Sunday, February 18, 2007

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.