I made it, I’m here, in Kigali, Rwanda, writing to you from the hilly heart of a distant continent. I’ve been here a week now and I’m settling in fine.
On the flight here, just as we passed Lake Victoria, the land suddenly rose to resemble a fairytale kingdom, a mountain fortress, rising sharply out of the Great African plains, as if it was fashioned by a giant landscape gardener on a monumental scale. Rwanda is also known as the ‘land of the thousand hills’ and these undulated under a rolling patchwork quilt of emerald and electric-green fields stitched down with banana plants, eucalyptus trees and groves of bamboo. It’s an absolute stunner of country, a perfect ten and I’m hoping some of you will take advantage of my time here to come and visit me.
(This post is part of a serialized blog called ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’. This is a self-contained post, but can also be read as part of the series – background and a table of contents can be found here)
We’re in the middle of one of the two Rwandan rainy seasons which run from March to May and October to November (in contrast to England’s single rainy season – January to December). The climate is mild – Kigali is at an altitude of 1,500 metres – the official term is ‘temperate tropical highland’. I’m wearing a light sweater writing this on the veranda, amongst a lush assortment of bushes (I can only name bougainvillea) and the sounds of birdsong and an occasional thud on the front gate from of a football, followed by cheering, fill the air. Children here are football mad, they play on the street outside despite the mud and the potholes filled with water.
The front gate is topped with spikes and has a small sticker, that looks at first glance, like one of those no-smoking stickers you see on the London Underground, but on closer inspection, it’s a smoking rifle and underneath it says, ‘no weapons’.
My home is a comfortable and spacious bungalow down a backstreet which I share with one other volunteer. I have a gas stove, a normal sitting-toilet and even a fridge (I’m lucky to have these, most volunteers don’t). The floors are shiny and painted with red oxide and the main room has a large pine table with four chairs. I’m feeling rather spoilt.
I have a security guard called Peter (a law student and an amateur boxer), who lives in a separate annex. He’s made a set of weight-lifting equipment, various sizes of bar-bells and dumb-bells, by filling powder-milk tins with concrete and fixing them to the ends of metal rods. He’s quite a sight in the morning – his face grimacing with each lift beside the smiles of small baby faces on the milk tins.
At nights, when it rains, the tin roof plays a therapeutic, rattling percussion. When the raindrops stop I think I can hear the occasional patter of feet above the ceiling. I wonder if they’re rats or lizards. But as I say, I can’t complain. My bedroom too is spacious with a circular mosquito net suspended over the ceiling like a big chandelier. The mosquito bites here are less troublesome than in India – they come up as small red pinheads, disappear soon and don’t itch.
I don’t have a TV, my radio can only pick up the German World Service, and there’s no running water – when I turned on the bathroom tap this morning, it juddered, spluttered a small trickle that thinned in to a column of droplets. Then the tap hissed at me as if mocking just when my mouth was full of toothpaste. There’s a small water routine to follow each morning – Peter fills up two water buckets from a garden tap, I use the first one to pour down the loo, and the second one for a bucket bath with water just on the cooler side of lukewarm – I’m getting used to using two buckets of water a day.
I’ve bought myself a little electrical filament, like those you see inside a kettle, but with a plastic handle which you suspend in to the bucket of water. I’m in two minds about using this device. Although you can clip it to the side of the bucket, this risks melting it, so it’s better to just hold it there, dipped in the water for ten minutes, to make the water lukewarm. Not too deep mind you, I think it’s a little too shoddy to give me comfort and I’d rather have a cold bath than risk electrocution.
Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, is very hilly and very clean. It’s a young city just a 100 years old and with its red-tiled rooftops sprayed across distant spurs and cupped in a basin of violet foothills, there is something of Cusco here; add in the lushness of Assam and the buzz of Brixton amongst its open-air markets, and that gives you a sense of this place.
The hills have shaped how Kigalians walk and live. Directions are given in units of hills (“you will find it three hills along”). Without a shadow of a doubt Kigali is the cleanest city I have ever lived it, devoid of even the flutter of a sweet wrapper or a cigarette butt. In Rwanda, plastic bags are banned (mine were confiscated at the airport) and shopping is carried in brown paper bags that threaten to split in the rains.
VSO, the volunteering organization that brought me here, have helped me settle in – I’ve got a bank account, a SIM card and I’ve been given some training on how to settle in to Rwandan life and understand its culture and sensitivities. Many people will have lost relatives in the genocide of 1994 and it’s important to understand that and accommodate for it. They even took us shopping to a Chinese shop called T2000 in the centre of Kigali, its shelves stacked with every Chinese manufactured item you can imagine, saucepans, screwdrivers, clothes, little plastic Buddhas, cotton buds with smiling faces of Chinese babies on them. I’ve learnt some basic Kinyarwanda (the language of Rwanda) and I was eager to try it out, so I said to a passing man in a side street “Mwuramutse,” (good morning) and he replied, “Sorry I’m Kenyan.”
Volunteers from all across country met up in the VSO office for a few days this week for ‘In-country Training’ – most of them are from the UK and many are here on a three-year stretch. In a remarkable country like Rwanda, it’s easy to forget these equally remarkable people. I stopped complaining about running water when I met a VSOs from the rural parts of Rwanda whose first morning chore is to light firewood to make a cup of tea; they get water from a pump well; their toilets are pit latrines not a squat toilet; they have no electricity so no TV or fridge and their evenings are lit by wax and paraffin. One woman told me she ate a piece of bread and then spat out a worm; another near Butare, when the candles run out, just sits on her front door step to watch the stars of spilt emulsion. Simple pleasures of special people, uncomplaining and resilient
Anyway, that’s all from me for now. I have a new SIM card which is +25 062323800 and it would mean a lot to me to get some texts and some news from you! I’ve been pleasantly surprised – life here is comfortable so far and Rwanda is beautiful – I can scarce believe this was the setting of genocide of 1994. I start work next week at the Genocide Memorial Centre.