Sunday, 7 December 2014

A few extra pictures

First, the smartest hotel I've yet stayed in: the Virunga, in Ruhengeri.

The staff assemble at 8am, presumably for a briefing

And here is the street scene beyond my little enclosed balcony

Now Christmas is coming to Kigali. But it is illegal to cut a tree to decorate. T2000, the big Chinese supermarket, displays some possibilities.

And Coca Cola takes the opportunity to place a huge advertisement in the middle of a busy roundabout - photographed through Antoine's windscreen.

Finally, two aspects of my last weekend. Antoine took me for a quiet chat to a restaurant with a lovely garden out of Kigali where the air is fresh - adjacent to the genocide burial ground for top politicians.

And Sandrine took these snaps of some of the children at Gasharu eating mangoes given from a tree in the church garden.

Sowing the last seeds (2)

On Thursday we're in Ruhengeri. After breakfast we're collected by Hirwa (who turns out to be Rachel's nephew) and driven in the old HROC car to the new office for HROC Rwanda on the outskirts of Ruhengeri. HROC (Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities) is extending its trauma-healing work beyond Tutsi-Hutu groups. I worked with the pigmoid minority – Batwa. Now the new UK charity, African Great Lakes Peace Trust, has funded a first group for people with disabilities and their family members. The basic three day training was some weeks ago. Today 18 of the original 20 and one son of a woman too ill to attend have reconvened. They know I am connected with the donor.

After introductions from everybody, Hirwa and Julienne invite testimonies on what was most helpful from the training. Themes emerge: trusting others, speaking out instead of hiding away, experiencing the love of the group, using new-found confidence to help and encourage others with problems. One woman weeps as she says she used to hide her disabled children and now she can welcome visitors.

Then are the usual workshop activities – a lively game, talking and listening in pairs on a series of specified subjects feedback on the exercise. Then a long tea break – presumably to give some social time as we eat bananas and mandazi (doughnuts) and wait for the tea to arrive.

All these participants were happy to be photographed, and perhaps particularly the young man who chose not to limp outside.

Then it's my turn. I know this HROC team has done at least one training drawing on my work. I have brought some seeds, chosen for familiarity, and my last copy of a teaching book that I like a lot on more and better food. A quick exercise in groups gives us a list of more than twenty foods eaten by at least one person this week. I explain the value of eating many different foods, even unfamiliar ones. These are people whose life is difficult and I'm glad in a way to learn that as they don't grow enough to sell they eat what they produce. What are the benefits? No need to exchange money. Extra freshness. No need to travel.

HROC is encouraging them to cultivate veg in local groups. I leave the seed distribution to the local leader for people with disabilities, who himself uses a crutch. On the way back into town with Hirwa I ask if he has ever bought seeds. He doesn't know where Agrotech is, though it has been in the same place on the main road for at least 4 years. We have enough time in hand. I take him into the shop. We buy 5 packets of 8 kinds of seeds for under 5000rwf.

On Saturday I'm visiting Rachel and Bucura. Rachel is always happy to show off her garden. Here is her seed bed, planted with what I gave her last week.

And here is a mature corner of the garden, with avocados and yams.

Sowing the last seeds (1)

It has been a busy few days. On Monday I travelled to Gisenyi, four hours on a crowded bus, then visited with Rachel the Friends Church where I had done an initial workshop (with Theoneste) at the end of my project. One of my trainees stands proudly for a photo in front of a much larger construction than 'my' sacks.

The dodo (local amaranth) is well established and also planted in the surrounding ground, but otherwise there are only a few onion seedlings. Etienne, a pastor I first met several years ago, tells me the mice eat a lot. However, he has been on a training in Burundi and is now inspired by no-till and the magic of layering different organic materials, so perhaps he will encourage varied planting. On his phone he shows me a photo of murky water poured quickly through a bucket of unenriched soil and clean water filtered slowly through layers of organic matter. My stock of seeds is dwindling but I give him some Italian summer broccoli, some dark green cabbage and some 'cherry' tomatoes: '”Don't wait for them to get big.”

Tuesday's journey up to Mutura is already documented.

Wednesday was the day of the three bags. In the afternoon – after they are done with the morning market - we were due to meet some members of a new women's group, set up by TLC, Transformational Leadership Centre.

I have been hearing about this organisation and its predecessor TEE, Theological Education by Extension, over my years of visits. Writing today (Saturday) I ask David Bucura (busy pressing his suit for today's wedding – yes, I have stayed with him and Rachel overnight) to explain its status. TEE was started by Tear Fund in 1996, to bring 42 denominations of Rwandan churches together in educating new leaders to replace those lost in the genocide and its aftermath. As it happens, Meg Guillebaud was the first treasurer. Now Tear Fund is no longer involved. TLC is registered with the Rwandan government as a charity (a lengthy and tedious process), administered on behalf of all the churches by the Friends Church. It has three programmes - peace education, children's peace libraries, and community mobilisation for poverty reduction. Wednesday's women's group at Kanzenze, on the main road below Mutura, is an example of work in the third category.

We arrive late after rain. Two women are waiting for us in a little peace library. Gradually a few more arrive. This is just like the old days. Rachel says we are expected to teach something about healthy eating. We fill an hour: try eating some of the veg you grow instead of selling them all then having to use the money you earned to buy food from somebody else; the vitamins and minerals in fruit and veg (that's Rachel's segment and doesn't need to be translated for me); mixed planting – if you were a cabbage pest would you look for a field of cabbages or the individual cabbages mixed up with other things?

I don't have any seeds selected for this group but they would clearly like some. I give them 5000rwf, enough for 50 packets at Agrotech in Gisenyi or Ruhengeri. I wish them well.

Quite soon it's time to walk back to the bus ticket office where my suitcase is being looked after. Accompanying us is a young man with good English who teaches IT in a business college, volunteers as the librarian here and is also working with Matt. Promising.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Some women of Mutura

I think this is my fourth visit to Mutura, up a mountain above Lake Kivu. I'm glad it's not my first, because the cloud is low and the wind chilly. I put on my waterproof jacket and regret that I've forgotten my shawl.

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.

Click on the image to see one of the benefits of electrification

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.)

Mother is all smiles and immediately asks for some photos. I don't even try to sort out who is who among relatives and workers.

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.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Still packing bags

Wednesday 3 December At the beginning of my project I posted an entry entitled 'The volunteer packed her bag'. And here I am, 9 visits later, still making lists, packing, unpacking, repacking...

This morning in my guesthouse bedroom there are 3 bags to be sorted. Into my small suitcase, carry-on size, go all the things I won't need during today: night things, a change of clothes, adaptors, chargers for 2 phones, camera, Kindle and computer, seeds to give away tomorrow; receipt for the money given to Alphonse yesterday for his project... I decided on this case rather than my bigger rucksack because it has wheels, a robust shell and a padlock. The wheels are only useful when the terrrain is smooth. (Anne will remember the limitations of a wheelchair in Tunisia.) The shell ended up dented by the end of the 4 hour bus journey on Monday after being stowed under a folding seat and trampled from time to time as passengers wriggled in and out of seats on the overstuffed bus, but it sprang back into shape. As usual with locks, one can only hope they serve a purpose.

The second bag is a lightweight backpack that has been surprisingly useful. My rigid document case containing teaching materials gives some structure to the bag. Yes, despite protestations I am still teaching. Then there is a waterproof jacket that also provides warmth and wind protection on the mountains, my computer and camera. There is a side pocket for my Rwandan phone, used just now to rearrange my meeting with Rachel at the bus station because it's raining too hard for motos – she will phone this afternoon's group to tell them we're running late.

The third is my handbag, packed for the stroll to a lakeside hotel to spend the couple of hours before setting off for the bus. Umbrella, plastic bag with swimming things, purse, Kindle. At the hotel I find I have misremembered the layout: it's not quite on the shore and the only swimming is in a very blue pool which I don't fancy. So I order a hot chocolate and sit on the scythed lawn, with palm trees, canna lilies, Peruvian lilies, marigolds, ferns and a network of clipped euonymus hedges – pretty much universal. I haven't got my camera but you can imagine the scene from many a holiday advertisement.

Back at the guesthouse I collect suitcase and backpack from the luggage store and regroup. At least the swimming things are not wet. They go into the suitcase along with the squashy handbag. Now I'm down to a manageable two bags, ready for the moto ride to the bus station. I ask the receptionist to tell the moto driver to take the metalled road so I can steady the suitcase. It's trying to rain so I put on the rain jacket.

As my helmet is buckled on the rain strengthens. Moto dismissed, I'm filling the extra hour writing this.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Off the beaten track

Sundays are usually reserved for church, but our various commitments have meant this is the only day that Antoine can drive me, with Annunciate and the two girls, to somewhere I have been wanting to visit ever since I heard about it from Dorothy, and English F/friend who worked in Byumba at the teacher training college for VSO.

You won't find Rugesi in the tourist guides, as far as I know. It doesn't have a website. It is a semi-secret wonder. This steep sided valley, like most of the others, had its swamp drained in the decades following independence, when claiming more fertile flat land for cultivation seemed to be the priority. In this case a natural rock barrier retained a large body of water, home to the crested crane which is Rwanda's national bird, but whose population was continuing to dwindle – like so many species in so many parts of the world.

In the 1970s a Belgian with a big house nearby (since dismantled and its stones re-used) thought he could use the drained valley to grow flowers for perfume and breachedd the dam. The authorities were pleased enough to have a level route for a road linking Byumba and Ruhengeri. Local farmers made good use of the land when the Belgian left, benefitting from all the run-off silt from adjacent hills stripped of natural cover.

Enter Meg Guillebaud, English daughter of missionaries in Burundi, educated close by in Uganda. After returning post genocide to help her elderly parents who felt obliged to come out of retirement and offer their knowledge of language and culture, Meg became ordained as an Anglican priest and worked in Byumba as a canon at the cathedral. (I met her there in 2010.)

Meg became the driving force behind efforts to replace some swamp land in order to mitigate the bad effects of unchecked drainage: falling water tables, less rain, no fish... In 2000 the government decreed that a dam be constructed to restore the marshes. It is not the custom here to consult anybody. Local farmers lost their best land and were forbidden to cultivate within 50 metres of the lakeside; a secondary road had to be upgraded on the side of the valley; wild fowl were not to be eaten; the area was designated as a national park.

Meg and other forward looking people from Byumba did their best to minimise any bad effects. Bird observation towers were constructed, solid boats constructed for tourist use, land bought for an eco-lodge and planning permissions obtained. But then Meg became ill, went to Kenya for diagnosis then to England for treatment, and so far has not been able to return to her beloved adopted country.

A small group continues to offer visits, and hopes in time to continue the sustainable development of the unusual resource. I made phone contact with Elisha, who acts as a guide, and he and Antoine discussed arrangements.

We met in Byumba, collected life jackets (compulsory after a shocking incident where school children panicked in a boat and 2 drowned: few Rwandans learn to swim and most are frightened of water) and copies of Meg's booklet about the cranes, and drove to Rugesi, led by Elisha on a moto because our car was full.

I'll tell the rest of the story in pictures.

Antoine is first into the boat after Elisha

We start up the lake (with Gisele tucked behind Sandrine) leaving the moto driver on the bank

The lake is before us

First the fragrant water lilies delight us

Then a solitary crane

Moving slowly and quietly along channels cut in the floating vegetation, we are close to pelican and spoonbills, ducks and a lapwing fiercely defending her young against a circling hawk

After two hours in the boat we return to the tiny village. As we approach the shore Annunciate confesses that she was very nervous of being on the water but now feels quite secure in the boat.

Dorothy has suggested I might like to give some moral support to the little library, set up in a small room at the back of the church on the initiative of a Peace Corps volunteer. Most of the books are in English and for children though you can see some adult titles to the right. The village would like some books in Kinyarwanda for adults. Reading seems to be gaining recognition and moving beyond textbooks and the bible. Hopefully this community will find ways to move forward.

The librarian is persuaded to have her picture taken

Skipping rope, anybody?

Washing line – of plastic coated wire? Clothes pegs to match? A mirror for your wall at home? A trouser belt? Trousers? Headphones for your mobile?

All these are on offer as Annunciate and I wait on Friday, bags bulging, for the bus to fill up and take us back to Kicukiro. More likely to attract custom are the little packets of chewing gum, biscuits and sweets. Annunciate pays 100 rwf (under 10p) for a tube of mints whose label shows they were made in India. If a bottle of water were offered I would buy it.

On Monday I am on a bus back into town, to the bus station actually, to meet Rachel, my translator and co-trainer on many such expeditions. We are going away for 3 nights staying in guesthouses where usually fruit and vegetables are not on offer, apart from a banana at breakfast sometimes. Our custom has been to pre order a vegetable dish if we are to eat supper there, and to buy fruit to share. I realise I have forgotten to bring a knife.

In the bus station at Nyabugogo, tickets bought but our bus late to come in, we are approached by vendors with a different range of goods. Rings, necklaces and bracelets seem unlikely but R says they sell quite well. Socks and trousers abound again. I am a focus for sellers of newspapers and magazines in French or English; when I ask for the Rwandan English language daily I am offered only a copy from Monday last week.

Then a young man appears with a bucket full of white onions, carrots and shredded cabbage. Can he be offering instant cole slaw? Surely not. He is shredding more cabbage in front of us. Ah, now I get it: what he's selling is the tool.

Here it is, with 2 mangoes bought beside the bus station in Gisenyi for 100rwf. (The plastic bag they rest on is one of several I brought from home because they are banned here in the interests of litter reduction.) The tool shreds cabbage, opens bottles of fizzy drink, and presumably cuts with a saw tooth or a pointed blade. It's what I was lacking. I buy one.

I am the one thing without which Rwanda's drive towards entrepreneurship cannot succeed. I am now a cus-toh-mah!