Tuesday, 17 November 2009

RV Weekend

Well hullooo readers!

Been a while. Just returned from a Returned Volunteers (RV) weekend at Harborne Hall in Birmingham, where you may remember I did my pre-departure training just over two years ago. Before leaving Rwanda I didn't really think I'd want to go to an RV weekend, but since being back I realised it would be nice to have a weekend away and re-visit the ol' place.

It was extremely strange walking back through the door. Smelled just the same, looked the same. A fond familiarity. There were 50 or more RVs from all over the world: Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, Ghana, The Gambia, China, Mongolia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Cambodia, Guyana, Indonesia and even Pakistan (whose programme office shut recently due to the escalating political problems).

We kicked off at 6pm with an excellent exercise called Just One Thing where we each brought one thing that was special from our time in placement. Many of us also wore national dress - so I got to air the mushanana that Jasmine made me one last time.

Talking of that mushanana, it was made for my colleague Léon's wedding and I found a couple of clips the other day. They're poor quality but I could never upload them before because of the internet speed:

Léon & Janine getting married.

At the reception the wedding party sing a traditional wedding song to the guests.

A quick snippet of the speech I gave - not knowing I was going to be asked to make one!

So, it was really nice to get to wear it again and to see everybody else's dress - the clothes from Ethiopia and Pakistan were extremely beautiful.

People brought a whole range of different items with them. Some that stand out were the scarf that one lady had to wear to cover her head and shoulders, and how it made her think about how lucky her and her daughter (and women in general) are in Britain, and the amount of freedom we have. Someone else brought a toy truck made out of old tins, which the kids of five and six made in her village. How many other kids that age do you know who could make such an intricate item with flip-flop wheels and a movable steering wheel? I took my two Rwandan masks. Most masks were Congolese, so it was hard to find something that was actually Rwandan. These you buy traditionally in pairs: a man and a woman, which I like to think represent Nyabinghi and Ryangombe, the spirit cults from the North and South, respectively.

Rabia was also there, we met last Christmas in Sierra Leone, where she was on placement. So we shared a bottle of wine and a catch-up. Vicki, one of the facilitators, had also done a two-year placement in Rwanda, then six months in Mongolia. I met her when she went back on holiday to Rwanda and we had a pancake fest. So, again, it was great to catch-up as we know lots of the same people.

Saturday was a string of workshops looking at re-settlement issues, careers advice, job issues, what support VSO offer etc. It was useful but long, and sometimes a bit repetitive. I'm not sure why, but it did feel a bit flat. I remember pre-departure training having a lot more energy - mostly nervous excitement - which of course RVs don't have. But at the same time the trainers seemed a bit more sedentary, and there wasn't any silliness. No WAAAA! games. I'm not sure that just because we're returnees, that we've completely lost our sense of fun. A few silly games would have helped to lift the mood a bit. After all, most of us really miss our placement countries (you could tell from the Just One Thing exercise) so we're perhaps even more in need of cheering up than outbound volunteers.

Thankfully, we completely made up for this in the bar. The red wine did flow. Rabia and I befriended Elizabeth & Oli, Anna, Dan and Alex and between us we formed a pub quiz team. We did extremely badly, but were too distracted by salt 'n' vinegar crisps to care! :) 

That part of the weekend was great: letting off steam and returning to a social scene of vols where we all had so much in common, as we'd all been in Africa. It's great to have some new friends, and Anna lives near Gloucester so I'll go visit her next time I'm there.

Finished today around 11am after a talk about getting involved in VSO and fundraising. Was interesting. Still thinking that if I can't get a job in the New Year I'll just re-apply for a short-term placement and keep building up my CV until I get an offer.

Had a bit of a green twinge at the end, though. They handed out postcards that we write to ourselves with our aspirations on, then they post them to us in six months. That's a lot of postcards to hand out each year, and it didn't mention 'recycled paper' anywhere. Then they asked us to fill out expense forms if we were donating our transport money, but they'd already asked us if we wanted to do that by e-mail before the course - so, again, not very eco-friendly.

Drove home and feeling a bit anti-social again. I was slipping back into UK living pretty well, but that's thrown it all in the air again. Now I just miss the people I met and wish we were heading to the bar tonight. That's a bit pants, but I do feel better in other ways. It's good others are as directionless as me right now, although many are returning to old jobs or to study. But it's good to feel normal again in terms of where I'm at and what I'm doing.

There was one lady there who is outgoing, on her way to Rwanda. It's very unusual to have an outgoing vol at an RV weekend, but she was between courses. As she was staying at Harborne anyway, she wanted to come. I wondered if it would be a bit negative for her - 'warts and all' - but she seemed fine, and still enthusiastic to go even after having that very realistic insight. I was the only Rwandan volunteer at the weekend, so it was nice to chat to her and look at the map of where she'll be working.

It's been a bit of an African day, actually. The shower ran out of water this morning - luckily just as I was finishing. That hasn't happened since Gikondo. Then I got back to Mum's to find the power was out on the lights upstairs, so I'm sitting here writing this by candlelight. Oddly, it's quite comforting - if you sort of ignore the carpet, radiator, cold weather and Queen-sized bed.

Anyway, will update more soon. For now, that's about my limit.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Armistice Day & Remembrance Sunday

Today was Remembrance Sunday. The photograph below is our war memorial in Guilsborough, opposite the church. Each year we have a parade which comes up the High Street for the church service, then back down through the village to the Ward Arms, our local pub. Before the church service, Mum and Merrick (the Tower Captain for Guilsborough) were inside ringing.

Sorry for the poor quality of this video, it was cobbled together from fairly dubious footage, rehashed through a mincer of file conversions.

It stands as a (pixelated) record of village tradition.

My great grandfather, Thomas Alfred Sewell, was injured in the 1st World War and stayed on at Ypres, where he met and married my great grandma, who was a nurse. He remained as a grave digger with the War Graves Commission and helped found Poelcapelle Cemetery.

Great Grandda' Tom

Sadly, he contracted a disease from the bodies and died aged 40. Because he wasn't in active military service they buried him in Ypres Town Cemetery. In 2005, the town of Ypres wanted the land back to bury local people so Nana, Aunty Jean, Dad, myself and my partner at the time all went over to reinter him: three generations. Great grandma's hair was still sitting on top of his coffin in a bun. 

My paternal grandfather served in the Middle East and North Africa during the Second World War. My maternal grandfather was a farmer in Leicestershire. Many Polish refugees were given temporary shelter on his land after the war. My mother says she remembers sharing a fresh apple with one little boy.

It is a little strange to think that, growing up, we were always told to 'ask our grandparents' during projects on the World Wars at primary school. I don't think we realised at the time that we were the last generations to be able to do so.

See Also: 

Retreating, Part I: Ypres, the Menin Gate and Last Post. 
Horsing Around: German remembrance plaques.
Auschwitz I: the main camp.
Auschwitz II: Birkenau.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Bonfire Night

Remember, remember the 5th November, gunpowder, treason and plot );o>

Do you know the rest of that poem?

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,

The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
And what should we do with him? Burn him!

Had an excellent Guy Fawkes Night down Hollowell Field where they have the Steam Rally each year.

Went with Mum, Merrick, my brother William and nephew Damian, our friends Kate, David, Hannah and their son Harry. Had a huge feast beforehand of baked potatoes, cauliflower cheese and lasagna to keep us warm.

It's always spectacular at Hollowell, especially for the size of the bonfire, which was apparently 89ft this year. There were three Guys on top.

Here's the moment when the top Guy fell:

More fireworks :)

Much fun had by all, though after African weather I almost froze me toes off!

Monday, 2 November 2009

Samhain in Fife

Happy New Year!

[This was my first blog post after returning from Rwanda.]

Well, I had a lovely weekend up in the middle of the Scottish hills. Started out on Thursday in Auchtermuchty with Andy, who hosts both the Deaf Association and Single Parents Network websites. Hadn't seen him since the music festival back in August '07, shortly before I went to Rwanda.

After a six-hour drive, in which I only tried to pull out into oncoming traffic once, I got there and promptly sobbed on the sofa! Pumped full of antibiotics, absolutely knackered, and missing home like a homesick thing - all a bit pants. But I soon perked up, and he fed me lots of nice pasta, cheese and biscuits :op

The next day we drove over to John & Kitty's farmstead out near Crail, Fife, with a beautiful view of the North Sea. Spent Friday night relaxing with Andy, Peggy, John, Kitty, Free and friends, including a lovely guy from Belgium called Thorsten who flew over specially for the occasion.

[NB 2013: And later rescued me when I was grounded by snow at Schiphol!]

John made a wonderful smoked mackerel and leek soup and we ate and drank merrily - I finished my antibiotics (from the monkey bite) that day, so started on the wine.

On the Saturday I had a bit of a lie-in, a warm bath, and went for a wee wander. About three miles down the road I suddenly found myself staring at a Sam2 surface-to-air missile, a Green Goddess, and a secret Cold War bunker. If you happen to be passing, you might like to pop in to Scotland's Secret Bunker. I didn't have any cash, so I didn't go in, but it was a bit eerie and, as I was walking up the drive, the siren you hear on the website went off - extremely disconcerting.

I wandered back and people started to arrive. Lots of people! The house was full of Pagans in the festive spirit, with oodles more food, and booze and cloaks and staffs aplenty.

The ritual itself was lovely. There was a labyrinth in the garden for meditation and we formed a procession from the front of the house to the back where the Samhain fire was lit and the quarters called. Many of us had drawn sigils which, after remembrance of the dead and welcoming in of new life (Samhain is both for those who have passed and those who have just arrived), we burned along with last year's corn dolly. Then there was an alter in the house for candles and individual remembrance.

After the ritual, we set about the serious business of feasting: venison stew, pies, sauces and dessert coming out our ears. The chocolate mousse cake was almost as good as the one at Giudi's hen party, but certainly nowhere near as appreciated.

It was a surreal experience. Going from goat brochettes and one solid meal a day to being surrounded by people discussing what to dip in a white-chocolate fondue, amidst bowls and bowls of food with ingredients from all over the world.


Made me a little sad when I thought about all the people who wouldn't be eating that night. All the kids that belong to our single parents. I thought what Emmanuelle’s face would look like if she saw all those iced cupcakes and chocolate brownies. I thought about how fast the sweets disappeared at my work leaving do; even how my colleague pounced on the chocolate éclairs and locked them in a draw the first Christmas I was there, announcing that he'd finish them off when he got back (they were meant for everybody!) ;)

So, it was a bit odd seeing this huge pile of food and knowing that everyone around the table did this on a regular basis. Lot of people I would have liked to have seen there, hands full of scotch eggs and mouths covered in chocolate sauce.

After most of the guests had left, came the most wonderful experience of all. John & Kitty have a hot tub in the garden. It was a perfectly clear night with the moon and stars out, and crisp wintery air. Perfect for immersing ourselves in the warm, bubbly waters. There were even rubber ducks and squirty creatures, so a water-fight ensued.

When we were finally too wrinkled to float anymore, we got out, toweled down and took our turns in Kitty's 'rainbow shower'. BUY ONE! YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO!!! Oh, it's so much fun - pretty lights. That's something I've missed actually: totally random and silly inventions that contribute very little to world progress but are joyful to existence non-the-less. The rainbow shower rocks.

Then hot chocolate with Amarula before bed. A taste of home: 'The Spirit of Africa'.

Errr, talking of home, just talked to my baby on the telephone, long distance. The boy one is in Kampala! He's gone to pick up a passport!! Minor issue, he needs a birth certificate and the hospital he was born in was demolished, so he's got to spend tomorrow trying to tackle the administrative system. But I'm amazed. He's actually got on a bus and gone there and is doing all this and everything because... nkwagala nyo.

I've currently got Andy Gold's classic on repeat *blush*

Ermn, anyway, side-tracked. Got up late on Sunday and had a bacon and egg fry-up. Headed over to drop a friend off in Saline, then over to Glasgow to see my extremely good friend Tas and her family.

Tas is the most amazing artist.

We had a great night and ended up with the vodka until 4am. Drive back was long, but I stayed awake and got back twenty minutes before dark, which was ace. Took a hot shower and caught up on e-mails - and D.

Feeling good, actually. Really enjoyed the ritual and the hospitality of Fife and Glasgow. Still a bit rocky, somewhere in between places: heart over there, head over here, and frequently swapping places. Miss everyone crazy big time, but knowing D's out there feeling the same and having the wonder that is the Magic Number(tm) which lets me call everyone for 6p per minute, is really helping.

Some mighty strange news regarding Rwanda and the Green Party by the way. I know someone via Sign Language who is a friend of one of the people involved in setting up the party. She says every time they try to get enough signatures to register as a political party it gets sabotaged. She's expressed her concerns over Rwanda's claim to democracy due to this. Does seem a bit heavy-handed to be beating up Greenies. Watch this space and see what happens, I suppose, but it's interesting to know that they're giving it a go. With 99% destruction of the rainforest in Rwanda, I think it would be an excellent party to have on the ballot papers.

Right. Tomorrow I begin the soul-destroying routine which is 'signing on'. Amazing that we have it - that people who don't work also don't starve. That's great. But it's still mortifying.

Food and an early night :)