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.
- 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.
- 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”.