Friday, August 19, 2011

Rwanda, A Stranger in a Strange Land

I returned from Africa at the beginning of June, having spent 4 weeks in Rwanda and a week safari in Kenya. I have already posted on my experience with the teaching aspect which was not that positive although I am getting over that and also re-posted some pieces from my travel blog. I have not really posted on my total experience over there which to say the least interesting and eye opening. People who I continue to meet for the first time since coming back always ask me in passing how was my trip? It is really hard to express what I did and felt in a short conversation.

I volunteered 2 years in advance of the mission. I thought that would give me lots of time to get my life in order. In the interim there were a few changes like becoming site leader and I never did (or ever will?)get my life in order. As the trip approached I began to experience near panic attacks; Africa is a huge mystery to me. Rwanda with its still recent violent past was another issue and even though people assured me it was (and is) the safest country in Africa I was a little scared. And then of course there is the packing and trying to make sure you don't forget anything because you know you will not be able to buy it there (again not true, you can buy just about anything at the Nakumat in Kigali).

Inevitably the time came. My wife drove me to the airport with a huge duffel bag of everything I thought I would need for 5 weeks in Africa. I first went to Halifax for a Global Horizons course. Halifax was of course where I interned and where I met my wife, it still remains a city I enjoy visiting and with a lot of pleasant (and less pleasant) memories. After 4 days in Halifax, it was off to Toronto where my wife rejoined me, to fly to Brussels. We spent 2 days in Brussels, one of which we mostly slept but did so some sightseeing, drank some beer and had some good and bad meals. It was also a last chance to buy some of the stuff we realized we had forgotten.

Our European mini-vacation had to come to an end however and early in the morning we went by taxi to the airport to fly to Kigali. After taking a very long time to get through security we got to our gate where we met "my" resident who had flown overnight from Canada.

When I am flying somewhere I have never been before I often look around at the passengers and wonder what their story's are, why are they on this flight etc. The flight was a mixture of people who were obvious Africans although whether they were returning or visiting was hard to tell and quite a few whities. It was a comfortable flight in a large not fully booked plane which gave my wife and I lots of room to stretch out and even try to nap. We alternately napped, and read with interruptions for airline food and drinks. The map on the screen in front of us showed our steady progress, over Europe across the Mediterranean, skirting Libya and down over Egypt and the Sudan. The eight hour flight passed almost too quickly and we were soon descending into Kigali. It was pitch black by the that time but we could see lights below. The Kigali airport lies on a ridge and the landing was so smooth that seeing the lights still below us, I thought for a moment we were still descending. We exited the plane into the African darkness, which seemed darker than I had ever experienced. There was a strong smell of wood-smoke in the air. We walked along the tarmac to the terminal which was newer and nicer than I expected. To our surprise we sailed through immigration and were soon waiting for our bags. Outside the baggage area we could see people waiting for us and we knew someone would be meeting us but weren't sure who.

Exiting baggage we with some relief saw a sign with our names on it and met the resident Damascene, who had come to pick us up with a hospital driver. I had been advised to change money at the airport. $100 US gave me a huge wad of Rwandan francs.

One of the first things I remember once we left the airport was the large number of people out walking along both sides of the sidewalks in the darkness of the mid-evening. Traffic was light and moved quickly. We drove along the sides of hills looking down at lights below until we passed onto what we would come to be familiar with, the Nyamirambo Road which lead to our apartment. The apartment was a three story building on a dirt road, a block off the main drag. It was walled off with spikes on the top of the wall. Our driver honked, and the gate opened and we entered a courtyard. Our apartment was one floor up and we hauled up our bags. We were relieved to see that while sparsely furnished, our apartment was at least clean and comfortable.

Damascene suggested that we would need some food for the next day, so he drove us back to the "Simba" supermarket. I was still in a little shock, we had dropped into this strange country and now I have figure out what I am going to eat for the next few days and I have no idea what things are supposed to cost or what a sensitive Western stomach can handle. We ended up buying some milk, coffee, juice and pastries to eat for breakfast the next day. Oh yeah and of course beer. While we were in Simba's, people were watching the Champion's League final on a TV in the snack bar. I went in to watch feeling very conspicuous. One of the men watching pulled up a chair so that I could watch.

We came home unpacked a bit and watched the rest of the soccer game on our only TV channel, drinking the beer we had bought. We went to bed around 2200. It was very noisy outside our room and still quite hot. We slept under a mosquito net for the first time in our lives. While I waited for the Zopiclone to kick in so I could sleep, I remember almost trembling in fear of the unexpected over the next four weeks.

I awoke with the sun around 0530 went back to sleep and it was after 0800 when I finally got up. Our apartment had a balcony and I was able to go outside and see what we had not been able to see the night before. We were at the intersection of two dirt roads with the Nyamirambo road a block away. Surrounding us were a mixture of concrete one story buildings with corrugated tin roofs often with rocks on top to presumably keep them on, and some nice houses walled off from the street. It was Sunday and people were walking to church. To the west rose Mt. Kigali, the east the land dropped off into a valley and you could see large villas on the slopes across the valley. It was already getting hot.

After coffee and the pastries we had bought the night before we decided it was time to venture out. We had only the Bradt guide with its small maps but I figured we could probably find the hospital which we needed to find the next day and the tourist office. Armed with this we ventured out and turned right down the Nyamirambo road which I was lead to believe would lead us to the hospital and the central town.

Rwanda is known as the land of Mille Collines which means one thousand hills and Kigali is spread over many hills. This means that most of the roads tend to follow the contours of the landscape so a flat two dimensional map can be extremely misleading and two points which appear to be close together can be separated by a deep valley. In general it is not possible get between any two points in Kigali by travelling in a straight line. Because the roads curve it is very easy to lose your orientation. This is further exacerabated by the lack of street signs.

Public transport in Rwanda consists of Mutatus, garishly decorated minibuses crammed with passengers that travel predetermined routes and let people off wherever and motorcycle taxis which are cheap if you want to put your life at risk. There are car taxis which can be easily found in the tourist areas, less easily where we were living. These generally charge Westerners 5000 Rwf (about $9) no matter how short the trip.

We wanted to walk and so we set off down the Nyamirambo road. It was crowded with people walking in both directions. We stuck out like sore thumbs, our white skin and large hats shielding us from the sun. People were neither friendly or unfriendly. There was a large concrete drainage ditch along the side of the road that you had to be careful not to step into. Mutatus and motorcycle taxis raced along the road honking their horns. Alongside the road below road level were small shops and about every 50 metres was a small bar usually painted blue advertising Primus beer or another brand. The road sloped downwards at first until we reached the bottom of the hill where it proceeded upwards towards what we hoped would be the central town. We passed a large Mosque (Muslims in Rwanda, who knew?) and kept on going following the road which began to swing around the side of the hill which dropped off into a deep valley with houses all along the steep hillside. After some twists and turns we actually stumbled on the hospital but we were now hopelessly turned around and disoriented, our map had become more or less useless. More aimless wandering lead us to the Simba supermarket which we recognized from the night before. We stopped in the snack bar where we had watched soccer the night before and had a latte and a sausage roll on the terrace.

Pouring over our guidebook, we were now able to figure out where we were and found the Tourist Office and of course the Mille Collines Hotel, better known as the Hotel Rwanda from the movie. We also found the Union Trade Centre with the large Nakumat and the Bourbon Cafe which we patronized a lot. We also found the Serena Hotel where for $200 US you can use their pool and more importantly their showers for a month.

Mission accomplished we retraced our steps back the Nyamirambo road. It was now scorchingly hot and we had a long hill to climb back to our apartment. About a block from our abode, we decided to venture into one of the Blue painted bars for some rehydration. Inside we sat at resin chairs and a table like you might find on a patio and a waitress took our orders in my very bad French. Three large beers appeared which we drank gratefully before returning to our apartment.

One thing that had become apparent on our walk, was that while there were lots of bars in our neighbourhood, there was nothing we would recognize as a restaurant. This became more acute later that evening when we got hungry and decided to find somewhere to eat. Most of the restaurants in our guidebook were around the centre of town where we had been earlier that day. On our map was a restaurant called the Green Corner which a previous volunteer said they had heard was okay. It looked like it was an easy walk from our apartment. Therefore we ventured out into the night and turned left on the Nyamirambo road. According to our map we should have been able to reach the Green Corner by travelling due west but due west would have involved unlit dirt roads so we took the long way eventually arriving there with some relief.

The Green Corner was an outdoor bar and restaurant with some covered tables. A lady met us and I asked to see the menu in my bad French. There was no menu said the lady, we have chicken or fish. I made an executive decision that fish was safer and about an hour and several beers later some barbecued Tilapia arrived. It was one of the best meals we had. Just before the fish arrived a man came over with a kettle of warm water and some soap so we could wash our hands. As we learned, we were supposed to eat with our hands although when we asked for forks, they brought some. At the end of the meal the man with the kettle and the soap came over again.

We retraced our steps through the busy and crowded streets back to our apartment. We had survived our first day in Rwanda.

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