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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

From Nyamata to Ngoma

You may remember my article from earlier this year about the new, dirt Road to Burundi in the valley opposite our place in Kibungo. Well the real McCoy is the one from Kigali via Nyamata because it is fully 'macadammed' as our house owner might charmingly say. (When did that famous Scotsman Tar McAdam  lose his mojo to Bob Bitumen and Andy Asphalt?) This is one of those mysterious roads, built as usual by the Chinese, that reflects big aspirations - a future of ever expanding commercial exchange between a burgeoning Burundi and a resurgent Rwanda. Maybe so, although I think the excellent road serves a strategic purpose in the event of increasing border problems, as Burundi is far less stable than Rwanda. There is a big military base in the nearby acacia scrub (one of the reasons for the protection of this rare ecology from human intrusion) and soldiers could be quickly deployed in the event of tensions between the two countries.
The new, dirt road to Burundi near our house

In truth, saying 'built by the Chinese' is like stating the pyramids were built by the pharaohs. There is always one Chinese supervisor sitting by the roadside when you pass constructions in Rwanda. Usually he is texting and looks immensely bored while masses of muscular, sweating, black bodies do the hard yakka. There has also been talk for a few years of building a new international airport near Nyamata about 40 minutes from Kigali with promises of investments and windfalls to follow for the area. A fancy new hotel has sprung up on one of the lake shores further south and it was there that we wanted to head for a pot of delicious Rwandan coffee. (I hear that Ethiopia is still supposed to be just edging Rwanda as number 1 in the world coffee quality charts but will believe that when we visit and drink their local brew in about two weeks' time.)
The state of the art bitumen road to Burundi

On the way, we drove to the Burundi border just for the experience. There were a few cars parked but all the customs officers and passport controllers had apparently been abducted by aliens, though unfortunately not the toilet johnnies who always miraculously appear demanding amafaranga the minute you emerge from the cesspit they are task to clean for your peeing pleasure. No clean pee, no 20-cent fee I'm afraid. It was the most deserted, modern outpost of its ilk I've ever visited and we felt emboldened to go for a wander into Burundi to see if there be dragons. Actually, it wasn't our intention to stray, simply that I turned round at one point and observed on a signboard that we had indeed been welcomed into the Burundian bosom. Suddenly anxious that there might be a show cause when the missing officials had been sufficiently probed and returned to earth, we hastened back into Rwanda. With the kind of camera equipment that Liam was packing there could have been serious questions about subterranean motives for our cross-border incursion.
View of the lake with thermos of coffee
One must assume that most visitors to the posh hotel have drivers who know the way because the signage sent us off down the wrong dirt track. Eventually steered in the right direction by bemused locals, we reached the hotel and sat down at a table on the lake edge where we were eventually served with a battalion-sized thermos of coffee by one of the many bored and underemployed restaurant staff. How do these places make a quid? Or did our coffees (~$6 for the thermos) and the two lunches of the only other guests in the whole hotel help sustain the place until that big Kigali weekend wedding money-spinner? I will clearly never understand how the business world operates.
Bugesera/Ngoma wetlands
Time was pressing and we had a long way to go through the back roads between the Bugesera and our home district of Ngoma. As we crossed the marshy lowlands separating the two districts I kept imagining the thousands of Tutsis who sought shelter in the papyrus during the pogroms against them. The exquisite Papyrus Gonolek will henceforth conjure a darker image. Joining the geographical limits of my school visits coming from the other direction brought a satisfying connection to the district in which I live and work. It really is an under appreciated and little known, watery part of the country. The heavens duly opened before we arrived to pick up our friend Jen at Zaza, the first catholic settlement in Rwanda and where she works for VSO in the local teacher training college (TTC).
The landscape with rice in the valleys en route to Ngoma
It was then, as Capt Cook might have said if he'd driven a motor car, that our trials and tribulations began. Hitting a slight rise on the rocky road out of Zaza there was the sort of rattling noise that brings instant dread to the mechanical ignoramus (moi) whose reaction is to pretend nothing's seriously wrong and keep going. Facing reality, however, Liam and I looked under the vehicle to observe a broken and trailing exhaust pipe. Not a good look for a vehicle that was to take us through some of the roughest terrain in Rwanda, in Akagera NP the next day. Something would have to be done though stuck in the middle of nowhere, the ground a mudbath after the rain and in dwindling light, it was hard to imagine what. My memory flashed back to one of the cars I drove in Malaysia all those years ago, its engine hanging up on a meat hook on the far side of the country after I had left it for days to be fixed and ready for departure on our return. I'm well past this nonsense I moaned internally. New cars, these days, may be a scientific and electronic mystery but they do, by and large, tend to work. This particular junk heap with about 300,000 km on the clock had obviously been stuck together with blutack.
Mr Fixit under the car
It's at times like this that having children really bears fruit. A large crowd of night watchers had by now gathered and Liam was immediately thinking of ways to tie the pipe up using wire. There was none in the vehicle of course and we were in an area without electricity. Nevertheless, with persistent questioning some electrical wire appeared whereupon Liam stripped off and was under the car in a flash like the mythical Slippery Man. For your interest, this is the African equivalent of Asia's Oily Men who sneak into houses at night, hypnotise the occupants (usually women) and make off with all the goods.
The connection
After tightening the exhaust pipe wire back in Kibungo under night guard Justin's worried gaze, we risked the massive trip on shocking roads from north to south Akagera roaring off before 6 the following morning and limping back at 7.30 in the evening. Sticking hands out of the window in torrential rain to get the windscreen wipers to move added to the excitement and a nasty puncture after leaving the park left us struggling in another downpour without the right tools but fortunately with a working spare tyre. We managed, eventually, to find a flat rock to put under the small jack to lift the car high enough.
Jen, me, Liam, Stella, Theo near the hippo pool in Akagera
We met only four other vehicles in the park the whole day. That is how under-visited Rwanda's biggest NP is compared to those in other East African countries. The Akagera critter pics tell their own story. The giraffes, in particular, were magnificent.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Into the Valley of Death

South of Kigali and west of Kibungo is a flatter, marshy region with rivers and lakes known as the Bugesera. Until recent times the area was isolated. Now there is a fast, bitumen road to the Burundi border which takes an hour by car and the population of its main town of Nyamata is increasing rapidly. It still has the most extensive area of native acacia bushland in the country outside Akagera National Park. In days gone by there were lions and elephants in the region with the remaining 26 pachyderms finally being moved to Akagera in 1975.
Ntarama Memorial
Before the genocide in 1994 Bugesera was a very ethnically mixed area. At the time of the death of the last great Tutsi king in 1959 the area had been very underpopulated due to its scrubby terrain, poor soil, irregular rainfall, wild animals and tsetse flies but the killings and turmoil that followed the king's death led to large number of Tutsi from areas like Gitarama, west of Kigali, fleeing to seek better lives elsewhere. Displaced Hutus from northern areas also came. By April 1994 there were around 60,000 Tutsi, the majority cattle farmers, living and working together with their Hutu neighbours most of whom cultivated the viable fields.
Clothes of victims
Then "between eleven in the morning on Monday April 11 and two in the afternoon on Saturday May 14 (after which the Rwandan Patriotic Front army arrived to send the killers scurrying across the border into Congo), about 50,000 Tutsis were massacred by machete, murdered every day of the week, from 9.30 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, by Hutu neighbours and militiamen, on the hills of the commune of Nyamata." This is the powerful beginning of Into the Quick of Life (2000) the first in a series of three books written by the French author Jean Hatzfeld and based on testimonies of survivors of the Bugesera slaughter. If there is one set of books that should be read on the Rwandan genocide then this is it. The second book A Time for Machetes hears the testimonies of the killers themselves from inside the Bugesera penitentiary where they were being held at the time of the book's publication in 2003.
The banality of evil
The third book is titled The Strategy of Antelopes (2007) and covers the period in the mid 2000s when the killers were pardoned and allowed to return to their homes. The attitudes of the returning killers and the feelings of the survivors about their return make for a gripping narrative. Imagine giving WWII gas chamber operatives their freedom and allowing them to settle next door to holocaust survivors whose relatives they had murdered! Yet, prison space limitations for the sheer number of killers detained, untended fields creating food shortages and a burning desire to move on and reconcile the nation has led to vast numbers of journeyman killers being pardoned provided they have admitted to their crimes and displayed some, often mild, form of contrition for their actions. (This does not apply to the big wig genocidaire leaders who are tried at the international court in Arusha, Tanzania.) The long-suffering and still traumatised survivors have to accept this decision for the greater good often obliged to be polite and shake the hands that may have borne down on their loved ones.
Some of the Ntarama victims
It was in this context that we visited the two main memorials in the Bugesera district - Nyamata and Ntarama, the latter slightly more to the north. Both were churches where large numbers of Tutsis had sought refuge after the killing started in Kigali on 7 April. To no avail. Two days later blue-helmeted UN soldiers turned up and whisked away the five white priests and nuns who constituted the abazungu community in the district. Local Hutus rejoiced as the killing could now begin in Bugesera away from the prying eyes of westerners. On 11 April, Nyamata church was stormed by the Interahamwe militia and army, killing all 10,000 people who had gathered in the grounds. The two underground crypts there contain over 40,000 bodies of those who died in the church massacre and elsewhere with the victims' personal belongings and clothes piled on every pew. At Ntarama around 5,000 died and many of their clothes have been left hanging from the church rafters. The guide was at pains to show us the blood stained wall where babies were smashed to death.

Many died in the Bugesera marshes where they were hunted down among the papyrus reeds. Their bodies were often never recovered, either rotting in the swamps or floating all the way along the Akagera River as far as Lake Victoria. However, most of the survivors also came from the marsh areas as it was much easier to stay out of sight than elsewhere. Of the 6,000 who fled to the eucalypt forests only 20 survived.
Some of the victims' property

It is said that the killing rate of around 10,000 a day, average, for the less than three month duration of the Rwandan genocide is the highest ever for any war or genocide and, unlike most 20th century atrocities which were mechanised, this one was done almost entirely by hand.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Rocking it in Rukira

The visit of Liam led to a flurry of activity. Trips into our favourite valley were refreshed by our son's enthusiasm and camera fearlessness. He would just go up to strangers, ask permission and within seconds have everyone laughing at the snaps he had taken. It always helps, of course, when you don't understand the meaning of the occasional 'amafaranga' (money) request, or pretend not to!
Seeking a bit of the action

A major party had been planned for his arrival at our guard Justin's village in Rukira sector, half an hour from Kibungo and we duly turned up in our Sunday best for an afternoon of food, drink (that included Mutzig beer and fanta), speeches, juggling, singing and dancing. A large crowd of senior relatives, Kinyarwanda teacher Theo and the abazungu glitterati of Stella, friend Jen, Liam and me crammed around the table in Justin's living room. The front door had to be shut to keep out any uninvited encroachers which then forced all the room's heat into my near-exploding cheeks. A few children managed to get a peek into the inner sanctum via the one, tiny window.
The big feed
It is amazing how coordinated these affairs are. An MC is always appointed to run proceedings in a very serious way. Roughly translated the spiel was: "first of all we shall hear from the leader of our abazungu guests, then the rest of the abazungu will say a few words, followed by Justin's father and father-in-law, then by anyone else who would like to speak, followed finally by the host Justin himself." A special preliminary agenda item was telling us the ingredients of the strong tasting gravy which accompanies meat dishes in Rwanda. We had all been effusive in our appreciation. One of the cooks came out from the secret nook where the brewing had occurred and intoned the recipe while we nodded sagely. I really should have written down Theo's translation but fustling around for pen and paper somehow seemed undignified.
Justin's speech
Turns out I was the abazungu leader so went first in my very best Kinyarwanda. It was all recorded by Liam so you may be able to discover some time in the future, when Kinyarwanda becomes the world language, the scale of my repetitions (too many to count probably), deviations (praise, wonder, peace and human bonding were pretty much the themes) and hesitations (I just slowed right down until the mot juste - usually a deviation of a repetition - miraculously manifested itself). The Rwandans were very attentive to my discourse breaking periodically into applause at each cheesy but heartfelt utterance. Abazungu tend to be more cynical so instead of going on for another five minutes about the oneness of humankind (I was just warming to the theme), I pre-empted any catcalls and suddenly sat down.
Old jugglers never die, they just can't see the balls
Justin's speech was particularly lengthy and included details of a night he got wet when we showed empathy and gave him a cup of tea and some clothes to keep warm. No Rwandan boss would do this apparently. Must be character forming to shiver the damp out of a night guard! (Not that we're saints; for example it's not done for him to come into the house and use our facilities.) All this apple-polishing could have gone on forever so it was time to bring out our secret weapon - Liam's juggling skills. Shame they haven't been recorded because he is much better than me. I even, rather pathetically, needed glasses to be able to see the small lemons in the photo. Ageing and juggling don't go well together.
Getting funky
The inhibition wall had been breached and if the abazungu could show off then why not their Rwandan hosts. Justin started it up and within no time the whole room was a rhythm of African singing and dancing in which we happily participated. Gee, it was a fantastic afternoon. We had to have more beers and fanta, more speeches (yes, I got to be even more cheesy) and more juggling which eventually left the confines of the small mud living room and became part of a street carnival with many bemused onlookers. We lined up for a final group photo, avoided what looked like an imminent downpour, shook many hands, hailed a passing taxi-bus, yelled farewell to the crowds and were gone.
Justin's mother-in-law, Justin, Liam, me, Stella, J's wife Emmeline, the MC with Theo in front
Mixed crowd of guests and onlookers