Tag Archives: art of conservation

Leaving For Kampala

As I write this, am packing and unpacking and repacking. I’ve sat on the suitcase and finally managed to have it closed. Now I have to figure how the rest of my stuff is going to fit into other two small bags. The situation looks hopeless. To get away from this depressing mood, I’m thinking of motorcycles. My current wallpaper (desktop background) is a picture of the kind of bikes used at the 30th edition of the Dakar Rally. [Google it.]

 

The bike used in the Dakar rally, super cool, eh?

The bike used in the Dakar rally, super cool, eh?

On my list of things I want to achieve this year: Learn how to ride a motorbike. Check. Learn French, next target. When I get back to Nairobi, I’m applying for a motorbike license. Some are still asking me, why a bike?

I’ve been trying to explain how I’m trying to be unique. Graduation may not be for another three months, but when it finally arrives, most of my fellow graduands will be arriving for the rehearsal ceremony in borrowed/begged/rented/stolen cars to impress. I, on the other hand, will be on a motorcycle, which is way cooler and more impressive not to mention different.

Nonetheless, my motorcycle lessons were interesting. To start with, there was no theory and even if there was, I don’t think I would have understood much of my teacher’s Congolese Kiswahili. So here are the parts of the motorcycle as I understand them:

Umbriage: (I hope I have spelled it correctly, that is how it is pronounced): I suppose this is the clutch. Located on the left handlebar, you have to hold it when shifting gears and release it so you can shoot forward. Which is what I’ve been doing when I’m starting up the bike. You’re supposed to release the clutch slowly so you can leave smoothly but I usually let go so fast, the bike almost leaves me behind. Takes practice though and am almost getting the hang of it.

The Tia Moto Thing: Usually on the right handlebar, it’s the part that gives you power so you can accelerate. The vroom vroom part just before you leave. Accelerators on bikes have a different name though, am sure. Too lazy to google. It’s easily my favorite part of the bike. Vroom vroom!

Honi: the horn. At first I was honking all the time, because most people you find on the road don’t move out of the way. No matter how much you honk. So I’ve learned to just honk a little warning so they don’t make any sudden movements and then I’m the one who moves out of their way!

The brake: I find it easier to stop by stepping on the break instead of down-shifting until you stop, though stepping on the break shuts down the bike so you have to kick-start it into life again.
The lights of the bike I was using to learn were not working so I was just shown theoretically using my imagination. I have to remember to use the left side of the road in Kenya because in Rwanda they drive on the right.

I don’t know many other parts of the motorbike but I suppose that’s what mechanics are for, no? But… that’s what the internet is there for. Or is there a good book on motorbikes that anyone can recommend?

The day I was able to ride on my own, turning corners, starting and stopping, was my best day of learning. There was no teacher behind me, just me and the bike. Sometimes they’d shout instructions when am passing by: shift gears, sit properly (they want me to sit relaxed but I’m usually too tense, leaning forward wanting to be one with the bike.)

I overpaid for the lessons, I was supposed to have 17 hours in total, one hour daily. These guys came late and left early and missed some days, and we hopelessly tried to make up for the lost lessons. Then they told me that when I’m leaving, I should leave them a present. They gave me an example of someone they had taught who bought one of them a brand new mobile phone. Ha!

In the end though, it was totally worth it.

P.S. Tonight, I’m taking the bus to Kampala. Time to say hi to some friends over there before coming back to Nairobi.

Meeting President Paul Kagame

How it began: the background to the story
It all started with a tweet. Rather, two tweets.

 

The tweets to President Kagame that started it all.

The tweets to President Kagame that started it all.

Let me backtrack a little

Friday morning. My last day at work. Fridays are easy days around here, we report to work at nine in the morning, which means I get up at 8, and on most days, I oversleep till 8.30 and I have to shower, dress, have breakfast and do the 10-min walk to work in 30min! Today at around 4pm, there is a farewell party for me. I don’t really have that much work, so I spend most of the morning tweeting, Facebooking, blog reading and emailing.

Julie, my wonderful boss (I know you’re thinking am just saying this because she might read this blog but it’s the truth). Where was I? Julie, my wonderful boss, was playing tennis in the morning when she noticed Coach Tony (the Ibirunga Tennis and Running Club coach) planting bananas/flowers around the tennis court. So she asked why he was doing that, and he said President Kagame was going to pass through on his way to Kigali. They were not sure he was going to stop, but the coach and the tennis kids were going to wave at him when he passed by.

The Ibirunga Tennis Court in Musanze Town was in a bad state, until the organization I work with, Art of Conservation, came in and helped rehabilitate the club. We also sponsor a few kids to be coached on weekends, since they go to school on weekdays. They are the tennis kids (duh!). The United States Tennis Association provides some of the equipment needed at the court.

 

Coach Tony and others during the early stages of the tennis court rehabilitation. Photo courtesy of AoC

Coach Tony and others during the early stages of the tennis court rehabilitation. Photo courtesy of AoC

Back at the office, Julie told me about the president passing through today and I told her you know what? The president is on twitter, I could tweet him. She was like, why not?

So I tweeted him, and kept checking my replies every few minutes. Finally, 30 minutes later I get a reply:

 

President Paul Kagame's tweet to me!

President Paul Kagame’s tweet to me!

I’m ecstatic.

The Party That Was Not

The president’s timing is er… inopportune since it clashed with my party. He was to come in at around 4pm or 5pm and that’s when guests should be arriving. At first we are not even sure he’s coming so we get on with the party. We have some pizza, wine, soda for the kids and beer. Two of AoC’s staff go to the tennis court, just-in-case.

There are a few guests who’ve arrived so far, and two of them, little angels 7 years old, are drawing something for me as a going-away present. In the end, it’s something a little strange, if abstract, but I appreciate the gesture and will keep the drawings for as long as I can.

The Signs of His Coming

Apart from his tweet, and the excitement in the air as the tennis kids were told to come in their best club t-shirts, there was little to show the president was going to stop by. But at around 5pm, the commissioner of police in this area (I think) called and started asking all sorts of questions about the club. Then we knew things were getting thick! Later, a few security guys (a part of the presidential guards perhaps) arrive and also start asking questions. We’re called from the office. We (AoC staff) have to leave the party for the tennis court. We tell the guests not to worry, we’ll be back to continue it but for now, well…

More army guys arrive. They surround the tennis court and melt into the shadows. They go into the houses neighbouring the court and command the residents to stay indoors. It’s all very movie-like. They are asking questions. They are polite, because they ask me, “may we please speak to you” and then pull me aside and ask me all sorts of things. Then they call Julie aside and do the same. Then they call me back. Then they call Valerie (another staff member) and do the same. Then back to Julie. It is just so very exciting.

The rain and the waiting

Then we begin the wait. The kids continue playing tennis, it would be fantastic if the president sees them in action. The security guys ask us to brief them about our plan. How should we receive the president? What gift do we have for him? Here we show them the various t-shirts we have and wonder what his size is. We plan how we will say hi, introduce everyone, coach thinks of what he’ll say, Julie thinks she should be brief but hit the main points, I think of how I first want to go to the bathroom quickly before he comes.

Unfortunately, it starts raining and I know it will ruin the pretty little picture of the president playing a little tennis in the dust. We wonder what to do. There is a small shelter that will eventually become a bathroom but is currently not functional. The kids shelter there. We run to the car and wait for the rain to stop. I tweet the rain and tell it to please stop.

It stops after a while and we get out. We ask the security guys how long before he comes, they say “we will tell you when he does, don’t worry”. The guests at the party have excused themselves. It’s okay really, since the focus is now elsewhere.

The security guys decide the t-shirt we have for the president is too wet and drive us back to the office to get another one.

It’s now six in the evening and the rain starts again. We rush back to the car. It gets dark. 7pm and we’re a little wet from the rain, we’re cold and the little kids are starting to have long faces. It finally stops raining, the lights at the tennis court come on (well, some of them) and we’re searched before entering the court. We are told to keep our mobile phones away. The camera is examined. No one else will be allowed in/out except the original party.

He’s almost here

You can tell just the moment we realize he is near. There is an increase in the two-way radio static. We’re told to move from the tennis court onto the road. Phone calls are being made. Traffic is diverted so there is an empty stretch and we all look into the distance.

There are several headlights in the distance but they keep turning before hitting this stretch. Another nobody, we sigh.

 

We look at the headlights in the distance!

We look at the headlights in the distance!

Finally, a car travelling at high speed blazes through, flashing lights and hooting horns. Or maybe a siren. In our excited state, we see and hear things. Off it goes past us. It must be the decoy car, I think. The presidential motorcade finally weaves its way and at the tennis court where we wait by the roadside, a small sleek car stops. Someone opens the door. And Kagame steps out.

I wave to A. A is our unofficial photographer tonight. We have done several practice shots so we are ready to go. I must say I’m hogging the limelight, at one point making sure I am looking into the camera all the time. I hope no one notices this.

Julie is the first to greet him and to introduce herself. I shake his hand next. He then greets everyone by hand, paying special attention to the smallest kid here. He speaks with Coach Tony. He says he has a gift for us and hands us an envelope. We thank him and clap for him. We remember the t-shirt we promised him. We give it to him. He holds it up, saying “thank you, it’s my size.” We couldn’t be happier at this moment!

 

president kagame

With our best smiles, we let the president know just how much we appreciate his stopping by and accepting our gift.

There is a pause in conversation and activity, and I seize the chance to tell him I’m the one who tweeted him. He turns back to some of his entourage and says, “she’s the one who invited me.” Then I tell him am going back to Kenya soon, and he said no, you should stay. I tell him I want to be the president of the EA Republic when it’s formed in 2032.

Julie invites him to the pizza and wine party but acknowledges that he’s probably tired. She thanks him and we all clap for him and thank him yet again. Then he waves bye, slides into the back seat of his car and they slowly leave. The security guys are leaving. Traffic resumes. Then it hits us: the president came!

His Gift

We open the envelope. Crisp bank notes. We’re so happy, we’re shouting and laughing and whooping and singing as we walk back to the AoC office. It’s about 9pm (we don’t have our phones so I’m not sure of the time). We make more noise and sing louder.

 

Excitement is in the air

Excitement is in the air

The After-party That Was

Singing and dancing, we arrive at the office and distribute pizza and soda to the kids. Drinks are handed to the adults. The mood is buoyant! We’re high on adrenalin.

After a while, the tiredness starts to kick in. I stop the music and give a little speech. I’m kind of emotional right now, I’ve encountered nothing but love all around (most of the time). I love this place yet am leaving soon.

Then my co-workers start handing me gifts, giving a little speech about how they will miss me and tears are slipping from my eyes. Anyone who has something to say says it. We allow the kids to go. The adults remain and continue to have fun. More wine and music and dancing. It’s two in the morning when the last people leave the party.

Meeting President Paul Kagame is definitely the highlight of my two-month stay here. I like this town a lot, I would love to come back. Perhaps I will.

The Aftershocks

We wake up on Saturday to a flurry of phone calls left, right and all over. Definitely, a lot of questions about Art of Conservation. In short, we carry out conservation and health education to kids living near the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. For more, check out the AoC blog.

We count the money the president gifted the Ibirunga Tennis and Running Club. One million Rwandese Francs (about 2000 USD).

My impression of him is that he’s a very nice guy. There, I don’t have glowing descriptions. It was humbling for me, for all of us. He’s generous and polite. A great man.

There are also a lot of questions about Twitter. What is this twitter thing? And we have to tell them it’s like Facebook, you know, the internet site?

What are you all waiting for, sign up and follow me on twitter!

All About Mountain Gorillas

If you ever have the opportunity to look into the eyes of a gorilla, you will instinctively know that that these unique creatures deserve our efforts to save them - Howard G. Buffet, Threatened Kingdom: The Story of the mountain gorilla

 

A gorilla mother

A gorilla mother

I cannot begin to explain just how true that statement is.

This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to visit the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. I was with a colleague, Valerie and my boss Julie.

We were at the park headquarters by 7am, the required time. From there, you are divided into groups and told which group of gorillas you will visit.

Gorillas are divided into two broad categories, mountain gorillas and lowland gorillas. Their names are explanatory, it’s where they live. The mountain gorillas are an endangered group, there are only about 700 mountain gorillas in the whole wide world! Imagine that. There are about 10billion people (or thereof) and only 700 of these gorillas.

They eat a lot; an adult mountain gorilla can weigh up to 250Kg. They survive on bamboo and vegetation found in forests, and we all know how everyday, forests are being cleared for farming, and trees are cut down for charcoal, firewood etc. This is the reason why conserving these forests is so important to animals that live there.

Did you know that a mountain gorilla can survive for a whole year without drinking water? That’s because the vegetation they eat contains a lot of water.

The mountain gorillas can only be found in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. These three countries coordinate their conservation efforts and the results have been significant. The number of mountain gorillas has been slowly increasing.

Gorillas live in families (or groups) and there are trackers that keep track of where each family is. So that morning, we were to visit the Amahoro family. Amahoro means peace. Our guide, Hope (that’s his name!) talked to the trackers via a 2-way radio as we trekked through the forest, going higher and higher up the mountains.

The forest was dense but there was a beaten path which we followed. The narrow path was blocked here and there by bushes, including sting nettles (you know those plants that sting?) Gorillas eat that, and even in the Czech Republic, they are eaten as vegetables.

A gorilla family is led by a large male, consists of a few other males, many females and a number of children. All the females belong to the lead male, so usually the other subordinate males leave the group to start their own families. Males mature around the age of 10-12, and the fur on their back turns silver. Hence they are known as the silverbacks. Females don’t turn silver though.

A silverback, Kajolite. I think that was his name. He lost a hand to snares in the Congo when he was young. He is the second in command of the Amahoro group.

A silverback, Kajolite. I think that was his name. He lost a hand to snares in the Congo when he was young. He is the second in command of the Amahoro group.

A newborn gorillas weighs just 1.4 to 2Kgs, half of the weight of a human at birth. They are totally dependent on the mother and begins to crawl at about 2 months of age and at 4 months, it will begin riding on its mother’s back.

 

baby gorilla

A baby mama and baby gorilla. Saw them with my own eyes, they passed by so close to us. They’re really gentle beasts.

Young gorillas, between the ages of 3 and 4, are very playful. “They are little balls of black fur with punk rock hairdos and perpetually astonished expressions..” to quote from the book, Threatened Kingdom: The story of the mountain gorilla by Buffet/IGCP. They are called juveniles and play tag, wrestle and tickle while the males guard the family against danger and the females take care of young ones.

On Saturday, the juveniles kept rolling and rolling towards where we were, and we couldn’t move away fast enough! I remember I fell down and landed right next to them (we are encouraged to keep a distance of 7m, so as not to transmit any diseases to them.) I moved away slowly.

I was told however, that these were tourist gorillas. They are so used to people and clicking cameras, they acted as if we weren’t there. The juveniles though, did were curious and would stop wrestling each other to stare at us and then they’d lie in the grass and stretch out and bask in the lovely morning sunlight.

 

juvenile gorillas

A group of juveniles takes a break from wrestling and rolling around in the bush to bask in the sun. They were such a joy to watch.

 

The trek down the mountainside was easier…we were coming down following a familiar path. There was a park warden who walked with us, carrying a gun, in case we met any hostile forest elephants or buffaloes. We didn’t, though we saw here and there fresh buffalo dung.

There are also other animals that live in the forests; like the Bushbuck but we were not lucky to see any. We only spent an hour with the gorillas as per regulations and trekked back down the mountain.

Watching these gorillas was worth every penny. It’s 500 USD for foreigners, 200 USD for East Africans and 40USD for Rwandans.

P.S. All photos courtesy of Art of Conservation

Work, Love and Life: Rwanda so far

I did not come to Rwanda to look for love (love looks for me, I do not look for it), neither did I come to start a pimping business or to look for wives for my Kenyan friends. I came to work. So please, stop asking me if Rwandese women are as beautiful as the myth goes? Okay, let me be polite and answer that. A few women are beautiful, most of them are average, and a few are er….a little below average. It’s the normal curve, nothing skewed towards the right (meaning most people are beautiful). Also, for the ladies, kindly don’t ask me how the men are, for reasons mentioned above :-D

Back to serious business. I’m living at a guest house (you know, like those lodges in Naivasha) so my new quarters are a big room with a bed, table and chair, two easy chairs and comfortable bathroom. Comfortable meaning plenty of space, and separate shower and toilet. It’s done with an African theme, if there’s something like that. The few hangings on the wall, the containers made from banana/fiber weaving etc. Breakfast is a part of accommodation, and I can also eat lunch/supper here at my own cost.

A view of my room, this is a part of the guest house am staying at.

A view of my room, this is a part of the guest house am staying at.

 

Julie (my boss) with Percy (the guest house owner's 14 year old son)

Julie (my boss) with Percy (the guest house owner’s 14 year old son)

Rwanda is a beautiful country, but it’s just starting out. You know the way in Kenya there are many ATMs sprinkled all over? Well, I learnt that ATMs are limited here and withdrawing via ATM is expensive. I’m living in Musanze Town, which is quite far from Kigali and there are many services which we have to drive down to Kigali for, not just banking.

This town is clean and very well organized. There are rows upon rows of new buildings, beautiful houses surrounded by brick fences that I learned are a requirement. If you cannot build a good house with a good fence, then you’re forced to sell your plot.

 

The Main Street (don't know the name yet) in Musanze Town. I walk clean streets like this everyday to work, for about 10min

The Main Street (don’t know the name yet) in Musanze Town. I walk clean streets like this everyday to work, for about 10min

The first evening after work, Julie took me to meet some of her friends: Jan, who’s a gorilla doctor (cool job, innit?) and Valerie (she works with local committees and some tourism group, I think). I had fun with these ladies, and though the only common thing we may have had is that Rwanda is not our home country, I think we could be good friends in the end.

Yesterday, we passed by the Gorilla Lodge just next to my guest house: they have this beautiful swimming pool and I think I may have found my Sat/Sun afternoon pastimes. Have a look:

 

The Gorilla Lodge swimming pool

The Gorilla Lodge swimming pool

There are other guests that come and go, like yesterday there was this American family with a really hot son who looked about my age. (He had long hair). But you know, I’m still new and it was just all round conversation at supper time, who knows? ;-)

As I finish my second day at work, I have a feeling that my stay here will be worth it.

P.S. There is a Pizza place just walking distance from here and I’ve been looking for someone to play pool with.

I also noticed a chess board at the guest house and can’t wait to play.

Finally in Rwanda: Kampala to Kigali

The journey from Kampala to Kigali was uneventful, if by uneventful you mean we stopped several times on the way, picking up loud women and dropping them again somewhere ahead. The bus was delayed by almost two hours (this is the last time am riding Akamba), and it was not as comfortable as the one from Nairobi to Kampala. Since it was not full, the driver and conductor took it upon themselves to operate like a matatu (taxi), picking up random passengers, which means instead of riding express to the border, we stopped several times. A journey that was to take 9 hours took….14!

We stopped at Mbarara for a while, and of course long lines of passengers at the washrooms was expected. There were only two stalls for ladies and one sink at the highway motel/hotel. There’s this woman who’d made it there first, so she was washing her hands at the sink when I arrived. There were like 5 other people waiting to use that tap, from which there was a trickle of water. She proceeded to take her time…even washing her armpits in the process.

Okay, I understand, Mbarara was very hot that afternoon. But emerging from the washroom with even wetter underarms didn’t make much sense. She probably has never heard of wet wipes or deodorant. By this time, some ladies waiting to use the sink had become impatient and they left…I don’t know if they eventually found another tap elsewhere or they decided to go commando.

We were arriving at the border at 6.30 p.m., East Africa Time. (You’ll see the relevance of specifying which time zone it ahead.) I had told my boss, who’d arranged for me to be picked from the bus terminus, that I’d be arriving at 8 p.m. We reached Kigali at 9.30 p.m., and I was afraid I had made them wait for long, when I was told it was 8.30 p.m. Rwanda is one hour behind the rest of EA (except Burundi, which should be in the same time zone as Rwanda) and was glad I had told them 8 p.m. instead of 7 p.m.

Piece of advice: you do not want to use the toilets at the border. Please don’t make me describe them.

Towards the border, the land became hillier and hillier, and though we arrived at night, I confirmed that indeed, the whole of Rwanda is hilly. It’s known as the country of a thousand hills, Olivier told me. He (chief of staff, I think that’s his title), Valerie (executive assistant to the boss) and the driver (am so bad with names) came to pick me up from the stage. They greeted me enthusiastically, took my bags, said how happy they were to see me, told me they’d expected a much bigger person and generally made me feel very welcome.

I had no problems crossing the border, but I was later informed that if you are coming to work in Rwanda, you need a work visa. Wait a minute, I thought it was not necessary for Kenyans to get visas to work in Rwanda and vice versa? Turns out you do need the work permit and I will have to apply for one at the Immigration department in Kigali.

From Kigali, we stopped at some township (did I say am bad with names?) where I had supper. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet place, you pay and then serve yourself. I took some matoke (at least am familiar with those), vegetables and a roasted sweet potato. Fanta Orange to top it up. You think that’s too much? Nah, I wish I had a camera then. Guys (thin guys, fat guys, short guys, tall guys, short thin guys..) piled their plates up high and then topped it up with a 72CL beer (am guessing somewhere around 750ml). Rwandans bottle their beer in these huge bottles, I think you just need to have one for the night. They’re lovely people though…I could be indistinguishable from them, Oliver told me, if only I spoke Kinyarwanda. You know what they say about Rwandese women…they’re beautiful, so if Oliver thinks I look like one of them…

 

A 720ml beer

A 720ml beer

 

I’ll be working in Musanze town, 2 hours out of Kigali. The road leading here is a meander up the hills. I’m so excited to start working…got lodging at a guest house, where I should be staying for the next three months, if everything goes according to plan. The owner of the b/b guest house is a lovely lady called Elaine with these three dogs that like me, and I like them back.

That is how Tuesday morning finds me: having had breakfast, arranged my room (might put up pictures later), charged my phone, made calls and texted back home to say how am settling down, set up my speakers (only to find I forgot to bring the cable connecting comp and speaker) and having read half of “On Black Sisters’ Street”, a novel given by a friend.

Tuesday afternoon, I’ll take a walk to the offices and get introduced around. I live walking distance to the office, how cools is that?