Sunday, March 13, 2011

A day in the life of two Rwanda Education Volunteers

Sleep comes easy in Rwanda usually because of sheer exhaustion from the previous day, a comfortable bed and relative quiet but by 4am one can hear the sound of howling dogs. There aren’t so many dogs around, mainly pets but when they howl, they howl. One will start from one end of the town and it will cross from east to west with alarming speed and synchronised yelping only to be overtaken by the practising of the “call to prayer” singer at 4-30am who gets into full flow around 5am. The female mosquito buzzes frantically to penetrate the net but we're safe, the family of birds above the plywood ceiling just over our bed start to scratch and flap their wings in preparation for the day and the big birds land on the tin roof with a thunderous crash and bounce back and forth to ensure all are awake and when it rains it can vary from a gentle pitter patter to a sound likened tthe onset of Armegeddon. These are not disturbing sounds but just part of the background but the real advent of dawn comes from the sudden crow of the cockerel next door whose persistence is better than any alarm clock placed at the other end of the room. Rwamagana is awake and ready to move!!!!

Humans respond in the next half hour by filling jerry cans, washing, clearing throats, sweeping and praising the Lord through spiritual music on the radio designed to be heard at the other end of the town. There comes a time when the humble volunteer just has to rise and face the day. Will there be electricity and the possibility of a cup of tea and a hot bowl of water for a wash or will the candles be used? Fortunately, normally the former unless it’s raining. We’re lucky here.

It takes the best part of an hour and a quarter to get ready. Multiple all time scales by three and it’s about right. Check the emails, make the porridge or toast the bread in the frying pan, cut the pineapple and make the tinned chopped ham and pork sandwiches for lunch. On a good day we might listen to Radio 4 on the Internet with the UK 4am news. Even with all the planning we might only have 10 minutes for breakfast before going off for a 7-15 start. The walk is 20 minutes and with pleasant countryside on the edge of the town, maize fields, banana groves and the mounds of beans just starting to sprout. It makes a pleasant change from the drabness of a March English dawn. Sunflowers, nasturtiums and a variety of bush flowers are all over the place. Light comes up here at around six and lasts for twelve hours with real dark dotted by twinkling stars in a brilliant clear non polluted sky. Greetings of “Mwaramutse” “Amakuru?” “Ni Meza” to the adults all on the march with their loads on their heads, bicycles with hens upside down tied to the back and water jerry cans with their banana stoppers are exchanged repeatedly to all we see. “Good Mornings” to the children with their responses of “We are fine” are exchanged readily as half of them want to shake hands and then run off giggling at the meeting of the strange “Umuzungus”. In no time we spot our container truck and the day is ready to start.

Invariably, when we arrive, the office is locked or being cleaned so we sit on the wall outside until something happens, sometimes half an hour later but now we have a key so there’s no excuse. There are two types of day – an office day or a school day but we generally try to organise the latter because that’s what we are here for but much work can be done in the District Office writing reports of visits, planning and making appointments. Now the last is not so easy. This has to be done on the phone. I start in English and regularly lapse into French for comprehension purposes. What with accents clashing and talking to people whilst they are in buses or on the back of a moto, it’s not an easy task but we generally get there and an arrangement is made only to be cancelled often due to meetings, other work or who knows what.

Lunch is one hour but home is too far away in the heat of the midday sun so we either walk to a local shop which sells somosas (all shops sell them) and a Fanta or eat sandwiches behind closed doors in the office. It’s not really socially acceptable to eat in public. Visiting schools either involves a significant walk or a moto pillion ride. That’s why we have our trusty VSO helmets to keep us safe. Wearing a public helmet is not a good idea – one size fits all with no strap!!! You can get the idea of a school visit from the previous post so I’ll not dwell on it but it’s great and really makes us feel that we are making a difference and, most of all, appreciated.

From wherever we are, going home is the reverse of going to work with its “Mwirire” “Mwirire meza”, “Muraho!” and “Good mornings” from the kids. We have a mission in the schools to get them to say “Good afternoon /evening” at the right time and “I’m very well” rather than “fine” using our names. What joy when a child greeted us with “Good evening Stephen, Good evening, Mary”. That makes it all worth while. That’s much better than “Umuzungu”. We’re being accepted and the suspicions are dying!

We visit the market, the little shop where they speak French and all of this has become part of the daily routine. We feel part of the community but never fail to shock or amuse new people each day simply because of the colour of our skin and especially our age in such a young community. An old woman may hug us because there are not many of our age around, a pastor may try to persuade us to go to his church, some may ask us for money and for many we are just a source of pleasant, gentle amusement with no offense. If we’ve made someone laugh or smile and we’ve brightened their day, what’s the harm in that?

So we have about an hour before it gets dark. Two days a week a charming young lady cooks for us and on the other days does the household chores. We have to be honest that without this we would probably have been on the plane back home. Remember everything takes three times longer – washing in the yard in cold water, making sure everything is sterilized and water boiled and filter (we do this ourselves to be sure), cooking on a two ring stove when from time to time the electricity fails and so on. The evening routine is dominated by water – filling jerry cans, boiling, filtering, buckets for the loo because to date we only have running water in the middle of the night and it goes off just before getting up. But we have water unlike those who have to collect it from all over the place – kids from 4 upwards carrying cans to suit their strength. They are to be admired.

We’re not very adventurous in the cooking – brilliant potatoes make a wonderful corn beef hash, corned beef makes a passable Spaghetti Bolognese, omelettes are frequent and you can do amazing things with a tin of tuna. But with no fridge, cooking and shopping is a day to day business and require much planning. We’re ¾ veggie and meat is a treat because we’re not brave enough yet to face the butchers but I have been promised best fillet cut directly from the cow for £2 / kilo. My Mum used to scrub meat bought in the market in the 1950s. I can do the same. We treat ourselves to a bottle of beer every second day and this weekend bought our first tiny bottle of Ugandan Warangi Gin but that’s the slippery slope so it’s a real treat. Good though! A teacher bought us some red banana wine made in this town which we opened this weekend with a friend – very passable if you think Harvey’s Bristol Cream. Amazing what you can do with the humble banana. We’ll try the Pineapple wine next. Once or twice a week we go to a local bar and have a beer and a Goat Brochette (kebab). They’re sold everywhere and can be very tasty.

Electricity is generally stable but we have the candles ready and it rarely goes out for more than a few minutes. We pull down the mosquito net, pack the bags for the morning, watch a film or a half an hour of “Yes Minister” or similar on the laptop and into bed by 9-30pm and are generally asleep by “9-35pm.

So our daily life has its challenges but considerably more rewards, privileges and joys. It makes us feel alive, more alive than ever we were in Wallington and that’s not bad for one 60 year old and one following up in a week or two. We’d like to have used the bus pass on the Stella Express but I don’t think they’d have it!!!!

Keep watching this space!!!!


  1. Dear Stephen and Mary. My name is Karen. I've been enjoying reading your blog- thanks. It must be strange to have a stranger read about your lives, but I am not a stalker. I am just someone who has been interested in vounteering with VSO for a long time, particularly in Rwanda, though I realise you can't choose. I am in Rwanda, in Kigali for a month and am looking to get in touch with some VSO volunteers while I am here. I would be very grateful if I could get in touch with you.
    Thank you,
    Karen Hallows (

  2. I enjoyed your poetic description of the early morning.


Hi, hope your enjoy reading about our adventures in Rwanda. We'd love to hear from you. Stephen and Mary