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1st April, 2020


What is Rwanda like? To the East it’s the lakes, plains and marshes of the Akagera National Park, where hippo, giraffe, impala and water buffalo roam close to the Tanzanian border. To the West it’s the mountain range of the Albertine shelf – the western arm of the Great Rift Valley, which runs along Lake Kivu and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. To the North is the Parc des Volcans along the Ugandan border close to where the Mountain Gorillas live. The rest of Rwanda is made up of the thousand hills that give this country, half the size of Scotland, its nickname. The dark, fertile soil of every hill is terraced for agriculture while the valleys are irrigated as paddy fields. Everywhere, someone is working the soil with a mattock, and every hill sprouts banana trees. Amongst these are small rectangular houses built of brick or cubes of dried mud-clay with roofs of corrugated iron and, usually one or two goats tethered outside.

Coming out of the International Airport in the capital, Kigali, the immediate impression is of vibrant, almost frenetic activity. As you leave the capital, passing by apartment blocks with four stories of businesses showing on every balcony, the density of Rwanda’s people does not diminish. On the road winding south through its endless hills, it’s like a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The roads are lined with streams of people endlessly walking with great purpose. Four year olds carry five foot lengths of sugar cane on their heads. Mothers with a baby strapped behind and on their front carry washing-up bowls full of mangoes. Young men carry several 20 foot saplings trimmed down for use as scaffolding, or indeed, carry doors or wardrobes on their backs. Cyclists push their bikes up the endless hills with up to six beer crates stacked on them or live hog-tied calves. Children carry ubiquitous yellow water canisters. Sometimes you drive for miles through the countryside and there is never a gap on the road of more than 50 metres without someone walking and carrying on it.

In addition to this is the military and police presence. An armed soldier is in evidence every 500 yards or so in Kigali and, on the road south to Nyanza, we are pulled over two or three times by navy-blue overalled armed police to check our driver’s documents. The policemen and women are young, skinny and bright-eyed and bear a dove on their uniform crest. In addition to this, service stations, banks, museums and markets are manned by private security guards, some of them sporting pump action shotguns. Our local service station was guarded by a member of SCAR – Security Company Against Robbery.

The sense of density and activity carries over into the provincial towns. Once off the tarmacked main road the towns’ streets are mud tracks lined by single story concrete galleries of shops thronged by shoppers, bicycle taxis, motorbike taxis (their drivers wearing numbered blue tabards) and MTN sim card salesmen. You can buy a sim card for a £1 anywhere in Rwanda and there is little control over the placing of masts meaning that the signal is excellent everywhere. A woman in brightly patterned Rwandan cloth, balancing a huge pot on her head while pressing a mobile phone to her ear is a common sight.

Also notable in any town are the hoardings showing a wise young woman turning her back on a bespectacled kerb crawler with the caption ‘Say no to Shuga Dadis!’ On the back of these hoardings is similar advice urging young Rwandans to also ‘Say no to Shuga mummis’! In addition to these are the Disney colours of the hand-painted signs outside every business premises and school. Even the sign for the local tax office is a work of art, worth photographing. These signs are excellent evidence of where Rwanda is linguistically. They usually contain three languages. Firstly there is the language that everyone speaks – Kinyarwanda. Rwanda is unusual in Africa for having only one local language. Most nearby countries have up to thirty. In addition to this, older or more educated people speak French – a legacy of Belgian rule and, until two years ago the language in which the school curriculum was taught. Most Rwandans have French Christian names to go with their African surnames. We met Illuminée, Innocent, Lambert, Jocelyne and Théogène. However, it was decided two year ago that English should supersede French as the official language and we also met Peace, Betty and Nice Kevin! The change away from French can be explained in several ways. It is sure that the Belgian legacy contributed to the genocide and France and its troops did not cover themselves with glory in the run-up to and aftermath of the genocide. In addition to this, its eyes very much on the tourist pound and dollar, Rwanda is keen to emphasise its membership of the largely English-speaking East African Federation and, in time, to join the British Commonwealth.

The climate in Rwanda is very good. As most of the country is at altitude, the heat in August is similar to an English summer and we were even treated to some rain. Apart from the safari animals in the National Park to the east, the most notable wildlife is the birds. Everywhere black and white tropical boubous and grey and orange white-browed robin chats career bravely through the gardens in close proximity to people. The robin chats’ high volume melodic sparring announces the arrival of daylight every morning and the trees are populated by small marico and scarlet-chested sunbirds. Black kites circle overhead everywhere and sacred ibis fly home to roost in trees every evening. Occasionally an eagle-sized African hunting hawk lollops and glides from goalpost to centre circle on a football pitch close to the school compound.

This is a good moment to talk about the project itself. The volunteers lived in a one storey school block consisting of rooms off a single central corridor. The electric supply was often interrupted, there was no running water and the standpipe was probably infected with polio. All drinking water had to be boiled in the cheap Asda kettles we brought with us. There were two proper toilets but they did not flush and were emptied by throwing a bucket of water down them. Volunteers slept under mosquito nets, although malarial infection is rare in this area and at this altitude. Cooking for twelve people was done on two charcoal stoves about one foot in diameter. The compound was manned twenty-four seven by shabbily dressed guards who wandered the site day and night in wellies. They kept the curious local kids out, purloined any cigarettes we left around and kept an eye on our accommodation.

We had funded a project to build a small house in the school grounds for Jean Bosco, a Maths teacher, and his new bride, Angélique. Fr Lambert Kilinijabo, the Headmaster and a keen footballer and Liverpool supporter in his early thirties, rated Jean Bosco as one of his best teachers and saw the offer of a house to him as the best way to guarantee his continued presence at the school. The Collège du Christ-Roi, in terms of exam results, is one of the best schools in Rwanda. In spite of this, its small classrooms, which surround the central quadrangle, contain splintered desks (it seems that the concept of maintenance is impossible in poor countries simply through lack of money) and seating plans for 44 students posted on the walls. The African builders, overseen by a well-upholstered engineer from Kigali called Théogène, began work on the the plot two days before our arrival. Our duties were effectively as hod-carriers to the bricklayers although we did our job largely by throwing and catching the rough local bricks down long chains of volunteers. When we left, after three weeks, the house was largely complete. The iron windows and doors were in, the soffits and fascia boards were finished and the blue corrugated iron roof was on. Inside, the walls were plastered and the floors and ceilings all but complete. Term began the day after we left and it was reckoned that Jean and Angélique would only have to wait a further week before moving in.

On our last Friday we bought beer and samosas for the builders and gave them our building gloves, hats and boots. In no way is it patronising to say that they were overjoyed to receive these items and some arguments even broke out as to who was going to have them. Many of the builders worked in flip-flops on the site, using mattocks and pick-axes, and pushing barrows full of bricks. One of my last memories was of an elderly security guard in an oversized coat and a pork pie hat, fishing a pair of flowery women’s flip flops out of our bin where a volunteer had discarded them a moment before. He then devoured a packet of biscuits given him as we closed down our kitchen for the last time.

And what about Rwanda’s genocide? It’s no accident that Rwanda is the most heavily policed country in Africa, although we never felt threatened or insecure while we were there. The genocide happened only seventeen years ago in 1994. Nearly one tenth of the population of around 10, 000, 000 were wiped out. At the Genocide Memorial which we visited in Kigali, there is a small garden beneath which lies a mass grave for the 259,000 people slaughtered in the capital city alone. In Nyanza the volunteers worked with two young women who had both lost parents and the population in the town is noticeably young. Occasionally the Rwandans we worked with would talk about the genocide but this was the exception. You do notice memorials in most towns and the slogan ‘Never again’ is sometimes seen. You have to say, though, that the country is now relentlessly forward looking and set on rebuilding its consciousness and its economy. This is testified to by the activity and purposefulness evident everywhere.

On a hill above Nyanza, in a grand colonial building built but never occupied by one of the last kings of Rwanda, is the Modern Art Gallery. It contains works which are haunted by the gore and terror of the genocide, but also some earnest three dimensional works based on the map of Rwanda. Complex representations of circles, ladders, doves and coffee beans attest to the hopefulness of the country.

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