Monday, 8 March 2010


Written Sunday afternoon, 7 March

In line with most of the arrangements for this visit, the evaluation was a straightforward process. David, Antoine and I met in David's living room earlier this afternoon, immediately before my departure. Neither of the appropriate people from Friends Peace House was available. David was the organiser for my programme with the church groups and Antoine for the schools. FPH is the locus for HROC so will be involved in my October programme, where I shall be working with groups of Batwa after they have done an introductory HROC workshop,

I suggested that we do the evaluation in French, with pauses for translation or clarification if needed. That gave me the opening to repeat to David what I'd said a couple of days ago to Antoine after several minor frustrations – that I like to be told what's going on, and not have it assumed that I don't want or need to know. 'Perhaps it's a fault in me', I said. 'No, no', said Antoine.

David spoke first. I made notes but they're inaccessible in my checked baggage. (I'm writing in the departure lounge at Kigali. Last time there was free internet access here but this time I'm getting nothing beyond a statement that I'm connected.) Basically he thought communication had gone well, my workshops were well received everywhere, more churches – even other denominations! - are asking for me, he hopes I'll do more on diet and nutrition and try to open people's minds to other than traditional Rwandan cooking methods and recipes.

Antoine started by complimenting me on my youthful vigour! He had translated for me with the CGFK workers and sat in on the sessions with the teachers in Kidaho and Butaro so he'd experienced my work directly. Caption: A was also the driver for the week in Ruhengeri. This view of Muhabura across Lake Burera was taken on the drive from Butaro back to Kidaho.

He was well pleased too. He noted that there had been some problems with translators.

My turn. I don't enjoy holding forth in French without the feedback of conversation, but I did what had to be done. Overall I too had been well satisfied with this visit. There had been some problems with translation – especially in the north where there is said to be a better standard of English but I had to work all the time in French with translators who'd obviously been recruited at the last minute. There had probably been rather too much travelling round and I was quite tired.

I had thought through how the timings might work out in October, with or without the grant from Britain Yearly Meeting. (I shall hear early in April.) I propose spending nearly a fortnight in either Ruhengeri or Cyangugu, to give time for Batwa, schools and women's groups, including seeing how work started this time has developed. If the grant materialises I shall need to spend six working days with Batwa in each of the two regions, leaving me with not much time in Kigali. If it doesn't, I can meet some new local church groups, and perhaps build interest in supplying leaves for the moringa project – they need to be transported (by bicycle) to the processing site by 10am on the day they're picked.

So there's plenty to do. David is encouraging me to work on finding a successor. Antoine would like new topics for conversation classes with the teachers – thank you Anne for the very successful sheet on childhood diarrhoea. I plan to prepare material on nutrition, including the complementarity of vegetable proteins, probably in the form of worksheets to be filled in with words in Kinyarwanda supplied by my translator. (The possibility was raised of my having one translator for the whole visit next time.) I'm hoping one or two groups will invite me and a Rwandan woman – it's too soon to identify her - to go to market with them and prepare some different foods together. People who've contributed money need to be told how I'm using it and invited to give again.

For now, though, I need to pack up the computer and be ready to board the flight to Nairobi. Take-off should be in 10 minutes and obviously won't be, but there's a 3-hour wait scheduled so I expect we'll make the connection for the midnight flight to Heathrow. There's a fiery sunset.

PS: the journey home went fine. It's gloriously sunny here after a frosty start. Plenty to do here, too.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Two walks with Antoine: 2

Part Two, Friday

Three times on this visit I have been driven past a run of fish ponds and failed to photograph them. On the third occasion, at the beginning of this week, Danzile offered some intriguing information and Antoine said we would visit them on our way back.

He pulls in to the side of the road and Danzile says she will wait in the car. This avoids the need to park rather better and lock up, but as our walk proceeds I worry that she will be getting very hot. I would have been happy to ask the first workers we meet if they are happy to be photographed and leave it at that. But no, we are going for the full works.

Those first workers are up to their elbows in suds, and producing bowls full of something white and fluffy. Cotton crosses my mind, but only momentarily. As we get closer I can see they are washing small polythene bags. Antoine asks a question and we are directed up a slope into a smart new office building. We greet a receptionist/secretary and she takes us in to her boss, whose business card describes him as Ruremesha Joseph, specialist in continental fishes and pisciculture, inspection and quality control, and 'Economie halieutique'. (L'halieutique peut être définie comme " la science de l'exploitation des ressources vivantes aquatiques" according to Wikipedia.)

He gives us a long narrative in French. I find the strings of figures confusing: are they numbers of fish or francs worth of development funding? (Recapping with Antoine today, I am pleasantly surprised to find he too got lost in 'les chiffres'.)

The enterprise is a joint venture between the district of Muzanze and a business which also operates in Uganda and DRC. In 2003 there was a serious drought and the two lakes of Burera and Ruhondo, whose scenery we have been enjoying all week, lost their fish stocks. Livelihoods and food supplies were at stake. A university offered to produce enough small fry to restock the lakes, but fell short.

I didn't take in all the details, but the site was identified, two small dams constructed and the ponds dug. There must be at least a dozen. Would we like to walk round?

The project manager was a complete enthusiast. He'd trained in France for six months. He had plans for further developments but lack of funding was holding him back. He said much more about breeding than I could follow. I did get the point, however, that this was a natural process – GM is banned in Rwanda.

Fish were imported from Uganda, which is still the source of some of the fish food, though that should change soon. We walked past a series of ponds with fish from the tiniest to the size of a sprat. I started muttering after the second pond and we cut short the tour after four. I'm sorry to have to report that once again my footwear was inadequare, since my walking shoes were drying out on the parcel shelf after Thursday's drenching. The pond margins were quite slippery and occasionally I needed a hand.

A central covered area housed two washing operations – for environmental conservation through re-using the bags in which small fish are transported to various lakes and ponds, and good husbandry through cleaning the fish when mud fouled their gills.

On the other side each pond had a wooden structure on one side, protruding over the water. Danzile had provided the information that these structures were rabbit hutches. Our guide explained that feeding greenstuff to the rabbits and letting their droppings fall into the ponds for the fish to eat avoided the need for shredding the food artificially. The rabbits were allowed to breed and were sold locally for meat.

I was invited up a ramp to look more closely at the rabbits – varieties from Holland and USA as well as a local breed. Fine – I like ladders and there was no mud.

As we made our way back to towards the car our guide spoke of his future plans. He'd like a fishing lake for people to catch their supper, weigh it, and buy it to take home. He didn't want to sell caught fish to eat – I think there may be a contractual prohibition. Antoine asked if he'd thought of opening a restaurant. Oh yes, but at the beginning he couldn't interest anybody.

He stopped in the middle of the footbridge. The stream marked the boundary of Muzanze District so it was a good place for him to part from us. Would I be coming back to Rwanda, he asked. Yes, several more times. Would he try to get his restaurant open by 2012 so I could eat at it? Yes, he'd try.

Two walks with Antoine: 1

Part One, Thursday
Thursday 4 March was my last day of teaching - on Friday a meeting to prepare for October's joint project with HROC was planned. Antoine proposed an early finish to the workshop so we could go for a walk. He would like to take me to his wife's family home and his own and it was not possible to drive. Could I walk for perhaps one hour?

I wondered about the weather - it had rained on two afternoons out of three so far, on the edge of the remnant of the tropical rain forest where mountain gorillas used to live side by side with the Twa. By noon the cloud was thickening but no rain had fallen. As we left the workshop after lunch I began to hear rumbles of thunder. Were we still going? Well it's OK so far, said A, and we can get a little way at least.

We left the car outside a church just off the tarmacked road. A told me to bring my computer and camera, just in case of thieves, and I packed them into my handbag, together with umbrella, purse, passport and signal-free phone. We set off, uphill, between small fields of potatoes, millet and cassava. After 15 minutes it began to rain. I took out my umbrella - A had none and he had even forgotten his cap, he observed. We took shelter under the tin roof of an open-sided structure, together with half a dozen men and boys. (I suppose the women kept working in the fields - they do most of the labouring.)

As the first heavy burst subsided, A suggested we carry on. I had an umbrella, didn't I? Our route took us past a primary school, the one he had attended as a boy, where he borrowed an umbrella. It was bigger than mine and he offered to swap. Foolishly I declined.

Onwards and upwards we continued. More of the path disappeared under trickles then torrents. At least the volcanic soil wasn't as slippery as clay, and frequently there were lumps of larva to provide a better footing. I am not at my fittest after weeks without my usual level of activity, but I kept up OK.

The bottoms of A's trouser legs were splashed, then soaked. I was wet well above the knees and nearly to my shoulders. I was concerned for the contents of my handbag, which I was wearing on my back. A few others were on the path but many were sheltering against buildings. Did I want to wait for a bit? No, what was the point? By now my feet were also soaking and I didn't want to get cold standing about.

Time after time we saw a house ahead and I thought this might be the one. We climbed for an hour and a quarter. Eventually I confessed to a headache, probably from the altitude. Was it serious? No, not worth making a fuss. (I couldn't see any intermediate stage between keeping on keeping on or summoning an emergency medical service with unpredictable results. At a later stage A talked about how in the old days the Red Cross would send four men to carry a sick person on a litter.)

At last we reached the compound where some of his wife's family still live. It is only 7 or 8 minutes' walk below the border of the preserved forest on the steep mountainside. The main house was being rebuilt and one of the two households had decamped into a storehouse, very dark, with clothing slung on ropes between the rafters. Antoine was given a large mug of tea. (I later asked him why I was offered nothing and he said he'd declined on my behalf because country tea would upset my stomach; I wish he'd told me.) I took off my wet overshirt and was lent a polyester sweater, removed from the rope and stripped from the shirt inside it, which I was to keep for the rest of the excursion. Bonaventure, the head of ESK (Ecole Secondaire a Kidaho, one of the Friends schools) who is our host for the week, is a brother of the family and a fairly frequent visitor, so it could be returned when laundered.

We probably sat there for half an hour – it seemed outside time. My headache cleared. Somebody commented that we would have done better to visit in the morning – yes, but we were working then. The thrumming on the tin roof lessened. My sopping wet shirt went into my wet bag and onto my back again. My computer, camera, phone and passport were repacked in a paper bag (no polythene bags in Rwanda) inside a sturdy document wallet, which Antoine was to carry for me. He asked for a bamboo cane to help me on the way down and checked it for splinters.

In Rwandan custom, guests are always accompanied a little way when they leave. Antoine's mother-in-law, who must be close to me in age, found shoes and a shawl and came with us; a younger male relative led the descent by a narrower route we had not taken on the way up.

This was the best part of the walk. It stopped raining completely; the path comprised mostly rounded rocks with a good grip; my trousers dried to below the knees. It was beautiful and it was fascinating. As we descended we passed cows and goats and their young herdsmen. The path was strewn with strips of chewed sugar cane. The air bore a slight fragrance of eucalyptus smoke. Others came to greet Antoine and walk part of the way with us, as had indeed been happening at the beginning of the ascent as well.

After only a few minutes it became impossible to ignore the returning rain. I stopped wishing I had taken charge of my camera. Umbrellas went up. The water line on my trousers ascended almost to the bottom of the sweater. Grandmother made her farewells and returned home. After maybe half an hour the young man did likewise.

I began to sense an atmosphere of pilgrimage as Antoine pointed out the border of his family's land, and indeed his own field given him by his parents. We entered a very pretty garden and knocked on a front door. It was eventually opened by a young houseworker and her toddler, but Antoine's brother and his family were not at home. The next house was smaller and simpler. It was occupied by a son of the family who had apparently decided to move in on his own; there were a few pop posters on the walls.

We sat for a few minutes, then left. This was the family house of A's childhood as the youngest of 7, built by his father. In the garden A showed me a rockery, then a bee hive, then the site of his mother's grave. His father had been a well respected farmer and a bee-keeper, he said.

Accompanied by the nephew, in unrelenting rain, we walked to the other side of the family land, looking up hill and down to see its extent. A couple more houses had been recently built for (or perhaps by) other households. The rough track followed the contour. Before the war you could drive a car along here, A remarked. Then umuganda, communal work on the last Saturday of every month, was well organised and things were kept in good order. Now the track was deeply rutted, with occasional sections of rudimentary larva cobbles rising above the puddles. In an instant of inattention to the muddy grass, I fell to the side, not injuring myself but dirtying one sleeve of the borrowed sweater and one leg of my longsuffering trousers.

Maybe half a mile further on, we met A's sister-in-law returning, with two more women. As always, hands were shaken all round and greetings exchanged. Not far now, A said, as we left them.

We reached the car at six o'clock, four and a half hours after leaving it. A handed over the borrowed umbrella to the nephew. The drive back was short. I had just enough with me for a complete change of clothing. Apart from a tweaked intercostal muscle, now well again, no ill effects.

Muhabura in the sunshine on Friday, showing the division between settlement and forest.

Reading 'Lord Jim' in Rwanda

In the final flurry of packing for six weeks away, I discarded two novels. By the end of the first week, without company in Burundi, I had finished 'An equal music', which turned out to be a much quicker read than Vikram Seth's other novel, 'A suitable boy'.

'Middlemarch', written for a Victorian audience who also had plenty of time to read, was an excellent choice in October. In the first days, conditioned by a much busier life at home, I read for the story line, eager to get to incidents remembered from previous readings. Then I deliberately slowed down, relishing the visual detail, the moral complexities, the delicious ironies, which sustained me for nearly the whole month. But I hadn't found a successor for this trip.

Reading and blogging are pretty much my only occupations in the evenings. The situation was serious.

There must be libraries containing good English novels in Kigali – indeed I know VSO has a collection of books to lend to volunteers and I could probably throw myself on their mercy. Later I found several books I wanted to read on Ruth and Krystan's two shelves. After a few days in Kigali, however, in Nakumat – one of two westernised town centre supermarkets – buying a grater for the Bucura household I remembered the stand of shrink-wrapped Penguin Classics, where I had bought a copy of 'North and South' to pass the eight hour wait in Nairobi on my way home last time.

The selection was pretty similar - I don't know how often they restock. Nothing was an obvious choice. Then I started weighing the merits of 'Lord Jim'. Conrad's prose needs focussed attention. Indeed one long paragraph can be enough to induce sleep. Despite the volume's slimness, compared with 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles', for example, I decided it would meet my needs. It would not overload my backpack. As far as possible I had avoided Conrad at university, apart from 'Heart of Darkness' which was a set book. I knew my maternal grandfather had been a keen reader, buying first editions, which my parents had given away when clearing my grandmother's house. How my teenage self rued the fact that at ten I had been too young to intervene!

I'm still only a third of the way through, as other books I wanted to read can't be taken with me. The first 30 pages were hard going and I made a couple of false starts. Now at almost page 100 Jim's inexplicable act at a moment of crisis, which leads to his trial, ostracism and disgrace, has just occurred - in the narrative of Marlow, whom Jim chose to listen to his account of the circumstnces which almost justify his moment of shame but which will never come out in the trial. The merchant ship on which Jim is a junior officer, carrying 800 Asian pilgrims acrosss the Indian Ocean, is evidently about to sink, in the night, as a squall approaches, with no time to rescue the pilgrims and not enough boats to accommodate them. In a moment which Jim can't recollect, though he recounts the rest of the night's events in considerable detail, he has saved his skin by jumping into the boat launched by his three despicable senior oficers, like them abandoning ship. Twice in the description of first few hours in which the shame of his situation grows on him he uses the same phrase: 'all in the same boat'. It's literally true. And it prevents him from separating himself from the 'three dirty owls'.

Some of the most poignant stories from the war in Rwanda are those of Hutu who were pressured into killing – often to save their families, not themselves. Still, they did what they did, and horrendous circumstances don't excuse their actions or reduce their prison sentences.

Since 2003 many killers have been released from prison and have returned to their communities where they live side by side with survivors whose relatives they killed. Unable to escape each other: all in the same boat.

And in Rwanda as a whole – a small country, densely populated, with political tension rising ahead of elections later in the year – even those who don't like each other much have to sink or swim together: landlocked and, as it were, all in the same boat.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Open letter to Anne

Wednesday 3 March

Dear Anne

Your research on AIVs (African indigenous vegetables) has been invaluable. The sheets prepared by Rob from Mary Abukutsa-Onyanga's Kenyan leaflets have triggered many useful conversations about diet and nutrition. Showing them to seed merchants in Kigali produced seeds for one and blank looks for the others. (The one everybody knows is amaranth, called dodo in Rwanda and lenga-lenga (or renga-renga) in Burundi where they use the Congolese name.)

The neglected one, 'isogi', called spiderplant in English but quite unlike our houseplant, is said to grow wild everywhere but to be too bitter for anybody to eat except the old and the very poor. I took a couple of photos in October each time somebody identified a specimen for me, but they turned out to be dodo after all.

Yesterday I had a breakthrough when the garden workers at College George Fox Butaro (generally called CGF Bo with the letter names in French) identified the photo I took in Byumba of an AIV named 'imbwije' as the cowpea listed in the table comparing nutrients in AIVs and exotics, though I have no confirmation so far. They also showed me yet another AIV called 'isogo'. I photographed that for possible identification later, and I'm wondering if it may turn out to be the African nightshade – it's clearly a solanum.

Today the group of church women at Rugarama went out into a field cum meadow where corn had been harvested and sheep were browsing on a great variety of plants. While the site for the sack was being prepared the oldest woman picked a bunch of greens within a couple of yards of the chosen spot, and gave them to me with a big smile. 'Am I to eat them?' I asked. 'Yes.' 'What are they called? 'Isogo.' They're much better specimens than I photographed yesterday. Then she took my hand and led me a few more yards to a spot where she picked one plant used for treating bad backs in babies (spina bifida?) and another used for open wounds. I said I hoped she was passing on her wisdom and some of the younger women nodded. I later learnt she's a pillar of the church (that's a cliche but it represents what I was told about her), so they probably listen to her.

I was on a roll. 'Is there any isogi here?' I asked. 'No, it's a long way away.' Well, if anybody spotted a plant I'd be very interested. In less than ten minutes somebody came back with a large bunch of flowers and a few leaves. 'Is this isogi?' 'Yes.' Next a second bunch of 'isogo' was produced, to compare the cultivated with the wild. I photographed them all.
Caption: The elusive isogi

Back in the classroom I launched into my usual spiel on the superior nutritional qualities of AIVs, reading out the comparisons. Poor old cabbage is definitely the bottom of the class. But I was wasting my time. For the first time out of ten or more groups, these women knew and used not only the ubiquitous dodo but the others as well. I asked who had taught them. It's the local health centre, where they also give advice on cooking. My translator observes that it's the next step after telling people to make the kitchen gardens now springing up everywhere in the country. Perhaps I shall be happily redundant in a couple of years.

I brought the spoils back to the headmaster's house where Antoine and I are staying. I hope they'll be cooked for supper.

[Later on Wednesday: they were and we all enjoyed them – Danzile, the yearly meeting accountant who came in the car with us and is examining the accounts at the two schools; Bonaventure, the Kidaho headmaster; Antoine and I.]


Monday 1st March (finished Tues 2nd)
This morning I did the basic version of the basic bag garden workshop in two hours flat.

Find small sack, cut top and bottom off a plastic bottle, ask my translator to turn off his phone (unsuccessful as he kept turning it on again and doing odd bits of business involving sending runners out for phone cards, copying numbers onto slips of paper, and writing long text messages). Five minutes.

Introduce myself and ask the class for their names and roles. I used to skip this sometimes but now realise I was probably being rude. (Class members include cooks, gardeners, the cowman, cleaners, the gatekeeper, the water manager.) Five minutes.

Show diagrammes and photos of various sacks in use, including some recent photos from gardens started in October during or after my workshops. An immediate comment is that this would be useful for people with very little space. Five minutes.

Invite consideration of location for the sack and get thoughtful responses with regard to protection from goats, chickens and children; and proximity to the house for ease of harvesting and watering. I add the importance of a mixture of sun and shade, drawing attention to the tree trunks in some of the photos of productive sacks. Five minutes.

Troop out into the school garden, which has some undistinguished flower beds, a few cabbages and a lot of dry maize stalks still standing. Somebody comments apologetically that they should be preparing to plant again. The class has chosen a good spot, under an avocado tree and out of sight from the classrooms. Filling proceeds quickly. I've told them we're using a 25kg sack for speed but that 50kg is better. The volcanic soil yields plenty of small stones for the core; partly rotted manure is playfully mixed into the soil by many hands; mature vegetable compost is brought and added as further soil is excavated; a eucalyptus sapling is felled and chopped into three stakes (I've stopped being sensitive about cutting down young trees, though when he was translating for me Baptiste did laugh ruefully about how the tree bleeds sap); old banana leaf is shredded to make twine to pull the stakes snugly up against the sack. While they work I spot and collect samples of the three kinds of leaves I'm going to recommend for making liquid fertiliser; my translator, who's a teacher not a gardener, is surprised to see me tuck the samples into my pocket. Forty minutes. One hour gone.

Go back into school dining room, which is our classroom. Wait for second half dozen class members. Are they coming or have they had to get back to work? They're coming. Select next batch of visual aids. Twiddle virtual thumbs. Ten minutes.

Any questions about what we've just done? They want to know straight away about planting. Referring back to the pictures shown at the beginning, I say there are many choices but also some guiding principles. I never know whether that distinction is understood, but it's important to me. Heavy or rambling plants such as cabbages or courgettes at ground level; tall plants with heavy fruits, such as tomatoes or aubergines, on the top where they can be staked; cut-and-come-agains - such as green onions, green celery, spinach – and leeks best for the sides. Five minutes.

Let the group choose the seeds. I have explained that my stock is for several groups and I can give them only ten packets. Steering their choices reinforces the principles outlined previously. Illustrated seed catalogues brought from home fill the gaps between my vocabulary, my translator's vocabulary, the names in French on the seed packets, and the students' knowledge. I wait for them to reach a point of agreement on which to plant in the three locations in this first sack. (They have already said they like the technique and won't stop at one.) I set aside the three choices, and half a dozen more packets. They choose one worker to take charge of the stock. Ten minutes.

Diversion. I was about to give method and recipe for liquid plant food. But there are urgent requests for advice on dealing with pests. What is my view about commercial pesticides (misleadingly called 'medicaments' in French)? I learned only last week that the warnings about waiting before consuming a sprayed crop are omitted from the small quantities sold locally, if indeed they reach the African distributors at all. 'Since you ask my opinion,' I say, 'I will tell you I don't recommend using such products, though I know that sometimes one is desperate to get rid of the pests at any cost. If you do use them, try to wait a week before eating the sprayed vegetables.' Of the organic techniques I am routinely teaching, this brewing of pesticides is the one in which I have the least confidence, but I don't say that. I do say I have tried some of the recipes on my own crops with mixed success. (Memo: find the French word for aphids.) Still, I share what information I have, describing the method and various ingredients. I did have a good report from the CGFK workers of the effectiveness of a concoction of tomato leaves in dealing with caterpillars, so I don't feel too much of a fraud. These students are full of enthusiasm to try various recommended plants. I add tobacco to the list. Ten minutes and time is getting tight.

Back on track. Liquid feed, called plant 'tea' on the teaching materials, is made from three kinds of leaves. These are represented in the samples I collected outside, before the rain cloud came down from the extinct volcano which is our backdrop. When I mention the leaves of leguminous trees as one of the categories, the cowman tells us such leaves are often fed to cows and goats. 'Now I expect you will start to laugh', I tell the class, introducing the subject of using human urine in compost or directly in plant food. But they don't. It is already common practice hereabouts to add one part of urine to two of water for feeding potatoes, they tell me. I've no idea why potatoes should have been singled out. They say the urine should be two weeks old, which is the same age as the plant tea brew before it's ready to be diluted and applied. Ten minutes.

What else can I cover? Oh, I've forgotten to talk about finishing the sack. They need to cut the holes and plant the seeds after I've gone. I had thought we might get the holes cut together but it's still raining and not likely to stop now till mid afternoon at the earliest. I offer to leave the file with six organic techniques if somebody has a flash drive. My translator produces one and the transfer is made. Five minutes.

Time to come to a close. One or two students are nodding. I take a final question or two then wish the class well. Will I come back to see how they've done? I really don't know, but i will if I can. I am formally thanked. They don't seem in a hurry to leave. Two hours are up and it's 12.45.

Lunch will be at one, we've been told. I go to the head's ofice and wait with Antoine. No sign of food. We wander round the grounds, cold and damp. Still no sign of food. It's eventually ready at 2.30. Well, the cooks weren't cooking, they were making a bag garden.

This is where they should have been.