Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Juju Bags, Earthquakes & Umupfumus

This is an extract from my African travel blog, where you can read all of my adventures in Rwanda

Oh. My. Gods.

Where to begin?

What a crazy, wonderful, terrifying and unforgettably experience!

Really, where to begin?

I suppose, at the beginning…

Monday afternoon I arrived back at the office with my bags, feeling very apprehensive. I was really worried about where I’d be sleeping, who I’d be going with, and whether I’d get to eat anything.

The whole thing was organised into groups, like the previous research that I’d read about: groups A, B and C. I was in group A with Gerard (Vice Chair), Betty (Interpreter), and another lady, Bernadette, who I didn’t know so well. I’d only met her once, briefly, at Deaf Church.

We hung around for a while getting the final bits sorted out, then there was a mad dash for the 2pm bus to Cyangugu. So much of a rush, and so few bisis, that Gerard went ahead on a moto to secure tickets. We finally got to mumuji with Parfait and a few others who were off to different places. We didn’t have long to wait until our bus was ready for the off.

“So,” I asked Gerard, once we were settled. “How long does it take to get to Cyangugu?”

“Six or seven hours.”


Heck, thinks I, realising it’ll be dark by the time we get there.

It was indeed a very long journey, and we were all seated in a line so we couldn’t really sign much to each other without risking neck strain. 

I read my book for most of it. One guy, without asking, grabbed it from my lap and read the back cover - for over five minutes! - then gave it back to me, having closed it and lost my place. Uh, thanks. Books are a total fascination here because people have so very few of them, and anyone who can read likes to show you that they can read by staring at your book, or asking you questions about it. Having said that, just about everyone in the country owns a bible. I’ve already hijacked books from the VSO library to loan to a friend in next door’s office – he’s bored off his trolley sitting there with nawt to do six days a week.

The woman on my right was all elbows – never met so much elbow. She was also a fidget-arse, so every five minutes or so she’d have a good rummage in her bag and jam an elbow against my boob or my ribs, then stretch her legs out over me. I really miss personal space!

But, other than my neighbours, it was a really enjoyable journey. The scenery was breathtaking. We left Kigali and the surrounding agricultural diamond quiltwork that terraces it. I now realise that those are comparatively low hills. 

As the journey wore on, the hills got bigger and bigger, and the arable land gave way to thick, towering forest. Some areas were nice little valleys, strewn with eucalyptus (bizarrely tons of the stuff here), but others were pure jungle. Very impressive. Went past the southern National Parks which are home to the monkeys - shall have to go back and have a look someday.

By the time dusk arrived, the road was thick with mist. We must have been at quite an altitude because the clouds that had topped some of the larger mountains now topped the bus. The road was like a snake - not a straight patch anywhere and, on top of swerving the bends, our driver also expertly manoeuvred some pretty serious potholes.

We finally, six hours later, pulled up at Cyangugu. Although it was dark, I was impressed by how big the place seemed – larger than I was expecting, and also still standing (which I wasn’t sure about after the earthquakes). As we were approaching the city, Gerard tapped me and signed:

“See those lights over there?”


“That’s Bukavu. The Congo.” 

Bukavu is the epicentre of the earthquakes. It is within spitting distance of Cyangugu, separated only by Lake Kivu - a vast expanse of water that runs the entire length of the Rwanda/DRC border.

The DRC across Lake Kivu

I felt a little thrill go up my spine. Although the DRC is currently out of bounds to volunteers, I’ve always wanted to see it. I guess this is close enough for the time being. I can’t deny there’s also something a little enticing about a disaster zone – morbid curiosity, perhaps. But what does an earthquake-devastated town actually look like? Oddly, at first glance, not that devastated.

I also asked: “Isn’t there a refugee camp around here somewhere?”

Gerard pointed out a fork in the road. "Congolese refugees," he signed.

On arrival we met up with Damascene, another guy I met briefly at the church but didn’t really know. We all went to La Petite Colline, a guesthouse nearby. I rented a pretty basic room for FRW 6,000 – a little more than I thought it was worth, but a place to put my head down. Before leaving, Léon dished out my allowance for the project, which included food, drink, transport and accommodation.

I was a little disconcerted to discover that everyone else was staying at Damascene’s. They explained that Ruth (my VSO predecessor) had also stayed at La Petite Colline, so I just accepted that and was quietly pleased that I would have a room all to myself with a bathroom, sit-down toilet, and bar to hand. We then went to a café just next door and had melange, which was a great way to settle in. I still had no real idea what the procedure was, but felt calmer for enjoying the company and the accommodation.

So, contented, I wandered back to my room. It was still quite early, about nine. I was contemplating a beer, but then the biggest storm broke – thunder, lightning, torrential rain - so I tucked myself up in bed with my book: The Mistress of Spices, which I finished. 

I was hoping for a hot shower, but there was only cold water. I also thought about chatting to Mum or Dad, but I had forgotten to bring their numbers, and decided that I probably couldn’t hear them over the rain on the tin roof. Having a thatched roof, you forget these things.

Next morning, I got up quite early. Some horrid woman decided to wash and scrub her patio outside my window at 5am - I could have thrown something! Then a local rooster started off.

I dozed again and got up around 7am – had a bracing, cold shower and pottered. Then, about ten-to nine, some random Deaf guy turned up to tell me that my colleagues wouldn’t be meeting me until mid-day. I thanked him and, after the initial ‘bloody typical’, made my way to the rather lovely covered dining area and ordered tea. Tea came in the form of Rwanda-style hot milk that had been shown a teabag. I decided just to go with it, and heaped in some sugar and a little honey from a plate that had been brought with the bread. 

“Omelette?” the waiter asked. At first I said 'no', as I’d already pigged out on the cake and crackers I’d packed, just in case there was no food. Then I changed my mind and decided that you can never have too much food – who knows when you’re next gonna eat?

I was halfway through this when all of my colleagues turned up. It was about ten-past nine. 

Uhhh… hello…? 

I explained what the young man had told me, but none of them knew who he was, and they assured me that they hadn’t sent him. A little embarrassed, I finished up my food and we started walking to find the local school where Damascene teaches a class of Deaf adults.

We’re walking through Cyangugu. I’m telling Gerard that I really like it – there’s a serious vibe about the place. I like it more than Kigali, it has real character. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I catch this old woman running across the street towards me. She throws something. It hits me. She runs off. A few passers-by laugh in amusement. I look down. At first I fear the worst – human excrement, perhaps – then I brush it off and see that it’s a fine brown powder, and there’s a little cellophane ball of it on the floor by my foot. 

My colleagues all tell me not to worry – “She’s mad,” they say. “She did the same to Ruth.”

I smile, not reassured in the least, but hugely entertained by the whole event. I can’t help it. I turn to Gerard and ask: “Mad from the genocide – trauma?” 

He says: “Maybe, yes."

“Not ‘mad’ meaning 'umupfumu'?”

He frowns and shakes his head – “No, no. Umupfumus are elsewhere. She’s just mad.”

Okay, I accept this and we keep walking. 

Two minutes later we round the corner and there, right in front of us, is the most stunning view of Lake Kivu and a towering volcano. I am overawed. There is something about borders. I felt the same looking at Tanzania from Akagera. Here is the legendary Congo - diamond capital of the world. Deepest, darkest, Central Africa. I ask my colleagues if it’s okay to take pictures. They tell me it’s 'no problem', so I relish the opportunity to slip into tourist mode. I’m in good company as Bernadette is doing the same, it’s her first time too. I’ve already realised that I like Bernadette a lot – she’s dead straightforward, says what she means and doesn’t take any faff.

So, after a gentle stroll in glorious weather, we arrive at this school overlooking the lake. In the end classroom there are about ten Deaf adult students, and two hearing. One of them is the guy who came to my hotel earlier – I’m later told not to believe anything he says, he’s a bit of a joker.

Gerard explains why we’re there and what we’d like to do. We set up a table and chairs outside and call the students one-by-one. We ask them to go through a list of pictures of every-day items, then give us their sign for each one. We record these signs with a digital camera.

This goes on for some time, until the battery runs down. Then Gerard spent about half an hour arguing the case for Rwandan Sign Language with one of the hearing students. This student had seen my white skin and assumed that I was using them in some way to invent a sign language for America… ho hum. 

Gerard managed to explain that sign language is individual to each country, and that it is important for all Deaf people to be able to communicate and get recognition. He also explained that I was not there to take photographs to distribute to other countries. Gerard was a bit frustrated when we left, but I think he turned the student around and opened up her worldview at least a little bit. She looked thoughtful as we took our leave.

Sign Language research at a school in Cyangugu.

We went back to my hotel to charge the camera, then had a coke at the café before my colleagues went off to do other things. 

I ended up talking to the proprietor of the hotel and his wife. He’s a Brigadier in the army, on the Tanzanian boarder. He came home to check on his family after the earthquakes. Really nice guy. He's originally from Uganda, so his English was very good. Ironically, whilst we were sitting there, I was sure that I felt a very small tremor. He was on the phone at the time. I never asked. Instead, I simply shrugged it off as my imagination, given where we were.

He took me on a tour of the place. It was much bigger than I’d realised, with this amazing sloping tunnel of vines going down to luxury suites. There were secluded sitting areas then, at the bottom, a really grand terrace and balcony overlooking Lake Kivu. At the very bottom you could get down to the main road and walk to the shore, but it was a bit far for the time I had free.

I met up again with my colleagues around 2pm, once the battery had charge enough. One of the women from the school had invited us to her home in Ntura, a little village about half an hour’s bisi ride out of Cyangugu. She invited us to meet her family and friends, and video some more clips.

On the way to the bus stop, Damascene was pointing out the damage from the earthquakes. He explained that at the end of the road where my hotel was, three people had been crushed to death when the façade fell off a building.

At first glance, things don’t look so bad. Then you realise that every second building has these huge cracks through them. Bits of plaster are missing, and there are small heaps of rubble piled up next to them. 

I think I was expecting the place to be flattened. I was impressed that so much was upright and functioning. Though the infamous church which had collapsed on its congregation was apparently just the other side of my hotel.

We found the right bisi and alighted in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by the most beautiful rolling green tea fields. I’d never seen tea growing before, and expected it to be a lot taller than it was.

We had a really good time researching at this lady's home and meeting her family. Her eldest sister is hearing, but she has two other Deaf siblings, though they weren’t there at the time. Her Deaf neighbour came over to sign for us, too. It was really interesting.

I also met her nephew, Rohini, who is the youngest of five children belonging to her eldest sister. Her sister was pregnant with him when the genocide happened, and her husband (his father) was killed just before he was born, so never met him. Extremely sad story. She showed me photographs of their wedding.


Walking to Ntura

Tea Fields

Research at Ntura
(click to enlarge)

As we were leaving, I was taken over to another neighbour’s house. I was left open-mouthed at what I saw. The family had been asleep in bed when the earthquake hit. This is what happened to their home:

They are desperately poor and there’s really very little help available to them. They were sleeping in the wooden hut at the bottom of their garden. For the first time, I dug into my pockets and gave FRW 5,000 – not enough to rebuild the house, but enough to help them eat for a while. They were extremely kind in letting me take photographs, and even posed for one. I wish there was more I could have done for them. It’s a desperate situation.

We returned to Cyangugu by dark, and decided to end the day with a well earned beer at the local bar. It was a really good night, and Gerard persuaded me to crack on with the waragi. We covered everything from 'learning to swim' and 'Deaf v. disability', to 'current affairs' and, yes, I couldn’t resist…

“So, that bag the woman threw at me. What was in it? Graveyard dust?”

He laughed. “No, just tea.”

That actually made sense. It seemed a familiar texture. I looked slightly disappointed. “But she’s definitely not an umupfumu?”

“Look,” Gerard was getting a little exasperated. “How do you feel?”

“Fine. Well.”

“Right. You’re eating, you’re sleeping, you’re healthy – she wasn’t an umupfumu. An umupfumu wouldn’t come running at you in the street, you’d just find something in your bag or on your clothes. You wouldn’t see an umupfumu. She was just mad.”

"Okay." I give in gracefully. But still, I’m really intrigued by the way he put this – implying that umupfumus have a lot of power. Gerard used to work for a missionary in the area. I guess I thought he’d just laugh it off and sign something like: ‘don’t believe such silly stuff.’

Earlier, I had asked him if there were umupfumus in Kigali. He nodded and signed: "yes, but their power is weaker. Here it is strong."

I was rather tipsy when I said goodnight to everyone and stumbled back to the guesthouse. It was only about 9pm, so I reasoned that I would get tons of sleep befor morning. We had decided to go back to Kigali via somewhere else, in order to visit some more Deaf signers on the way. I had a good, drunken natter to Dad before bed – having had too much of a whacky and wonderful time not to share.

So, I slept.

At 4am I woke up. I was dimly aware of a dog barking somewhere. Dogs barking in the early hours… why’s that familliar-

Holy sh!t. Almost literally. I fully admit it, I was terrified.

It wasn’t a big quake, but it was big enough. There was a quality to it unlike those of Kigali, compounded by an almost stifling knowledge of where I was. It was very brief - so brief that I hadn’t worked out what to do in my mind yet. I couldn’t think of anything to do, so I just kept glancing at the ceiling, praying the building would hold. 

It was a savage shake, rather than the watery wobble up north. I remembered writing about the first time as being almost pleasant. This was just terrifying. All I kept thinking was I’m naked! (yes readers, I tend to sleep in the nuddie – not a fan of PJs or nighties) – I just kept thinking: ‘what if they dig me out of this and I haven’t got any clothes on? Will they wrap me in my blanket so I don’t stand in the street with nothing on?’

Seriously, this is what went through my mind.

The second it was over, my immediate thought was to get some clothes on and sleep fully dressed in case it happened again. Only, I didn’t move from my bed. I just lay there holding the pillow thinking: sh!t. In Kigali I easily thought I’d imagined them, but this was undeniable. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that this one had just happened.

However, I didn’t reckon on the damage it had caused. The quake was very brief. I thought: ‘the world’s still standing’. I heard people outside walking about and talking in Kinya, but remained where I was. I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I couldn’t sleep. I lay there with my mind racing until about 6am, then dozed and had crazy dreams until my alarm went at 6:40.

I got up very, very groggy. Barely had any sleep, but an earthquake sure does wake you sober. I had a cold shower again and waited for my colleagues to collect me at around seven. As I waited, I noticed people sweeping up rubble around the market, but I couldn’t see anything that had fallen down. 

My colleagues and I were all signing about the quake, except for Gerard, who had drunk so much waragi he had slept through the entire thing!!!

As we walked to the bus stop, Damascene pointed to a hotel across the street. I looked up and saw that the roof was covered with tarpaulin. 

“Is that new?” I signed in disbelief. 

“Yep, last night.” 

I was gobsmacked. The whole top side had collapsed. As we drove out of the town, I noticed that all of the cracks that had been there before were now much bigger. Larger chunks of plaster and wall had fallen away. People were still walking around conducting business as usual in structurally devastated buildings. All I can think is that next time (and there’s bound to be one soon) more houses will fall, and more people will die. The place is a time bomb. I asked Damascene if he would consider moving, but he replied: 'no', and so far his home is okay. He joked later, as we left the town, that he was 'going home to see if his house was still standing.'


We arrived at another lady’s home about mid-day, after a police stop (driver fined FRW 20,000 for overcrowding the bus) and stalling on a hill – for which the conductor had to lean down between my legs (most undignified) to find the choke.

We eventually got there, though, and had a good time. We met two Deaf sisters - one signs, the other is oral. We also met their hearing mother, sister, her little boy and baby. She’d just lost her dad the week before, so it was a sad time. We have been invited to the memorial service next month. 

We videod some signs until the memory card filled up. Batteries and memory are in short supply I’ve noticed – could have done with a spare of each.  We stayed for a drink, then hung around almost to panic-point as there were no bisis going back to the main road. Eventually, we got one. Then we had to hang around for ages at the main road, waiting for the Impala bus home to Kigali. We signed to each other whilst we waited, and a whole crowd of people penned us in - staring at these weird Deaf creatures and this muzungu amongst them!

I stunned them by turning to say ‘hello’ and ask how everyone was in Kinya. They backed off a little after that, but it was so ‘village’ as Betty puts it. Really was like The Birds, only humans. Another very strange spectacle occurred as we stood there – five muzungus on bicycles went past! All middle-aged men in tight lycra. Caused much talk and hilarity.

We bought fruit and ate rations whilst we waited. I was glad that I didn’t eat too much as the driver of the bus home was an absolute sadist! Speeding like a lunatic around these hairpin bends. I seriously thought I was going to puke – horrific motion sickness. We were right at the back – managed to get seats in a line.

However, funny coincidence: there were two obstinate, cackling, middle-aged women sitting in the row in front of us. Both were dressed in blue – one very, very thin, with prominent cheek bones, the other plump and round with a cough. They weren’t best pleased with us because Gerard had told the thin one to move as she was sitting in our seats. They cackled like geese when we dared to shout to the driver to slow down (having seen a couple of overturned buses by the roadside and thinking we could easily be the next).

I could tell that Gerard wasn’t too keen on them, and I asked why.

Umupfumu,” he signed.

I laughed and said: “How do you know?”

“She looks like one.”

“Do all umupfumu look the same?”


I think he meant there’s a certain ‘something’ about them – rather than they all look identical. I asked Bernadette if she thought he was right, and she emphatically signed: "yes".

So, finally, I was sitting next to two real-life umupfumus – and I didn’t like them one bit. I don’t think they thought much of a muzungu, either. But I told Gerard that we needn’t have worried about the safety of the bus. With two umupfumus on board, it was bound to be safe.

It was just a really weird couple of days. Absolutely fantastic – although I could have done without the bus ride back; seriously felt unwell. Got a brilliant moto home – he raced another one and I just flipped up my visor and took in the air that had been stifled out of the bus. It was exactly what I needed, though not easy balancing a lead-weight backpack on one of those things. I could also have done without the earthquake, but a perverse little part of me is kind of glad that I experienced it. I’d been thinking since the Kigali quakes: 'How bad can it be?' Now I know that, actually, it’s bloody scary - even a little one. Test complete, wouldn’t want to try it again.