lightning strikes twice

 

 

Lightning Never Strikes Twice

  1. The same highly unlikely thing never happens to the same person twice.

 

Just over two weeks after my rapid 25,000 feet plummet above Venezuela and on the way Colombia, I left for a week’s holiday in Alicante, Spain. Accompanying me was my son Gabriel and my daughter’s friend Rosie. Booking online we encountered a choice. A flight on easyJet from Southend Airport, fifteen minutes earlier than the one leaving from Gatwick. “Southend Airport” I repeated to Gabriel, who was kindly managing the booking, “does it actually exist?” Apparently in the sixties it was the UK’s third busiest airport. EasyJet started operating from the airport in 2012. I decided to take the plunge, arguing with myself that it was fifteen minutes earlier than the Gatwick flight plus it was some pounds cheaper. As we made the 53-minute journey by train from Liverpool Street Station, we joked about it being a ploy, about us being kidnapped- we played with the idea that there was no Southend airport at all. Famished we looked forward to clearing customs and finding sustenance quickly. Arriving at the low-rise miniature looking version of Stanstead, in the rain, minus the shopping facilities, our collective disappointment was palpable.

The only reasonable looking food outlet, and strangely named, Anorld & Forbes, did the regular Panini’s and tired looking sandwiches. We still had at least two hours to kill. I bought a novel. Gabriel bought chewing gum and a football magazine. Rosie bought bags of sweeties. We did the usual checking of mobiles, text messaging, reading of kindles and so the time passed. As we queued up it was clear the flight was full. The officious looking easyJet agent checked the size of bags in the device that sees the passenger squeezing their bag into the metal compartment certifiably legal to fit cabin requirements. It always elicits feelings of guilt and thoughts of  “why the hell did I pack that extra tube of moisturizer or that unnecessary pair of dress up shoes,” having slipped them in last minute.

Happy to leave the wind, the drizzle, the grey behind we boarded the big plane adorned with the screaming orange and white logo and the uniformed stewards of the same color, alongside the excited children, the buggy wielding families and the other sun seeking trippers. Settled into our seats, we were given the first update. Apologies but there was a delay. We would soon be on our way. Then came the next update. Unfortunate incident – the flight had been struck by lightning on the way back from Geneva and on the way to pick us up. It needed to be examined. Engineers may be able to fix it – hopefully a quick fix. It sounded like an exercise in polyfilla’ ing to me. Either way they had to refer the situation to the necessary airport-easyJet authorities. Now I had time to finish my book Americanah which had accompanied me on all my travels. I read fitfully as I thought about the tortuous process completing the edit of the work for the FXB exhibition opening at the OXO Gallery mid August. Thirty minutes passed. The next announcement. We would know in the next half hour. And by the way we could unstrap ourselves if we needed; we could visit the restrooms if need be. My mind wandered back to the barrios of Colombia, the mud dwellings in China and Africa. I glanced down at the bookmark in the novel and the scrawled note in my handwriting. “P149 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on poverty. India as seen by westerners.” I paged back and read this paragraph: “ Ifemula would also come to learn that, for Kimberley, the poor were blameless.” The intercom system wheezed into action again. We are so sorry but the damage is more intrusive than we thought and it is in all of your interests that we get you off the plane as soon as possible. We will update you when we can. Americanah still in my lap, I read on: “Poverty was a gleaming thing; she could not conceive of poor people being vicious or nasty, because their poverty had canonized them, and the greatest saints were the foreign poor.” An hour later we disembarked.

 

Medium format context images I have had to edit out of the exhibition and there are many of them #KillingMyDarlings

Medium format context images I have had to edit out of the exhibition and there are many of them #KillingMyDarlings

It took over two hours to discover our fate. That was followed by a crucial bit of misinformation. One of the easyJet stewards told the assembled pissed off looking passengers that the flight would be leaving at 11.30 a.m. Half of them appeared to leave as soon as the announcement was made. Immediately after that an email from easyJet fell into my inbox. The flight was in fact leaving at 9.30a.m. It was clear that some unfortunate passengers were going to miss the flight the following morning. It took a further two hours to sort a bus which would transport us to the local Skylark Hotel, a fifteen minute drive away. I bet the Greek manager normally welcomed business type conference parties not sad looking, enraged, stranded and grounded airport passengers. However, he cheerfully offered us thermos flask coffee and pointed to an array of assorted pastries. To be fair he was the light at the end of the dark tunnel and he was coming up trumps. Except that the croissants ran out pretty quickly. In truth I wasn’t hungry. During the lengthy update wait I had accompanied Gabriel and Rosie on a hateful walk to MacDonalds. I ate a tasteless chicken wrap out of exasperated rage. The rain and the prospect of vile fast food had served to definitely dampen my spirits as I imagined the glorious sunset over Villa Estrella that I was missing. It was hard not to compare my easyJet-Southend experience with the Avianca-Caracas one. In terms of time and services, Avianca came out on top with the five star hotel, the tasty food as well as getting us to our destination on the same day, albeit sixteen hours late. Either way I lost a day – in Colombia it was work; in Spain it was a night and half day of pure R&R.

On the easyJet plane en route back to the UK from Alicante, my daughter pointed out a full page advertisement in the inflight magazine. The background illustration was one of exploding fireworks. The caption read ‘Visit Southend……town, shore and so much more.’

contd…

Travel tips (scroll down) :

 

My favourite view  of the irrigated fields from Benimarco with Mt Ifach in the background, Calpe, Spain

My favourite view of the irrigated fields from Benimarco with Mt Ifach in the background, Calpe, Spain

 

Rwamagana, Rwanda, a group of FXB beneficiaries help one another construct a new home.

Rwamagana, Rwanda,
a group of FXB beneficiaries help one another construct a new home.

Iphone snaps of Gabriel and his mates, Jamie (left) and Peter (right) and Rosie finally in the sun.

Iphone snaps of Gabriel and his mates, Jamie (left) and Peter (right) and Rosie finally in the sun.

photo 1

 

Savannah

Savannah

Mt Ifach, nr Calpe through mosquito net, from my room, Spain.

Mt Ifach, nr Calpe through mosquito net, from my room, Spain.

I thought I would share this little diary note I made soon after I arrived back in the UK from Colombia in mid July:

I am back in the familiar terrain of North London. The crows are making a din outside – now I associate that sound with the ‘corbeau’s of Rwanda and, I think, the macaws of Colombia and the last daredevil trip I made to the mangrove swamp on my last day there in spite of the Dengue fever warnings.

Aside of that, I thought I would share a few tips from my experience and travels of many weeks. A sort of ‘don’t forget to pack’ list when going into unfamiliar, often remote regions.

Here you go:

Dental floss. Expecially if you are visiting Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda. No amount of searching produced a dental floss kit. After every meal is served in any restaurant or hotel, a pot of toothpicks is served up. It is a common and acceptable sight to see a communal tooth picking session. Good for bonding and rumination.

Hygenic baby wipes. These come in handy when there is no running water, soap or napkins available.

Mini bags of kleenex. How many times I went into the latrines of China, India, Africa where there was no loo paper. How happy was I to have my tissue pack handily tucked into the corner of my handbag.

Nutritional energy bars. In Africa and Colombia we often ate lunch at around 3 or 4 o’clock. I was reminded of the convenience of my local Tesco or Waitrose as I bit into a Macadamia-Quinoa bar and felt my sugar level rise and the chi flowing again.

Overrated Avon Moisturizer. Urban legend or not. Before I left I was told to invest in said product in order to stave off all manner of Mozzies. That’s all fine but the stench of the product is wildly unattractive and I wonder why Avon don’t produce it as the anti insect repellent it is clearly meant to be.

Toilet roll. Essential for restrooms, loo’s, bathrooms that lack these facilities.

Own set of earplugs. For happy ears. Often the ones that come courtesy of ,and bagged by the airline companies, are so uncomfortable. Especially the ones that you have to fit onto and over your earlobe.

Emergencia

I missed the pilots shout of Emergencia that came across the intercom system. I don’t know why. I was told later that it sounded faintly hysterical – a pitch or two too high for comfort. I did hear the only English announcement – a garbled one at that – about oxygen masks. It was then that my half finished breakfast began to slide downwards. My desire for, and the thought of requesting a second cup of coffee began to morph into other strange thoughts. I slid the shutter upwards. It revealed nothing but pitch pure black. I looked at my watch and knew it should be approximately 3 or 4 am if we were anywhere near our destination of Bogota. But I had lost track of time. Now I was not sure where we were and my mind began to play tricks. Could we be over the ocean ? Could we be closer to the mountains that surround Bogota. Nothing else was being communicated. An eerie silence fell over the plane. I looked behind me. The young man directly behind me looked flush with fear. He said “it’s not good”. Beat (like the directive from a movie film script).  “We’ve dropped 20,000 feet and we’re still going down”. I looked to my left. A beautiful looking Colombian woman travelling with her two young children looked on calmly, and was stoically quiet. “I have to be brave and strong for my kids”, she whispered to me. Another woman behind her, stared back at me wide eyed. My heart started racing and I could hear the plane’s engine revving loudly. The term ‘rapid descent’ took on a whole new meaning as the sensation of just that took hold. I put my shoes on, as if to ‘neaten up’. I put my belongings in the new yellow bag I had bought in Chennai and zipped it up. I stashed my breakfast tray under the seat to the left of the one in front of me. I wondered how Pierre was. He had moved several rows behind me adjacent to the emergency exit. I had suggested he go there as there was more leg room and I wanted to sleep. Two seats in economy is better than one. The man behind leaned towards me as I turned back. “The plane has changed direction” he said. Weird thoughts. Why had I given my ex husband’s number as the emergency number when I had filled out the departure form for the airline, Avianca. I remember thinking, ‘how strange, I don’t ever recall being asked that before by any airline.’ Now I had to entertain the thought of him having to tell our children that a bad thing had happened. I stopped myself. “This is not happening” I said to myself. I had to flip the negative thoughts and push away the dark picture I had begun to paint. The brief prayer felt like it happened by accident rather than design. ” Please God, this is going to be okay,” I said to myself. I looked behind at the young man again hoping to gain some more information. His name was Eric and he was Dutch, I later discovered. “We are turning again  - it seems we are going towards Caracas”, he said. Soon after…by  now maybe twenty minutes after the first announcement about the oxygen masks, which, by the way, never appeared…there was an announcement in Spanish about depressurisation, about flying at a much lower altitude and about a ‘landing in Caracas in twenty minutes’ . By now it was close to  5 a.m. The landing in the dark in the flat of the Venezuelan plain away from the mountains that surround Caracas, was normal and accompanied by a relieved, slow collective exhalation of held breath and released tension. We had to wait on the tarmac until the airport opened at 5 a.m. We waited a long time, it seemed. An hour, I think. We disembarked and there followed another wait of four hours without any offer of water or sustenance by the airline. The odd things one does faced with a life-death situation. There seemed to be a small fashion store open as we came out and entered the airport complex. I walked in and impulsively bought a necklace which was rounded off with a strip of light brown leather, a small pink tassel, yellow beads and a fake gold emblem, a tree. My tree of life. All $7 worth of it, and so much more. Soon after that a man from North London helped me connect to the wifi. He was reassuring his mother that he was okay. He told me that he had a pilot’s licence and explained to me how lucky we were that the depressurisation had happened when it had. “You see”, he explained, “we were flying at 10-12,000 feet max, and if we had been closer to Bogota we may have hit the Colombian mountains”, and then, rather alarmingly and graphically he started describing how it may all have ended up rather differently than it had.  When he finished talking about body parts, I disappeared to buy a strong coffee.

Finally we were told that we were going to go to a five star hotel in Caracas and that we needed to go through customs, and immigration after which  we were herded onto several buses for the one and a half hour bus ride into Caracas. The dumped rubbish sightings in the dried up rivers, and on the side of the roads rivalled that of India and China. “Don’t walk in the streets in Caracas”, said Gabriel from Salavador via a Viber call. “It’s meant to be very dangerous”. I needed no warning – with only three hours before we were due to leave again, a shower (albeit that I had to put the same clothes on again), a coupon meal in the buffet restaurant, a brief lie down and a bit of socialising and story exchange with my new ‘Emergencia’ connections, seemed way more attractive than actively seeking any more danger or adventure than I had already totted up. It all went by in a flash before we were back on the buses and en route to the airport again. Dismayed I watched as the bus driver negotiated the busy highway with one hand on the wheel and the other firmly attached to his phone and his ear. I calmed my rising fears with thoughts of having, to date, survived near aeroplane disasters, death roads, and illness  brought on due to unsanitary conditions. The scene at Caracas airport reminded me of any Hollywood movie where the first world person is rather high mindedly entertained by the chaos of a third world situation. There was one Avianca representative assigned to hand out boarding passes to the approximately two hundred passengers. The official only spoke Spanish and began to call out the names of each and every passenger. Yuuleeeeun Uhdulsteeeen. Peeeuur Mulzaar. Unna Mareeuh Haarbohttell. The flight number was unchanged from the original  AV121 that brought us to Caracas instead of Bogota. We began to applaud as we were each identified. A faint hysteria had begun to envelop the over fatigued group as we resolved to go through customs, immigration, the scanning of our luggage for the third time since leaving our homes and Heathrow almost twenty hours ago. We still had another ten hours to go before finally touching down in Barranquilla, our final destination. We arrived there at 1 am. Our bags did not. As we finally checked into our hotel at 2 am the prospect of wearing the same sweaty clothes for work starting at 9am did not fill me with joy.

 

The view from my hotel room in Caracas, Venezuela

The view from my hotel room in Caracas, Venezuela

Barranquilla, often referred to as Arenosa (the sandbox in Spanish) due it’s lack of fertile soil, is located close to the Caribbean sea in the north of the country. Colombia’s largest river, the Magdalena meets the sea here. Barranquilla is reputed to be the home of magical realism. An installation and tribute room to the novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez takes pride of place at the new modern, local regional museum. Projected films depict his characters on a backdrop of shelves of books as the visitor is seated at an oversized writing desk. A group of revered writers, philosophers and reporters, including Marquez were part of the ‘Barranquilla Group’ made famous in his book One Hundred Years of Solitude.

When I surf the television channels in search of a news channel in my hotel room, the choices are riveting and reflect the proximity to North America as well as the sexiness of the South America’s. I can’t find CNN, but I can find Seinfeld, Ellen De Generes, ‘Dr. House’, as well as endless programmes about love, marriage and sex – ‘Matrimonia por Amor’, ‘Falsa Seducion’, ‘Hot Lesbian Love’ and ‘Naked Happy Girls’.

At 10 am Estefania Montoya arrived along with her colleague Dr. Vicky Alicia Manjarres. As the FXB representatives, beneficiary identifiers and fund raising operatives in Colombia, they would  guide us around the city which  is surrounded on all sides by the barrios – the slums. Strewn garbage features prominently. The houses are all surrounded by security bars that surround the verandas in their entirety – a veritable personal prison cell – very reminiscent and noticeably similar to the security systems of the homes that I have seen in the  ‘Coloured’ townships of  Cape Town . We drove out of the city and left the car in a backstreet car park-parking lot. There we met the first beneficiary and entered the barrio, Benedicion de Dios, on his bicycle tuk-tuk. In the thirty nine degree heat that is accompanied by sweat inducing humidity, we braced ourselves on the slow moving contraption, the cameras precariously placed underneath the passenger seat, at the driver’s side and in the ‘cab’. Sometimes we had to get off and walk if we encountered any incline. After a few hours of meeting and greeting and listening to the stories of  the FXB beneficiaries we returned to the lot. Stefania had somehow managed to lock her keys in the car, with the engine running. “The consolation will be  that the car will be cool by the time we manage to get it open”, she said. We laughed in nervous unison trying to find somewhere to sit in the dodgy lot. There was one occupied hammock and a wooden plank. By now the heat was oppressive. The comings and goings of the lorries, trucks and produce of the lot were beginning to look and feel a bit surreal. I asked if the large bags that were being off loaded were filled with ‘arroz’ (rice). No, I was told, it was fodder for the animals. By now the muscular bare chested men understood that we were in a predicament. One produced a huge rustic machete that looked like it has been put to good use. He wanted to prize open the car door. No thank you Stefania said graciously. Soon after, a young man walked over with a long piece of wire folded back on itself, a customised coat hanger. He was about fourteen years of age. Stefania asked him how many cars he had broken into. “Four…but the owners didn’t even know they had been broken into”, he said with a smile on his face. Then an additional group of men attempted to peel off the sealing of the window. We rejected further offers of help as more strange pieces of equipment appeared on the scene. When Stephania telephoned the insurance company, the man who would come to open the car, asked for the details of our location. When Stefania told him, he panicked and refused to come. Stefania would not accept this. “I am here”, she said, “if I am here, you can come”. He arrived sometime later via motorbike. An armed policeman was his escort. He opened the car deftly and quickly and hot footed it out of the area immediately. Luckily the running engine had not drained the battery.

The next drama was a flood in my bathroom the following morning but this was minor by comparison. In fact it was dance in the park.

The last barrio we visited was Malambo – the most harrowing story told by Angela. She has six children, one of whom is handicapped. Her eldest daughter  has a small baby who also lives with her. She had seen off the daughter’s abusive boyfriend. Anyela had been gang raped by the Farc, she had been locked in a room and had somehow managed to escape. The Farc came back to her village to look for her. They killed her neighbour whom they believed was harbouring her. She ran away from her village for good. How is it possible to have lived through all of that and be happy. She showed us her new fancy dress up frock for special occasions, her gleaming new refrigerator that took pride of place in the living room. She told us proudly that her children now ate three times a day.When FXB met her the children were malnourished and she was desperate. Apparently she used to beg the neighbours for food, offering her domestic services in exchange for a few left over morsels. How, my friend Andrea says, is that I, by accident of birth, end up here and you end up here, or should I say, there ?

Our last visit was to the area called Las Estrellas (The Stars), a suburb of Barranquilla. It felt like a fitting end to all the visits of all the FXB beneficiaries. Thirty four year old Saray owns a mobile phone and washing machine business. She rents them out. When FXB met her she and her, then, two year old daughter, they had both recently been diagnosed with HIV. She no longer wanted to live. That was seven years ago. Now she has a thriving business, making a couple of hundred dollars above the minimum monthly wage. She was the first beneficiary I met who had ambition. She announced to us, in front of  her daughter Nayeth, now nine years, that she wanted to own a house up the coast at the beach resort of Santa Marta. In Africa,when working on the captions for all my images, I asked the question ‘what makes you happy?’. The response mostly was “Now I have a roof over my head”, “I am happy because now my children can go to school”, “I can feed my children”. Saray was the first person I encountered who had seized the FXB lifeline, used it, benefited from it…. Now she dared to dream… and to dream big.

My Page 3 appearance in El Heraldo, Barranquilla in Colombia

My Page 3 appearance in El Heraldo, Barranquilla in Colombia

 

The lot where our keys got locked inside the car, with Vicky and Estefania. And the young kid who wanted to help by breaking into the car for us.

The lot where our keys got locked inside the car, with Vicky and Estefania. And the young kid who wanted to help by breaking into the car for us.

FXB beneficiary tuk-tuk bicycle owner who rode us into Benedicion de Dios.

FXB beneficiary tuk-tuk bicycle owner who rode us into Benedicion de Dios.

Airport waiting lounge Barranquilla, Colombia

Airport waiting lounge Barranquilla, Colombia

 

Sunset view from departure lounge at Barranquilla airport, Colombia

Sunset view at Barranquilla airport, Colombia

 

 

 

 

Bu Tuo, Tamil Nadu and Manipur: Rural rites

“ImFahl”, I am corrected by the first  security guard who inspects my passport at Kolkata airport as I tell him I am bound for “ImPhal”. “It’s my home place”, he says grinning broadly as he waves me on. Imphal is the capital of Manipur on India’s North East border. As I arrive I see a huge notice ‘all foreigners report to the office immediately on arrival’. I am relieved that Dinesh, the FXB host in Manipur, is meeting me- thankfully he has done all the groundwork.  I  fill out a form, headed  ‘the particulars of the foreigner’. Manipur is considered a ‘sensitive’ area due to separatists who operate in the surrounding mountains. The ‘welcoming party’ of officials and army is quite intimidating. It is immediately noticeable how many men with guns there are ‘lurking’ around the airport complex, and then beyond, all the way on the road into the city.

In 1949 a treaty was signed by the ruling Maharaj which merged Manipur with India. It was controversially received and there has been a long playing war ever since between those who feel it should be arranged into a number of independent separate Indian states and those who don’t. It borders several states I have barely heard of – Nagaland and Mizoram. I have heard of Assam (the tea), and of course Burma too. Burma lies to the east.  Nagaland to the north.  Alarmingly Dinesh explains to me how the men with guns have a carte blanche licence to shoot without impunity. “You know they can shoot and that can lead to injury, maybe you will be unwell, maybe it could kill you, but now in some provinces they don’t have that mandate anymore – well it’s been revoked in two,” he says in a half hearted way almost as if to console himself. My luck has it that the shooting ban is in effect in Imphal. When I read the local newspaper ‘The People’s Chronicle’ one of the reports mentions that someone is ‘shot to the death’. It’s as emphatic as that.  I am listening to Dinesh’s take on the army presence as I witness a man with a gun standing guard on every block, several trucks pass loaded up with men in camouflage, guns that look like body part extensions. The guns are AK47′S, 303′s, old World War II cast offs, and some SLR’s (“self loading rifles”, says Dinesh) They don’t look too menacing I am thinking as if to reassure myself, but, at this stage ‘what the hell do I know, anymore?”

What Dinesh tells me is that FXB Surakshar India (Surakshar means ‘security’ in Hindi) is sorely needed here. The Burmese/Indian border is rife with HIV victims – widows and orphans plus an ongoing lucrative drug trade.  Heroin has been the thing – used needles being shared widely. Dinesh explains a system where the addict sticks his arm through a hole in the wall and and some anonymous someone on the other side slides the (more than likely) used needle into the vein. There is a new drug on the market ambitiously called the World is Yours. It comes in tablet form.”If you crush it, it gives out an orange, choco or lemon aroma. It is smoked in a hookah and upon inhalation one begins to feel more power, you feel more sexually active and sex workers in Burma use it to enhance their performance. The raw materials are found here in India but the production is in Myanmar, then it comes back to India but the production is definitely in China or Burma. It’s called narco terrorism because India blames Burma but they are both culpable and accountable,” is Dinesh’s take on the situation at hand. What is apparent on my visit to Imphal is the number of HIV victims. Mainly widows. Previously married to addicts and left  to support themselves, and, on average two children – frequently one who is HIV positive and one who is not. I meet ‘gangs’ of strong, single HIV positive women mostly on Anti Retro Virals, all supporting one another. It’s different to Tamil Nadu where the diagnosis is considered a shame.

When I check out and pay my bill at the Classic Hotel, Imphal, the receptionist at the desk asks me ” Is Edelstein your surname?” Often in these parts of the world- China and India – one’s name can be used as both the first and the surname. For example when Prem, one of the FXB staff members gives me a list of his colleagues, it reads like this: Solochana (social worker), Sushila (peer volunteer), Reena (peer volunteer). Smiling, the hotel receptionist tells me that her niece was given the name ‘Edelstein’. I ask her if she knows what it means. “I think something like strong woman; one who has force and power,” she replies. I tell her that I don’t know of that meaning but I do know that the German origins of the word mean noble or precious jewel or gemstone. We discuss it’s German/ Eastern European roots. How odd it seems to me that a young girl in Manipur is randomly given the name Edelstein as her first name. Cool, I reckon. Now that I think of it, when I filled out the form ‘the particulars of the foreigner’ one of the questions asked was ‘name of father’.  So the name Edelstein seems to have featured frequently here in the past 48 hours in far flung Manipur.

continued…below

 

Leashed dog in village near Bu Tuo, China

Leashed dog in village near Bu Tuo, China

 

Weaver and FXB beneficiary, Bu Tuo area, China

Weaver and FXB beneficiary, Bu Tuo area, China

 

I wanted to write a bit about my experience of  the rural villages of  Africa, India and China. Not that I am lumping them together. More that I can draw some comparisons. My host Bruce Lee repeatedly reminded me that Bu Tuo and the Yi people are not China. The Yi  live in mountainous regions around Bu Tuo, a three hour drive from XiChang. The drive leads you to regions of high altitude coupled with a bracing cold. The levels of hygiene and sanitation were surprisingly non existent. “The Yi people wash three times in their lives” Bruce Lee explained, “when they are born, for their wedding and for their funeral”. I had evidence of that. The blackened faces, feet and hands, the stench, the filth, the soiled tattered clothes and  the litter everywhere. Like some communal depression- a lack of pride or care or awareness. The latrines are there, and there is no talk, as there is in India, of an open defecation ‘policy’. One image I have in my mind is of a crouching woman, in the glaring sunlight,  in a huge field, bare bottom facing the road, not a bush or tree in sight to provide any cover. It must be quite liberating, I guess. That was in the Tamil Nadu region of India. Preferable I would say to squatting in a shit filled, stinky latrine with flies swirling around. By the time I got to ChengDu I have never been as happy to see a toilet bowl. The simple pleasure and  joy of sitting on a toilet seat.

Let us address the issue of the flies. In China they were constant companions. In the food areas, on the washing line, in the home, in the cow and pig pens. And around the cow pats, the rivers, on the faces… in your face. Damn them and swat them. And how, one might ask, is that considering the chilly climate. The stinky odour. Even in the heat in India it did not pervade like it did in the Bu Tuo County of China. The close proximity to animals in the residential home is real, and that is probably the reason for the flies and the stench. In Africa and India the proximity is fairly close too but the homes are clean and tidy. They do not smell.

There is an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”. And here there is one overriding common denominator existent in all the rural areas I visited. The spirit of community. The women working – be it gathering crops in the fields or weaving, laughing and gossiping together. The children fetching water and playing ball or skipping rope together. The men playing cards, smoking and drinking together. The men, women and children walking together to reach the local church service, funeral or wedding. A gathering of the force and power of community and the need of social activity. One of the images I will never forget was at the FXB Village of the ‘outcaste’ community, the Periya Colony in Mathur. Dusk and the light was falling as we drove into the main road of the village. It is the one and only road. We stopped the car and walked through the community recognising people we had met earlier that day. On the road was a man being soaped down by a woman. Children running around, men riding motorbikes, other village elders walked by. A baby crawled into the road. The man was impossibly and spectrally thin. The woman was large and strong in her sari clad body and she spirited healthy strokes over his wafer thin body. I discovered that she was his wife and he her husband, a tuberculosis sufferer. After that public wash at the communal tap, she helped him over to a bed on the floor. He lay down outside the mud house coughing quietly, close to the tethered cow. He looked like he had days, maybe hours, remaining on this planet. The wife passed by with a very young child in her arms, a worried look on her face. I imagined the community gathering around her at the moment of his passing. They would not have to take a tube, a bus, nor get into a car – they had some steps to take, at most.

 

Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members. -Pearl S. Buck, Nobelist novelist (1892-1973) 

 

Village man suffering from tuberculosis being washed by his wife, at dusk.

Village man suffering from tuberculosis being washed by his wife, at dusk.

 

 

Newly washed clothes covered in flies, Bu Tuo County, China

Newly washed clothes covered in flies, Bu Tuo County, China

El Camino de la Muerte

In order to do this post I have to go back a bit. At this moment I am in India, having arrived here from China this morning. But for now I have to go back to Rwanda. Back to a sleepless night in Kigali soon after having returned there from Gisenyi close to the DRC border with Rwanda. I had been working in the remote rural area around Lake Kivu for days and was relieved to be back at the hotel which had begun to feel like a home from home. It was around midnight when I suddenly realised that I had, at dawn of the same day, breezily wished my son (via Skype) a fun time on his excursion along Bolivia’s infamous Death Road. It began to dawn on me that I had been so preoccupied with my own work that I had failed to do much research on where my son was headed. The little I had done, had shown some kid riding through a forest on a mountain bike. But now I had some time, it was late, I was having difficulty sleeping so I clicked onto my laptop and no sooner had I entered Death Road into google, my heart began to beat a little faster. Apart from the alarming images brought swiftly to my attention, I raced through scary statistics and then read about racketeering tour guides who made trail blazing, gung-ho, death defying young tourists sign insurance documents that took their money and alleviated them of any responsibility lest they arrive back in a coffin. The info sent shivers down my spine as I concurrently went into panic mode. I had chirpily said ‘darling just send me a message that you’re alive’. At 1 am I checked the time difference and by my reckoning Gabriel had either fallen off a long edged cliff or he had miraculously finished ‘la ruta’. I frantically began to try and reach him – email, viber, Skype, Facebook. By 2am I was in full meltdown mode,  hyperventilating under my mosquito net and berating myself for being a wholly irresponsible mother. At 3am I sat bolt upright as I heard the gentle ping of some cyberspace communication. “Alive” read the Skype message. Feeling a flood of relief, I dialled through. “You shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet”, Gabriel said, an audible hint of irritation in his voice, “to be fair, it’s not that dangerous – mainly Israelis die there – it’s something to do with them and their state of mind when they come out of the army. I think they just love the edgy nature/cheap everything after years in the military.”

When I could finally and gratefully allow myself to sink into the arms of Morpheus, my last wakeful thought was a half conscious one about why I had not tried to stop him in this tracks. “Aren’t we such globetrotters”, we had joked some days ago, reminding ourselves how exotic it was that we were both on the equator  in far flung destinations.

What I didn’t know at that point was that I had, only days previously, been on the first of my many ‘Death Road’ experiences myself . In the high mountains above Northern Rwanda overlooking Congo we had traversed dirt roads that twisted round the peaks, avoiding large and smaller pot holes and creeping close to the edge devoid of balustrades. I dared not look down as the jeep arched at a crazy angle. I tried to hide my anxiety as I joked with the driver about precious cargo on board, my subtle hint at safeguarding my survival. I had the statistic in my head about Suzuki 4×4 jeeps being the make of car most likely to overturn.  On one lunch break in Musanze Pierre ordered a Guiness and coke. “At lunchtime?” I enquired judgementally given that we still had an afternoon’s hard graft ahead. “Yes”, he replied “if you’re gonna have a car accident it’s better to be drunk and loose – apparently drunk people have less serious injuries because they’re relaxed….better order another one.”

In China our FXB host, Bruce Lee met us at Xi Chang airport in a pick up truck. The sky was grey and a drizzle of rain persisted. Mr. Hu was our driver. A chain smoking social worker turned driver. Or it might have been the other way around. Driver turned social worker. Anyhow, that day he was our driver. Mr. Hu and Bruce Lee had constructed a tarpaulin across all the bags on the back of the truck. We knew we had a three hour drive ahead of us that would get us to Bu Tuo. But there was no way of anticipating the state of the road. What followed eclipsed any road experience ever experienced or undertaken. Three hours of dirt road, a genuine pot hole madness. Three hours of banging, jarring movement in a machine that threw you from side to side, up and down, side to side and up and down again, repeatedly. At one point the car handle came off in Pierre’s hand. He had been holding on so tightly in some vain attempt to hold stasis, that he had managed to dislodge it. Mr. Hu bombed the pick up truck over the endlessly uneven dirt road surface at an impressive speed as we climbed the cloudy mountain peaks taking us to levels of higher altitude. The temperature dropped. We left the humidity of Cheng Du far behind. The most terrifying moment came on the return trip back down to Xi Chang from Bu Tuo when we were about to turn a corner. A giant sized lorry was attempting to do the same thing, as was another truck. The margins were tiny and the drop immense. I am not sure how I held my nerve. Many many sharp intakes of breath as vehicles  overtook on hairpin bends, and blind corners. No barriers. No seat belts. Steep drops. Potholes. Dirt roads. Beeping horns. Speed. Here in India and it is an all too familiar story. India comes a close second to Afghanistan in the car fatality table. There are no rules of the road. The honk of a horn is meant to alert you to the fact that you are about to be overtaken, or plain run over. I leave Puducherry (latterly known as Pondocherry), which means New Town, and is part of Tamil Nadu, later this morning. I will travel the wild  and famous East Coast road along the Bay of Bengal back to Chennai. Tomorrow I will board a flight to Calcutta and then one to Imphal, capital of the state of Manipur, close to Bangladesh. Vuyaraj (which means Prince) who is my superb FXB colleague here, has informed me that along the East Coast Road around ten to fifteen people perish per day in accidents – not surprising with the speed, the overtaking, the amount of scooters, bicycles, motorbike riders sans helmets, and cattle carts- all jostling for space on the road. Also, he tells me, “you will have another testing road experience while in Imphal”.

Life in the fast lane ain’t for the faint hearted.

My addendum to this post is this – these are the lengths that  FXB takes to get to the people that it supports and that is why it is such an amazing organisation and if any of you readers want to support it, I would urge you to do so.

Also…the images here are taken on iPhone – a record of the journey – they bear no relation to the images I am making for the FXB exhibition at the OXO Gallery opening on the 13th August 2014.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yungas_Road

Lorry pile up on Camino de la Muerte

Lorry pile up on Camino de la Muerte

 

http://www.virtualtourist.com/hotels/Africa/Rwanda/Prefecture_de_Kigali/Kigali-2190176/Hotels_and_Accommodations-Kigali-Iris_Guesthouse-BR-1.html

 

 

Mr. Hu covers the gear with a tarpaulin  at the back of the pick up.

Mr. Hu covers the gear with a tarpaulin at the back of the pick up.

 

Bruce Lee struggles with my long bag at Xi Chang airport.

Bruce Lee struggles with my long bag at Xi Chang airport.

 

Good luck symbol for China drivers - the red ribbon, Cheng Du.

Good luck symbol for China drivers – the red ribbon,
Cheng Du.

 

Mountain break with Mr Hu  en route from Xi Chang to Bu Tuo, China.

Mountain break with Mr Hu
en route from Xi Chang to Bu Tuo, China.

My battered Hasselblad pictured in the wing mirror

My battered Hasselblad pictured in the wing mirror

Burundi on my mind

 

I’m back in London but Burundi is on my mind. I keep going back to the border crossing experience, the edginess that the country has over Rwanda, the noisy generator that kept breaking down. And Andrew, the South African who was in the bar drinking heavily and who incessantly called out for the waiter, he must have named, during the opening game of the World Cup. “Rubbish”, he would shout out, “Rubbish” what’s heppening men?” in between swigs of Red Bull, Heineken and a fondle of the prostitute in a tight fitting outfit on his right arm. I longed to ask him what he did for a living. I overheard him say ” I love money too much”. In a way it was best to try and conjure up his occupation in life – a mercenary, a drug dealer, a pimp perhaps. Later that night and I mean later, like 4 am…I could hear him on the balcony facing the reception that overlooked the secure car park where our Suzuki 4×4 was stationed. “Yeeeeeep. Yeeeeep. ” he would utter, in an almost comatose drunken stupor. Amazing that he was still standing – the Red Bull had obviously done the trick. It  was interesting to notice that the following evening it was as if he’d  had some personality change. The Andrew personality of the first night had mysteriously vanished. It was as if he’d been lobotomised.  The Andrew of  night two and night three were unrecognisable in comparison to the Andrew of night one – a shadow of his former self really.  He no longer even shouted out for ‘Rubbish’.

Crossing over from Rwanda into Burundi was a fairly easy experience. The money exchange guy at the border swopped American dollars for the softest, most well handled notes I have ever had the pleasure of touching. They felt like gentle cotton cloth ; the print showed the wide-eyed President Pierre Nkurunziza with a slim moustache who stared out fixing you with his doe-eyed gaze. The only surprise I got after my passport had been checked and stamped at the Rwandan exit post, was the Muzungu I bumped into as I turned to leave, the sight of another White person now quite unfamiliar to me.

I never quite got used to the sight of camouflaged army patrolmen with guns alongside the roads that hugged the mountain that snaked down towards Bujumbura. Neither on the way there nor on the way back.

Upon my return my neighbour sent me this link with this message, “I hope you did not jog in Burundi.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27818254 What I did know is that while I was there, I heard reports of increased tension between Rwanda and Congo, which had resulted in some border  ‘skirmishes’. All the FXB staff members pooh-poohed the very idea of any real problem.  Listening to another news report I listened to an item about  fighting between a Ugandan rebel army and Congolese troops in the National Park. All in all the atmosphere is one of calm – but  there is a sense that troops on the ground are a necessary thing. Back in Bujumbura  I ask our brilliant translator Paul Sindi  if we could look for the Peace and Love bar which Tim Franks, the BBC correspondent had found. I so wanted to find the bar where the correspondent had ‘thrown some shapes’. We asked many people but found no Peace and Love. Though I did find this quite cool little youtube video on my return   ▶ L’Avenir – Live buzz – Peace and love : Burundi – YouTube

( contd below)

Notebook on my bed beside my mosquito net at Credo Hotel Butare Rwanda

Notebook on my bed beside my mosquito net at Credo Hotel Butare Rwanda

 

It’s the food ordering that had been quite the challenge. The Splendid Hotel in Giterama, the Best View Hotel in Musanze, the Credo Hotel in Butare would wrestle for first prize in a bad service merit award.  Pointing at a photograph of a hamburger Pierre thought he was safe to order until a ham and cheese white bread sandwich arrived instead. The  order of a simple toasted cheese served to push him over the edge. Pierre  waited for an hour,  and  watched me happily chomp through my three course set menu ,when finally a toastie did arrive. Smiling and ravenous Pierre bit into it. I saw his expression darken as he seemed to angrily prize the toasted sandwich apart – “that’s the final straw”, he muttered through gritted teeth, as he revealed the fried egg, not the cheese, that he had so eagerly anticipated,  in-between the two slices of tasteless white toast. Just to add insult to injury Pierre mentioned that his view at the Best View Hotel was of the Best View Hotel sign. At the Credo Hotel I asked for ‘just vegetables, please’ and was surprised when a plate of beef cubes alongside the vegetables arrived.  I suggested to  the waiter, whom we had nicknamed Manuel, that he may have been mistaken. He smiled benignly and stared blankly as I passed ‘le boeuf’ to Pierre. The menu suggested that we may want a ‘warm entry’  as opposed to a ‘cold entry’ which was also on offer. What I loved was the Tilapia fish from Lake Victoria and the Mukeke ,a delicious meaty fish from the deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika.

As we drove past the Auberge Kayanza on our way out over the mountains back towards Kigali, I thought about our first meal at the ‘Inn’ in Burundi. Paul Sindi, Damascene and Pierre were silently sitting around the lunch table picking their teeth with toothpicks as is customary after a meal in East Africa. Johnny Cash was playing on the radio. “Is it getting better or do you feel the same? will it make it easier on you now if you’ve got someone to blame…you said one love one life….we get to share/ it leaves you baby if you don’t care for it/ did I disappoint you/or leave a bad taste in your mouth/we get to carry each other/have you come here for forgiveness?”….I was sad to leave Burundi feeling like the time there had been too short.I was just getting to appreciate the chaos, the untidiness and the filth (a contrast to Rwanda’s orderliness and cleanliness), the road insanity as a no traffic light policy presides, the men with their shiny brightly coloured smart shirts with their accessories of the wild sunglasses, the beautiful women side saddled on the bicycle taxis. I sighted one young woman who could have been signed up as a new super model in an instant. Paul said ‘you find her beautiful ?’ “yes I said, she’s exquisite…on a par with Iman, Alek Wek or Naomi Campbell”. “Oh he said she would have no admirers here , she is way too thin.”

“Oh you are so thin”, my friend Jac, said throwing her arms around me with a worried look on her face,as I arrived back in London. I think back to the days when Robbie Tshabalala called me ‘mafuta’ (fattie) and I think about the beautiful young woman sitting side saddle on the bicycle as she disappeared into a line of traffic in Bujumbura.

 

 

Sad looking Gorilla advertises Rwandan finest tea

Sad looking Gorilla advertises Rwandan finest tea

 

Dusk walker, Buterere Village, Burundi

Dusk walker, Buterere Village, Burundi

Lone walker

Lone walker

 

Bujumbura, Lake Tanganyika

Bujumbura, Lake Tanganyika

Polaroid frame we made for the rice workers who allowed me to  photograph them in Bujumbura

Polaroid frame we made for the rice workers who allowed me to photograph them in Bujumbura

 

Sounds in the Surrounds, East Africa

Banana plantation Rwamagana district Rwanda

Banana plantation
Rwamagana district Rwanda

 

Waking up every morning since arriving in Africa, I have been aware that it’s as if my every sense, my soul, my body knows it’s presently residing in the continent of my birth. For me that acute sense is all in the sound and the light. It’s in the early hours of morning when a strangely familiar yet unfamiliar language is being spoken on the street, or the birdcall from the myriads of species can be heard. As the dawn breaks it is the unmistakeable African light drawn from a southern sun that envelops me and welcomes me home. I mean that in the generic sense, of course. South Africa is a long way from Uganda, Rwanda or Burundi but still, there it all is – in my childhood home my bedroom backed onto the kitchen and I would hear Muriel Matanda, our servant (yes that was and still is, the ‘normal’ gig in South Africa), singing quietly or chatting earnestly to her husband, Norman, in Xhosa. Here on the street it is the jabbering of Kinyarwanda that I hear when I am waking.  Back then Muriel taught me lullabies and even the ‘click song’. At one of her concerts Miriam Makeba disdainfully announced before singing it, that  “the Colonisers of our country call this next song the click song”.  In fact the real Xhosa title of the song is Qongqothwane and it has a lot to do with a beetle going up a steep hill and that the beetle is in fact the witchdoctor. Today I can still recall every word and I can do the clicks too.  As a name drop aside, I was once photographing Stevie Wonder and I audaciously sang ‘the click song’ to him. He listened intently and smiling, politely said “ I must talk to my people about that”.  I think more than failing to impress, my endeavours left him bemused. In Apartheid South Africa, in White schools Afrikaans and English were compulsory but Xhosa, Venda, Sotho or Zulu were not taught – an insanity given the population statistics  but sadly understandable given the paranoid, Lager mentality of the profoundly unjust Apartheid state. Here Kinyarwanda is often mixed in with the language of their colonisers. Many Rwandans have French names. Alphonse, Celeste, Damascene, Christine, Trephine, Florence to name but a few. The merging of the two languages is rather beautiful in the sound.

The cacophony of sounds in town in East Africa are many; the lowing of cattle, the beeping horns, birds and crickets chirping, the sound of a community going about their busy business. Surprisingly the one bird I hear is the Piet My Vrou. That is the name I knew from South Africa. Literally translated it would mean ‘Pete, my wife’ which of course makes no sense at all. Nonetheless it was comforting to hear the familiar call of the  red chested cuckoo here in Rwanda. Apparently the bird migrates from the Sahara all the way to South Africa. The other bird identified by my FXB host, Damascene as the ‘corbeau’ is the black and white coloured crow which gives out a loud squawk more than a chirp.The car horn here is less of the aggressive kind and more of an alert – a gentle reminder that you had better get out the road, or a subtle announcement that the driver will soon be overtaking. Added to the ‘noise list’ in Butare and Gitarama is the very loud call of the imam at 4am – a seemingly extended version just before morning light breaks. In Kigali and in Nyamagabe district near Butare, the other more surreal sound is the cackling of the fruit bats. They seem to converge on one or two very tall trees and hang like over ripe, oversized dates, and in the daytime they are highly visible. Pierre suggested they sound like hyenas and I tend to agree with him.

I had two disturbing sightings of chickens -two dozen of them being transported upside down, strapped by their claws to a bicycle. Normally one would hear loud clucking coming from indignant roosters but these were silent, as if muted by their outrageous situation.

Yesterday we descended into a low lying valley – the hike was a long one but what a treat once we got to our intended destination, a potato plantation run by a cooperative that FXB support. Adjacent to the valley a river runs. The water sweeps around to find a pine forest and then waterfalls itself down a mountain on the other side. Paul Sineikubwabo, my translator,  told me he does a lot of walking in his spare time. On hearing the water trickling he said, “ Oh I love the music of water, it was very quiet, he said, and then I heard the music of water, like whispering or murmuring”.  That reminded me of the sound of tall grass swishing as I walked through it and across the well-trodden paths of the Valley floor…not dissimilar to the sound of ruddy sorghum stalks in the wind.

Today I danced with the women of two cooperatives we visited in the Huye district. When we arrived , the women had finished working in the banana fields and had spontaneously broken out into song and dance on the uneven dusty ground on a sloped hillside. The voices  were excited, happy – a clapping and a whooping accompanied the dance. Later a group meeting ended with the same ritual.

The last sound I would like to write about is the incessant music sound I can hear right now at the Credo Hotel in Butare. Butare used to be the capital of Rwanda. The last king of Rwanda, King V of Rwanda  lived here. He is now in exile in the US , apparently you can find him in a low rent housing complex near the intersection between route 66 and State Route 655  still answering to his adopted name there ‘ the King of Africa’– his palace is now a school or a training centre.  Most academics gravitate towards this town because there is an established university here. The bar downstairs has music blaring day and night – it’s either French rap or music from Congo, Rwanda or Burundi.

So, in my sleepless state I have been writing, editing, captioning images and sometimes reading my book. The sound that keeps me awake is a mix of the music, the imam’s call to prayer, the sonic click of the bats,bird call and general people-traffic noise. When I worked as a press photographer in Johannesburg years ago my colleague Robbie Tshabalala used to say to me I was too sensitive to noise and sounds. He nicknamed me ‘Mafuta’ which means Fattie or plump one. “ Mafuta you need to come to the township more often, these White suburbs are so quiet”. And there you have it, all these years on and I am still extremely noise sensitive. I would rather call it ‘sound sensitive’.

*******

Addendum:  I thought I had posted this days ago from Rwanda only to discover now on my return to the UK, that I had been let down by the bad internet connection there.

Last week a friend of mine sent me this beautiful poem which I thought I would share as it seems so apposite to what I am experiencing here.

Why do I write today?

The beauty of
the terrible faces
of our nonentites
stirs me to it:

colored women
day workers—
old and experienced—
returning home at dusk
in cast off clothing
faces like
old Florentine oak.

Also

the set pieces
of your faces stir me—
leading citizens—
but not
in the same way.

William Carlos Williams

FXB Beneficiary Felix Twagirimana and chickens turkeys owned by family Muhanga district Rwanda

FXB Beneficiary Felix Twagirimana and chickens turkeys owned by family Muhanga district Rwanda

Emmanuel with plastic hand made football. At  Bwirika school where there are 3 rooms for 300 pupils. FXB have helped build classrooms there. Muhanga district, Rwanda

Emmanuel with plastic hand made football. At Bwirika school where there are 3 rooms for 300 pupils. FXB have helped build classrooms there. Muhanga district, Rwanda

 

 John Dushmimana,with his albino rabbits, Nyanza district Rwanda

John Dushmimana,with his albino rabbits, Nyanza district Rwanda

 

 

Mob hug after dancing with the women in the banana plantation with FXB Cooperative, Huye district, Rwanda

Mob hug after dancing with the women in the banana plantation with FXB Cooperative, Huye district, Rwanda

 

Roads less travelled; East to West Rwanda

This is such a random way to start this blog but there have been a number of things that have bugged me since I last posted here.

  1. In my last post I shifted from “We went …..” to “I went…” –   unforgiveable in any editors  eye. Excuse me but I may do it again in this and other posts too.
  2. I wrote:  “This therefore is a good spot to salute the many mothers and their sons.” Later I realized I should have written “…to salute the many mothers and their good sons”. What would be the point of saluting a bad man, I say.

Then there are the omissions. I meant to report that it costs the foreign visitor $500 – $750 to take a trip to visit the Gorillas.  And since we’re on the concept of visitor or in local term  ‘muzungu’. Wherever I have traveled in the last many days, I have been greeted by the shouts and shrieks of ‘muzungu’. If you look up the meaning of the term in the Urban dictionary it says : a term used in Africa for “White Person”. Literally translated it means “someone who roams around aimlessly”. The word comes from Swahili and came to be applied to the whites of East Africa because they were always encountered as visiting colonial officials, tourists or traders.

I also meant to tell the story of the samosa seller in Kampala who gave me two dozen eggs even though I was flying to Kigali the following morning. I can’t take them, please feed your children, I implored. Of course it is an insult to decline a gift, plus she may be offered a blessing in return for having given the gift in the first place. She insisted that her hungry looking children were indeed well fed, so the eggs  accompanied us back to Kampala and went on, I hope, to be cooked in the homes of the FXB staff.

And now ..back to Kigali …

Leaving Kigali was like going into the great unknown. Last Saturday morning after Damascene had done his compulsory national duty, we left for Rwamagana – a word that took several practice sessions, in a kind of mouth fumbling manoeuvre . (Kinyarwanda is the local dialect – not an easy language I am told.) The weekend plan was to work in the Eastern Province of Rwanda, visiting the FXB beneficiaries there. Damascene steered the 4×4 right towards Tanzania. If we had turned left we’d have headed towards Uganda. Driving in Rwanda is a nail biting experience. Ever present on the side of the highway are banana bearers, water carriers, bicycle riders laden with produce of all descriptions, women with babies on their backs, as well as jay walking pedestrians.

Damascene Ndayisaba is a large character in every respect. At our motel, St Agnes, on the morning after we arrived, we were ready for a full days work. Damascene announced “ We must take a good breakfast”. My usual breakfast since our arrival in Africa has been bananas, pineapple and some Ikinyomoro (tomato fruit). Ikinyomoro looks like a mix between a pomegranate and a tomato. It’s tricky to penetrate but once sectioned it is satisfying in it’s tart flavour. We were told ‘it is good for the blood’. But now in front of us was a steaming bowl of beef consommé, a sort of soup. In fact it’s called  Katoga, which consists of meat, peas, vegetables, tomatoes. Damascene refers to it as his ‘African breakfast’. Alongside it was some stale white bread. The other side order was a bunch of bananas.  This was our breakfast. Later on in the day Damascene insisted we try tripe – innards of goat cooked into finely cubed brochettes (skewers) that seem very popular here.  He was not too fussed when neither Pierre, my assistant, nor I fancied the tripe after a mouthful or two. He threw back his head and laughed heartily recounting a story about when he was attending an Aids conference. “A South African woman colleague of mine was given a vegetarian meal. I could not believe it. She started crying.  She said, I am a Zulu and I need meat”. He delivered a mighty roar of laughter again.

Meat in the rural areas is a great delicacy. The average family probably consumes meat maybe twice a month,if lucky. Livestock is a highly prized possession. Maize is the main nutrient here, as are vegetables such as yams, potatoes, plantain as well as sugar cane, and bananas. That’s because they grow everywhere. I have seen poverty on such a scale in the past ten days. One single mother in the Eastern province proudly showed me her pigpen and then her house with two small bedrooms. Each had a bed raised high off the ground adorned with a mosquito net. The key point though is that the two beds housed the entire family- eight children and the mother. How did they sleep ? How did it work ? Top to toe, on top of each other, in shifts…the mother said it was fine. The only clue to the fact that there was indeed some difficulty is that two of the children appeared to have some contagious looking skin condition. I think the pigs had a better deal.

Its hard to describe the many many people we have passed lugging loads, bearing heavy burdens on bicycles, on their heads, gathering water, men, women, children alike…it’s the rhythm of daily survival that is most noticeable here and indeed awe inspiring. We returned to Kigali on Sunday night – to the Iris Guesthouse , our home from home and decided to venture around the corner to a highly recommended Indian restaurant. En route in the dark street, Pierre and I paused to observe the fast flying fruit bats that seem to be virtually as big as Egyptian geese. As we stood listening to their sonic shrieks  a man with a gun, waved us on. When a man with a gun tells you to go, you go. In all fairness he was guarding the back entrance of the Presidential grounds and clearly doing a good job – seeing off two muzungus who were indeed ‘wandering aimlessly’ !

It’s here that I might mention the clear favoritism that is happening in the male-female department. Without wanting to sound embittered, or hacked off it is fair to say that every time we have arrived at a hotel, Pierre has been handed the keys to the better room. The room with the walk in shower, the room with the pink duvet cover neatly folded, the room without a broken shower, the larger room. I almost believed him when he told me, upon our arrival at the Peace Land Hotel in Gisenyi, Northern Province on Monday, that his room had a Jacuzzi. I noticed on the local news earlier today that there is a big national debate going down on gender equality at the moment. Rwanda has an excellent record as it has a female majority in Parliament, so I won’t point any fingers here!

Gisenyi overlooks Lake Kivu which is stunningly beautiful. Pierre called it the Monte Carlo of Rwanda. The beaches line the lake coastline – a staggering amount of cranes, bats, heron, and other bird species lounge in the foliage – palms, banana trees and other beautiful vegetation that surround the water. Emmanuel Habyarimana, our charming FXB host took us on a tour. I have a surprise for you, he said, as we drove slowly past the beaches. Turning a corner the Democratic Republic of Congo border post was right ahead of us. We parked up. I got out of the car and took some ‘snaps’ . A border patrol officer immediately came up to me and insisted I delete every image. He watched as I did so. Although intimidated somehow I managed to salvage the iPhone images.

Our host and driver the next few days was Alphonse  Ndereyimana who works for the FXB office in Goma. He took us out for dinner for next two nights and drove us from Gisenyi to Musenze and drove us back to Kigali today so we have had lots of time to talk. His stories are fairly harrowing.  Under a perfect night sky, sitting in an idyllic hotel pool bar setting, not far from Goma he recounted how seventy five members of his close family were killed in the Genocide. All his uncles, his aunts, his cousins. I want at least five children”, he said – he is getting married on the 12th July. “ I want them all to be male, you know why?” he asked, “So they can regenerate my family”. He witnessed horrific acts of brutality. The next night at an even more perfect setting – a lakeside restaurant further along Lake Kivu he described how the assailants came to the villages and how they would disable their victims first, machetes in hand. He put his hand up in the air and whooshed it down showing the thrust of the implement. The story that changed the look in his eye was how, aged eight, running hand in hand with his brother, away from their attackers, they invited a fellow boy, a neighbour, to run and hide with them. The boy refused and took a left turn. Alphonse and his brother managed to evade the men and hide but they bore witness to the boy going like a lamb to the slaughter – machete straight to the Achilles heel. “Then he could’nt run,” he added dourly.

Goma today is peaceful, though utterly lawless sounding. Alphonse crosses the border daily. “Because I can’t sleep when I am in Goma”, he says. “They have everything – money, minerals,but they are always fighting – it’s mismanagement”.  There are so many rebel groups trying to get a piece of something. It’s a tragic situation.

We are back in Kigali now, back at the Iris Guesthouse and it feels good. I think of Innocent (yes that is his name) who has been my translator for the past few days. I think of his phone ringing high up in the mountains overlooking Gisenyi,  Goma and Lake Kivu. And I think of that ringtone with it’s strange voice announcing loudly  “Praise the Lord. Hallelujah.Praise the Lord. Hallelujah”.

 

 

 

Red dust kicked up by passing car showers  banana bearers , Eastern Province, Rwanda

Red dust kicked up by passing car showers banana bearers , Eastern Province, Rwanda

 

A young boy chases the car as we leave Kabashara, the mountain village overlooking Lake Kivu, Goma and Gisenyi

A young boy chases the car as we leave Kabashara, the mountain village overlooking Lake Kivu, Goma and Gisenyi

FXB beneficiary in her mushroom growing room, outside Kigali

FXB beneficiary in her mushroom growing room, outside Kigali

 

Mountain village outside Kigali, FXB cooperative member accompanies me down the mountain as I leave.

Mountain village outside Kigali, FXB cooperative member accompanies me down the mountain as I leave.

Faraha in banana plantation, outside Kigali

Faraha in his banana plantation, outside Kigali

Sunset on Lake Kivu

Sunset on Lake Kivu

swimmers Lake Kivu

Swimmers Lake Kivu with tree full of cranes in the background

Bag full of carrots being taken to the river to be washed. Musanze District, North West Rwanda

Bag full of carrots being taken to the river to be washed. Musanze District, North West Rwanda

 

 

Damascene in Musanze

Damascene in Musanze

FXB staff guide us into Musanze and through some of the villages

FXB staff guide us into Musanze and through some of the villages

 

Obama in Musanze

Obama in Musanze

Kigali

There’s not much that would entice the average tourist to Rwanda.

There are the ‘Gorillas de Montagnes’.

As we draw into the city from the airport there is a circle of crudely carved metal structures that announces their importance. Mostly the overriding impression from my approach is of their rear ends. They are positioned in a circle facing the seat of government, the  ‘Pentagon’ , (as it is referred to by the locals) . The gorillas look they are about ready to ward off the  invasive ‘Muzungus’, the foreigners.   Damascene, our FXB host , is a dark skinned, large man with an infectious full bellied laugh. He takes us to the Iris Guesthouse situated in a leafy, affluent looking suburb of Kigali It reminds me of Johannesburg – red roofs, high walls, security guards, bright green manicured lawns adjacent to the smooth road we travel on in our big four wheel drive, so necessary for the many dirt roads we will travel on later. The guesthouse has welcoming staff and the atmosphere is warm and homely. The travelers appear to be mainly American (hence the Pentagon reference and Voice of America on the radio) either visiting the reconciliation educational programmes related to Rwanda’s dark Genocide history or missionaries come to spread God’s love. Continue reading

Arriving Kampala

 

What an irony to have watched the Wolf of Wall Street on a plane taking me to Uganda , a landlocked country whose motto is For God and Country, it’s anthem Oh Uganda, Land of beauty.
Uganda is considered one of the poorest countries in the world even though it has fertile soil, healthy rainfalls – makes good coffee, exports fish from the large Lake Victoria and has mineral  and untapped copper, gas and crude oil reserves. Continue reading