Tuesday, 17 April 2018

DRC Take Two

Oh, this is going to be a long catch-up.

Where to begin?

Well, the saddest news. Had a leaving party for Maia the other week. After eight years in Rwanda (and a daughter), she has decided to explore pastures new... in Bristol. She grew up in Spain with several nationalities, but has never lived in the UK. For some reason, she thought this would be a good idea. We tried to warn her about the weather and the politics, but she just wouldn't listen. So, we bought her a huge cake and had a big farewell bash at her restaurant, before adjourning to a house party and crawling home at 4:30 in the morning. It was a decent send-off and wishing her all the best as she meanders her way to Blighty via a yoga retreat in Southeast Asia... yup, maybe Bristol is the right place for her. Next time I see her, she'll have grown a beard and dreadlocks.


Victor is in charge of the restaurant now, so it's still a home away from home, and Harris and Chris are back soon. I still occasionally waitress. Even got my own official pinny. Had a birthday party there the other week for some young volunteers. The birthday boy was an incredible guitarist and stayed after hours to play for us and have a sing-along.

Looking up the Words Online

Treated myself to a day working at the best ice-cream shop in town, in Kigali Heights. Really is incredible ice-cream. Got caught there in the rain and, randomly, Maia turned up and gave me a lift home. What will I do without her? 

Also reconnected with Flo, a French friend I haven't seen in over a year, despite living in the same city, and with Maia & Vincent from GYC, so my social life is still afloat.

Went to another book event, too. This time the Caine Prize for African Literature, which was run in conjunction with Huza Press, who published an excellent anthology of adult short stories by Rwandan authors called Versus. Well worth a read. The Cain Prize received its first Rwandan entries last year and held its first workshop here this year, up in Gisenyi. Writers from across Africa, and a few British literary agents. An entertaining night.

The piano project is coming along slowly. Done a lot of restringing on a piano whose strings keep breaking, and took our own action to Chillington to request help with the metal frame. More about that here.

Taking the Action for a Ride

Then something a bit crazy happened. When me and Maia were in Bukavu last February, I spotted a grand piano from the hotel balcony.

In a strange turn of events, my favourite priest happened to know whose house it was - the former Mayor of Bukavu - and put me in contact. So, on Friday I took the bus down to Cyangugu, a seven-hour trip which winds through Nyungwe Forest (one of the contested furthest sources of the Nile). It was a wet and foggy day as the rainy season has been very heavy this year, leading to flooding and occasional landslides. News reports say that over forty people have been injured last month and 600 animals killed by the weather.

Nyabugogo Bus Park

Fog and Rain Through Nyungwe Forest

Remnants of a Landslide

Rice Paddy

Emerging from Nyungwe, the south is swathed in tea fields, and from the hotel there was a lovely view across Lake Kivu to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

View from Hotel
View from Bar in Town

Rwandan foreign residents can cross the border on a piece of paper called a CEPGL, so the next day I took a moto to the crossing and walked across the bridge between the two countries. The route crosses the river Rusizi, which flows from Kivu (one of the world's three exploding lakes) to Lake Tanganyika.

Things are a little different in Congo. The motos (public motorbikes) don't have passenger helmets, and the roads have huge potholes, which makes for a fun, if slightly hair-raising, journey along muddy streets. I made it to the house in one piece, and was welcomed in to look at the piano. 


It's an August Förster from Czechoslovakia (which became the Czech Republic in 1993). From the serial number, it was likely made around 1945, so around 73 years old. Sadly, it was in extremely bad condition. The tuning pins were severely rusted, the strings themselves were gone. Many of the keys, and the entire action, need replacing. You can see more pictures here.


I put in an offer of $500, but they felt this was too little. I'm not prepared to go higher because of the huge cost of restoration, and we'd also need to get it across the border and up to Kigali, which is no small fete. Still, it was really interesting to see it, and to consider its history of it. There's a journalist who thinks he remembers playing an instrument that looked very similar for warlord Laurent Nkunda,  but we're still not completely sure it's the same one.

My favourite priest was also on his way down to Bukavu. After viewing the piano, I headed back to my hotel in Cyangugu and met up with him and his sister for a drink. They convinced me to go back across the border for a last drink before the crossing closed at 10 p.m.

It was a bit spooky walking back by myself. During the day it's very busy, with people coming and going between Rwanda and DRC, but at night it's completely empty. At least that meant no queueing. I got quite a grilling by the border guards, who were a little surprised to see a mzungu crossing four times in one day.

The next day, I took the bus back up to Kigali. This time, it went via Kibuye, so I had a lovely view of Lake Kivu all the way there.


Unfortunately, like a dingbat, I left my internet hotspot behind in the hotel room. This is what I love about Rwanda - it's so small and connected. Within about an hour, a friend reminded me of another friend in Cyangugu, who went to the hotel room, retrieved the router and put it on a bus to Kigali. It arrived today at a grand cost of FRW 1,000 (about £1). So grateful. 

Absolutely knackered after the trip, but even though I didn't get the piano, it was still an interesting exploration. I'm really proud of myself for making the crossing on my own. I don't speak any French, and the difference is immediate. The moment you cross the border, it's French and Swahili, whereas I function in English and enough Kinyarwanda to get by. It's good to test yourself in these situations sometimes, and to step out of your comfort zone. I must admit, I like the feel of Bukavu very much.

Arrived back to a bit of drama. About six months back, my neighbours moved out. I was quite grateful at the time as they had six kids who used to enjoy shouting at each other extremely early in the morning. Someone else bought the plot and added an extra story. As usually happens here, people start building, then run out of money and wait until they have more money before continuing. In the time it's been empty, the rainy season has taken its toll. The daub is cracking and apparently my other neighbour says one of the walls collapsed. Over the weekend, their electricity cable fell into my garden in a thunder storm and my guests (who were taking care of the cats) had to call the electricity company to make it safe. So, it's now coiled over my back wall.

Made a bit of an impulsive decision this morning. I put in a bid for a contract to do the annual report for an NGO back at the beginning of February. They contacted me at the weekend to invite me to an interview. I was supposed to go this morning - first at 11:30, then at 10:40, then they called at 9:30 to tell me to bring a PowerPoint presentation and a breakdown of costs. The last bit was confusing, as the breakdown was included with the bid. I decided to withdraw. It wasn't enough time to put a presentation together, and I hate turning up to these things unprepared. I just kept thinking 'this is how organised the interview is, what would it be like working for them?' I'm still knackered from the DRC trip and had to weigh how much I want the money against how much I want the hassle. One of my New Year's resolutions was to only pursue jobs I really enjoy. I think this would have been a real headache, and I could see myself stressing, desperately trying to get everything ready with no notice, and not getting the job anyway. Or getting it, and the job being even more stressful than the interview.

I texted Maia for her advice, which was: 'Yes, I think you go with your intuition. If it doesn't feel right don't do it. When you are desperate for dosh you will suck it up. When you are not desperate, pick and choose what you wanna do!'

The momentary regret over whether I did the right thing soon wore off with a second cup of coffee. Thankfully got enough editing and ghostwriting to tide me over.

Another thing I've done recently was to book a holiday to the UK. I haven't been back in almost two-and-a-half years, and I would like to remember what my family look like. Going mid-June to the end of July. Looking forward to it.

I've booked to go to an undergrad reunion in Reading. It's sort of ironic that I took Deaf Studies and now I'm a piano tuner. Also a bit worried that I may not remember how to sign, as it's been almost ten years since that was a part of my work and my life. It will be interesting to see how much language you retain when you don't use it.

Looking forward to catching up with a few good friends, including one of my tutors who I haven't seen since graduation back in 2002. Will be a trip down memory lane, if I can manage to purchase a ticket. The online booking system is a mess. Just keeps spewing error messages at me. As one friend said: "Who knew that Reading Uni could make something so simple so complicated..ugh!" - Really? I think we all had our suspicions ;)

Anyway. That's most of what's been happening lately. Sitting here listening to the thunder approaching. I like the rainy season usually, but this year has been serious. Cold, very wet - and you can't plan around it. When you travel by public motorbike, you often find yourself diving for cover halfway home, or unable to make a meeting. My days consist of hanging out washing, bringing it in, hanging it out again. Looking forward to the sunny days ahead. 

Saturday, 17 March 2018

March Stuff

Apparently, when we took the bus up to Gisenyi to start our Idjwi trip, we were very lucky. Jo's friend was driving up about an hour behind us and got stuck for ages after a lorry overturned. I'm not sure if she actually made it in the end or had to turn back.

In other driving news, my dad sent me a picture of my car, Kitty, under a foot of snow. Apparently the UK has been devoured by the Beast from the East as it's been dubbed, and set for further snow this weekend. If you'd like to read more, check out my dad's blog.

Quite a contrast. It's the rainy season here and we've been experiencing some incredible thunder storms. It's usually sunny until about three or four in the afternoon, then the sky turns black and the rain comes down in torrents. Sixteen people were killed when lightning struck a church recently.

Kagame has just closed 700 churches across the country. Some reports say it's for failing to abide by safety regulations, others say it's for pressuring poor congregations to hand over large donations. I saw this in the newspaper in my accountant's waiting room the other day.

I have to admit, it made me smile. There was another cartoon inside with a pastor telling  his congregation: "Don't worry. The government have closed down the churches, but they haven't shut down mobile money, so you can still send us your donations."

This was swiftly followed by a ban on mosques using loudspeakers. Certain areas of town, like Nyamirambo, have quite a few mosques, and when the first call to prayer starts around 5 a.m. you really understand why it's a popular move.

I just desperately wish the government would take similar steps with bars and nightclubs. There's one across the valley from us that starts around midnight or 1 a.m. and goes on until three, four, sometimes five in the morning on a Friday and Saturday. We've spoken to the police but they haven't done anything. I'm taking it to the head of umudugadu later this week to try to get her support. It really seems like there's a disparity between noise pollution from religious organisations, which is dealt with swiftly, and noise pollution from bars. It took us four months to get anything done about a bar that opened in a residential house next door, and even they held an event last week without a license.

Anyway. Other goings on at the moment...

Went to Jo's birthday and ate lots of pizza.

Went to Harris's apartment above CasaKeza for handmade pasta rolled by our friend Chris from Kenya. She was staying at my place, then moved to CasaKeza, has now gone to Nairobi, but will be back soon. She works as an engineer, selling equipment across the EA region. Really interesting to talk to.

Using bread sticks as chopsticks.
Maia's been developing a new weekly lunch menu, with a different set list every day, beginning with Moroccan Monday. I spent every lunch there last week getting a free feeding.

Caramelised Pineapple

Spicy Pumpkin Soup
Stuffed potato pancakes, inspired by our trip to Bunyonyi.

Cheesecake. Not on the free menu, but too good to resist.

It's been a very well-fed couple of weeks. Got roped into going to a children's party with Maia, Jo and Cindy. Not being a parent, I didn't realise that the point of children's parties was for the adults to guzzle good wine and eat birthday cake. Very much like adult birthday parties, only with more screaming in the background. It was a lovely night, and being a Chinese birthday girl we lit a lantern and watched it float off across Kigali. It was at a nice venue down the road from us, with a large garden, bouncy castle, and giant fish tank.

Miniature model of plans for an apartment complex next to the lake
with the creepy abandoned fairground.

Then Maia and I dropped Taia home with the nanny and headed out to The Hut. It's a bit pricey, but absolutely worth it. We had a bacon and jackfruit starter - a surprisingly good combination.

Sadly, we said goodbye to Harris, our doctor friend who is here doing a PhD. He's left for a couple of months to see family. I went to the cinema with him to see Black Panther the other week. It was my first ever time at the cinema in Kigali. It's a proper big screen experience with popcorn and everything, and our showing was in 3D. We got caught by the rain on the way home. Our motos pulled onto opposite sides of the street for shelter, and a few minutes later I realised there was a bar on the corner between us, so we ran to that and sat drinking until it eased enough to walk home.We gave him a good send-off at CasaKeza though, plenty of alcohol.

Calm, official photo.
Reality shot.
Maia will also be leaving in four weeks, so I guess I'm going to have to grow a social life and make some new friends.

Talking of (furry) friends, Gizmo is growing fast. He got his own vaccination book the other day, so he's now officially a member of the family.

He's developed a total bromance with Howl. The two are near inseparable.

Unfortunately, we have had some bad news. Howl's sister, Sen, the one who was poisoned when she was little, has developed chronic asthma. Something I didn't realise cats could get. Unfortunately, it looks like this is going to be a lifelong condition, requiring constant medication. We had a very difficult couple of days where I thought I was going to lose her at one point. Ended up creating a makeshift spacer from my own Ventolin inhaler and a paper bag (they never taught me that on Blue Peter). Managed to get her through it and she's now on a regular dose of corticosteroids. I've also had training from the vet on how to administer emergency dexamethason injections, and have three on standby if we ever need them. She's doing really well at the moment, though. Just makes things slightly more complicated if I ever want to go away because I'll need to find someone who can not only feed the cats but give the medicine, too. It's tricky as I have three cats that look practically identical. I have accidentally medicated the wrong cat myself once.

Not the only medical emergency lately. Went to a friend's birthday party the other night. It was really lovely. She's Dutch and the theme of the party was hygge. Instead of dressing up, we dressed down - lots of knitted jumpers and candles.  

I left around half-ten with Maia and her friend Ismail. He was going to give us a lift home as he had a car and lives next door to us. Only, as we left the house, he noticed a woman outside with a couple of the house guards. She was crying.

As we went to see if she was all right, we noticed she had blood pouring from her ear and all down her top. Ismail asked the guards what happened, and it turned out she'd been the victim of a moto mugging, where people drive by on motorbikes and snatch bags. As they yanked her bag away, she fell and hit her head hard on the cobbled road.

We bundled her into the car and did a mad dash to A&E at King Faisal Hospital, which is the biggest hospital in Kigali. We were a bit surprised to discover we were the only ones there. They rushed her into a room and we sat outside whilst nurses went in and out for the next half-hour. 

The reason we were the only ones there soon became apparent. Rwanda has a national medical insurance policy called mutuelle de sante. It's quite affordable, and everyone is supposed to carry it. Only, King Faisal doesn't accept it. So, she's there, bleeding from her head and vomiting, and they won't run a head scan until we pay them.

Word to those in the UK: the NHS is the most precious thing we have. Imaging that's your mother, or your child, or your partner rushed into hospital and they don't get treated until you flash your cash. Imagine they do get treated, and it's serious, and you wind up thousands of pounds in debt. Anyone who thinks the NHS should be scrapped is a fucking moron. You have no idea what you're losing.

Anyway, we pooled together to pay for the scan, the doctors and some painkillers, then waited around until her friend arrived. Thankfully, even private treatment in Rwanda is very cheap by western standards, as I proved when I had three months of intensive private treatment on my burnt hand and only paid around £500. The alternative for this lady was getting transferred to a hospital across town which did accept mutuelle de sante, and having to wait hours to be seen.

It was interesting that she called her colleague from work, rather than a relative. Perhaps she didn't want to worry her parents, perhaps they lived out of town, or perhaps, being twenty-seven in Rwanda, she didn't have any family. 

Anyway, we got the contact of the doctor, who told us that she was fine. The blood was from a cut, nothing more serious. She was discharged the next day and called up to thank us. Really glad she was okay, because she seriously didn't look it when we arrived at the hospital.

Unfortunately, the next day I got a text from Maia. She was back at King Faisal as her daughter had come down with malaria. We think she probably contracted it in Idjwi, as she got bitten quite a lot. She's on the mend now. It clears up quickly once you take Coartem, but still not pleasant. The rest of us aren't showing symptoms, so with any luck we won't.

In non-medically-related news, things are going well with the piano. Popped in to tune this Kawai again last week. I'm getting much faster with practise. It used to take me around four hours, now it's about two and a half. Though a lot of these notes were still in tune from last time.

I won't go into too much detail, because I blog about the pianos elsewhere, but we've had a lot of publicity recently. A big article came out about it in international press, and Rwanda's largest Kinyarwanda online news outlet came to do an interview. I thought it was just going to be a written interview, but they turned up with cameras, which was a little unfortunate as it was an extremely hot day, just before a major downpour, and I was a bit sweaty and flustered. But it's been good. We've already had someone ask us to go check out their broken piano next week and see if we can fix it. We now have all the strings we need for our own paino, and hope to star stringing in the next couple of weeks.

Désiré also designed, and had his team build, this lovely bamboo fence so that I have some privacy on my apartment porch. I'm house-sharing at the moment with a girl doing an internship with GIZ and another working for the centre for disease control. They're really lovely, but it's nice to be able to sit outside and work without being disturbed. 

Souvenir from Akagera.

Writing has also been going really well. I'm halfway through ghostwriting the memoir of a local businessperson and it's progressing nicely. It's something I'm actually really enjoying doing. There's just enough structure to make it fairly straightforward, and the person has lived such an interesting life that it's really fun putting it to paper. 

Another book which I helped edit just had its book launch at Kigali Convention Centre.

It was my first time going inside, although I did take a tour when it was being built. It's a bit of an odd atmosphere. It's rumoured to be the most expensive building in Africa, and it looks good, especially at night when it's all lit up, but for a major conference venue, it's remarkably hard to get into on foot and rather intimidating. I got dropped off at what looked like the main entrance, to be told it was actually not, then had to walk all the way around the perimeter to another entrance, down a road which was completely blocked off, with five extremely heavily armed, serious-looking policemen who made me cross the road. Not only can't you drive past it, you can't even walk past it. Had to stop and ask directions three times before eventually finding my way into the main foyer - and got charged FRW 11,500 (about £10/$13) for a G&T, which is insane money.

The event itself was excellent. It was really fantastic to see so many people brave a ferocious thunderstorm to come and support the book, and absolutely dispelled the myth that 'Rwandans don't read'.


My Name is Life is all about Karen's struggle for diagnosis and treatment as a cancer patient in Rwanda. It was really interesting to see the characters from the book appear in person, especially her grandmother who plays a big role. 

I've also scored another editing gig with an e-learning NGO, to edit their newsletter and learning materials. Apparently I'm 'super' and 'worth the money,' which is always nice to hear. It's a really good thing I derive such satisfaction from pulling people's grammar apart. Please don't take this blog as an example, it's impossible to edit your own work!

So, I'm feeling quite content at the moment. Between writing, editing and pianos, I have enough to keep me busy. Harris will be back in a couple of months, and CasaKeza will always be there when I need a beer, if a little quiet without Maia. Victor's promised to teach me how to make cocktails, so if I do that once a week, I'm sure I'll meet people in no time.