Down But Not Out
Having survived the adventures and misadventures of Uganda, with Habaqa (my bike) left brutally crushed Manu & I limped into Kigali, Rwanda by bus with the hope of getting her in a condition to ride again.
In our last days in Uganda we salvaged the worst of the damage to the twisted frame with numerous poundings and some re-welding. I sought out a new front wheel and a few specialist parts sent from home. After a few days of fixing, tweaking and re-tweaking Habaqa was reborn. It was a huge relief.
Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills; it is no exaggeration – mini-mountains would be more appropriate. It is spectacular however not kind on Manu’s ailing knees. We visited tranquil Lake Kivu and explored a bit of Rwanda together before she flew ahead to Namibia, giving her knee time to recover while volunteering at Cheshire Home a home for disable children there.
Kigali itself is unlike any other city I’ve visited on my travels. It is modernising fast; at least in pockets and everywhere there is a sense of cleanliness and organisation atypical of the other places on the continent. Sometimes stability that supports growth and investment, comes at a cost; it seems in Rwanda as for many countries in Africa 'democratic dictatorship' is one of them. In spite of the lack of political freedoms however it does seem to be a country headed in the right direction.
My first days were overwhelmed by thoughts of the 1994 genocide in which over a million people were brutally murdered. It left a very eerie feeling knowing that almost everyone over the age of 25 will have borne witness to the atrocity, or worse participated in it. The Genocide Memorial Museum is a harrowing reminder of those horrific days as well as a stark reminder of other genocides that have occurred around the world.
Whether it was the dark shadow of the genocide or the mixture of rapid development with poverty, I cannot say, however in the six weeks I was there I rarely felt in sync with Rwandan life; something seemed to have been left behind or lost. There are no tribes any more, just Rwandans but without being able to celebrate the best of their heritage the nation’s soul feels hollow, being filled by progress, development and material wealth. Yet these changes do not appear to offer an identity the common Rwandan man can identify with or for that matter can I.
My weeks in Kigali were lifted mainly by the great hospitality of my CouchSurfing hosts Paul and Julian, two young German volunteers. It was fun to hang out with them and meet several interesting friends of theirs, normally while enjoying a beer in their moonlight garden.
I did a few days of volunteering for Reraneza Association – which aims to provide vocational training and access to education & healthcare for the poorest people in Musanze, a small city in the north. I have been in touch with Christophe Bizimana, the founder, for almost five years - he and his team have tremendous enthusiasm for improving their community - it was fantastic to finally meet him.
Having spent some time with Christophe and the other board members I helped them to article their strategy, passing on some good ideas from other projects, as well as doing a fundraising workshop. They were delighted with the outcome and mercifully understanding of my encumbered French speaking.
In addition to the 5 year strategic plan, I've put a basic webpage together and designed the logo and corporate identity. Ken - ever helpful - has helped set up the organisation with a domain, email and hosting.
We have also chosen to invest £2500 to support an agriculture programme growing potatoes. If successful the programme has enormous potential to provide sustainable income for the organisation. The first crop is now planted and we expectantly await the harvest to calculate the return and potential growth of the programme to support the most vulnerable families in the area.
Cycling south from Kigali with my bike fully loaded I breathed a huge sigh of relief; the ride was back on the road. For a while I really wondered if I would be able to ride Habaqa again.
The two and a half days to the border were punctuated by hill climbs, beautiful views and a feeling of content. The roads were quiet, the tarmac smooth and I cruised along gazing over terracotta rooftops and along valleys. However as I neared the border something inevitable happened.
Throughout East Africa there is a tendency amongst road-builders to line the roads with a storm drain. The idea seems practical enough yet in reality the drains are 3ft deep, uncovered, perilously close to the road, and could probably act as a tributary to the Nile if needed. I’d been eyeing them with scepticism for a few thousand kilometres; now fate deemed it time to get better acquainted.
Waving a little too enthusiastically to a family as I puffed my way uphill, my motions caused a little wiggle in my front wheel and I rolled head first into the drain. Amid the adrenalin and embarrassment fuelled slow-motion that occurs at times of epic ineptitude such as this, I was able to watch the faces of the family turn from cheer to startled horror as I disappeared over the side.
It took at least a minute of frantic gesturing to convey to the family that I was unharmed - the bike too mercifully – and once the panic had passed we were able to share a nerve-wracked yet hearty laugh together; a wonderfully spontaneous moment.
Rwanda had proven to be a collage of contrasts encompassed by the ‘mille collines’. I will continue to watch the progress of the country and specifically Reraneza with great interest. As I rolled down the valley to the border Burundi I was glad to be entering a place I knew almost nothing about.