Wednesday, 25 March 2009


Today I’m going to talk about my trip to Bukavu in DR Congo. Where I’m staying is a 10-minute walk from the border, essentially a rickety wooden bridge marshalled by nervous looking soldiers on either side. My guidebook describes parts of Congo as very similar to Rwanda in the 90’s, so I was hoping a trip would be worth more than just the passport stamp. We were essentially going as tourists, but planned to do a degree of research for Rwanda Aid work. The size (and name) of the charity makes any expansion over the border highly unlikely but it would nevertheless be a useful exercise.

We set off early with enough money to cover the US$35 visa and any other expenses that could arise. Leaving Rwanda was very easy but, as you might expect, the other side was trickier. Our guide led us into a run down office, full of unfriendly-looking officials. Inside one of the tiny side-rooms our passports were quickly given a particularly large and lavish stamp, before any money had changed hands. At this point we were informed that the visa was $50. A Congolese man had advised us before crossing that, if they tried this, we should turn back and return another day. Unfortunately with our passports stamped, and with a policeman blocking the door we didn’t really feel in a position to do this. To add injury to injury we were also told that without our Yellow-Fever vaccination cards we would be charged an additional $10. The visa was one thing, but I know that the card is not a requirement of entry. Indeed the money, rather unsubtly, went straight into his pocket. As frustrating as this was, I am glad that a country doesn’t really allow potential yellow-fever carriers to enter for less than the price of a DVD. Either way, I felt the experience would justify the cost.

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. Rwanda is by no means an organisational paradise but after 3 weeks here I was shocked by the difference.

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 Congo lags quite significantly behind its neighbour. The last was the biggest surprise. Before going over many Rwandans had enviously told me of Congo’s wealth but I was at best sceptical. The reality was a gaping divide between the haves and the haven’ts. No doubt Rwanda has a similar problem, but not on the same scale. Vast houses cover the lakeside (possibly contributing to the Rwandans take on things) and, although many are empty, there is certainly no shortage of expensive 4x4s and barbed fencing. I never thought I’d say this, but as I crossed into Rwanda I felt glad to be back in civilisation.

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


So we’re into number 5 and I’m sorry for how sporadic they've become. Tomorrow I’m off to the Congo so blog 6, if there is one, should be quite a read.

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 Lake Kivu. It was badly hit by an earthquake a year ago and the government has yet to provide any real help. Every year the British government alone provides the country with £14million of aid, although where it goes is anybody’s guess. Many on the island are still homeless, living under sheets of tarpaulin and little else. The charity has built a number of houses, but I’ve been charged with the construction of a nursery. Rwanda has an incredibly young population, and I get the impression that many have more children than they can handle. The idea of the nursery would be to free up the older children, who currently spend their days babysitting, to go to school or at least do something of more value. The scenery is truly stunning with clear, still water; rolling hills and a town across the water that looks more St. Tropez than

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 Africa with gin-packets and streetwalkers but, alas, I’m too chaste for such things. Sam, a 23 year-old from Suffolk, has joined me for a few weeks and we decided to sample the local nightspot. We found a lovely local lager, a few friendly females, but unfortunately no luck on the pool table. I guess I’m not so far from home after all…

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Days 3, 4 + 5

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 England I am delighted to report that it’s 30ÂșC and sunny. I might even get a British tan if the mood takes me.

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. Rwanda is known as ‘the Land of 1000 Hills’ and, as beautiful as that makes the scenery, it’s hardly the place for a relaxed stroll. Something rather sweet did manage to fit its way into the 4-mile walk: about halfway through I found myself with two little girls holding my hands. Anywhere else a parent would baulk at the idea of their daughter hand-in-hand with a red-faced, sweaty foreigner but apparently not here. Anyway I walked for about 400m with these two girls, too shy to talk and occasionally giggling (them not me).

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.

I’d take broiled Bugs any day…

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Days 2 + 3

Hello everyone, thanks for coming. This is now my third day and I’m starting to get settled in. I’m staying in Kamembe, a town in the far southwest corner of the country. It’s next to one of Africa’s great lakes – Kivu, and the DR Congo is within swimming distance (though not for me obviously). That’s it in the picture, I’m hoping to go over at some point but it could be tricky.

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 (Rwanda wants to join the Commonwealth), it’s mainly to spite Les Blues who have been critical of the president in the past. This is a massive task, like asking every British secondary school teacher to teach in French. Hopefully there’ll be a group of teachers coming here in the summer to run a workshop, but in the meantime there’s me. I’m treated with a mixture of amusement and interest, but the latter dried up when they found out my age. The youngest it transpires is a year older than me, and let’s just say that the oldest had more hair on his chin than his head. Subsequent attempts to grow a beard of my own have proved unsuccessful.

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 Rwanda. In such a poor country, parents who cannot feed their whole family often let the disabled suffer first. This is not because of superstition or disinterest, but a grim sense of practicality. All the children who can have gone home during construction, two are still there, both orphans. The first I met was a boy called Fidele in his early teens, severely crippled but refusing to use his wheelchair. He moves instead along on his hands in the dirt all day. I saw him playing with other children and at one point shyly peaking around a door to have a look at me: like any other kid really, but in need of a good home.

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

Day One

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 Rwanda, East Africa and hopefully to dispel some common misconceptions. In an era where more and more young people spend time in Africa, whether for a gap-year or something else, it seems to me that some first-hand information from somebody not trying to sell you an expensive trip or gather donations could be interesting and useful. Of course this is only one view from one country but since so many of our shared preconceptions are pan-African I don’t think this should put you off reading on.

Rwanda itself has a long and complicated history. Some of the first people ever came from around here, and it was mainly inhabited by Pygmy tribes for a long time. It was a German colony until after WW1 when it became Belgian. Of course the one incident which most people associate with the country is the genocide of 1994. Very basically, throughout Rwanda’s recent history there has been tension between two ethnic groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Tutsis make up a small minority, and under the Belgians were raised above the Hutu majority, causing strong tensions. In April ’94 the President, an army general called Habyarimana and his Burundian counter-part had their plane shot out of the sky. This gave the extreme branch of his Hutu support their chance to bring about their ‘final solution’. Their first act was to kill the ‘moderate’ Hutu PM and 10 Belgian peacekeepers. This had the desired effect of scaring off the rest of the Belgians and giving them the freedom to do as they pleased. The Rwandan Army, as well as numerous Hutu civilians rampaged through the country killing any Tutsis or suspected supporters that they could find. Butchered corpses covered the streets of this small, but densely populated country and any churches being used for shelter were burnt to the ground. To give you a sense of scale I was told today that 20,000 people were killed in a local football stadium. That’s four times more than 9/11. Before Tutsi rebels invaded and restored some order, it is estimated that up to a million people were killed.

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 Nairobi I had my first encounter with the legacy of colonialism: an airport official berating me and one other traveller for not queuing in the appropriate areas. Evidently British values are alive and well there.

My first impressions of Rwanda involved a 5-hour car journey, a short battle with a twisted mosquito net and a welcome mattress. I have though managed to fit one nice surprise into that short time. They are, on the whole, lovely people. The stares that come with being the only white faces in a town of 10,000 slightly unnerved me to start but as more and more are followed by waves, smiles and the odd word of English (tonight one girl wished us “good morning teacher”) this has disappeared. Two women have hugged me before we’ve swapped names (something that doesn’t happen to me in England as much as you’d think) and one of the locals working for Rwanda Aid spent an hour this morning teaching me Kinyarwandan with as much knowledge of my language as I have of his.

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…