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