Sunday, 17 August 2008

Ten Things

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



It’s a slow day today, so I was contemplating a list of things that make my life here so very different to life in the UK. Just for sheer entertainment value. Some I’ve mentioned numerous times, others may come as more of a surprise.

1) No hot or running water

Even living in a capital city. Most non-expat houses don’t have taps. I have taps, but they rarely work. Sometimes only for an hour at ten o’clock at night or seven in the morning, at which point you gather together every half-empty vessel available and line them up by the garden tap.

Failing that, you pay a guy 20p to run and get you a jerry can. If you’re careful you can go a whole week on one and a half jerry cans.

During the dry season you get no water because there is no rain. During the wet season you get no water because there is too much rain and the mud blocks the pipes. In cases of dire emergency, during the rainy season it is possible to strip off and take a shower in the run-off from your roof. Just check for neighbours beforehand!

What do I mean by careful? Well, my typical water usage…

Washing body: Collect 1/4 to 1/2 bucket of water from the garden. How much depends on whether you’re just washing, or washing your hair too. Let’s go with the latter:

Put towel on concrete floor to kneel on, then:

  1. Wash your face first whilst the water’s still clean.
  2. Bend your head into the bucket; make hair wet; rub in shampoo; squeeze earth-red suds into shower tray to avoid dirtying the water too much; put head back in bucket to rinse.
  3. Towel dry hair and brush. Don’t use conditioner because it will only make your hair greasier, which means you’ll have to wash it again sooner – using more water.
  4. Dry-brush teeth whilst waiting for hair to dry a little.
  5. Kneel back down and wash/shave under your armpits with soap.
  6. Crouch over the bucket and wash your navel and other parts.
  7. Towel off and sit back down if you’re going to do your legs (say, for a hot date) – place either side of the bucket, dampen, lather with soap and shave. Use a couple of handfuls of water to rinse off.
  8. If it’s a particularly dry week, use the dirty water to give some knickers a wash.
  9. Save all remaining dirty water for flushing the toilet.

Speaking of the toilet:

  1. Put all used toilet paper in a bag. Only put in the loo if it’s a number two.
  2. Only flush the loo (using dirty washing water) if it is a number two and you have enough water left in the jerry cans for all your other needs. This can entail days without flushing – veeeery stinky.
  3. Always toilet-brush down the loo bowl even without fresh water, otherwise it’ll cake on in the heat…eeeeewww!
  4. Above all, never waste fresh clean water on the toilet unless, by some miracle of chance, the cistern actually fills up :)
First priority when the water comes on is to fill the water filter. This is your only source of clean drinking water. When it runs out, it is possible to fill the kettle with ordinary water and boil for tea, coffee, and cuppa soup.

Dishes pile up and get done once or twice a week by the house help, as are clothes. Sometimes involving the purchase of more jerry cans.

Do I miss hot water? Not a bit, actually! It’s warmer here than home so, even on cold days, you’re not shivering. Don’t know you’d survive it in Carlisle. It was five months after I got here that I had my first hot shower. I haven’t had one since the beginning of May, in Kampala. I actually think my hair and skin are much healthier for it.

Do I miss running water? Yes, that narks me quite a bit sometimes. Only when I’m running really low. Worst was when I actually ran out of water altogether, including drinking water. I had to pay £1.50 for a 4.5ltr bottle of it. Expensive, but necessary. The toilet also annoys me when it hasn’t been flushed in three days and you have guests coming.

2) Transport (motos, bisis and ‘taxis’)

Hah. Where to begin with this one?

Last week Cathryn, Giudi and I left a club at around 11:00 and, for want of a taxi, started flagging down anything going past in the hope that they would pretend to be a taxi, take our money, and drop us where we wanted to go. They did. It’s the way things work around here. Would you do that back home? Not a chance in hell.

Second strangest quirk is taking a motorbike to work every morning. Public motos – such a cool way to travel, especially when you can ride like a local with your arms folded in front of you instead of clinging to the back rail. Quite a knack jotting around town with a rucksack on your back, a pillow under each arm, and a sack of parcels balancing on your lap after a day shopping.

Spending three hours on a bisi – five people crammed onto a line of seats built for three, head resting on someone’s arm, leg crossed over someone else’s, other knee up by your chin. Gods bless Atraco.

Nothing runs to a timetable, particularly. Town bisis turn up whenever. They're all privately owned and sometimes ask everyone where they’d like to go. The transport system is actually pretty good, bar the lack of timetabling which can mean you get stranded occasionally. There’s usually always someone going where you want to go around the time you want to leave, and it’s dirt cheap. Six hours to Cyangugu - £4. Nine hours to Kampala - £7. Thirty minutes into town – 15p.

Love motos. So much fun, if occasionally somewhat precarious. Cyclos too – sitting on a seat on the back of a bicycle whilst someone else peddles! Common in rural areas, but you do feel guilty going uphill.

3) ‘Muzungu!’

A word that should be banned from the Kinyarwanda language!

It is a strange feeling when, for the first time in your life, you look around you and realise that you’re the minority. A solitary white woman in a sea of Africans. You know you’re in Africa, but it still comes as a slight surprise.

Someone suggested Brixton as a comparison, but even Brixton is hugely multi-cultural. Here isn’t. The odd Congolese, Burundian perhaps, a smattering of Indian, Chinese or European – but not noticable. The attitude to foreigners certainly isn't multi-cultural.

The fact you can walk the exact same route, day in day out, just minding your own business, and still have people consistently stop, point, laugh, shout, stare and even touch you, can tip you over the edge on a bad day. It’s not just curiosity. Curiosity you could understand. Often it’s downright rudeness and racism. The laughing, the derogatory comments…bah.

4) No News is Good News?

Something I actually love is being completely detached from world events. I don’t have a telly, but then I haven’t for years anyway. I don’t have a radio, and never buy the only English language government propaganda trash tabloid. I gave up trying to access the Beeb website when my internet connection fell over laughing.

I find that people only tend to tell you about really important or interesting things. You cut out all the ‘who slept with who’ twaddle of the daily media and cut straight to the juicy details.

The down side is that you don’t know about any new films coming out and I’ve been listening to the same music for nine months now :op

There’s a TV in the Atraco bus cafĂ© which plays world news in English. If you ever end up waiting there you’re glued to it, like they’re about to announce who really shot JFK midway through the weather report (which doesn’t even cover Africa…) – it’s like looking into a whole other world. Rwanda only has one TV station and, most of the time, it plays cow dancing.

5) Seasons

There aren’t any. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Midwinter – Rwanda looks the same. Sometimes it rains a lot, sometimes it’s very hot and dusty, but it always sort of looks the same.

No solstices. The sun rises at 6am and sets at 6pm, 365 days of the year.

The plants always look the same. Sometimes avocado and banana are blossoming, sometimes they’re fruiting, but it’s all a bit random.

It has a strange effect on time. Time here seems to go very quickly, but that could just be because of all the new experiences going on. On the other hand, it could be because most of the time you have absolutely no idea what month of the year it is. School holidays don’t happen in the ‘summer’ – there is no ‘summer’ here. Even if there was, it’d be the opposite to home because we’re in the Southern Hemisphere.

Someone suggested this was the reason for the whole lack of timing thing in Africa, everyone late for everything. In cultures where life revolves around seasons, we’re used to forward planning, getting the harvest in on time etc. Here, things are more of a constant. It’s an interesting theory. I'm not entirely convinced, but it's plausible.

The up-side is that you can sit outside drinking a beer any evening of the year. The down-side is that there are no long, lazy, light nights. You’re always doing it in the dark and there aren’t any street lights. There are giant man-eating holes in the roads… makes life exciting ;)

6) Language

Rwanda is officially a tri-lingual country: French, English and Kinyarwanda. In reality it is truly multi-lingual, also combining elements of Lingala (Congo), Kirundi (Burundi), Luganda (Uganda) and Swahili. Mostly this happens because such a huge proportion of Rwanda’s people have been displaced at some point or another. Where they sought refugee status effects the languages they speak. Also, a lot of people came here after 1994 from neighbouring countries to help rebuild.

In administration it makes things difficult. Very little is written in Kinyarwanda, the language that everybody here speaks, because it seems to have a lesser status to the colonial languages. The first three years of primary school are taught in Kinyarwanda, then everyone switches to French.

French is the dominant second language for the majority of Rwandans, but recently they kicked the French Ambassador out of the country and relations have been very strained because of France’s stance in 1994. The entire country is now trying to shift from francophone to anglophone. In addition to this, the President, Paul Kagame, doesn’t speak any French (having grown up in Uganda) so the upper administrative system is all in English, which very few local government officials speak/read/write well. It’s all a bit of a fuddle language-wise.

Most people read/write/speak/understand a number of languages, but few people manage any one language really well.

When I arrived, I only knew English, British Sign Language, and five words of Welsh. Since being here I now understand and sign Amarenga y’Ikinyarwanda (Rwandan Sign Language), which I use to follow meetings spoken in Kinyarwanda or French; quite a bit of French, as I listen to it ever day, and I can use basic Kinyarwanda to get around at the shops and argue over moto prices. I’m actively trying to learn a little more Kinya and hoping to start speaking French at some point. It’s just building up to it. Here, people laugh at you mercilessly if you mispronounce something. Not because you’ve said a rude word, just because they find it hilarious. Westerners who speak French fluently say it’s not the same as the French you’d learn in school and often find it hard to understand the French spoken here – it’s adapted.

I like it, though. I know a few words in Luganda and Swahili, too. It’s nice to have all of these different languages. It’s not unusual for me to order at a bar in a mixture of Kinyarwanda and French, all in the same sentence: Ndashaka Mutzig grand econge na brochette du chevre kabiri, ibirhy limwe, murakoze.

One of the common greetings: Bite is from the times of German colonialism, the only word I think that’s stuck.

7) Diet

On the topic of food…

Most of the food I eat here I couldn’t pronounce when I first arrived:

Amandazi – deep friend donut batter, good with morning coffee.
Cassava – a tasteless wallpaper paste type glue, very filling, high in calories and really good with beans. Used to mop up sauce.
Ikivuguto – thick, sour drinking yoghurt, good with honey.
Ibirhy – halved whole Irish potatoes, roasted.
Ibitoke – large, savoury bananas you boil like potato. Very bland but often made into a Ugandan dish called Matoke with nut or meat sauce.
Imboga – a green mush usually made from cassava leaves or other greens. Like spinach.
Brochette ifi/chevre/umwijima – grilled fish/goat/liver on a stick, like a shish kebab.
Marakuja Juice – passion fruit juice, extremely yummy especially when fresh.
Melange – literally a ‘mixture’, a buffet of rice, ibitoke, beans, meat, imboga, chips, noodles and anything else high-carb.
Sambaza – deep fried fish, like Devilled Whitebait. Served with salsa and guacamole.
Simsim – balls of roasted sesame seeds (I think simsim is the generic term for 'sesame seeds'). Delicious snacks. Kids joke that they’re rolled into balls in people’s armpits! At least, I hope they’re joking :op

Despite all this, it’s quite a bland diet. Rwandans don’t like spicy food with one exception – pillipilli, which is an eye-watering, smoke-out-the-ears type of chilli sauce which they eat with brochettes. Since I’ve been in Rwanda, I add salt and sugar to many of my foods and drinks. That's something I never did in the UK. Food is also very high-carb, a nightmare diet. Fresh salad is hard to come by and it’s easy to put on weight even if you don’t eat often. Chapatis and meat samosa are staple snacks. After a few weeks you’re sick to death of them. Western products like cereal and biscuits are very expensive and, tragically, chocolate here is made in Egypt or Uganda and tastes foul – like plastic. Even Bounty and Cadbury are woefully disappointing, though Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs are acceptable if, again, expensive. Milk is powdered and comes in tins, or UHT in cartons.

On the up-side, Rwanda does a fantastic line in coffee, tea, peanut butter, honey and cheese. All fresh and locally produced. 'African Tea' is also served: hot milk that has been shown a tea bag and mixed with tea masala/spices and a ton of sugar. Very nice.

Due to a lack of sanitary places to eat near my office, it’s not unusual for me to start work and go until 4pm without eating anything more than a chapati. I currently live off cuppa soup sent from home and bread. I sometimes splash out and make a spag bol or chilli if someone’s coming over.

On the whole, the diet isn’t great. Vols often get together for a night out at one of the really nice restaurant. You can get Indian, Chinese, Ethiopian, French, Italian, even Mexican but, due to the expense, it’s a treat.

Because I don’t have a fridge, I have to shop each day for what I need. Food goes off incredibly fast due to the warm weather. I’m lucky because I’m right opposite the shops. For vols in rural areas it’s more of a struggle.

8) Health

A fellow vol recently got back from visiting her family in Europe. Although she was healthy, her mum made her go to the doctor and have everything tested. The doctor looked at the results and asked her ‘are you sure you don’t have dysentery?’

Apparently, she had abnormally high cultures of just about everything. They didn’t treat it all, as she was coming back, but it was interesting to know. People also say ‘it takes a long time for things to heal in Rwanda’. This does seem to be the case. When you get ill you get ill for a long time.

The most common problem is a slightly icky tummy. The longer I’m here, the less that happens, and it’s only very mild when it does. My problem has mostly been respiratory infections. People blame the dust for this and I’m coming round to that idea. Rwanda is a very dust country. Then, people also think that eating beans makes you deaf and that rain gives you malaria...

Malaria is the main concern. It’s not uncommon for a vol to get it and, after medication, they’re fine again. I met one vol with typhoid recently. He was still just about functioning and made a full recovery. It’s true that malaria is a killer, but with the backing of a VSO health plan behind you, and repatriation if all else fails, I don’t think any vols have thus far succumbed.

Most of us here long-term end up not taking our antimalarials. The side-effects aren’t pleasant and they don’t guarantee absolute protection. Some would say that’s reckless. Maybe, but it’s also about quality of life. You have to be healthy on a day-to-day basis to cope with the stresses of working in a developing country. If doxy or lariam cause you noticeable discomfort, it makes everything harder. When you get depressed, you’re even more likely to succumb to illness. I take homeopathic prophylactics that my lovely aunt sent out (she’s a homeopath) but, every now and then, I’ll reach for the doxy if I’ve got an upset tummy as it helps with that. Or if I know that I can’t afford to get malaria because, say, family are flying out to visit me.

Bilharzia from swimming in Lake Muhazi is the only other one that’s common. The test is very expensive in the UK. You can get it on VSO here, but a friend said the best thing to do is just walk into the chemist and say you’ve got it, take the medication and that’s that. You can get just about anything here without a prescription – they're more interested in the money ;)

Another advantage to that is not having to deal with the doctors, who are complete letches on female patients. There’s no accountability, so they can just about do what they like. Even at one of the ‘best’ clinics in Kigali, I was quizzed about my sexual history when I went in for a chest infection. Another volunteer, her doctor kept pestering her for her phone number. Another went in to discuss an HIV test because she’d met someone she really liked. The junior doctor said to her ‘having sex here is very dangerous, there is a lot of AIDS. I am a doctor, if you want to have safe sex you can have it with me because I have all the certificates to show that I have not got AIDS.’

So, yeah, best avoided. My plan of action is just to treat the serious stuff, probably eventually get the bilharzia meds, and wait until I return to the UK for a full medical. To be honest, the body is amazingly adaptable and resilient. The biggest worry is stress and depression from the daily grind. People can burn out if they’re not careful, but the VSO psych profiling is usually pretty accurate about the people they send out. We’re all quite thick-skinned.

9) Quality of Life

Despite the stress of things, quality of life for an urban volunteer isn’t bad. I have the most amazing, wonderful house (it will break my heart to leave it), three gorgeous cuddly cats (it will break my heart to leave them), a swimming pool nearby, and a domestic who deals with all of my washing and housework.

The quality of home life here is really good. I’m very comfortable in my home and neighbourhood. It’s a very safe area to live in. Very low crime, all be it because it’s a police state.

Money is an issue. The allowance is low in comparison to soaring prices. I do dip into my savings from time to time, and my family also help out. That certainly makes the difference between me having to scrape by and me actually having a good quality of life. I use extra money on eating out and holidays, like Uganda. Things here are pretty cheap by UK standards but you have to remember that you’re not on a UK wage, you’re on a local graduate wage. Although you came here to volunteer, not as a consultant or highly paid professional, it’s still hard sometimes. Prices are going up rapidly, too. When I arrived, a large Mutzig cost around FRW 600/60p, then 800/80p, now 1,200/£1.20!!! In nine months! The volunteer wage has gone up by 20,000 (£20).

But my quality of life compared to rural areas, I think, is extremely good. Whereas you get ‘muzungu’ here a lot, in rural areas it can be downright frightening. People in the city have seen more white people. Also, there are plenty of bars, restaurants and shops, and lots of other vols and ex-pats always around, so you have a good social life. I also have pretty constant electricity and, best of all, internet. I lasted quite a while when I first got here without internet. That was fine, but it does really make a difference being able to contact the outside world.

When I came, I thought I wanted a village posting, but Kigali is such a small city that you don’t feel too claustrophobic. I’m glad I’m in the city now with everything in easy reach and VSO just up the road. I don’t have to spend my reserves travelling into town to shop.

I love my quality of life here. I miss driving sometimes, but it’s more nostalgia. I’d never have half the job satisfaction, cool accommodation, or experiences back in the UK as I have here. Love it.

10) Friendships

Perhaps one of the things that stands out most here is friendships. How they’re made and the transience of it all.

Friendships anywhere are important. Here, they’re extremely important. You rely so much on your network of friends when you first get here: people to show you the ropes and pick you up when you have a major wobble. You create some really tight bonds. The same as my close group of friends back home.

The difference is that, being an ex-pat, you see a lot of people come and go. As with now, the people I have become incredibly close to over the past year are all leaving. Although new people have come and will come, you don’t always feel like you want to go through the bonding process again. You know you will, and you’ll meet some really terrific people again, but it’s still hard to pick up the phone one evening and realise the person you were going to call to go for a drink is somewhere in a pub in Scotland.

You see each other in the most extreme moods, too. The days when you’re completely pushed to the edge, and the days when something silly has made you stupidly happy. You have that with friends back home, but here you’re forced to have it, and the range is so intense: consoling a friend when her bus has just hit and killed a small boy, getting dressed up to be a witness at a secret wedding, nursing someone through malaria, seeing your first hippopotamus up-close.

You will always stay in touch with these people and always be friends, having shared so much, but their lives will change drastically again once they return home or move on to other countries. You won’t be part of those new experiences. Hopefully you’ll get to hear about them.

Making friends locally takes time, but has huge rewards. You get to see the ‘real’ Rwanda, beyond the European continent of Bourbon Coffee Shop. You see a whole other dimension. You rely on your network of other volunteers with more experience and, later on, your close local friends, to vet future friends. There is a suspicion that is sometimes well founded. That, as a muzungu, people are only interested in you for what they can get: sex, money, a visa. You really do have to be on your guard and careful about who you give your time to. Another reason friendships are intense here is that your friends are your teachers, your sanctuary, and your protection.

Anyway, that’s it – my top ten ‘things that are really different.’ There are a few things I haven't covered, but have spoken about before, to do with attitude: it's perfectly acceptable to answer your mobile phone and have a conversation in the middle of any business meeting. No one ever turns up for anything on time ever and, although everybody understands that looking down on someone because of the colour of their skin is racism, very few (men) make the connection that doing the same because of the shape of your body is sexism.

But, anyway. Just some musings. Come visit! Rwanda rocks :)