Archive for the ‘International News’ Category

North London ‘derby’ in Nyakarambi!
November 21, 2010

We have been promising ourselves a Saturday afternoon visit to KMC to watch a match on Msafiri’s big screen. Given that this weekend we were at a loose end in Nyakarambi and that Mark is a ‘Gooner’, the North London ‘derby’ seemed an obvious call.

Sod’s law decreed that this would, of course, be the Saturday afternoon that Msafiri had let his function room for a wedding party, so no football. Fortunately, however somebody else with an eye for the main chance had set up a 26 inch TV in a back room behind Uncle Innocent’s café.

We dutifully paid 200RWF entrance fee and took our place on wooden bench, hemmed in by about seventy football mad locals, and with a distant view of the small screen. About 75% of the crowd were Arsenal ‘fans’ and the rest were cheering on Spurs because they were followers of Chelsea or Man Utd.

The first half was a cake walk for Arsene’s team and the camera even caught him smiling. Perhaps it was too easy, because the second half saw an amazing turn around and Harry’s Spurs surprisingly found themselves 3-2 winners,  without really playing that well. A ‘game of two halves,’ if ever there was, and  Arsene was finally shown throwing his water bottle on to the ground in frustration!

To be honest all five goals were the product of dubious defending and who knows what Cesc Fabregas was thinking of when he stuck up an arm to let Spurs back in with an equalising penalty which provided, an out of condition, Rafael Van der Waart with his one and only meaningful contribution  to the game.

Game over and we repaired to the ‘front terrace’ of KMC to drown Mark’s sorrows and catch the dying embers of the day. As we watched the wedding guests, dressed in their finery, come and go we were soon joined by Msafiri sporting his ‘Tora Paul Kagame’ T-shirt and a long face. He is also a Gunners fan and had been watching the game up in his room.

Msafiri has taken to wearing a range of PK leisure wear since last Sunday when he attended a FPR meeting addressed by a local MP who apparently robustly refuted the findings of the recent controversial UN enquiry.  

Msafiri maintains he has never been into politics too much but understands the current standing and popularity of PK and, being rather astute, he clearly recognises that nailing his colours to the mast can’t be all together bad for business.     

He has been very friendly and helpful to us since we moved to Nyakarambi and is a bit of a local Mr Fixit. I had set him the mission of trying to find someone local who might be prepared to transport me and my luggage to Kigali Airport in two weeks time, at a decent rate, so I don’t have to struggle with it on the bus.

It seems he might have come up trumps and in typical African style, with a big smile on his face he declared that he could confirm arrangements two days before I’m due to leave. My response that I needed to know at least a week before leaving was met with another big grin and a, ‘Don’t worry Phillip I won’t let you down!’ Past experience suggests he won’t so I’ll just relax and go with the flow.          

On arriving home a  quick trawl on the internet soon put  the North London ‘derby’  into perspective. The result of the day was obviously down in Cardiff where Billy’s Boys beat the table toppers 2-0 to move the Tricky Trees into the top six of the Championship!

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Teachers – more precious than gold!
October 5, 2010

Today October 5th, in observance of World Teachers’ Day, Rwandan schools were closed and teachers countrywide engaged in a celebration of their profession.

I was invited to attend the Nyarabuye Sector celebrations which covered four schools including those to which I’m attached, Nyabitare and Nyamateke.

Rwandan timings are not the most reliable so when Wellars, the head at Nyamateke, informed me the day would run from 09.00-16.00 I decided to arrive around 10.00!

It was a 40 minute trek, cross-country by moto, to Nyarabuye Secondary School where the day’s events were being held and when I arrived Daniel had to dust me off with an old towel he carries on the back of his bike.

As I suspected the main part of the day, speeches and the like, wasn’t due to start until lunchtime. The morning was given over to a football match between primary and secondary teachers from the sector.

Nyarabuye is high up and the match was played on a bumpy cabbage patch of a pitch which, whilst not conducive to the beautiful game, provided disinterested spectators with extensive views across rolling hills, with grazing Ankole cattle, towards distant lakes.  

The match was high on endeavour if a little low on quality and finished goalless. Once the final hand shakes were exchanged, and the players changed, we assembled in the main school hall to await the invited sector and district dignitaries.

These included the local mayor who I was told has many cows. Cows are a huge status symbol and a sign of wealth in these parts. 

Needless to say it was quite a wait and a couple of teachers started up some traditional songs with clapped accompaniment to keep the crowd occupied. As is so often the case in Africa the people seem to have natural harmony and rhythm and a love of singing. It was a very pleasant diversion.    

Once the main event got underway, about an hour later than scheduled, I was invited to sit with the local heads at the top table. A whole string of speeches followed, all in Kinyarwanda, but thankfully interspersed with song, dance and martial arts exhibitions performed by the secondary school pupils.

The Rwandans are generally a reserved people but when the get a public platform, as today, they can talk and talk………

I sat and listened to over two hours worth of Kinyarwanda which meant precious little to me, apart from the odd word with an anglophone derivation. At one point a shopping bag with the logo ‘Teachers are more precious than gold’ was held aloft to a great round of applause.

I was just thinking of making my excuses and slipping away when I was asked if I would like to make a brief address. Luckily I had been warned by Dorothy that this might happen and had prepared a short introduction about myself in Kinyarwanda. Admittedly I read from a piece of paper but my efforts seemed to be appreciated.

I padded it out, in English; by saying how impressed I had been by the local teachers’ attitude and commitment to learning and improving, that no nation could progress or develop without education and that they and their students were the future of Rwanda. All good stuff, I think!         

I also told them, to their utter surprise, that there would be no holiday for teachers and very little public acknowledgement of their worth back in the UK.   

Following my ‘speech’ there was a drinks break and I was rewarded with a bottle of Mützig which was warm but none the less welcome. As the only muzungu present, it had been an honour and a privilege to be part of the teachers’ special day.

Fred, Frank and the quest for a green card!
October 2, 2010

I was issued with a Rwandan visa during the VSO in country training, in Kigali, but a green card is also required. Applications have to be made in person and the green card is issued by the immigration office in the district in which you are working; in my case Kirehe.  

You might think this would be a fairly straight forward exercise, particularly as the immigration officer is based just a couple of hundred yards up the road at the District Office. However this is Africa and the wheels of bureaucracy grind exceedingly slow.

Firstly we spent two weeks, on and off, trying to meet the immigration officer (Fred!) but every visit drew a blank with his door firmly locked and a note posted that he was out on business. Eventually contact was made by phone and he informed us that the application process was a three-part exercise.

Part one involved a two-hour round trip, on Thursday morning, to the town of Kibungo and a visit to the Fina Bank to make a 5000 RWF green card payment. In return I received a receipt which had to be taken up the hill to the RRA (Rwandan Revenue Authority). Here the first receipt was exchanged for another receipt, in duplicate and officially stamped, which I was told had to be passed to the immigration officer with my application; so far so good.

On returning to Nyakarambi, surprise, surprise, the immigration office was closed and I was informed nobody would be there until the next morning. I dutifully returned at 07.30 on Friday morning to find Fred was still not there so I called his mobile. Surprisingly he answered and informed me that he was on leave but someone would be taking his place later in the day. They were currently tied up on business in Kibungu and would not be there for about an hour.

I returned an hour and a half later to find that the relief immigration officer had still not arrived but someone ‘helpfully’ suggested I could short-circuit the operation by catching a bus down to the Rwanda/Tanzania border at Rusomo, 20 km away, where the immigration officer on duty there could issue the card.

I waited an hour for the next bus to Rusomo and after a 45 minute journey presented myself at the immigration office. I was asked to take a seat whilst they kindly explained that unfortunately I had been misinformed and green cards could not be issued at the border.

However, they did phone the office at Nyakarambi and assured me that the relief immigration officer had now arrived and was waiting for me! I hopped back on the bus and an hour later found, to my relief, that he was indeed in his office.

Relief immigration officer Frank (not Fred!) sat at his desk wading through a mighty pile of immigration applications. The waiting room was crammed with people waiting for their documents.

I was invited to take a seat but Frank could not interrupt what he was doing and ‘mix the work’, he would deal with me as soon as he was finished.

I waited for over an hour while Frank shuffled the same pile of papers backwards and forwards, each time adding a different rubber stamp or signature, about five in all!

At last he was finished but there was one final heart stopping moment when he could not find the green cards or the ledger in which they had to be recorded. Following a phone call, presumably to Fred, he found them and we were under way.

Half an hour, and four rubber stamps later I emerged triumphant with my green card.

For me the main benefit of a green card  is that it allows a reduction in the permit fees for visiting the gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park and the wild life in the Akagera National Park, both of which I’m  hoping to visit during the coming weeks.

The *Stella Express* to Nakumatt!
September 25, 2010

I have timetabled visits to both my schools twice per week; Nyamateke (Mon/Weds) & Nyabitare (Tues/Thurs). I intend to use Friday as an admin day to write-up reports and plan for the week ahead. This can be done either at the Nyakarambi District Office , where we have one VSO designated desk between three of us plus intermittent access to mains electricity and unreliable wireless internet, or at home.

The latter is the more comfortable option, but we have told to show our faces in the office from time to time so that our ‘boss’ Telesphore, the district education officer, knows we are round and about and putting the hours in.    

Occasional Fridays can also be used to travel into Kigali to carry out any necessary business at the VSO office which unfortunately doesn’t operate at weekends. This can prove quite difficult for volunteers who are placed in the furthest extremities of the country.

Dorothy is having her ‘leaving do’ at Zaaffrans, an Indian restaurant in Kigali, this Saturday evening. The Kirehe district ‘new recruits’ have all been invited, so having accepted I decided to make a weekend of it.

I secured a pre-booked ticket for the Stella Express bus service, ‘scheduled’ departure from Nyakarambi at 10.00 am. As I walked up into town I became aware that after just two weeks my face is becoming an accepted part of the local scene.

Groups of youngsters, rather than standing and staring, now call out, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ and ask, ‘Where are you going?’  When I reached the town centre a couple of local businessmen we have come to know, Nasim and Innocent, hailed me, ‘Phillip!’, stepped from their doorways and shook me by the hand.

I’m known as Phillip here as, apparently, Phil is a difficult concept. The whole meeting and greeting process is a very important part of Rwandan street culture and I quite enjoy it.

The Stella Express was running 30 minutes late (not too bad). I was travelling with John and we managed to draw quite a crowd of onlookers as we awaiting its arrival.  A young lad went out of his way to be helpful, scrutinising our tickets before scuttling  into the ‘ticket office’ to ensure that our bus was indeed due and that it was on its way.  

Two and a half hours wedged in like sardines, sitting on top of the wheel arch, knees tucked under my chin and cradling a rucksack and laptop was not the greatest travel experience I’ve ever had but that’s how it is here and it did only cost 2000 RWF (£2.00)!

We scrambled out at Chez Lando, a short walk from the VSO office and arrived during the lunch break, so it took and hour or so of hanging around to complete our business. We had come in search of copies of our contracts which are held in the office but needed in Nyakarambi to secure a green card, which is proving a bit of a mission!  I also needed to submit a claim for my recent moto expenses.

Next stop was the Traveller Cafe a down town balconied establishment perched above the street, across from the Kigali Tower (under construction), where it is enjoyable to sit and watch the world go by. We treated our selves to omletti fromage n’ifiriti  washed down with a much-needed Primus iconje (chilled).

Omlettes can be a welcome change from the routine melanje and goat kebabs. This one was served as expected i.e. an omelette topped with cheese and a side order of chips but back in Nyakarambi it is an all together different experience. The chips actually come inside the omelette mixed with a selection of vegetables from the daily melanje and a few chunks of goat meat as a chewy bonus!   

After checking in at the Isimbi Hotel , a fairly central, clean basic room with a mosquito net and shower (21,000 RWF per night) I set off in search of the BCR Bank. Having negotiated the armed guards, there are soldiers in camouflaged uniforms and Rwanda Police (literally boys in blue) toting guns on ever street corner, I managed to cash my first VSO pay cheque.      

Having resolved my cash flow problem I set off post-haste for the air-conditioned Union Trade Centre shopping mall and the prestigious Nakamatt, ‘You need it, we’ve got it’, 24 hr store. It belongs to a Kenyan chain and is the best stocked retail outlet in Rwanda. Urban legend has it that ex-pats wept for joy when it opened!

I was sparing with my new-found wealth but indulged myself in a few treats to keep me going until my next visit. A tube of Colgate toothpaste, a Rwandan Gouda cheese, a large packet of cashew nuts, and a jar of peanut butter and large bottle of water came to 7,870 RWF.

I was sorely tempted but balked at breaking the bank for the taste of Marmite at 6200 RWF for a 125g jar!

Hostel Rwanda!
September 11, 2010

Torrential rain welcomed us as we touched down at Kigali Airport, around 14.00 hrs on Sunday 5th.  It was one  of the first downpours of the wet season and something that we have now become accustomed to each day, usually during the late afternoon or early evening.

The Ethiopian Airways flight from LHR had included a scheduled transfer in Addis Ababa but our onward passage to Kigali had taken us, unexpectedly, via Entebbe in Uganda, where we sat on the tarmac for an hour being refueled! On the up side, Entebbe airport is set next to Lake Victoria and there were terrific views as we came into land.

The total journey time from home was about 23 hours, which included the stop over in Entebbe and 3 hours sitting on the floor in the Addis Ababa departure lounge. This, at least, provided a bonding opportunity for the VSO recruits from the UK.

By the time we had cleared immigration and picked up our luggage, all of which thankfully arrived, the rain had stopped and the air felt fresh.  

We were welcomed by VSO Rwanda staff, including the country director, and transported to our current accommodation, the Hostel Amani. During the drive we were able to take in our first views of the Kigali skyline.

The Rwandan capital city straggles over several hills and valleys, spanning altitudes of between 1300m to 1600m. Our accommodation is close to the VSO office but about 12km from the main commercial city centre.      

Most people are sharing rooms but I somehow managed to get one to myself, which is a bonus. There are mosquitoes around so I’m taking daily malaria tablets, smothering myself in tropical strength Deet and sleeping cocooned within a net, which is something I’ll have to get used to over the next three months.

We are being rather spoilt at the moment with meals three times a day. The typical Rwandan meal is a melanje which is served buffet style and consists of a selection of salad, green vegetables (imboga), rice, fried potatoes, and fish or meat, usually in a tomato sauce.

There are a number of local bars and our nearest is just a couple of hundred metres up the road. It is in effect a converted metal container with a lean-to corrugated roof. There is a small courtyard, fenced off from the road, which houses colourful plastic patio furniture.  

The beers of choice are Primus and Mutzig , the taste of success as the slogan goes. A large bottle of inzoga ikonje, chilled beer, costs between 600-700 Rwandan francs (60-70p) and provides welcome relief from the somewhat oppressive heat.

The in country training is mainly taking place at the hostel although there have been outings to the VSO office, which is nearby, and a brief familiarisation visit to Kigali city centre which included a tour of the polyclinic.

The schedule includes a daily two-hour session of Kinyarwanda and has also covered more practical aspects of life such as how to light a kerosene stove and lamp. We have also had an informative and candid talk, from the British High Commissioner, Nick Cannon, who provided useful cultural and historical background information about Rwanda as well as a summary of the current political situation.

On our first full day here Paul Kagame was inaugurated as president, for a second time, following the recent election in which he gained 93% of the vote! A national holiday was called at extremely short notice, which apparently is a not uncommon occurrence. A couple of us managed to visit a bar to watch the final stages of the ceremony, which was attended by many visiting heads of African state.  

On one of our outings we were driven through that part of the city which houses the presidential palace and most of the foreign embassies. We were suddenly confronted by the headlights of motor cycle outriders flanking an official limousine which had  tinted windows and was sporting the national flag. It is highly likely it was the president who, apparently, chooses to drive himself around.

On Thursday we ate out and were treated to the omnipresent local favourite, ihene brochettes na ifiriti, (goat kebabs and chips) at the very originally named ‘The Bar’. The VSO staff put on a pub quiz and my team, the Mutzig Muzungus, won!

Your starter for 10!

In November 2009 Rwanda became the latest country to join the Commonwealth. It is one of only two member states that do not have a British colonial background. What is the other country?

UN Inquiry into Rwandan genocide revenge claims…..
August 31, 2010

An article in yesterday’s Times, under the heading Peace threat over genocide revenge report, claims that leaks from a soon to be published UN Inquiry may call, recently re-elected, President Paul Kagame’s Tutsi led government to account for its actions in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 genocide.   

Kagame declared winner of the Rwandan presidential election, held earlier this month, with 93% of the vote, has recently come under increased scrutiny from the international community.

Human rights groups and observers have been critical of political repression during a campaign from which critical opposition parties were barred.     

A press release by the White House Security Council, whilst acknowledging the progress made by Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, raised concerns over a number of disturbing events including the arrest of journalists, the suspension of certain newspapers, the banning of two opposition parties from taking part in the election and the expulsion of a human rights researcher.

There were also acts of violence, including the murder of an opposition official, in which the government steadfastly denies any in involvement.    

Kagame seized power in the wake of the 1994 ethnic genocide in which 800,000 Rwandans (mainly Tutsis and moderate Hutus) were slaughtered at the behest of the former Hutu dominated government.

The international community’s belated and guilty response to the atrocities has been to provide Kagame’s Tutsi led government with unprecedented levels of aid. 

Kagame has also received high-profile commendation, from leading figures such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bill Gates, for the way he has unified the country and masterminded its recovery.  

He responded to mounting criticism from western observers, following the recent elections, in an article for the Financial Times, published under the heading Rwanda’s democracy is still the model for Africa.

In it he claims that whilst few would doubt Rwanda’s rapid social and economic progress they fail to acknowledge the success of its political evolution.

The thrust of his argument for maintaining such an authoritarian grip on the country is that competitive democracy can only be possible following a sustained period of social cohesion.

He wrote that, although the healing and reconciliation process has made great progress, no country with Rwanda’s recent history can be expected to move from genocide to confrontational politics within such a short space of time.   

He further claims it was pluralistic politics spawning newly formed parties with a common extremist ideology that succeeded in mobilising the population to commit mass murder.  

However, when the findings of the UN inquiry are officially released, next month, it is likely they will lead to a rewriting of the current widely accepted historical account of the Rwandan genocide, which may in turn negatively impact on further foreign support for Kagame’s regime.

The report apparently carries detailed information of reprisals carried out by the Rwandan army, whilst under Kagame’s watch, as they pursued Hutu refugees into neighbouring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).    

The revelations may lead to calls for Tutsi leaders, for so long portrayed as the heroes and victims of the genocide, to be prosecuted for their actions.

The Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo has already communicated with the UN Secretary General and is quoted as denouncing the report as ‘incredibly irresponsible’ and ‘fatally flawed’.

Should the report be published, Rwanda is already threatening to withdraw from UN peacekeeping forces.

Whilst the truth is paramount and needs to be known, it is essential that this report provides an impartial, fair and accurate account of events, and is delivered in such a way that it does not threaten to destabilise the current levels of social cohesion within Rwanda or derail its remarkable recovery.  

If it does my VSO stint might turn out to be shorter than anticipated!

VSO Rwanda: Provisional flights & the Presidential Election!
July 28, 2010

I have received an email with provisional flight details for my VSO stint in Rwanda.

All things being well, I will be flying out of Heathrow at 06.50 on Thursday 2nd September and arriving at Kigali Airport (right) following a transfer in Brussels, at 18.50 the same day.

My return flight out of Kigali is scheduled for 20.45 on Saturday 4th December, touching down 10.00 on Sunday 5th.

So I should be back home in plenty of time for the build up to Christmas!

I had my first rabies shot yesterday, following on from yellow fever on Monday and swine flu last Friday. The nurse said my immune system won’t know what’s hit it! There are still two more rabies and a Hep B to go before I leave a months from now.

The international spotlight is turning towards Rwanda once again with elections due on 9th August.

Last weekend the Telegraph Magazine (24th July) carried an in-depth interview article with President Paul Kagame which concluded with the unanswered question is he, “a benevolent dictator, the strong hand needed to pull Rwanda forward into a better future, or is he an incurable despot?”  

In the autumn of 1994 Rwanda experienced the fastest genocide in history. Over a 100 day period Hutu fanatics slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

At that time the international community stood by staring in disbelief but failing to react until it was too late. In the 16 years since, western aid has enabled the country to make an equally staggering recovery and Rwanda is now considered to be a model for all developing African nations.

Rwanda is now considered to be the safest and cleanest country in Africa. It has experienced one of the highest rates of economic growth. Corruption levels are said to be low and it is the only country in the world with a majority of women in parliament.

The death penalty has been abolished, there is a national health system and 95% of children are in school. There is an aim for every pupil to have their own laptop by 2012!

The infrastructure is developing at an amazing pace with skyscraper buildings rising in the capital city, a good network of major roads, widespread internet availability and a national law banning plastic bags, on environmental grounds.

Amazingly this has been achieved in a nation where communities of survivors from the genocide live side by side with the killers.

Kagame is a Tutsi from the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) whilst 85% of the population are Hutu. He has simply addressed the problem of ethnic hatred and ethnic politics by making them illegal.

The Hutu – Tutsi divide and indeed the very words are no longer acceptable. The government mantra is, “We are all Rwandans now.”      

Politicians or citizens engaging in divisionism, as it is now called, face lengthy imprisonment or worse.

Some Hutu critics of Kagame, who maintain divisonism is merely a strategy to allow a Tutsi minority ruling elite to maintain control of a Hutu majority population, have been forced into exile, mysteriously disappeared or become the victims of unsolved assassinations.

Human Rights Watch are critical of Kagame’s authoritarian style of government claiming that denial of the Hutu political voice will only suppress tensions in the short-term and could be bottling up a resentment that may  manifest itself in another future genocide.

Rwanda still remains heavily dependent on the services of humanitarian NGOs (non governmental organisations) and financial aid from the international community. Whilst Kagame accepts this with a degree of gratitude there appears to be an underlying tone of resentment.

This is borne out of the west’s lack of intervention at the time of the genocide and an assertion that only five percent of agencies involved, “are doing it altruistically.”  Kagame however appears to be a very astute operator and uses the guilt of the western world to his country’s advantage.

Whilst his fiercest critics brand him a war criminal and liken him to Hitler, he has at the same time received huge international acclaim for his achievements and enjoys the support of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and the Chief Executives of Google and Starbucks.

Beneath the surface the political situation may be more fragile than it seems and it will be very interesting to keep an eye on the forthcoming elections. However I suspect and hope that they will go off peacefully.

You can be assured that VSO will also be watching the situation very closely and I have every confidence that if there is any hint of political instability, surrounding the elections, that may compromise the safety of its volunteers I will not be boarding that flight in September and those already in place will be evacuated post-haste.

Watch this space………..