R&R in Rwanda

Finally on the Monday after the funeral, on my second attempt, I flew out of Kalemie for my much-needed rest and recuperation. I knew a week would fly by, and it did. Nonetheless, I felt very grateful for the reprieve. As planned, I passed by Goma HQ and spent the afternoon in meetings. Six weeks in, the information and language – and endless jargon and acronyms- now had a context and were becoming more meaningful. A French colleague, Marion, in the Goma Field Office (as opposed to HQ) kindly put me up in her flat. My German colleague Miriam (from CPT training cohort) came and picked me up to go for dinner and I was delighted that our Kenyan colleague Irene was also joining us. It was a joyful reunion and I fell hungrily on the salad and fresh food in the lovely Nyumbani restaurant above “Au Bon Pain” bakery. I agreed the chocolate mousse was probably the best in town, even though I haven’t tried any others! Miriam and I planned our visit to Kigali for the coming weekend.

After a great night’s sleep at Marion’s, I was introduced to her cook and housekeeper, a radiant Goma guy, who produced the most wonderful salad for me at lunchtime. I was in heaven! In the afternoon I migrated over to Kivu Lodge, the restaurant and boutique hotel on the lake popular with ex-pat/UN bods like me. I’d booked in for the night so I could treat Solange to dinner, as it’s her neighbourhood. The stay in the “budget” room was disappointing (stuffy, lacking privacy and noisy from 6am, being next to the kitchen), but the dinner was great. I had the duck again and as many vegetables as I could squeeze out of them. Solange brought along an American research colleague who works on certain types of malnutrition. It was good to spend time with these seasoned Congo women and academics.

The next morning, rather groggy and grumpy after a too-short sleep, I vacated my room and ordered a (rare) taxi to the border and literally crossed on foot into Gisenyi, Rwanda. The process of getting the exit stamp from DRC, followed a few metres down by getting the entry stamp for Rwanda, reminded me of the times I used to travel from Damascus to Beirut and back (by taxi), except it was quicker. I was lucky there were no queues to speak of.  My simple plan was to head for the upmarket Serena hotel in Gisenyi. I probably would have decided to take a taxi if I’d known it would take me almost half an hour to walk. Nevertheless, it was interesting to do so. Suddenly the road was perfectly paved with trees on either side, and neatly uniformed motorbike taxi riders buzzed around in both directions. I met a group of teenage schoolchildren and asked them the way to the hotel. They answered me without hesitation in English.

By lunchtime I was installed in my suite of rooms in Serena hotel, with a sun terrace partly overlooking the gardens on one side and the lake (Kivu) and hotel beach on the other. I immediately ordered a big salad and some fresh watermelon juice from room service and unpacked my suitcase. Bliss. The décor was very eighties but somehow I quite liked that. It felt rather decadent having a suite of rooms, but after being cooped up in my single compound room in the guesthouse in Kalemie for the last six weeks, having some space felt restorative. As did the spa treatments I embarked upon shortly after lunch and continued the next afternoon. The young woman, Denyse, who I worked out had been born in 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide, took her time, and I soon relaxed, seeing my weary feet and hands transformed into human shape again, and drifting off to the soothing salon music during my massages. I have mainly felt the effects of malaria in my legs, which feel like they are weighted down and need some WD40 in the knee joints. So the leg and foot massage was just the ticket. I wasn’t overly impressed with the food at Serena, apart from the breakfast, which was ample. But still it was good to have some variety and I persisted in getting them to give bigger salads and more leaves and green things. I was enjoying the anonymity of a larger hotel, and had my first soak in a bath in two months. Thursday I swam in the pool. It felt so good to stretch out. I miss Brockwell Lido back home, and my bike ride through the beautiful park to get there. I decided against swimming in the lake, even though I was told it’s fine to do so. Hearing stories of nasty parasites (not to mention crocodiles and hippos!) in Lake Tanganyika has made me paranoid.

In the evening I tried to get my blog up and running. My good friend Dave from distant teaching days in Milton Keynes, had kindly procured the domain for me and set up a template with some example posts and photo gallery, but my tired brain mounted huge resistance to navigating this new technology. I sent some grouchy emails to Dave, who gallantly responded, but the rot had set in. After several failed attempts, I went out onto the balcony to try and clear my head – and duly locked myself out. The sliding door had no handle on the outside and I had hastily shut it all the way to stop the evil mosquitoes and any other undesirable bugs getting in. I pummelled in vain on the glass and called out into the darkness of the garden (I was on the second floor). Ok, I admit I cried. Eventually, a very large Frenchman in a white bathrobe emerged from his ground floor room for a (not-so) sneaky fag and raised the alarm. Thank God for smokers!

Friday came around speedily and it was time to leave. I’d contacted the taxi driver recommended by Marion to pick me up at 2pm and we headed back the short stretch to the border to pick up Miriam and her German friend Christoff. Miriam is usually late. I like that in a German; breaking stereotypes is a good thing. So at 3pm we set off for Kigali, with me taking the liberty of occupying the front passenger seat. There are some advantages to getting older. I was amazed by the flawless condition of the road for the whole 200km stretch. A lot of international has money gone into these roads, apparently. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful: glinting silvery roofs on either side of the road against the backdrop of a restful landscape of mountains and trees. There were lots of people in brightly coloured clothes walking on the side of the road, which often had pavement/pedestrian space even if not raised. Still, I felt nervous at the speed of the traffic through these populated areas. It’s just one long single carriageway all the way. The conversation was cheerful and slipped between English and French and German, with a bit of Swahili thrown in.

As it’s wont to do, the sun fell out of the sky promptly at 6pm and darkness descended with us into Kigali and the Friday rush hour (which didn’t feel very “rushed”). On some recommendation from friends of Miriam, I’d booked us two rooms in Hotel 2000, which at $80 a night is good value in Kigali. It was like stepping into China. We all know China is taking over Africa and it’s very visible in Rwanda. I don’t object to the presence of Chinese (except when they watch films on their mobile phones at their restaurant table next to mine), but I’m not a fan of their products – meaning it’s usually cheap shit that doesn’t work or breaks. The atmosphere of the large rooms was somewhat cold, but the beds were comfortable enough and we only wanted somewhere to lay our heads. Breakfast next morning was a dreary affair. The food was frankly revolting and they had managed to convert the spacious terrace into a stark grey GDR-style square with huge (anti-) pigeon spikes poking up rudely from the rough concrete perimeter wall.

Two days are obviously not enough to get to know a place, but we certainly got a flavour. I loved the hills all around Kigali and the widened space of being back in a city again. Kigali has the reputation of being very orderly and law-abiding, and certainly on the surface of things, this rang true: roads, traffic lights, signs, shopping malls, no plastic carrier bags allowed. To me it seemed rather super-imposed though (and cars didn’t voluntarily seem to stop at zebra crossings) Shortly after arriving, Miriam and I concurred that we were struck by something strange: a kind of uneasy over-politeness in the people we were interacting with, resulting in disjointed communication, despite their excellent command of English and French. I compared it to when there’s a delay on the phone-line. I’d become aware of it already in Serena but put it down to the formality of large hotels. Granted, we were mainly dealing with people in shops, hotels and restaurants, but nevertheless I was registering something distinctly odd. By Sunday evening, I wondered whether I had discovered the reason for this.

Back to Friday evening, after a quick consultation with Marion’s fun tip-smattered map of Kigali and TripAdvisor, we ordered a taxi to take us to an area of town where there was meant to be a street known as restaurant row. All taxi rides in Kigali seem to cost 5,000 Rwandan Francs (about 6 USD), regardless of distance. Our driver offloaded us outside the only restaurant he seemed to know on an otherwise dark road. Street lighting is noticeably subdued. From there, we picked our way in the semi-darkness to what seemed more like a quiet residential road than the pulsating urban street with outdoor tables and bars we’d envisaged. The quick choice we decided to make was a good one: a French-style restaurant called “l’epicurien”. We sat in the quiet garden in one of the curtain-adorned booths and I agreed with one of the reviews I’ve read that the service was attentive but not intrusive. The food was great and I was all ears as Miriam narrated some of her Goma adventures. She is 30 and extremely attractive, which tends to translate into man issues. I’ve discouraged her from visiting my field office in Kalemie, as I know for sure it would cause an “incident” or ten!

The day passed quickly on Saturday, shopping for sundries and a new phone in the morning (to replace the “toy” Chinese one I bought in Kalemie) and sunglasses for Miriam, then a leisurely lunch in “Bistrot” restaurant, which was worth the wander for the lovely views and food (good burgers and salads).  After an early evening beer on our Communist terrace, I left Miriam to a night on the town with a couple of guys she knew from Goma, while I slaved away at my blog in my room, determined to take advantage of the fast internet speed and conquer my technophobic aversion that had solidified around it. And it worked! I stayed up till 3am, uploading lots of photos into several posts which I discovered I could backdate.

The all-you-can-eat brunch we planned for Sunday in a gorgeous venue called, appropriately, “Heaven”, was all we wanted it to be and more and felt like a nice reward and perfect way to round off my R&R. The outside tables with their cheerful tablecloths looked out onto yet more hilly views, and the weather was warm but breezy. After a couple of artisan craft purchases on the way out, we headed in a taxi over to the Genocide Memorial Center. You can’t visit Kigali and not do this. So it was from heaven to hell. I may know more than Josephine Bloggs about the Rwandan genocide, but I had no idea about how long it had been in the making, dating back to colonial times and even earlier. The presentation of it is well thought out. Nonetheless, as we progressed along the storyline and photographs, it became more and more horrifying. The scale of the cruelty and brutality was hard to take in. Yet again, it makes me ponder on the power of words and the way that language can be used to whip up mass hatred, or simply to wound a person’s soul in a moment of carelessness or callousness. Coming out of the memorial center, I reflected on the image that one of my favourite writers, Parker Palmer, uses to describe the soul: a shy wild animal in the forest that will flee/retreat if threatened or injured. Rwandan children and others who survived the genocide witnessed the slaughter of their families in front of their eyes. How could their souls not have fled? I think they are still travelling back, slowly. Hence the disjointedness?

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9 thoughts on “R&R in Rwanda

  1. Great writing, Julia, and great work going on too. Glad there was some “R&R” even if punctuated by various challenges. Many good wishes and prayers and please do keep the blog coming! Fr Dominic (Farm Street Jesuits, London)

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  2. Hi Julia
    I agree with the comments above, reading your blog is really interesting. I am relieved to see you are recovering well from malaria, I must admit when I first read about you falling ill I was really quite worried, although you seemed to take it on your stride.
    I would like to know more about your work and what is the UN achieving there ??? What results, improvements, aims and goals ???
    All the best

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  3. I still can’t believe you saw Rwanda after I left! Heaven is 30 minute walk from where I lived. Wish I could have sent you to some nice places. 🙂 The Gisenyi/Goma divide is very stark, I agree. Excited to hear about the further adventures of Julia.

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  4. Ju!! Next time you come over for dinner, we will serve SALAD followed by salad, finished with salad. So glad your R&R was (eventually) smooth and relaxing. Keep up the good work and the excellent writing. Xxx

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  5. Hi Julia,
    Helen here, (your cousin!). Hope that you are well. Could you tell me if/where I can donate?
    Many thanks and best wishes to you for all the work you are doing.
    Helen

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    1. Hi Helen. Great to hear from you and thanks for your good wishes and offer to donate! The UN doesn’t accept direct individual donations for the context I’m working in here, but there are other ways of helping the local population here which I’ll tell you about when I’m next home. Thanks again. Julia

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