Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Truck in the Dust

A truck that seems to have come a cropper on the road to the border.
The journey to the Rwandese/Ugandan border is a mad dash when you compare it to the distances that you've travelled to get this far in the first place. The relative brevity of this stretch of the trip means that you barely have chance to take in everything that you see along the route - and there is so much to see. The Rwandese countryside is such a rich canvass of colours and different lights and people and your eyes simply struggle to capture it all - what they do see your mind has scant time to process before the image has faded into the heat haze.

It is still Sunday 10th April and we are on a bus storming through the Rwandese countryside having left Kigali earlier this morning, bound for Kabale in Uganda. The modern bus - a relative term you'll understand - has struggled its way up never-ending inclines, glided down helical descents effortlessly and has done so all in the most intense sunshine.

Leaving Kigali, the urban sprawl of small shops and spluttering motors gives way to wide fields of crops, which disappear on entering the hillier areas, before being replaced by large tea plantations which emerge from the valley floors. The tea goes on forever forming a blanket of green over the landscape, punctured sporadically by the raising head of someone picking a leaf or cutting a branch from the plants.

Without exception my mzungu arm hanging out of the window is noticed by people we pass by. The reaction is firstly of amazement and curiosity, shortly before a smile appears on the face of the older people. The children react slightly differently though. The curiosity is replicated in the fashion of the adults, but it is shortly followed by an outbreak of wild excitement in the form of singing, jumping, waving, dancing, chanting and, in the case of one boy, a desire to chase the bus for around 100 metres.

After losing the boy attempting to chase us into the dust behind, we round a corner onto one of three sections of the road which cross a valley floor and have no tarmac surface on the road - a rarity in Rwanda! Needless to say the changes must catch people out and as we continue along this rough section a truck that is listing badly and is being propped up by sticks becomes visible in the dust. Even in Rwanda, where everything seems to move forward in leaps and bounds, things can go wrong!

I fight the desire to turn the listing truck into some form of typically Western metaphor about Africa's past, present or future. After all, I have no choice - our bus keeps moving forward and many new images are already filling my mind in this beautiful land.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Babylon Revisited by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald. Author of Babylon Revisited.
In the aftermath of the Credit Crunch of the late 2000s, it seems fitting that one of the texts that the Daily Telegraph were giving away last year was F. Scott Fitzgerald's Babylon Revisited - published around two years after the stock market crash of 1929. The world then, as now, was suffering from a serious headache after the bubble of the boom years had burst.

The short story follows American Charlie Wales arriving in Paris - his personal Babylon and a place of great corruption in his life. From the moment that Charlie arrives at the Ritz, a place he had frequented before the crash, it is all too apparent that the ghosts of his past are just waiting to drag him back in. 

The purpose of his visit to Paris is ultimately for him to face the biggest legacy of his debauched past, the loss of his daughter Honoria into the care of his sister-in-law Marion and her husband Lincoln. This situation, we learn, had come about as a result of his alcoholism and his alleged mistreatment of his wife, Helen - who is now dead.

His biggest challenge is not only suppressing his demons from the past, coming at times in the human forms of Lorraine and Duncan, but also dealing with Marion's apparent hatred of the way in which Charlie and Helen had used and abused their wealth during the 1920s. From the outset of this story, it is very hard to decide whether or not you feel that Charlie will be leaving with Honoria.

As with many short stories, Babylon Revisited is loaded with subtexts and symbolism - not least in the name of the text. For a modern reader though, it is perhaps most intriguing to see the depths to which one man can fall, from a position of having everything to having nothing at all - just think of all those images of bankers with their possessions in boxes outside glass palaces in the City of London in 2007 and 2008.

The lesson to be learned from F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece is simple: the actions you take in your past will always place a heavy burden upon your present, however hard you try to erase them when you revisit your own Babylon.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Kigali Skyline

Kigali, stretching itself lazily into the hilly distance.
I don't want to get into the habit of playing a year game of spot the difference whenever I come to Kigali, but I can't help but find myself doing so anyway. Along with the ever-increasing amount of traffic, another thing that strikes you is the cleaning up of the housing around the centre of the city, coupled with the ever heightening skyline.

It is Sunday 10th April and I am musing on the Kigali's development from the grounds of the Genocide Memorial Centre, looking towards Avenue de la Gendarmerie, and the town beyond. Just out of the view of my camera, obscured behind some trees, is a symbol of Rwanda's leap forward, the Kigali City Tower - a spire of glass, iron and concrete in homage to economic development.

Standing atop one of the many collines and looking over Kigali's commercial hub, it seems to mock those who live in the poorest of houses that lay hidden in the crevices of the valleys. It is my hope that, in time, those who live in the poorer houses, with their stereotypically rusty corrugated iron roofs and their patched up mud walls, will begin to see some of Rwanda's wealth disseminated down the hillside towards them. Paul Kagame, Rwanda's president, has done a good job of stabilising the country and I guess this should be his next mission.

So to my journey, and this morning we depart for Kabale in Uganda. I always feel that I never quite do Rwanda any justice when I visit. I still have so much to discover here around the city of Kigali. I even feel that I haven't communicated enough with everyday Rwandan people. This is something I will need to rectify next April as it leaves a void in my understanding of this region that shouldn't exist.

After a brief packing session at Youth for Christ - I had tried not to unpack everything - loading the minibus with luggage and the coaster bus with students and staff, we set off for the border and to the adventures that lay ahead. It's not the longest of journeys, but I procured the 'extra legroom' seat at the front of the coaster anyway.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Bakiga Window: My Rwandan Home

"All I need is room enough to lay my hat..."
The number of quotes that you can find for homes and houses is endless. Most of them comprise of tired clichés and revolve around 'a house not being a home' or how housework can be the death of you. In the case of Youth for Christ in Kigali, Rwanda, a dormitory can make for a rather strange home.

We stayed at YfC last year and had a more than pleasant stay. The hostel is set high on one of the milles collines that give Kigali its interesting layout and Rwanda its nickname. Awe-inspiring views roll off into the distance in almost every direction - even the old German radio masts don't take away from the pleasant location.

Today is Saturday 9th April and we've a busy day ahead of us which involves taking in a few Genocide memorial sites in and around Kigali before heading to the One Love Café for relaxation. Needless to say after a long flight I was exceptionally tired last night - we had set off on Thursday from London, via Addis Ababa, to Kigali arriving yesterday afternoon.

My travelling party this year consists of eleven students, eight current members of teaching staff, two retired members of staff, one former member of staff and a former student - and three midwives. The usual group leader is getting married next weekend and so the responsibility for the whole trip, not just the students' welfare, falls on me this time. The result of this? I have to stay in the boys' dorm, and Hanka in the girls' dorm, while the rest of the staff enjoy the peace of the staff quarters.

The relative peace of morning in the dorms.
Needless to say, I am tired, but the students are hyperactive. As I am settling down to sleep - in an area of the dorm away from the boys - I become suspicious as I can hear no noise coming from the hitherto noisy boys. I go investigating to find them outside the dorm block shining a light through the window of the girls dorms to try and scare them. After telling them that this behaviour doesn't become sixteen to seventeen year old boys they retire to bed a little crestfallen.

All is quiet until around two in the morning. At this time someone starts talking loudly in Arabic before saying something about their mum. Not long later someone falls off the top bunk of a bed, before giggling breaks out and someone starts shouting, "shut up". It would appear that the anti-malarial drug mefloquine is kicking in, what with its side effects of strange dreams and hallucinations.

The next morning the students seem confused about everything that had happened the night before. One has a sore knee from their bunk-bed base-jumping, one has been bitten after apparently telling another student in their sleep to remove the mosquito net and two others look shattered from giggling all night and trying to irritate the girls.

Oh well, just one more night in the dorms and then I get my own room in Uganda. Let's hope our last night at YfC is more peaceful.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Oil Tanker Traffic Jam

An audience forms to watch an oil tanker reversing in Kigali, Rwanda.
One thing that strikes you about Kigali, having visited the city briefly on three separate occasions over the course of the last three years, is that it seems to be filling up with vehicles. During my first visit in April 2009, the roads were busy, but due to their orderly layout and good upkeep traffic seemed to move freely.

It is Saturday April 9th 2011 and we are stuck in another traffic jam in one of Kigali's increasingly crowded streets. This time we are waiting for an articulated oil tanker to perform an uphill reversing maneuver through the narrow gates of a compound on the opposite side of the road. 

One positive aspect of all these traffic jams, it could be argued, is that they are a sign of Rwanda's increasing march forward economically. That said, drive a few miles beyond the city limits and non-commercial vehicles are exceptionally hard to find.

The thing that I enjoy the most about traffic jams in Kigali is the opportunity that it provides to stop and observe life. Small peculiarities that do not exist in London that may flourish here, in turn making London look peculiar: babies sat on grass verges entertained  by any bits and bobs, young boys with milk churns tied to their bikes and hundreds of people walking at a leisurely pace as they go about their business.

As our driver comes up with an action plan, the most amusing thing about the whole scene is the crowd that has formed to watch this minor spectacle. Some of the crowd are laughing. Some are stroking their chins and discussing how they would have done something differently. Some are trying to direct boda-boda drivers around the obstruction. Some are even offering help to the driver.

I am reliably informed by some of the Kinyarwanda speakers that no one is cursing the driver of the lorry. Of course, in London, people would be screaming, shouting, sounding their horns and swearing. The police would have been called. Here, people either wait patiently, or casually turn their vehicles around to find an alternative route.

This is precisely what our driver does as we head off to the One Love Café.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Bakiga Window: The Road in Ntarama

The road near the Ntarama Genocide Memorial.
The instant that you walk off the plane in Kigali, Rwanda, you feel your skin begin to smolder from the potency of the sun. Crossing the wide expanse of tarmac and rounding the large concrete safety barriers that resemble British coastal defenses makes reaching the terminal building a welcome relief from the unrelenting sun.

By the following day, exposed in the afternoon sun in Ntarama, the relative luxury of the airport terminal building is a million miles away, but I feel thankful that this world of concrete and air travel is left behind. I feel that I have returned home.

Ntarama, to a foreigner, is fundamentally a place of mourning. Rwanda has, to a great extent, moved on from the turmoil of the Genocide in 1994, but the countryside is still pock-marked by the scars of the ethnic violence of April that year. Today is Saturday 9th April and the country is two days into its annual week of remembrance which commemorates the start of the well-planned frenzy of ethnic cleansing that went largely unnoticed in the Western world at the time.

I have visited the memorial in Ntarama before. This year I pay my respects from a distance, briefly exploring the compound alone, before finding some of my students who have found the tour too upsetting to continue. 

In the street, life continues as normal whilst we talk. Surely a far cry from the madness of 1994. Now, children play in the street, seemingly unaware of the nation-wide mourning taking place around them. They happily kick a sad looking football around the streets and wave at us, trying to engage us in conversation about English football teams. They know little of Aston Villa.

Heading up the road in the vague direction of Kigali, after about half a mile, we are brought to a halt in the road. A memorial service is taking place on the road. Women and men are dressed in their Sunday best. Many in shaded glasses. Many holding large purple and white bouquets of flowers. All solemn.

Awkwardly and shamefacedly, we are waved through, and drive slowly through the middle of the mourning congregation, bowing our heads.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Bakiga Window: By Way of Introduction

On the tarmac in Kigali, Rwanda. Hot.
Having safely returned from my third visit to Uganda and having had nearly a month to reflect on the whole experience, the process of sharing these thoughts has come into my mind.

In previous years I have kept a written diary of my experiences whilst away. This April I did not. In the past it has been a good way of processing everything I have been a party to - a very cathartic process. In fact it has even improved me as a writer, let alone as a person. So one may ask: 'why didn't you keep a diary this year?'

The answer comes down to two things:

  • Firstly, this year I was in charge of running the trip. Over my three years of involvement in the partnership that my workplace has with Kigezi High School, my role has become more active in terms of the organisation of the visit. This year, when the primary trip organiser said that she would be getting married in April, I stepped forward to run the trip. This meant I was often one of the last to bed and one of the first up in the morning, holding nightly meetings, often making speeches, meeting new people, greeting old friends and ensuring the whole project moved forward, safely and effectively. In other words, I hadn't the time!
  • Secondly, there will be plenty of time for diaries in the future. I have desires to engage with some big new projects that will require the reflective process of the diary keeping again, but for now, I needed something different.
Therefore, this year I am doing something different to share my experiences. This year I will present an image and expand on it - attempting to relay the story behind the picture: the people, the sounds, the emotions.

Although this series of blog posts is called The Bakiga Window - the Bakiga being the main tribal group in Kabale District, Uganda - I will also be talking about my three day stopover in Kigali, Rwanda on the way.

I will have succeeded in my mission if you can sense, however fleetingly, the passion that I have for Kabale and Uganda through my words and pictures.
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