Friday, 13 November 2009

Looking back and looking ahead


The difference two weeks of rain makes! This is one of the sacks planted at Mwana Nshuti in February.


Friday 13 November
On my last full day (27 October) there was to be an evaluation. Arrangements were vague: all I knew was that it would be in the afternoon. Rashly I assumed a pattern similar to last time, with a meeting at Friends Peace House and supper at a restaurant. Wrong and wrong!

In the morning I texted Cécile and David B for information. Cécile sent a holding reply, then phoned not me but Antoine. By degrees I asked the right questions to elicit the information that there would be no opportunity to change clothes between meeting and eating, that the meeting was to be at Gasharu, that Josephine was to be there (so I need not have made a separate journey to see her at FPH to discuss the accounts). As far as I could tell, Antoine was as surprised as I that on our arrival at 4pm a full festive meal was laid out for us, very soon after we had finished lunch together at home.

Antoine, David and I ate what we could, drank tea and waited for the others, who arrived at around 5. By now some of the food had been taken back to the kitchen and it was agreed that we'd talk first and C and J could eat afterwards. (If I'd been able to anticipate this, I'd have eaten later too.)

It was established that I would speak in English and the others in Kinyarwanda, with Josephine - the lowest status person with the requisite skill, as customary - translating. That marked the formality of the occasion, as we all would have understood each other in French.

(I don't think I've written about a style of discourse which seems to be traditional, whereby there is a master of ceremonies whose job is to welcome participants -or guests on a social occasions, outline the programme and introduce speakers. I had been surprised, for example, taken to a party to celebrate a graduation, to find a family friend invited to play such a role. For our meeting Antoine was in that role.)

I'm writing now of an event more than two weeks ago, so I've forgotten some details. I was warmly thanked, mainly by David, for my various activities, which were itemised (see below). Then it was my turn. I was not looking forward with any pleasure to this moment. David had previously told me I should speak frankly about any difficulties encountered. My eyes prickled and my voice wavered. I was relieved to find, at least, that I did not sob and no tears fell. I said that it was obvious my feelings were influencing my thoughts.

First I wanted to emphasise that all my working experiences had been positive. The programme was well shaped. I had learned from seeing what had worked well and what less well after my previous departure. All the new groups had been welcoming and enthusiastic. I loved spending time with the women and their babies.The young adult students at Shyorongi would have a lot to share with their communities and the confidence to introduce new techniques.

I had, however, found the rest of my time much harder than in February. My not speaking Kinyarwanda was a difficulty, but not one I could realistically do anything about, for a few visits of a few weeks only. Previously there had been times when I didn't understand what was being said and nobody translated even the gist of it - that had not been a problem then. But during these last weeks there had been too many occasions when I might as well not have been there at all, with long periods of conversation and laughter from which I was excluded. It was a social problem, and one which I might just have to live with. More importantly, however, plans and decisions regarding my work were also made without consulting or even informing me - witness the arrangements for this very meeting.

There were apologies, of course. They would try to remember to include me in conversations; it was mostly carelessness to switch out of French or English and not switch back. And for work arrangements they would try to remember to appoint somebody to tell me what had been decided.

That would be an improvement, I said. But what I hoped for was to be treated as a colleague, not just a visiting technician. In February my work had all been based in Friends Peace House and I felt I had a place and a role there, albeit temporary. This time I had been working for one programme (and one individual) after another but with little continuity. I would like there to be one person for each visit to have an overview of my work and be my first point of contact - to be a kind of line manager. I think that was understood.

We discussed the importance of follow-up work, deepening and refining, enabling those I had trained to go on and become trainers themselves. I said there had been a good balance this time between return visits and new groups. Cumulatively there would be more groups I had worked with, so it would be more difficult to keep up with them all .

They asked me to propose a programme for my next visit, which will probably be for five weeks in Rwanda after a week in Burundi at the end of January, and I agreed, while pointing out that I don't know about possibilities for new work and shall need suggestions. (Already mentioned were my desire to work with science teachers in Friends schools, and a possible project with a HROC facilitator and a group of Batwa.)

That was a hard meeting but a good one. Now I must write a proposal.

Back in England I went almost immediately to a stimulating and challenging weekend looking at the question of a zero growth economy for what probably need to be called over-developed countries, especially the UK. While I don't expect to have any direct influence on how Rwanda develops, it feels important to have thought through for myself what moving towards greater prosperity and well-being while avoiding our Western mistakes might look like. And there's no question that Africa is already suffering the ill effects of Western generated climate chaos and financial instability.

On my allotment I have done some pruning, weeding and tidying, ready for winter. I have planted broad beans as usual, and for the first time some peas that should give an early crop next year if not waterlogged. If I am encouraging people living with summer drought in Rwanda to keep vegetables growing throughout the year, I should also learn to grow more through my own low season. Winter salad shouldn't be too difficult in any but the coldest years.

This morning the BBC news carried an item about the National Trust, guardians of many historic gardens, organising their male gardeners at one property to urinate on straw bales for compost. I smiled at the memory of many surprised groups considering my suggestion of using human urine for their own compost making. Biological fact makes no concessions to culture.



Sunday 15 November
It rained and blew long and hard last night. My roof leaked and my peas may be waterlogged already.

Before planning for my next visit I should record what I did where during October. So here is my calendar.

Wednesday September 30th: arrive in time for lunch with committee of CGFK adult school.

Thursday October 1st: morning visits to homes of 3 women from Karembure who had taken part in my final workshop at FPH in February; in the afternoon visit Solange, a HROC facilitator living near FPH, who had a sack garden behind her house still producing spinach, made after seeing the women's work. (It was her wedding I attended in February.)

Friday 2nd: visit Mwana Nshuti in morning to look at February's work. Go with Musafiri in the afternoon to meet the youth group at Shyorongi and plan a second workshop with some of them.

Saturday 3rd: go for a drive with Antoine in the afternoon.

Sunday 4th: go with Fiacre and Emile, Antoine's sons, to the English language service at Gasharu Friends church at 7am. Go with Antoine to a graduation celebration in the evening.

Monday 5th, public holiday for Teachers' Day: visit Théogène, organiser of the CGFK adult school; go with him to the last hour of speeches for teachers and pupils from several local schools, assembled at CGFK; join some other teachers and Théogène for lunch in a local restaurant.

Tuesday 6th - Thurday 8th: daily workshops with the ground staff from CGFK; daily English language sessions with some primary and nursery school teachers and admin staff (not the science teachers I had been expecting).

Friday 9th: workshop with around 15 women from Gasharu church (my first time of working with Bonheur).

Saturday 10th: workshop continuation. Teach 'Amazing grace' for English service tomorrow. Evening meal with David Zarembka and Gladys K.

Sunday 11th: Gasharu church. Restaurant meal with Jeanette, joined by Musafiri.

Monday 12th - Tuesday 13th: two day workshop with Shyorongi youth group.

Weds 14th - Thursday 15th: two day workshop with Churches Mobilisation for Poverty Reduction women's group at Friends Peace House, Byumba (an hour's bus ride away).

Friday 16th: free day (but including meetings with Josephine and Solange).

Saturday 17th: shop with Antoine in the morning and cook for the family in the evening. Meet with David Zarembka at David Bucura's house in the afternoon to discuss future plans.

Sunday 18th - Tuesday 20th: to Nyakarambi/Kirehe to stay with British Quaker VSO, Dorothy Nelson, and visit 2 state primary schools, looking at their gardens and 'One child, one tree' projects.

Weds 21st - Thurs 22nd: two day workshop with Churches Mobilisation women's group at Bihembe.

Friday 23rd - Saturday 24th: two day workshop with women trainees at Kagarama.

Sunday 25th: church early.

Monday 26th: follow-up session with CGFK ground staff. Session with 4 CGFK science teachers.

Tuesday 27th: meet with Josephine at FPH in morning to discuss programme expenditure. Final meeting in afternoon (described above).

Weds 28th - Thursday 29th: fly home via Nairobi.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Bonheur, PS

Bonheur PS


We have exchanged views on living in one's capital city, I in London and Bonheur in Kigali. It would be cheaper for him to move away - perhaps to Byumba, where Eugene, the pastor, is so happy, for example. But this is where he belongs.


He tells me he was once refused a visa to visit Britain. Now he is president of the youth section of a new interfaith organisation – one of David Bucura's projects. Perhaps he might get another invitation. I tell him I can give no assurances but he will be more likely to succeed now he has a wife and child here. The authorities are cautious about giving a visa to a young man who may want to stay in the UK. He is astonished. Why, he asks, when Kigali is my city, would I want to live anywhere else?

Bonheur

At work in Byumba in Pastor Eugene's garden





'Happiness' is the translation of his name, and he does seem remarkably happy, this thirty-one-year-old husband and father, unemployed for more than two years, and with cataracts caused by diabetes diagnosed a few months ago.

I met him first at the English service at Gasharu Friends Church, playing keyboard or guitar, taking a leading part in the service. Then he was my translator for the workshop there. I was surprised to be given a male translator to work with in a group of women but didn't find him a problem at all. So when he came as translator to Byumba as well, and then to Bihembe, I was glad enough. For all those jobs he was paid out of the workshop budget. At Jeanette's suggestion I employed him with my own money for the final training workshop at Kagarama; quite tactfully she suggested that I might find myself constrained by my less than perfect French and it wasn't too hard to swallow my pride.

We quickly established a professional relationship. I needed him to be a cultural as well as a linguistic interpreter. When a question to the group elicited no response he could tell me if they were puzzled or embarrassed; I trusted him not to translate anything inappropriate. The only time that happened was when I wanted to say to the group of young women from several protestant churches at Bihembe that the days in the Genesis creation story are not literal human days; 'I can't say that to them', he said, while making it clear he himself understood the concept of myth.

He was keen to talk with me about religion. On my second Sunday, after a conversation around emphasis on human sinfulness, I was surprised to hear him tell the congregation they might think less about original sin and thank God for original blessing. He was one of many people who have heard, through Antoine mostly, of unprogrammed Quaker meetings for worship. Where could he go to one? The nearest is in Nairobi. I gave him a copy of Advices and Queries, then realised when he hadn't read it that he needs the large print version.

Between working sessions, at meal times or travelling, he talked openly about his life. I told him early on that I was not reporting personal conversations on my blog. 'You can write anything I tell you about myself', he said. Growing up in the Congo, grandchild of Tutsi refugees from 1959, and schooled partly in Uganda, he speaks good English, French, Swahili and Kinyarwanda. I haven't sorted out the chronology of his education: he studied music for two years but didn't complete his degree; he has David Bucura to thank for his secondary education, presumably in Rwanda. Now, despite his deteriorating eyesight, he is financing himself through a three month course at a film school in Kigali – one month paid, two to pray for. He is hoping to have one cataract removed at a hospital over the border into DRC, which would cost no more than the equivalent in Rwanda and where he has confidence in the American doctors.

I learned something from him of the complexities of healthcare here. A year's subscription to the national system costs 1,000 RwF, around 12 pounds sterling, and gives access to medical treatment for illnesses like flu and malaria, family planning, basic maternal and child healthcare, subsidised childbirth at around 1,500 RwF. I asked about broken limbs. No, you'd have to pay to go private for that, and yes, there are traditional bonesetters but the government discourages their use despite the lack of an affordable alternative. Government employees have access to a superior system. One day when he was drinking even more water than usual and said his diabetes might be approaching a crisis, I thoughtlessly asked if he did blood tests. 'How could I possibly afford that?' he asked.

I asked him what his dream job would be. His first answer was that his dreams were constrained by his lack of a degree. Then he said he loved working with vulnerable people – old people and children. Then it emerged that he used to work at Friends Peace House, where he set up the children's work. I'm sure I didn't get the whole story, but he was 'let go' during a funding crisis, then replaced when the money was restored. Since then he has had TB and lost 25 kilos, of which he has regained 15. (Can I really have got that right?)

His modest standard of living is sustainable only because when he was getting a proper salary he built a small house for his mother and grandmother. When he asked them to move in, his grandmother said she would do so only if he could build another house for himself and a wife. So they stayed at the other side of town and he can live rent free with his wife, their nearly two-year-old daughter and two orphan girls of around 10 and 15. His wife worked for a residential landlord before having the baby but is now also unemployed; her mother is nearby so it's not childcare that's the problem. (I knew in abstract terms that the developing world was expected to bear the brunt of the international financial crisis; now I see it in rising unemployment and in several instances of staff – including those at Rwanda Yearly Meeting - simply not being paid at the end of the month.)


The neighbourhood where he bought his plot was considered undesirable, though some expensive houses have since been built behind walls nearby. It's too far out for the water and sewage systems from Kigali to reach. Many of his neighbours are destitute and when he was employed he would buy a sack of rice to distribute, until people started saying the money must have come from foreign donors and ought to be given to them directly. Now he gives away a mosquito net or a kilo of rice when he can afford it.


They are a modern couple, Bonheur and Immaculee. They are open about their love for each other and go so far as to hold hands in public – a gesture usually reserved for same sex friends having a private conversation. They gave me my only invitation to a private house, apart from David Bucura, and shared a meal with me, which is usually done only with one's family or close social equals. As we chatted outside church on Sunday, looking forward to meeting during my next visit early in 2010, I felt more completely at ease with Bonheur than with any other Rwandese so far.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Moringa

Here is the packet of moringa powder from Antoine's cupboard..


The moringa trees behind the Thomas's house in Kagarama


Sunday 25 October, 5pm

On my first visit to Rwanda I was introduced to the moringa tree. Debby Thomas, a missionary attached to the Evangelical Friends Church of Rwanda/Rwanda Yearly Meeting with her husband David, showed us a small plantation behind their house, described the many properties of the plant, and talked about a budding enterprise to dry and market the leaves. In February another Evangelical Friend from Oregon was here to advise on setting up the business. The Thomases have just bought a donkey, not part of Rwandan culture, to use on their moringa plantation out of town. Now packets can be bought, though they are not yet widely distributed. Antoine produced a packet, complete with teaspoon, at supper one night and it has made several appearances since. Most family members take a little, though he seems to be the keenest.

The particular focus of my work so far has been kitchen gardens, and particularly the smallest kind, in sacks. Travelling around, even walking up the main road to Friends Peace House, I have seen many examples of raised beds, usually circular, for intensive cultivation of vegetables. I am told that the government is encouraging their construction by fining those who don't act on instructions. There is much work to be done in helping the owners of these small gardens to make them productive and sustainable over many seasons – I have seen some very good and some very dubious practices with regard to planting and mulching, and to the feeding via a central compost basket which is a key feature. (I have puzzled over the name 'kitchen garden' and come to the conclusion that 'garden' is meant in the American English sense of 'cultivated bed' within one'ss whole 'yard' or plot. 'Kitchen' has the double significance of being close to the kitchen door and providing food for the kitchen.)

I could meet local expectations by continuing to teach the same techniques to group after group in subsequent visits. However, the project needs to develop, and Dave Zarembka, AGLI co-ordinator, is supportive of ideas for variety and expansion. I have shown groups pictures of tip-taps (google it!), a food cooler, domestic-scale drip irrigation, and cookers that use less wood or charcoal. I've exolled the virtues of African indigenous vegetables and given out recipes for two known but under-valued here. But so far I've stayed away from moringa.

Well, that's not quite true. In Friends Church circles, where I have mostly been moving, I have not wanted to trespass on Debby's territory. When I was visiting Dorothy, however, she introduced me to two of the primary schools where she is working. Both have school gardens, one much more successful than the other. Both knew of the government initiative 'One child, one tree', which one was supporting with a plantation of individually named coffee bushes. That school's head had heard of moringa and both were very interested. I have arranged for Dorothy to meet Debby in a couple of weeks' time.

For various reasons I didn't manage to meet Debby until Friday. She gave me a couple of files from Trees for Life, a US charity. I've just read them and I'm fired up to see how Growing Together might promote moringa. As I come to the end of this visit I'm conscious of the need to find funding for my next trip, the urgency of writing applications to two possible sources already identified, the lack of time to have the conversation with Debby I need to have now I've read the literature she gave me. (To see what's exciting me, go to treesforlife.org/moringa.)

I hadn't thought of this project as a means to teach me patience. It is one of Africa's gifts, however.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

How am I doing?

Desiree, Francine and Asteria take their trun at filling the sack.



Friday 23 October

Baby
In Oregon in April I met a Friend who had worked in Burundi on trauma healing. What she most wanted to impress on me was that despite our Western knowledge and skills, in such countries we are like babies – unable to fend for ourselves, unable to interpret what we see, needing constant watching so we don't come to harm.

Rwanda is not Burundi – much safer, not as difficult for women. Still, I don't have some of the skills here that I take for granted at home. By far the most significant is my inability to speak the language. Like a baby I can recognise words and phrases, and am learning more all the time, though I utter them distortedly and cause much amusement. Unable to join in conversation, I swing between trying to guess what might be being discussed – there are enough French loan words that I get some clues – and drifting towards sleep.

Toddler
Yesterday I had an outburst that might be described as a tantrum. Four of us were in David Bucura's car, going to day two of the Bihembe workshop. The previous day D had said, as we passed a plant nursery, that it was a very nice place and we could get some seeds there. That suited me well, and I said so, because I was close to running out and still had another group to supply. Now as we passed the spot again he said that no, they didn't have seeds, only seedlings. I had made two arrangements to see people at the end of the afternoon, having thought I didn't need to use the time after the workshop going into town for supplies. I tried out various re-arrangements in my head over several minutes, then asked D if he could drop me on our return at a particular point, to make the change of plan less drastic. (My main task was to meet Jeanette, co-facilitator of the next day's workshop, and there was no margin for rescheduling that.)

'That won't be necessary', he said. 'There's somewhere else we can go on the way back. In fact there are a couple of places.' I was not pleased. I don't know how angry I sounded, but I was clearly upset.

“Please,' I said, 'tell me when you're making plans for me. It isn't enough that you know a problem can be solved: I need to know because it's my problem and I am responsible for the outcome. I want to do the best job I can, and I can't teach what you want me to teach if I don't have the materials.'

I can't reconstruct the whole conversation with any accuracy, but I know we went on to discuss my need to have certain things within my control. Bonheur, sitting in the back, had spoken a few days earlier about how anger boils up and over in young men who are supposed to show no pain or softness. That was a useful point of reference.

Since I'm not actually a toddler, I had the mental and emotional resources to calm myself and reassure the others, well before the end of the drive. David said I should speak frankly about all such problems at the evaluation meeting next week. I hope I can do that gracefully.

Adult professional
I was not looking forward to today's workshop, despite the pleasure of being paired with Jeanette - in her last days before leaving Kigali to live in Dar es Salaam. A group of women had been recruited who were keen to learn from me in order to teach others. So I would be functioning as teacher trainer as well as gardening technician and organic advocate. This information reached me only at dusk on the eve of the workshop, before an 8 am start. It was to be on Friday and Saturday at the end of a long week, after the bus journeys to Nyakarambi and back, and long bumpy rides on dirt roads on Wednesday and Thursday.

Having been told we would be at the church at Kagarama, I was surprised to find we are back in the room used by the Friendly FolkDancers, close to CGFK (with the toilet block still unbuilt where the dancers carried some bricks as our practical project well over a year ago. FFDers Mark and Demi may be pleased to know one of the inside toilet cubicles still has a functioning hook to close the door from the inside, after their good work.)

We got off to a slow start. By 8.10 Jeanette and I, plus Bonheur as translator and two Canadian women attending as students, were ready to go. Among the first two or three Rwandan students, who arrived before 8.30, was one of the women I had visited at her home in Karembure in my first week. At 8.50 there were 9 Rwandans out of an expected 15 and J said we should start.

J introduced the workshop as different from most that these participants would have attended. It was not about peaceful relations and conflict resolution; it was about growing food. Hearing her, I decided to start in an unusual place. As she drew up a timetable, I switched on my netbook and found the photo I wanted.

I introduced myself as a fellow gardener. The photo I had called up shows my table at Ealing Meeting, with a week's surplus allotment produce and the notice saying that any money donated will go to Quaker projects in Rwanda. I passed the netbook round the group as I told them that although I was the only one here, other members of my meeting at home were supporting them too.

I said that having more ways of growing more food made a contribution to peace, both because it could ease conflicts caused by scarcity and because having enough to eat in one's own garden gave a sense of personal security. We went outside and filled a sack in the usual manner. We took a break for tea and a chapatti.

I decided those who had not yet arrived probably weren't going to, so I asked the group members to introduce themselves and each give their reason for wanting to be in the workshop. Here they are.

Jacqueline is a farmer ('cultivatrice') who wants to grow more for her family.
Monique is in charge of the dormitory accommodation at the church. Any vegetables she can grow behind the kitchen will mean she has to buy fewer so she will spend less.
Josine is a primary school teacher and wants to share what she learns with her class as well as growing food at home. [It emerged later that her school is the only one round here with tip-taps for easy hand washing.]
Francine is a farmer.
Louise has only a small garden and wants to make the most of her limited space.
Marie Rose has only a small garden. She would like to increase her knowledge and grow a greater variety of vegetables.
Desiree is the accountant at the church. She would like to have a method where she doesn't have to water a large area.
Constantia wants to learn about bag gardens so she can extend her growing season and do less watering.
Asteria came to my February workshop and already has a bag garden to help feed her children and grandchildren. But lack of water is a huge problem where she lives, and what she can store from the rains doesn't last through the dry season. [Next morning this treasure of a woman comes with specimens of the three types of plants recommended for making plant ‘tea’.]
Pastor Gaspard's wife, whose name I didn't catch, has only a small garden and likes this easier method.
Jeanette had no interest in gardening, but having worked with me in February she is now getting excited and will start growing things.
Ruth already has 3 bags and a raised bed. She is working at Friends Peace House. Her house worker, Eric, learned from me at Mwana Nshuti in February and showed her the techniques. (Later we all go to view her handiwork and I am amazed at how her plants have grown in the 3 weeks since I first saw them.)
Micha, Ruth's friend, is working in India but at home in Canada she was responsible for a community garden and is delighted by this idea because she was always short of space.
Bonheur developed his interest through working as my translator. (This is our third collaboration.) At home he is always being asked for money to buy vegetables; now, if he can keep his new bag garden productive, he can use the money for other things. [At the end of the workshop I go home for a meal with him and his wife and we find the first cabbage seedlings with the seed case still attached.]

How could I have been reluctant to work with these people?


In the evening, after some conversation with Debby Thomas at last, I am invited to stay to eat with the family, extended by four young American Evangelical Friends – two teaching a small school for missionary kids, two teaching at CGFK before going to college next year. After the meal we go round the circle, each saying something about the week. As the last, I have enough time to plan what I will say, balancing enthusiasm for the Growing Together project with openness about the challenge of isolation. Then each prays aloud for the next round the circle – another challenge!



Tomorrow it's compost again.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Family night

Several people have asked to see the rest of the family. Here Emile, on the left, and Fiacre are preparing to control the sound system for the English language service at Gasharu Friends church.


Sandrine comes to visit me in my room. She put on a hat for the picture: 'Oh, my hair!"


I've taught today, and planned tomorrow's teaching. I was given a bag of avocados, which got much jounced around in the car on the mud road back. So they'll all go into a guacamole for the family tonight. No lemon, so I hope vinegar won't taste too odd. I cooked spaghetti bolognese last weekend, which went down OK despite problems with the slithering spaghetti, but they didn't care much for snow peas, never seen before.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

My own furrow

From above the falls, we could see the line of trucks waiting to enter Rwanda from Tanzania. There is no railway so everything comes in like this.


Dorothy is putting a base layer of seed pods and twigs into her new compost pit.

Weds 21 October, 6.30am
Lonely? Isolated? Unsupported? No, those are all too strong. Yet mine is for the moment a project with only one worker. From Sunday to Tuesday I’ve had a brief experience of a different way of being 'muzungu' (rich white) and working not for profit in Rwanda.

Through a mutual friend, I’ve been in touch with Dorothy, a VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) volunteer working as a primary schools adviser in Kirehe District, in the south east. She has a small house, rented by VSO for her predecessor and kept on for her, in a small town on the main road to the Tanzanian border. She met me off the bus, walked me a couple of hundred yards to home, and there were two more VSO’s, one from Quebec and one from south west Ireland. Christine from Quebec is living with Dorothy until her own house in a nearby village is habitable. Karen was visiting from a different province.

An expedition to the Rusumo Falls, on the Akagere River which forms the national border, had been arranged with yet another VSO from a bigger town some 20 kilometers towards Kigali. In the event the two younger women didn’t come because one had been ill overnight; Dorothy and I had a good walk – my first – and met up for lunch with Jason, English, an enraptured amateur ornithologist on his second placement after 2 years in Eritrea. Evidence of colleagues, contracts, in-country training, health and safety advice, water filters and motor cycle helmets…. Up till now I had chatted for a few minutes after church with some American Friends Church missionaries, arranged a useful meeting with a Canadian Mennonite couple attached to Friends Peace House as capacity builders, and had good contact with Dave Zarembka, AGLI co-ordinator, whose visit to projects in the region happened to coincide with my being here. (I did see a surprisingly large number of white people on Saturday, shopping in the Europeanised mini-market where Antoine took me to buy the food for the meal I cooked, but I have no idea what any of them are doing in Rwanda.)

Experiencing Dorothy’s wide circle of contacts emphasised my cocooning. She employs a ‘domestique’; she shopped for breakfast each morning (and chose what to have for breakfast each morning!); she uses a particular moto taxi driver several times a week to get to different schools, and on Tuesday morning he brought two colleagues so three of us could go together; she has to get the solar panel engineer to return because the system bleeps loudly in the night; she is glad to use the services of a couple of young ‘Mr Fixit’s for finding people to do various jobs and negotiating the price. On Monday morning she started to dig a small compost pit in her garden to my recommended pattern. Immediately her neighbour landlord came to see what was going on, and he and the domestique had to be reassured this was a modern project for gardening, not a bad old-fashioned rubbish pit. (In Kinyarwanda the same word is ordinarily used for rubbish and compost – which illustrates the difficulty of teaching different habits.)

In some ways my life is much easier. And of course being here only for short periods makes a big difference. I probably work more intensively than she does. I couldn’t run my own household without much more training and back up. I would have to learn to speak Kinyarwanda beyond my few polite phrases and isolated words. I made a clear decision not to be a VSO again, as I was in 1965-6 in Singapore, and I’m not regretting it. Still, it was a thought-provoking visit.

Now I’m about to be summoned to a quick breakfast with Antoine before he sets off for school and David B collects me for the first of two days at Bihembe, wherever that may be. More later, perhaps, about being an adult baby, or maybe a cultural orphan.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Egypt or Canaan?


[This piece was composed last Friday and this is my third attempt to post it! My next news will be of my visit to Kirehe district, near the border with Tanzania in the south eastern corner of Rwanda.]

My translator, Bonheur, and I arrived rather later than expected for the first day of the workshop in Byumba. The pastor, Eugene, was waiting for us with the group of 14 out of the expected 15 women. As soon as we were seated he launched into the bible study. That hasn't happened in a workshop before.

On the flip chart paper taped to the wall, already headed by the textual reference to Exodus 3, 7-8, he drew two rectangles and labelled them Egypt and Canaan. In the box for Egypt he wrote some of the bad features of life – in ancient Egypt or in present day Rwanda: slavery, poverty, ignorance, violence, disease, conflict, drunkenness. In Canaan were milk, honey, peace, riches, joy, health and knowledge. Along the road, in a kind of pilgrim's progress, hunger, thirst, lack of leadership, fatigue and fear were to be overcome. At the very gate of the city was the temptation to be persuaded by the ten despairing spies not to take the final steps encouraged by the two truthful spies. (I borrowed Antoine's bible in English this morning and eventually found the story of the spies in Numbers 13 & 14.)

Most of my knowledge of the bible dates from my schooldays, when our agnostic headmistress, an ancient historian by training, would read to us at 'prayers' each morning from what she pointedly described as 'the history of the Jews'. British Quakers, in my experience, if not entirely hostile to the whole book or what it represents for them, show a marked preference for the New Testament over the Hebrew bible: love, not law. There's no question that the theology of Rwandan Yearly Meeting prioritises biblical authority, as taught by pastored evangelical Friends from the USA; my hackles rise in anticipation of negativity and narrowness. Yet nearly all the exposition I have heard here during three visits has been tender, moderate, community-building. Much of the story is comforting, taken as myth and metaphor.

At the final summing up I find myself coming back to the idea of daring to change. You are in charge of what use you make of ideas from this workshop, I say. Live your lives, in harmony with the natural order, as best you can. Canaan is here and now. Egypt is also here and now, it's true. There are choices, however, and change starts internally for each of you, in the country of your heart.

Eugene, the pastor, leaps to his feet. Than you for saying that, he says. The teaching I've planned for next month is going to be that Canaan, the promised land, can be already here.

This dear man was widowed last year and his four children are at school in Uganda. He is frank about being lonely and sometimes sad. But he loves living in Byumba and he loves his work. He will support and encourage the women. I hope to see them again.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Geting into my stride again - or not





Thursday 15 Oct

After posting the previous entry I leave the computer room at CGFK at 6.10 pm. The room has curtains drawn and light switched on, so I am unprepared for the deep gloom that meets me outside the door. 6.15 or so is usually a good time to walk home before dark. But large and plentiful puddles tell me it has rained hard in my absence today and the cloud has not cleared. I should have thought it would be darker than usual. Still, Antoine's car is not here so there's not chance of a lift – I'll just have to be competent.

As I retrace my steps from an hour earlier I see nobody I recognise. I hear and return a few Bonjour's and one Muraho (Hello). The little boy who took my hand and accompanied me past a couple of houses before being called back is no longer out. More people say nothing than something and that's OK though unusual. Perhaps this is home-going behaviour.

After crossing the main road I veer steeply downhill. I can distinguish more or less between wetter and drier mud; I can see puddles. There is a young woman in a light coloured wrap in front of me and I think I might just follow her track. But she is going too slowly for me – at her speed I shall definitely be struggling by the end of my journey. As I pass her I see she has a baby on her back, covered by a white cloth. (I've had quite a lot of mothers and babies to study in the workshop over the last two days, and this is standard practice.)

I continue down this route, just wide enough for a car and pedestrians, deciding to stay on it as it curves in the wrong direction, rather than risk something more minor. Two days ago, in full sunlight, taking what I judged to be the very shortest cut, I ended up slithering on gravel and landing hard. I pass the house with the garish wall and the blue roof – no suggestion of colour in the dark now, so I'm glad not to be depending on that clue. Turning left along the hard beaten road that runs from the market at Kicukiro all the way to the wall of Antoine's compound, I have much more choice of who to follow. I realise, too, that some of the features of this road are now quite predictable; I hadn't expected to be glad to see the deep gully outside the charcoal seller's tin shack. Another hundred yards and I am at Antoine's back gate. I stretch on tiptoe to unlatch the keeper at the top, find the bolt is not dropped, stretch up again to engage the fastening once I am through, fish for the key and let myself in.


Up until now I have had no inclination to do more than my programme requires. Deviations from the familiar or the accompanied have crossed my mind. Shall I see if I can find somewhere to eat a snack rather than getting home around 3 and waiting for some lunch to be found? Shall I visit the little guest house where I began my stay last time and see if Francine, who looked after me, is there? Shall I find a hardware shop or stall and price the cups and plates I've offered to buy for the church at Gasharu? So far my exercise of initiative has been limited to improvising ways to fill unexpected gaps in teaching arrangements when materials or food have failed to materialise.

Suddenly it's now-or-not-until-next-year time. There are still almost two weeks before I leave, but next week I'm leaving town from Sunday till Tuesday to visit a British Quaker VSO in the far south east, then teaching from Wednesday to Saturday. I am hoping to have an unhurried conversation with Debby Thomas about her moringa project and some of my techniques, but she will be back in town from Kenya only tomorrow.

In 10 minutes on the phone I set up three meetings for tomorrow, a day without teaching. David Bucura will come at 8.30 to collect the suitcase full of clothing and we'll use the occasion to review my current work and future direction. At 10 I'll meet the young Canadian Mennonite couple working on capacity building at Friends Peace House. (I've already seen the bag and raised gardens in their garden near the church at Kagarama, and shown them to some students.) At 2.30 I've a proposal for Solange, one of the HROC core team, growing out of a suggestion from Dave Zarembka.

If my energy stays high I shall also phone the British Embassy for advice on which category would be most appropriate for Antoine's visa application. And if I can find the phone number for ISAR, the Rwandan agricultural research organisation, I shall try to make an appointment to meet one of the researchers credited in a 2008 African indigenous vegetables report.


Saturday 5pm

Well, my energy is fine. All the planned meetings have happened. It looks as if tomorrow will be very busy but manageable: shopping with church women for cups and plates, shopping with Antoine for food, meeting with Dave Z and David B, cooking dinner for Antoine's family. Early on Sunday I'm off to the south east corner to visit a Quaker woman working in a primary school for VSO, and not back till Tuesday afternoon.

The British Embassy was closed when I rang at 2pm. I haven't found a phone number for ISAR yet. I'm about to google recipes for creme anglaise at Annunciata's request, though I'm not confident I can make it on a charcoal cooker without temperature control.

Walking home at lunch time in full daylight and light rain, I slipped and fell in the mud. So much for striding. Let Sandrine, nearly 12, have the last word: 'You were walking too fast.'

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Updates

I'm not going to list here all the typos quietly corrected, but to draw attention to a problem and some revisiting.

The problem, told to me by two correspondents, is that comments don't get posted. Margot in her comment today suggests that one just has to keep trying.

At the end of the 'Voices' piece I directed readers to and editorial in the New Times. Sorry - this was sloppy expression. The piece I meant is the main article on the leader page: 'Prof. Ghai' you missed a lot on Rwanda', by Arthur Asiimwe. The leader itself comments favourably on an extension to the ombudsman's powers and seems uncontroversial.

Since writing about coffee I've read a piece I had downloaded at home during my final rush of preparation, and printed to bring with me. From it I learn that during Belgian rule all farmers were obliged to plant coffee on 25% of their land. Unsurprisingly this bred lasting hostility to coffee, which is still perceived as the foreigners' drink in comparison with tea. (The Belgians also developed tea plantations, but not all over the country because the climate is not suitable everywhere.)

Further thoughts on plastic bottles: today I've been working with a group of women up near the north-eastern border. I was the first person to tell them it's not a good idea to burn plastic. They sometimes use plastic twists to light their charcoal braziers for everyday cooking, too. I recommended caution over burning if it was unavoidable, and returning to paper spills. They discussed making arrangements among themselves to store crushed bottles and get them taken away in bulk - there is no such rubbish collection in Byumba.

If you notice other errors or lack of clarity please tell me, either by posting a comment or by emailing if you know my address. I'd be glad, too, just to hear if you're following: I thrive on feedback and tend to wilt without it.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Voices






The path is explained later. The photo of Antoine, Annunciata and their youngest, Gisele, was taken last weekend, with him in the hand-painted t-shirt made by Martin and her off to a conference.

Monday 12 October, 10 am

Outside the window, the excited chatter dies away as three groups of students set off, each with a laminated instruction sheet, to brew organic insecticides to different recipes. In the classroom I am left to my own devices for an hour and a half, till the break for Fanta and a bun at 11.30, when they're due to return.

Inside it's pleasantly ventilated. Along one side of the room are bins containing ingredients for making pottery. The potters have a board out at the roadside though the enterprise is inactive. There are four benches for the 15 students, and two chairs for me and my translator, with whom I communicate in a mixture of French and English, who is also one of the students. My netbook was fully charged this morning, so I can use it despite the absence of electricity supply. (This is the community centre at Shyorongi where I had such problems with a dance CD in February.)

Last time I worked with these students, Musafiri and I went walkabout and visited all the groups. Today he is not here, though he did accompany me on the taxi-buses. (I don't know what he's doing instead, but at the moment neither Jeannette nor he is being paid by the Canadian charity that sponsors their work, and he's job-hunting; J goes at the end of the month to join her husband in Dar es Salaam.) I've decided to stay put for this morning because I had a bout of vomiting last night, ate no breakfast for fear of a recurrence on the bus, and am now quite hungry. (There's no need for anybody to worry about the vomiting. I had two bouts in February, each after eating a local fruit called 'prune de Japon'. When I saw that the fruit salad at breakfast yesterday included some I decided to try again. Now I know to avoid it.)

I wasn't anticipating this exodus. After we'd discussed the pesticide recipes I suggested the students make a plan for systematic experimentation, recording methods and results. I symbolically moved my chair back from the group. I thought I had told them to make arrangements for after this two-day course is finished. 5 minutes later they presented the plan now being implemented. They will note any questions or observations and be back for refreshments.

6pm
In the event they were back before 11, having decided only one of the chosen locations was reasonably close. A far as I know they did OK, using one of the green plants recommended, pili-pili (chili) and onions. I hope they have good results. I have tried some of the recipes with moderate results – a significant diminution of blackfly but not complete extermination. We talked about the commonly obtainable pesticide, which they say causes skin, throat and breathing problems. One new participant – the woman whom I photographed last time 'avec sa vache' - tells of a new product on the market, very expensive but with no side effects. I wonder what that is.

The dance CDs are in my bag but not usable. I suggest a song before refreshments. Please will they sing me one of their songs. They begin with little discussion. Norbert, my translator, tells me it is a song on avoiding HIV/AIDS.

Songs are certainly used for education. On the bus this morning Musafiri met a colleague who works with youth groups on anti-corruption. I asked what such groups can achieve and M said that as well as being supported in denouncing perpetrators they perform anti-corruption songs.

Would I sing one of my songs, Norbert asks. I am taken aback, having forgotten this item of mental preparation. But it's OK – they wanted only a first line from me and are now performing 'Dear friends', a round I taught last time. The sing well in unison, and with a bit of sharing around of the confident voices and encouragement from me they manage a two part round. How have they remembered this song in a strange mode so well? Oh, every time they get together they remember me and sing my song. Wow!


Tuesday 13 October, 6am

Voices outside my window at 5.40 persuaded me of the uselessness of trying to get back to sleep. The alarm on the phone, used with A's computer for dial up connection, had gone off at 5. This has happened before and I feel very stupid in not being able to turn it off reliably. At 5.05 every day the muezzin starts in a nearby mosque but his voice alone doesn't wake me. (I have asked about change in day length at this distance from the equator and was told it's negligible and ignored for practical purposes.) Often between 5 and 6 Antoine goes out in his car, which is parked in the compound; on return he always hoots to have the gates opened; today he left close to 5, presumably to take his wife, Annunciata, to her bus to work in Ruhengeri.

The quiet voices belong to two young men making new steps and a path from the house to my door, in conversation with my immediate neighbour, mother of a child of about one and a former student at CGFK. She and her husband, off working in Djibouti, rent from Antoine, as do several young men who are my neighbours on the other side. Mid conversation one or another sings a line or two along with the radio on the porch of the main house. Gospel, as usual at this time of day - another kind of learning through song, I suppose.



I would like to be giving you more direct accounts of conversations than I do. Indeed, a staff member at The Friend, the UK Quaker weekly magazine, told me such pieces would be the most publishable. But I don't feel right exposing my personal contacts, many of whom speak very freely to me in private, to possible repercussions. I wonder how journalists handle this problem. Pseudonyms alone wouldn't work for me, even if I could bring myself to use them, because my circle is so small. Problems as wide ranging as housing and the French/English question are fascinating and I would love to recount them, but criticising government policy is unwise. For an example of pro-government defensiveness I recommend the leader in last Friday's New Times, the English language Rwandan newspaper that I buy occasionally at bus stations: www.newtimes.co.rw.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Pictures from CGFK 2




This clinic on a corner of the school site seemed to be busy every day. Polio, diptheria, typhoid and worms were on the list. Children from 0-5 get free prophylaxis. Some seemed to know what was coming and had to be dragged in.
Behind the clinic was the site for the second bag garden. While some worked, others posed for this photo, saying I should tell people the tin shack was their home, then they'd be sent more money.
No matter how hard I try, I don't get posts or pictures in the right order. Sorry!

Pictures from College George Fox Kagarama 1



















This group of ground staff from CGFK met in the pastors' office, where they are enjoying seeing themselves at work the day before. And there they are, filling the sack in a spot convenient for the classroom and some decent soil, but just by the loos and open to curious gazes.

Who pays?


8am, Saturday 11 October
I'm listening to the English language news on 'Deutsche Welle', which has huge transmitters above Kigali and provides good quality news in English and French as well as German language for beginners, taught in English. Joseph Stiglitz, American economist and Nobel prize winner, is reported as berating the rich West for foot dragging over a tax on financial transactions, intended to go to poorer countries. The USA spent in one night on preventing its own banking collapse what it spends on global aid in ten years, he says.

Yesterday I was working with a group of women, mostly young mothers, on organic gardening techniques. Before the closing prayer I reviewed the day's work. We made a bag garden on the far side of the church compound, away from any unwanted attentions by the many orphans who live or visit here. We looked at recipes for plant 'teas', made by soaking animal droppings or a combination of different types of leaves. We considered the benefits of using what is to hand and 'growing your own' rather than buying expensive fertilisers or market vegetables. I spelt out the connection between food security and a peaceful society.

At the end of last month, immediately before coming here, I spent a day at Friends House at a conference on Zero Economic Growth. I haven't brought my notes with me so I'm afraid I can't remember which measure of energy consumption was being described. What I remember is the ratio between an average of 25 per person in Australia, 23 in the USA, 16 in Western Europe and 1 in Africa. A sustainable level worldwide would be 2.

3.30pm
The workshop is over and I'm told the women were well pleased. Today we focused on compost. They hadn't realised that plastic bottles, spent batteries and other goodies could release harmful chemicals when burnt or allowed to rot in the compost heap. Apparently it is now compulsory to pay for a monthly rubbish collection, somewhat resented. I sympathised with the nuisance of having to adopt a new habit of separating organic and inorganic kitchen waste; at least it won't cost them any extra to put everything that is not compostable in the heap to be taken away.

Then we looked at a technique for making a compost heap. The church uses a projector to display the words of hymns or key phrases from teaching sessions during services. I had accepted the offer of using it for the workshop and put together two slide shows: one on some gardening subjects from Rwanda, California and my own allotment, used yesterday; and one on compost, showing the sequence of construction in a workshop at Mwana Nshuti in February, the giant heap at the organic training institute, and a local mixture of good compost with nasty rubbish, captured earlier this week at the school. So my visual aids were the most sophisticated yet - projected images, plus flip chart paper taped to the wall, plus three copies for passing round of each of the laminated sheets on organic techniques (thank you again, Ann R).

After lunch we moved on from the benefits to plants to the benefits for soil structure. Humus is a new concept; compost is seen as short term fertiliser for each new planting. I tell them that in my view the most crucial contribution to food self-sufficiency is that the soil be in good heart. My translator, Bonheur, jibs at that phrase so we pay attention to it. Yes, good soil is at the core of healthy human life.

Yesterday we considered how to distribute the surplus seeds from the bag garden plus a few more packets not opened. People have brought various bits of paper and are tearing them into small pieces. I ask my translator to discuss directly with the students how best to proceed. They agree a method. The seeds from each packet in turn are tipped out onto the teaching table and each student takes 6 or 8 pepper, leek and tomato seeds, putting them in little twists of paper. The spinach seeds are large and there are only 2 each. Cabbage seeds are tiny and amaranth even tinier; Bonheur and I shovel a few at a time into the waiting funnels, using the original packets as our tools.

**********

Since February, several people I know here have lost their jobs and AGLI's work of healing and community-building has been much reduced as charitable giving has shrunk. A conversation in the workshop this morning revealed that mutual societies are seen as potentially beneficial but can't actually implement micro-credit schemes for lack of start-up funds. Climate change is an inescapable reality, even to those who don't listen to the world news on numerous radio stations, because its effects are here.

So much I take for granted at home is lacking. Free schooling and clean water would be a good start. Is it be too much to hope a financial transactions tax might foot a bill or two?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Telling the truth

In a moment of enthusiasm, after getting on line at last and posting my first blog entry of this trip, I told Antoine's sons about the blog. Now they read it and so does A. (He asked if he could write a blog. 'Yes, I'll show you how.' It hasn't happened yet.) It's an interesting challenge to maintain my analytical stance without being critical in ways that could cause hurt or lead to unnecessary changes in how I am used.

It becomes even more important to resist any temptation to massage the facts for the sake of a story or punch line. Would a good Quaker massage the facts? Well, it's tempting sometimes. Is every episode in those generations of Quaker journals a strictly accurate rendering of the messiness of events perceived as they are still developing? We know that in the case of George Fox his 'journal' (which might more helpfully be classified as autobiography) was dictated towards the end of a long life, well after the inner and outer turmoil of his early years. Now that the immediate is so easily captured in e-communication by blog, email, camera phone etc, I would consider it a diminution of this experience with AGLI in Rwanda not to be sending impressions to a wide circle of personal contacts. This blog, I am told, appears on googling at least one phrase I didn't consider significant when I wrote it.

I also have to be alert to spreading untruth by misunderstanding what I am seeing or hearing. If readers find me writing something they think is wrong I hope they will tell me.

Perhaps the most obvious barrier to good communication is not being fluent in a common language. French continues to serve more frequently than English as the best match. Antoine's wife makes a pleasant joke of talking English at table with me and scolds the others if they don't play along. I have a deal with Antoine that we will speak as much English as possible, and I know he's working hard to bring his speaking and listening skills up to his level of reading comprehension. But for serious matters such a arrangements and expectations, French is more reliable.

I have a further difficulty to do with hearing. Sometimes I simply can't hear, from a combination of age related degeneration and noise pollution. I wish I were not so sensitive to poorly tuned radio and TV; there are times when my hands jump to my ears at a new blast through an amplification system. I wish I were not so distracted by radio etc that I can't follow what's being said to me. But that's how it is.

Then there are the problems of pronunciation, which seem to be all on my side. I'm rarely asked to repeat anything, but I quite often fail to make sense of what is being said. I learnt in February to try exchanging r and l as a first test; that works fairly often. I've come up once or twice recently against another feature of Kinyarwanda, a softening of k to ch. That's not a problem for Kigali (Chigali) or Kicukiro or Kicirongi, but my brain will not accept Chenya for Kenya, even when the context ought to make it plain.

All in all, however, my experience is of a wonderful meeting of minds and souls. It's worth saying again, I am glad to be here.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Old or new idea?


Tuesday evening, 6 Oct
With the group of non-teaching school staff this morning I decided to start the bag garden routine in a different place, with ‘What vegetables do you like eating?’ Nicodeme, the pastor from Cyangugu, now based here, was my translator and he said the names would be difficult. I took out my seed catalogue, brought for the purpose of naming plants, then changed tack.

Prompted by an article forwarded by Dave Zarembka, the AGLI co-ordinator, who lives in Western Kenya, I became interested a few months ago in African indigenous vegetables (AIVs). My friend Anne did some internet research and made contact with Mary Abukutsa-Onyanga, a professor who has been analyzing the benefits of AIVs in Kenya and sent some leaflets. Anne and her husband Rob did a splendid job re-arranging the information and making two-sided laminated sheets.

On the spur of the moment I got out the AIV sheets and passed them round. ‘Do you eat any of these?’ Yes, amaranth is available in the markets sometimes. They also recognized spiderplant. It’s a free growing weed on disturbed land. It tastes bitter. Only old women and old men eat it.

I showed Nicodeme the table on one of the sheets, comparing the nutritional qualities of several AIVs with ‘exotics’ such as cabbage and spinach. He read out some figures. The class quickly realized that it was likely the native plants are well suited to the local conditions and do better than imports.

It would be a pity if such good foods were reserved for the old, when young energetic poeple could be benefitting from them too, I suggested. ‘But they taste bitter.’ The Kenyan professor had offered Anne some recipes, but we hadn’t wanted to risk undermining traditional methods here. Now seems to be the time to take up the offer, and give thanks for the internet.

I told the group that in Kenya these vegetables are now being sold in supermarkets. Since ideas often come here from Kenya, perhaps they should be on the lookout for a marketing opportunity in a year or two.

We prepared two sacks. I went into town this afternoon to buy a stock of seeds for several groups. Both seed shops had amaranth in their ordinary stock, though neither recognised two further plants from my photos, both said to grow in the Lake Victoria basin.

In my photo of the info and the seed packet at the top of this post you’ll see the base of a solar powered table lamp I brought for Antoine’s family. I’m experimenting with charging and functioning times. I hope what I’m offering is useful.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The techniques are spreading





On Sunday there was an expedition to Antoine's place in the country. His older brother was with us, and the girls, Sandrine and Giselle. (Oh, and Giselle's phone, on which she played incessant tunes and sang along.) A's been joking that quite soon he would be able to feed the family if his salary stopped. He intends to move there with his wife once he's 60. There have been some improvements since I visited in February. - a second Fresian cow; a new pen for the calf, now a fine bullock, which might be used for breeding; more mulching with maize stalks round the bananas.

Most interesting to me, however, was a construction near the little house – and I don't have a name for it, so here are a couple of pictures. It's a bed for planting, obviously. It's not exactly a keyhole garden, as developed in Lesotho, though that's a design I have seen replicated in photos and, indeed, there's a half size one on my own allotment in Ealing. It's a concentration of soil well mixed with compost and manure, and the change of height makes it all easy to reach. The construction seems to be of staves and banana plants, both plentiful. The cabbage and aubergine seedlings and the green onions are all thriving.

This is new, I say. Yes, the government has been teaching people to make them round here. Good. And today after we'd filled two sacks in the school grounds, redy fro planting tomorrow, on of the men said he'd learnt to do this atthe institute at Gako. He didn't know who had paid. Send-a-cow, I expect.

Where the water bottles go




Today, Tuesday, I've been working with some of the non-teaching staff at CGFK (yes, that's the Friends school). The work went well and I'll write about it soon. First, though, a postscript to yesterday's question about the plastic bottles. This is a far corner of the school grounds, where we're about to prepare a sack for planting tomorrow. I thought I'd capture the compost heap, with its mixture of good compost and all kinds of other rubbish. Then I looked up and here's the answer to the bottle question. Humans instinctively sort things – behind the bottle collection is a cluster of rags, and the rubbish cum compost pit has a corner for paper.

I ask Nicodeme, my translator for the morning, what will happen to the bottles. They'll be burnt, he says, so as not to have to be buried. There's my topic for tomorrow morning then – rubbish.

PS I asked what the bottles were separated for. 'For people to use.' We discussed the hygiene implications of unboiled water in unsterilised bottles. We talked about not burning plastics. What, though, is the best solution?

Monday, 5 October 2009

The gospel of compost

At the English language service at Gasharu Evangelical Friends Church yesterday, those of us who had not brought our own were issued with bibles, to look up relevant verses. The leader of the exercise – a discussion, not a sermon, he insisted – introduced the topic of calling and asked for testimonies. From immediately in front of me the young American, Brad, who has just returned to Rwanda with his new wife to study the language and work as a missionary, told us of a recent encounter with an old friend where he had felt compelled to speak about the place of Jesus at the centre of his life. The insistence on inviting Jesus into one’s heart to cleanse oneself of sin sits ill with me. I’m not an evangelical.

Or am I? Today wasn’t even a working day and already I’ve shown my pictorial guide to compost making to four neophytes. Theogene, director of the adult English and computer school, asked to see photos of my work on one of the teaching computers, prior to introducing the planned subject of conversation. The picture of my first solar panel in Rwanda led to discussion of renewable resources, which led to soil fertility, which led to compost. Out came the diagramme, followed by a photo of the giant heap at the local organic training institute.

T and I had the planned conversation about language teaching methods and resources – not an area of familiarity for me, though I have promised to consult on recommendations. We listened to speeches on School Teaching (or School Teachers’) Day. After a lunchtime ‘snack’ of kebabs and roast potatoes, we shifted from our tables while the restaurant floor was swept more or less clear of rainwater from a torrential downpour. As we regrouped I was handed to Antoine, head of the Friends school and my host, and his table of local education officials. My neighbour asked me what I was doing in Rwanda. I answered briefly. Could I advise him on how to make his small garden productive? I fished out of my rucksack the laminated sheet on compost. He passed it round the table to his two colleagues. Each studied it attentively. Each committed to adopting a new approach to vegetable waste. Dare I claim four converts?

What to drink?

Well, as a first decision, no alcohol while I'm a volunteer with AGLI. The prohibition is in the standard volunteer contract and it's not a problem. I do drink wine and beer normally (ie both in my normal life and at what from my perspective are normal levels). On Saturday afternoon, after market shopping and a drive round some outlying parts of Kigali, Antoine took me for a drink. On the deck of the golf club, with a view of some of the best grown eucalyptus I've seen here, we shared a pot of good coffee, surrounded by men from various countries and continents, drinking beer and speaking various languages very loudly. I commented to Antoine that I could see why Rwanda Yearly Meeting forbids alcohol. So do the American YM's, he replies. Yes, that's still true of the evangelical yearly meetings though not the liberal ones, including Britain. I say that I like to drink wine at home. He immediately offers to buy me a glass – he wouldn't mind. I decline.

I hope our coffee is Rwandan but it may well not be. It is possible to buy Rwandan ground coffee or beans in Kigali in airtight bags like the packets at home. However, any coffee I have been offered in a house is Nescafe, in a small tin, labelled in English and Swahili, produced in Kenya and promising 31 cups. I watched an item on Rwandan TV earlier in the year where a representative from the East African coffee federation, which Rwanda hopes to join, was lamenting the complete lack of a coffee culture in Rwanda. If young well-educated people would start asking for proper coffee it would become fashionable and that would raise awareness among producers, he said. I report the item to Antoine, who says it is only educated people who drink any kind of coffee, or indeed tea. In the countryside people drink water or beer. That's home-brewed banana beer unless they're very rich or extravagant.

A couple of months ago two people who know of my interest in Rwanda drew my attention to an article in the Waitrose Supermarkets' magazine about how a tea co-operative here is the sole source of Yorkshire Gold Tea. The article commended the enterprise for helping heal the wounds of genocide by enabling mutual development. The TV programme about coffee said producers, many of whom are small-scale farmers with a few bushes, could increase their profit considerably by processing the beans instead of selling the 'cherries'. That too would require the establishing of co-operatives or something similar.

By chance, in the interval between my composing the previous paragraphs and his one, I have been out to lunch today. The occasion is a public holiday to celebrate school teaching and this is its first year. A large group of teachers from several local schools, who convened this morning at CGFK for a dance display (which I missed) and speeches, went on to lunch at a restaurant down the hill. I sat with Theogene (imagine the accents please), the director of the adult school with whom I had spent he morning, and two pleasant young teachers, who wanted to practise their English.

Crates of drinks were carried round the tables: 24 soft fizzy drinks, 12 Primus beer and 12 Mutzig (imagine the umlaut). Few people chose beer. I asked why. Well, many fewer people drink alcohol now, I was told. It's become usual in the last 15 years for toasts at weddings, for example, to be drunk in soft drinks. My companions though it was because of the spread of protestant strains of Christianity. I said that many Christians in Europe are not against alcohol in moderation. Ah, that's it, they said. Rwandans are not good at moderation. Somebody who drinks one beer (and they're 600 ml bottles) will certainly want another, even at lunch.

The next stage is that now many people choose water instead of a sweetened drink. Water requested instead of a coke is always in a plastic bottle, while coke and its cousins are in re-usable glass bottles.

In the household where I am staying , as in the last one, tap water is boiled for drinking. Do people drink tap water? All educated people boil it. Why? There's a slight risk of worms, but more of typhoid. No, typhoid isn't common, but you should avoid it if you can.

It's sad that the price of avoiding typhoid and tooth decay is a growing mountain of one-trip plastic bottles in a country where non-biodegradable plastic bags are banned. I ask who profits from the growing sales of drinking water. There are two bottling plants in Rwanda but you can be pretty sure they're not owned by Rwandans.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Pictorial evidence



Last night my attempt to add a couple of photos to my text was timed out. I'm trying again. The sack looks very sad to me, but I'm told there were tomatoes on the top as well as the ring of cabbages at ground level. I shall be interested to see whether last night's long and heavy rain proves stimulus enough for the side shoots of the cabbage plants to grow.

You'll just have to take my word for the solar panel. It was out of sight as we walked along the lane from the house, and this was the only glimpse from the car taking us back to town. The pole to the left of the panel holds a TV aerial.

It's possible that by next time I shall have found out how to edit pictures on my netbook but for now I can send only the crude images. I hope they're better than nothing.

Friday, 2 October 2009

What has happened?

I have come to the end of two days of revisiting people and places. Old friends, new understanding.

Yesterday morning the first visit was to Mwana Nshuti, the training school which is one of he programmes of Rwanda Yearly Meeting. I see most of the sacks - one quite collapsed, others the worse for wear but still with remains of cabbages and spinach. Jonas, the school director, is enthusiastic about quantity and quality. (In the next two days several people tell me of sharing the abundant cabbages.) He shows me a dry mound where a second compost heap dried out after the rain stopped in May. The pit dug with my supervision for the first heap has a little burnt refuse in the bottom but J assures me they will reconstitute it once the rain comes.

Once the rain comes... The 'long rains' used to arrive pretty reliably at the beginning of September. The Kigali region had a first light shower on the 28th and no more yet. Today it clouded up and the wind blew in the middle of the day, but the moisture stayed stubbornly in the clouds. Now as I write in the early evening thunder is rolling but no rain falling.

Yesterday afternoon I went by bus with Musafiri, my teaching partner in February, to Shyorongi to talk with as many of that group as could come at a day's notice to a meeting at 3 in the afternoon. More than a dozen turn up. These are serious young adults with livelihoods to establish and several of them are students of agriculture or trainee teachers. Two of them speak good English and we have a wide-ranging discussion of world politics (especially 'Yes we can' Obama and how much difference he might make) while waiting for latecomers. Then Musafiri asks for individuals to report their experiences with the sacks. Four describe successes and failures – the beetroots weren't red hough the leaes wre delicious, the tomatoes were very small (I had chosen a dwarf variety to avoid overbalancing), green peppers and spinach were the most successful. On balance, I ask, would they recommend this technique. Definitely yes. I don't think they were just being polite. In two weeks' time I'm to go back and make a demonstration keyhole garden for the community centre. We talk through what will be needed – string and pegs, stakes, compost, enriched topsoil, dry grass or banana leaves. They will invite the president of the district.

Introducing my programme of visits today to 4 individual women, Cecile told me they all wanted advice on what to do in the dry season. After a moment of panic that I am out of my depth in all this drought, I thought of several topics for useful conversation.

At the first house, ten minutes' drive and ten minutes' walk from Friends Peace House, most of the time is taken up with how pleased we are to see each other again and how resistant the young are to eating a healthy range of vegetables. The second host is an enterprising woman who sold a parcel of land near town, saved and invested and now has the only electricity in the extensive village, from a solar panel on her roof. She observes that crops in the ground last longer than in the sacks when everything dries out. It is a common theme that the soil in the sacks gets as hard as concrete. More compost in the mix, I suggest, and remind everybody to use the water from the washing up, for example. Does she put her vegetable peelings in the compost? Only after they've been through the goats or the cow!

At the third house there is a good heap of mature compost and a piece of ground prepared for planting - once the rain comes. I show some photos of precision watering from a bag or bottle with a tiny hole. (Expecting an English speaking guide and not a French one, I'm not carrying my dictionary and can't remember the vocabulary to ask if there's enough dew to channel onto seedlings, as I saw in Israel many years ago.) Water is thirty minutes' walk away, and longer uphill to bring it home. Nobody would pour it on the ground after that. Cisterns to collect surplus water in the rainy season are too expensive to contemplate; there is no ground water to pump up. This is how it is and we're used to it, the women say. My first feeling is of disappointment. Then I realise that an advisor from a warmer climate could find English allotments in winter quite disappointing.

One more visit in the afternoon. It's to Solange, the young FPH worker whose wedding I attended in February. She's laid off, like all the HROC team, for lack of funding, but we don't discuss that. She is eager to show me her sack garden, made after looking at what the group had done in February. At last, evidence that with watering it is possible to keep going through the dry season. A local variety of spinach spills down the sides. A second sack is filled, ready for planting when the rain comes. S has no compost. She would like to star making some and looks at my diagramme and the photos from my visit to the Gako organic farming training institute. We discuss placing the sacks close to the house to avoid some of the strong sun. I advise using soil to cover the compost heap if it is smelly and attracting flies.

It all comes back to compost.


PS I'm posting at 9.30 on Friday evening and it's been raining for an hour and a half.

Beginning again


Beginning again

Arriving at Friends Peace House to discuss the programme for this, my second visit, I look for the six bag gardens filled and planted by a women's group in February. No trace remains. Ah well! I had been warned that some projects had not survived the months without rain. This was far from an ideal location, under a tin roof beside the car park of a place where nobody lives and even waste water from the kitchen is available only intermittently.

Five of us convene to plan my month's activities. We work mostly in French, but swap to English for me or Kinyarwanda for the others as necessary, to make sure we have understood each other.

At the end of an hour we have agreed six two-day workshops, various other sessions and a couple of days plus a weekend for me to follow up leads from my researches into African indigenous vegetables (AIV's), to visit a British Quaker VSO worker and the VSO office, and to see if I can do anything useful towards getting Antoine – my host this time and the clerk of Rwanda Yearly Meeting as well as head of the Friends School here – a visa to come to Britain Yearly Meeting next year after this year's refusal. (They told him at the British Embassy in Kigali that papers are sent to Uganda for decision.)

For the remainder of this week I shall be visiting and/or discussing last time's work. I am assured that at Mwana Nshuti, the teen project down the hill from Friends Peace House, the bag gardens have survived and the compost is ready for use. They are eager to add home produced vegetables to their school lunches. Perhaps I can nudge the wish into fulfilment.

My first new activity will be going to choir practice on Friday evening at Gasharu Friends Church, where there is a weekly service in English, so the singers and I can size each other up before I teach them one or more pieces later in the month when a special commitment is over. I meet the young choir master, Jean-Baptiste, who is in charge of a new library – called 'Children's Peace Library' though I spot Harry Potters and other general materials, all in English. His readers are mostly children from 3 local primary schools, including the Friends school. I suppose he is employed by the church though I don't get a chance to ask. We exchange phone numbers: fortunately my sim card and calling credit have carried over from February.

It's good to be back. Yesterday I was driven straight from the airport to a lunch meeting of the committee developing adult classes in English and computing – a project of the Friends Church drawing on some resources from the school and Peace House. The coincidence of the meeting with my need for lunch was not planned, yet I knew 8 of the 10 people present. I was able to contribute thoughts on accreditation (local, to raise the profile of the church, or linked to an international structure to enhance employment prospects?) as well as my proposal for students (including school teachers) to improve their English while engaging with topics relevant to Growing Together. A day to work with the adult school director is now on my programme.

I have walked back to Antoine's house, round the corner from where I stayed last time with Jeanette, whose husband Bosco is now studying human rights in Tanzania on a German government scholarship. Slightly apprehensive about remembering the route, I am relieved to see the charcoal seller's familiar corner. When A comes home for lunch I show him the laminated sheets on AIV's, prepared for me by Anne and Rob. One in particular interests him. He could take me to a restaurant where they serve it. It tastes bitter. The old people like it still.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Home till next time

My friends in Rwanda asked what would be growing in my own vegetable garden when I got home. This is what I found.



Starting a keyhole garden on my allotment


It's three weeks since I arrived home. Already I'm planning further visits in October 2009 and February 2010. Between now and then I shall be giving talks - with plenty of photos; also following leads on urban food production, soil fertility, and links with agencies in Rwanda; looking into getting charitable status in the UK for AGLI's work; and giving critical thought to what I should be offering as a European amateur volunteer.

Meantime there's my own allotment, where I'm applying more of the techniques I was teaching in Rwanda. Yesterday I started building a keyhole garden. Now I'm waiting for rain to settle the soil.

Do ask me if you'd like an informal talk or a formal presentation to any interested group. Do write if you have any input to take my planning forward. Don't expect much in the way of posts till after the summer.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

The religious bit, continued


The religious bit, part two
re Sunday 22 Feb

I don't much like going to church, for several reasons, some general and some specific to my experience here in Rwanda. I don't like being in a situation where I might be assumed to believe things I don't believe. I don't like the busyness. I love traditional English church music, and I enjoy African call-and-response singing, but I don't care for choruses with formulaic melodies and harmonies. I experience the excessive amplification of keyboard and microphones as physical pain. I don't like being pushed to express a fervour I'm not feeling; I resist strongly the expectation that to every 'Alleluia' I will respond with a loud 'Amen'.

However, the Evangelical Friends Church in Rwanda is part of the world family of Friends, so these are my cousins. Most of the people I am working with belong, and they seem genuinely pleased to see me when I turn up. The English language service is relatively new, it needs support, and really I would be churlish to refuse to attend on even one of my four Sundays.

On my final Sunday, then, I set the alarm for six o'clock – not unbearable after a week without early starts – and enjoy the freshness of the early morning air on the 20 minute walk.

There are about 30 people present, compared with about 150 for the later service, including the American missionary couple with their children and two other members of Evangelical Friends Mission - a business specialist to help set up a moringa business and his wife who is teaching the adult English classes. A song is being taught as I arrive – I find it dull but my evaluation isn't what matters here. I sing quite strongly, recognising among the congregation several people whose English I know to be far from confident. There is a second song, and perhaps a third – they are so similar I find it hard to remember. The words are displayed on the wall in front of us, the computer operated by one of the two young men who also play the keyboard.

Now it's time for the address. It seems we are part way through a series. Last week the subject was Satan. Today we have moved on to demons. There are four questions to consider. I missed the first, I'm afraid, while preparing my camera, and can't recollect it. The others were also displayed: 'Are demons active in the world today? If yes, explain.' 'Can a Christian be possessed?' 'How can demon influence be recognised?' The young preacher tries to insist on plenty of interaction, but gets little. I don't know if the problem is poor English or lack of confidence in hazarding responses. The pastor and his wife from a neighbouring Friends church are the most vocal. The native English speakers (including me) hold back, for the most part.

One theme is whether Africa is more prone to demons than Europe and the USA. We hear a couple of stories of demonic activity in Rwanda, such as lifting a preacher onto the roof of his church in the middle of his sermon. I wonder whether to raise the question of metaphorical versus literal truth, but restrain myself. After about 45 minutes time has run out. We are exhorted to learn what we can about Satan, fallen angels, demons and devils, using the bible as our source of information. (I remember Bosco telling me a couple of weeks ago that the reason for praying before eating is to cast out the demons who otherwise are lurking to get inside people when they eat. I responded that there can indeed be bad practices that lead to food poisoning or even deliberate adulteration and he observed that 'you Europeans are so scientific'.)

Outside the church I comment to Debby Thomas that I was conscious of silence around the topic of prominent churchmen including bishops who participated vigorously in the genocide and wonder whether the subject is an elephant in the room. She makes an observation I find very informative - like most of what she tells me: many church people in this society will commit sinful acts, such as theft, for example, and say it wasn't their fault because they were possessed. There was talk inside church of it being only those supposed Christians who are 'mixed', who go to church in the morning and take part in traditional witchcraft in the evening, who are vulnerable. I'm no expert but I don't find that entirely convincing.



I have so much to understand. There are fascinating questions about the balance between individual and group responsibility, for example – Friends Peace House has adopted the slogan from Friends in Cape Town: 'Peace is a group effort'. In the groups I have been teaching I notice that if I ask one person to fetch something or do something, at least half a dozen others follow suit and it can be quite difficult to stop the flow. I remember on visits to the Soviet Union in the 80s being told very firmly that we Westerners were far too devoted to individualism and undervalued the communal. That certainly needs considering, whatever one's evaluation of its source.

No tidy conclusions. I suspect that much of what I experience as strange and uncomfortable may be very familiar to members of churches in other continents than Africa. It's enough for me that I have been welcomed despite my oddity. Bathed in such warm appreciation, I could allow my prickles to soften perhaps.