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.


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


3 thoughts on “Sounds in the Surrounds, East Africa

  1. Cannot wait to see these photographs and words in a beautiful book .. What an amazing experience you are sharing with us! Jacx

  2. It must run in the family, my darling. I am ridiculously sensitive to noise…almost in the equally alarmingly heightened way as I am to smell.

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