in a crowd. Same all over.
Bully Bike Boy hangout

Very soon, I am at the entrance to the Ngoma District building where I have a desk in the education office. I shake a lot of hands with 'mwaramutse' (good morning) and 'amakuru' (how are you) before settling down to some paperwork or to make phone calls. I use a dongle (USB modem), which is very slow, to access the Internet. I am currently helping some of the district's Head Teachers (school principals) with their School Action Plans for 2011 and may send some draft suggestions by email to those in the Kibungo area that I have consulted with. Rural HTs won't have access to regular email due to lack of electricity and/or computers so the best way of making, and staying in, contact is by mobile phone. Most people seem to have two of them, one for each of the two main telephone networks. The coverage is better (valleys and mountains pose no obstacle here) and calls much cheaper than those in western countries. One network charges 500 francs (less than $1) for half an hour to the US. Rwanda at the moment is investing heavily in laying Broadband cables throughout the country and wants to be at the cutting edge of new technologies in Africa.
District HQ

What might I have to offer? Well, until 2009, French was the medium of instruction in Rwandan schools. Then the government made the decision to switch to English to fall in line with the other three main countries of the East African Community (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda). The fifth EAC country, Burundi, retains a French curriculum. (This was the same time that Rwanda applied for and was accepted to join the Commonwealth, only the second country - Mozambique is the other - to become a member outside the former British  Empire.) Naturally moving to English has been tough on the teachers who had to, almost overnight, teach in a language which most don't speak and in which they did not study. Many of the Head Teachers suffer the most because they don't even have the opportunity to practise their English through the delivery of subjects in it. I, therefore, talk to most of the HTs in French about their Action Plans, help with French to English translations of curriculum documents and will present training sessions in French and English on practical ways to improve the delivery of course work. I may also do in-school training sessions for staff although that is, strictly speaking, not part of my brief.

Then it's back down the hill to a chorus of 'good mornings' - although it is the afternoon - many more muttered 'muzungus' (it's like seeing an elephant pass and saying 'elephant' except that we are not as rare as elephants in Kibungo) and, finally, the pleasant peace on the other side of the gate.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Moving Forward

I know it's a tiresome slogan that nearly led to the defeat of Julia Gillard at the last Australian election, but things have moved forward since the last episode. Not of course in the political sense of invoking a bright new future under the steady stewardship of the great helmswoman. No, our 'forward' is much more prosaic. Joseph, our surplus to requirements night guard, has gone. He hung around for nearly two weeks, a mysterious phantom appearing out of the darkness at the oddest moments, creating, for us, an ethical pickle about protocols regarding correct procedures on how to offload inherited human beings. It's not in the VSO handbook. The owner of the house, charmingly called Chaste, failed to appreciate our quandary. Just tell him to leave was his simple advice.

This is very hard when you feel like an utter bastard, quite apart from not having the local language skills to be able to tell the time let alone inform some poor bloke that his days are numbered and he's going to soon find himself out on the street. However, it turned out he had another house to go to and was probably just using our pad as a bolt hole to get away from the chores and the squawking brats who just wouldn't give him enough time to be alone with his thoughts and to read the little book that he carried around with him everywhere.
Nice view and immaculate courtyard
My boss Valence, who has responsibility for ensuring our domestic wellbeing, finally turned up one day and gave Joseph his marching orders. He had been the guard under the old regime. There had been a legitimate transfer of power and we were the new occupiers requiring a fresh palace guard - or something like that. I, of course, being a guilt-ridden bleeding heart wanted to thank Joseph for his sterling surveillance efforts on our behalf and made a convoluted speech which was twice as long when translated into Kinyarwanda by Valence. Adjectives like impassive or inscrutable do not do justice to the man's countenance.

On the upside, Valence brought a delightful young man called Justin to be Joseph's replacement. He has a charming smile and loves sweeping up every last molecule of vegetation that dares to violate the spotlessness of our surrounds. Sweeping is a national obsession. I went to get a late evening beer from the local bottle shop just now and nearly tripped over two hunched women desperate to remove a few leaves from the public dirt path before nightfall. To all intents, it looks as though Rwandans must run Tidy Courtyard competitions similar to our Tidy Towns' ones. More likely, the neatness fixation is at least partly a result of householders risking rebuke or a fine for not keeping up with the immaculate Emmanuels next door.
Oops, there's a leaf in the yard

Justin's other duty, as well as his watching and sweeping briefs, is dealing with the rubbish. There is no public collection. It is normally burnt or buried but if there is a piece of unhoused land over the back wall, as in our case, then why bother going to the trouble of digging a pit or burning it when a quick heave does the business. Stella is determined that Justin's first rubbish drop over the wall will be his last! For turning up at 6 in the evening and leaving at 6 the following morning seven days a week - no sickies or holiday leave I'm afraid - Justin receives the princely sum of 20,000 Rwandan francs a month ($34) which I have somewhat daringly paid him in advance. (Gosh, he might rush off with the loot into Tanzania and set up a Blue Band factory!).

The salary is actually 5000 francs above the rural average for a house guard which is considered a relatively well-paid and easy job for a family man with two children like Justin. By comparison, a starting teacher only earns around 30,000 francs or $50 a month. I earn 170,000 francs a month ($285), which we will struggle to survive on given that Stella isn't in paid work. She will, however, be volunteering at the local college. We have already eaten substantially into our three month salary advance so will definitely be using our savings especially for occasional trips away when we have to stay in a hotel.
Grey-crowned Crane

Which is what we decided to do on the weekend where we stayed at a delightful spot by a lakeside appropriately called Seeds of Peace situated right next to Jambo Beach ('hello' in Keswahili). A grassy embankment and a tame Grey-crowned Crane overlooking water may not a standard beach make, but whoever said that sand had to be the key constituent? We wandered around with our binoculars and examined an enormous and grotesque Marabou stork perched on one leg on the electricity pole directly opposite the entrance. A bus arrived to take us homewards and we piled into the already overcrowded vehicle to once again be intimate with a bunch of complete strangers. An attractive woman was sitting on my left thigh and I was inadvertently caressing her neckline. Honest guv! There was great hilarity with many 'muzungus' dropped into a conversation which probably went something like this:

"I thought these muzungus were standing there with cameras."

"Weren't they?"

"No, turns out they're big eye glasses (amalunetta)."

"You're taking the mickey. Not taking pictures. What were they doing then?"

Expectant faces all round. "Okay, steady on now 'cos you're not gonna believe it. They were looking at birds (inyoni). Yes, they were looking at BIRDS."
The Marabou culprit back on two legs

The bus then exploded uproariously with laughter and several passengers needed treatment for hyperventilation. Altitude (and the presence of daft muzungus) does that here.

Okay so I made the last bit up but the moral of the story is still sound. If you are a birding nerd (similar to being a trainspotter) then don't broadcast it unless you have a very thick skin, have a face that doesn't redden easily or, in my case, a face that is already red through a combination of time spent in the outdoors and the taking of Doxycycline antimalarials. It's got nothing to do with the Mutzig beer!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Road to Kibungo

My new boss Valence, the District Education Officer, came to collect us at Amani Guest House in the afternoon, complete with driver, to take us to our new home in Kibungo two hours to the south east of Kigali. Chauffeur driving sounds grander than the reality. The car was a beat up old Corolla and Stella and I were in the back, legs scrunched up and piled high with bags.
Our house
In failing light we reached our abode, a large if rather dingy house hidden behind a wall on the main street leading into Kibungo. Unfortunately both the power and water were off and the place hadn't been cleaned. Oh, and there was no bed. But apart from that there was nothing to complain about (although we did and stayed in a hotel for the next two nights while things got sorted out!). There were also several men loafing about when we arrived and it turned out that one of them came with the house - a bit like inheriting an old chest of drawers left in the spare room. House guards are common in Rwanda and it turned out this fellow had been looking after the house for the two months it had been empty OR rather that the real house guard had fallen off his bike and hurt his foot and the new bloke had stepped into the breach to help out for the last few days only. You know how complicated these stories can get in strange lands with unknown languages badly translated. Suffice to say it was a difficult situation with Joseph living in a outhouse behind the kitchen and carrying out his 'guard' duties mostly from a horizontal position on his mattress.
Where to get a mattress when you come to visit

We escaped to the local hotel where our bedroom pleasingly came with a mosquito net. Even so, I still managed to spend half the night hitting my face imagining that the mozzies, outside the net, were in fact inside. Rwandan coffee is excellent and two strong cups with stale bread and jam were fortification enough for a sally into the throbbing centre of the one horse town. Almost immediately we saw the strangest thing. Muscular men in pink and orange uniforms were marching, two by two, along the main street each swinging a large axe or club in their free hand, fingers of the other loosely intertwined with their buddy's in that friendly male to male African way. These were prisoners from one of two nearby jails out on a work assignment and as far as I could see without a single guard supervising them.
Typical street scene

Now this might be considered a very enlightened (or a very daft) policy. The message seems to be, not only have confidence in the reformative powers of your criminals but push their dark side to the limit by arming them with dangerous weaponry in a busy shopping street. I believe the pink uniform policy comes from South Africa where the wearing of feminine colours by hardened male criminals has apparently had a positive effect on reducing their rage. A colleague said that you can get away with such a liberal policy in Rwanda because the country is so small and crowded that prisoners can easily be captured if they do decide to go on the run.
Lovely market fruit seller

When we finally got into our house, now with all the basic accoutrements for simple living (minus a fridge in case you are wondering), we discovered to our shock that the second town prison, this one solely for bent coppers, was just across the road. Policemen, it appears, are not reformed by marching along the streets in coloured uniforms gaily waving axes. Instead, their rehabilitation involves getting up before 5 o'clock, then chanting discordantly and banging on drums until about the time most normal people wake up (when they probably go back to bed and have a good sleep). Quite the way to win hearts and minds. Earplugs are now compulsory early morning headwear and sit in readiness between our pillows next to the torch, the eye mask and the bottle of water - inside our mosquito net. It's like being on a permanent camping holiday.
The nightly shroud

On weekends we even get a special noise bonus. The Evangelical Restoration Church is directly behind the house. Saturday is rehearsal day and, as I write, I can hear the preacher hyping himself up into the microphone to get his voice into ecstatic trim for tomorrow's day long hallelujahs. (The Jehovahs two houses along, by comparison, seem quite quiet - maybe they've given up on boisterous invocation after their last, predicted apocalypse failed to materialise). As a youth I used to think that a one-hour church service was hard going - saved only by fits of giggling under the pews - but even standard Protestant and Catholic services here can go for three to four hours. I was met with perplexity when, in Kigali, I suggested meeting a Rwandan couple socially on a Sunday morning. "But won't you be attending church," he exclaimed. I resisted the temptation to say that I was a practitioner in the Church of Down Under and that unfortunately there were no suitable places of worship in the vicinity that accorded with my strange antipodean belief system and its cult of the Big Koala. "No" was the best I could come up with.
Reunited once again

I went out to get some Blue Band to put on our bread. When you see rows of it sitting on dusty hot shelves you do wonder what's in it and I would tell you but for the fact that I don't have a magnifying glass with me. Vitamins is the only word I can read - repeatedly. It must be chock full of them. There may be little refrigeration but the Blue Band doesn't seem to care which could be part of the reason that it's no longer found in western supermarkets. But, hey, we're still alive and looking at the container brings back so many childhood memories of other culinary delights such as tripe and black pudding (a kind of sausage to the uninitiated). Quaker oats from Fife is another one that pops up here in the oddest of places. Don't be surprised to find it in the ironmonger's, local bar or sewing machine shop. It's what I have for breakfast.
Packed with goodness

On the way home with my loot I was nearly knocked down by a herd of holies obviously late for an important vigil. (Should the collective noun be a Habit of Nuns?) There could be real tourist potential in Kibungo with a Running of the Nuns event similar to Pamplona's famous bull run.
House from the front with usual onlookers

It was 6 p.m. when I approached the house.

A little boy said (as many do): "Good morning"
I replied: "Hello" (not wanting to correct him)
He responded: "Very well thank you, and you"

I had broken the rote code by not saying, "How are you?" There is clearly much work to be done and I ought to tell you soon a bit about the reason I am actually here. But before that I'll give you some good news. The District Education Officer and I have become friends. We've started holding hands.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Kick off in Kigali

We hung a right out of Nairobi back around into Tanzania then across Lake Victoria before arriving in a very hazy early morning Kigali - and like Julian and George in the Famous Five - in a state of some excitement. After the months of long preparation and occasional angst we were finally reaching our home for the coming year. VSO staff were waiting to welcome us, each with a flower of indeterminate bloom (no honest guys it was a lovely gesture!), and after a few bureaucratic hiccups and some concern over a piece of missing luggage belonging to Angel, a Filipina volunteer, we were on our way zooming along very good roads over a few of the thousand hills for which the country was best known before the genocide.

The Amani (God) Guest House was to be our sanctum for the next 10 days of ICT (in-country training). In that time we would learn a little of the jobs we were about to do, shake a lot of hands and stumble a bit in the indigenous language, Kinyarwanda. In dribs and drabs all the other vols (volunteers) arrived save one poor Canadian who was held up in Europe for several days because of incorrect paperwork. There are now 22 new arrivals, to be spread out over the country, including three accompanying partners, one of whom is Stella. Most are in the teaching/education side of things but some are working in disability and one volunteer is actually helping to set up a business in essential oils a matter about which he freely admits he knows nothing. That gave us all a lot of confidence, not because of schadenfreude, but out of a sense of our own limitations in tackling new endeavours.
Little Aubergines

Over the course of the ten days, we learned to savour the delights of the Rwandan melanje, from the French melange or mixture, which, anyone who has been to France will know, is a kind of cuisine the French abhor. When I used to pile up meat and three veg on my plate at my workplace north of Paris in the 1970s 'quel melange' was the equivalent of 'quelle horreur'! But hey, the melanje is good tucker if a little samey and has turned me into a 90% vegetarian as the goat meat is usually pretty tough and the fried tilapia a tad rubbery. But Rwandan avocados are bigger and sweeter than the Aussie ones, so there.
Stella's fish shop next to a holier one

I know it's tough on round ball haters (not another nil-nil draw is a popular Aussie refrain) but the World Game really brings people together like no other activity, except for a good punch up perhaps. I remember black-market, currency-exchanging my way around Eastern Europe in Iron Curtain days (how much for your Levi's?) when the mere mention of Bobby Charlton and Denis Law was enough to thaw the heart of the toughest KGB agent or hard-nosed, underemployed waiter. If the latter was being a bit difficult about dishing up the stodge in the westerners' restaurant then a few 'Bobby Charltons and Ferenc Puskases' and bingo you got served!
Soccer mad kids and paper ball

Well Rwanda isn't quite like that but the linguistic mix in bars makes for interesting exchanges. Some of us vols went down to watch the Tottenham vs Man U game on Sky TV and a conversation with the locals went something like this:

- Amakuru?
- Very good
- Qui gagne?
- Wayne Rooney
- Ryan Giggs

Big smiles all round. Actually it was a crap game (another 0-0 draw!) and we were disappointed to have missed the exciting 2-2 between Liverpool and Everton which preceded it.
Typical crowded mini-bus

I'm sure you were all following the Under 17s African Cup which was played in Kigali and in which Rwanda made the final. I watched the semi with some of the local cleaners and the exuberant fist punching when Rwanda got the winning goal left me needing to be subbed. In the final Rwanda were robbed when Burkina Faso's winner clearly didn't cross the line. In a British pub people would have been hurling abuse and frothing at the mouth but here there was complete acceptance of the decision. Quite surreal actually. Prior to that Rwanda had scored a beautiful equalising goal to offset BF's soft opener. Gee, you should have seen the celebrations in the bar. My barely recovered knuckles took another pounding following a complicated series of finger interlocks and handshakes.

Our son Liam, who hitchhiked around Africa in 2009, has written very amusingly about African handshakes in his blog at: http://awoliam.blogspot.com/2009/12/guide-to-african-handshake.html  It's well worth a look.
Wow, as I write this, I've just seen my first collegial head butt. Two Head Teachers shook hands, then held each other's fingers for a while before stepping forward and gently connecting foreheads. One of the dudes then repeated the gentle action with another HT. That's not the way we do it in Glasgow!

I can't leave Kigali without mention of its Genocide Memorial to the 800,000 who died in those infamous three months from April 1994. It is also the burial site for 275,000 of the slain. Opened in April 2004 to commemorate the genocide's tenth anniversary, it stands on a hillside with a wonderful view across the valley to Kigali city centre. Alongside the mass graves, a Wall of Names is gradually displaying the thousands of victims. Some sections of the memorial are not for the faint-hearted especially the moving audio-visual testimonies and the special section, with photographs, dedicated to the children who were slaughtered.

The British High Commissioner, who has just left after a three-year stint in the country, paid us a visit and gave a robust, no-holds barred account of the past and present political situation in the country. It was refreshing and unexpected to hear talk like this from a career diplomat and very different to the simpering toady who welcomed us as English teachers in Malaysia all those years ago. An insider vol, who works in the UK parliament, says that in the last 10 years there has been a new breed of outspoken civil servant sent to distant lands. If that's true elsewhere as well, then hats off to the new Sir Humphrey Applebys running Whitehall.

The bonding VSO 'family' party on the final Saturday was a grand event culminating in a performance by Rwanda's celebrated Intore dancers. Intore means 'the best' and is a traditional dance that dates back centuries when selected young men were given special choreographic training to perform at the royal court and on ceremonial occasions. Predictably the evening ended with some enthusiastic audience participation in which I felt honour bound, as the only Aussie vol in the current intake, to take part. It was also a chance to shake my rusty, now-retired, soccer legs (boo hoo).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Cavorting in Kenya

Arrived in Nairobi on the eve of 3 January with some anxiety. Being fed the Nairobbery appellation ad nauseam and then turfed out into a dark street with a ton of year long baggage is not calculated to instil calmness. A lovely young Kenyan woman helped out the fogies with a SIM card purchase and money transfer before we were whisked (if you can be whisked in a beat up taxi along pot-holed roads) to the posh side of town where all the embassy staff, UN employees and rich businessmen live behind barbed wire compounds with 24 hour security guard.

We were going to be staying with Ravi (who works on the UN carbon credit REDD project) and his wife Sabina in their large, well-protected house - a barrier into the estate where they live, into their property with guard, two barking dogs and a locked gate separating downstairs from the upstairs bedrooms just to be on the safe side. There is a huge division between the haves and the have nots in this sprawling city of 3 million with a ghetto (Kibera) of nearly half a million people and a population projected to grow to 4 million in less than 10 years such is the birth rate of the country (3.4% p.a.). Lots of African cities are in the same boat (Lagos, Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg etc) as the rural poor come to try their luck, fed on the self made myth perpetuated by an urban cousin or that rich man down the road who drives a Mercedes and lived for a time in the capital city.

The cliché about fear feeding fear must be true because the big mansions seem to be out competing each other in security protection and there is even talk of carjackings between embassy land and the airport so the rule is never to slow down below 100 km/hr if unfortunate to be travelling in the dark. It's difficult to know the truth of this in five minutes' experience but I can tell you that on the way from the airport there were moments in the pitch darkness of suburban Nairobi when I looked sideways at driver John and wondered when the gun or machete (I had been reading about the Rwandan genocide after all!) was going to come out and be pointed at my throat most probably after he had led us on a merry circuit to the back of beyond and not in fact to the plush residences of post-colonial Africa. Oh the shame, John was a lovely honest bloke who went out of his way to take us to the right place after a false turn into a barricaded back alley was quickly rectified. So I have now decided that Nairobi is a totally safe city with lovely reliable people and an unfortunate, ill-deserved reputation based on a few bad eggs. Same all over eh - always the few that spoil it for the rest?

This was reinforced the next day when we went to visit Kez, a white rhino specialist, who lives on the other side of the city near the famous centre for the threatened Rothschild's giraffe. After the compulsory slobbery kiss and cuddle with a pair of delightful, long-necked ungulates whom we shall call Martha and Arthur, it was off to the totally open and unprotected property Kez owns and which backs on to a few acres of bushland. Here warthogs roam by day - one big uggie has even learned to beg on hind legs like a dog for a treat - and bushbuck and bushbabies appear by night. We got to climb a ladder to a little tree platform and feed the latter - world's cutest creatures - some very over ripe bananas. Guests for dinner say that southsiders take a sanguine approach to security and it seems to work for them, as they had no horror stories to report. Strange to experience Nairobi from two such varying perspectives in less than 24 hours.
African Paradise Flycatcher (white morph)

I won't tell you about the many wonderful wildlife adventures we had up the Rift Valley bar one. (I will just include a few pics of critters including my award winning African Sea Eagle catching a fish - don't nick it, it's copyrighted!) Anyway, I buggered my back getting in and out of a jeep in Lake Nakuru National Park, took the anti-inflammatories when I got to Lake Baringo which upset the tum tum etc. You know the sequence I'm sure. Anyway, it was the middle of the night and I was groaning in the lavvie when I heard, I swear to god, a whinnying noise on the other side of the flimsy wooden frame. I knew there were hippos about and had seen and heard them wheezing and farting on other occasions but never sounding like a horse. They're dangerous big bastards so I was looking out for the hippo guard in the pitch dark to come and escort me back to our native hut or Banda. No joy, why is there never a hippo guard when you need one? Gee, you should have seen me fly, bad guts or not, across that compound imagining the lumbering beast behind travelling at the 45 km per hour they are reputedly capable of. Don't get between a grazing hippopotamus and water! Now all you classical scholars will know that hippo comes from the Greek word for horse which made me question the naming intelligence of these ancients. Until now!
Pearl-spotted Owlet

We took a matatu back to Nairobi. These are public transport vans used by most people to get around and famously have two speeds - stationary and flat out. Conversation between two of the passengers in Keswahili was animated and I thought I overheard the words Mandela and British. Enquiring about the nature of the dialogue we were told that they were just talking about usual stuff like roads. So in fact what I thought might be a heated political exchange was maybe more of a 'best to take the A42 out of Lake Baringo, then turn right at Marigat on to the B312 to make sure of avoiding the road works at Naivasha' kind of a chat.
African Fish Eagle

On the open road, oncoming vehicles flash their lights at you in much the same way that cars in the west advise of speed traps ahead. The Kenyan version seems to be more of a warning that policemen are about to flag you down, probably to extort cash, on the pretext of some minor vehicle or traffic infraction. Except in big towns like Nakuru where they are more likely to lock you up, as baksheesh taking could be spotted. Consequently, our driver had to make a convoluted detour for some carburettor adjustments in a dingy yard and sent us walking through the back streets to make our connection back to Nairobi and the flight to Rwanda.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Detour to Dubai - the non African start to our year in Rwanda

We duly arrived in Disneyland, sorry Dubai, on New Year's Day as goggle-eyed as the next person to see this famous Giant Pyramid Scheme in action. Why bother completing one project when foolish investors and banks are prepared to cough up for the Next Big Thing with ever more outrageous attractions for the short attention span of the consuming public.

The smaller shopping malls, left in the lurch, have to clutch at straws to retain or attract customers, in one case with an imitation London Bridge. Situated off a six-lane freeway with limited access it looked like it was struggling to compete with newer malls. These offer massive aquarium entertainment - full of the rare and long lived fish no longer readily found in the oceans swimming beside you while you buy your latest Gucci bag - or 'carbon neutral' artificial ski slopes when the outside temperature may be close to 50 degrees C. Now there is a plan to build a city bigger than Hong Kong stretching for 10 km to the north of the current coastal spread. No doubt monster attractions, perhaps a specially built giant air-conditioned mountain for climbers, will excite the moneylenders and inflate the bubble economy for a little while longer. Mmmm, anyone got some spare cash?

All the while the debt burden accumulates as gross endeavours like the island project 'The World' collapse in a heap of sinking sand. This and other madness is bailed out by multinational banks and oil rich Abu Dhabi, the senior partner in the Emirates scam, supporting a resource poor Dubai solely dependent on its endless building boom to keep up its part of Mammon's bargain. Only 25% of the Dubai population are Emiratis and have all the power but don't care much for work. This is done by the Pakistanis, Indians and Filipinas who can be thrown out of the country in bad times as happened to some in the recent downturn. Who knows, the lucky clan of nomads who wandered into Dubai creek in the 19th century, claimed it as their own and still operate it as an extended family business, could soon see themselves back running goats instead of multi-billion dollar follies.