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.

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