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

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Family Visit

Last week I had the opportunity to travel north towards Uganda for a couple of days combining a visit to study the work practices and statistical marvels of a fellow management advisor (IT whiz Ken) in the town of Kabarore in Gatsibo district, with a stop at the family home of our friend Theo at Muhura (S 01.72630 / E 030.26818 - altitude 1795m) one hour west of the main road south of Kabarore. Theo has been keen, for some time, for us to meet his parents although unfortunately Stella couldn't come as it clashed with one of her English classes.
A surprise at the top
We reached the turn off well beyond Lake Muhazi (where President Paul Kagame has a weekend retreat on the far shores). Five minutes of intense haggling later we set off by moto up the rutted, dirt road to the top of the range where sits the biggest Catholic Church I have ever seen in Rwanda. Close by and somewhat incongruous, given the surrounding privation, was the Motel Refugio Italia which I believe is Italian only in name and architectural appearance. You are more likely to be offered beans, rice, chips or goat brochette than a carbonara, risotto or spaghetti bolognese although, apparently, a Spanish omelette can be arranged.
Setting off to Theo's family home with coffee plantation
Some time later when the bone-jarring journey ended, as a winding side track finally petered out, we clambered off the motos and I removed the protective dust trousers and jacket which I have started wearing since the end of the wet season. My hands were a filthy orange colour from dirt churn after tensely gripping the metal support bar at the back of the moto. A few drops of precious bottled water and a discreet squirt of hand gel (what a godsend it's been bringing bottles of that) and some semblance of muzungu respectability was restored. Appearance is very important to Rwandans and I couldn't be introduced to Theo's parents looking like Mr Scarecrow. We proceeded down a steep hill passing between sorghum, banana and coffee fields. Theo waved to everyone tending their crops and they responded with amakuru toto (how are you, young one) - his childhood nickname.
An aunty plus family en route
I was introduced to several smallholders in front of their mud houses most of whom seemed to be aunties and uncles of some kind. I thought for a minute that we were going to have to walk to the other side of the deep valley when suddenly Theo pointed to the house right below us. We had arrived and after skidding down the slope in my city slicker shoes I went to introduce myself to a couple we were sifting through beans in the family's front yard. It turned out they were unrelated neighbouring farmers with no personal space to dry and sort their produce. It is common practice to allow others to share in return for the expectation that the yard will be left in the spotless condition in which it was found.
Arriving at the family home
Tharcissie (Mama) and Etienne (Papa) are a delightful couple who went out of their way to make me feel welcome. Although very poor they went to the trouble of cooking a delicious meal of rice, beans and peas with eggs freshly laid by their chooks. They even sent d'Amour, Theo's youngest brother, up the hill to buy four bottles of coca cola for us to wash down the food. That's 1000 francs (nearly $2) of scarce cash. Tharcissie makes the most exquisite baskets and insisted on giving me one as a gift. It is now proudly hanging in our living room back in Kibungo. She worked tirelessly on the one you see in the pictures the whole time we were there. It takes her at least three days to make one for which she receives a meagre 5000 francs (~$8) from a cooperative which sells them in Kigali. The coop provides the dyes for free and the baskets are made from local reeds usually papyrus. Etienne makes an occasional income from selling the coffee in his small plantation and they have two cows in a backyard enclosure. They are by no means the poorest people in the valley. The little boy, Gashuhe, in the bottom picture standing in front of me is a neighbour's child who was initially frightened by the appearance of the strange, white alien. It was only later on sorting through photographs that I realised how badly he was suffering from malnutrition. His simple bewilderment, face to face, now looks a little more haunted in image retrospect.
Etienne, Tharcissie and Theo with the gift basket
There are six children in the family. Theo(phile), 26, studies in Kibungo; Jackson, 22, is a taxi driver in Kabarore; Joselyne, 20, the only girl, has left school and lives at home doing chores; Theodomir, 18, lives with his grandmother; Wilson, 16, goes to the big school at the top of the hill and lives at home; d'Amour, 13, is at school and lives at home. There are, therefore, five people living in the house you see in the photographs. I was only shown Theo's old bedroom so cannot imagine where they all sleep.
Theo's old bedroom which he reclaimed immediately by putting his bag on the bed!
Theo disappeared for a lengthy period leaving me to fend for myself in Kinyarwanda with Tharcissie and French with Etienne. Although he hadn't spoken French in years the old school grammar came back and we chatted about farming, beer and the government's decision to move all the valley farmers to the top of the hill as part of its village consolidation policy. A neighbour has already accepted the decision and is set to move out. Etienne worries about not being close to his coffee plants but Tharcissie is keen to move as she doesn't want to spend her old age alone and isolated in the valley. She thinks a move to the hill top will signal better transport access, health care facilities and closeness to water supply. Paradoxically, the water they use is pumped up to the top of the hill from the foot of the valley and farmers, or usually their children, have to climb up to fill their containers with tap water.
View of home from the back
The government has promised to provide housing for all displaced valley dwellers although it remains to be seen where, and to what standard, the houses will be built, as the ridges have limited available land. The idea is then to knock down the valley houses and expand the area of productive farmland. Farmers will then have to go down the hillslopes each day to look after their cropland.
Tharcissie at work nearing completion of a basket
Theo had been off visiting nearby friends and when he returned it was time to head off down the bumpy road and onwards to Kabarore where he was going to stay with an uncle while I was working with Ken. Tharcissie and Etienne accompanied us back up the hill to await the return of the moto drivers. There, on a shady part of grass, three raggedy children climbed all over me chanting 'good-a-morning' as Etienne explained to the army of onlookers who I was and why I was there. I heard plenty of 'mwarimu' (teacher) and no 'padre' which was pleasing to my secular ears. A guy in a Manchester United op shop jersey (remember Ruud van Nistleroy!) made an appearance but he didn't want to discuss their disastrous second half performance in the Champions League final in May. Some of these onlookers would perhaps have been crowded round the Motel Refugio Italia bar watching the razzamatazz at Wembley Stadium on satellite television. What would they have made of it? Is it any wonder that some might believe muzungus have money growing out of their nose hairs?
Etienne, Tharcissie, Gashuhe (little boy in front of me), Keza (godchild), Joselyne, d'Amour
The crowd looked on, fascinated, as I struggled into my plastic dust trousers hoping I wouldn't topple over. Then, with 'murakozi cyane' (thank you very much) and 'murabeho' (goodbye), smiles and waves, we were gone. The downhill exhilaration was about to begin.

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