A glimpse of life of an Englishman living in Africa
Sharing a few simple experiences as a foreigner in another Country
Having left the UK in 2007 for life in Rwanda, I have had the opportunity to experience many different things. I am not sure how much interest they will be to anyone else but I thought this would be the perfect place to store a few stories from my experiences here in Africa.
The accounts are in no particular order and serve no other purpose than to give you a little glimpse of my life. I hope that you enjoy reading them and please do feel free to add in your own tale or two at the bottom.
Not 100% sure where Rwanda is?
Just in case you have forgotten (or never heard) where in the World Rwanda is, here is a little map to put all of these stories into context. The town I live in used to be called Gitarama, but its new name is Muhanga. Muhanga is an hour drive from the capital of Rwanda, which is called Kigali.
The Joys of Travel
I first need to set the scene and give you a breakdown of the different types of transport available here in Rwanda.
1. Firstly you have the taxis that are cars - these cars are usually fairly old and rickety affairs but in general they are safer, cleaner and more comfortable than the other options. Unfortunately they are also relatively expensive and as I am a cheapskate I very rarely use them.
2. Then you have the taxis that are motor bikes - these are used really only for short journeys around town, which in itself is far too long to be on one of these death traps. The driving style in Rwanda shows the general populations strong belief in the afterlife, as they seem to have absolutely no fear in sending themselves and you to meet your maker. There are traffic signals and I guess there is a Highway Code but everyone just seems to ignore it. Your heart races when you are in a car and therefore you will not be surprised to learn that my pants turn a darker shade of brown every time I have to travel around town perched on the back of one of these vehicles. The locals affectionately call this mode of transport 'Motos' I on the other hand prefer to call them 'Wind Makers' and I do not mean the kind of wind that blows through the trees.
3. Lastly you have the minibus taxi - these are a kind of battered old mini van that can comfortably carry about 8 people but in which they cram about 19 people. These vehicles are used around town and for longer distances as well. They only go to specified places but they are the cheapest mode of transport and consequently one that I usually use.
There are some other modes of transport but these are the main ones and my tail takes place on a warm and sunny day in a particularly old and packed minibus taxi.
Now when you get in to one of these taxis in the morning the snugness of the seating is not too much of a problem as everyone is nice and clean however after a long hot day even I am smelling a bit fresh and I use super strong antiperspirant, so you can imagine what my co-travellers smell like. Put it this way you can actually taste the BO in the air. The saying 'you could cut the air with a knife' takes on a whole knew meaning when you feel like you are cutting the air and munching down on it.
Anyway, it is on such a day as this in the late afternoon that I enter the minibus taxi with the green vapour of human sweat permeating every part of my being. I usually sit on the back row so I do not get clambered over as people get in and out however, on this occasion the back seat was taken by a family so I chose the row in front. I have now been in Rwanda for about two months so I have got relatively used to the pungent smells that can be around and so I was fairly content as we set of on the hour long journey back to my home.
Everything was going well and the scenery was as beautiful as usual with the sun setting above the green mountains. Just as I was feeling the luckiest man in the world the lady behind me started coughing. Now it was not the gentle kind of coughing one would have expected from such a little lady but the deep throaty cough of someone who sounds like they smoke about 100 cigarettes a day. Being the considerate young man I am I inched further forward in my seat so I would be out of the way of the spray and prayed quietly for her healing. Unfortunately the coughing continued and what was worse it had developed into what sounded like vomiting (I was unsure at this point as the lady was directly behind me and I did not want to be rude and turn to stare).
With the sound of vomit all around my thoughts drifted to the day I discovered Kenny got car sick. I had been driving a group guys to a youth camp in the UK and Kenny had neglected to tell me that he suffered with this particular problem, the first I knew was when I looked in my rear view mirror to see him holding his hands over his mouth with sick squelching out between his fingers. I believe to this day you can still see the vomit stains on the back seat of my old car.
My original fears that the lady was being sick were confirmed as the appropriate smells filled the taxi and I was brought back from my day dream with a nasty thought - 'where was all this sick going?'
Now for environmental reasons plastic bags are not permitted in Rwanda and as you all probably know holding any kind of fluid in a paper bag is just not something that can be done for a long period of time. I really did not want to be rude but I just had to check that the lady was alright and to my shame I also had to know where all that sick was going. Whilst turning I rooted through my bag and grabbed out my travel tissues giving them to the lady who took them and smiled a thank you. I gave a little smile back which turned into a bigger smile as I spotted that she had in her possession the rarest of commodities a large plastic bag, which filled me with confidence that everything would be OK.
So our journey continued for the next 30 or 40 minutes to the chorus of this poor ladies coughing and vomiting. I was filled with relief as we reach my stop and I squeezed out of the taxi into what should have been the fresh air, I could not understand it but I could still smell the vomit. I thought it must be coming from the taxi so I quickly started walking away from that and towards my home but alas the smell was still strong. That is when I noticed that my shirt was kind of damp and not the normal sweat damp that comes from travelling in close quarters but the kind of damp that you get when you have spilt a glass of water on yourself. Slowly so slowly a realisation began to form in my mind, the smell and damp were connected; my shirt was dripping with vomit.
So a valuable lesson was learnt - you should always be quick and proactive to help those in need because if you have your back turned to them their problems may just spill all over you.
The perfect drinks to accompany reading about life in Rwanda.
Lost in Translation
I am (probably like many of you) prone to not really paying full attention and therefore I have often ended up doing things that, had I just been a little more alert, I could have avoided. Now do not get me wrong I am not saying it is bad to daydream and that you should concentrate fully all the time. Oh no, I have had many a great experience that I would have missed if I was paying attention, by not really listening the Lord has put me in some strange places and really taught me a lot. I guess, in reality, it would be better if I paid attention and then actively choose to do those things that I would normally avoid, but I find that is harder than simply not paying attention.
Here in Rwanda I have the added problem of language, so even if I am paying full attention my skills in speaking Rwandan mean that I can only pick out a handful of words. It is like listening to the Tele-Tubby’s, you think you understand the general gist of what they are going on about but the exact words might as well be in some strange alien dialect. This reminds me, I have made numerous errors whilst trying to speak to the locals in Rwandan and below I have listed my top three language foe pars:
1. In addressing an entire class who where undertaking an accounts lessons I proudly announced that I had FHI (I was meant to say I worked for FHI). It was only as I was leaving and a concerned pupil asked if FHI was a serious disease that I realised my mistake and it dawned on me why a concerned hush had fallen over the class after my introduction.
2. The word for peanuts and the word for young girls are very similar and easily miss pronounced. I caused much confusion and alarm in the local store as I asked them if they could sell me some young girls.
3. After eating a great meal the waitress looked very confused by my responses to her questions. After a fit of giggles my Rwandan colleague managed to explain that I had told the lady that my name was food and that I came from delicious.
Often I leave streams of puzzled people behind me after an attempted conversation never to find out what I have said wrong but I am sure I have made many worse errors than the ones noted above.
Anyway, through a mixture of not paying attention and not really understanding the question I found myself crammed into the back of car clutching a box of food going down a dusty, bumpy road to a parent’s day in a very rural secondary school. Obviously I am not a parent and I have no attachment to this school so I was quite baffled as to why I had been invited. To this day I am still not entirely sure why I was there but none the less after what felt like a life time but, in reality was just over an hour we reached our destination and all piled out of the car into the sweltering midday sun. One thing you need to understand is that I was the only non-Rwandan or (as the kids shout at me in the street) the only Muzungu, and consequently I spent the whole day with no real idea of what people were saying or what was going on. So this account is based on what I could gather, the reality however may or may not be significantly different.
It turns out that in Rwanda schools break up at the end of October and to celebrate the end of the year they have a gathering where they do a presentation kind of thing with speeches and various performances by the students. As this school does not have a hall the whole event took place outside with all the guests sitting in the shade under a temporarily erected shelter. As we were shown to our seats I realised I was being separated from the rest of the people and given the place of honour right at the front. I was very embarrassed but I could not communicate that I did not want to sit at the front with everyone looking at me without offending the headmaster so I obediently took my assigned place and the performances and speeches began.
The speeches I could not really follow so to me they were just very boring and long but the performances by the students were great; they had some songs, some traditional dancing, a drama (from what I could gather the play was basically just the students making fun of their teachers) and some acrobatics. The acrobatics was amazing particularly when you take into account that it was done over a very solid looking ground made up of compacted mud and stone with just a folded tarpaulin for padding. I found myself transfixed with a mixture of amazement and fear as these young acrobats somersaulted and back-flipped across the performance area. A couple of times there was gasps from the audience when it looked like a child would go crashing down on their head and do some serious damage to themselves. As I watched I imagined doing a similar thing back there in the UK and smiled to myself as I pictured the Health and Safety police crashing in and arresting the lot of us. As I came out of my day dream I realised that the students had upped the stakes. They had a metal hoop about the size of a bike wheel that they had wrapped a kind of cloth around and lit. As the flames licked around the rim of the hoop getting bigger by the moment the students started jumping through, one after the other. The hoop was getting higher and higher as the as it was raised further from the ground to increase the difficulty. On more than one occasion a student would catch the flaming hoop but praise God none where hurt and they received a rousing cheer as their act came to an end.
Just after the acrobatics finished some pretty heavy rain clouds came rolling in and I realised that my place of honour was situated such that it would offer little or no protection from the rain. I glanced behind me a realised that everyone else would be fine, it was only my seat that was unprotected. The clouds got bigger and bigger until the inevitable down pour started. I normally carry a small bag with me at all times which contains, amongst other things, three essential items; water, toilet paper and an umbrella. Unfortunately for the first time ever I had left this bag at home and therefore I was without any defence from what was now torrential rain. As the water pounded onto my head I regretted the decision I had made earlier in the day to style my hair using gel. It had created a particularly sticky fluid that was steaming down my face and into my now stinging eyes.
It was not long before I was completely drenched, sitting in puddles of water that had collected on my seat. Unable to get any wetter I resigned myself to the situation and sat back contemplating places of honour. Following my contemplations I would offer you this piece of advice:
“If you are given a place of honour take the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the show whilst the sun shines because, with just a slight change of circumstances, what was the best place to be can easily become the worse and do not complain when it does because you did not to earn the position, it was simply a gift.”
Even if by some miracle you manage to avoid eating or drinking anything that contains the nastier bacteria it is inevitable, due to the change in your diet, that your bowels will at some point get a little distressed. And by distressed I mean that they chose to empty themselves at a moments notice.
I had been here for a week or so and that is when the trouble hit. Every time I ate anything it would result in numerous trips to the little boy’s room and even if I did not eat there was no guarantee of peace and quite. This is not really a problem when you are near a little boy’s room of a reasonable quality. It is a problem, however, if you are on a long trip to a remote village where there is just one communal toilet and that is a wooden shack with, what is affectionately known as the “Long Drop” although I believe a more apt name would be the “Log Drop” for reasons that will become obvious. In basic terms a “Long Drop” is a hole dug into the ground which you squat over. Whilst using this type of facility your prayer life takes on a new lease of life as you tend to pray for all you are worth that you do not loose your footing and slip into what can only be described as a small brown mountain.
So it was on a lovely hot day that I stepped inside just such a little wooden shack in a small village near the Rwanda & Burundi boarder with just one thing on my mind – survival! This particular “Long Drop” had a small wooden platform which was comforting as this provides significantly more grip than just the mud and it also spreads your weight reducing the chances of a cave in. They had also placed a piece of wood with a pole attached that acted as the toilet lid. Even with the lid on the smell was intense enough to make your eyes water. The midday heat had done its job of cooking the previous visitor’s contributions and similarly to when you enter a busy kitchen I was engulfed by the fragrant aroma. I stood for a couple of moments in the semi-dark (the only light entering through a few small slits in the wooden shacks walls) to compose myself before reaching out and lifting the lid. Due to the lack of light I am not sure if this is true but it felt as if a cloud of steam had risen directly form the “Long Drop” into my face. The smell by now was tangible I felt like I could actually taste small airborne particles of poo in my mouth. I gagged but stopped short of vomiting. My head was getting light from the heat and the smell but I still managed to make a decision that could prove to be my saving or downfall - I chose to hold.
This is not something I would ever encourage you to do because I am a firm believer that it is not healthy to hold stuff in your body that your body so obviously wants to get rid of but I chose to do just that. I replace the lid and stepped out into the sun and fresh air in the full knowledge that I would have to hold my toilet needs for the three hour bumpy journey back to the guesthouse. It is hard to explain to someone who has not experienced it but the smell in that shack was just too great and that is why I risked a potentially very embarrassing accident which in turn could result in an unpleasant nickname for the rest of my time in Rwanda.
Travelling with me in the minibus was team of 9 of my new work colleagues and as I sat quietly using my full powers of concentration to keep the flood gates from bursting open I could hear them on the edge of my consciousness happily chatting away oblivious to my inner turmoil. As you all well know a watched pot never boils and likewise when you need a journey to end quickly that is the one thing that does not happen.
We had been travelling for about an hour and half and due to the level of concentration I had to exert I was sweating profusely and a vein had appeared protruding from my neck. I do not know what was going through my work colleagues mind about the angry looking, sweaty Englishman they were travelling with but at the time I did not care, there was just one thought that filled my mind - I was loosing the battle.
It is at times like this that I am so thankful that our God is both loving and practical. Now there is no reason why I could not simply have asked the driver to stop earlier but by now the intense stomach ache had resulted in me losing all power of speech. So I was helpless with just the inevitable failure ahead. I was without hope, when to my overwhelming joy, there was an unscheduled stop. The driver had decided that he would break up the journey by stopping in a small town. As the vehicle ground to a halt I spied a near by cafÃ© and rising like a salmon I shot from the vehicle. Leaving everyone in a trail of dust behind me, I bounded toward the cafe slowing only after smashing my head against their ridiculously low hung sign. Once inside I quickly located the men’s toilets and started undoing my trousers at the same time as crashing through into the nearest cubical.
I will spare you the gory details of the next few minutes but suffice to say that in my life time I have rarely felt such a release – my body literally shook. However my happiness was short lived as in terror I looked to my right and left and there was no paper. I was so frustrated with myself as in my bag back on the minibus sat a brand new pack of travel tissues. As my heart sank and I bent down to take off my socks (you can ask Gary Lamb for an explanation of why I did that) I turned slightly to see a roll nestling on top of the cistern behind me and my joy was restored. I was so thankful and felt so blessed, particularly as when I went to wash my hands there was even soap which is rare, I left those toilets knowing we follow a God who cares about the little things.
I trust you will understand why no photos accompany this story and hope that my revelations of a different side of life on the mission field have not caused any offence.
Food, Food Glorious Food
Do not get me wrong because I enjoy most of the food out here and the fruit is absolutely divine however, sometimes, just sometimes you get a real craving for some western junk food like McDonalds or KFC but alas these great institutions have not yet made it to Rwanda. There are some substitutes available in the capital city (an hour bus ride from where I live) but they are just not quite the same. It is almost worse to get these items as they remind you of the greatness that is available elsewhere in the world and what you are stuck with is a poor imitation. I guess the ingredients that they use out here are just too fresh and do not contain the same levels of chemicals or sugar that make the West’s fast food industry the envy of the world. The other problem facing Rwandan Restaurateurs is the quality of the meat. Like most people I used to be an advocate for free range chicken because I believed it was tastier however the stuff I had back in the UK was not truly free range. Here in Rwanda the chickens are really free, they walk around the streets left alone right up until the day they are collected killed and eaten. Now in principle this sounds great, the chickens live a free and happy life until they become dinner, unfortunately in reality this makes for extremely tough meat. Let me explain why; a truly free chicken does not get fed by humans, oh no, they have to find their own food. As chickens have not yet learnt to grow and cultivate their own grain the food available to them is the extremely fast moving insect population. Therefore the only chickens that do not starve to death before getting to an eatable size are those who are the absolute fittest (they are mean, lean, insect killing machines) and consequently do not carry an ounce of fat on them. If you are served chicken your heart sinks because basically you spend the whole meal sucking the bones or rubbing them on your potatoes to try and get some chicken flavouring. It is not just the chickens that suffer with this lack of flesh on them, it is all of the edible animals and as a result every part of the beast is used in cooking. This leads me on to my two golden rules when eating on missions:
1. Never ask the specifics of what it is that you are eating. It is much easier to consume food when you do not know where it has come from; naivety is your greatest ally. This is not something I learnt quickly and so on the numerous occasions when I uttered the fateful words “so what is this?” I have spent the rest of the meal on the verge of vomiting as I tired to eat an unmentionable part of the animal. I think I have eaten every part of most animals from heart, stomach, liver to the naughty bits that they make the contestants eat on “I’m A Celebrity get me out of here.” The worse bit I have eaten (that I know about) is the butt of a chicken and I mean the chewy inside muscle bit that pushes the egg and/or the poo out, not just the nice looking cheeks.
2. In the rural areas never use the toilet directly before you eat. There are two very good reasons for this piece of advice; firstly the toilets are usually the type described in my previous letter (basically a whole in the ground with a human poo mountain inside) and therefore the smell wafting around outside is enough to put you of a meal, if you actually entered the cubical you would probably be put off food for the rest of your life. Secondly, in my experience, you normally have to walk through the kitchen to get to the toilet and that is a sight that you do not want to see just before you eat the food they have prepared. I know that you guys mock the signs and rules that they have in the Millfield Kitchen but would you really prefer the complete opposite? The kitchen areas in the rural restaurants are normally outside with mud floors and a big wood burning stove in the corner. They do not have different coloured chopping boards in fact often they do not even have one, the food preparation tends to be done on any available surface which includes the ground. Also out here although the meat maybe tough it is certainly fresh so often the items from the menu are still wandering around the kitchen sniffing the pools of blood from the donors of the previous meal.
Even armed with my golden rules I can still find myself in uncomfortable eating situations which require a will of steal just to get through. I will share with you a story of one such occasion but please bear in mind many of the local people here do not get the luxury of even one meal a day and so to complain or reject a kind offer of food is extremely rude. Eating together is not just about food it is about relationship and friendship and that is what you think about when faced with something that you do not like. Although I may make light of the situation now I would never dream of doing so in the presence of my kind and generous hosts.
As I entered the house where we were going to be eating I knew it was going to be tough evening because the fragrant smell that met me was that of sweaty sports socks. It was a pungent and tangy aroma that tickled the back of your throat. We sat down around the table and the first thing I noticed was the lack of cutlery. The beaming host smiled at me and said, in broken English, that for a treat we would be eating traditional food in the traditional way - this means eating with your figures. Now I am not a fan of eating with my hands I do not like the texture or the stickiness but I nodded and smiled back my appreciation. It was soon clear where the nasty smell was emanating from – in the middle of the table was what looked like a huge ball of creamy coloured play dough. For those of you who do not know what play dough is, it is similar to a big squeegee ball of wallpaper paste and ironically that is very similar to what this food actually tasted like. Along with the play dough concoction was fish cooked in a peanut sauce and as guest of honour I was awarded the largest portion and the best part – the fishes head. I looked down at my plate and the fishes beady eyes stared back at me as I dug my thumb into the side of his head and ripped some flesh off. I scooped some of the play dough stuff up and added it to the fish with peanut sauce and then gingerly popped the whole lot into my mouth. Fish I like; peanuts I also like but when they are together and added to the play dough stuff it creates a mixture of flavours that are just not palatable to me. I managed to stop myself from chocking and spitting the wad of food that was in my mouth out across the room by closing my eyes, swallowing hard and making yummy humming noise to my hosts. It was a long meal which I got through by balling up the food into pellets and then swallowing them without chewing, however I did make the chewing motion so as not give the game away which, I thought, was a cunning plan until later that evening when I discovered the major flaw. The play dough type material basically bungs you up, for want of better words it is like sticking a cork up your bottom. Now add to that the air I had swallowed during my fake chewing and you have a disaster waiting to happen. By the time we had finished the meal I had swelled like a balloon and my stomach was painfully inflated with serious need for release. I excused myself from the table and went to the bathroom but alas nothing happened. I sat on my host’s toilet heaving and pushing trying to get some of the air and food out of my body, but no joy. I am unsure how long I was in there but it felt like a life time. Finally by sitting up very straight and then very quickly bending forward I managed to break the deadlock resulting in a tremendous explosion and an ecstatic feeling of relief. To my extreme embarrassment it was at this point, immediately after what was possibly the loudest fart I have ever achieved that I heard the gentle knocking on the door and my host voice asking if everything was alright. I still see my gracious host and to this day no mention has been made of the terrible noise and smell I must have left in their house - a true testimony to the Rwandan hospitality.
So a leave you with this advice - be thankful for what food you have and if you ever have trapped wind I recommend the stretch and drop technique.
A glimpse of why I am here - (or at least why I am still here)
Some people wonder why I left my life in the UK and came out to Rwanda. Its hard to explain because there are many reasons and little nudges that take us to a place of change. However, although its hard to sum up why I came, this little video will help you understand one of the main reason I have stayed so long.
Other Stories you may like
Feel to add in your own short story about life in a foreign country, but please do keep it clean. Thanks.