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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Rural Wedding

Our night guard, Justin, promised to invite us to his house some months ago. He wanted it to be during the dry season which is unsurprisingly also a good time for weddings so we got to kill two birds with one stone when he handed us a delightful little invitation to the wedding of his cousin in Kirehe district south of Ngoma on the way to Tanzania.
The invitation
Theo, our friend and Kinyarwanda teacher, was also invited and we set off by minibus in the morning. It's always nice to have Theo along, not just because he's a lovely guy, but because it takes the stress out of travel when you have a 'tour' guide who knows the ropes. We were to stop at the 114 kilometre stone from Kigali where Justin duly met us and took us to his house beside the busy road. Although it was before 11 o'clock his wife, Emmeline, regaled us with a big, tasty feed. Everyone got a coca cola too. Stella and I got to cuddle their new baby Philippe. Apparently the child doesn't like being handled by others but the muzungu magic seemed to work wonders and he slept, wheezed or smiled in our arms.
Theo and Justin with Philippe and Delphine, Justin's daughter
We all then walked along the road and up a slight incline to the bride's family home where the first part of the day's festivities was to take place. An awning had been put up over the front yard as shelter from the sun and a huge crowd of people was gathered on either side. With Justin leading, we squeezed our way through. There was a buzz as the guests all gazed expectantly in our direction. I said 'amakuru?' (how are you?) and in unison everyone chanted back 'ni meza' (well/fine) the force of which gave me a backbone tingle. We were led to comfy seats of honour facing the house which we automatically tried to refuse out of embarrassment, but only half-heartedly. This was clearly where we were meant to be and it was almost as if everyone had been waiting for us to arrive before the show could begin.
Scene from the house window
Once seated, we waved to the crowd and I shook the hands of those close by. An old guy to my left was clearly enjoying himself supping from a straw out of a gourd - sorghum beer said Theo, the moot point being whether it was alcoholic which the church would frown upon being drunk in public. He proceeded to fill the gourds of his companions with the murky liquid out of a jerrycan which had seen better days. It was great to have so many old people present as you don't see too many out and about. We were each given another coke something we seldom drink (unless it has a splash of rum!). I was thinking of the 16 spoons of sugar in my system from the two bottles but it would have been rude to refuse. I'll have to dry out when I get back to Australia! I don't think diabetes is a problem in rural Rwanda because they don't eat enough junk food, and sugary drinks tend to be for special occasions only as they are too expensive for day-to-day consumption.
The bride appears
A wedding 'spokesperson' shakes hands
Suddenly there was a commotion at the front door and the bride and groom appeared together. Although this was prior to the official church ceremony it was important for the bride's family, friends and neighbours to see them both in marriage gear as many wouldn't be able to go to the church service and the following visit to the groom's village where they would make their home. The couple met through singing in the church choir but they live about half an hour apart by road, a not inconsiderable distance in a society where the vast majority of people have no private means of transport. They moved around the limited space being presented to family members, the bride looking as miserable as possible at the knowledge of leaving her home.
Justin's mother
The booty
Eventually they departed, off to the church well ahead of the 2 o'clock service. This was the signal for their household goods to be carried out of the house and piled up in the yard in readiness for transportation to the couple's new home. Rwanda is a brideprice society, although most refer to it as a dowry, where the groom with the help of his family contribute a minimum $250 cow or its equivalent value to the marriage union. However, Theo was impressed at the value of the goods being brought out by the bride's family. Apart from furniture, a paraffin lamp, storage containers and a mattress, there was a bicycle and churns for the yoghurt. 'You know an able woman when she is churning' says a Rwandan cow-related proverb just as 'you know an able man when he is milking'.
Stella in wedding garb with goods waiting for minibus to the church
All the goods were brought down to the roadside and we hung about waiting for our minibus to the church. We got there with the service in full flow and I was immediately called into action as the official photographer hadn't turned up. A few others were snapping still using old instamatic film cameras. In many ways it was a typical Christian marriage ceremony except for the registry signing being done in full view (and no dad giving away the bride). There was no vestry in the rudimentary church building in any case. The choir was a funky African one of course and the instrumental support came from an electronic piano powered from a car battery.
The blessing
After the service we waited for our Chelsea supporting minibus driver with his dangerous, broken passenger door (it kept swinging open) to take us to the concluding part of the ceremony in the groom's village. There a house had been specially built for the young couple at the top of the escarpment overlooking the rice paddies in the valley below. It was quite a drive off the main road. When the imodoka (motor car!) minibus could go no further we started walking with half the gathering crowd paying attention to the young couple and the other half (especially the children of course) to us. There were welcoming committees along the way as villagers came out to sing and applaud the bridal couple. Periodically, they would stop to allow their person-in-waiting to dab at face sweat droplets which might spoil the perfection of their appearance and thus the day.
Face dabber at work. Groom's dabber with tissue at the ready
We went on ahead and took our seats next to a new expectant crowd. They were also mostly locals. With only two minibus loads having made the journey here we were indeed privileged. As the couple and their entourage continued to wait in the shade of a tree we asked what the hold up was. Apparently it was bad form for the couple to arrive before their household goods. It must have been stifling in the wedding gear as the day was hotter than usual. Eventually the stuff arrived and was brought directly into the house. I was free to go in and roam around. 'That's not where I wanted the chest of drawers put!' I could imagine the discussions afterwards. 'Thank goodness that day is over. Now to put our feet up and have a nice cup of tea!'
The newly built house for the young couple
The woman carrying the suitcase didn't even duck. There must have been a dress rehearsal!
But there was more! The couple had to go and sit down under the hot awning for an interminable period while the two families formally exchanged airmail envelopes, apparently containing best wishes and (maybe) money. No brown envelopes please! Then the speeches began. There's not much banter among guests at Rwandan gatherings but they are given to much solemn speechifying. I had been half expecting to speak at the bride's house and was mentally prepared but, by this time, I had switched off and was thinking of the Primus beer that Justin had promised back at his house. Suddenly I was told that it was my turn to 'guha ijambo' (lit. to give a word). For some reason the first word that came out of my mouth was 'amafaranga' (money). I was like Pavlov's dog. The key street word had obviously permeated my brain. I recovered, no one seemed to notice the faux pas - maybe they were just being kind or, since abazungu are made of amafaranga, they thought it would simply pour out of me there and then. Anyway, I made one of my poorer speeches in Kinyarwanda since I felt confident enough to stand up and talk in the language.
The million dollar view from the house (to the left)
During one of the other speeches, I kept hearing abazungu (white people) again and again and asked Theo for the context. It seems to have another meaning which is 'to be exact in what you do', supposedly one of our traits. The literal translation of part of the speech came back as follows: if you work like a white person (gukora nk'abazungu) you will ascend to heaven where the original abazungu sat at God's right hand making all people equal. How it got from the right hand to equality I don't know but we sure have a lot to live up to.
Under the awning at the groom's village and their new home. Bride's mother sitting to the right with tiara. The bride also had a crown but with flashing tiara!
The speeches finally over, there were some dances, a piece of poetry reading by a young boy that brought the house down, some food - which had been cooked in the backyard of the newly weds - including an important drink and food sharing moment between the couple, and the coup de grace - the receiving of presents from guests. These included our own contribution, on Theo's recommendation, of popular batik-style cotton. The bride continued to look glum the whole time the presents were given although Stella says she was smiling during my speech. Nice to know that those well crafted jokes cut through!
The sip from the hand of the groom that signifies so much
By this time it was getting quite late and we went, along with half the crowd, for a final sticky beak inside the couple's house. I glanced into the bedroom and saw the pair's individual minders dabbing at their faces as they sat on the bed. Then we had to hang around waiting for the Chelsea supporter to come back with his barely functioning minibus and take us to Justin's house for the promised Primus to finish off the day. We did get back eventually and drank beer in the candle light of Justin's front room where we analysed the events of the day and forged new bonds in Rwandan/Australian relations. We had of course left it too late to catch the last bus home and ended up hitching our first ever lift in the country on a truck going only part way back to Kibungo. At the point where the truck turned off we managed to find three motos to take us home for a suitably inflated evening price. The beautiful, star-lit sky, infusion of beer, cool evening breeze, exhilaration of speed and the knowledge that we were going to be able to get home after all, combined to imbue with a feeling of utter contentment after such a wonderful experience. We both agreed that it was probably the best day we have yet spent in Rwanda.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A rave affair - the Kibungo Expo

Last week Jen, a VSO methodology teacher from a nearby TTC (teacher training college), and I were asked to have an educational stand at the District of Ngoma Expo. Nearly $100 was required for the privilege - more than three months average household expenditure in these parts. Jen brought a load of English teaching goodies from her village and we turned up in the local field at the appointed time to dress our stand with as much panache and bunting as we could muster. Well, the crowds had never seen anything like it and, if there had been an award for best-attended stall, we would have won it hands down. Apparently we got big coverage on Rwandan national television.
Before the crowds, Jen and Theo prepare the displays. The pic looks into biogas space in shared tent
Most came to look on in amazement, as one might at recently discovered species from a remote valley in a far off land. Others, more worldly, wanted to glance at some of the reading materials or play the simple board games we had laid out. No one seemed to have heard of 'Snakes and Ladders' or other dice throwing games which can also be used to teach numbers or shapes. Teenagers played them endlessly with great relish never tiring of a simplicity that would have had most much younger western children bored within a few minutes. Students from a nearby secondary school asked questions about Snakes and Ladders like: 'what is the probability of winning?' or, 'what is the purpose of this game?' I had explained that it was used to give children confidence with 1 to 100 numbers in English but one particular student wanted more until I eventually said 'enjoyment'. 'That is not an objective' she said and walked off. Rwandans can be a very literal and serious people.
Crowds around the table
The District Education Officer was bitterly disappointed that Jen had not brought a dog-eared imitation cockerel and fake fish that he had seen in her resource room when touring the district with the Education Minister. He was on the blower in a trice demanding that the fish and cock be put on a bus in a special box and transported directly to the Expo! He must have been on to something because they became the star attractions of the stall. People would wander in and immediately pick them up in utter astonishment. Several wanted their pictures taken with Keza (the Beautiful) and the Fish (we had a 'Name the Cock' competition - sorry Fish).
Fish and Keza the Cock with fan
Some of our star quality rubbed off on the adjacent stall promoting biogas which their sniffy presenter had wanted sectioned off in a swirl of fabric. I urged open tent space with its symbiotic feedback loops and complementary synergies! Actually, they got all of the benefit from our crowd spillover with exhausted fish, cock, snake and ladder aficionados suddenly learning of the multiple benefits of using cow dung as a source of household cooking gas, light and fertiliser. Here I have to fess up to ignorance at the time of writing last week's post. I was wrongly informed that all cow dung for use as biogas had to be taken to Kigali and was unaware of the nascent small-scale biogas market. Gee, it's interesting. Here's how it works. In the schematic representation shown in the picture, slurry (cow dung and water) is fed through the spout on the left into the container (digester). The spout is closed off and the slurry ferments for around one month initially before producing methane through a small hole at the top of the digester which is connected to a pipe into the house. Fertiliser is automatically expelled into the tray on the right. Once functioning, the fermentation process is continuous with roughly four hours of energy time available for each digester load of slurry.
Expo representation of biogas digester with methane lamp on right
That's the good news. The bad news is the purchase and installation cost of about $1300 equivalent, which is a monumental sum for most farmers. $500 of that is a subsidy and the remainder is paid off over a three-year period in monthly instalments of roughly $20. Bear in mind that the average income/expenditure for most farmers is around $30 a month and you can see that during the pay back period they have to survive on about $10 a month. I asked one of the stand presenters about this and his argument was that the benefits of using the gas would offset the disadvantages, but collection of firewood as cooking fuel and absence of lighting are not current financial costs and the benefits of the fertiliser are a longer term gain. He admitted that promoting the biogas units to poorer farmers, with no surplus income and thus minimal opportunity to save, was a tough sell. Nonetheless, he said that the take up in Ngoma district was better than other parts of the country although he was vague on the actual figures. Here's hoping the costs come down, or the subsidy goes up, because it sounds like a top class idea.
Drawing of what the digester looks like next to a house
The Expo was a two day affair and we left the materials in the tent overnight knowing there was more than a modicum of security; the area was being patrolled by guards with rifles, others with heavy batons and yet more holding the thin, long sticks beloved of Rwandan school teachers and used for threatening recalcitrants with a good skelp across the legs! Confident that Fish, Keza the Cock, and the board games and posters were safe, we headed up to the beer tent where an alcohol-fuelled jollity was gaining steam. We were offered a muzungu, rules-exempt, separate table outside the roped off drinking area but declined. Being accorded special treatment happens occasionally and it can be tempting to accept. For example, last weekend on our way to Rusomo Falls two men, who were sitting in the front of the minibus, were asked by the conductor to move to the back and give the seats to us. We were bundled in quickly but didn't say no. Oh dear, does that sound bad? We had actually said that we preferred to wait for the next bus than be crammed in at the back. Anyway, I think I'll get over it.
Some traditional ladies in the crowd
Relaxing in the perfect late afternoon temperature, chilled Mutzig beer in hand, mellow from post-stall fatigue, bantering with the friendly crowd and shaking hands with all my new friends who came up to say hullo, there was nowhere else on earth I would rather have been. It could have been Womadelaide or Woodford minus the blazing sun or drenching rain. Music drifted up from an imaginary stage somewhere to the left and couples frolicked to my right. Their behaviour - a girl sitting on a guy's lap - and appearance - some eccentrically dressed cool dudes - did not belong in the day-to-day Kibungo that I know. Maybe the magic of the Expo had loosened Rwanda's gender rules and also brought some odd clothes items out of the back room jumble box. Our friend Theo thought that some of the girls were 'probably prostitutes' but I maintain they were just a bunch of young people at a festival letting it all hang out.
Expo dancers

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Milk, manure and manners

Ngoma district, where I work in SE Rwanda, is divided into 14 sectors and it is one of my jobs to try to organise head teacher training in all of them. School planning, teaching/learning objectives and assessment/evaluation procedures are just some of the areas needing attention. It is a tough job to set up these meetings as few of the head teachers have email and the majority don't seem to be confident in replying to my painstakingly long text messages in French and English. Talking on the phone can be frustrating too as there are over 70 head teachers in the district and they may not know who I am. Trying to explain the purpose of the training sessions over a fuzzy line in different languages can be challenging to say the least. I can also wait for them to come into the office, which they do from time to time, but it is a pretty random way to organise things especially if I don't know what they look like and they don't introduce themselves. Or, I can jump on a moto to pay them a visit. However, it is costly taking motos all the time. It is probably the biggest collective expense that VSO has, taking into account the, nearly, 50 volunteers currently in the country.
Market with usual bricks in Rukira sector
So, it was great to hook up with a Canadian project which is currently operating in the district and hop on a bus they had booked to visit different offices in one of the more remote sectors. There I hoped to meet some teachers as well as the sector Chargé des Affaires Sociales who is supposed to assist the head teachers with school matters. I was also going to take part in a student study project inquiring how sector farmers had benefited by being given a cow as part of the government's girinka (one cow per family) programme. A long questionnaire was developed by the Canadian researcher and each student, who was with us on the bus, was to be allocated a farmer (known as a 'beneficiary') to ask a series of questions about how much milk the cow had produced, health issues it had had and, very importantly, how much manure it had produced and what it was being used for. There is a bio-diesel factory outside Kigali and I was told that part of the girinka project is to encourage farmers to sell the cow dung to the factory where the slurry is fed into a digester producing methane for the market. The problem, of course, is how a small-scale farmer gets the manure to Kigali and whether the quantity is enough to justify the transportation costs. Maybe, in time-honoured simplicity, it is better to put the dung on the soil to improve local land productivity without the need for artificial fertilisers.
Student with farmer 'beneficiary' doing questionnaire
In a sense, this issue is part of the Rwandan dilemma defined through the land consolidation programme which seeks to concentrate production of certain commodities in geographically defined districts - bananas here in the east, maize in the valleys, manioc in the west, potatoes up north etc - for greater output which can then theoretically be exported for much needed revenue. This is a small subsistence economy with big market aspirations. The only problem is that already there is a surplus of potatoes, tomatoes and bananas with limited opportunities for use. Even with a convoy of lorries moving freight on the good, main road system it is unclear where the markets would be. There is also the problem of escalating fuel costs causing big hikes in transported basic foodstuffs and this has been the cause of major social disturbances in the Ugandan and Kenyan capitals. It is not a problem yet in this tightly controlled society although imported goods like sugar and rice both went up in price by 30% recently.
Students interviewing farmers in front of 'cell' office
The government's long-term desire is to add value to the primary produce by creating a manufacturing industry in different parts of the country. It's all part of the plan to make Rwanda a middle-income nation by 2020. Are there any investors reading this who'd like to build a tinned tomato plant in Kibungo? Didn't think so. I heard on the BBC World Service the other day that, in the whole of Ethiopia, there are only five manufacturing industries which employ around 500 people - out of a population of 82 million! But, of course, the template for economic development in Africa is the same as elsewhere with all of its pluses and minuses. The desire is to create a middle class with an expendable income for the purchase of the sort of consumer goods that we, in the west, take for granted. Kigali is already that in microcosm. Perhaps it's easy from my comfort zone to worry about the extreme city/rural income divide being perpetuated in African countries but equitable development models are very hard to come by in a world run by large multinationals looking for quick profits with minimum inconvenience and maximum tax advantage. Kigali is setting itself up to attract foreign investment in a big way and is going to be a bit more appealing than a place like Kibungo as a centre for development.
Excited primary pupils line up to greet me
Meanwhile back in isolated Rukira sector a group of primary students lined up on an embankment to welcome me, chanting in unison 'it is very fine to see you', the first time I'd heard that particular refrain. This was followed by one little squib asking the customary 'how old are?' When I gave my usual weak response of '25', one child piped up, 'you are a liar.' My mum would have had that youngster's mouth washed out in soapy water but like 'give me chalk' instead of 'please may I have some chalk' it is simply a translation of what is said in Kinyarwanda with none of the polite locutions that we require in English. I'm going to empty my pockets for the next beggar who stops me in the street and says, ' would you mind giving me some money?' If they can set up courses in English for Accounting Purposes nowadays then why not ERB - English for Refined Beggars.
Ankole cow - long on horn but low on milk
I'm expecting to hear the results of the questionnaire very soon so I'll keep you posted. I'm sure that Rwandan milk production and manure uses have you riveted. I can, however, give you a little advance taster. Did you know that an East African Ankole long-horned cow produces five litres of milk a day whereas a Friesian produces 25? So, think about that next time you're adding it to your moo-sli.
Children gather near our mini-bus for the event of the season
You will also be pleased to know that I was able to meet one head teacher and, briefly, the Chargé during the visit. This led to a very successful training session in Rukira the following week. Which just goes to prove the wisdom of many Rwandan cow-related proverbs including this one: 'ubonye ifambire agira amahirwe' - 'he who finds good dung, will find good luck.'

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Unlocking Nyungwe's Secrets

Entering the Nyungwe National Park we immediately saw groups of Olive Baboon by the roadside followed shortly after by a troop of L'Hoest's Monkey. Nyungwe is the stronghold of this attractive monkey and the only place where they are really common. Silver Monkey was seen shortly after. This species is now split from the Blue Monkey cluster. We didn't dilly-dally as we were anxious to get to our respective destinations, Jared and Michelle, our travelling companions, to the campground before dark, and Stella and me to the newly built Top View Hotel somewhere in Gisakura west of the park.
L'Hoest's Monkey
Next morning (July 2) we were to meet at the campground at 5.30 to go chimp tracking. This required us leaving the hotel no later than 4.45 so we were up around 4. Horrific! I wrote in the last post about the chimp tracking experience and its disappointment not so much in not seeing the chimps as in the fact that we didn't really do any tracking apart from a brief descent down a hillside at the very beginning. I understand the reasoning behind not wanting people to exert themselves unnecessarily if the chimps can't be seen but it kind of defeats the purpose of calling it a tracking experience if you just hang around waiting. Surely a small group at least attempting to follow chimps feeding out of sight is a more anticipatory and thus exciting experience, even if the chimps remained hidden, than waiting for a walkie talkie go ahead. But what do I know? Maybe the terrain was too difficult and they took one look at Stella and me and said - there is no way these old geezers will get down that slope!
Great Blue Turaco
On the plus side, going down the slope was also where there was a very large troop (the guide said up to 500) of the Rwenzori Colobus Monkey, a race of the more widespread Angola Colobus, which is restricted to the Albertine Rift. (Rwenzori precedes the name of many of the Rift endemics and relates to the Rwenzori Mountains in the Ugandan part of the Rift - Ptolemy's Mountains of the Moon and presumed source of the Nile in AD350). These are beautiful looking monkeys, white on the face and arms, although they are marginally less attractive than the Guereza Colobus that we saw in Tanzania with their bushy long white tails. At the top of the slope looking down we also saw our first pair of Great Blue Turaco perched on top of tall tree. This is an enormous (75cm) and spectacular blue turaco that has a red-tipped yellow bill and a rather floppy black crest. This would be the first of many sightings of this impressive bird.
Crowned Eagle
We wandered up and down the path as villagers from the remote community of Banda 12 kilometres away passed us by carrying heavy bags and sometimes house goods on their heads. This track was the only access to the village which is being encouraged to develop eco-tourism opportunities by an American charity. How they will achieve that so far away I don't know. Then we took a fork into one of the circular tracks that spread out from the campground and settled down into some birding while the guide continued to radio about the progress of the chimp troop. Very soon we saw Crowned Hornbill with their bright red bills and then a huge (74cm) Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill showed up beautifully in a tree looking down into the valley. Casqued hornbills like this one (and the Silvery-cheeked Hornbill that we saw in Tanzania) are more calculated to produce the back shiver of excitement familiar to hornbill watchers in Asia. Some of the smaller African hornbills, by comparison, are somewhat of a let down to this fine family name.
Narina Trogan
Our chimp guide, who admitted to little birding knowledge, suddenly called us to come quickly. There on a branch to the left of the track sat a male Bar-tailed Trogon with its brilliant red breast, blue upper chest band, black head, green back and long barred tail. There are only three species of trogon found in Africa, the Bare-cheeked in West and Central Africa, plus the Bar-tailed and Narina which are widespread throughout Africa with the Bar-tailed usually at higher altitudes. The Narina is more common and we have seen it on a couple of occasions. Trogons, like hornbills, are species of fantasy. Turacos, which were new to us until Africa, have now joined this select group. At this point another member of the turaco family flew into a nearby tree. It was a Black-billed Turaco, one of five green turacos found in Africa. All turacos except the Great Blue have red/crimson on the wing which shows extensively in flight. The Black-billed also has a white line on the back of the head and white lines above and below the eye. This is a very shy turaco but I caught a glimpse of its facial white before it disappeared into the canopy. The final morning highlight was the striking White-headed Wood-hoopoe.
Collared Apalis
We had bumped into Narcisse, Nyungwe's best bird guide, with four American birders on the track and arranged to meet back at the campground after lunch to do a trip together in the afternoon. As mentioned in the previous post, it turned out that one of the Americans was top birder David Shackelford who works for Rockjumper the big South African birding company. He was on a personal tour of East Africa with his wife and two friends and he invited us to join them birding. This turned out to be a huge bonus as his knowledge was massive. We went on the Karamba Trail a more open area for birding as it used to be a gold mining site. Here the highlights were Blue-headed Sunbird, Black-collared Apalis, Purple-breasted Sunbird, Archer's Robin-Chat, Red-faced Woodland Warbler and Strange Weaver all of which are Albertine Rift Endemics (AREs). The Strange Weaver is a Rift skulker, unusual for a weaver, but it sat up perfectly for us and gave great views of its black head and upper chestnut breast with yellow below. The long-tailed, iridescent, purple-breasted and blue-headed sunbirds also showed up nicely in the afternoon sunshine. Sunbirds really are a treat in Africa. On the winding stretch back up to the hotel two small, white-spotted nightjars froze in the car highlights. Narcisse identified them as the endemic Rwenzori Nightjar.
Strange Weaver
The following morning we set out to climb Bigugu Trail in search of the elusive and rare endemic, the Black-collared Mountain Babbler. Along the way we heard the call of one of the signature birds of Nyungwe - the Rwenzori Turaco. Patience rewarded all of us with superb views of this truly magnificent looking bird. This medium-sized painted turaco could superficially be accused of overdoing it but its different colours meld superbly together and demand more and more time, seldom given, to examine in greater detail. Stevenson and Fanshawe's Birds of East Africa describes it well. It has "a glossy green-blue crest, orange-yellow lores and eye-ring, blue-black chin and throat, and maroon nape ------- with a rosy-orange blush on the centre of the breast" + the typical, exposed red of the wing in flight.
Rwenzori Turaco
We were also fortunate in getting half-decent views of a very shy bird, the Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo. This higher altitude path had fewer birds than Karamba but still managed great views of the White-starred Robin and endemic Rwenzori Batis. Both these charming species from completely different families have little white dots in front of their eyes that face you like miniature headlights. This is a superb walk even without the birds.
Sharpe's Starling
We also came across two snakes on the path, one very small and greenie/blue and the other larger (1m) which Narcisse thought was Nyungwe's only venomous snake - a green viper. It was also on this path that we all got excellent views of a Carruther's Mountain Squirrel. We also were able to observe at length a pair of uncommon and nesting (in a tree hole) Sharpe's Starling.

We turned back as this track went to the top of Mt Bigugu at nearly 3000m. It was then we heard the call of the sought after Red-collared Mountain Babbler. It took a long time for everyone to get a look but eventually a pair of the birds were sighted high up in a forest tree clambering around like nuthatches in search of grubs. Even from a fair distance we could make out the bird's white eyes as well as its distinctive black cap and cinnamon collar.
Northern Brown-throated Weaver
The Sunday afternoon trip was to Kamiranzovu Swamp. This means 'elephant swallowing' as in the past elephants reputedly got stuck and perished when attempting to cross the marshy area. The last elephant in the park, however, was not sucked into the ground but blasted by poachers as recently as 1999. The target bird for the trip was another rare endemic - Grauer's Rush Warbler (Bradypterus graueri) in its reedy habitat. On the way down we saw another Grauer - Grauer's Warbler (Graueria vittata). Playback helped in calling the rush warbler out and we all got brief views. We then tried to see a Red-chested Flufftail, a secretive kind of rail, but, although the bird was only about a foot away or so, it would not show itself. This is a circular walk and we proceeded back along the valley and up the hill by a different direction. This section was turaco heaven with Great Blue and Black-billed crossing back and forth in front of us. The Great Blue once again gave us splendid views. We saw movement over to the right and, finally, got fantastic views of another key bird of the Nyungwe area - the Regal Sunbird. Even by sunbird standards this one is a little bit special with its bright yellow breast on either side of a brilliant red bar running vertically down the centre. Climbing back up to the road we almost stood on a species of legless lizard. We attempted to locate the rare Albertine Owlet at dusk but without success. We did, however, get great views of the endemic Handsome Francolin as it was settling down at its evening roost.
Verreaux's (Giant) Eagle-Owl
Our final morning was a walk near Gisakura with forest on one side and tea plantation on the other. Highlights here were Lesser Honeyguide, African Green Pigeon, White-chinned Prinia and, especially, the Brown-throated Wattle-eye with its brilliant red wattle right above the eye. Back at the campground to pick up Jared and Michelle we spotted our final endemic of the trip - Stripe-breasted Tit. We missed three expected endemics - Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher, Red-throated Alethe (which were surprisingly absent) and Dusky Crimsonwing (which we heard only). Nyungwe certainly needs more than a two and a half day stay to unlock most of its key secrets. It is a tough place to see wildlife, as all rainforests are, but now that I have a feel for it, I would love to go back.

(All photos except L'Hoest's Monkey and Narina Trogon were taken by Steve Zee)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Nyungwe (and its Chimps?)

Stella and I hired a car and headed off to Nyungwe National Park on the other side of Rwanda, with our young American friends Jared and Michelle, for the long weekend of 1-4 July. The 1st July celebrates independence from the Belgians in 1962 and the 4th is the official end to the genocide of 1994 and is now named Liberation Day. Extended holiday weekends are rare indeed here with Easter not even warranting a four-day office break!(Easter Monday is, oddly, a work day in this very Christian country).

Another opportunity to get out of Kibungo was not to be missed. I had been looking forward to visiting Nyungwe's tropical rainforest ever since arriving in Rwanda but the distance (up to nine hours of travel) had put it on the backburner. There is also the issue of cost when living on a volunteer's allowance. The Rwanda Development Board (RDB), which is responsible for tourism, charges very high prices, in US dollars, to foreigners for every conceivable thing you might want to do in each of its three national parks - Volcans, Akagera and Nyungwe. Even discounted with our residents' passes, it is still $60 a head to go chimp tracking or $55 to walk in the forest over a couple of days. Looking at birds is extra as that is considered a different 'product' and thus must be charged at a different rate according to the Book of Mediocre Marketing that some bureaucrat has obviously been mightily impressed with. Here's a way round the problem. Just say that, despite your dangling binoculars, your main product is 'walking' and you will be issued with the cheaper pass. Most of the Rwandan guides think it's a daft pricing system too.
Looking towards Burundi
You also need a car to have a chance of seeing the chimps or to get to many of the trailheads and they cost a fortune near the park, hence the decision to rent a cheapie in Kigali and, with me as the designated driver, risk the consequences of getting behind the wheel (and on the right side of the road) for the first time in over six months. The trick to stress-free driving in Rwanda is to enjoy it every time someone cuts in front of you without warning or pulls out unexpectedly. Nobody seems to get angry at rule breaking and driver incompetence and, since road rage is usually a product of indignation over others' perceived etiquette breaches, I've decided that a certain amount of chaos on the roads, where everyone is at fault, definitely has its upside. Outside Kigali there is also very little motor traffic.
Nyungwe Forest
Despite all the police and military personnel hanging about, I have never seen anyone stopped for bad driving, gross flouting of standard road rules or excessive speeding - and that's strange in a way given what sticklers Rwandans are for rules elsewhere. The police, however, like to stop buses, then wander up and down the sides looking in the window to spot anyone with facial terrorist tics like squinty eyes and quivering mouth. I usually smile broadly and nod acknowledgement because I know that clearly demonstrates my complete innocence despite my suspiciously bushy eyebrows.
In search of the Red-collared Mountain-Babbler
The road surface is wonderfully good until you reach the Park entrance when the potholes start to multiply. Where are the Chinese when you need them? Rwanda is such a crowded country bereft of natural forest that there is something truly strange about entering a habitat where suddenly there are no people and the landscape is as it has been for millennia. The rainforest is simply spectacular. Instantly there were troops of monkeys, L'Hoest's and Silver, patrolling the road verges.
Carruther's Mountain Squirrel
The Park extends for over 1000 square kilometres in the mountainous south west of Rwanda and is the largest area of montane forest to be found anywhere in Africa. This is a tiny part of what used to be a forest belt running all the way northwards along the western or Albertine Rift Valley. I will let the Rwanda Bradt Travel Guide describe its variety. "As with other Albertine Rift forests, Nyungwe is a remarkably rich centre of biodiversity. More than 1050 plant species are known to occur in the national park, including about 200 orchids and 250 Albertine Rift Endemics (AREs). The vertebrate fauna includes 85 mammal, 278 bird, 32 amphibian and 38 reptile species (of which a full 62 are endemic to the Albertine Rift) while a total of 120 butterfly species have been recorded. Primates are particularly well represented, with 13 species resident, including a population of about 400 chimpanzees, some of which are semi-habituated to tourist visits." So, all those critters were going to be a lot to spot in around two days minus the travelling! And anyone who has visited a rainforest knows how tough it is to see things through all that foliage.
Entrance off main road to hotel with track going up to the left. Who would know? Here we were even up before the locals
Jared and Michelle wanted to camp but without a tent and, most importantly, a decent mattress that wasn't going to work for us so we booked into a hotel that was way outside our normal price range. (There is a dearth of reasonably priced and accessible accommodation in the area). Our brand new hotel, the life savings of a local Rwandan businessman, was also built on top of a hill and involved driving up a narrow rocky road past shabby mud dwellings. I felt embarrassed to be waving out of the car window at the little kids in rags humphing jerrycans of water up the hill as we were about to be waited on hand and foot. Apparently the hotel boss is seeking to expropriate the land on which the houses sit so that he can widen the road and make it more convenient for our big cars to pass through. Annoyingly for him, the house owners are keen to be properly compensated for being re-located. The boss was actually a nice guy and said that the local community was right behind the hotel and the job opportunities that it provided to cleaners, kitchen staff, maids and that bloke who lifts the bar to let your car into the compound. But then he would say that, wouldn't he? All the waiters and reception staff seemed to come from Kigali and had obviously been trained in the East African code of table hovering except when you craved a cold beer, when they became strangely absent. It's the beer that'll get you the big tips guys!
The Top View Hotel and our hire vehicle
We were sharing a table with a top American birder, his wife and two guests and he confidently asked for his eggs 'easy over', a term that is not commonly heard in these parts where the language of English haute cuisine is chips and fried egg. Anyway, back his eggs came picture perfect so I thought I would try but I couldn't help myself and slipped in 'fried egg' before uttering a very self-conscious 'easy over'. Mine came back shrivelled with a crusty sunny side sneering up at me. I obviously need to work on my request skills.
Our accommodation with spectacular view
On the first night we went back to our room to discover five hot water bottles arrayed on the pillows and under the bed covers. Lovely idea although a little excessive perhaps. It wasn't that cold at an altitude of 2000 (tropical) metres. But there was no hot water in the shower as they'd forgotten to plug in the heater and there was no bedside lamp although lights were blazing everywhere else. There was also a little wood fire in an adjacent room. It was the randomness of the nice touches versus the absent ones that struck. On the second night all the hot water bottles went missing and we can only assume it was because the American and Korean Ambassadors as well as the Rwandan Finance Minister were chowing down at the next table and needed copious bedtime mollycoddling to go with their taxpayer funded junkets.

Gosh, when is he going to get to the chimps I hear you bellow into your computer screens? Well, the news is that the chimp experience was somewhere below underwhelming. We pursued them down a steep, heavily vegetated hill slope where they were supposed to be checking out any feeble colobus monkeys from a 400 strong troop in the vicinity. Jane Goodall commented on this predatory chimp behaviour years ago and it is common, apparently, with this Nyungwe mob. However, they lost interest in these fabulous monkeys and scampered further down the hill as we descended to hide in the tall grass and munch on caterpillars and termites from rotting tree stumps. So they were hidden from the view of even the official chimp trackers whose job it is to monitor their movements and, hopefully, present the 'product' to the visiting tourists.
Happy birding crew
Chimping in Rwanda is not the virtual cast iron certainty that gorilla-ing is further north and that's a fact! So back up the hill we went to do some birding while our official guide walkie-talkied with the trackers in the hope that the chimps would have had enough protein for the day and want to climb to the tree tops for a snooze, a bit of greenery or maybe even some frenzied hooting whereupon we might have been able to get our money's worth out of the experience. For a young English couple who were with us and didn't have proper binoculars to look at the hornbills, turacos and trogans that we saw, it had cost $125 for the car and driver and $90 each for the tracking without the resident's card. Over $300 is not cheap for standing around most of the morning! But hey, it's providing employment and keeping chimps out of the bush meat market that prevails elsewhere in Africa so we mustn't complain. Anyway, who cares if chimps are our closest genetic companions with 98+% of the same DNA. Like Lady Gaga or Robbie Williams they are hugely overrated. I much prefer vegetarian colobus monkeys!
At the divide between two great river systems
But, it was in the course of our chimpless morning that we first met David Shackelford the ace birder - he of 'easy over' fried egg fame - and his delightful party. So, from disappointments, magical things sometimes grow (apologies to Archie Roach). We got to spend the rest of the weekend with a guy who has seen 8201 birds in the whole wide world (he is in the top 10 listers) with one of them a new sighting (the red-collared mountain babbler) on this trip. We saw it too!! It's rare, it's endemic and it's a smasher. With David's knowledge of bird calls and the use of playback to bring in the skulkers, the help of the local guide Narcisse and the keen eyes of the more youthful members of the party, we saw some outstanding wildlife.