Muhanga Market.

“Agriculture is not crop production as popular belief holds – it’s the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters. Without agriculture it is not possible to have a city, stock market, banks, university, church or army. Agriculture is the foundation of civilization and any stable economy.”
– Allan Savory.

[Author’s Note: Special shout out to Julie, Mya’s mum, who I’m told is following all my blog updates religiously! Hope you’re having a great weekend!]

After a relaxed morning, unpacking and settling into our new digs at Azizi (I was very impressed with the Snoopy bed-sheets we found in the wardrobe!), the team decided to venture into town to stretch our legs. I remember stepping outside the compound for the first time and breathing in the sweet scent of grass baking in the noonday sun, adrenaline fizzing through my veins like sherbet lemon. Everything outside seemed sharper than usual, colours, sounds, and scents all heightened- as if someone had dialled up the setting on my senses to high definition. Nearby, a speckled hen sheltered her chicks in the slither of shade provided by a hedge and I couldn’t help but think of my sister, half a world away in the south of Wales. She really loves chickens.

After a few minutes of walking along the red dirt road towards Muhanga’s town centre, avoiding the odd patch of mud here and there that was leftover from the last bout of monsoon rain, it became apparent that we were no longer living in an area where the locals were used to seeing white people. No one batted an eyelid when we walked from Ligue to Moucecore in Kigali, but now people were openly staring at us (and I’m not just talking about a quick double-take either- this was some full on, intense eyeballing action for extended periods of time!), sometimes pointing, sometimes shouting ‘Muzungu!’ (pronounced muh-zung-Goo). Claude and Isaie were quick to explain to those of us who were confused that Muzungu means ‘white/rich person’. In Muhanga white people are rare, a novelty, so the attention was understandable if a little unnerving.

Soon we were passing through the main bus station, an open lot that was crowded with mini-buses and potential passengers, street-sellers holding up buckets of food to open bus windows. I was struck then by the fantastic flash of colour and pattern worn by some of the Rwandan women – reds and blues and oranges in bold, traditional print, bobbing amongst the crowd. Most women wear skirts, rarely above the knee, although we have seen one case of hot-pants that Claude and Isaie jokingly referred to as ‘culture shock’. They both have such a great sense of humour… though I do wonder how they’d react if they were out on a Saturday night in the UK.

To get to Muhanga’s main market area, we first had to pass by the unofficial market. This was made up of a long row of women sitting by the side of the road, often with small children in their laps or on their backs, selling fruit and veg out of bowls and canvass bags. The drains nearby absolutely stink of fish, which is worrying when you remember that Rwanda is a land-locked country, but it was nice to see a bit of variety between the same types of produce. Carrots, for example, come in many different shapes and sizes – some long, some short, some fat, some thin, some straight, some curved and knobbly. I’ve always thought it strange that the fruit and veg in British supermarkets is standardised. As we left the women to their work, Beth said that if the police arrived then the unofficial market would disappear in seconds.

Muhanga’s official market area was a little more structured. Sellers occupy wooden stalls, several to a block, which run in short parallel lines. You can buy clothes and shoes, and there’s a fantastic selection of African print fabric on sale, as well as a good selection of fruit and veg – all locally grown.

Image from google of Muhanga’s official market.

However, there were so many people milling about, buying and selling and bustling past us with large buckets on their heads and bundles under their arms that I was beginning to feel overwhelmed, claustrophobic. This got worse as we headed down the narrow, makeshift walkways between the stalls. People were crying out to Claude and Isaie, asking them to bring us to their stalls, promising them money if they did. When we passed the fruit sellers Beth bought 5 apples, and Mya a large watermelon for 1,000 RWF (£1), but I was too intimidated to buy anything. It sounds silly, but not understanding what people were saying, the heat and the hustle of the stalls, and what felt like hundreds of bodies pressed up against each other, made me feeling quite small. I was quite relieved when we left the market for the cool of the supermarket just across the road!

Azizi Life Virtual Tour!

Want to see where Team Muhanga has been staying for yourselves? Then you’ve come to the right post! Now, I usually find video-blogging an uncomfortable experience (Is that my voice?!) but I’ve ignored all that to bring you a whistle-stop tour of the Azizi Life compound! Don’t say I never do anything nice for you :p

PS. Ignore the Urban Bites still – not quite sure why youtube decided to pick that moment as the video cover…

The Road Less Travelled.

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

     – The Road not Taken, Robert Frost.

The drive from Kigali to Muhanga was pure sensory overload, at least for me. There was something new or startling that I wanted to examine in more detail out of every window of the minibus; clusters of banana trees lined the rolling hills, their fanned leaves stretched out and waving like flat green fingers; a man, asleep in the middle of a grove with a navy blue jacket pillowed under his head; a group of children playing unsupervised by the roadside, bouncing a ball of compacted leaves between them; the patchwork effect of ploughed and planted fields, covering the valley floor below us like a hand-stitched blanket…

It’s difficult to capture the sheer scale of Rwanda’s landscape, whether with words or by camera. Most of the photos I took from the mini-bus were, frustratingly, smudged by the speed we were travelling at, but there are few that turned out alright:

Moto-taxi

Leaving Kigali

On our way to Muhanga…

Seeing these things, these glimpses of an unfamiliar country, was like catching snatches of whispered conversation from an unknown speaker and not knowing if the words were meant for me. Everything was new and strange and exciting, my fingertips pressed white against the mini-bus window.

After about half an hour of shuttling along the winding valley roads, the odd moto-taxi weaving past us like flies around cattle, I started to notice a difference in the local infrastructure. In Kigali there were a lot of concrete-walled compounds enclosing two-story buildings, but as we passed through the more ruralized areas to get to Muhanga this changed to simpler single-story houses, with clay tile or corrugated metal roofs. These were spaced out at random intervals on the hillsides, some complete, some half-finished. Claude and Isaie said that families start building houses if they have the supplies and time, but very often these two things run out.

Relying on the land for food and livelihood is a hard life.

Arriving at Azizi Life.

L – R: Isaie, Debs, Claude, Mya, (a member of Aziz Life who’s name I’ve currently forgotten – sorry!) Beth, Amy.

It took us about an hour’s drive to reach Muhanga and our new home for the next nine weeks: Azizi Life. ‘Azizi’ means ‘excellent’ or ‘precious’ in Swahili and, in comparison to the rural housing we had just driven past, it certainly lived up to its name. I think the best way to describe the building is to say that it’s a little like a youth centre, basic but functional, and run with a lot of TLC. We have a kitchen and larder (complete with mouse!), an outside dining area, wide rimmed bowls and an outside tap for hand-washing laundry, a communal lounge where we have film night (Friday), team devotions, and our long-running Uno competition (Beth and Debs are currently at the top of the leader board), and then three bedrooms- a small one for Beth, a medium sized one for the boys, and a larger room for us girls. There’s also a prayer room, a sizeable garden around the front of the building, and, last but certainly not least, the Azizi Life office and gift shop.

As well as being our base of operations for the next nine weeks, Azizi Life runs Experience Days for people who want to learn more about African crafts, including traditional construction, banana juice making, and dance and drumming sessions (I really need to sneak into one of these – sometimes when we’re home we hear the drumming and it sounds amazing)! This socially conscious enterprise makes sure that the local artisans involved get a fair wage so that they can better support their families, and has also focused on helping to heal rifts in the community forged by the Rwandan Genocide.

If you want to learn more about Aziz and the amazing work they do, you should check out their website, here: http://azizilife.com/

We are incredibly lucky to be staying in Aziz. Most houses here don’t have electricity or hot running water but we have both, a guard on duty 24/7, and staff to cook our weekday meals so that we can spend more of our time helping out on community projects. Also, there’s a tiny bird, no bigger than a blue tit but with a distinctive arrow-like tail, that often perches beneath the hot water boiler as we eat our meals!

Our little feathered friend.

I’m pretty partial to the flooring in the girls bedroom too – patches of the red upper layer have worn away in the shape of continents, making it look like a map of a strange new world.

It’s the little things, I guess, that make a house a home. 🙂

Orientation, part two.

Day Two point Five: The Elephant in the Room.

“When they said ‘never again’ after the Holocaust, was it meant for some people and not others?”
– Apollon Kabahizi.

We visited Kigali’s Genocide Museum on the afternoon of day two but I’ve decided to go into more detail about it here, under a separate header, because the genocide is so important in understanding Rwanda today… and, out of respect for those who died and those who survived, I feel that topic needs more room to breathe.

Some important facts, before we get started:

1) Rwanda’s Genocide took place in 1994, due to an ‘ethnic’ difference between the Tutsis and Hutus, two tribes that Rwandans fall into by birth.

2) The Hutu and Tutsi are two peoples who share a common past. When Rwanda was first settled, the people who lived there raised cattle. Soon, the people who owned the most cattle were called “Tutsi” and everyone else was called “Hutu.”

3) It wasn’t until the Germans colonized the area in 1894 that “Tutsi” and “Hutu” took on a racial role. They looked at the Rwandan people and thought the Tutsi had more European characteristics, such as lighter skin and a taller build. Thus they put Tutsis in roles of responsibility.

4) When the Germans lost their colonies following World War I, the Belgians took control over Rwanda. In 1933, they solidified the categories of Tutsi and Hutu by mandating that every person was to have an identity card that labelled them Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa. (Twa are a very small group of hunter-gatherers who also live in Rwanda.)

5) Although the Tutsi constituted only about ten percent of Rwanda’s population and the Hutu nearly 90 percent, the Belgians gave the Tutsi all the leadership positions. This upset the Hutu.

6) When Rwanda struggled for independence from Belgium, the Belgians switched the status of the two groups. Facing a revolution instigated by the Hutu, the Belgians let the Hutus, who constituted the majority of Rwanda’s population, be in charge of the new government. This upset the Tutsi.

7) The animosity between the two groups continued for decades.

8) The resulting genocide saw 1.1 million Rwandans slaughtered over the course of a hundred days – the current population of Kigali.

9) The world stood by and did nothing.

 

[WARNING: there are descriptions of mass murder, mentions of rape, etc, below. Please skip over the next section if you are easily upset, or if you think you could be triggered.]

Kigali’s genocide museum was about a 20-minute drive from Moucecore. They search you very thoroughly on the way in – the lady checking my rucksack went through every zip compartment and then passed a scanner over my body, just to be on the safe side. Going in, I won’t say that I was excited to learn more about the genocide but I was looking forward to understanding Rwanda a bit better. I’d been told by a few people that the country is still haunted by the atrocities committed during those 100 days, but, as no one is really allowed to talk about it apart from on specific remembrance days, the genocide is a giant pink elephant, floating in the middle of the room.

The first few exhibits in the museum focus on the build-up to the genocide: in 1959 the King of Rwanda died in mysterious circumstances, then, in 1961, the Tutsi monarchy was abolished, leading to the start of Tutsi discrimination. 1963 saw the beginnings of a massacre – 100,000 Tutsis over the course of the next four years. The information on the boards steadily worsens. Propaganda began to circulate, dehumanising the Tutsi, calling them ‘cockroaches’ – pests to be crushed, exterminated. A list of Ten Commandments for good Hutus had my stomach churning: don’t marry a Tutsi woman – they are less attractive and make bad mothers, don’t do business with the Tutsi – they will cheat you, if you are a Hutu married into a Tutsi family the respectful thing is to disown them, etc, etc.

After this gradual build-up, the genocide actually happened very quickly. Tutsi death lists had already been collated before the Interahawmwe (“those who strike as one”), an anti-Tutsi youth organisation, moved in and the killing in Kigali began. Escape was practically impossible for a Tutsi, unless you wanted to be beaten, raped, or murdered at the nearest road block.

Families were lined up outside their homes and shot.

500,000 Tutsi women were raped, often by HIV positive men. Due to a lack of resources, there was no medical or psychological treatment available for survivors who developed the disease.

People were thrown into mass graves, either trampling each other to death or dying when boulders were dropped on them from above.

Hutu children were often encouraged to take part in Tutsi killing.

To further degrade the Tutsi, Hutu extremists would not allow the Tutsi dead to be buried. Their bodies were left where they were slaughtered, exposed to the elements, eaten by rats and dogs.

Many Tutsi bodies were thrown into rivers, lakes, and streams in order to send the Tutsis “back to Ethiopia” – a reference to the myth that the Tutsi were foreigners and originally came from Ethiopia.

 

There are several cutting quotes spaced about the museum that really hammer home the horror of the genocide:

“If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”
– Felicien Ntagengwa

“Genocide is never spontaneous. It is an intentional act of multiple murder, aimed at destroying the presence of the victim group.”
– Kigali Genocide Museum

 

I saw images in Rwanda’s Genocide Museum that I don’t think will ever leave me; hundreds of skeletons bleached white by the sun; bodies littering church courtyards like cheap rolls of carpet; families chained and clinging to each other even in death. And then, in a darkened room at the centre of the museum, carefully laid out behind a pane of glass, was row after row of jawless skulls, some cracked, some whole, some barely recognisable as human.

It struck me then, as I stared into the empty eye sockets of Rwanda’s genocide victims, that this happened here, in Kigali, only twenty years ago. Claude and Isaie, our team’s in-country volunteers, are both in their early twenties… It’s feasible that they lived through this, that the genocide is part of their past, their childhood.

It may seem hard to believe after reading about this awful event but a new Rwanda was born out of the genocide, a country where identity cards that state which tribe you belong to are no longer needed, a Rwanda where citizens’ worth is no longer dictated by tribe. Today, the government is a good mix of Tutsi and Hutus, and the genocide is remembered – memorialized – every year. You only have to look around the museum in Kigali to see just how far Rwanda has come in twenty years.

Rwanda is no longer a country of discrimination, bloodshed, and crippling loss. It looks to the future, towards improving things for its people. And that’s a future that ICS and Tearfund are honoured to be a part of.

 

[Endnote: As my memory is far for photographic, I’ve used some information from this website to supplement this post: http://history1900s.about.com/od/rwandangenocide/a/Rwanda-Genocide.htm If you’re interested in knowing more of the specifics about the Rwandan Genocide, I suggest you start there.]

 

Day Three: Kigali ‘town’ centre

After an intense morning of seminars that focused on the research side of our placement – things like monitoring and evaluation, program objectives, case study info, etc. – the teams took time out to visit the centre of Kigali in the afternoon. Locals call this area Kigali town centre (even though Kigali is Rwanda’s capital city) and I’m not quite sure why… I’ll have to ask Claude and Isaie later.

Our inter-city ride was very cheap- only 200 francs, which is about 20p! Team Muhanga, along with another ICS team, and several Rwandan passengers, were crammed into a public mini-bus like members of a very long-running game of ‘Sardines’. Personal space may be highly regarded in British culture but it is certainly not a concept that Rwandans follow. Even though I was a bit uncomfortable brushing elbows (and goodness knows what else) with my fellow passengers, I couldn’t help but admire the efficient use of space. There were even seats that folded down into the aisle, once the row behind was full, so that more passengers could board! Who knew that a minibus could hold so many. (NB: It’s rare to see cars on the roads here because they are expensive to run and hold a limited number of passengers, so the main methods of public transport are mototaxi -a motorbike taxi for one- or minibus. Mototaxi’s look like fun, but we’re not allowed to use them because they have a habit of weaving perilously close to other traffic…).

I’m not sure what I expected the centre of Kigali to look like – maybe a bit more polished and familiar – similar to home, and much more built up than the rest of the city. And, while the scattered hi-rise buildings were certainly the tallest structures I’d seen since arriving in Rwanda, Kigali town centre felt like a beginning and not an end; the city is a fledgling still peppered with twigs from the nest, slowly spreading its wings outwards and upwards, unsure of its own strength.

We stopped for drinks in Simba Café (complete with lion logo), which was tucked away in the corner of a small supermarket about the size of a Tesco Metro. Our bags and persons were checked by security staff on the way in, but other than that it was exactly like a British supermarket… well in all the ways that count anyway. As we settled into our hand-woven wicker seats, the news channel on the tv behind us was reporting on Ebola. Claude and Isaie said that no one was concerned about Ebola spreading to Rwanda, and it showed – the people in the café were enjoying platters of thick-cut fruit, probably picked less than a week ago – pineapple and banana and papaya – and bright yellow omelettes (one of the cheapest sources of protein here), and just generally getting on with life. No one seemed to be paying much attention to the news report.

2,000 francs (£2) bought me a tall, cool glass of apple and mango juice. It took a while to arrive (can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this already but the Rwandan concept of time is much more relaxed and fluid than the strict punctuality of the British) but this juice was worth the wait. The mango juice was so thick that it floated on top of the apple juice like a strange orange iceberg.

Mango and apple juice!

 

Mya. Beth, and the tree tomato juice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debs ordered the same, apple and mango, but Mya had an avocado juice. Though I only had a sip, I kid you not, it was so satisfying – thick and creamy and cooling, and miles better than any of the avocados I’ve ever tasted at home. Claude’s Fanta Lemon was served in a tall, narrow bottle, the kind that you could peel off the label and use as a flower vase or ornament. I’m told it was very refreshing. Isaie had milk. It sounds simple but in Rwandan culture cows are respected animals, so much so that you should only drink milk if you are sitting down. Milk is something to take your time over, to be savoured. Last but not least, Beth ordered a tree tomato juice (aka: Tamerillo). It tasted really sweet to start and then dissolved into a flavour that reminded me of green-tomatoes with a lingering sourness. Sounds odd but it was quite nice. Beth certainly enjoyed it anyway.

That evening we had to say our goodbyes to the other teams because everyone was travelling to their specific districts/projects in the morning. This was much more emotional than I anticipated, probably because it felt like we’d been through so much together – interviews, the training weekend in London, a full day of travelling, and now three days of orientation in Kigali. I remember looking around the room, taking in all the faces, some British, some Rwandan, all Tearfund ICS volunteers, and wondering what the next two months would bring for all of us. Positive challenges and personal change, I hope.

After all, the ICS motto is ‘challenge yourself to change your world’.

Orientation, part one.

Author’s note: I’m writing this retrospectively so please bear with me… I feel like so much has happened in the last few days that it’s getting hard to keep track!

Day One: I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto…

“It may not be possible to change the world in ten weeks, but it is possible to change yourself.”

– Orientation quote.

I woke in an unfamiliar room to the strange sight of a mosquito net hanging above me. Someone was banging about in the corridor outside, slamming doors and making a ridiculous amount of noise for 7 am Rwandan time (which is one hour ahead of the UK), but I probably needed to be up anyway; breakfast was in an hour and, after the previous day’s travelling, I really wanted a shower.

Scrambling off the surprisingly comfy sponge mattress, I had a brief look around the room (green walls, three beds, 3 mosquito nets, 2 unpacked suitcases, and an English Bible on a small table near the door) before the call of Colitis had me rushing towards the en-suite. I’ll say one thing about IBD – at least it’s fairly predictable in the morning.

After two freezing cold showers, Deborah (the Muhanga team-mate I was room sharing with) and I wandered across the corridor to the breakfast room, helping ourselves to bread and spread, cold omelette, and African tea (I’m told it’s a bit gingery but I couldn’t try any because caffeine makes the Colitis worse).

Then we had to make our way to the Moucecore Guest House for the start of orientation.

Debs and Amaya (another one of my Muhanga team mates) both got a lift in the minibus with the Nyamagabe (Nyah-mah-garbee) team, who were also staying in Ligue, but the minibus could only hold so many so myself, Beth (our team leader), and a handful of Team Nyamagabe had an enjoyable 20-minute walk to Moucecore. It was great to see Kigali properly for the first time. It’s a city Jim, but not as we know it: dirt roads and the odd pavement if you’re lucky, livestock unfenced and milling around (goats and chickens mainly), trees and foliage – everywhere, and, in the distance, the steep swell of a thousand hills, dotted with buildings in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours.

One of Kigali’s green spaces.

Rwanda’s pretty in green!

Kigali is very different from the concrete jungles back home.

Joining the UK volunteers in Moucecore’s upstairs room, I felt like I was stepping back in time and into a classroom. Neat rows of chairs had been laid out for us – the type with wooden rests on one side of the chair so that, if you’re right handed, you can easily make notes.

After a warm welcome from a Tearfund representative (sorry – I can’t remember your name!), orientation began. There were seminars and group activities on the ICS code of conduct, health and safety in Rwanda, and security issues. One of the main reasons I chose Tearfund out of all ICS’s partner organisations to volunteer with was because I knew that they would really look after us and offer lots of in-country support. I was not disappointed.

Around noon, we headed downstairs for lunch. Again, as we lined up to help ourselves to rice, chips, chicken legs (a rare treat in Rwanda), boiled veg, and plantain in some sort of tomato sauce, all served in large metal trays, it felt like we were back in school. I was too nervous to eat much but it was nice to chat to some of the other teams and see how they were finding our first proper day in Africa. Reactions were mixed – excitement and/or nervousness served with a large helping of disbelief. To be honest, after months of fundraising and planning for this placement, I was struggling to process that I was actually on African soil myself.

In the afternoon the team leaders took us on another walk around Kigali – for those who had not yet had the opportunity to see Rwanda’s capital city by daylight. I was glad that I’d topped up my water bottle and sun cream because it was stifling hot outside – probably around 28 degrees, and it felt like all the weight of the sun was bearing down on us. We walked together in one large circuit, taking in the more of the human side of Kigali: single story shops and houses – the majority of which were basic or what we would consider half-finished and in need of TLC – motor-taxis and minibuses filled to bursting with people, and carefully cultivated green spaces.

Walking through the streets of Kigali.

With all the hustle and bustle I find it hard to belief that, just over 20 years ago, there was a brutal genocide in this beautiful country.

The heavens opened in the evening, drenching Moucecore just as nightfall’s cooling fingers were spreading across the land. Rain pelted the ground in one of the heaviest downpours I’ve ever seen… and I’m from Wales- land of wet summers and even wetter winters! Unsurprisingly, the ICS teams gathered on Moucecore’s upper floor balcony during one of our seminar breaks to enjoy the storm and the sight of the sky splitting in two. Amazingly, lightning flashes here in pink and orange.

Kigali at night from Moucecore balcony.

Day Two: Meeting the ICVs.

On our second day of orientation I had the pleasure of getting trapped in a toilet.

It’s ironic really… considering that a good portion of my life since I was diagnosed with Colitis has been spent on the ‘porcelain throne’. I can laugh about it now, with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time I remember my palms growing damp as I twisted the key in the lock, first one way and then the next, fingers suddenly thick and clumsy. Luckily, Amaya was in the stall adjacent to mine and heard me banging on the door for help. I honestly don’t think at that early stage of our placement that I’d ever heard her laugh so much. The cheek! :p

This incident had further-reaching consequences than I could have imagined, because, coupled with my apparently uncommon habit of bursting into song randomly, Mya and Debs have dubbed me ‘Miranda’ after Miranda Hart (- if you’ve not seen an episode of this brilliantly British TV series, you should totally check it out! I guarantee it’ll bring a smile to your face).

Anywho – back to the important stuff. Day two saw the arrival of our in-country volunteers! Team Muhanga gained two new and highly valuable members: Jean-Claude who is 24 and Isaie who is 22. They both speak Kinyarwanda, their first language, as well as French and English, putting us UKVs to shame! We were supposed to have a female in-country volunteer too but, for whatever reason, she didn’t arrive.

Team Muhanga (L – R), Isaie, me, Mya, Debs, and Claude. Our esteemed team leader, Beth is behind the camera!

Claude and Isaie were very patient with us that afternoon, during an introductory session on Kinyarwanda. The upstairs room in Moucecore was really stuffy – the air thick and heavy, like treacle, but because of their skill as teachers Beth, Mya, Debs, and I managed grasp the basics of greetings – something that’s very important in Rwandan culture. Apparently, there was a point not too long ago where Rwandan’s would greet everyone they passed, regardless of whether they were a friend or stranger. No wonder they never seem to worry about being late!

Here are a few greetings in Kinyarwanda for you to try out:

1) Muraho [Mur-ah-ho] – Hello.
2) Mwaramutse [Marra-moot-say] – Good morning.
3) Mwiriwe [Mirry-way] – Good afternoon.
4) Amakuru [Am-ah-koo-roo] – How are you?
5) Ni Meza [Nee Mez-ah] – I’m fine.

We also learnt a crucial phrase for everyone in the team, IBD or no IBD: Ubwihereo Burihe, or, in English: ‘Where is the toilet?’… However, Rwandans don’t actually like to say the word toilet as a verb (it’s impolite).

Later, we touched on the idea of culture shock and the many stages it can take before you feel properly at home in a different culture. There are seven in total: denial, pinning, anger, guilt, depression, and then either more depression or acceptance. Not everyone goes through every stage, and it is possible to jump several at a time, but I think it’s safe to say that during orientation I was well and firmly planted in denial. My brain just couldn’t seem to process that I was actually in Africa.

That night, during the teams’ first time of praise and worship together, a light-green gecko made it’s presence known by crawling up a wall. This threw quite a few people off mid ‘Cornerstone’. I’ve never seen a gecko in the scales before so I got a bit flaily (as I have a habit of doing whenever anything really excites me). On our way back to Ligue under the moon’s cheshire cat grin, I jokingly wished for a pet gecko… only to discover that one had moved into Debs and my room when we got back! I guess the old adage remains true – be careful what you wish for. 😉

Yours sincerely,

Amy x

Muraho from Rwanda :)

Hi all! Before I start this blog entry properly I just wanted to say hello, or ‘Muraho’ in Kinyarwanda, and to let you know that Team Muhanga (Beth, Mya, Debs, Claude, Isiae, and myself) is safe and well, settling into our digs in the Aziri Life Centre. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of this team and can’t wait to get properly stuck into the work that we will be doing with the local projects here – but more on that later.

It’s been several days since our plane from Brussels touched down in Kigali but I remember the moment vividly. It was 7 pm and night had fallen, cloaking my view of the plane’s left wing and the landscape below in darkness. This surprised me; I had assumed that, at this time of year, nightfall would be much later in Rwanda than it is in the UK because Rwanda is so close to the equator. I started to question what else I didn’t know about the country that would be our home for the next ten weeks.

After travelling for around 28 hours (by car to Cardiff bus station, National Express coach to Heathrow, and then on two separate flights – one to Brussels and one to Kigali) I must admit that my brain was starting to turn to mush, but the white lights from the city seemed to blur with the sky, making it look like the plane was floating in a sea of stars.

Touchdown was thankfully a gentle affair.

In the airport everyone from the flight had their temperature taken (the thermometer was really cool – kinda like a tricorder out of Star Trek – just point and click at a person’s forehead!) to make sure that no one was bringing the deadly strain of Ebola into the country. Luckily no one was above 36.6 degrees so we were collecting our luggage from the conveyor and then heading outside to the minibus in no time.

Traffic was slow, the weather a muggy 22, and, unlike some of the other ICS volunteers, I hadn’t been able to sleep on the plane but there was something so exciting about hearing Kiss FM on the mini-bus radio! Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, and Fun all took their turn belting our familiar tunes that were interspersed with music in Kinyarwanda. It was a heady mix. Outside, through the minibus windows, flashes of Kigali erupted out of the darkness – tall ‘palm-like’ trees lining the road, a woman carrying a huge sack of potatoes on her head, a few men in military uniforms holding guns as long as the full length of my arm. Motorbike-taxis weaved in and out of the traffic flow. I couldn’t explain why at the time but something felt very wrong as we trundled along ‘the land of a thousand hills’ towards the guest house. Later, when someone mentioned the way Rwandan’s drive on the right side of the road my unease suddenly made sense. I guess I was so tired at that point that I just hadn’t noticed!

It didn’t take too long for us to arrive at Ligue (pronounced ‘League’) – the guesthouse where Team Muhanga would be staying for the next three days. We dropped off our luggage (this involved dragging my 20kg suitcase down a fairly steep hill with an irregular ‘paving stone’ surface – a difficult feat in daylight let alone in the dark), before getting back into the minibus and driving the short 2 minute distance to Moucecore (Moo-sir-core), the guest house where the majority of the Tearfund ICS volunteers would be staying and where all the orientation training would take place. We ate a light supper in the ground floor dining room – I think it was white rice and some sort of mild curry-like sauce, before returning to Ligue at 9 pm, completely exhausted. I remember unfolding a white mosquito net around me for the first time, tucking it under the sponge mattress to keep the biters out, and then… nothing.

I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Whither then?

In The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, Bilbo Baggins sings a walking song as he sets off on a long journey to visit Rivendell:

“The road goes ever on and on,

down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the road has gone,

and I must follow, if I can,

pursuing it with eager feet

until it joins some larger way

where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.”

Now I may not be walking to Rwanda but, with just over 11 hours to go before I need to be in Cardiff, boarding a National Express coach to Heathrow, Bilbo’s walking song has never seemed so appropriate. I love the idea of ‘some larger way’ where ‘many paths and errands meet’. That, for me, sums up my International Citizen Service placement so far: meeting new, like-minded people, doing orientation, and being given specific tasks and projects to carry out while we’re in Rwanda (I’m on Team Muhanga and I’m told we’ll be working in schools, helping to plant kitchen gardens, building energy efficient stoves, teaching English and Computer skills in the Rwandan offices, and putting on heath and sanitation workshops for vulnerable, single mothers).

It’s the ‘whither then?’ that bothers me.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I am so grateful for this opportunity. Taking part in humanitarian work overseas is something I’ve felt led to do for many years and a very large part of my brain can’t quite believe that it’s finally happening. But, and this is a big but written in screaming, ‘bolded’ capitals, I am also completely and utterly terrified.

It’s only natural, I guess, to fear the unknown. It’s survival instinct – adrenaline-activated ‘flight or fight’. But that doesn’t make it any easier to experience. I have so many ‘what if’s’ running through my mind at the moment: what if I can’t cope in another culture for 10 weeks, what if the Colitis flares and the emergency medication I have with me doesn’t work, what if I annoy the rest of the team, what if Ebola comes to Rwanda and we can’t get home, what if, what if, what if…

But ‘what ifs’ can be positive too. What if none of the above happens? What if I learn things about myself, and God, and humanity while on placement? What if we actually make a difference to the district of Muhanga? What if this is the best experience of my life?

With that in mind I’m taking a deep breath and I’m stepping out in faith. As Bilbo says: ‘The road goes ever on and on [. . .] and I must follow, if I can’.

Catch you in Rwanda!

Sincerely yours,

Amy x

Birthing Pains

You wouldn’t believe how long it’s taken me to come up with a title for this blog. I thought that I would need a few minutes max to set everything up and then I could be on my way with packing (which I really, really need to start)… but no. Two hours, fifteen minutes, and many google searches later, and I’m still angsting over what to name this small and probably insignificant corner of the internet. Amy’s Adventures in Africa? Too trite. Luggage Tags? Too vague. Rwandan Ramble? Ugh!

But then I stumbled across a Do Not Tiptoe article by Chris Mead and everything clicked into place. This is what he says in the opening paragraph of ‘Why Bother?’:

“We inhabit a planet torn apart by unequal distribution of power and wealth. A planet stuck back together with red tape, afflicted by self-serving nest-feathering passed off as policy. We’ve stumbled through the looking glass and into the hinterlands of the mirror world beyond. The crazy thing is we’ve begun to accept this off-kilter existence as the norm. We’ve started to believe that’s just the way the world works.”

Pretty challenging stuff, huh. I mean, we’ve all heard the statistics – 50,000 people die from poverty-related causes every day, every three seconds a child dies from a treatable disease, 1.2 billion live in abject poverty, gloom-and-horror, gloom-and-horror, bla, bla, bla… but it’s hard to comprehend what those figures really look like, and even harder to imagine that we could actually do something about it.

I guess that’s what I’m hoping for for during my ten week ICS placement in Rwanda – to try to peek back through the looking glass, to believe that the actions of a small group of individuals can make a difference and help fight global poverty.

Apologies if I’ve gone a bit ‘soap-boxy’ in this first post. I can’t guarantee that it won’t happen again, but I do promise to blog about my placement in Rwanda as often and as honestly as possible.

Take care!

Sincerely yours,

Amy x