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From Rwanda to Kenya: The Journey Back Home

I certainly had a grand exit from Rwanda (meeting the president and all), one I fear I may not be able to match elsewhere. I was on a six-week internship in Rwanda which extended to eight weeks, but I do hope to go back and continue what I was doing. Working on the logistics right now. I might also get an offer to be a teaching assistant at my alma mater (JKUAT) since you know, I got a first class honours degree. Currently, I’m in Nairobi on a short holiday (another word for jobless).

The Horrible Bus to Kampala

I was leaving Musanze town, where I’d been staying, for Kampala through the border at Cyanika. I asked around for a bus that leaves for Kampala and was directed to Horizon. I went early to book the bus. I suppose I should have seen the warning signs when they told me you can’t book a day early, you have to book on the day you were leaving. The office was outside on the verandah of a building facing the Musanze Market.

So I booked at noon for my 4.30pm bus. Check-in time: 4pm. I was there at about 5 minutes past four with all my luggage, with Julie and Val and the other Val there to see me off. The bus was nowhere in sight. We waited till 4.30 and still the bus was not there. I thought when they said the bus leaves at 4.30 it means it leaves at 4.30, passengers arrive earlier at 4 so they can settle.

Finally, at almost five, the bus came speeding round a corner. It came to a stop right in front of us and I rushed in so I could secure a good seat. See, when booking you don’t choose a seat number, it’s a scram for any good seats like it was in the old times in Kenya.

When I got onto the bus, I was dismayed! There were five seats per row: 2-isle-3 seat arrangement. The seats were old and looked uncomfortable. The floor of the bus was dirty and rusty, with holes in some places. The seats had no armrests, the seatbelts were dysfunctional and dirty or missing altogether. Any hope that the seats could recline so I could snatch some sleep on the 10 hour journey were dashed. I feared I’d fall off my seat if I dozed… there was not much space and as I mentioned, no armrests/seatbelts to keep you in your seat!

The bus was not full so I could have the 2-seater to myself. I had a lot of luggage, which I had to keep in the bus because you cannot be assured of the security of your luggage. Soon, I was hugging my friends in Rwanda bye and the bus took off.

It stopped a few kilometers out of town to pick up more passengers. This we did all night! Picking and dropping off passengers in-the-middle-of-nowhere kind of towns.

I was gloomy, staring out at Muhabura (volcano that is part of the Virunga massif) as it loomed closer and closer. We were approaching the Cyanika border, just 25Km from Musanze. At the border, the money changers were enticing me and I wanted to change part of my money into Ugandan Shillings. It was very confusing though; new currency confuses me! Not forgetting I had not yet cleared with immigration on both sides and the custom officials searching luggage. I was in a panic! I told the money changer that once everything was settled, I’d look for him.

I had no trouble getting my Rwanda exit/Uganda entry stamps on my travel document. I got back to the bus to find all my luggage in a heap outside, just like the rest of the passengers. I opened my bags for a Ugandan customs official who confirmed I was not smuggling any contraband. Now I had the daunting task of getting my luggage back in the bus!

I started with my suitcase, trying to lag it up the steps of the bus. Two small boys who were hawking water to the passengers in the bus noticed my struggle and offered to help. They put their bottles aside and carried my suitcase in, plus my other heavy bag. I gave them all the Rwandese currency I had left, about $5. They thanked me profusely and wished me a safe journey. I asked them their names: Alex Moses and his friend (can’t remember his name). Their beautiful faces stuck with me. I smiled for the first time since leaving Rwanda. My only regret is that I did not have a camera with me at the time.

I eventually changed my money, trying to get accustomed to the Ugandan notes. I gave up the seat next to mine as the bus filled up on the way. It got dark as we went up and down the hills; Western Uganda is quite hilly. The road was being repaired but there were bad sections where I felt as if we were going to topple off the hill. Worse, the driver was driving way over the speed limit, slowing down only to take sharp corners. I remembered there were no seatbelts and kept hoping we don’t crash. Outside, it was a clear beautiful night. The moon was casting a soft shadow on the hills, which looked like mountains in the night. The stars shone brilliantly. I remember thinking it was a beautiful night to die(!). Sometimes I lost sight of the moon as we drove on one side of a steep hill and at that time, the stars looked like motherless children: sad and forlorn.

I dozed off sometime later after midnight. I slept on and off until we arrived in Kampala at five in the morning. The conductor told us to get off the bus but no one was budging, we were all waiting for it to be light. I did not want to spend another minute in the horrible bus and took a cab to my friend’s place in a hostel near Makerere University.

In Kampala

Kampala was just the opposite of Musanze. Musanze is a quiet, beautiful town; clean and cool. In fact when I left, it was raining.

Kampala was hot and dusty! It felt like being in Kenyan coast only without the redeeming quality of sunny beaches and an endless ocean view. I dreaded going out in the scorching sun and dusty streets, where cars competed with motorbikes for space on the roads. The passenger-carrying motorbikes- boda bodas- sometimes drove the wrong way on one-way roads. You don’t know ‘dangerous’ until you’ve taken a boda boda in downtown Kampala, without a helmet!

If wearing helmets for both the passenger and the rider is a law in Rwanda (which it is), then there must be a law forbidding helmets in Kampala. Maybe it’s the heat, I don’t blame them. The 24hr protection advertised by Nivea deodorant lasted only 1hr, tops!

I stayed in Kampala for about 3 days, doing what young people do to pass time.

The Luxury Bus to Nairobi

Easy Coach is easily the most luxurious bus I’ve ever taken. It’s not just comfortable, it’s luxurious. Akamba is comfortable. So are the coast-plying buses from Nairobi. Easy Coach to-and-from Kampala is luxurious.

The bus was there when we arrived at 5.25p.m. and departure time was 6pm. I had booked the previous day and chosen a seat in the singles column. The bus has just three seats per row: 1-isle-2 seat arrangement. The floor of the bus was shiny and clean, the area under the seats carpeted. There was a bag-thingy at the back of the seat in front of me so I didn’t have to hold my handbag and food-to-eat-on-the-bus on my lap. There was plenty of space and the seatbelts worked. The seat could recline all the way back until you are almost horizontal. There were footrests that you could lower/raise. I sighed with pleasure.

Luggage was checked and labeled. There would be no stopovers to pick random passengers on the way so luggage was safe till we arrived in Nairobi. I hugged my friends goodbye and got onto the bus. I waved at them till we turned a corner and joined Kampala traffic. The sun was setting and I was reading Charles Onyango-Obbo’s book: Uganda’s Poorly Kept Secrets.

Before we took off (at 6pm on the dot), the guy who had been labeling our luggage handed us cold bottled water. Compliments of Easy Coach.

As I was getting comfortable; adjusting my seatbelt, reclining and pulling up my seat, raising and lowering the footrests; I noticed some buttons overheard. One was drawn on it the G-clef (I remember my brief music lessons in primary school) and I pressed it. Nothing happened. Two were for the individual overhead lights, these worked. One bright, one dim. On another button was a steaming cup of tea. I didn’t press it: I’m not an idiot. It may have been first class, but it was still a bus!

I had an interesting conversation with the guy in the seat ahead of me. On my two-month stay in Rwanda, I had to use correct grammar so I could be understood. Now some guys I meet are telling me I don’t sound Kenyan. Sample some parts of our conversation with the guy:

“Me I am telling you…”

“I had used that ka-machine of mine sijui for like for 6 six years.”

“Otherwise me I think night runners are just shy nudists.”

I’m definitely back in Kenya.

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!

Rwanda: Comparison with Kenya

It’s been a week since I got here. It’s only natural I compare Rwanda and Kenya in almost every conversation I have. In Kenya this would never happen, in Kenya this is how we do it, in Kenya we do this, we do that, we hate this, we love that…. I hope my workmates are not tired of me yapping all day. I try to keep it to a minimum and to avoid saying just how better we are than them, because we are not. Our technology may be better, the education system may be way ahead, but in the end we’re all just people. Equal yet not equal.

Three things bother me, actually, four things bother me about this country. I love Rwanda so far, but it has a long way to go. Eric, a colleague of mine, told me he listens to East Africa Radio and they always ask, “Rwanda mtaweza kweli?”

The first thing that disturbs me is people’s reaction to white people. Don’t get me wrong, if a white person goes to a remote village in Kenya, everyone is bound to get curious and a little excited. It’s allowed. But here, it’s a little too much. My host (the guest house owner) told me sometimes when she opens the gate, she may find adult women who stop walking to just stare at her. One time they even formed a semi-circle and just stared until she’d closed the gate.

When Julie and the rest of the team, I included, drove up to Rushubi Primary School to prepare the classroom for lessons this year, all the kids in the playground stopped what they were doing to run to her. They had surrounded her so much she could hardly take a step. Some of the little kids were falling over and getting stepped on; it was almost a stampede. Whenever she’s driving, kids who know her shout her name, which is great, and she honks at them. Those who don’t know also call out, mzungu, mzungu and ask for something. Most kids almost always wave, at first I also waved back till I realized, oh, I’m not included in the waves. So now I don’t wave back.

 

Children from Rushubi Primary School when we visited
Children from Rushubi Primary School when we visited

There is always an association in people’s minds of white people and an unlimited amount of money, which is common all over the world and more so here.

The second thing that bothers me is the newness of things. When I first came here, I was so excited to see almost everything looks new. The roads, the buildings, the fences… when we drove through the countryside, the farms looked like they hadn’t been around for long, the houses looked like people had just begun to live in them. It’s been only 15 years since the genocide so this should not surprise me, the country is still rebuilding. At first it was exciting to see how new and organized everything looks, but now it just makes me a little sad. I like the way there is a permanence to old things. An assurance that since these buildings have been here for so long, they’ll still be here many years to come. If you go to our home in the village, where my grandmother still lives, there’s a feeling that we’re all totally settled and the place has been and will always be there. With new things, you can only hope that they’ll last, that just maybe this is the last time they’ll have to rebuild.

 

A view of the volcanoes (can you see them in the distance) from the appropriately named Volcana Lounge where we sometimes hang out in the evenings
A view of the volcanoes (can you see them in the distance) from the appropriately named Volcana Lounge where we sometimes hang out in the evenings

The third thing that has me sleepless at night (let’s just say it’s not the source of the sleepless but I think about it whenever am awake) is the education system in Rwanda. This is the third week of January and schools have not yet opened officially. Can you imagine that? While in Kenya, it takes two days for kids to settle in school and learning to start, in Rwanda, schools don’t even open on the first week of January but on the second, and even then kids may not turn up for school for almost two weeks. The primary 8 results are not yet out (by the time am typing this they’re already a week late) and like Kenya they determine which secondary school you go to. The laxity with which they are taking their education is just disturbing.

The standard of education needs a lot of improvement. Rwanda switched to English as its official language but hardly anyone speaks it. The teachers themselves don’t know it very well, so sometimes they teach in Kinyarwanda. Kids in primary five can hardly understand what you’re telling them in English, let alone express themselves beyond, “my name is….” and good morning, good night and bye.

The teachers looked like a sad lot to me. Okay, maybe not sad but there is no enthusiasm in them. If you’re teaching kids, you have to be motivated. They’re paid so poorly ( I don’t know the exact amount, will try to find out) and there may be salary delays. Teachers all over the world may be underpaid, but any government that knows the importance of education should realize that a motivated teaching workforce is the key.

The last thing that bothers me is lack of openness. The fear of the police. The way there are some things you can’t talk about. The way you can’t criticize Kagame. He’s a great man but he’s not perfect. But these things take time.

 

A message in Kinyarwanda that is displayed in front of all classrooms. I'll get the translation to English later.
A message in Kinyarwanda that is displayed in front of all classrooms. I’ll get the translation to English later.

I just hope there is some way I can contribute towards Rwanda’s development. It needs the support of the rest of East Africa.

Onto Lighter Matters:

I have had some good times here. Remember the cute guy who came to stay at this guest house with his parents? Well, he came with his American girlfriend who’s of Chinese/Japanese origin. Sad, right? I don’t think the gf considered me a threat so we spent the second night chatting with him before dinner. He has the heaviest American accent I’ve ever heard, it’s like he swallows all his words. He was reading some book about Rwanda in ’94 and he’d put a thumb we he’d stopped so I told him I’d give him my bookmark.

At dinner time, we sat next to each other and I noticed how well toned he looked ;-) and his hair is like golden (it’s some shade of brown, I think). After dinner, his parents retired for the night and they live in Kigali. They offered me a place to crash if am ever in town, they’re sweet people.

Then we also left to go to bed and since our rooms are next door, cute guy (his name’s Matt) came into my room and I searched among my books for the bookmark I had. It was written something like: from someone who loves you or crap like that and I thought it’d give a strong hint. I couldn’t find the damn thing!

Rwanda Room
Rwanda Room

Anyway, he said it’s the thought that really matters and thanks and then he gave me his card with his number and email. I asked him what he does for a living and he said he’s a personal trainer and massage expert. I told him if am ever in Oregon I’d give him a call. I’d certainly do with a massage, LOL. Then he gave me a long goodnight hug, sad I may never see him again.

The following day, as they were leaving early in the morning, I woke up to say bye and gave Matt a bookmark I had improvised. You know those decoration cards you find in new wallets? I never threw mine away so I scribbled my number at the back and gave him the bookmark.

Time will tell.