As soon as I knew I would make this trip I promised to revisit. Alphonse, my host last time, now has work close to home, as the Friends Church pastor in Gisenyi. He is developing his plan to help the women of the village find ways to improve their lives. I have told him I shall be able to bring him the 200,000 rwf (nearly £200) I have collected from selling my surplus allotment produce through Edible Ealing.
First I am shown the continuation of my first teaching - planting in sacks. I ask the woman responsible for this plot whether the sack is really of any benefit when she has land adjacent. "Well," she says, "Partly I do it because you taught us and partly it does add a bit to the crop."
After visiting another of my 'graduates' and discussing the pros and cons of peeling potatoes - she's wary of missing any grubs if she doesn't take the skin off - we move on to the village. Alphonse observes that there are several new buildings going up, evidence of new energy now mains electricity has arrived. But the mud doesn't change.
We head for the small room near the market that Alphonse was having built two years ago. Inside are more that a dozen women and one sewing machine. My donation should pay for three more. The owner of the local dressmaking and tailoring business is training around 20 women. Two have graduated to work in her shop and get paid. It's not clear where all the rest will work when trained, but Alphonse says he's happy with one step at a time. There seems to general confidence that there will be plenty of demand for their products, which include hand-tied covers for chair seats and tables.
The hand-tied cloths are on the wall
Some of these women I remember well and I'm sure there are others I ought to recognise. On my last visit Rachel and I helped them cook a wide range of dishes and encouraged them to try new vegetables. I have brought a few kinds of seed I hope will thrive in this cooler part of the country. Brussels sprouts are a novelty that just might succeed; they are interested to try growing and eating cucumbers, which some of them have seen in town.
After lunch cooked by Alphonse's wife, Veneranda, who managed also (by using the help of the teenage children, I assume) to be in the group in the sewing classroom – she's second from the right – we have completed the official business, as it were. One visit remains.
Would we go to greet Alphonse's mother? Yes, of course. (Has his father died, I wonder.) But if it is possible to do so without giving offence I will decline the customary fizzy drink. Alphonse seems to understand.
We climb the now familiar path, reminiscing about meeting the farmer spreading chemical fertiliser who was amazed when Alphonse showed him his picture on the internet in my blog. We continue an earlier discussion about crop rotation. Fortified by my earlier discussion with Matt, the volunteer agronomist, I commend the few fields of mixed planting and express concern over the usual practice of raising 3 crops of potatoes every year. As yields decline – a result of monoculture probably more than fertiliser – the farmers get ever more desperate and try ever harder to do more of the same. Falling incomes make it more of a struggle to feed families and keep children in school. (Later Antoine tells me a Belgian-trained doctor has surveyed the country and found 45-50% child malnutrition- a figure that shocks us both.)
This seeems to be a family group
We are invited into the house where Rachel and I chat with a grandson while Alphonse and his mother sort out the drinks. Seeing some men's clothes, I ask about the father – he is off somewhere doing what is necessary to keep up their meagre income. Like almost everybody he has no pension.
Drinks are fetched. What will be expected of me? With a smile, Alphonse opens a large bottle of Primus, the local brand of lager. That's a surprise because Friends don't drink any alcohol – at least in public. Clearly the parents' catholicism has prevailed. Alphonse pours a beer with an uncontrolled head. “Don't try to give me a job as a waiter”, he says. I drink half a glass, knowing others will enjoy what I leave.
Conversation is around how much better things were in the old days. Then people grew much more variety and ate a much better diet. This is becoming a common theme and Rachel tells me later that the government is campaigning for everybody to grow and eat some vegetables. Groups still laugh when I use the names for local edible plants but on the whole people are more receptive now.
Poor people want to eat like the rich people in restaurants. That means meat and chips and perhaps fried banana. Perhaps this is one of the results of colonisation, they say, and those effects are everywhere. I point out that in the many pictures on the walls – portraits of Jesus and stages of the cross – all the characters are white. Rachel says she heard somebody has tried to represent Jesus as black. Really he was neither, I say.
We've reached the time to go back down to the main road before dark. More photos on the way out. Personal remarks are not common but earlier one of the church women told me she preferred me in the skirt I wore last time. Seeing the pictures I have to agree.