Monday, 4 July 2016

Colours & Dust

Sunny Kigali!
 A long holiday weekend in Rwanda – Independence Day (Friday), Liberation Day today and possibly EID tomorrow, Tuesday but this, I understand, depends on whether there is a half moon tonight and, if not, the holiday will be on Wednesday. The whole of Rwanda is on standby!

So, a good opportunity to do a blog post having decided to spend the weekend in Kigali. A friend of mine, in the UK, asked me why I don’t update my blog as often as I did.  I guess, having been in Rwanda for three years, my musings or observations of life here become more of a way of life and living in Kigali, for the last year, my experiences of those early months in Cyangugu are very different.

What I continue to observe in the city is the pace of development. As we are now into the hot, dry season and with it not only comes the heat but also the dust (and smell of fresh tarmac) added to by the construction of new roads, roundabouts and pavements as the pace of building is being driven by the opening of the new Kigali Convention Centre in time for the African Union Summit on 10th July.

This corner of Kacyiru is now unrecognisable
Each morning, on my regular walk, I notice the women employed to sweep the roads. As there is no litter, they just seem to be sweeping the dust that seems a rather pointless exercise as it is soon replaced by more dust. They take some risk as they often stand in the road with heavy traffic coming past. I wonder how long it will be before their job is taken over by a vehicle that will come and sweep the roads as we have in the UK.

Endless sweeping
An army of workers is now finishing the roads, installing pavements and cycle tracks building retaining walls, rain water channels, planting trees, laying turf, installing lamp posts, painting the kerbside stones etc. 

Noticeable has been the lack of health and safety with pedestrians seemingly ignoring ‘No Entry’ or Road Closed’ signs – Rwandans like their shortcuts even it this means clambering over ditches, avoiding cables and large diggers.  Even freshly laid cement on the pavements has footprints on it!

A Rwandan short cut!
Much of this work is taking place just up the road from Solace and it was interesting to see that over one weekend two new, large roundabouts appeared.  So, for those driving home on a Friday evening they would have experienced a completely new road layout on their journey to work on Monday morning.

One of two new roundabouts
These new roads and roundabouts are all part of the new Kigali Convention Centre that has slowly been unveiled to reveal beautifully designed buildings by German architect Roland Dieterle. The dome structure of the convention centre is based on the Rwandese tradition of having round buildings such as the King’s Palace in Nyanza. At night it looks even more beautiful lit up in many different colours including the national colours of Rwanda – green, blue and yellow. The new hotel next door with its colourful façade is based on the bright colours found in Rwanda and particularly the traditional clothes the ladies wear here. 

By day

And by night
To have such a major project be finished and opened before such an important event must be putting so much pressure on everyone as something of this scale would normally require a soft opening.  Time to settle in the staff, iron out any hitches/snaggings but I am sure, like the recent World Economic Forum, Rwanda will rise to the challenge and it will be a success.

These major events certainly give Rwanda a great opportunity to put itself on the map for international meetings but perception change is still needed to bring more people here. I am often asked, when I am back in the UK, “is Rwanda safe?” It is probably the safest, cleanest and most secure country in Africa with so much to offer the visitor not only here in the city but around the country. Rwanda tourism are running a very good campaign called “Remarkable Rwanda” and I hope they can push this more overseas and highlight all the things that people may not know about the country.  There is so much more than the genocide and the gorillas.

In admiring these new beautiful buildings and often (OK very often!) finding myself in cafes where the décor easily matches anything I have in my home town of Lewes – known for its many coffee shops, I often think of the contrast of life here in the city and life outside.  In planning a visit for a church team from the UK next year, I was sent a photograph of a house that is currently a home for a lady and her children in Cyangugu – the team will build a new house for her when they come.  Perhaps, not to the same scale to the ones being built here in Kigali but nonetheless an improvement on what she has at the moment.

Kigali or Lewes?

A sharp contrast to Kigali

A couple of weeks ago, we were summoned by the Mayor of Kigali to attend a meeting at the local district office.  A call at 11am asking us to be present at 1pm for a meeting with the Mayor, District Officials and Heads of Security to discuss security for the forthcoming African Union Summit.  At 1pm, myself, Jean-Luc and Betty turned up to be faced with a rather empty room and some frantic phone calls being made to remind people to come – we were awarded brownie points as three of us from Solace turned up.  The Mayor, very apologetic, turned up an hour later and the meeting commenced.  Rwandans have a great capacity to sit and patiently wait and something that I can now manage as well – I have learnt to zone out!

What time is the meeting due to start?

Talk at this meeting was around making sure we were aware of guests we had staying in the hotels and guesthouses including any “extra guests” we may have.  It took me a while to clock what was meant by “extra ladies” and realized they meant special lady guests – something else that is on the increase here in the city. 

Today, Liberation Day, marks the day the RPF liberated Kigali in 1994 and started to bring to an end the genocide. It also brings to an end the official 100 days or memorial and commemoration – a sad and reflective time for so many.

I am still very much aware of the challenges facing many people here.  I have come across a man here in Kigali who struggles to find work and I know life is pretty tough for him.  I have discovered that he has a gift as an artist and produces some very nice small drawings and watercolours. To support and encourage him, I have commissioned him to produce a series of six small painting on Rwandan life and culture.  I hope to have these produced into a series of cards and maybe sell some of his work. I have come to realise, the hard way, it is so much better here to try and create opportunity for people rather than just give them money.

I have noticed, sadly, an increase in beggars, street-children and hawkers on the streets trying to sell me anything from maps, watches, belts, magazines and postcards.  The ones around Solace have got to know me now so rather than try and sell me something I don’t want, we exchange greetings and a wave. It really is difficult to know how to respond in these situations as the government do not want to encourage begging and, I guess, like so many situations like this you need to deal with the root cause of the problem.

Looking ahead, we have about to have a couple of busy months at Solace with teams and visitors coming from the USA, the UK (including members of the Conservative Party) and a team of 50 students from Israel.  I am currently planning three church teams to come out in January & February next year – almost six weeks of back-to-back visits with most time spent in Cyangugu so it will be good to spend some time down there again.

After three years in Rwanda, I have now made the decision to return to live in the UK.  I intend to finish here at Solace in September and take some time to travel in Rwanda, visit Uganda to attend a conference in Kampala in October before returning home for the months of November and December for Christmas and to celebrate a big birthday. I will then return to Rwanda after Christmas to be here for the teams and then, finally, head back to the UK early in March. With the result of Brexit, I was beginning to think that applying for Rwandan citizenship was looking to be an attractive option!

I realise that I can be now more effective supporting Rwanda from the UK. I want to explore the possibility of bringing more church teams out here as I believe in the transformational experience it offers people who come and the people they come to serve here. The experience of being here for three years has really helped to increase my knowledge and understanding of the country, the people, their faith and the culture and traditions that are so deeply rooted here. I really want to be able to share all this with people who come to visit.

Rwanda and its people are very much in my heart and I know that it will not be possible to say goodbye and not continue to support them in some way. It has been an amazing time being here and at no time have I regretted coming here to live and work.  I have had so many wonderful experiences, been blessed by so many and changed in a way that I have yet, I think, to fully recognise.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

A Tale of Two Cities

London skyline

Kigali skyline

I realise the gaps between my blog posts are getting longer – the last one was done almost five months ago and reading it, I see I had just come back from the UK after a visit there in the Autumn and now I have just returned, again, back from the UK after a Spring visit.  Normally, I would not go back so soon after a visit but I needed to go home to do a few ‘personal things’ and not do my normal mad dash around the country meeting up with friends to talk about Rwanda.  So to all those family and friends, who did not see me this time accept my apologies and I will see you on my next trip back.

Where's the shop gone? It was here yesterday!

I don’t intend to write about what I have been doing since last November – mainly because I can’t remember!  

Life in Kigali continues and I notice, on my walks, so does the pace of development. Just up from Solace, I have been observing a commercial block now having reached six floors and the roof has started to go on.  Next door, what was a lovely house and garden full of trees is now a large hole as the diggers have come in to start on what will be another commercial block that will, sadly, dwarf the guesthouse.  The China Wall Restaurant, that has been in Kigali for many years and just up the road, disappeared one day along with other buildings to make way for a new road to the new convention centre that opens in June.  So it goes on!  How sustainable this is all going to be, I wonder as not sure who is going to utilise all these office buildings not to mention the many new hotels and houses/apartments that are currently being constructed.

When I was back in the UK, I spent a week in London and was fascinated to see the development that was going on there too.  The city skyline is certainly changing and I was struck, seeing the city from the heights of Kenwood and Hampstead Heath in North London, by the number of cranes there are and seeing St Paul’s Cathedral being surrounded by all the new high-rise buildings.  

Count the cranes

London, like Kigali, is a very green city but the main difference is that London has many open spaces, parks and heaths that are open to the public whilst in Kigali there are more hills and trees but the open green spaces are only for decorative purposes as no one is allowed to walk on them and if you do, you are likely to get a telling off by a member of the police or military guards that are often around.  I am sure they are doing more than just making sure nobody walks on the grass!

London open space - walk on the grass

Kigali open space - whatever you do, don't walk on the grass

It was good, when I was in Lewes to have the opportunity to get up on the South Downs and the freedom to walk across most fields and open land.  I enjoyed a good walk with my good friend Jamie and the dogs – my dog Jasper, who seemed very pleased to see me and Jamie’s dog, Alfie although with all the sheep and the new born lambs around we had to keep them, at times, firmly on their leads.  I notice in Kigali that there are many more dogs now being walked on leads and I have to admit I walk past them with a degree of caution after one suddenly jumped out towards me.

Keeping the dogs on their leads - Alfie (L), Jasper (R)

Flying back with Turkish Airlines to the UK in March, we landed in Istanbul very soon to when a bomb went off in the city.  A few days later, in London, I was watching the news on television about the bombs in Brussels and thought that Kigali seemed to be a much safer place to be.  People still ask me “Is Rwanda safe?” and this always surprises me, as it really is one of the safest, cleanest and most secure countries in Africa.  Yes, there is a high security presence here and something that visitors coming for the first time notice and are slightly concerned about but I tell them there is nothing to worry about. You can walk the main streets of Kigali at night and nobody will bother you and the times I have done this, I always feel very safe – in all the time I have been in Rwanda, I have never felt unsafe or threatened.

Rains, what rains?

I had assumed I would come back to heavy rains in Kigali but, on the whole, it continues to be hot and dry with the occasional downpour.  Like everywhere the weather patterns are changing but here there can either be torrential rain causing houses to be destroyed, crops to be ruined and even people washed away and killed or drought in certain parts of the country.  For a small country, Rwanda does seem to have many different microclimates affected by the volcanoes, mountains and the tropical forest.

With the fast development in Kigali, I assume wrongly that many people have jobs and there is work in abundance. Sadly, this is not the case and I come across many people, even here in the city, who struggle to find work.  Many students finish secondary school and wish to go onto university as they know, to get a good job they will need, at least, a Bachelor’s Degree although this still does not guarantee them work so they then have to go onto do a Master’s.

There are many universities in Kigali but the government are now encouraging them to open regional campuses so that study can be available to people across the country and to save them from having to come to the capital.  People here will often do full-time study or evening and weekend courses combining this with their, if they have one.  Fees are expensive and beyond the means of many and then they need a laptop and money for accommodation, food, registration fees, examination fees and so it goes on!
Fees for primary and secondary schools also continue to be a challenge and I hear stories of many families who owe schools a lot of money in back-fees and it gets to the stage when their children have to leave the school.  It becomes a bit of a vicious cycle as fees are not paid, the school don’t then have money to pay teachers who them find themselves without the money to pay fees for their children.

The government is now trying to encourage more VCT (Vocational Training) so young people can get a skill in something like carpentry, plumbing, electrician and I agree this is a good way forward. When you see the amount of construction that is going on across Rwanda and the need in the future for maintenance and repairs, you hope there us going to be a demand for people with the skills to do all this.

Being a typical Muzungu who likes to have everything planned out, I arrived back in time to pay school fees for a number of students that are in the Educational Sponsorship Fund although this was made challenging as all the documentation I needed was in a suitcase that was still in Brussels! I planned my arrival back on a Wednesday so I could go to the banks on Thursday, thus avoiding the queues that I knew there would be on Friday as it was the 15th of the month and the day that all businesses and companies have to pay their VAT and PAYE (they get a very hefty fine if they don’t). So, coinciding with families paying fees (the system here is you pay direct to the school bank account and the student has then to take a copy of the bank receipt to give to the school on the first day of term – failure to do this means they will be sent home and not allowed to return to school until fees have been paid) and VAT/PAYE day, I really wanted to be back in time to beat the rush at the bank.

As I managed to get the information I needed, to pay the fees, from various bits of information I had in my office and which took me most of Thursday, I found myself on Friday going to my bank to withdrawal the cash I needed and then to pay it into four other banks. It was a race against the queues building up and I, finally, had to give up at the last bank four hours later, as I could not face the number of people that were there.  Anyway, it was satisfying to have been able to get the majority of fees paid and then the receipts scanned and emailed to the families so their child could go back to school.

Some fees I paid using Mobile Money, a great system here for sending money across the country. I just buy some money using the MTN network, someone sends it for me and it instantly arrives on the phone of the recipient who can then take their phone to an MTN representative to get the cash.  When I first came to Rwanda in 2006, mobile phones were non-existent but today so many people use them as the country is being built on the use of technology – there is fibre-optic cable around the country providing broadband and excellent Wi-Fi available through three providers.  The first thing that everyone asks when arriving at the guesthouse is “Do you have Wi-Fi?”


My return to Rwanda has coincided with ‘Kwibuka 22’ (Remember22) and today, at Solace, we had a commemoration service to remember those that died in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi twenty-two years ago. One moving testimony from a lady told us how she escaped death many times and spent two weeks in a pit latrine as she was too fearful of her life if she came out.  Candles were lit and held by some of the young members of Solace and names of some of those killed in 1994 were read out.  Kwibuka 22 lasts for 100 days with local commemorations around the country to mark the date that a massacre took place in a particular community.  Even today, they still find remains of people killed but ensure that they are now given a dignified burial.

Remembering loved ones who lost their lives

It is still so very hard to comprehend these tragic events of 22 years in a country that is so beautiful with people that are so wonderful.  It is amazing to see where the country is today and where it has come from and it certainly lives us to its new name of “Remarkable Rwanda.”

Sunday, 22 November 2015

A new season

Like some of the DVD box sets of the USA series I bring with me from the U.K. (Mad Men – The Final Season, The Good Wife – Season 6 & House of Cards – Season 2), I returned to Rwanda two weeks ago for a start of what I see as another season – Season 5.

Returning to the UK at the end of September, it was lovely to experience some sunny autumn weather and trees turning to orange, yellow and red. People often ask me what is it I miss about the U.K. and I guess it is the seasons – here in Rwanda, we have the dry and wet seasons with year round temperate climate of between 25 degree to 30 degrees.  I left Kigali, at the end of September, as the four month hot, dry spell was coming to an end - even I began to pray for rain, with everything looking rather dry, brown and dusty but I have returned to a city that is now looking green, lush and colourful with many flowers out due to the heavy rains that started shortly after I left.
I explain to my Rwanda friends that the seasons for us, in the U.K., mean not just a change in weather but also change in what we wear, what we eat, our lifestyle and even our moods.

Lovely English autumnal colours
I was told that on August 15th each year it rains in Rwanda due to it being Assumption Day – thanks to Google I discovered this means ‘the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at the end of her earthly life.’  Well, August 15th dawned bright, sunny and not a cloud in sight until the afternoon when the wind blew up and then there was a torrential downpour followed by sunshine and that was the last drop of rain until October.  All rather spooky!

A rather spooky downpour of rain
I realise the transition between going home to the U.K. and then back to Rwanda all seems quite normal now.  The difference, perhaps, this time coming back to the U.K. was I felt more like an outsider looking in and during my ‘hi and bye’ visits to family and friends it seemed I just got a snapshot of what was going on in their lives – some happy moments and some not so happy as I witnessed a number of close and dear friends going through difficulties including serious illnesses.

I seemed to manage my 5 weeks back home a bit better than on previous visits.  The first two weeks I tried to take it easy, resting and having a few days away and then three weeks of visiting family, friends including those who had been to Rwanda. A talk about my work in Rwanda, one Sunday afternoon, drew around 50 people and from that interest for some to come out for the first time – it is great to see that there is still interest for people to come out here since we first started bringing teams from Southover Church in 2007.

Looking back at the end of Season 4, I realized I had a very busy time with a youth team from my church coming out for two weeks.  A busy but life-changing time for them with a short stay in Kigali followed by 10 days in Cyangugu and then 2 days of R&R at the Akagera Game Reserve.  Activities in Cyangugu included training Sunday school teachers in a church up in the hills above Kamembe; a visit to the nutritional feeding programme on Nkombo Island where the team helped to feed and play with around 300 excited children; taking part in a school debating society that we thought was just going to be with one class but the whole of the secondary school turned out; a football match with the same school who seemed quite surprised that we had two girls in the team – one in goal and another who scored a goal and we were pleased we won 3-1 although there was a rumour circulating they had played more gently against us than they would normally against an all boy team!

Some hungry mouths at the feeding programme
The highlight of the visit was building a house for a perpetrator of the genocide. Felicien  had just been released from prison after 20 years with no family or home to go to.  On the official handover of the house, he and the Executive Cell leader (cells are communities like small villages) both shared a powerful testimony of forgiveness and reconciliation that was such an important message for the youth team to hear and similar to many other messages that had come out of Rwanda since 1994.

Felicien (in the blue) with some of the youth team
Back to Kigali and after waving them all off, I then had two weeks to work with the Solace team to plan three ‘Solace20’ events celebrating 20 years of Solace Ministries.  Over 3 days, we hosted around 1,000 people – 600 to the first event for Solace beneficiaries followed two days later with a further event for 300 for government, local organisations, international partners and Solace staff and then the next evening a thanksgiving dinner for 150.

With my 20 years of event management experience, I thought I would be able to manage it all ok but I guess I should have factored in that here in Rwanda people don’t RSVP to any of the 300 invitations we sent out (3 responded!), the are likely to show up and bring someone (they did!), none of the events started on time (I should have known that by now!), the guests of honour/speakers arrived late (again I should have guessed that one!), all the programmes ran over time by around two hours (yes, I know!) and a few other last minute hitches liked discovering we didn’t have enough tables to seat everyone resulting in a last minute, late night dash to some house in Kigali to borrow some.  But, in the way it does here it all worked out in the end and everyone had a great time. The events were a wonderful testimony to the work of Solace over 20 years as well as all the support of all the staff that worked incredibly well.  Jean Gakwandi, the founder and executive director of Solace, refused to take any of the credit for his part since 1995 giving all the glory to God – he says “I am just a humble servant.”

Solace celebrates 20 years

Before leaving for the U.K., I made a quick visit to Cyangugu for a farewell party as my work there had ‘officially’ come to an end. I knew it was likely that I would have to listen to many speeches something I wasn’t particularly looking forward to – not easy to sit there when you have to listen to many people saying lots of nice things about you.  I had to bite my lips a few time to hold back the tears and try to be very Rwandan as they say here “men cry into their stomachs.”  It was, of course sad to say goodbye to all my friends there but I will be visiting from time to time. 

After the speeches it was time for photos with the General Manager
The next day, there was a baptism and another god son to add to my growing family here – Jean D’Amour was kitted out in a very sharp suit!

Sharp suited Jean D'Amour with mum, sister & god father

I was then back in Kigali for a visit to the Akagera Game Park with the staff from Solace as a thank you for all their hard work on the Solace20 events. It was lovely to see those staff, visiting Akagera for the first time, be so excited to see the animals and an added bonus was coming across a herd of around 30 elephants. Sadly, a visit to the park is out of reach for so many Rwandans.

Solace staff on safari

Now I am back for the start of Season 5, I will continue my work here at Solace to support Jean look at the future of Solace and how it operates in a country that was very different to 20 years ago. Support with strategy, a business plan and a focus on how to make Solace more sustainable and self - reliant through its income generating projects including the guesthouse, three conference centres and a recording studio – last week we had the Rwandan Military Brass Band here to record the National Anthem for the President.

I am also pleased to get a much better understanding of the work of Solace and the way it so compassionately reaches out to people – not just survivors of the genocide but to sufferers of HIV/AIDS and other hurting people.

On Friday we went to Kibuye, about a 3-hour drive from Kigali, to visit one of the Solace Communities – there are 60 around the country with a total of around 8,000 members.  Solace programmes operate through these communities and the plan on Friday was to give 2 cows and around 30 pigs to the community.  Our visit coincided with ‘Good Governance Day’ so a very large crowd had gathered not really to greet us but all the VIP visitors including the Governor of the Province, the Mayor, Head of the Military for Province, the Head of Police and all their security.

As part of the proceedings, Solace donated the cows and the pigs and, of course, a Rwanda gathering would not be complete without singing, dancing and speeches.  

Dancing for the visitors - think the banana beer helped!

A speech from one of the community members

Sadly, it started to rain and whilst we all had shelter under a tent, everyone else had to crowd under an available umbrella or something that would protect them from the downpour. The women use the African fabric they wear to protect them from the rain and the brightness of the materials brought so much colour to what turned out to be a rather damp day.

Taking shelter

Colourful fabrics
Driving to Kibuye, we hit some very heavy rain but on the way back the rain had stopped and we enjoyed some wonderful panoramic views of Lake Kivu, Nyungwe Forest and the many hills of Rwanda rolling into the distance and, as we had reached heights of around 8,000 feet, some wonderful views of low-lying clouds in the valley below us.  I was being a typical Muzungu and asking if the could stop the car every few minutes to take some photos to capture the beautiful scenery.

Views on the return journey

The troubles in Burundi are not that far away although here in Kigali life continues as normal with very little evidence that so much is going on other than what I read in the media.  Being so close to Rwanda it may put people coming here but this country continues to be safe and secure so I would encourage people not to be deterred. I keep up with news from home and the other tragic events that are going on in Europe and other parts of the world and Rwanda seems to be a safe place to be. People who come, for the first time, always seem slightly concerned about the strong military presence they see with armed soldiers and police around the city but I tell them there is nothing to worry about and they are there to provide a strong sense of security and safety.

I have to remind myself that it is Christmas in just over a month’s time as very little sign of it anywhere. I will spend it here in Kigali and pleased to have seen that the Anglican cathedral will have a service of carols so, hopefully, this will get me in the Christmas spirit! Yesterday, I found myself at a craft fair at the Hotel des Milles Collines (the famous Hotel Rwanda) which seemed to have the largest gathering of ‘Bazungu’ I have seen in Rwanda busy doing their Christmas shopping.

Last week, I received the good news that my visa has been extended for another two years.  I was unable to renew it before I came back to the U.K. and it expired when I was home but had been assured by my ‘friends’ in Immigration that it would not be a problem to extend it when I returned.  Thankfully, this time it was all fairly problem free so everyone here is very pleased that they have me for a bit longer.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Life in the city

The new Kigali Convention Centre 

 Well, almost three months in Kigali and I feel as if I have become a ‘Kigalian, if such a word exists but if not I could have just created a new one.

One of the differences, I notice between here and Cyangugu is that it so much hotter – we are well and truly into the hot, dry and dusty season with no rain expected until, at least, September although I have been reliably informed it always rain on 15th August – Assumption Day so I have made a note in my diary to see if it happens.

There are, of course, many other differences between Kigali and Cyangugu and having gone back last weekend for a very quick visit, I realized again that you could be in another country.  A lovely welcome from Peace Guest Staff with lots of hugs and smiles for their General Manager (as I think I will always be known) and so lovely to see them and to and to be back amongst ‘my family’ in Cyangugu.

The infamous road through the Nwungwe Forest is now 99% completed having had major works done on it. Now there is tarmac and white lines down the middle although the single white lines seems to make no difference to the drivers who continue to overtake on the bends. How different this road is now compared to when I first came to Rwanda in 2006 and what seemed to be journey of many hours through the forest along a very rough road with many, many potholes.

Driving through Nyungwe

Coming back on Sunday, we had a particularly fast driver and with not much traffic and no sign of police for the first three hours he had obviously decided that the new road was a great opportunity to go even faster.  One near miss and five a half hours later we, thankfully, arrived safe and sound in Kigali – my knuckles were a bit whiter from clinging to the handle on the back of the seat in front of me and even though I don’t suffer from travel sickness even I had began to feel a bit queasy.

Nearly everywhere in Kigali there is construction work going on including all around Solace Ministries.  The noise here is so much greater than the peace of Cyangugu – dogs barking in the night, soldiers in the local military camp doing their 6am routine of running and chanting and then at 7.30am the work starts in a builder’s yard just below Solace. We are extending the terrace at the guesthouse and the sounds of cutting machines have been going on below my office windows that I have to keep open due to the heat so not a relaxing time.

On the road outside Solace, that has for many years been a dirt and rutted track, major improvements are being done which, when completed, will look very smart with pavements and either tarmac or paving blocks. A few weeks ago, when there were protests outside the British High Commission over the Rwandan official who was arrested in the UK, all the traffic was diverted from the main road and came past Solace so the combination of road-works, traffic, heat and dust is, I guess, all part of life in the city.

Diversion ahead!

Thankfully, the protests were all very peaceful and in true Rwandan style there was much singing and dancing so it felt more like a party.  The protestors wanted to stay there until the official was released but, on hearing that the trial was not going to be until October, I think the police decided that there was too much traffic congestion and, no doubt, hindering the President’s drive home from his office just down the road to his home the other side of the city.  It’s always interesting to see the President’s cavalcade go past – fast car after fast car with police, military, security hanging out of the windows.  I’m sure he would be far less visible if he discreetly drove past in a couple of cars or even went by moto!

Protest or party?

All across the city new hotels, office blocks, shopping centres are going up whilst large parts of ‘old Kigali’ are being knocked down. Marriott Hotels are building a large hotel in the centre of the city but I heard that there are now concerns as rooms on the top floor overlook the President’s house and gardens so could be a security risk.  Last week I visited a new Golden Tulip hotel built just outside the city, where the new airport will be built – this, currently, is the largest hotel in Rwanda.

Modern building

Walking through the city centre, I came across a more traditional approach to building but was unsure about the tree in the middle – maybe, a feature in the sitting room!

Traditional building

A couple of weekends ago, a new arts festival was held called ‘Umubuntu’ meaning Humanity – held over two evenings, in the new amphitheatre of the genocide memorial centre in Gisozi, it showcased performers from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Sri Lanka and USA.  Most of the acts were music dramas and plays based around the themes of love, death, genocide, murder – some rather heavy subjects but all very well performed. Not being biased but I have to say the Rwandan performance was the best.

Before the start of each evening, a minute’s silence was held in memory of the 250,000 people buried at Gisozi – a sad reminder of the events in 1994.

'Umubuntu' at Gisozi

During these three months in Kigali, I have been fortunate to have been on some lovely visits to some parts of the country that I not seen before. Some very good friends from my church, Rob & Jan, treated me to a visit to the Akagera Game Reserve – with us was Jan’s Aunt, Irene, from the USA who was visiting Rwanda for the first time.  Close in age, they are more like sisters and spent most of the time, when we travelled, sitting at the back of the vehicle laughing - mostly at Rob’s expense. Armed with fans (the Chinese sort) they found them very useful for swatting the flies or me over the back of my head if I said anything out of turn.

My perception of Akagera was that it was a rather small park in the north east of the country with a few animals.  I discovered it covers 10% of Rwanda’s land mass and has wonderful savannah, hills with beautiful views across to Tanzania, lakes and many, many animals.

View across Akagera to Tanzania

Akagera has been very much in the news recently due to the re-introduction of lions, from South Africa, back into the park. When I was there, there was a sense of how peaceful it all was with the animals quietly grazing but I am sure this is all about to change!  

Bath time!

A few of the many animals in Akagera

From Akagera, we went down to Cyangugu and then to Kibuye, by boat, for a couple of days relaxation – Kibuye on Lake Kivu is one of my favourite places in Rwanda and on visiting a church, that was a site of a massacre in the genocide, I discovered some lovely murals hidden around one of the corners of the building.

Colourful boat trip to Kibuye

Late evening in Kibuye

Mural in Kibuye church

With other friends, Richard and Prilla, I was also treated to a few days away at a less known lake called Lake Ruhundo located in the north of the country. Next to another lake called Burera, we stayed in a lovely catholic retreat set high on a hill with wonderful views of the lake and the occasional view of one of four volcanoes that majestically appeared from behind the clouds.

Spot the volcano!

We spent a lot of time volcano spotting and sometimes you would not even know they were there and then one or two would suddenly appear.  The best time to see them, I understand, is during the rain season so I must try and plan a return visit.

My final visit was to the Rugezi Wetlands again in the north of the country.  The wetlands stretch for 46kms and known for its abundant birdlife, we spent a lovely couple of hours being rowed through the wetlands to see the birds and some of the beautiful flora and fauna.

Rugezi Wetlands

Not just the birds that were very beautiful

I have probably said this before but for a small country, Rwanda is truly beautiful and is really blessed to have three national parks (Virunga, Akagera, Nyungwe Forest), mountains, volcanoes, hills (at least a 1000!), tea plantations not to mention beautiful, friendly and smiling people. I still get amused at seeing the loads that people have on their back of their bikes on or their heads.

Count the mattresses!

Looking ahead, I have a youth team from my church arriving in just under four weeks.  They will be here for two weeks and much of the time we will be in Cyangugu where amongst other activities they will help to build a house.  Traditionally, we have built houses for genocide widows but this time we have been asked to build a house for a perpetrator who has just been released after serving twenty years in prison.

In September, we have three events here at Solace Ministries as they celebrate 20 years – one event will be for 600 mainly beneficiaries of Solace, then we will have an event for 300 including international and local partners, government, church and other officials and then to finish a thanksgiving dinner for 150.  Having been asked to support the arrangements for all three I am very thankful for my many years of event organisation.

My thoughts are very much turning to the end of October when my visa expires.  My plan is to come back at the end of September for a month’s holiday but, hopefully, by then to have a clearer sense of what happens next.  I am learning to leave much of this to God’s plan and as Steve Daughtery, my Rector at Southover Church said to me in an email “So I await God’s plans to unfold in your life (always an exciting edgy thing!!!) – I agree!