Sunday, 26 April 2009
Before the trip I thoroughly expected to return with a new take on life. I wasn't expecting to 'find myself', whatever that means, but certainly felt some change would come. To be honest, the only change I've noticed is something I think discussed in post 2. For me now charity posters on the tube or television appeals take on a new significance. Tales of hardship no longer feel like stories, but are linked to my memories. Reading the struggle of one person reminds me of people I've met and stories heard first-hand. This is an important difference, but in a way I'm glad that's the extent of it. Certainly I have a stronger desire to help and a renewed awareness of the problems but I feel no deep sorrow or pangs of guilt.
That's about it really. I'd just like to point you in the direction of Rwanda Aid's website http://www.rwanda-aid.org/. They're a very sensibly run, ethical charity and I can personally vouch for the good work they do. Without their hospitality I would not have been to Africa and had the wonderful experiences I did. Finally too a word of thanks for everyone reading this. The feedback has been greatly appreciated, and allowed me to feel close to home throughout.
Wednesday, 8 April 2009
Today is Genocide Memorial Day in Rwanda. There are a few official ceremonies, but the day’s theme is private reflection. The streets’ usual crowds have stayed indoors. The average Rwandan’s house is cramped with tiny windows that afford little light, so the empty streets are testament to this day’s severity. A UNICEF survey found that 99.9% of children witnessed violence in the genocide, 79.6% experience death in the family, 90.6% believed they would die and 87.5% saw dead bodies or body parts. I recently read an enlightening book called ‘Miracle in Kigali’ by a Genocide survivor. I don’t know how widely available it is, but I’d highly recommend it. Her story is uncommon simply because it has been passed on. In the face of massacre the individual is all too often forgotten, and that one account was the most enlightening text I’ve read on the subject.
This week I met Jean-Claude an 18-year-old orphan (see above). Six years ago his widow mother died leaving him the provider for a ten-year-old brother and a newborn sister. English children of that age can’t be left home alone; some of Rwanda’s must spend their whole childhoods so.
That story is one often told here. There is nothing unfamiliar in seeing one child carry another, barely a year its junior. It’s true that many are not orphans, but still they surrender schooling so their parents can work. You see tiny kids, usually girls, smiling and playing with others one moment, and then the next consoling a crying sibling over their shoulder. This muddle of maturity and youth is difficult to empathise with, but very common. It is estimated that Rwanda’s population, already the largest for its size in Africa, will double by 2020. These child-carers are not the result of one event, not all genocide orphans, and this problem will only get worse.
Yesterday I took part in umuganda, or as we in the West would call it: ‘unpaid labour day’. Simply speaking, on the last Saturday of every month the local community is required to take part in various projects selected by the government. This requires all capable men and women over 16 to do anything from grass cutting to litter-collection. As you may have guessed, mzungus are not normally required to take part. However Aaron and I were feeling energetic, and agreed to go. Our task was road digging, unfortunately not one of my A-levels. I’ve become used to constant attention, but arriving shovel-in-hand to an event that even well to do Rwandans avoid was the cause of extra amusement. It was a hot morning but we managed to work for about two hours. We both did pretty well, but it was tough. Bringing a camera wouldn’t have been the best way to integrate, so this is the only evidence I can give you of my labour.
We didn’t want to ditch the diggers early, but we retreated when the men began amateur tree surgery. Frustratingly, as I pulled clumps of dirt from my hair, I noticed that Prince’s trainers were still a superb white. Ryszard Kapuscinski, the great Polish journalist, has a rather brilliant description of the white man in Africa which rung painfully true: ‘…the white man is a sort of outlandish and unseemly intruder. Pale, weak, his shirt drenched with sweat, his hair pasted down on his head, he is continually tormented by thirst, and feels impotent, melancholic.’ Meanwhile the local men and women, graceful and strong, cleanly presented and tireless only stop to suppress laughter, or more frequently to share our humiliation with a friend.
The day though, is not about the white man. At dusk, the government counts the money saved by umuganda. Judging by the activity it would have been a lot, but I don’t think that’s entirely the point. There was a real sense of (Rwandan) togetherness about the day, with complete strangers side by side at work. Perhaps, in a country so long divided, this cooperation was the real value.
Wednesday, 1 April 2009
Last night we went to what is affectionately known as ‘The Pork Restaurant’. I don’t believe there’s more of a lads’ restaurant in the world. The beer is cheap, cutlery isn’t provided and there are two things on the menu: pork (ordered by the kilo) and fried banana. We decided on 4 kilos between 5 of us, a ludicrous amount. We’d all eaten lunch and that’s a lot of meat. Like the soldiers we are, we bravely struggled through it all, feeling just as we finished that our eating exertions had justified the extravagance. There were three very un-Rwandan things about this meal. Most locals don’t feel the need to drink beer, dinner doesn’t usually happen and meat is a real rarity. I can guarantee that late-night branches on our high streets would flourish but, for the aforementioned reasons, the locals don’t seem to have embraced the concept as readily as we have.
Just to prove I’m not spending all my time getting fat and breaking local customs I’ll tell you about our trip to a village called Bweyeye. It’s a four-hour drive south, through the rainforest. The road provides spectacle and struggle in equal measures. Only once in its history has Bweyeye had any real attention, during a brief gold rush 12 years ago. Now abandoned by the miners, all this long dusty street, encircled by wilderness wants is swinging doors and dawn shootouts to complete the eerie feel of
I’ve been to places where aid groups don’t go, but everyone has signs of the outer world. Bweyeye was the first town of size that didn’t sell bottled water, a luxury that only the rich afford, but a necessity for anywhere expecting guests. To a foreigner this was as acute a reminder as anything of the town’s isolation, an almost insurmountable problem. Good work is being done in this place, squeezed between the forest and
Wednesday, 25 March 2009
We set off early with enough money to cover the US$35 visa and any other expenses that could arise. Leaving
With thin wallets but wide eyes we stepped out into what can only be described as chaos. Cars covered the unpaved streets and pavements. Bizarrely there were crippled men everywhere, either strapped into hand bikes or dragging themselves through the dust.
Throughout the day we made numerous stops at various aid organisations including OCHA (the UN’s humanitarian affairs coordinator) and Christian Aid. As worthy as their individual causes undoubtedly are, you have to wonder what kind of message they send out by covering their walls in barbed wire. I suppose it is just a reminder of the continuing security problems they face. What was incredible was the sheer number of aid organisations. Every 5th car had some group’s emblem, always with a sign that they were unarmed. The UN is the most obvious presence, with over 1000 soldiers around Bukavu alone. The nature of the organisation means that, surreally, they were all Pakistanis and Uruguayans. This heavy, if colourful, contingent pales in comparison with the 15,000 men that the Congolese army has stationed there.
The main message coming from the aid workers was that DRC is stuck in an endless cycle. The war caused destruction of infrastructure, which creates an uneducated and unemployed populace, in turn encouraging ignorance and anger, the main causes of the civil war.
As well as aid groups, the city is fat with government buildings. I saw more ministries than schools, hospitals and banks combined. While this paints an unrealistic picture of the government presence here, it certainly demonstrates the ineffective way they apply themselves. Many seem abandoned, and have fallen into disrepair. The Congolese, unfortunately, seem to have fallen for the old trap of quantity over quality.
Probably the most interesting thing was my visit to the region’s parliament. We met its vice-president, a rather imposing man who didn’t seem as impressed as I am by my cowboy hat. He gave us a long list of problems that, amazingly, my GCSE French managed to understand. It got rather embarrassing when I tried to reply, but never mind. What was interesting was his assertion that, without political change, the massive NGO presence would be futile. This may sound incredibly pessimistic, but it is hard to disagree. Government employees haven’t been paid for years, which leaves soldiers looting and teachers charging parents for schooling. Instability, illiteracy and corruption follow suit, stopping development. I almost began to sympathise with the dishonest border official, maybe with a family to feed.
In organisation, security and wealth
I have been offered the chance to travel with the UN into the lawless interior. Whether I’ll accept is uncertain. It was a fascinating but uncomfortable experience.
Saturday, 21 March 2009
This week I started some teaching. As I’ve mentioned, every Rwandan school must teach in English from 2010 so I’ve been drafted in to help. The biggest problem is the lack of Anglophone teachers; a school we visited yesterday had one from a staff of 16. On my first visit to Mururu, a teacher training college the students howled with laughter when I told them my age. Fortunately, I felt, it was a big school and so the chances of me being given them again were slight. My first lesson, misleadingly, went very well. I spent my two hours explaining 12 and 24-hour clocks, while daintily avoiding requests for rap lyric translations. I won’t go into what they were, mainly because my mother might read this, but it’s fair to say that the Catholic brothers running the place would not have been best pleased. Anyhoo, everything ran smoothly. Unfortunately Sam and I were misallocated. My ‘language class’ were geography students, while his ‘geographers’ were not. To his credit he managed to keep up their interest in water cycles and erosion but it was clear that we had to swap.
As you might have guessed, it was my new group who had giggled at my adolescence. I had them working on expressing opinion, which had worked well the day before. When the first example given was ‘I believe that you are a teenager,’ I knew things would be tough. Fortunately they’re actually very sweet and, after initial trepidation, I’m enjoying the challenge. I didn’t want to spend my gap-year teaching English, but Rwanda’s position makes it rather necessary.
I went out to dinner last night, which is always an experience. Most places are terribly under-stocked and my initial order of spaghetti carbonara somehow become beef stew. The food took two hours, but it was part of the fun. David has a great story about his first meal in Rwanda. 45 minutes after ordering an omelette, a waitress returned to tell him "No eggs." Paris, mes cheres amis, this is not.
The last few days have opened my eyes to some of the unseen problems faced here. Along the main roads here you see all the normal signs of poverty (malnourished children, dilapidated housing and general disoccupation) but it is in the backcountry that the real problems arise. Gone are the schools and houses built with western money, the signs of independent growth and the air of optimism that is sometimes so palpable here. Rwanda Aid is the only group in the region that makes the awkward journeys to these places. It is not difficult to see why others snub it; our 4x4 could barely cope with the boulders that littered the road and at one point we had to shift a fallen tree.The remoteness means that we are quite heavily relied upon for help. I met Pascasia, a widow living with her two daughters and three grandchildren. Those more familiar with Rwanda have told me that her daughter, unmarried but with three children, is probably selling herself. As shocking as that sounds, it’s important here to throw away western values and consider the alternative for a young girl, poor and unqualified, with mouths to feed. Realistically there isn't one and without Rwanda Aid's help there probably never would be.
PS I just found a way to upload my pictures far more quickly which is very exciting, hours indoors getting pasty was one of the things I had hoped to avoid out here.
Sunday, 15 March 2009
Since my last blog things have started to really liven up. By last week I’d resorted to noticing (and now depressingly noting) the different fonts used on Coke bottles here. I’ve been away for nearly a fortnight and I’m starting to get pregnanty food cravings. So far they haven’t been accompanied by the big belly and mood swings but who knows, 7 weeks is a long time. What I’d really like is a pizza or some Asian food. Apparently we’re out of Domino’s delivery radius here, and unfortunately airmail sushi seems out of the question.
On Wednesday I visited Nkombo, an island in
Serengeti. Closer inspection revealed mass-poverty and the town was in fact Bukavu, DR Congo but nevertheless I was mesmerized. The ferry isn’t exactly P&O standard either, although I personally prefer rowing myself over to All-Day Breakfasts. I’ve promised not to publish more pictures of me, but I think this is worth a look. I present to you the most uncomfortable person in the world.
Now my Kinyarwanda isn’t great, some would call it down right shoddy but I know the word for white man when I hear it. There I was, slightly sunburnt, right at the back with the sailors when up rose an apparently hilarious ditty about mzungus. My companion was too shy to translate, which didn’t help my mood. Notice the gap between me and the lady wearing the arsenal beanie, it was not just because of the hat. When her amusement overcame her ability to row I felt a strong urge to see if witches really do float. It was all in the right spirit, but a fish out of water is understandably a little cranky.
Anyway, I had a constructive meeting with the nursery teacher, a lesson in street football and countless more spectacular views before returning in, happily, a different boat.
On Thursday I had my first night out in Kamembe. I know other students spend their time in
Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Welcome back, it’s good to see you. I’m starting to do some real work here so I may have to cut this down to once every 3 days. I’ve been interviewing carpenters, discussing budgets and meeting officials so, unfortunately, I don’t have the time to nanny about on a computer every other night. I’ll be back on Thursday, and make up for it by being more patient with photo uploads. For all of you stuck in
Anyhoo, I’ve just had my first weekend here. A lot of the staff work 5-day weeks so it’s all been a bit less hectic. On Saturday David and I went up to Murangi farm.
The vast majority of Rwandans are subsistence farmers, so agricultural efficiency is vitally important. The aim of Murangi farm is to teach more effective techniques and, in doing so, allow economic growth and security. For example, a local cow will produce 2-3 litres of milk a day while Murangi can get 15-20. Not only is milk a valuable source of income, in a country where meat is so expensive it can be an important source of protein. In my last blog I talked about self-reliance, and this is the perfect example: the farm is earning its own money and only really needs occasional check ups. Before this becomes too much of a Disney moment, I point you towards exhibit b. Codename Lunch. I didn’t manage to catch on camera the farmer’s bemused look as I cooed and petted his animals but imagine me coming into your home and applying lipstick to a flower, similarly absurd. I’ve been told that guinea pigs are also firm dinnertime favourites, but that just reminded me I’d missed breakfast.
We went out to dinner the following evening with, fortunately, no more culinary peculiarities. The sight of fillet de spaniel would have been too much even for this brave reporter. At home we have lovely food but it does have a rather easy to follow pattern: soup (red, green or brown) for lunch and stew (fish or meat) for dinner, so a trip out was the cause of much excitement. I was warned that the service was slow and David brought a pack of cards along for the ride. This turned out to be a waste of pocket space and my companions were awestruck when our meals came out after a pithy 45 minutes, half of the norm. The food was good, and came to about £20 for 3 (twice as much as a few years ago).
The nights are very relaxed, and when I’m not wading my way through the ever-slower Internet to post these, my entertainment is limited to reading and watching films. I packed my DVDs at the last minute so I’m now left with a mouth-watering choice between Transporter 2 and the I, Robot bonus disc.
Saturday, 7 March 2009
Yesterday I went with David, who runs Rwanda Aid, and Prince, the Rwandan manager, to visit a teacher training college nearby. The government here is notorious for its ambitious and radical new measures. We went there to help with the boldest of them all: teaching every child in English by 2010. Although there are some diplomatic advantages to this (
The school itself is far better equipped than I’d expected. This seems to justify the charity’s decision to work with an existing facility rather than build a new one. There’s a dining hall (see below), a science lab, a theatre, and football pitches. The polyester uniforms and stories of drugs-related expulsions completed the illusion of a British school, although this was soon shattered by a visit to the cowshed. It was interesting, but probably the wrong day to be wearing sandals.
Today really opened my eyes to the difficulties faced by Rwanda Aid, and I’m sure others. The local diocese had produced for us their price for the building and maintenance of 10 new homes complete with livestock and a vegetable garden (soon to be a mandatory addition to all homes). They’d planned for taxis everywhere, the most expensive goats and other pricey extras. All of which would deny help to others in need. There seems to be this no expense spared attitude and, unfortunately, I get the impression that some of this over-budgeting is deliberate.
The final stop of the day was the site of a disabled children’s village they’ve funded (see pic.). It will house up to 50 kids when it’s finished and replaces a very basic facility trying to do the same thing. It will be the best in
The second boy really affected me, he was about 3 or 4 years old with physical and, I suspect, mental problems. He was sitting very quietly on a step by himself. The strong squeeze he gave my finger made me see him, no longer as another sad story of third-world hardship, but a little boy without a family at an age I can remember my brother being. The bombardment of images at home can, I think, all too often desensitize us to the reality. It probably sounds stupid, but I suspect that most people doing what I am have that moment of transition, where the suffering become part of real life rather than an Oxfam appeal.
I’m expecting to harden to things like that while I’m here, but at the moment it’s difficult. Part of me wants to give money to every child that asks for it, but I’m starting to see that that doesn’t do any real good. There is a tendency for children to see white people (mzungu) and stick out there hand in a way that they wouldn’t to rich Rwandans, even though they far more ostentatious with their wealth. One of the main arguments against charity is the creation of a dependency culture and there is, I feel, a real danger of that. What’s struck me is how careful Rwanda Aid is to avoid this, focusing on projects that can be self-reliant. The ultimate aim for them is to no longer be needed. It might sound obvious, but I’m not sure how many groups put that philosophy into practice.I'm sorry about the photo quality, it takes about 15 minutes to upload each one, even like this.
Thursday, 5 March 2009
My name’s Henry, I’m 18 and on a gap-year. This is my first blog, and already I think the most I’ve written since my last A-level. That’s me in picture 1, don’t worry that should be the last self-portrait you get (although honestly the shiny forehead’s due to a lack of water this morning, it’s normally as clean as the Queen).
The aim of this blog is to tell you about my experiences in
What has struck me most since I’ve been here is the lack of obvious resentment. There are many memorials and, on the surface, the over-riding message seems to be not of revenge or anger but of hope that history will not repeat itself. Whether this is really the case I’ve yet to find out. Although it has taken up a large part of this first blog, I think it’s best to get it out of the way now so I can focus on how much more there is to this country.
I flew out on Kenya Airways, which felt exactly like BA. Apparently the definition of a continental breakfast doesn’t change when you cross the Mediterranean and during my wait in
My first impressions of
That’s it for today. My next blog, in two days time (internet permitting), will start to focus more on daily life here and on my work in conjunction with Rwanda Aid, a very sensible and ethically run group who have kindly given me the opportunity to be here. I encourage you to come back for more, as my second attempt should see me move away from amateur historian/Bryson-wannabe and onto something of real worth.
On a small side note, I’m using my Dad’s laptop which means my music taste is restricted to his and anything I downloaded five years ago. Rather worryingly I’ve just found Avril Lavigne and Beyonce which certainly isn’t mine. I dare not scroll down any further than that…