Saturday, February 17, 2007

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).