Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Oh, Germania!

Now, normally I would not buy a book like this, but I have a feeling that in my childhood I spent some afternoons in the author's family. Not that I can actually remember him - he is older than me and might have been at boarding school.

Stephan Wackwitz calls his book 'Neue Menschen - ein Bildungsroman'. Sorry guys, and Stephan, this book is arch-German and will never be translated into English. The translator would commit suicide first!

'New people - a .... novel'. What is a 'Bildungsroman'? 'Bildung' can mean 'education' but also 'formation'. As it happens, the French word 'formation' means 'training' (eg for work). Going round in circles, eh? The question is who is being educated - is it the reader? Probably if he or she pays attention to those zillions of highly learned references. Or is it about the education of the author? Or is it about how his gestalt is formed (going into deep psychological territory here, so we are)?

The other question is, why does he call it a .....'novel' when it is clearly autobiographical, using his family name(s?) and family history. Time to look up the term 'Bildungsroman'.

Victorianweb defines it as 'most generally, the story of a single individual's growth and development within the context of a defined social order. The growth process, at its roots a quest story, has been described as both "an apprenticeship to life" and a "search for meaningful existence within society."' Wow, we have learned something new today. Let's not pay any attention to the name of the website which relates to a period long past, and our author whose bildungsroman period coincides with mine. I am beginning to like this word - let's see how long it takes me to slip it into a report on social protection reform. 'The Bildungsroman of the Rwandan social protection system'.

So, our author is a GERMANIST. A GERMANIST is someone who studies German language and literature at university, generally in Germany. In this case, he has a PhD in it, though his current, mainly administrative job, probably does not provide an outlet for his undoubtedly considerable talents.

This Bildungsroman is about his growing up, up to the age of about 22 or so, as well as skirting through his parent's growing up period (more so his father's, he says his mother seemed to show little interest in him once he started school - maybe there were other children?). It seems that he was in any case not an easy child; while many first children have their troubles dealing with inexperienced parents he went through some difficult phases. Maybe his parents should have called him 'Placide' or 'Confiance' like Rwandan parents do. According to the book both his parents were quite bookish and interested in the arts, and probably as a result, our author became a bookworm, too.

It seems that our GERMANIST developed his identity through reading, discussions and debates - though I am not sure what he learned in his early years at university, when like many people of his time, he was a Marxist (and boy, could they talk - hindlegs off a donkey stuff! I remember it well), and he was much more involved in running errands for his party than in doing the studying. However, little seems to have passed him by, judging by the book. With me absolutely not being a GERMANISTIN I find scenes like where he and his girlfriend quote poetry at each other quite - aw, puke! - but then I might play music at someone.....

It would not be fair to say that the book is all his own work. While he credits all his quotations there are extended excerpts of letters written by both his parents, and many other quotes. It really would help, though, if he did not put something in the book, and then quote it again, the same text, a couple of pages later. His readers are not stupid!

While the book for me was a fascinating read since I was quite close by, both in terms of the period, and also, I think, literally across the street, if it had been written by a total stranger, I might not have bought it. The language is awesome - he really has a brilliant command of words and I wonder just what his vocabulary is like... but words like 'abstruse', 'obscurantist' also come to mind. The words he uses would definitely not fit into a 'plain German' guide. For example, he talks about 'oedipale Symptombildungsartefakte' (don't you love the German language?) which - maybe - are 'oedipal artefacts which create symptoms' - eh? He talks a lot about Oedipus... He skirts across German history, from about 1500 to now (all contributing to his personal Bildungsroman) to today, including my loved-hated poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger...Not a single page passes without a quote by some author or thinker so one wonders whether one is reading an academic text (for which it is very readable) or a novel/autobiography. And one asks oneself - does our author have the capacity to think for himself, and simply tell his story, or is it necessary to always be supported or positioned by other thinkers?

(Which is what I hate about academic texts, when every piece of research is preceded by a long section of quotes from other pieces of research almost in the same area - while it positions the research I sometimes wonder whether it is intended to show simply that the author has read other materials).

This book really is for people with a deep interest in heavy reading, philosophy and so on; I am not sure what people of a generation other than ours, who did not go through these phases, would think of it. I found it on the fiction shelves of a Vienna bookshop - where it might sell better, but I wonder how the poor bookseller is supposed to classify it.

Would I buy another book by the same author? I'd have to see what it is about - it's unlikely I would ever buy a technical GERMANISTIK text - but anything else I might well buy out of a sense of appalled fascination.


The Caucasian....

...chalk circle. No! ....body in the morgue. No! ....Chamber Orchestra. Yes! Could someone not have advised them on the name for the band?

This is a new orchestra, conducted by the multi-talented Uwe Berkemer. It consists of 17 or so string players, and so plays string orchestra music, mostly. Today's concert, in the Royal District Theatre, was of Armenian music.

It was my first event in this theatre, but the map was good, so there should be no trouble finding it.... except it was up a tiny back street, and looking at the houses around it, you would never have expected to see a functioning theatre there - the houses either side of it were semi-derelict, and suddenly, in the middle of them up popped this newly restored theatre (which on the inside, also had some picturesquely cracked walls).

So, the Armenian ambassador did a speech, the German and British ambassadors were there (the Brit left after the first half - well, he's a bagpipe player; the German ambassador has a certain resemblance with me and people have made mistakes - women with short hair and all that, though she wears bigger ear-rings).

Anyway, the orchestra launched into play, starting with Edvard Mirzoyan's 'Poem Epitaph'. Guys, it's probably not good to start with a quiet piece - everyone is nervous, you are a little orchestra, and the audience can hear the fear. It was quite disjointed, though in the noisy bit in the middle the orchestra got it together - only to fall apart again at the quiet end.

The orchestra then exploded into Alexander Arutunian's Sinfonietta, with more than a passing resemblance with Britten's 'Simple Symphony'. Not many composers start a piece with a 'presto' movement! Like the simple symphony, the third movement was almost entirely pizzicato; and the final movement was certainly an 'allegro risoluto' - nothing wishy-washy about this one. The orchestra was now much more in control and ready to give it all.

Eight of Komitas' folksongs followed, arranged by Sergei Aslamazyan. They were arranged in a slightly Hollywood, sickly sweet way without the rawness and passion that you get from a performance by a folk group (particularly in the restaurant 'Kavkaz' in Yerevan). Very pleasant, but not 'as Armenian' as they could be. 8 folksongs might have been a bit too many, but they were playing from a score which had even more!

After the very long interval (did I mention Armenian time-keeping? it seems to have come with the music. I had not noticed it in the theatres, but today there was a certain leisurely approach to time and sitting down in your seat) we had Mirzoyan's symphony for string orchestra and timpany. At the time of printing the programme the soloist was not known. Turned out that the conductor was the soloist! There he was, in front of 4 timps, waving his sticks about. Not only did he have to conduct, but also play and retune the timps at the same time. To be fair, this piece had no more 'timp'ing than a normal symphony with the timps behind - there was one stunning solo, and another wee snatch of timping, but otherwise the timps were slightly oversold. One could see it coming because as the conductor approached yet another entry he began to conduct more and more wildly, and then a little 'pop' would be heard. Not quite in the class of the French timpanist who in Vilnius a few years ago played a piece for 5 timps on 4 of them, with arms and legs flying all over the place - but that guy did not have to conduct as well.

The audience, which clapped wildly at all suitable and unsuitable moments (the Armenian touch again) had hardly time to draw breath at the end of the concert, when the orchestra launched into the encore with the Armenian song 'Lori' (as in Lori Marz, a local government region?). I watched aghast as the conductor faced the audience with some music in his hand - but actually he is a very fine singer and carried it off with much aplomb. Much better than some other conductors who would be advised to keep their mouths shut!

Now, you might be asking yourself 'what is a German conductor, relatively unknown, doing founding a chamber orchestra in the Caucasus?' I suspect that as always love might be involved. I was surprised to see in the audience a very blond child in the company of a Georgian lady, and wondered how they fitted together. The conductor is very blond, too. It may be that the leader of the second violin, who is the mother of the child, may also be very close - as in married? - to the conductor. It is pretty decent of them that she leads the second fiddles and not the whole orchestra, as some other such couples would do.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Return to Georgia

Another long return journey from Kigali to Tbilisi - this time also landing in Bujumbura, Burundi. This time my luggage is taking an even longer way round - and still travelling.

On the plane chatted to a tall Rwandan who works in China; he had studied computer science in China (and chinese) and now works there as a systems engineer, to make money and return to Rwanda eventually. He does not think he will stay in China or marry a Chinese.

Landed in Vienna, eventually and shot round to my favourite Cafe Landtmann. To my surprise, at 9.30 am it was packed - and I could only just get a seat. Where else would a cafe be so busy? The folks in it all had an age and appearance which suggested they should be sitting at their desks rather than spending time in a cafe. Or is this the 'canteen' for the nearby Foreign Office?

Every time I wander round Vienna I find new, lovely little side streets and corners - the centre really is delightful!

In the evening caught half of Boris Eifman's ballet 'Anna Karenina' in the Volksoper. This is a new production for Vienna - the premiere took place last November - but actually Eifman has produced this ballet for his St Petersburg 'Eifman Ballet' some time ago, and toured other countries, including Germany with it. In Vilnius we have had an alternative 'Anna Karenina' with music by Shchedrin (a Royal Danish production). The Eifman production uses music by Tchaikovsky, and this music lover tended to focus on the music rather than the dancing. Also because she had been travelling for about 36 hours by that time, and it was easier to rest the eyes....

In this production the famous train is a tiny toy train, as opposed to a stage filling train in the Vilnius production. The Eifman production has wonderful, but fairly traditional, costumes, a very flexible set and dancing that ranges from classical ballet to modern dance (in the 1920's sense, not post-modern), with an entrancing final scene at the end of the first act. The quality of the dancing was of course great, as you would expect in Vienna.

I know that Anna Karenina is a very fat book, but reduced to ballet it seems a bit of a thin story - girl meets dashing young officer, falls out of love with elderly husband, is torn between lover, husband and son.....not a great deal happens! I assume that this ballet was as short as the one in Vilnius; the first act was finished in less than 45 minutes and there were only two acts....

Yesterday, in Tbilisi, seeing Hamlet again, this time with simultaneous translation. Fantastic performance again - as thought the Director of the British Council. Funny moment - someone sitting in the fifth row answered his mobile phone - Hamlet, in midflow in a chat with his mates, happening to be looking in the direction of the offender, stopped and waited till the conversation had finished....



The title of this book, 'Fontanelle' by Meir Shalev does not give its publishing language away, but again this book is in German - though a number of his books have also been published in English, so it may yet come out in the UK.

I first came across this author at the book festival in Edinburgh, in about 2001 or so. Shalev is an Israeli writer, generally always writing the same book - a family saga of immigrants from Eastern Europe who settled in rural Israel maybe in the 1920s or so, and the developments within this family full of idiosyncratic folk over the next two or three generations. His books are very funny and amusing, and although Shalev's fantasy tends to run riot (one of his books included a speaking donkey), one nevertheless gets an impression of how Israel has developed over the decades.

This book is no different. Michael, the narrator, who is writing his family memoir, is the only person in the world whose fontanelle has not closed, so naturally his head is very sensitive - to the degree that he can predict certain events. His family, the Joffes, is full of strange characters - the huge dominant grandfather who shrinks to a cot-sized dwarf as he ages; the mother who is a radical vegetarian, the aunt who has not left the house during daylight since she got married in order to preserve her beauty, the aunt's illegitimate son brought up by the grandfather, the one-armed father who has a harem of women who all attend his funeral (not surprising he needs them what with the rigid vegetarian as his wife), and many other such characters. Every new Joffe who appears at the gates of the family farm, saying he is related, has to pass a test to see if they are a true Joffe, for example, by the way they slice bread.

The book skips backwards and forwards, with previously unexplained events eventually being described. The story is largely attached to the provenance of various family sayings - of which there are many!

The books is beautifully written/translated - and even if Shalev writes the same book every time, they are sufficiently different and complex to enjoy them in their different ways.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rwandan plant life

The green grass, the red soil, the white aid trucks of Kigali.

So that's where my land has gone....all rivers have the colour of the surrounding soil.

An avocado tree.

A very beautiful tree - but what kind?

A very large cactus


Living in Rwanda

Social Planning Rwandan style. A whole village gets together, makes a map of the village and decides jointly which are the most vulnerable households. Takes two days every year.

Rotary International collecting for the FIRST public library in Rwanda - in a location far from inhabited areas of Kigali .... The country could do with an Andrew Carnegie.

Rural scene

Centre of Butare

The mountains of Rwanda, laced with fields and terraces, from the bottom of the valley to the tops of the mountains


People in Rwanda

Ladies on the way to a wedding.

Le petit Confiance et son grand ami (avec le Tshirt contre le polio)

Le petit Josef

Girl at the bus stop, inspecting the musungu on the bus

People inspecting old shoes from Europe. Let's hope the baby in the pink wrap is a girl. (Photo taken with wrong focal setting)


Final thoughts on Rwanda

Some lovely moments:

  • seeing a tiny boy playing with a ball made from a blown up plastic bag; seeing other small boys play with hoops and circles
  • mixing with and talking to many 'ordinary' Rwandans
  • hearing about the lack of corruption and the considerable (and seeming successful efforts to rebuild the Rwandan society)
  • finding that my French, when pushed, is not so bad
Some moments of contemplation:
  • the number of malnourished and/or begging children
  • the lack of old people
  • seeing the gacaca (people's courts) doling out justice
  • hearing people talk about 'forgiveness' and 'reconciliation', even during a gacaca trial so the perpetrator is not sent to prison, less than 13 years after the worst massacres in the country's history


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Gacaca - or The Road to Forgiveness

This week the genocide has been much in the news in Rwanda and elsewhere since about 9000 genocide convicts are being released during the course of the week. On a trip to the countryside today I asked my driver how people felt about this. He said that people knew that they had to move on and that they had to forgive the murders for what they had done - otherwise the country would never develop. That is some tough approach to take for the relatives of the victims. Whereas in Germany after the war almost new Jews were left to face the murderers of their relatives, in Rwanda they will face them every day. The point of the gacaca is that the courts would otherwise have been completely overwhelmed after the genocide. Each village has two trained mediators who I think play a pivotal role. There's a jury (limited in number? I don't know), and I am not sure if there is a judge as well (there are large posters about gacaca everywhere).

At the same time, the gacaca (pronounced gachacha) courts are continuing. These are community courts where the community tries and judges people accused of genocide acts. As we drove into Butare, my driver found it very quiet and said 'I think there is a gacaca going on'. And indeed this was the case. We could not see it, but we heard about it from other people. All shops were closed because the whole community judges (they vote on it).

On the way back we passed right through another gacaca court, in a village, where the prisoners in their pink uniforms and some of the crowd were on one side of the road, and the rest of the crowd were on the other side, listening.

I am told that it is illegal in Rwanda to talk about race, and also about the genocide (in a particular way, presumably, since the word otherwise peppers every second conversation); it's also not appreciated to criticize the president. Having said that, it seems that the president, still a very lean fellow compared to other African presidents, is a very decent guy. For example, when he came to power, some of his relatives came to power, too, in different jobs. But when they abused this, he fired them. Then there are all those stories involving selling off of unnecessary government property such as those cars and those fancy lakeside homes. Someone described it as a benign dictatorship, and maybe that's what the country needs.

There is a secret service everywhere, down to village level, who checks whether people talk about these sorts of things.


It is time that children paid back to parents

A letter to the editor of the New Times (Rwanda):

'It is said that a family is complete with children. So what happens when you have the children back home and there is no house help? It is now holidays they are supposed to ease the workload on your shoulders.

Helping parents should not be regarded as a punishment but a fun to look forward to. In the past, it used to be a kinship obligation.

Cleaning around the house, helping at the shop or shamba will make you appreciate nature and learn how to work.

When children are at home it is time for the house maids and mothers to rest. Watching movies and strolling to town should be the last thing in any holiday maker's mind. Parents toil to get your school fees and other necessities. They really want you to be the source of their strength and not to become a disgrace.

No-one is going to laugh at you when you sweep the compound or wash clothes. Instead, they will go praising you. If one can flash back, a girl would get respect for her hard work, not for lousing or roaming the city or village. Years back it was weird to see a grown woman doing any kind of heavy work like fetching water. Even if she did not have kids, the neighbours would help.

Visiting friends is not bad, but most friends you visit are not good. Anyway, why do you not do some work home then you visit them later. Once a week is ok. Once you over do it even the parent of your friend will think its who teaches their child bad manners.

Practice makes perfect. There is no secondary school that will teach you how to cook or how to clean the dishes. So, better try it at home, it will be easy for you in future, when there is no one to do it for you.

It is not only girls to help the parents, but boys, too.

Staying at your rich auntie in the city won't change the status of the home in the village. Your identity will not change either. Remember your mother spends all her time on the farm to raise money for your upkeep, so you owe her a lot.

Dear mothers, it's you to sent a good example for them. If you are hard working and organised they are likely to follow your way. If the house maid is the answer to everything in the home then be ready for the embarassment. You will have to shoulder every responsibility until you die. Remember a good kid is for the father and a bad one is for the mother. It is better you train them than regretting all their lives why you had to be their mother.

No mother will not be happy if she/he is helped.

Even the house maid will get time to visit her family. It will be a relief for your parents; they will even save their money they are supposed to be payment for the house help all the time she will be away.

Habibah Uwera'

(sic sic sic for spelling and grammar). One hopes she does not have teenage children who would be trying to crawl into a deep hole while we speak!

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The earth was moving for me

In bed yesterday morning around 4 am I suddenly felt my bed shake. I thought 'earthquake'; then I thought, my neighbours are having sex - jeez, are the walls thin in this hotel or not? They have small children, and I suppose one needs to grab these opportunities....And anyway, Africa does not do earthquakes.

Turns out that my colleagues on the other side of the hallway felt it, too. It was a little earthquake all right, and took place in Congo - see here.

Must say, though, that the earth was the fastest thing that has ever moved in the Kigali Novotel. The waiting staff in the restaurant, apart from delightful young Celestin today, although they seem to be running about, appear to wear blinkers while they do so. The fact that the restaurant has only one or two menus to go around, also does not help! However, this seems to be generally the case in Rwandan restaurants (and GTZ is thinking of getting together with a local entrepreneur to start a hotel training school - not a minute too soon). This is why all restaurants have a buffet - it saves cooking to order....The food is great, but it would be nice if it was on the plate, too! And seeing the buffet menus are much the same every day one does fancy a change now and again.

The restaurant staff is still faster than the internet - which we are paying for. Just now I have been waiting and paying for 30 minutes for a page to open. It makes it almost impossible to do work in the hotel.

Chatted to the boss today. Only found out recently that the company is closely connected with a university (most universities have consultancy companies these days, it's how they make their money, and from foreign students). Apparently in the early days their work had been exclusively to produce studies on this, that and the other, paid for by various organisations. Recently the market had changed, he continued ...and I added 'and now you need to do work, too?'. Oooops. The combination of people doing studies, and those doing 'real work' is a pretty powerful one, mixing a wide range of information with 'getting your hands dirty' experience.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Rwandan names

People in Rwanda have the most wonderful first names, usually francophone:
Pacifique (a waitress in a hotel)
Placide (a waiter - maybe not totally appropriate from a customer service point of view)
Confiance (a small boy in an old sweater)
Esperance (someone's wife)
Seraphine (a lady working in a hospital)
Prosper (a waiter)
Fidele (a chap looking after a part of social assistance)

Imagine calling your four babies 'Placide', 'Calme', 'Heureux' and 'Fidele'. Would be nice if 'nomen est omen'.


Bonjour, Musungu - or the Pied Piper

Trip to Butare today. Modes of transport:

  • feet
  • local minibus
  • public bus to Butare
  • long-distance minibus
  • moto-taxi
Had decided to try and see, hear, smell, feel and taste life in Rwanda today. A change from the slightly reverse aquarium approach of yesterday, I did it all by ordinary public transport. I love public transport and think that everyone should use it - it's a point of social solidarity - use it or lose it, sort of thing. This applies more in Europe, including Lithuania, but in any case it is also much much cheaper than having or hiring a car. And one gets an idea of what life is like for ordinary people.

First I hiked down the road a bit, and then caught a local minibus to the bus station (about 20 US cents). Minibuses work on the principle of 100 per cent occupancy, so they like to replace descending passengers with new ones - which sometimes means a little wait.

At the bus station I found a semi-large, airy bus going to Butare, with 3-seater seats on one side, and 2 seater seats on the other side. 2 US dollars for the 133 km trip. This bus might have had a schedule, but in any case it had a formal ticketing system (which we had to hand back on leaving the bus - why?? to make sure there were no bodies left behind?).

The passengers were a mixture of people, many young men, some families, few older people (there are not many old people in Rwanda). I was perched on the edge of a 3-seater, next to a lovely, but quiet young man. I was also, all day, the only white person on the transport. A very smart young mother of a toddler and a baby of about 6 -8 months was busy dealing with her children. On the three-hour journey to Butare the infant often needed to be settled, and out would come the breast. Not in that delicate European way of hiding it under a sweater with just the necessary bit poking out, but a proud and prominent brown breast, for everyone to see and for the baby to appreciate. Occasionally, while feeding, she would change seats, popping over to some startled men (not all that startled, actually). Other times, when she was dealing with the older child, she would just hand the baby to the person nearest to her, who would then entertain it, with the young men nearby also participating.

My young man departed, I finally managed to put both buttocks on the seat, and another lady appeared beside me with a small boy (who later turned out to be a girl; most children have shaven heads). The child was totally startled to find herself next to a white person (a musungu), and every time we exchanged glances she burst into a huge grin. As did her mum (or granny? she seemed that bit older). These children are gorgeous! To pay her fare, the mother/granny had to dig deeply into her wrap, and finally procured a tiny twist of fabric, into which was knotted her money. That was not enough, so she dug into her bag, pulled out another large bit of fabric, into a corner of which were knotted some more coins. (We foreigners never seem to see coins - are they only for poor people paying very small amounts?)

Then another baby behind me became unsettled; her mother obviously did not have milk on tap as the first lady; various people made various suggestions, but to no avail. Finally the mum bought some milk from the lads in front of me (for possibly more than half a dollar?) and the baby settled down. By that time a conversation was raging across the whole of the front of the bus, including what seemed some cutting comments to the milk 'seller'; was he profiteering? The other mum again proudly whipped out her large and productive breast....

Some people at one of the stops did indeed shout into the bus 'Bonjour, musungu'. Everyone laughed!

Butare, is, it seems, quite a small place. We were dropped off at the edge of town, near a stadium, and then I just walked, following the long trail of people into the town; luckily there were some trees by the roadside, providing at least some shade. Suddenly found myself in front of the Copabu shop, that run by the GTZ funded cooperative making crafts. It was closed - Sunday!

The Ibis hotel opposite does not appear to be part of the big Ibis chain, which is probably a good thing, but it is very convenient for the coffee, and a quick regroup. I asked about a genocide memorial that I had heard about, (miles away), the market (closed on Sunday) and a money exchange bureau (next door), but without the market there was no great need to change money....

Wandered off along the road, and spotted a huge church in the middle of a lot of new buildings. Heard some singing and turned towards it, when I spotted a tree I had wanted to photograph (with lots of beautiful red flowers - one day I will upload the photos). A small boy called 'Confiance' came and spoke to me - he was about 7; he was a lovely wee boy. Another boy appeared and I managed to take a photo of both (and give them each a bit of money, seems only fair).

Popped into the church, just at the end of mass (it was catholic), and got into the last hymn, though people started leaving rapidly during the final hymn. It was a huge barn-like structure, with hundreds and hundreds of seats, all of whom were taken. The last hymn was accompanied by clapping in rather an interesting rhythm (which I noted, but am not going to reproduce in words).

Strolling out I was approached by a man in his best years (my age) who introduced himself as an agronomist at the local university, and we had a very wide-ranging conversation, largely in French. He knew quite a bit of Scottish history, including Mary Stewart, and then we talked about life in general, like the genocide, poverty, Euro-goats (goats apparently are not in the Rwandan culture, but it is difficult to feed cows on the tiny plots people have), his experiments on turning bananas, cassava and sweet potatoes into flour, participatory research, the real square kilometrage of Rwanda (including the sides of the mountains) and so on. We wandered along to an elderly blind beggar who my new friend gave some money to, as did I, and the beggar recited the Confiteor ('I believe') in Latin (it might have been the shortened version..). My friend had some theories about reincarnation, and wondered whether either the beggar or his parents had sinned in an earlier life. Then we discussed the link between Elias the prophet, who I understood, had murdered 450 people, and Jezebel, who had some link to him. Later, the theory was that Elias came back as John the Baptist, and Jezebel as Herod, and so Herod had JTB decapitated. Mind you, I don't know how anyone in Rwanda can take the word 'decapitate' in their mouth these days. The conversation was a small strain on me, because it took place in the scorching sunshine, and I kept glancing longingly at the large trees and their shade nearby....

We parted and I had another stroll round Butare, saw the hospital and also what I think was the children's hospital where the parents and children were sitting in the garden. Some people think it is a terrible burden for people with sick relatives to come to the hospital and care for their relatives...undoubtedly it does take people away from income producing work, but then everywhere at least parents are encouraged to stay with their children. I know that even in Lithuania adult patients also benefit considerably from the care provided by their relatives or friends, since the nurses don't always do it. And in many countries, other than Africa, hospitals don't provide food either (eg Armenia, and I am sure all those other countries at the bottom of the former Soviet Union).

Found the Copabu shop open; glad I had not come specially to do a major shop... it was full of masks and lots of carvings etc which I really really don't like...but found a little something for some more social solidarity. A group of French speakers who were having lunch at the same time as I were approached by a local souvenir seller and one of the guys bought a huge fertility doll (wooden statue with swollen belly). If I had been his wife and he had brought that home to me, I would have thrown him out and the doll after him!

Strolled back to the place where the buses left and found a space in a long-distance minibus, in the expectation that it would be faster. Well, neither was it faster, nor was there more space, on the contrary. The ceiling was also closer to my head than I might have preferred. Four people were packed into each row, possibly made for three. In our backrow there was an unknown guy, then Elie with his gorgeous nephew Josef, aged almost 7, and on my other side Seraphine, who worked at a hospital in a catholic town half-way to Kigali. We had a series of long conversations covering poverty, Eurogoats, climate change, the Iraq war, genetically modified food, the ubudehe system (of identifying the poorest in a village; not sure that many better-off people have heard much about it), Rwandan family structures (Seraphine had grown up in an adoptive family; family structures have been complicated since the genocide, what with 1.3 million orphans in a population of 8 million). Elie was a law student, and quizzed me about people's rights in my country ('too many' I should have said). Poor little Josef -when I tried to take his picture (to email to Seraphine) he refused to smile, on account of his missing front teeth - he even clapped his hand in front of his mouth! Unfortunately he was really black, and, as we know, non-smiling black faces really really do not show up well on photos. Then we got him to smile, and all was well. Watch this space! They were all really, really lovely people.

Bursting out of the minibus after 3 hours of cramped sitting I decided to start walking back to the hotel (about 5-7 km). Some young men in the street gave me a bit of bother, but I shook them off quickly (literally), and then found myself being followed by four children, rather further than I think they should have followed me. They did not look like street children to me, so I gave them no money. Finally, when we got into a posher area, they returned to where they had come from - but it had been a long time that I heard the 'slap, slap' of their flip flops. Passed the first public library to be built in Rwanda (read that again 'the first public library in Rwanda' in 2007)! The Rotary Club is sponsoring it, and it has temporarily arrested its development. Its location is another marvel of non-consultation and consideration - it's in an area far from the average Rwandan's home, in a street that not many people have reason to pass. You'd want to be determined.

For the last km or two home I took a moto-taxi - a motorbike, just to add to my collection of public transport. It was great! Now my face resembles a very ripe tomato.

I would not have missed this trip for the world! It was wonderful, absolutely brilliant - one really needs to get stuck into life, and get involved with real people who have nothing to prove to foreigners one way or another.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

A S Byatt's Study

Last Saturday's Guardian contained a photo and description by herself of AS Byatt's study, in Putney, London. It's in an attic, apparently without central heating (a large electric heater stands very close to her chair), and although the room seems to have a large window overlooking a garden and her neighbours in big Georgian houses, she also has one of those anti-SAD daylight lights.

Although there are many books, and Things, it looks comfortable for writing, though on her desk she seems to have barely space to hold a pen (she handwrites). She calls it a purposeful disorder - I think this is a particular British trait; I am sure I have heard or read comments from foreigners about the state of British homes. She is very lucky not to have my Georgian homecare expert who would have the place tidy in no time! The room does look very work focused, though - especially considering she does not even have a computer there to surf the net with, or, as in her case, play Freecell.

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Nearly in Congo!

Out in the countryside today; slightly in an ex-patty way, with a car and a driver, but it was cheap enough for the three of us, and on a first trip one wants to sus things out.

We went off to Gisenyi, close to the Congo border - in fact we took a look at the border to Congo, and more....

The journey took about 3-4 hours, given that on the way there we had a cup of coffee at Ruhengeri, the departure centre for the trips to visit the gorillas (at a breathtaking 400 USD per person, soon increasing beyond 600 USD) - never be in a hurry with meals, and even a cup of coffee in Rwanda! Mostly the road was good, apart from one village, where it was just mud and very slow to get along....

My impressions:

  • The main form of transport are feet; the vast majority of people, probably we saw thousands today, walk along that road, often carrying a variety of items on their heads, including crops, shopping bags, water canisters, and even backpacks, despite the fact that the straps are hanging down in front of their face. Perhaps if all your life you have carried things on your head, the leaning forward approach to carrying a backpack is a bit hard on the back?
  • On their backs many women, and even quite small girls, carry the babies. This is of course extremely practical, and looks so sweet. The baby gently drools into the carrier's blouse, and looks either right or left - turning the little head is really hard. The little brown feet look out on either side of mum. So far I have only heard one of these wee mites cry.
  • The next most common form of transport are bicycles. I don't for one moment believe that they have gears. All are equipped with a soft padded seat on the carrier for taking one or two other people along. And they are pedalling uphill like crazy, with or without passengers.
  • Then there are a few motorbikes.
  • Followed by minibuses, and the occasionnal big bus.
  • Some lorries also travel along this road.
  • Finally there are private cars. I doubt if the numbers we saw on this 300 km road trip, once we left Kigali, reached double figures.

  • There is, therefore, serious poverty. Most houses were built from mud bricks, though particularly in the urban centre also brick houses existed. I doubt if in the countryside any private houses had electricity, and of course no water. So people of all ages, even small children, were on their way to fetch water, often from rivers because the public standpipes are chargeable (at 1 RWF per litre; the annual poverty line is 90,000 RWF; imagine how much water a family of 5 people would use in the course of the year). Someone used semitransparent water containers which suggested that the water collected is far from clear.

    Most people were wearing shoes, often plastic flip flops, but about 20% or so had no shoes. A colleague had reported that in the same area a year ago some men were wearing rags of women's clothes; I could not see anyone like that this year. For the last week we have been discussing in the project how to identify the most vulnerable people in the society; this trip suggested to me at least that the clothing a person wears could be a good indicator (common sense really...) - some children in particular had clothes which were the same colour as the dust around them, suggesting that they cannot change them to wash them.

    Some men were wearing smart pink suits with shorts, whilst working in a hospital garden. Turns out that these are prisoners. This explains why yesterday, when I saw a long long line of these near a market, a lot of people turned and stared. Stupid question of the day - I asked the driver, whose uncle runs the prisons in Rwanda, whether there were many people in prison in the country (thinking of the UK prisons crisis). 'Of course', he said, 'the genocide'.

    Talking of which, the World Bank Office has a memorial for the 13 staff members who 'disappeared' during the genocide. Hacked to death, presumably. Very moving. Other memorial sites have the skulls and bones of 10,000, if not 100,000 victims...

    The agriculture mainly focused on small plots. Data suggest that the average plot size is less than half a hectare (about an acre) which often contains the house people live in. There is a policy of concentration, though, whereby people are moved into a village centre, freeing their plots for cultivation (by themselves and those, on whose ex-plots their new houses stand?). I noticed that people in different villages seem to grow much the same crops; some villages were banana villages, others had potatoes, yet others had something buried deeply under raised earth. I wonder what this does to a subsistence level econonomy where people have not much income other than what they grow. Would it be better to grow a mixture of crops? I don't know. What was very noticeable, though, was the fact that many plots were stuck on almost vertically ascending hillsides, right up to the top of the hills. They were all terraced, more or less well, and some were growing some bushes along every terrace which might stabilise it more - those these bushes looked a little scrawny. But if there is a field empty of crops, and it rains heavily I am not sure that much of the field would remain. The colour of some of the rivers suggested the same.

    In Gisenyi we treated ourselves to lunch at the Kivu Sun Hotel, a very nice indeed hotel by the lakeside. Again a little ex-patty, with rich Rwandan clients and what looked like soldiers on R&R from the nearby Congo. (The UN is heavily involved there - we saw a truckload of Arabic-looking soldiers), and not far from the border there is a small refugee camp. The lunch was delicious, the hotel, belonging to the Serena chain, the poshest (international) chain in Rwanda, a delight. Though again you would not wish to be in a hurry! Weird moment during lunch when suddenly the theme tune of 'All Creatures great and small' was played. Sometimes it is a shame having colleagues who cannot appreciate this cultural moment of what should be British togetherness.

    After 3 hours of lunching I decided to go for a swim. Not having my cozzy in Georgia, here I had to improvise (in the poshest hotel for miles around). My running shorts, and my 4 USD Tshirt did just fine, though, trudging bra-less through the assembled guests, I collected a few odd looks....I spent over 20 minutes swimming in the quite warm water far out from the hotel, perhaps even crossing the border to Congo in the water, and returning supported by a gentle swell from the odd passing boat. Very pleasant indeed. I have now swum as close to the equator as I am likely to get!

    We had seen the Congo border a little earlier - a rather rudimentary with an unguarded strip of no man's land on which someone had even built a very posh house. Gomma, on the other side of the border, looked impressive. Gisenyi, on this side, was the quietest place we had seen during the trip. Another laudable point in favour of the Rwandan government - it used to own many of the lakeside villas for its ministers etc, until some years ago it decided to auction them off. They really seem to be committed to cutting unnecessary costs.

    In fact, while we lunched, our driver popped over to Gomma to pick up some brakepads, to replace the one we had lost on the way over....

    On the way back we again passed the village with the terrible roads. The problem is that the village children can run along the car and ask for money. Two tiny girls, with matching water containers tied to their waist, skipped alongside - until one disappeared into the ditch beside the road. But in next to no time, up popped her little head and on she skipped. Another little boy, aged six, said 'hello' in English, and 'my name is...', before asking for money. What is one to do? It felt very artificial in that car, looking at people like in a reverse zoo....Again one or two children had those malnutrition extended stomachs - though at least one of them was amongst those skipping along. I wonder what causes this bloating and how can it be made to disappear? Strangely all three children were relatively well dressed (for village life).


    Friday, February 16, 2007

    Crowd Control Rwandan Style

    This project I am working on is big, nay huge, on research. All information and data received are interrogated, questioned, queried, set against other research, triangulated .... you name it! But of course, to get a great outcome, so we should!!

    So, entirely in the interests of research, and having a meeting-free afternoon, I decided to go and participant observe a local market, the Nyabugogo market, about 5-10 km from the hotel. I took a particular interest in the clothing market....Very interesting indeed. You wish to know what happens to the clothes you give to Oxfam or others? Here they appear in huge, huge bundles, all scrunched up together. Imagine your laundry basket and multiply it by 100 (though they seemed to be clean, at least!). Some people were seen picking through this stuff, but there seemed to be not very great interest. But of course this is much cheaper than the traditional African fabrics, which I could not resist during my research ... though the prices I paid were probably considerably higher than the prices for Rwandans.

    Earlier in the day, near the UN offices I suddenly had some Tshirts thrust in my face. Much to the vendor's surprise I took an interest (having been looking for that running T-shirt - it takes forever to dry washed clothes here). The price offered was 3000 RWF (about 6 US dollars), but then my Rwandan colleague came along, wrinkled his delightful nose and said that 1,000 was more than enough.... Eventually we agreed on 2,000. It was probably second-hand, from Germany ('Pizza-man - Und essen macht Spass'), but for running it's fine. A great improvement on the new Tshirts I had been offered for 18,000 RWF. Had I waited a little longer for my trip to the market I could have saved even more.

    Anyway. Near the market there was a bit of a promotion/performance sponsored by the local mobile phone company. When I passed it, a number of guys were doing an endurance test on how long they could remain in a semi-crouching position. The roadside and verandas on a nearby shopping centre were packed. The roadside unpacked itself very quickly, though, when a couple of policemen, one no taller than 1.5 m, started moving people off the road - and especially when they started applying their batons liberally. Wow! At that time I had moved out of the way, but gee.

    Also spotted the first malnourished child there, with a hugely extended belly. That's Rwanda.

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    Contributions from my friends

    My friend Lynne pointed me towards this article in the Guardian which suggests that Orhan Pamuk has fled to the US for fear of his life in Turkey (following the Hrant Dink murder). Apparently the wee boy who murdered Hrant Dink also made threatening comments about Pamuk. That is a shame....though I suppose different cultures have different ideas of what is offensive and what is not. This does not help the Turkish government trying to join the EU. It's hard to hold this huge country together, what with the more fundamentalist East and the more forward-looking West of the country.

    My friend Pat's photo of the snowdrops in her garden. This beautiful little picture of spring in Ayrshire reminds me further of my snowdropping times at Finlaystone - Pat's snowdrops have 'single' flowers, but there are also 'double' flowered snowdrops. When we picked our bunches of 50 we had to make very sure that we only had those of either type in the bunch, not mixed up together. Unfortunately they largely grew together....


    Harmony Silk Factory?

    Where's the Harmony? Where's the Silk? Where's the Factory? Good questions to ask about Tash Aw's first novel. Much talked about last year, I thought the book would be about some factory in China, its trials and tribulations, and maybe a development over time.


    It's set in Malaya, and while an establishment called the Harmony Silk Factory - with a distinctly shady character - pops up in the book, the events of the story seem largely to precede this establishment, owned by the main character of the book - a rather shady wheeler-dealer, to say the least. The events described in the book mostly take place before, during and after the second world war, culminating in fairly gruesome events during the Japanese occupation (thankfully many of these are only hinted at). The book is told in three chunks, the first from the main character's son's viewpoint, the second from his wife's viewpoint, and the third from his one-time best friend's viewpoint. Combining them all, especially where two or three parties describe the same events, adds additional richness and explanations to the reader's understanding of the book.

    The book describes well the different layers of society in Malaya at the time, the Chinese, the British whose life is deteriorating as time goes on, but who are blythely unconcerned about the Japanese invasion.

    The book is very well written, and really quite gripping though it is only halfway through the book that you begin to find the question that is stopping you from putting it down. Not entirely sure that I would describe it as a landmark work of fiction, as the publisher suggests....

    In an interesting little aside, one of the characters remembers a holiday as a student in France, walking from Compiegne to Pierrefonds, in an area north of Paris. We also holidayed there, 19 years ago, and we might have done the same walk. I remember well climbing into my mother's mini to drive off to somewhere, only to find that the steering wheel had disappeared. It was a German mini with the steering wheel on the wrong side!

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    Thursday, February 15, 2007

    Local Production

    Had a meeting with GTZ today, the German development organisation (one of them). They do some very interesting projects in some far flung corners of Rwanda, where cooperatives of women make different types of products, for the local market, and now increasingly for the export market; which means using non-toxic colours etc. GTZ has helped them to really improve the quality of their output, and supported the development of local cooperatives and a union of cooperatives. The system is very close to self-financing, and now some of the cooperatives even act as consultants to potential cooperatives in neighbouring countries. A website, www.rwanda-art.com, has also been developed. One of their products, a kind of wall decorative panel, called imigongo, is made from cow dung. It is specifically Rwandan (as are all their designs) and they are trying to trademark the name.

    They have also become involved with trade fairs, including Import Shop Berlin, which will next take place from 7 - 11 November (for those of you who live in Berlin). They are also looking for designers to help them make even more creative use of their outputs.....About 1300 women are involved, with a monthly income similar to that of a teacher, which is considerably more than they had before (in Rwanda, unlike in the less reformed countries of the former Soviet Union, teacher's salaries are not below the poverty line). Sounds like a grand project, and it exemplifies the idea that social protection is not about handouts, but about improving people's lives permanently. A woman who has money has power - and when she has money, the family has money. If a man has money...let's not go into that.

    Near the World Food Programme office I am sure I saw a lady getting about on leg stumps (genocide victim, presumably). In the town, too, you see some people with leg prosthethes. The number of genocide escapees, as they are called in French, is quite considerable and the government has a fund that spends considerable amounts supporting them. As it should.

    Another nice story is that of the government cars. Until a year or two ago, the government provided cars for ministers, and maybe top officials. Then it found that ministers had up to 7 cars in their domestic garage(s). A radical rethink lead to the introduction of a system whereby the government helps ministers (and top officials?) to buy their own cars, and gives them some money for petrol and maintenance. The car owner will have the car for five years. If he needs a driver, he pays for that himself. It has saved a huge amount of government money, and also briefly created an income when the government sold off all those cars, though one or two were too expensive for the local market. Only the president and the two speakers of parliament now have government cars. What a progressive government!

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    Wednesday, February 14, 2007

    Crashing through a hedge

    Out running at six this morning, I took a different turn and went along the roads behind and below the hotel. The main roads in Kigali are very nice - but immediately behind the hotel they were just mud roads in an area which was quite far from slums. There were lots of individual houses, some expensive ones behind big fences - many of those owned by different NGOs - and smaller, more basic ones without fences, often up well trodden paths. It must be very dirty when it rains, as it did yesterday afternoon. The water supply did not seem that good - many people walked about with jerrycans.

    I ran along and along and along the road, until suddenly it finished, but there were a few planks across a little ravine. Found myself in a large patch of rough ground, crossed it and found that it seemed to be surrounded by big walls. But hey, wasn't there a gap in a hedge, and what looked like a road beyond? I popped through the hedge and found myself in someone's garden (or, well, the metre or so of land surrounding the house). Shot through the garden and out into the street. This was just a path, with a ravine of about a metre deep going down one side of it, and the pedestrians clinging onto the very uneven ground on the other side. At least the ravine did not seem to contain sewage - it was more like a rainwater drain. You would not want to be disabled and live at the bottom of that hill!

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    Tuesday, February 13, 2007

    Dining in the garden

    Not sure what time of year it is here, just south of the Equator, but it's balmy - with temperatures of around 20 to 25 degrees or so. Warm enough to have breakfast and dinner in the hotel garden! The mosquitoes seem to be keeping a low profile, thankfully.

    First day's work was very interesting, with chats with a range of donors. Different donors have different attitudes, and sometimes one feels that the recipient country suffers a lot for the money it receives; price to pay, I suppose. Most donors though are genuinely interested and only too willing to help. There is much willingness to develop structures and systems, though it also seems that the different donors (who contribute 75% of the existing social protection budget) do not commmunicate much with each other - but this is entirely normal and happens everywhere, even within the same ministry in the same European or other country.

    Kigali is set on a series of hills, and we kept having to duck from one hill to the other hill. In the evening I went out to buy a simcard for the phone, what with my own not working (I am hoping someone will tell me my number soon....). When I changed some money, the bank provided a variety of notes - finally arriving at the 100 francs notes. it looked like it had been buried in the red soil! Torn, filthy, dark brown notes (originally beige) - seems that this is the most commonly used banknote (worth about 20 US cents). Interesting what you find out from changing money.

    Went for a run in the morning. Even at 6.15 lots of people were about, walking to school or to work. There seemed to be no problem with a middle-aged woman with very white legs cavorting about Kigali - I ran along a main road, then turned into a very posh residential area - where the 'boy' and the maid were already hard at work attending to the outside of the houses. Then the neighbourhood abruptly turned into a poorer area with smaller houses not behind high walls (though with brick walls and tin roofs, so it was still a very long way away from 'slums').

    Was writing this sitting outside a cafe near the UN offices. They do some lovely samosas, either with a meat filling or a vegetable filling (both mildly spicy). It's really very pleasant here, but life must be really tough - though the poverty rate of 60% is not that different of the poverty rate of Armenia a few years ago. Everywhere there are lots of people selling things on a tiny scale, like phone cards, handbags, newspapers - people are milling about everywhere... some people, but relatively few, openly begging, and fairly assertively so.

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    Monday, February 12, 2007


    A long stop at Nairobi allowed me to explore that airport. I was very surprised - I thought a country with many tourists would have had a nice modern airport. But it seems not - this is an old 70s or so concrete building - lots and lots of concrete from which one can hardly look out - the small window slots are not transparent. Though I suppose in a hot country one should not have Northern European expectations of acres and acres of glass!

    There is no electronic system that tells you which gate to go to. In fact, the 14 gates are not always even labelled, so you have to ask to find right gate. I am told this is one of the better African airports. And of course Kenya does not usually get help for infrastructure from the EU.

    Unlike Rwanda which seems to have benefited a lot from EU aid at a first glance - at least in terms of road building (which is, of course, also a form of nation-building).

    Kigali can only be described as a lush, verdant city with intense green, set off by the red earth which is everywhere even though the roads in my part of the town are tarmaced.. No sign of drought here, today - though other parts of the country do suffer from drought at times, or alternatively landslips and erosion due to excessive rain. The temperature is very pleasant - a bit chilly once it got dark, but perfect for Africa!

    So last night, Sunday evening, we were sitting by the poolside in Kigali, just like in the book....Although an AIDS conference is in town, the poolside was surprisingly deserted; apart from us, and some groups of apparent 'working girls' hardly anyone was there. It's not difficult to imagine the situation by the poolside in 1994 during the genocide; though I find it hard to believe that people hiding in the hotel did not see what was going on outside - the hotel overlooks at least one busy road (albeit the area being overlooked does not seem densely populated).

    Went out a little this morning, into a small scale commercial area which even at 7 am was already busy, people walking about standing about chatting calling for a phone (and a man with a phone in his hand comes running along and acts as a mobile phone booth). The shops were still shut and I could not change any money. Would like to tip some people some time and also make small local purchases, but a 100 dollar bill is not really convenient for that.

    Not sure if we will be able to stay in this hotel today; it was fully booked for the conference (the Global Fund) and we only just managed to get two rooms for last night.....



    Left from Tbilisi's new airport this morning - it had opened last week. The old one was not bad, a whole lot better than Yerevan, Dushanbe and Moscow's Shcheremetyevo 1 airport - which are all run down and treat their customers like animals (especially the last two).

    The Tbilisi airport is run by the Turks, the same company that runs Istanbul's Ataturk airport, and it is just like any other airport anywhere. Georgians are good at customer service anyway, so it's all very pleasant. I don't suppose there's a cat's chance in hell of the Turks taking over the Yerevan airport!

    Popping up in the middle of Vienna at 7 am is always brilliant, even more so on a Saturday when no-one is seen on the streets. It's sooo quiet and peaceful! Though at 7.30 am already I saw someone leaving a diagnostic centre - they get up early, these Viennese. This was confirmed by the many cafes which were already working at the time. But not everyone had got up early....

    Running round to the post office in Fleischmarkt, which I am astonished to say seems to be the only one open on a Saturday according to the Austrian Post Office website, I came across the most charming little side street which I would not have found otherwise (cannot load up pictures for a fortnight....). Really romantic stuff, and quite different from Schubert's 'Dreimaederlhaus' (three girls' house) which is near the Burgtheater. Really glad that I had to post those letters!

    Passed the Stephansdom, and a row of fiakers (sp?) waiting for customers at 8 am - not a person in sight. Had a brief, very brief thought of employing one to take me to the cafe - but then thought it would be a wee bitty over the top...I'll do that when I am old. Then off for breakfast to my beloved Cafe Landtmann - whose new permanent extension is a total excrescence (sp?) which completely destroys the aristocratic proportions of the building. How did they get planning permission for that? (Photo to follow...).

    The entrance was blocked by an extremely well-dressed party, in ballgowns, fur coats, absolutely immaculate hair and clothes. Were they going to a ball? At 8 am? No, it seems they had been to a ball, possibly the cafe house ball. It certainly had not been like Prince Orlovsky's ball in 'Die Fledermaus' - no-one gave an impression of drunkenness - not in many countries people, after a whole night out, would have looked so impressive. One gentleman, in a velvet opera hat (the floppy kind) held some tulips which were similarly floppy and a little jaded....It was funny hearing the cafe waiters saying 'good night' to their customers as they left at 8.30 am....

    Then off to do various bits of shopping - restrained myself severely in bookshops and music shops. Tried to get some Tshirts for Rwanda but it seems that it was still a bit cold in Vienna for that sort of thing. Had to buy some items of feminine apparel, what with the weight loss and everything, and was astonished when on not more of a brief glance at my upper body (wrapped in a thick jacket) the salesgirl immediately picked the right size. It really pays going to a specialist! I then changed in the train back to the airport and left a baggy old bra in the toilet wastebin....

    Noticed also, in passing, how very good looking many Austrian men of a certain age are; though usually accompanied by similar wives. Oh well.

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    Friday, February 09, 2007

    My African Adventure

    ...is already beginning. A week ago we found out that our hotel had just cancelled our booking. Great. We asked someone for help who did not really respond...until after several proddings today when they booked us into a hotel which another person described as not far off appalling. Found that out at around 4 pm this afternoon Georgian time, 12 hours before my departure.....

    A lot of frantic phoning around has got us a hotel for the first night, the famous Milles Collines of 'Hotel Rwanda' fame (though the film was not shot there), and we'll see after that. The problem is that on Monday and Tuesday the Global Fund has a big AIDS conference which takes up all the nice hotel rooms in Kigali. It will be interesting to see if the prostitutes will be busy - they should not really be, given the topic of the conference...

    Yesterday I thought I should check the situation re ATMs, or bankomats, since I usually travel without cash but with a card. Wasn't it lucky that I checked? Found out that there are no ATMs accepting international cards. So rushed round Tbilisi yesterday milking cash machines for those expensive hotels....then this evening looked at the dollars I got and found that quite a few of them are pre-2000, which are not popular in Rwanda....It's a pain travelling with lots of cash!

    Some statistics .... population is 8.1 million in a country half the size of Lithuania. GDP per person is 230 USD per year; half the children under 5 are malnourished, 20% of them don't even reach their fifth birthday...90% of the population lives off agriculture, often at subsistence level.... and so on and so on. So they are looking for a social protection policy, we are told, which will address the poorest 2.5%, about 1 or 2 families in a village of 100 families. Mostly donor-funded, that is.


    Thursday, February 08, 2007

    Two attempts at describing Georgia

    My loyal and devoted readership once again has to put up with a review of a delightful little book which many of them can neither read, nor purchase at amazon. 'Zwei Versuche, ueber Georgien zu erzaehlen' (two attempts at describing Georgia) by Adolf Enders is one of those beautifully bound slim hardback volumes which some time ago were quite popular in Germany - both Germanies, it seems, because this one was published in the GDR in 1976.

    I had looked at it somewhat sceptically - some German books about Georgia can be awfully heavy, and even worse, it's an old book. But just as I finished one book, and did not want to start another long book before leaving for Africa, my eye fell on this one - and am I glad it did.

    Adolf Endler and his mate Rainer K.... seem to have been sent from East Germany to translate 2000 lines of Georgian poetry into German, for an anthology, in about 6 weeks. Probably not easy work. Inevitably as soon as they have selected their lines, Georgian poets and others feel neglected, insulted, hurt that their poems have not been selected - why was this poem selected and not another and so on and so on.

    In between translating poetry they also manage to travel Georgia, get involved in many feasts, climb mountains, visit markets, Rainer... seems to marry a lady from the then Soviet Union in Georgia, and they try to follow the footsteps of many earlier Germans who visited Georgia.

    This book also throws some light on the other antiquarian book I have on Georgia, that published in high numbers during the Nazi era in 1942 or 1943. Endler describes how the Caucasus was intended to be part of Greater Germany - had the war taken a different turn. Just in those years the borrowing rate of books about Georgia and the Caucasus in German libraries shot up, illustrating a general interest in that area.

    It seems, though, that many Germans had researched and crossed Georgia in the centuries before. Siemens had opened an office in Georgia in the 19th century; a number of maverick travellers/advisers - often the same person travelling under different names - visited Georgia and sometimes got high government posts; another traveller, Duerr or Dirr (sic), became such an expert in the many different languages spoken in the Caucasus that he stayed here and wrote school textbooks on them all.

    Our author, what with translating poetry, obviously has to have a poetic streak and this makes the book very readable - the writing is beautifully crafted. For me it was not necessary to quote poetry quite so often, but it's quite interesting. He also pokes fun at some the German traits - the University of Jena (then East Germany) must have been a bit of a hotbed of research on Georgia. It seems our author asked the university for some help or information and gets the reply that 'only those people can say something serious about Georgia and her culture, or about Caucasiology, who are experts in this field'. Our author thus writes in his book 'And the expert begins, in my opinion, with the command of the Georgian language - any other approach seems inappropriate due to a necessary lack of understanding'. 1:0 to Enders, I think. And he goes on and on, mocking 'the experts'. The book has quite a number of funny moments usually directed at his own country, and the various explorers, and is really quite amusing.

    The book is written in a series of vignettes, little events, little gatherings, encounters with individual named Georgians, rather impressionistically, but one gets a really good feel for the country. It would not be a travelguide if it even tried - but this way this book does not age so much, which is nice. I am not usually tempted out of Tbilisi - my weekends are quite full - but this book could lead me into the countryside sometime. It's clear that the author loves Georgia and the Georgians, and the book is the better for this. Shame it's only available on the antiquarian market.


    Wednesday, February 07, 2007

    Racing through the music

    In the last fortnight I have worked through 8 weeks' worth of my music course. Phew! That was in an attempt to be able to post some assignments back to the UK by a reasonably reliable snail mail, rather than expensive DHL (who said something about the quality of the Royal Mail?).

    Generally it has been ok; starting very easily, but now it's beginning to nip a little here and there. My greatest difficulty is hearing the dratted chords and cadences - I won't say they all sound the same to me, but with some I find the differences very subtle. I can sight read and sight sing most of the music, I can harmonise sung or played music (with one other line) no problem, and I can identify all those intervals and cadences on paper just fine. It's still easy hearing it played on a piano, but when I hear orchestral stuff, I find it very difficult indeed.
    Also working at the laptop, I very easily drift off into reading my emails while I am supposed to listen to the music...and I know most of the pieces from which snatches are played, so I find it hard to listen to them differently. Apparently that sort of thing can be trained - and I do have ear training software on my laptop. Perhaps working through the course more slowly would give more practice at the different stages.... I wonder if we will have ear exercises in the exam?

    Can't wait to go on to the next bits of work - but now need to prepare a bit for Rwanda.


    The old war wound

    I should not complain, after this morning's rant about the UK health system....

    At lunchtime I was dodging along the road, back to the office, with a hot flaky pastry khachapuri in my hand when suddenly I went over on my ankle. 'Oh', I thought, 'great; this time it did not hurt - it must have finally recovered from its turn 18 months ago' - when I was in the middle of moving flats. Running between the two flats 500 m apart, with three fiddles in my hand (does that sound impressive or what?), I completely went over on my ankle. A cleaning lady at a hairdressers 10 m on quickly disappeared into her salon and left me to deal with it (I know who you are!). I could walk on (what else to do) but went over again a couple of times; so I tried out the Lithuanian public health service (which I pay for out of taxes rather than directly) - the disadvantage being the language - I had not learnt the words for such an event. Tried to tell them that something had gone 'pop' but that was not understood. After that in the next few weeks I went over on it again a few times - and I can remember exactly where and when every occasion was!

    So I was pleased, today, when I could go over on it without pain - obviously the ankle was strong again and could deal with these things.


    We are talking delayed reaction and we will be talking 'shuffling round Vienna' on Saturday. Luckily this frequent traveller is prepared for these kinds of things. And fortunately all the Vienna places I want to visit are close together. Even more auspiciously the project in Tbilisi has a car and driver. We'll live.


    Taking care of its citizens

    Two friends of mine in the UK recently had run-ins with the National Health Service.

    One suddenly started being sick a lot, obviously not eating and as a result rapidly losing weight. That was in November/December and he was admitted to hospital where tests proved inconclusive, and he was due to go for further tests. These took place yesterday - a gastroscopy presumably - and he has a stomach ulcer. What does it take for them to do such a test when someone is in hospital already, instead of making them wait for two months? A lot of unnecessary worry could have been saved. The former Scottish Health Minister, Sam Galbraith, who knows a thing or two about worrying (he had a heart-lung transplant in 1990 and then went on to become minister) always said that that was the worst thing about ill-health - not knowing what the diagnosis might be. Nothing much has changed.

    Which in passing reminds me of the gastroscopy I had in Lithuania about a year ago what with having a sensitive stomach often reacting badly to food and water from less than perfect sources. Having read on the web that you should bring a friend because you get a bit of sedation and can't drive home, you should wear clothes that are easy to change out of, and that the procedure takes about 10 minutes, I was all prepared for losing that day - I have learnt never to do any writing during/after sedation or drink! In the public hospital I was taken aback a bit when I popped my head in the door, was told to hop on the table, unchanged, no sedation other than some throat spray, and it was all over in about 2.5 minutes - and out of the hospital. Apparently you would have got that sedation in the fancy private clinic up the road. It's survivable even without sedation.

    And ... my doctor made the appointment on a Friday and I had the test on the following Monday; it might have been private, but it was cheap - and I was able to skip out and do what I had meant to do that day anyway. In the UK I think such procedures are classified as 'day surgery' with time to come in, undress, get the sedation, have it done, recover afterwards, get dressed.... needing a seat and using up space. No wonder they have a waiting list.

    Another friend was due to have a joint replacement operation on 30 January, was all ready for it, maybe even in hospital for it, when she was told there would be no bed for her after her operation. Which was then postponed to late March. Pardon me, but on what level of bed occupancy does the Health Service run? It was January, when hospitals are often busy with respiratory illnesses, but January comes around every 12 months, and hospitals plan for these things. I know because I worked in the Health Ministry, and we spent much time planning for the winter so that the Minister would not be hit by negative headlines. I have seen no headlines in the UK papers about excessively busy hospitals or flu epidemics (other than those poor turkeys). In some parts of the country hospitals are few and far between, and what would they do if a coach crash were to happen on their doorstep? It would be interesting to know how many operations and procedures are cancelled because there are no beds - maybe 1000 per hospital per year?

    A headline in BBC Scotland said that in 2006 1900 cases of malnutrition were discovered in hospital, almost all amongst adults. Some of these will have been malnourished before they went into hospital, given that people are only admitted if it is really urgent, but a considerable number will have become malnourished in their extended hospital stays, eg following a broken neck of femur or so. It's because no-one has time to feed them properly, and if they do not eat by themselves their food will just be removed by the ward orderly instead of nurses checking that enough food has been taken. Happy UK.


    Monday, February 05, 2007

    How to make friends and influence people

    Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is currently up in court in Australia. Her alleged 'offence'? 'Breach of contract' with her refusing to sing in a concert with an Australian pop singer, whose fans tend to throw knickers on the stage, which he allegedly collects. She's told the judge:
    'Dame Kiri' is my name. Ms Te Kanawa is too long'.
    Right. That's him told.

    One wonders a) what she was thinking she was doing singing with a pop singer in the first place, and b) whether she or any of her advisers/agents did any research on the singer. Does she need money that badly?

    She's also admitted that she might have said of the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra (maybe who were supposed to accompany the pair?) that 'they can't play a tune'. We can say that about a number of orchestras, and indeed singers and instrumentalists - but not necessarily in public. One would have thought she was old enough to know better.


    Sunday, February 04, 2007

    'Last train to Istanbul'

    This book (not available in English on Amazon, though the Turkish version 'Nefes Nefese' is) by the Turkish author Ayse Kulin is set in France and Turkey before and during the second world war. The daughter of a well-to-do Turkish family married a Turkish Jew, much to the disapproval of her family, and they decided to go to France to get away from home. This was a mistake. The family's other daughter is married to a Foreign Office official who is very wrapped up in his work trying to keep the Allies and the Germans off the backs of Turkey - both sides want Turkey to join their war effort. Turkish diplomats in France do their best to rescue Turkish Jews, often retrieving them from their arrest cells and even camps stating that they are Turks first and in secular Turkey there is no discrimination on the grounds of religion. Finally they develop an audacious plan to get groups of Turkish citizens, Jewish or otherwise, out of France.....

    It's an interesting book; although it is fiction, it appears to be based on real events - the book opens with a list of consuls who rescued Jewish people in various countries. It offers yet another view point on the holocaust and about how people were spirited out towards safety. The number of people involved in all these rescues, from different parts of the globe, is really very considerable - the Swede Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest (who later disappeared, reportedly to have died in a Russian prison camp), the Japanese consul Sugihara in Lithuania, the Turkish consuls in France, Germany, Budapest, Prague and other places.... if you think that nowadays immigration officials are extremely nitpicky about passports just consider how many forged passports and dodgy visas, for very good reasons, floated around the world at the time. Would the victims of today's genocides, Rwanda, Darfur, have such support, or would they be put into detention camps following their arrival in a safe country, only to be deported back home at the earliest opportunity? Times have certainly changed.

    The literary value of the book is not so high - no complicated language; here the story line dominates. At the same time it does not come over all sentimental as some books of the 'overcoming adversity' type easily drift into. It is eminently (and fairly quickly) readable. For me it was also nice to get more descriptions of Istanbul. The book was for sale in all Istanbul bookshops with English language books, so it must be a bit of a bestseller.

    There are one or two moments where the facts might not have been fully straight - I am not convinced that the average plodding German Gestapo person would have been familiar with what is a Turkish Jewish name and what isn't. Also at some stage our refugees pick up a newspaper in Germany with news that the Russians have allowed the Czechs and the Poles to train in the Soviet Union. I find it hard to believe that such news would have been available to the German population during the war.


    A Greyness of Depression

    Jim Jarmusch is a film-maker, apparently. No, I had not heard of him either, but in Istanbul a couple of weeks ago I spotted a series of his films, including one with the lovely Roberto Begnini. Which I took home.

    Jarmusch, the above website tells me, is interested in people on the margins of society. Right enough. He makes Art House Cinema. This film, shot in black and white (in 1986) starts extremely depressingly with a couple of drifters, in unhappy relationships with their women. The neighbourhoods are extremely poor (clapboard houses, do they call them in the US?). The conversations are full of cliches - 'what are you doing to yourself', 'you are ruining your life'. The two guys, Zack and Jack, don't do much, but sit around and ...maybe... think. An Italian character briefly passes one of them sitting on a porch and has a short conversation, mostly with himself.

    Then both Zack and Jack get themselves arrested on trumped up charges, and guess what - the Italian (Begnini), also appears in their cell. At that moment the film begins to become bearable (up to that moment I was still doing stuff on the computer while the film was going on). Begnini, who does what he does best in all films - anarchic problem solving - is the only one of the three who actually committed a crime. He completely changes the atmosphere in the cell, and of the film, and helps Zack and Jack (and himself) to find a way out of their situation. This second half of the film is worth waiting for, though, unless you are a Jim Jarmusch fan, I am not sure you should rush out to buy it. Maybe rent it first....

    Apparently the actor playing Zack, Tom Waits, is a bit of a singer, and he does some of the sound track.

    It was interesting but I am glad I only bought one of his films.


    The McLaren of McLaren...

    aye, himself, ...invited us for a Burns Night last night. Those of us who paid for the tickets, mind.

    One assumes that The McLaren of McLaren is the chief of the clan McLaren, though it does not mention that specifically on the British Embassy Tbilisi website (he's Her Majesty's loyal ambassador). His photo, interestingly, has some resemblance to some old Scottish portrait, particularly with that red tie.

    Onywize, as some say in Ayrshire. The Burns Night was held in the Kaiserbrau restaurant, a German outfit. Hmm. The reason for the rather odd 5.30 pm start was soon explained - at 8 pm the Scotland England rugby match was due to start (this was the promised 'Entertainment').

    About 100 to 150 people had gathered, sitting at long trestle tables where after a little while the benches began to remind us of church pews. Then a wee guy in a kilt, a maroon jacket and a frilly shirt (much like the 'ice cream cone' that the Scottish media reported Sean Connery to be wearing at the opening of the Scottish parliament) began to play the pipes, quite nicely. Turns out that this was HM's loyal Ambassador - he was the only piper on the spot. Does this make him a 'musician'? I wonder where he learnt that, then, and more to the point, which school he went to, given his admitted lack of a Scottish accent ... Seems to have a nice sense of humour, though, almost dangerously so in his role as a diplomat.

    The evening proceeded in fits and starts - the quality of the address to the haggis loses something when someone has to read it from a book, in the process struggling to put on his glasses. The delivery was not like Jim Paterson's in Vilnius, or Jim McKean's in Ayrshire (though the second Jim is more famous for 'Holy Willie's Prayer'). The haggis was not stabbed - what with having the book in one hand - more like gently prodded. Many non-Scots struggled a bit with the rather large helping of haggis that appeared in front of us. It is really rather dry, even with the mashed potatoes....

    .... and the evening wore on. There was plenty of wine, whisky (blended only) and the mood became merrier. Thank goodness I left before the rugby match - Scotland lost!

    The bunches of snowdrops on the table reminded me of my time at Finlaystone, where at this time of year four or six weeks were spent 'snowdropping'. The estate was covered in snowdrops, with them popping out of the ground in different corners in different weeks. 'Snowdropping' meant picking fifty snowdrops and putting them in a bunch with three ivy leaves. Twice a week we would send dozens and dozens and dozens of bunches of snowdrops to the flower market in Glasgow. Everyone was roped into this job, from age 12 to over 70. Consider, if you will, the temperature in which snowdrops thrive, the height of snowdrops above the ground, and the delicacy of the little stems (you could not do it wearing full gloves) - and you will have an idea of the pleasure this work brought.