The basic facts I knew about Rwanda before I lived there were:
- it has rare mountain gorillas.
- Diane Fossey, the renowned zoologist, worked there to research the gorillas.
- a genocide happened there in 1994.
- it is a tiny country about the size of Wales in the heart of Africa.
It was the genocide that shaped my perception of Rwanda. Didn’t it for all of us? When I exchanged currency at Gatwick Airport, and told the lady behind the counter where I was going she said, ‘Isn’t there a war going on there?’ – this was in 2008 – my heart skipped a beat, before I realised her view was coloured by preconception, not a CNN breaking news alert.
I was expecting to go to an edgy country tinged with a hint of danger but as I settled I saw how wrong I was and that Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, was the safest city I had ever lived in.
The UK charity that placed me in Rwanda, VSO, looked after us and employed security guards to keep watch over our houses and at first I thought this would be a good idea, because … well…. because ‘Rwanda’.
This post is part of a series called ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ about my time living in Rwanda – it’s a self-contained piece of narrative, but for context please click here.
Police in black uniforms kept watch at night, every few lamp-posts in Kigali, their road patrols, scattered across the highways, were so effective that drivers even had their own semaphore of hand-signals to warn other oncoming drivers that the police were up ahead.
An abridged guide to drivers’ covert hand signals on Rwanda’s highways
Just in case you ever find yourself driving down a highway in Rwanda and notice a passing driver who looks like he’s trying to retrieve a small object down the front of his dashboard, like a coin or a minty sweet; he’s not; he’s trying to communicate with you.
A finger pointing down to the dashboard means the police are up ahead and close; if the finger is pointing upwards it means you’re in the clear for the time being.
In a country where the state exerts control, I found it refreshing that some drivers would help each other for gratis and be cheekily non-conformist.
The police were usually so eagle-eyed they even cautioned people who stepped on the grass verges of the wide boulevards in Kigali. Beggars, prostitution and even going barefoot is banned. With Big Brother I didn’t really need a security guard and I was actually comforted by the presence of the police, especially after the grenade attack.
One night I got home from work and tried to switch on the lights. The electricity was out. As I got in to the kitchen I heard a sharp hiss and the smell of gas. The gas oven was running and the back was door open, the door handle broken. I woke Peter my security guard from the annexe and asked him what had happened; he said that it looked like someone had broken in to the bungalow as he had seen someone go off with a t shirt I had hanging on a line.
I sometimes felt I should have been a little firmer with Peter, because of my foolish inability to put my foot down and introduce an element of familiarity, he had become a little lackadaisical. I joined the pitiful ranks of people who think management ends at 5 pm and develop a mournful incompetence for household staff management. These are the people who suffer “guard problems”.
Peter was a top bloke; he was lovely but incompetent. He was so good many things but keeping the house secure? No, not so much.
When I heard the issues some of my friends were having with their security, I started to count my blessings. Emma, who worked in the Dutch embassy, returned one afternoon, walking through the garden of her house in Kiyovu, through the palms and bamboo to find Emile, her guard missing. She sat on the verandah with a drink wondering where he was, then suddenly the long grass in her front garden started to move. She feared an animal in there, a mouse or a lizard; Emile rose, rubbing his eyes after a cat nap.
Then there was Mel, a fellow volunteer, who lived in a shared house close to Kimironko market where under its huge tin roof you could haggle deals on all sorts of things, sweet potatoes, peppers, calf-hide drums and colourful bolts of Tanzanian cloth. She came home to find a queue of people on her garden path, each person was holding an empty yellow plastic jerry can. Those leaving had filled jerry cans on their heads. What was going on? At the head of the queue was her guard beside the garden tap filling up the cans and charging money for them. When they exchanged glances, an enlightened smile filled her face. His game was up and the water bills came down.
Taylor, an American from Boston and thoroughly decent chap, worked for the Clinton Foundation that gave him a huge house and, at the end of his drive, a little guardhouse for his guard Gregoire, one of those old-school security guards who wore khaki uniforms and saluted random passing cars because it made him look official.
One Saturday night Taylor had organised a barbecue, invited 100 people and filled his bath with ice and beers and employed a maid who served plates of goat-meat brochettes slow cooked on charcoal fire.
Gregoire was a cunning fox. When we waited to come inside the compound he asked for our names, wrote them down in a school exercise book and, with an air of officialdom, charged us 1,000 francs each (£1) for entry to Taylor’s party.
“I ain’t paying to get in to Taylors house,” said one American in front of us storming off in a huff. It was indeed strange because Taylor was a thoroughly nice fellow, benevolent, not the sort to make a quick buck from his friends. I paid anyway and went in (what’s a quid on a Saturday night?)
During the course of the evening I dropped in to a conversation with Taylor that his guard was charging people to enter. He slammed down his bottle of Primus, kicked off his flip flops, shouted “Man, I’m gonna kill him,” and ran downstairs.
A few seconds later party-goers heard him shouting:
“DO NOT EVER CHARGE MY GUESTS FOR ENTRY AGAIN. EVER. IS THAT CLEAR?”
When it came to keeping fit, pumping the weights he made from filling powder milk tins with concrete, finding alternative bars (which I suspected were just peoples’ front rooms with some extra tables), telling the time by looking at the sun, or just making me laugh, Peter was great to be around. He was just too laid back to be a good security guard but he was a good guy at heart and that’s what counted. Perspective gives you a great reality check.