14 June, 2011


It’s hard to believe I’ve been home 5 days already. Adjusting to my ‘normal’ life back home has been strange to say the least, everything is different here – the people, the landscapes, the climate. I’m surrounded by mzungus, the traffic round here doesn’t seem to use their horns much, and where have the banana trees gone? Actually I’m sad to say that everything at home does feel normal once more, it’s scary how quickly you slot into the groove. Over the weekend I was absolutely bushed from the travelling but it was super to get caught up with friends and family, not least the opportunity to catch up with my niece from Canada who has spent the last 6 weeks doing voluntary work in Kenya – it was great to compare notes. Monday morning worked round quick and the mayhem of the office has left me wondering when I’m going to get the chance to process my experiences…But there are always photos to bring back the memories. It’s going to take me a while to get some time to sort through my photos and I still want to do some updates on bits and pieces of my travels – be patient folks! As a wee taster here are some of the photos from the very special day when I met Nsengiyaremye…

 This is the Compassion project base

 Compassion staff: John on the left was my guide and translator for the day. Francois in the middle supports the young people with their educational activities and with letter translation. The lady on the right is the Project Director but unfortunately I've forgotten her name.

 Meeting Nsengiyaremye at last!

 Nsengiyaremye's mother kept thanking me.

 Nsengiyaremye's mother with John

 With Nsengiyaremye and his family outside their home. On the far left is Nsengiyaremye's younger sister, to the far right is his mother, and next to her, his father, and then the wee one is his nephew.

 Nsengiyaremye's mother and father

 Meeting Nsengiyaremye's goat!

Nsengiyaremye's mother insisted we get our photograph taken together

 Nsengiyaremye's home

 I can't express how good it was to be with Nsengiyaremye

 Taken out the back windscreen of the car as we left. The neighbours were out getting a good look. Nsengiyaremye is a gorgeous kid and I feel very privileged to have met him.

Incidentally there was an interesting programme on Radio 4 last week about child sponsorship and it explores some of the pros and cons of this method of aid. You can listen online here.

08 June, 2011

Beautiful Lake Kivu - Day 7

I've come back to the shores of Lake Kivu, this time to a town called Kibuye. It is absolutely beautiful, the scenery is just amazing - green hillsides sweeping down to blue lagoons. I'm really glad that I've chosen this place for my last evening in Rwanda - where has the time gone to? I'm staying at a Presbyterian Church-owned guesthouse which is right beside the lake. Getting here was a bit of an adventure - the bus journey from Kigali was much quieter than the last bus-trip, but when we arrived in Kibuye there were no taxi-voitures (cars) just moto-taxis (motorbike taxis) but somehow my moto-taxi driver managed to balance my big bag on his handlebars and get us up and down the steep hairpin bends and along the bumpy dirt-tracks to the guesthouse - about 4 km away. Who needs Charley Boorman or Ewan McGregor? Something tells me they'd charge more than 50p too!

After the most delicious lunch of lake-fish brochettes (kebabs), rice and stir-fry veg, I decided to wander back to the town to take some photos and soak up the scenery. On the way I passed a Catholic church which in '94 was where over 11,000 people died in the genocide. Kibuye was one of the places which suffered the most during the genocide, it was estimated that 9 in 10 people from the area were murdered. It is desperately hard to take in in such a beautiful place as this...

Well this internet connection is painfully slow so I'm going to chill out the rest of the evening, catch the sunset and then get my last rays of sun in the morning before heading for the airport. When I get home I'll do more updates and stick up some photos etc. Thanks for tuning in!

07 June, 2011

Meeting Nsengiyaremye at last - Day 6

So today was the day! I was picked up this morning at 8am by a member of Compassion Rwanda's staff team, John, my guide and translator for the day, and driven to Musambira which is about 45 minutes south-west of Kigali. First of all we went to the Compassion project and I met the staff team there. As far as I could gather they are working with almost 300 vulnerable children in the area most of whom are sponsored. They also operate a Child Survival programme where they support pregnant mums and mums who have recently given birth. They work in close partnership with the local church and it is the local church which identifies those families most in need of support. The project runs mainly on a Saturday when the children come to the centre and they get educational support as well as faith-based input, and they are supported to write letters to their sponsors. During the week the children attend their local school and the fees for this are paid for by the sponsorship. Some are also involved in choirs or sports activities at the project. The sponsorship also means that each child can get health insurance and therefore health care.

I was introduced to each of the staff members and was shown Nsengiyaremye's file which keeps track of his educational achievements as well as health information. A few weeks before I arrived in Rwanda I'd received the latest letter from Nsengiyaremye in which he told me that because he hadn't been doing well at school he had been switched to vocational training in construction. I found out today that this is a 3-year programme and it will mean that Nsengiyaremye will be able to gain employment on completion. I'm happy about this because from his letters I knew he was struggling at school and it's good to know that he's got future prospects when my support for him ends in 2014 at the end of his vocational training.

We hopped back into the car and drove down a very bumpy and pot-holed dirt-track to Nsengiyaremye's home. All of a sudden we'd arrived and he came straight out the door and gave me a big hug - it was an emotional moment to meet him at last! He had dressed up for the occasion and was looking smart in a suit which was really sweet. Then I met his mother, two of his sisters and a nephew and a baby niece. Altogether Nsengiyaremye has 3 brothers and 4 sisters, but his 3 brothers work away from home. He is the second youngest. We sat down inside his home - just a simple home made with mud-bricks. I gave Nsengiyaremye his gifts and some for his family to his mother as well. She kept shaking my hand, giving me hugs and thanking me. Nsengiyaremye's father came in from the fields - a wizened wee man who has obviously worked desperately hard all his life, he's 69 now. He seemed a jolly wee soul and was coming out with a few cracks. He asked me if I worked the land and seemed to be chuffed to hear that many of my relatives are farmers and that when I was a kid I used to help my brother feeding calves and lambs. He also told me that Nsengiyaremye had been sick and in hospital. Apparently he has problems with stomach ulcers which just emphasized the value and importance of the health insurance provided by the project. I showed them some photographs I'd brought with me from home of family and friends and of the young people I work with. Nsengiyaremye told me he was enjoying the vocational training course and he asked after my family. I showed him my collection of all the letters he has written to me over the last 11 years. We went outside to take some more photographs of the family together in front of their home. Nsengiyaremye took me by the hand and showed me his goat which he'd been able to buy with his Christmas money. Finally I had the opportunity to pray with the family, praying a blessing on them and Nsengiyaremye also prayed for me. It was incredibly humbling. And then we had to say goodbye and the family saw me out to the car. News had obviously spread and the neighbours were out on the road - no doubt they'll be talking for a while about the mzungu who dropped in one Tuesday morning.

I'm giving you a description here of what happened this morning but to be honest I can't really convey what it was like. When I got back to Kigali I was actually feeling a bit emotionally drained, not in a bad way, it's just that it was a bit of a special moment this morning and I've no idea how to communicate that. It was really wonderful to be with Nsengiyaremye, it wasn't awkward at all, he just held my hand. We inhabit completely different worlds and so much separates us - language, age, distance, culture, levels of poverty/wealth - all huge stuff and I will not pretend to have a handle on any of it. I don't know how to solve world poverty even though I could probably rant and rave with the best of them about social justice and the rights and wrongs of development, aid, corruption, greed, inequality etc etc. I don't know what I've witnessed means for my own rich Western lifestyle, I think having a lot of stuff makes you kind of blind - blind to the important things in life and to the needs of others. I've no idea what to do with any of that yet so I've no lack of food for thought. But this morning I had the opportunity to meet a 19-year old boy face-to-face and know that he's been getting a better start in life as a sponsor child. It was obvious to me that Nsengiyaremye's parents care very much for him and the rest of their family, they're just like the rest of us because they simply want the best for their children. These folks don't have 2d to rub together, when I say they farm, it's just subsistence farming and it's basically about survival - trying to grow enough to feed themselves, their children and their grandchildren. But through this sponsorship arrangement they know that there is someone on the other side of the world who cares about their son as well and they don't have to do it all alone. I ain't got the answers but maybe that's all that matters for now.

06 June, 2011

Bus Worship - Day 5

Well hello there beautiful people, apologies for the lack of update over the weekend - I was nowhere near a computer and more importantly I was doing some serious chilling! I'll update tomorrow maybe about the trip to Gisenye and Day 4 because it was pretty darned good and I was in a stunning location but as I'm meeting up with a couple of expat friends of friends later I'll leave you with the tale of one of my most surreal and hilarious experiences of this trip.

This morning I was booked onto the 11.30am bus from Gisenyi to Kigali. Having reserved and paid for the ticket yesterday I was a wee bit miffed when the driver told me I'd have to pay extra for my bag because it didn't fit into the bus' meagre boot space (well ok, my bag is rather on the large side but then I've been carrying a few gifts for the Compassion project and my sponsor child tomorrow) but he seemed a bit grumpy so I ended up paying even though on the way to Gisenye on Saturday I hadn't had this issue. Getting everyone settled onto the bus was a bit of a bunfight, there were bags and people everywhere (it seats about 25-30 people) and I ended up in one of the 'bucket' seats - a seat in the aisle which folds up when not in use. It's also the seat directly beside the door so I was praying that the door would hold fast!

When we set off it seemed that we had a preacher on board - this guy a couple of rows behind me started giving it everything he had. I'd heard of this before - apparently there are places in Africa where preachers will travel various bus-routes simply to preach the gospel. But then there was a chorus of Amens and Hallelujahs and I realised that this guys wasn't on his own. As I looked around I noticed that many of the women sitting near me had the same red silk shirt on and many of the people on the bus were sporting a yellow and brown scarf (in my book, yellow and brown don't really go with red but then I'm not known for my fashion). Then the singing started so whether these guys were going to some gospel choir convention or what I'd no clue but it seemed like the Pentecostals were in town. If Amen and Hallelujah were said once they were said a thousand times. The next 2 hours was a full-on church service with singing and praying non-stop, along with much hand-raising and arm-waving. The singing was absolutely beautiful - I wish I could have taped it, and they were so joyful, it seemed like it all really meant something to them. There was one stage when the lady beside me got so excited and carried away that she flung her arm around me and we swayed from side to side together. If you'd been a fly on the wall you would have been in absolute stitches at the cut of me, I didn't know where to look, all I could do was grin inanely, but was rather thankful when a hairpin bend forced me to grab the door handle for balance and the lady detached herself from me. Near the start of the journey I had offered her one of my cookies and she'd given thanks for it before eating it.

By the way, this is all happening in the local lingo - Kinyarwanda - of which I only know 2 words although I can now add Jesu Christo to this repertoire, and I also recall hearing Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania and Ethiopia getting prayed for but basically I didn't understand anything else. Then came the moment when anyone not in the choir was given the opportunity to introduce themselves, I think there was just 4 of us. Muggins of course had to go first. And then I think each of us got prayed for. After 2 hours of the journey had passed we had a pit-stop and most of the passengers got some lunch. When we got on our way again the bus seemed like more of a WI outing except with men present, everyone was having a good natter. But as we got to the outskirts of Kigali the singing got underway again, and to be honest it felt like the most natural thing in the world by this stage. It was a truly rich experience. Travelling on Belfast's Metro service just is not going to do anything for me from now on.

How do you follow that?!

04 June, 2011

African tea appreciation - Day 3

Having gotten engrossed in my blogging yesterday I managed not to leave myself enough time to visit Kigali's Genocide Memorial as it closes at 5pm so wandered round the city centre a bit more, got the necessary tourist photo of the entrance of the Hotel des Milles Collines - made famous by the film, Hotel Rwanda (the film wasn't made on location, they filmed in S Africa instead, but it's a famous site in the context of what happened here in '94). I also dipped in and out of a few handcraft shops. I think I'm gradually beginning to switch off and it's superbly blissful to have the time to simply read. Last night I tried out some African tea (as opposed to black tea - same as the stuff we drink at home more or less) which is a bit like a mildly spicy milky chai. It was absolutely delicious, I want to figure out what they put into it.

This morning I went to Kigali's Genocide Memorial and to be honest I don't think I'm ready to write about that yet - I'll leave it for another time. It was moving and awful and beautiful and still and disturbing all at once.

A bit later this afternoon I'm heading by bus to Gisenyi at Lake Kivu in the west and I'm looking forward to some chill-out time by the lake. The route should take me within good view of Volcanoes National Park famous for being home to Rwanda's mountain gorillas. I'll blog from there tomorrow if I get the chance or else when I get back to Kigali on Monday.

03 June, 2011

This is Africa - Day 2

Since the last post I've managed to fit in personal encounters with motorbikes, goats, and hairdressers, thankfully not all at once. I always get caught out when overseas about how quickly it gets dark. Dusk came around 6pm and just to be on the safe side I decided not to walk back to the guesthouse last night after my day in the city-centre and instead hopped on a moto-taxi (mad or mental?!) - there are hundreds of these wee 125cc motorbike taxis all over the show and the rider provides you with a helmet. I felt safe enough but it was probably a good thing that it was just a short wee ride, itcost me just RFR300 - about 30p.

Then I ate at the guesthouse whose restaurant gets a decent write-up in the guidebook, and decided to be adventurous by trying brochettes de chevre - i.e goat kebabs. This is where I went wrong because I think they gave me the oldest billy goat in Rwanda, it was as tough as leather! It probably wasn't helped by the fact that I kept thinking of the cute wee angora goats one of my cousins used to keep! Am still in possession of all my own teeth, always a plus.

Last night was my first time to sleep under a mosquito net, I've discovered that you have to be organised and once tucked in it's best not to keep hopping in and out of bed. Paranoia ensured that my room was stinking of mosquito repellent, but better that than get malaria. One mosquito had dared earlier to enter my room, but that DEET stuff really does nuke the wee blighters. [Generally I'm a peace-loving kind of person but not where mosquitoes are concerned.]

I slept pretty well so feel a heck of a lot more rested and up for doing stuff today than yesterday. First thing I went to the offices of New Dawn Associates, a local organisation which arranges a variety of community-based tours. I set off with my two guides, Eric & Mary (from what I could gather Eric is training Mary as a guide), on the This is Africa tour to the Nyamirambo district of Kigali. We got possibly the most rickety mini-bus taxi (sets off when full and everyone is squashed in, no room for sensitivity about your personal space!) from the busiest and most hectic street I think I've ever been in where I was the only mzungu. The journey wasn't much more than 5-10 minutes (including stops for pick-ups and drop-offs) and brought us to the Muslim quarter south of the city-centre. The tour started off at Nyamirambo Women's Centre - a self-help group of 18 single mothers in the area. They support local women in empowerment and education initiatives including running 3x 2-hour English classes Mon-Fri. Three of the members took me to a local market where local Muslim women sell various fruit & veg, fabric and clothes and other supplies including cooking pots and charcoal burners. Most of their husbands work outside of Kigali, often in other provinces and can often only come home at the weekends so it's a tough hard-working life.Many of these women are enrolled in the English classes so were able to practice with me and I tried to reciprocate in Kinyarwanda.

Next we went to a tailor, who was unfortunately out but I got to see all the beautifully coloured fabric and dresses which can be made to measure. I think they would find fashion rather dull back at home. A local hairdresser's was our next port of call and she braided a wee tuft of my hair. I doubt she get many customers with the short spiky look. But I'm now sporting a very long braid and I know that when I get home everyone will want to be as cool as me.

Finally I was brought to the home of one of the members of the NWC cooperative for a home-cooked meal of 'Irish' potatoes, green beans and carrots, plantain (tastes v like potato), a meat dish which they called dodo and then a dish made from the flour of maize, don't ask me how you say what it was called. The maize flour stuff was a bit bland but my favourite were the green bean and plantain dishes - really tasty and flavourful. Oh and I managed to make my host's neighbour's child cry, the charm is really working - not!

So a brilliant tour, I recommend it if you get the chance to come here. Right must go - more adventures to seek!

02 June, 2011

Arrival - Day 1

So I've made it to Kigali where the sun is splitting the trees and it is hot! My 3 flights were fairly uneventful, had a mad dash in Amsterdam Schiphol - only because the screens were saying my gate had closed but when I got there there was still a huge queue going through, so all good. Watched a great wee film on the Amsterdam-Nairobi flight called, Benda Bilili. It was made by a French film crew following the making of an album by a Congolese orchestra of disabled people, Staff Benda Bilili - great stuff, must look out for the album, Tres Tres Fort, when I get home.

The girl sitting next to me on the plane was from Finland and at the start of a 3-month adventure in Africa taking in Zambia, Namibia and S Africa. She'd spent the last 2 months working her butt off to get money together as she'd just come home from time spent travelling in S America. Flip me, some people have the life eh? I felt like a feeble traveller on my tame wee 10-day jaunt, but hey, I'm not complaining, I'm going to make the most of this trip.

I tried to make good use of my time on the long flight by reading the French articles in the Kenya Airways in-flight magazine in a desperate bid to resurrect my extremely dormant French. Rwanda was at one time a Belgian colony and most people speak French, especially outside Kigali. You'd think a degree in European Studies would render me fluent but alas no, I never got to the point of thinking in French. I can read French fairly well even after all these years [of course as I'm 24, I've only left university recently] but speaking it is an entirely different ballgame so I think I'll be using my Irish smile to charm my way through my lack of fluency!

They call Rwanda, 'Land of a Thousand Hills', and for good reason. Rolling hills stretched into the distance all around as our plane circled to land this morning. And although it was only a 10-minute walk from my guesthouse to the city-centre this afternoon, there were two rather steep hills to climb - not so good when you're totally unfit like me and have a geriatric hip...oh and the aforementioned heat! I can barely believe I'm here, it's just a totally different world. Although I've been to Cape Town, this feels more like the real Africa. There's lots of hustle and bustle on the streets, horns tooting, moto-taxis zipping up and down, hawkers selling everything from phone cards to copies of The Economist, the quintessential African red dust coats the roads. It's all go. I've just had a humungous pizza - supposedly tomato, cheese, fish and olives. There were only 5 olives on the 8 slices and I've a feeling they'd run out of tomatoes today as they seemed to over-compensate with masses of cheese and what seemed to be tuna. It'll keep me motoring anyway and I'll just spend the rest of the day getting my bearings and get an early night.

Until tomorrow - mrilrwe (Kinyarwanda for 'goodbye', no idea how to say that one yet!)