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

Monday, March 28, 2011

Exploring Akagera Fringes

We set off from Kibungo as early as we could. A dawn start with a group of four is like herding cats. It's always the hats and the raingear you have to go back for. Jared and Michelle are young volunteers working for an American organisation, who live not far away, and they had come to spend the weekend with us. Jared, in particular, is as keen a birder as it is possible to be. To the uninitiated reader, this necessarily entails having, not just a life list of bird sightings, but a day one as well. His enthusiasm was welcome as it would allow me to be lazy with my own note taking which is a little episodic in any case. He was also happy to bring his heavy bird book. I seldom bring mine anyway preferring, stupidly, to check doubtful sightings later at home when deciphering details of an obscure species, whose characteristics seemed so obvious at the time, becomes more than a little speculative sitting in an easy chair with Mutzig in hand.
Story conflation - this one was taken the day before at a nearby lake
Reaching the edge of Akagera NP involves taking motos from Kabarondo, a small town north of Kibungo, and travelling along a bumpy, dirt road for 40 minutes to a small outlying village called Nyankura. We were hoping the moto drivers would take us to the park entrance with a little bit of encouragement and a bonus payment. There we would walk backwards and explore the acacia woodland which is not part of the park proper. I was with the moto leader in our convoy and kept saying 'komeza gike' or 'go on a bit more' in hope that we wouldn't be dumped in the middle of Nyankura with its overly friendly children who would undoubtedly want to follow us wherever we went for the rest of the day.
Nyankura is a frontier town much of which didn't exist 20 years ago when the park was two and a half times bigger than its current size. In 1997 three years after the genocide, thousands of refugees had returned from Uganda and Tanzania with nowhere to live and, to accommodate them, much of the northern part of Akagera was de-gazetted for public use. It is now 1085 square kilometres in size compared to 2500 previously and no lions are left. In our area, which is further south, most of the encroachment appears to have been done by stealth and the park and its wildlife is under daily pressure from poachers and woodcutters.
My functional Kinyarwanda must be improving because we successfully reached our destination - just in time for an enormous Martial Eagle to soar overhead and the heavens to open. Luckily, we were able to take shelter in an unoccupied guard post which has been built with the long term goal of fencing in the whole of the park against intrusions. Unobserved through the observation slats we watched an Impala and newly born foal cross the road. Red-necked Spurfowl were busy everywhere. Common Duiker danced away into the scrub. Water and Bushbuck bounded off but seemed to know where the park boundaries lay.
After an unusually long drizzle (it was almost as cold as a Scottish summer's day!) the rain stopped and - this is unlikely in Scotland - we stepped out of our chilly quarters to observe the swooping of a pair of Lilac-breasted Rollers and the water shaking antics of a family of Bare-faced Go-away-birds. Grey Hornbills and a beautiful Pearl-spotted Owlet (see picture in Cavorting in Kenya post and Picasaweb) sat close together in a bare tree. Not wanting to dilly-dally too long, we started back through the woodland parallel to the road. It was important not to stray too far inland to avoid stumbling across grazing Buffalo which are common, and one of African wildlife's biggest killers of careless humans.
Ross's Turaco
Very quickly things got interesting. A pair of Crested Barbet foraged, woodpecker-like, on a wizened tree. Yellow-fronted Tinkerbirds appeared nearby. Whoever thought up the charming name for these small cousins of the bigger barbets deserves a koala stamp of approval. A Ross's Turaco showed his clownish face through a fruiting tree. Black-faced Oriole and Levaillant's Cuckoo took advantage of the sunshine to start some much delayed feeding. We took a slight detour after noticing a resting African Fish Eagle and juvenile not far off. 'Eagle' and 'majestic' are as clichéd as 'a good time was had by all' but what other words can describe the mature bird in the picture? Interesting looking? Woodland and Malachite Kingfisher were here too. However, we didn't linger as the rich grasslands could easily have contained Buffalo.
African Fish Eagles
We headed closer to the road when suddenly we hit one of those rich birding moments where you wish you were an octopus - for its eyesight not the ink. The adrenalin rush, for those not especially interested in birds, is similar to playing football with a possible bite from a lurking Black Mamba replacing an opponent's boot against your shin in the danger stakes. Or for those interested in needlework maybe the adrenalin charge comes from trying to escape prickle attacks at giant quilting bees. Anyway, Greater Blue-eared and Ruppell's Long-tailed Starlings hawked the numerous insects present after the rains highlighting their brilliant iridescent plumages against the afternoon sun. A metallic bronze-green Diederik Cuckoo, with its clunky name, was far from awkward in its catching ability. Green Wood-hoopoes and Common Scimitarbills clambered among the tree branches looking for grubs. A Bearded Woodpecker tried to fool me into thinking it was another species. Meyer's Parrots squawked overhead. A delightful, little Miombo Wren-Warbler hopped across a hedgerow.
Crested Barbet
The older body simply cannot cope with so much excitement. I had been checking up on a bird in Jared's book and needed to switch from my reading glasses to my field ones when a large, female Red-chested Cuckoo swooped between the branches to grab its fill. No point hanging your specs round your neck where the heavy binoculars swing! I wonder how many pairs of crushed glasses there are lying in obscure parts of the bush. A long time ago some outdoors equipment designer had the bright idea that everything would be all right if you filled shirts with as many pockets as possible. The famous safari suits beloved of naturalists were born. But they are still not quite good enough because you have to remember where everything is in the voluminous pockets. Mice have been known to breed there amongst the used paper tissues and sandwich crusts. Ideally, I want someone to make a sunhat where I can safely place my reading glasses as well as my sunnies when the binoculars are in action. But can it be done?

Meanwhile the Black-headed Gonolek got away. Actually it didn't, I just wanted to type that name; we saw it the day before in Kibungo Valley but that is another story.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ode to Walking

Rwandans certainly have a culture of walking. They often have little other choice. Primary school pupils regularly walk two hours to come to school. What are the toughest things about being a teacher in Rwanda was a question asked in a recent educational survey. The answers one might expect would be large class sizes or poor pay but some said it was walking to school in the rain. Fair enough. This reflects the difficulty of getting about in a downpour with no protected means of transport.
Crowds of walkers
In a hot place like my hometown of Cairns, where the car is king, people don't walk very much. Here, I have started to walk a great deal. For exercise yes, but also because everyone else is doing it so why not follow. It seems lazy and indulgent to take a moto or taxi (minibus) when others are walking. A short taxi trip from the Rompway (intersection of the road north and south) to mu muji (the Kibungo buzzing heart) costs less than 20 cents but why pay unnecessary money, most people sensibly reason, when it is only 35 minutes' brisk walk - a trifling distance. Besides think of the conversations you can have while walking with someone, the laughter you can share; or the observations you can participate in - why has that car stopped and that crowd gathered - and, of course, there is the fascination with any strange individuals from foreign lands who happen by.
A nice view over the edge while out for a walk
Then, there are mobile phone calls to be made and received while walking and texts to be sent, miraculously done without tripping over that large paving stone right outside the eponymously named Stella Taxi Express Bureau five minutes from our house. I was walking along a street in Cairns once when the bloke in front of me phoned his girlfriend to let her know that he was walking along the street AND eating a sandwich. Must have been true love. I tried peering over his shoulder but couldn't see whether it was ham or cheese. Conversations here must be more profound because people don't eat or drink in public. By the way, my Stella predates their transport operation and has copyright on the name. I raise this because they tried to charge us for taking a picture of the sign provoking much harrumphing indignation on our part.
Walking up towards the Rompway
One of the school principals said he loved to walk to allow his mind to go blank. When I walk, on the other hand, I am thinking of workshops to prepare, emails to send, blogs to fix up, online banking that needs checking, articles to be read, Kinyarwanda words to learn, overseas children to worry about - and with my third eye I am on the lookout for that unusual avian sighting. Please not another Common Bulbul. Most of the above are, in some way, connected to things electronic which very few Rwandans have access to - not the birds, of course, but they usually require binoculars which are not exactly a common recreational device around these parts. The institutional, and self-inflicted, complexity of western life certainly requires massive and endless feeding. Be still busy brain. I should become a monk.
Woman carrying basket and baby

I tend to walk with my head down later in the day when my morning chirpiness has somewhat dissipated. But in the morning when my head is higher there are plenty of things to observe that make the walking experience worthwhile. Rwandans, for example, are always well. No 'okays' or 'not bads' in the daily greetings. Even if you have limbs missing, are in a prisoner's uniform, or dressed in rags and at death's door you are always 'mesa' or 'fine'. I said 'mabi' or 'bad' one day when I was exhausted coming up a hill after a gruelling hike and was asked how I was. The questioner, a subsistence farmer who lived in a mud hut, was horrified and quickly corrected me, informing me, whether I liked it or not, that my state of wellbeing was perfect. I tried to tell him I was just kidding but my Kinyarwanda wasn't up to it and doubtless left the impression that I was an ungrateful muzungu wretch who wasn't satisfied with his lot.
Chisel toe shoes

And yet in the office the other day two staff members were practising their English when one said that he 'wasn't so good'. There were chortles of laughter when I made him recant in Kinyarwanda but he had momentarily been given licence to be less than perfectly fine in a foreign language and that must have been a nice feeling. Rwandans certainly have many good reasons to moan but that's most likely the reason that they very seldom do.
With Theogeme

If I didn't walk a lot, I wouldn't notice the things that make life so charming here. The prison guard casually texting, back turned, while prisoners smash huge stones with pick axes while upgrading the entrance to the jail. I wouldn't risk taking or publishing a picture of prisoners but the Guardian newspaper can because they're bigger than me. See my edited article at:
The famous cafe

Observe too, the beautiful, polished, chisel-toed shoes that many Rwandan men wear, and keep clean, on the muddiest of footpaths. Footwear is considered very important here and I brought a safe, brown pair of shoes with me that don't show up the dust so easily. Chisel toes, like winkle pickers before them, are not quite my style. Then there are the elegantly dressed women with upright posture often carrying brown paper bags of goods, baskets or even sacks of potatoes on their heads. These weighty items never look in any danger of falling off or disturbing the grace of the bearer.
The controversial poster

A stroll helps pick out shops with funny signs like the Anti-Corruption Internet Café, with reputedly the fastest Internet service in town, where you maybe get to use the Internet for free in exchange for some 'useful information'. Rwanda has been called the least corrupt country in Africa and who am I to disagree. Often I will visit Theogeme at the petrol station shop at the Rompway, which appears to have the Quaker oats market tied up, and where I enjoy the warm greetings and fancy handshakes we exchange. Right outside, at the intersection, is one of those Sugar Daddy posters that cover the roadsides. It's part of a national campaign against men who support younger women financially usually for sex. This one is controversial. What is that woman on the right doing with the Shuga Dadi? Is she meant to be a pimp? If so, I should report her at the Anti-Corruption Internet Café in exchange for half an hour of free, fast downloads.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lake Kivu

Most of us are familiar with the Great Rift Valley that runs through the heart of Kenya and Tanzania all the way down to Mozambique and is famous for the large herds of wildlife we have all seen on television at one time or another. Less well known is the fact that there is another arm of the rift valley which runs down the western side of Rwanda, Burundi and beyond. These two small landlocked and mountainous countries are effectively the propped up land masses of the volcanic activity that created the rift valley divide 20 million years ago. Lake Kivu forms a natural border between Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and is one of a number of large lakes which submerge the western rift valley floor until the two arms join up again in southern Africa.
A bit of Oz in Africa

Bussing west out of Kigali, the road is much more mountainous and deeply sculpted than in the more moderate valleys in the east of the country. Started by the Chinese in 1990 it is, in parts, a significant engineering feat and is fully tarmacked all the way to Kibuye on the shores of the lake. Eucalypts, fir trees and little mud houses dot the terraced landscape. At one point we actually passed a forest, a rarity in the country, only to be reminded momentarily of what could have been an Australian national park. On snaking downwards with the lake now in view, it became obvious why Rwanda used to be called the Switzerland of Africa. Kivu is extraordinarily beautiful but it is only in recent times that it has started to gain repute as an international tourist destination although it has been popular for years with holidaymakers from Kigali.
View from the balcony

Sitting on the balcony at Home St Jean, a Catholic guesthouse just outside Kibuye, overlooking the lake, we were captivated by the rhythmic, echoed chanting of boatmen as they rowed across the placid waters below. We even scrambled down to the shoreline and braved the possible presence of bilharzia (or schistosomiasis) in the water to go for a swim. Actually, Kivu is supposed to be free of the parasite that causes the disease although others say that no fresh water lake is safe in sub-Saharan Africa. However, like Kilmarnock's chances of finishing fourth in the Scottish Premier League, I am quietly confident.
Chanting boatmen

The lake doesn't have a great biodiversity with relatively few species of fish compared to say, Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika. There are also no hippos or crocs, which may be due to the high methane levels trapped under the water, some of the gas having escaped to cause mass animal deaths and even extinctions in the past. Fortunately no gaseous emanations occurred when we were swimming - at least not from the lake itself! The government is trying to harness the reserves of methane for conversion to electricity through the construction of a large-scale processing plant outside Kibuye. This will also serve, long term, as a way of reducing the risk to the surrounding population from what is known as a limnic eruption of methane and carbon dioxide similar to what occurred at Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986 killing nearly 2000 villagers.
Arm of the lake

We hung out with a couple of English bikers travelling through Africa from south to north in, largely from what I gathered, wet season sludge. Lake Kivu's sunshine and beauty was a spirit lifter but when the conversation turned brown it was time to move on. Older people are mocked for discussing the number of pills they may be taking but young ones sure like to dwell on their bowel movements. Drink and eat anything, swim anywhere and don't spare the resultant, character-forming agonies. Why is it that diarrhoea invariably becomes dysentery and flu-like symptoms, probably from imbibing too much local brew, can easily be transformed into a raging bout of life-threatening malaria?
Local farmers

We headed off to check out some serious stuff. A stone's throw from our lodging stands the genocide memorial church where 11,400 people were killed in 1994. Lindsey Hilsum wrote about it in the publication Granta as quoted in the Bradt travel guide to Rwanda. "The church stands among trees on a promontory above the calm blue of Lake Kivu. The Tutsis were sheltering inside when a mob, drunk on banana beer, threw grenades through the doors and windows and then ran in to club and stab to death the people who remained alive. It took about three hours." The area around Kibuye and Lake Kivu was one of the worst for brutality during the three-month genocide. As the Bradt guide states: "of the estimated 800,000 or so people who lost their lives throughout the country during the genocide, more than 6% were slaughtered here in this area (Bisesero, high above Kibuye)............ When the genocide began on 7 April 1994, Tutsis from the whole surrounding region converged on Bisesero for refuge, numbering around 50,000 at their height........... By the time the French arrived at the end of June, only around 1,300 of the 50,000 were still alive."
Genocide memorial church

And yet the resistance they mounted for three, gruelling months, at altitude with virtually no food, against the onslaught from the military, the Interahamwe and enemy villagers was heroic, in appalling conditions, during the wettest months of the year. The current government's admirable policy of reconciliation will no doubt ensure that this story is not turned into a major motion picture. I was reminded looking at the mountains around Kibuye, for some strange reason, of those extraordinary sieges instigated by the Catholic church against the Cathars in the Pyrenean region of south west France and of the indomitable human survival instinct.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

High Altitude Commuting

Le Pays des Mille Collines (the land of a thousand hills) is really a tad ungenerous as a description of Rwanda. We live at an altitude of 1660 metres which, if my tribal memory serves me well, is at least 300 metres above Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. It is, therefore, with deep regret that I wish to inform my fellow Scots and the entire British tourism industry that oor biggest Ben is just a wee hillock to Rwandans.
Negotiating a moto

The roads tend to follow the hillcrests with most settlements stretched out alongside overlooking the deep green valleys below. I travel along these roads, dirt and occasionally bitumen, as pillion on a motorbike taxi (a moto) on days that I visit schools. Everywhere beneath me are smallholdings of bananas, interspersed with eucalypts and grevilleas. No problem then being reminded of my antipodean homeland! Aussies have fairly and squarely left their mark on the country although not a single student so far has heard of a kangaroo despite my energetic bounding around the classrooms. (Mind you, since they don't know what sandwiches and pizzas are either, maybe this isn't so surprising).
The Rwandan landscape

In this heavily deforested and overcrowded nation someone had the bright idea in the 20th century of filling the countryside with fast growing Aussie species. Only now do people realise how much water they draw up and many are being chopped down especially those close to roadsides where, from time to time, large sweet smelling sawn logs often lie in dangerous proximity to passing traffic. Another enlightened western scheme of the past is found wanting in the present. Hmm, maybe a few cane toads or myna birds could help eliminate those pesky Rwandan banana flies!

There aren't many vehicles on the roads and most danger comes from the endless throng of walkers stepping carelessly in front of the moto. Many stare and shout 'muzungu' as I pass but if I wave or manage an 'amakuru' (how are you) through my lifted visor, faces light up and waves are returned with the obligatory 'ni mesa' (it's fine). Schools are often situated in the oddest and most awkward of places on steep, rocky terrain and as we approach the motodriver has to slow right down as we bob and weave over rutted, eroded pathways. Two recent volunteers have already fallen off the backs of skidding motos approaching schools, fortunately only with minor scratches. Apparently it gets worse in the wet season. If this was a western country every school would have a lawyer's office situated close by.

There are 69 schools in my District of Ngoma, six of which are private and which I have included in my visits. In private schools (fees are about $35 equivalent per term) all subjects are taught in English except Kinyarwanda and French. In the public schools the government has just reversed its decision of 2009 to have all lessons in English and, as of late February, Grades 1, 2 and 3 are being taught in Kinyarwanda with English introduced as a language subject only. The switch to English medium occurs in Grade 4. Many would say this is a sensible decision. Imagine arriving at school as a 5 year old and having all your teachers talk to you in a foreign language. There are many parallels with the teaching of English in remote Indigenous schools in Australia and the debate there over English medium instruction versus some form of two-way or bilingual education.
New school building down a rocky escarpment

Although I am in schools to help the Head Teachers, I usually observe a few lessons. This is a revealing experience. The classes of around 40 are not as large as I expected, due to dropouts and absenteeism, and the children are very well behaved. Most of the private schools are Catholic (one is Seventh Day Adventist) and as I walk in - this freaked me out the first time - the little children say "Good morning Father". Cripes! I have, of course, adapted by responding with a beatific smile and a benedictory wave. May my dearly beloved father (the real one!) not turn in his Protestant grave!

The lessons are well enough prepared but heavy on technical language and very repetitive. If the children know the answer to a question they jump up and click their fingers in a strange forward pointing motion shouting 'teacher' which is out of keeping with their normal, reserved behaviour. If the answer is correct - usually a single word response - the class applauds rhythmically. The theme of the lesson is written on the board for the pupils to copy or chant.
Looking into a valley
A geography lesson, on the weather, to 10 year olds endlessly repeated the phrase: "weather is a condition of atmosphere at place in given time". Taught mostly by staff educated in French they struggle with English pronunciation. The children chanted "waytho ees" in imitation. The concept of the phoneme was presented to an English class whose comprehension barely extended to 'what's your name'. "The phoneme is the smallest unit of speech sound that is used to make one word different from another word". So now you know.

A second of time is "the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom" and a metre "the length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second". I just pinched those two from a Guardian Weekly article. But you get the picture. This is hardly a communicative methodology destined to enthuse a new generation of English speakers.