Sunday, 26 April 2009


Well I'm back which I have to admit is a lovely feeling. I do miss certain aspects of Rwanda but, as the saying goes, there's no place like home. London life, I fear, does not quite thrill the reader as Kamembean did so this will be a brief final posting.

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 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


I’m leaving in two weeks, a fact that excites and depresses.

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 America’s forgotten west. Instead of cowboys and girls however, we saw the unemployed and hungry. Us out-of-towners were met, not with bolting doors and local posses but over-excited children. This clumsy simile is designed to illuminate the overwhelming force that governs the town’s existence: its remoteness. The forest path, which begins at the last paved road, took our car 2 hours to defeat. On the way we passed groups of people, mainly men, trudging through the humidity. Our driver told us that their destination was the same as ours. This means a four-hour walk. For many this is their only access to work, no buses dare the jungle road. These young men, returning with the setting sun, had risen before it, traipsed through the dewy morning to catch the overcrowded bus, laboured all day, returning at night’s peak. Imagine this six days a week just to feed your family.

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 Burundi’s northern hills, children learn and crops grow but doubt, still, lingers in the air and my mind.

Thank You

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…