Pulp Fiction …… & non fiction!
December 2, 2010

Yesterday afternoon I made my final bus journey to Kibungo, forty minutes up the road, to say goodbye to Cathy and Louise, two young education volunteers who have become good friends during my time out here.

I actually first got to work with Cathy during the VSO pre departure training in Harborne Hall, back in July, so it was nice meet up again in Rwanda.

They seem to really enjoy cooking together as part of their daily routine and are very good at improvising dishes using the fresh produce readily available at Kibungo market. Last night they knocked up very tasty pasta with pesto and peppers dish accompanied with home-made garlic bread.

We even had the luxury of a bottle of cheap red Spanish plonk I had sourced from Simba at the weekend, actually the first drop of wine I’ve had in three months!    

Louise has a huge collection of movies stored on her portable hard drive so after the meal, following a bit of deliberation, we settled down around her laptop to watch Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

It probably wasn’t a good choice given that Louise went ashen at the sight of a syringe and Cathy is pretty squeamish about bloodshed and violence, so between them they spent at least half the movie with their eyes averted!   

Talking of pulp fiction there has been plenty of opportunity for evening time reading, often by torch or candle light, in between power cuts!  I managed to cram four books into my luggage allowance and with a bit of self-discipline managed to eek them out until about a week ago.

I enjoyed them all: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – the final page turner in Stieg Larrson’s Millennium Trilogy,   the latest humorous diaries of Sue Townsend’s, now middle-aged,  Adrian Mole  – The Prostrate Years, a Jo Nesbo thriller – Redbreast, featuring Norwegian cop Harry Hole, and A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks with its cleverly interwoven and satirical storyline, set in contemporary London, having been  described as Dickensian in scope and style.  

With a lengthy return flight and six hours or so to kill in Addis Ababa on Saturday night I went in search of reading material while in Kigali last weekend. I wasn’t spoiled for choice but came up with a copy of William Boyd’s  A Good Man in Africa.

I’ve read a number of his books and remember listening to the author at a Cheltenham Literature Festival event some years ago, coming away with a signed copy of his latest novel at that time, the epic Any Human Heart . I saw recently in the online Guardian that a C4 adaptation, with the screenplay written by the author himself, is currently being screened back home.  

A Good Man  in Africa was Boyd’s debut novel, from way back in 1981, and it won him the Whitbread First Novel Award while he was still an English lecturer at Oxford.

I haven’t been able to resist dipping into it and have enjoyed what I’ve  limited myself to so far. It is set in the fictitious western Africa state of Kinjana  and its descriptive passages appear to draw heavily on the author’s early life out in Ghana and Nigeria.

They really struck a chord with me and in many ways encapsulate my own experiences of rural African life here in Rwanda’s Eastern Province.  

The humorous narrative surrounds the hapless Morgan Leafy, a member of the British High Commission, over weight, over sexed and seemingly over his head in political bribery. I look forward to seeing how it pans out.

Finally, on the non fiction front, I noticed Cathy and Louise have a copy of Long Way Down , the book of the TV travelogue featuring Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s motor bike journey to the southernmost point of Africa.  I managed to read the chapter on Rwanda, an episode I had missed on TV.  

It includes their mountain  gorilla trek in the Virungas, coffee at the Bourbon Cafe in Kigali and a meeting with Paul Kagame in his country residence above Lake Muhazi – all locations that I have mentioned in my postings! It’s well worth a read.

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FC at UTC and breakfast with the Lion King
November 29, 2010

On Saturday, with December still a few days hence, I unexpectedly had my first encounter with Christmas at the sparkling UTC (United Trade Centre) shopping mall, home to the 24 hr Nakumatt super store, part of a Kenyan chain, which essentially serves Kigali’s expat community.   

The Nakumatt logo is an African elephant and to underline the point a large but undistinguished model stands guard outside the entrance to the store. It has now been joined   by two robotic Santas issuing jovial yuletide greetings as they rock backwards and forwards to the rhythm of a Bing Crosby sound alike version of Jingle Bells!

The Christmas welcome is completed by a somewhat tawdry looking artificial Christmas tree ordained with a few under inflated balloons and limp crepe paper decorations. In summary, nice try but no cigar!

Anyhow, having attended to a shopping list of luxury items such as Rwandan gouda, peanut butter and tinned sardines I returned to the Isimbi and settled down to watch the live Premiership action with a chilled Tusker beer (another elephant logo!) and a packet of Bellini Croustilles.

It turned out to be something of a goal-fest with Arsenal hanging on for a 4-2 away win at Villa Park, after looking like they were going to throw a comfortable lead away again, and a Man U demolition of Big Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn by 7-1, in which Dimitar Berbatov equalled the Premiership record of five goals in a game!     

Elsewhere in the sporting world Glawster dogged it out against Saracens to maintain their lofty fourth place position in the Rugby Premiership whilst Martin Johnsons’ resurgent national team received a reality check from the Springboks at Twickenham, but  down at the Gabba England’s cricketers were embarking on what would turn out to be an improbable recovery*.     

On Sunday morning I was woken by the familiar call to prayer at the nearby Kigali mosque  closely followed by choral harmony from its Christian neighbours. CNN was headlining ‘war games’ in Korea, a cargo plane crash in Karachi and winter wonderland scenes from across Europe. It seems back home everyone is bracing themselves for the earliest significant snowfall since November ’93!

Enough of that, it was pleasantly warm and the sun was shining as I set off for my final breakfast in Kigali, a tomato and avocado croissant with a large Americano, in the Simba café ,  Nakumatt’s only serious rival, which interestingly seems to be favoured as much by the black middle class as well as expats.

Simba, as the name suggests carries a lion’s head logo and the store is guarded at pavement level by two concrete felines whose design features, although scaled down, owe a lot to Landseer’s lions in Trafalgar Square. ‘Paw prints’ with the slogan ‘make your mark’ are set into the steps that lead into Simba’s dimly lit den.    

Some time later as I stood at the International bus depot, taking in the sights and sounds of Rwanda’s bustling capital for one last time, watched over by the circling kites and a low flying pelican, I marvelled at the speed with which the Kigali Tower centrepiece has been erected over the last three months and reflected that this young, clean, safe and upwardly mobile city has made great strides in the last fourteen years and is well on the way to fulfilling Paul Kagame’s vision of a hi-tech hub for the continent of Africa.

*The first glad tidings  I heard from the World Service this morning was ‘mission accomplished’; an astonishing Ashes comeback with Alistair Cook and Jonathon Trott breaking batting records left right and centre!    

Mützig and jambo with the lads!
November 17, 2010

Today was my final visit to Nyamateke School, to lead a training session on Classroom Observation, although I will be seeing the teachers again when they join with the staff at Nyabitare next week to start a four-week MINEDUC national English training programme for teachers. 

Sadly Wellars, the Headteacher, was not present today. One of his five children, a son, has gone down with malaria and he needed to take him to hospital for treatment. Fortunately, I understand it is not too serious.

Malaria is still rife and a big killer out here and we have recently received an email alert from VSO warning us that an unusually warm wet season has led to an increase in mosquitoes and reminding us to keep taking the tablets and bed down under our nets.

In Wellars’ absence Anaclet, a young teacher with good English, had been briefed to look after me and he was insistent that the headmaster had said he must take me for ‘refreshment’ after the session to thank me for my work.

Before we set off down the hill to the local ‘bar’ I lined all the teachers up for a group photograph outside the school and promised I would send them a copy on my return to England.

Six of us squeezed into the small, dim room with its rustic furniture and coloured poster of a smiling Shakira, adorning the wall. Things had gone full circle as this is where I had been treated to ‘Fanta Coca’ on my very first visit to the school.

This time around we were on the beer – well it is the school holidays! Once the bottle tops had been removed Xavier, ‘a good Christian’ according to Anaclet, said ‘grace’ in Kinyarwanda. Xavier later told me he had given thanks for the work I had done with them and asked God to be with me when I return to England – very touching!

Next I was told I had to partake of ‘jambo’ for lunch. Jambo turned out to be a tin of sardines with the brand name ‘Hello’. The barman cut open the small cylindrical can with a large machete and we all sat scooping the fish out with a fork before slurping down the remains of the tomato sauce!

As is often the case the best conversations are those over a shared beer and we touched on a whole number of varied but interesting topics. We somehow got on to university fees. All of my drinking companions were still in their twenties and keen to continue in part-time higher education.

Apparently a part-time university course costs around 450,000 RWF (£450) a year plus travelling expenses every weekend. It may not seem excessive to us but is prohibitive for many of them.

I tried to explain the English student loan system. Their faces displayed instant recognition and I was told the same set up had recently been adopted by Rwanda. All was made clear as they informed me that Paul Kagame is very close friends with an English adviser, Tony Blair!

Cows are never far away from the thoughts or conversation of Rwandans. They still can’t comprehend that we don’t keep cows as domestic animals in the UK!

It was explained to me that each year one teacher from each sector is nominated by his colleagues to receive a cow for his services to education. Last year in Nyarabuye sector it was, Seraphin, one of the Nyamateke teachers who received a Friesian cow from Paul Kagame (not Ankole!).

Ankole cattle with their enormous horns, whilst well adapted to East Africa and able to survive on limited water and poor grazing, are short on milk. Friesians which produce far more milk are gradually being introduced. Unfortunately Seraphin’s cow had not lasted long but he had been promised a replacement.

Anaclet had phoned my moto driver and rescheduled him to pick me up from the ‘bar’ not the school (a good advert for VSO volunteers!) and it was with some regret that I had to depart the scene so soon. I’m sure it is enjoyable interludes such as this that will remain with me for a long time when I return to the UK.

Amavubi stars fade as they are stung by Squirrels!
October 11, 2010

To borrow a well worn phrase from an over excited Norwegian football commentator, Paul Kagame, your boys took one hell of a beating! 

In fairness the 3-0 score-line in Benin’s favour was perhaps a little flattering and it could be argued that Rwanda were the better side in a goal less first half. They certainly had the best efforts on goal, including a long-range shot that was acrobatically tipped over, at full stretch, by the Benin keeper and one than came back off a post.

I guess the Amahoro Stadium in Kigali was only a third full, but the 10,000 or so spectators created quite an atmosphere for this African Cup of Nations qualifying game.

Tickets had not been difficult to obtain on the morning of the match, 3000 RWF to sit on the concrete terracing or 5000 RWF (£5.00) for a VIP ticket. This section, either side of the halfway line, had plastic seats and the only shade available in the ground, so that’s what Mark and I opted for.

There were no allocated seats as such and we finished up sharing a row with the local TV, radio and news media which would have been interesting if I could have understood word of their animated reporting.

The game had only been underway for two or three minutes when the whole of the block in front rose to their feet, as one, and began applauding. It was nothing to do with the football, but marked the arrival of the President, sporting a smart/casual look in his open necked black short-sleeved shirt, as he took his seat not more than ten rows in front of us.       

I understand he is a genuine football fan and attends matches whenever he can. I’m sure, given the final outcome, that he will have been disappointed that the Amavubi (Wasps) stars, kitted out in the national colours (yellow shirts, blue shorts and green socks) faded so alarmingly in the second half and that they failed to sting the opposition during a period of ascendency just before half time.

There was, of course, no such thing as a match day programme or even an announcement of the players’ names, although surprisingly there was big screen at one end of ground which relayed the on pitch action.   

The best players on both sides were in midfield and wore the number 8 shirt. Essentially the difference between the two teams was that the Rwandan number 8 struggled in the second half, under closer marking, whilst his counterpart from the Squirrels continued to pull the strings for them.

Benin took control from the outset of the second period and finished with three well taken goals. The first was a speculative long shot, from striker Razak Omotoyossi, which arrowed into the top corner past the hapless Rwandan keeper.

The second was tucked away by Stephane Sessegnon, the afore-mentioned number 8, who I later discovered plays for French Ligue 1 side PSG  and was said to have been on Harry Redknapp’s shopping list earlier this summer!   

The final goal was the best worked of the lot and well finished, by Seidith Tchomogo, following a good build up and an accurate cross in from the right hand side.     

The buzzing vuvuzelas were finally silenced and it was time to follow in the slip stream of PK and beat a hasty retreat to the local bar for a Mutzig (à la pression!) and bit of post match analysis.

*Goal scorers names and details supplied courtesy of the BBC Sports website!

Alexis’ corner of Rwanda
October 7, 2010

Kirehe is the driest district in Rwanda and although we are in the ‘short wet season’ (September to December) there has been precious little, much needed, rain until yesterday when the heavens opened with two short but torrential storms accompanied by rolling thunder.

Luckily I managed to avoid both of these on my moto drives to and  from Nyamateke, where I spent three hours or so with the  headteacher, Wellars,  sorting out an  Action Plan for the remainder of my placement.  It looks like over the next three weeks I will be providing him with management support for writing a new school development plan and possibly some help with ICT if he can get his laptop up and running.

That will take us up to the end of the school year. Thereafter, during the month of November, I will spend the final four weeks of my placement providing in-service training sessions for his staff, a mixture of education methodology and some English sessions based on themes of their choice.

Today I go through the same action planning process at Nyabitare but I suspect it will be a much slower process as Flora, the head, speaks French but very little English.

Daniel, my usual moto driver, got a puncture yesterday so I was picked up by Alex (Alexis). I had met him a few times but only been on his bike once before. This was a free ride he gave me one evening when he saw me walking into Nyakarambi. As he was headed in the same direction direction he kindlystopped to give me a lift, insisting there would be no charge. 

Alex is very proud that he owns two cows. Cows are extremely significant in Rwanda. They are tangible assets, a sign of prosperity and of course a source of milk.  As we were driving along he suddenly pointed out a small clay brick, cement rendered property with a corrugated metal roof. Next to it stood a rustic wooden  shelter, home to his pride and joy.   

This was Alexis’ corner of Rwanda, just off the dust track, part of a small settlement on the edge of a banana plantation, with wonderful views across the valley.   

He pulled over, parked up his moto and led me across to take a look at his long horned cow and calf. I was taken into his house and introduced to his wife and two young boys. The oldest of them had recently started school in Nyakarambi.  Alex explained who I was in Kinyarwanda and primed him to greet me in English which he did with, “Good morning teacher!”   

Alex’s wife then appeared with two jugs of piping hot boiled milk, from the family cow, and a plate of rice and beans which Alex and I shared. The milk was served in large mugs with a heaped spoonful of sugar.

Alex passed me the family photo album, largely pictures of his wedding and some of him going through exercises in combat gear. He told me had been in the army for 15 years and is now 30. It is therefore highly likely that he was a boy soldier with the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) during the aftermath of the genocide, which was probably borne out by another photograph in the album, that of Paul Kagame.    

It was a very kind of Alex, who I barely know, to take me to his home in this way and I felt very privileged to have met his family and to have shared lunch in this way. I took a few photographs of Alex and his boys. He is very relieved to have sons as apparently girls are too troublesome!

With this most unexpected and enjoyable interlude to my journey over we carried on to Nyakarambi.

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!