everybody knows

This weekend, it will be two years since I left the UK so you find me in reflective (read: navel-gazing) mood. I’m sitting alone in the courtyard at Civitas waiting for my chips-salad and fish brochette to arrive whilst knocking back a Primus and smoking a Dunhill Light. I’ve only just placed my order so I have plenty of time to indulge in my favourite subject; me.
Around about now I should have been finishing my contract in Bahrain and heading back to the UK, having earned enough to free myself up to do something less-boring-instead. But it didn’t work out that way (I shall spare you the details) and I’m sitting here in Rwanda as a VSO volunteer by way of a six month stint of working in Switzerland. I have eight months left here and then who knows?

Nicky and Kit get hitched

There have been so many endings and beginnings and difficult choices along the way and I wonder what will come next. During my time in exile everyone has been getting married or pregnant or ill or leaving or dealing with grief and all those other big life issues that you wish you weren’t so far away from. Happily, I was there to see Nicky and Kit  get married but I have missed and will continue to miss so many other events. I find this difficult to deal with although the visits of friends seriously takes the load off. We all know how I need to be brought into line from time to time…

I’m not sorry that I no longer have the work life I had before (see ‘before’ and ‘after’ pics) and I am hopeful that this period in my (mid) life will lead to more fulfilling times.



We shall see (and for those observant blog followers, one point is awarded if you remembered that this is the purpose of the blog and two points are awarded for linking this to the ‘Gin & Tonic Enigma’).

What have I learned so far? Not much, but this much I do know:

  • You can never have too many adaptors.
  • The BBC is a mouse-like government machine. How did I ever think it was anything different? That said, last night a (BBC) iplayer saved my life.
  • Plastic bags are incredibly useful things.
  • Having a UK passport means you’re free. I visited home last year and joined some friends on a demo that thronged through the streets. It was exhilarating. Marching for what you believe in without consequences (usually) is a right to be cherished and fought for.
  • I crave solitude more and more and find this surprising.
  • The soothing qualities of good linen are not to be underestimated
  • I will NEVER get used to cockroaches.
  • Cute vintage dresses in Brighton metamorphose into miserable Mormon dresses as soon as you arrive. Anywhere.
  • I never want to ‘Work in Development’ and talk about going to the ‘Field’. Pah. The New Colonialism is a sick pup in need of urgent attention.
  • Not all birds sing the same song but there is a dawn chorus wherever you go.
  • I miss my dog.

The Heart of the Matter

(Dear) friends of mine came to visit recently and we tripped around this little country of Rwanda enjoying camping with impala and warthogs up at Mutumba Hills in Akagera National Park and driving all the way to the other side of the country on the same day to stay in Gisenyi at the beautiful Palm Garden Resort set on Lake Kivu.

Palm Garden Resort Gisenyi

I had meticulously planned the trip so when we whizzed past a refugee camp full of children playing football on the road from Musanze to Gisenyi, we were taken aback. I knew of the camp’s existence but didn’t know where it was. After having a jolly old holiday time, it was a sudden sobering reminder of a seemingly never ending and tragic tale going on in this part of the world. As we neared Gisenyi, we neared the border with The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); so near that I received a welcome mobile network text.

welcome to DRC

The debate over the latest activities in Eastern DRC which has caused the need for this and other camps to be set up in the region, is hotting up. A much anticipated publication from the UN on whether Rwanda is involved in the recent activities or not has been delayed to some speculation here and here and rebuffed by the Rwandan government here.  The Rwandan government vehemently denies any involvement and tempers are flaring in Kigali and Kinshasa.

The more I read on the DRC, Rwanda and their strife, two things are becoming apparent. One: that I am deeply ignorant on the subject, Two: that it is an incredibly complex web of wars, genocides, colonialism, and greed. The horror the horror, indeed.

I read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad as a good Anthropology student (and guilt-ridden member of an old empire) a long time ago but it is back on my reading list as I try to fathom some kind of narrative as to how, in 2012, the miserable story grinds on.

If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter?                                                                                          ………………………………..Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter

Historical context is everything although the way phrases like ‘heart of darkness’ are lazily/ignorantly thrown about when referring to African wars and corruption is problematic for me. If you feel as naive as I do and you’re interested in grappling with this story at the heart of Africa, and, I would suggest, the heart of everything, below are the books which have been recommended to me.

I’m currently reading the exhilarating and illuminating book Blood River by Tim Butcher about his epic journey through the DRC following in Stanley’s footsteps. For fiction, I’m reading A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul set in Kisangani. Next on the list are Jason Stearns’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (he also writes an excellent and thought-provoking blog here), Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost and the highly recommended Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

Have you read any of these? Are there others you would recommend? And what order should I be reading these in?! Any advice gratefully appreciated.

And if you can’t be bothered with any of the above then I suppose you could always stick Apocalypse Now (Redux) on. 

The End.

Peace in Kigali

The Kigali Peace Marathon took place recently and a number of VSO volunteers took part in it. Unfortunately, the best I could do for peace was walk the 5km ‘Fun Run’ circuit. Better than nothing I suppose.  The Kofi Annan contribution if you will…

Alice who was running 10km in the VSO relay team stayed at my house the night before and made sure I got up at 6 a.m. to get to Amahoro Stadium in time for the 7a.m. kick-off.  Otherwise, helping with peace may have had to wait awhile.

We stumbled up to the stadium and pinned our numbers onto our T-shirts.  Whilst trying to dispel the feelings of foolishness in just walking, we set off all together; the marathon runners, half marathon, 10km relay and the 5km ‘Fun Run’ and me & Katharine…

It was fascinating to be walking about the closed off streets of Kigali and to see the reaction of people on the pavement who I doubt had planned on watching a marathon and seemed more intrigued than anything else.  My walking partner and I were laughed at a fair few times and encouraged to actually run. Oh the shame.

It was great to see a good number of women running and doing really well.  Away from the leaders (also known as ‘Kenyans’) there were a fair few girls running with no shoes (on tarmac) and no bra.  This was somewhat incongruous with the big stadium setting and I hope that in time this will change.

That said, other than the more professional runners and the white contingent, footwear in general was quite random.  I heard the man in football boots coming from behind me a long time before he arrived!  It was really inspiring to see so many people taking part and doing well in spite of their limited kit. When Katharine and I were overtaken by a chap with one leg and on crutches (he was doing the half marathon to great applause) we felt we should probably step up the pace and get on with it!

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it’s the simple things in life…

Dear Diary,

It has been some time since I last made an entry. Forgive me.  I have been feeling really tired for weeks and wondering  if it was my age as well as my advancing  anti-social tendencies (which, I feel, are intrinsically linked; wherever you are and whatever you happen to be doing) which has stopped me from joining fellow volunteers for fish brochettes, beer and japes around town.

As further symptoms developed (I’ll spare you the details) I decided that praps something else was afoot (as well).  So I looked up ‘medical services’ in my volunteer handbook (with blue binder, colour coding sections and everything!) and selected the ‘Belgian Doctor’ from the small list of recommended physicians.  “Amoeba’s” he explained.  Naturally, my thoughts drifted back to those days of darkly etched wooden benches in the biology room at Tanbridge House where the truth of life was revealed to us in odorous ways.

This was preferable to the information that greeted me once I fired up Google.  I was given three days of antibiotics and worming tablets (!) and strict instructions to avoid alcohol.  It felt really strange to know that I had been harbouring stowaways who were (literally – no I don’t mean figuratively!) sucking the nutrients out of my body.  In order to deal with this unsavoury reality, I resorted to calling them my ‘pet parasites’ and in order to excuse self from dining/drinking etc. explained that “we’d taken a vote and I had lost and we were going home for a group nap…”

After the copious amount of drugs were completed, I felt much better than I had in weeks.  For about four days.  And then I felt worse than I had the first time round.  I went back to the Belgian Doctor. “Lactose Intolerance” he said.  Excuse me?  Pets harbouring test revealed they had gone so this, he felt, was the reason.  Righto. So I have been laid out for days with the alleged lactose intolerance feeling very very sorry for self.

Being ill when living alone is always rubbish;  as pointed out frequently by me to friends back home, “I could die and nobody would know”.  But being ill and living alone and away from friends to guilt into stopping by with an egg sandwich (with no running water, no bath, no couch) a girl can get to feeling downright miserable.

Happily, I woke up this morning feeling much brighter; both physically and emotionally.  This was actually at 5 a.m. as I could hear the toilet cistern filling up. Water! So I rushed about filling all the buckets and every other vessel I could find and celebrated by having a three kettle bucket bath which includes hair treatment, hair conditioning, body scrub, leg shave and foot soak!  I jumped back into bed and listened to the dawn arrive whilst finishing my book.

A good day already and it was barely light.

a day in the life

My alarm goes off at 06.15 a.m.every day although I am usually awake from the dawn chorus, nay, cacophony of birdsong from around 5.30 a.m.and then the sound of the Motos beeping opportunistically for customers; their tiny engines whining at exactly the same pitch as a mosquito in the dark.  I get up and tie the bed net up to keep it pure of pestilience.

Then I pad to the kitchen and boil the kettle; once for a cup of tea and a ‘shower’, or twice for a cup of tea, a shower and hair-washing; it’s amazing how far a kettle of water can go when you don’t have a water heater.

My shower is a red plastic bucket of which I have become rather fond of, given the amount of time I spend with it. I have just about perfected the two-kettle shower which often also includes a foot soak and scrub! Thank heavens I have small feet (see size of bucket).

Food in general tends to be complicated. Partially as there are just two electric rings for a cooker and no storage and things go off pretty quickly. So I have opted for luxury-in-a-box – Alpen Berries. Imported (along with most things), this box costs the equivalent of around £6.60/$10 when it would cost less than half that back home. I eat it slowly…..

Just lately I have dispensed with wearing make-up. Everything else seems to take so much longer in the morning or is it just an excuse? Either way, I have a shock when I see my reflection. No make-up, and hair scraped back because of the heat is not doing a great deal for my looks; such as they are…
Then off to work. Below are some pictures to show you my commute (the alleyway I walk along next to my house and a nice lady and the road I where my job is.


Altogether this takes five minutes and I arrive at 08.00 in time for prayer.
At the bottom of this post is the desk I sit at and if you play the clip, you will hear singing in the background. I must have recorded this on a Tuesday as this is when the team (of three) have ‘big prayer’. It lasts for about an hour and I don’t join in (it’s all in Kinyarwanda). Although I do on every other day of the week. We sing a hymn in Kinyarwanda (of which I am only learning very slowly), then our boss explains what has been happening and what we need to focus on for the day (in english, for my benefit), and then a prayer is said invoking the will of god to support us to successfully perform the tasks just described by the manager.

I am never asked to say a prayer myself and there is no pressure to attend the morning prayer. But I like to join in all the same.  I find it quite a bonding and peaceful way to start the day.

From this morning, things will change. I’m moving house and will be living next door! I will miss the alleyway commute and all the ‘good mornings’ or ‘bonjours’ from my fellow commuters.

sorry doesn’t help

It’s 7.45 a.m and it is an oddly grey and cool morning. The usual thunder of Saturday traffic past my house is petering out because today is Umuganda and we are all expected (by law) to be outside joining in with our local Umudugado (small named housing sector) area works; be it cleaning in front of the house or taking part in specific works like clearing ditches. If you get in your car and go out, you will be stopped by the police and not be able to move until Umuganda is over (around 11 a.m.).

I have had vague intentions of joining in since I arrived but so far have failed to identify which Umudugado I live in (and for that matter, what my address is). The night before Umuganda always seems to be extra lively in town. Last night was no exception, and I wonder if I am the only person to wake up with a sore head and a failed ambition; intentional or otherwise? So here I wait until I can go out.

To add to the liveliness, two Grenade Attacks were also carried out in Kigali last night. They have been generally viewed as part of the run up to Genocide Memorial week which starts on Monday culminating on Saturday 7th April which will be Genocide Memorial Day across Rwanda.  Eighteen years on.

Where shall I be on the 7th? Driving about Akagera National Park having a fun old time. That’s where. Like so many expats, I shall be taking advantage of the extra day off on Friday and getting out of Kigali to frolic elsewhere. The exodus of westerners has started in earnest already and you cannot escape the obvious parallel this departure has on the past. As we all know, Rwanda was abandoned to its fate by westerners who lived here and was ignored by the international community until most of the killing had been completed in those 100 days and the word ‘genocide’ was finally accepted as applicable to Rwanda.

The traffic sounds have now been replaced by the hubbub of voices and I can hear the odd scraping of shovels. Let’s see what next month brings; another Primus hangover or a commitment to taking part in my community of which I haven’t been bothered to find out the name of?

Oh to be in england, now that april’s (almost) there

We’ve had a plague of brown moths in Kigali recently. They just appeared one morning and papered the house. At work, they lurk in the giant avocado tree and come charging out at you, scattering tiny desiccated versions of their recent selves on your dress as you hurriedly cross the yard.

There is no chatter online about it or in the local newspapers. Nobody else seems to notice or be bothered by them and I wish I hadn’t read so much Kafka as a (tortured) teenager. I can deal with all the cockroaches and ants and suchlike, but not these motherflutterers…

Perhaps they’re here as part of the weather cycle. April is when the ‘big rains’ come and we have already had some spectacular warm-ups for the event.

So when I received an email from Lisa commenting on the cherry blossom coming out on the trees in Brighton and the merits of growing her petunias from seed, it made my heart pang for home.  Before I knew it I had bought Elgar’s Enigma Variations on iTunes and found myself in full pine… (yes Jane, that does mean ‘Nimrod’).

It is the time of year when Nicky will be making furtive trips to Wyevale, Emma and Rupert will be bounding all over the beach, and everyone will be planning trips to The Field or Cuckmere Valley and having lashings of beer at The Giant’s Rest, arguing about what pudding to have and remarking on how beautiful England is this time of year. And was that a Nightingale we heard on our walk today?

Don’t get me wrong, Rwanda is an amazingly beautiful country and I am spoilt rotten by the incredible bird life here. In 30 minutes I can be in beautiful countryside with hills that go on forever. I just bloody miss sharing the spring in england with my friends.

Home Thoughts From Abroad

Oh, to be in England,
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough In England – now!
And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows –
Hark! where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops – at the bent spray’s edge –
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower,
– Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Robert Browning

Opportunity Knocks

A few weeks into being here, I have started my job and been lucky enough to get out of Kigali to Akagera National Park and to Lake Kivu; a truly beautiful country full to the brim with exotic birds, good roads and rules that everyone seems (more on this later) to obey and which certainly make it palatable for a muzungu (loosely meaning white person) like me to enjoy.  Corruption seems to be pretty low and the mosquitos even honour the flimsy net I have been issued with to cocoon myself in at night. How exotic.

So it is with disappointment that I am met with advice from many others on the matter of how to navigate my way around Rwandan life without being “ripped off.” I find this kind of conversation anywhere between tedious and downright objectionable depending on my mood.
Why on earth wouldn’t people selling things try and get the best price for them? I believe this is what is known as ‘market economy’. It is as old as the hills and we are all subject to it in one way or another… was it not Sony who recently raised the price of a Whitney Houston album on iTunes less than 24 hours after her death? Now That’s What I Call Market Economy!!

It is unfortunate that as a VSO volunteer (paid a local wage) we are likely to be charged similar prices to highly paid muzungu but life is like that I guess. And who says we are not still rich in others eyes? Yes, it is important to barter; nay, it is expected.  But don’t expect or demand the same price as locals. Yes this is opportunism but who said you and I are not up to the same game?

Are we volunteers not here seeking opportunities of our own? If you think you are doing this for purely altruistic reasons, then think again. . There is no such thing. You will be looking for an opportunity in one way or another; just like me.  I want to learn, I want to gain skills I can apply in a new and exciting job one day. I want to travel and see more of this beautiful country. I want to count the birds I see and perhaps some others activities I am not going to write about here!

I know that my being here will enrich my life all the greater and more opportunities will become available to me.  Can the same be said for those I meet at the market?

into the rose garden

I recently went to see a band  in a beautiful church in Brighton (King Creosote) with some of my dearest  friends.  It was a much anticipated event and had been sold out for weeks.  As we sat huddled in the dark, the band did not disappoint and it was a wonderful evening.  In fact, so wonderful that I kept finding myself being moved to tears.

All I could think about was how I was going to miss all of this very soon when I leave. I found myself missing something that was only part way through.  It was already being placed in the past before the band had even considered what they might play for the encore.

Having lived away before, I know what I am going to miss and how hard it can be to re-establish friendships. So I find myself missing everything and everyone right here and now before we have said goodbye.  I fear that when my future crosses back to this, it will be a different country .

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

(extract: Burnt Norton, T.S. Eliot)

the gin & tonic enigma


As humans, we have a curious ability to trick our minds into thinking that, this time, it will be different…but it rarely is.  My mother calls this the ‘gin & tonic enigma’ from when she would be driving home after a hot day at work and imagine the perfect drink she would mix and sit in the garden sipping.

But the dream was rarely realized as perfectly as she had imagined. Something would get in the way or it simply wouldn’t taste as she had told herself it would. Alexander Pope has something to say on this:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

(An Essay on Man, Epistle I, 1733)

This, I feel, is a suitable place to start this blog and I plan to ‘expatiate’ to a greater or lesser degree on the next and imminent scheme.

On 16 February I shall be boarding a flight to Kigali, Rwanda to work as a VSO volunteer for a year or two and this blog will be about this experience and whether or not it is anything like I have imagined it to be.  Mostly.