Sunday, 28 September 2014

Happy Birthday Sunshine

What a truly lovely day.

I started it as quite a rebel.

Headed over to J&P's house for a very special girl's 3rd birthday party. Arrived in time to find the chef (borrowed from the hotel J manages) preparing fresh pesto! Oh, my was it good!

Pesto is one of those luxury items I occasionally treat myself to when I'm feeling flush. Now all I can think about is planting spinach and basil in my garden. 

The food was spectacular, as always.

I was left in charge of cocktails. There was a lavish spread of vodka, rum and gin, plus grenadine (where on earth did that come from?), ginger ale, fruit juice... we went to town, and I taught the bar man how to make passion fruit punch:

  1. Sugar frost the glass with lemon juice, and add a slice to the rim
  2. Scrape two fresh passion fruits into a shaker
  3. Slog of vodka
  4. Slog of rum
  5. Shake with a generous portion of crushed ice
  6. Top up with marakuja (passion fruit) cordial 

As you know, I'm rather fond of cocktails.

We ended up making a giant water container's worth and it went down a treat.

There was also a non-alcoholic alternative called a Mosquito:

  1. Squeeze half a lime
  2. Shake with crushed ice and fresh mint leaves
  3. Top up with ginger ale

I was also in charge of making the bubble mixture. Things have come a long way since I was a kid. Back then we just put Fairy Liquid in water. Nowadays it involves Fairy Liquid, corn flower, baking soda and glycerin! Surprised it didn't blow up. Much fun had by all.

 Then it was time for cupcakes. 

And dancing.

Uncle Yves and Grandma Zuba

A truly splendid day. The guy who threw me my recent business contract was there with his wife and son, which was nice as I got to thank him again in person with a large glass of marakuja punch.

Truly was lovely, and perhaps we'll introduce cocktails to the menu at J's hotel. They're already getting really good at coffee and napkin folding. I was treated to a free lunch in return for some social media training last week.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Taxes, Chocolate & Ebola

Absolutely beautiful snapshot of the gorgeous country I live in, taken by Mammoth Media.

What a truly crazy few months it's been, what with all the house moving, setting up a company, undertaking our first big contract. That finished on Wednesday with a presentation to the organisation's 20 staff and guests. Satisfied customers.

It was a close-run thing though, as we only had four days to complete the final report and for two of those days I had no electricity! Dreadful timing. I do love Rwanda, and they've worked so hard to attract new businesses, but when there are regular power, water and internet issues, it can make maintaining that business a little tricky.

Still, we got everything done in time. I completed the presentation about an hour before I had to deliver. Reminded me of my university days, though mostly my panic back then was due to essay avoidance of my own making rather than external powers.

Anyway, it's all over, and it's fun to know that this invoice will, for a short time at least (until I pay my contractors), make me a millionaire in Rwanda. I finally have time to breathe and to look around at my lovely house, my garden and my life here, and acknowledge how far I've come in only four months.

After the presentation I headed to the Post Office and picked up a couple of parcels filled with chocolate and nice soap from home. Thanks Mum and Aunty Jean.

I then headed over to Rwanda Revenue Authority as I needed some tax advice. That's another thing that could do we evaluating. They currently have one lady sat in a small room at the back of the building who gives out tax advice, yet tax advice is the one thing everybody seems to need. There's a queue out the door of people seeking help, so when you do get in there you feel pressured to rush through your questions, and every time I go to RRA I seem to get a completely different answer from whoever I talk to.

I came home just as confused as when I arrived.

Sitting on my porch, wondering what to do, I heard a 'Hello'.

My next door neighbour popped his head over the wall.

"Hello," I replied, and went to introduce myself.

"Where do you work?" I asked.


"No. Way."

Way - I live next door to a tax man, and he's agreed to talk me through the system.

How incredibly fortuitous.

In other news, the house guest who was due to arrive on 28th has since found permanent accommodation in town, so I have the house all to myself. I was looking forward to meeting her, but I'm also looking forward to curling up in bed for a few days and burying myself in a good book. However, I have just re-listed myself on CouchSurfing, as it is nice to meet new people, and my spare room is too spectacular to leave empty for long.

The only other news at the moment is that Rwanda is testing its first suspected Ebola case. Nothing is confirmed yet, and one of my Rwandan friends has displayed general scepticism, so let's hope it proves negative.

[Update: Huzah! We are Ebola free.]

Anyway, the day after my company's contract ended, we were approached by another organisation, so hopefully our next contract is in the pipeline. Onwards and upwards!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Love in an Onion

Cut into an onion last night - brought a tear to my eye.

Thought I'd share some pictures of my garden, which is looking all green now the rains have - sort of - arrived.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Independent Thoughts

I don't usually haul politics onto this blog, but it's such an historic occasion I feel like saying something. Although, after the abuse hurled at Andy Murray, I'm glad I've waited until after the vote.

Last night I went to bed not knowing whether I would wake to a United Kingdom or an independent Scotland.

It's polarised a nation in a way that I never thought I would see in my lifetime. As every generation, I'm sure, has lived to see something they felt they would never live to see.

Still, it's a significant occasion. According to the headlines it makes Scotland the first country in history to say 'no' to independence.

I went out with some friends last night for banana beer in Kigali, and we raised a toast to 'the former UK.' The levels of division that simply asking the question of independence has incited suggests that there is no such thing as a unified nation in the first place.

In 1995,  Michael Billig coined the phrase 'banal nationalism':

Banal nationalism refers to the everyday representations of the nation which build an imagined sense of national solidarity and belonging amongst humans...

This idea that nations are defined by a shared assumption that we are all of one mind, one history, one future.

Clearly, by the results of the referendum, no nation ever was.

As a writer, I'm extremely philosophical on this point. After all, the beginning of every great story begins: what if....

What if Scotland gained independence? Which currency would they use? Would they re-apply to join the European Union? What would the reaction of the British government be?

It's just in my character to want to ask and explore those questions, rather than re-read a book I've already read. One thing you know about stories is that they never end. One chapter leads to the next, one book to another. A 'yes' vote wouldn't have meant the end of anything, just the beginning of something new. Nations and empires come and go, but people are resilient and resourceful and it would have been extremely interesting to see what happened next.

As it is, I always remember an arrogant minister back when the referendum was fist mooted, who said that Scotland would vote no and that a referendum would put an end to it - independence would not be discussed again for a generation.

Looking at the figures: 45% Yes, 55% No, 84.5% turnout, with one constituency reporting 100% turnout - when the last general election mustered a UK average of 65% - rather suggests it's a hot political topic capable of mobilising the greater majority of a nation.

Nothing is more dangerous - or exciting - than an idea. And an idea is tenacious. I would not be surprised if this were the beginning of the conversation rather than the last word.

Either way, the gloating displayed by politicians and the public over who has won and who has lots, the physical assaults and ugly words hurled, has shown that there is very little united about a misnomered Kingdom.

It was certainly interesting to observe from Africa. As one meme read, of all the countries that have gained independence from the UK throughout history, not one has ever chosen to give it back.

My African friends were surprisingly in the 'no' camp, not seeming to equate the independence of their own countries as being on a par with Scotland's bid for freedom. The UK seems a sacrosanct emblem of power and unity, and, besides, they're all the same nation really, right? If Uganda can remain a nation with 56 tribes, surely the chieftains of the UK can cope with four (five if you count the Manx). Whereas most of the ex-pats I've talked to were in the 'yes' camp for the same reason as me - pure curiosity.

Don't underestimate curiosity. It's the reason so many Brits are living thousands of miles from home in the first place. It's also, I suspect, one reason why the 'yes' vote grew so rapidly. When the idea was fist mentioned everybody laughed. Independence is, after all, something that happens 'over there' in those far off desert places that we once called an empire. It doesn't happen within the empire itself! 

Yet once the thought had sunk in, and the idea grew from an improbability to a possibility, people - including many English like myself - shifted from debating whether it could happen to: 'if it does happen, how could we make it work?' Doodling economic plans on napkins and trade agreements on the back of receipts.

I must admit to feeling a little deflated, though not surprised, at the result. I predicted a 'no' vote by a short margin, but I would not have been at all unhappy to wake to a 'yes' vote. Although, at the back of my mind, I can see the silver lining. We English need the Scottish and the Northern Irish and the Welsh to diversify our political pool. Otherwise it's just us, left here alone with our parliament and its cronies. What would we do without the Celts baring their buttocks now and then and burning down the occasional holiday home? They save us from our own sense of self-importance. A sense of self-importance which is likely to prove insufferable in the coming weeks.

And whatever Alex Salmond must be feeling today, I would like to thank him. He posed the question, he offered an alternative to our long accepted reality, and he mobilised a nation into a debate of truly historic consequence. He suggested one heck of a what if?

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Banana Beer

Oops. It's been at least a week since my last update. Sorry all, it's just been so mentally busy. I've been running lots of surveys, interviews and workshops with talented people, including a little trip to one of Rwanda's leading banks and the Development Board. Fascinating stuff.

Talented People

My colleague Dominic arrived from Uganda on Sunday at 6am, after being mugged en route! Bloody awful. But we've made it through the week, lots of productive work done. Today was our very last day in the office before report writing begins tomorrow. We went across town to Nyamirambo to celebrate with fellow consultant Giulia and her partner. They introduced us to a lethal form of banana beer, brewed by nuns. Extremely potent stuff.

My dear friend Martine - do you recognise these fish brochettes? Can you guess where we were?

We met at Panorama. It's a place that features regularly in my old blog, and one which always brings mixed feelings. I love the place, because it is awesome and I spent a lot of time there, but it also makes me a little sad as it's right next door to where one of my closest friends used to live, and she isn't there anymore. Many an evening I sought sanctuary on her porch. Still, it's okay because she's now in Laos, and that's also an excellent country.

I've eaten well this week. I've done a lot of cooking for Dominic, which has been nice. I was feeling brave and decided to cook him ugali. I was quite nervous serving a Ugandan guy a dish he's eaten all his life. I know my ugali leaves a little to be desired, but he said it was acceptable, and that the sauce was 'really nice'. Result!

Also met up with Jo and Zubadoo at our usual haunt of Via Venteto for chocolate mousse. It's Zuba's third birthday very soon. 

All grown up - trying on mummy's makeup.

Gravity-defying lady!

The garden is coming along nicely and the rains have truly arrived. Since Dominic got here I've had water coming out of my taps almost every day!

We've also had a fourteen-hour blackout, which was not so good. I've always felt this way: I can cope with water shortages because the house is geared up for them, but electricity is very hard to do without. My big tub of expensive ice-cream melted in the freezer, and my laptop died. I start to get withdrawal from the internet after about an hour. Especially with a big report looming. Still, rain makes the flowers grow.

In a glut of electrical indulgence, I finally set up the projector after we got back from the bar tonight. I now have a home movie centre - it's utterly fantastic. Can't wait to watch Cloud Atlas and Pride & Prejudice on this. Makes the whole import debacle worth it. We settled down with waragi and whisky to watch Dodgeball, a very silly film. One of my automatic go-tos for a good belly laugh. 

Got so much to do in the next couple of days, but very happy and contented. Dominic's off back to Kampala tomorrow, report and presentation due on Wednesday, then three days' R&R before my new housemate arrives. Life here is very good. Even with the water and electricity issues, I can't really complain. I'm employed, I have a wonderful house, lots of lovely friends, and I'm living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I am a very lucky lady indeed.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Demon Kettle

Decided to splash out on a kettle the other day.

Plugged it in.

Turned it on.

Blew up two extension leads.

Anyone want a kettle?

Flash, bang, smoke and everything. Apparently it's a common problem and I should plug it directly into the wall instead. I think I might just carry on boiling water on the hob.

In other news, my fabulous housekeeper has sorted out my vegetable plot. We bought a hoe and he's completely transformed it.

I'm particularly excited about the courgettes. But it all hinges on whether we have enough water. I saw him watering the mounds with a watering can today. If it rains we'll be fine. If not, it might get a bit difficult. We're technically in the rainy season at the moment. There's been a few downpours, but not as much as I'd expected. 

Damascene is a total superstar. We don't share a common language, but I managed to convey the bedding issue and he went out and returned with sheets that fit perfectly!

I've just finished preparing the spare room for my colleague who is travelling down from Uganda on Saturday. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I actually live here. I've been working like a happy lunatic the past couple of weeks, but when I come home to this place it's just incredible. 

Spare Room

Talking of work, I had a lovely treat yesterday. There was some confusion over meeting times so I was in the office a bit earlier than I needed to be. A totally lovely colleague went and bought me lunch. I can now proudly say that I have had my first smoothie in Rwanda! It was yummy. Fast food here is really starting to take off. 

Next week is going to be madness. Busiest, and last, full week of my current contract. Very much looking forward to the cavalry arriving from Kampala. Loving every minute of it, and I've managed to employ three other people through this, which is a complete first for me and it feels rather awesome. I get four days' rest, then another intake. Offered my spare room to someone who's arriving for a few months and needs somewhere calm to rest whilst they look for a house. I also need to organise a house warming party at some point.

Rwanda, you are spectacular.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Hell No!

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: water.

Commonly known as amazi and unbridled joy.

It came too late in the evening to be bothered taking a shower, but it allowed me to fill up my water butt. This came after an entire day of rain.

Nothing gets done in Kigali when it rains. Most people - myself included - don't have a car, so we rely on public motorbikes. Even if you can find one willing to drive in the rain, most people - myself included - live down mud roads. It adds an extra level of excitement when those roads turn all slippery and wet. So, mostly, when it rains people stay home.

I used to love this as a VSO. If I woke up and heard the rain, I'd just roll over and go back to sleep. There's a particular type of rain (the weather in Rwanda is fairly predictable once you know what you're looking at) that starts in the early morning and does not stop all day. Not so good when you're actually employed. Sod's law it would set in on the one day I needed to be at a morning meeting.

I only have the number of one taxi driver (poor planning on my part), and he was unavailable. The airport is up the road, there are taxis there, but they charge a fortune and, as mentioned, it's a mud road. I would have been soaked by the time I got there.

Thankfully my friend Pierre was in the neighbourhood driving a big shiny 4x4, so he kindly agreed to give me a lift across town. 

Which was great. Until I finished for the day, left the office, and realised it was still raining. By that point I was fairly exhausted and decided just to walk down the road (by this time a river), where I managed to get one moto willing to drive me home in the rain. By the time I reached my door I was soggy and my shoes had disintegrated.

Never mind. It is the start of the rainy season now. These things are to be expected.

The garden project is going well, though there have already been a couple of disasters, which I'll blog about on there. The first casualty were the edible beansprouts. I was really looking forward to a decent salad, and everything started out so well.

But you're supposed to rinse them every day, and after sticking them in a draw I forgot to do this yesterday. When I pulled them out today they had started to rot. It's wet here, but it's also relatively warm, even if it doesn't feel it to me anymore. It's in the mid-20s during the day and doesn't really dip below about 17/18c at night. So they're horribly pongy, and I don't think they can be salvaged. I'm wondering what happens if you plant them? Really annoyed at myself.

Stinky Mess
I've also been experimenting with cabbage, as I'm lacking greens and cabbages are, well... big and green. But there's not a lot you can do with a cabbage to make it not taste like cabbage. I did a spicy stir-fry, but it wasn't all that appetising. It's better if you put the stir-fry in a cheese toastie.

Still, there have been some successes. Growing some sunflowers. They looked like this in the morning.

And this in the afternoon.

Growing at quite some speed.

Had a lovely working lunch at Brioche with a colleague today. Treated ourselves to their glorious cakes. So yummy! Strawberry and vanilla mousse thingies. Highly recommended.

I suggest you close your eyes for the next bit if you're a little squeamish. It's not such a pretty sight.

Just getting ready to head to bed, when I walked into the office and found this intruder.

It asked whether it could stay.

My reply? - Hell no.

I think it's related to the one that used to live in my bathroom. I'm about to throw it in the garden, and it's pooed in the tub. Cockroaches make quite big poos considering their size. Too much information?

Anyway, there won't be room for it shortly. I'm busy getting the house in shape for my colleague who's coming down from Uganda at the weekend, staying for a week to help out with this contract.

After he leaves, I've offered the spare room to a lady who's moving here for a few months. Not likely to be hosting her the full duration of her stay, but she needs somewhere to base herself whilst she looks for a house. I'm quite looking forward to having people stay. And, once this contract is finished at the end of the month, I'm also planning to throw a housewarming party, if I can get myself organised.

Roast bug, anyone?