Tuesday 8 September 2009

Leaving Kigali

I left Kigali on the 2nd of September and finally arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, late on Saturday night. It was a long, arduous, entertaining, bonding, frustrating and in turns comfortable and uncomfortable bus ride. All went smoothly up until Moshi where we endured a four and a half hour delay due to a customs swoop. Everything was taken off and put back on the bus- twice. A large amount of 'luggages' were left behind to be claimed, taxed and then transported onward at a later date. I did my best to use the experience as an opportunity to cultivate patience and enjoyed engaging with fellow passangers. I was repeatedly asked, "Georgina, how are you...how you like Tanzania?" It was an unfortunate introduction to a beautiful country and its friendly people. Touchingly, several of my fellow passangers apologised and wished me better times ahead in their country. There was next to no internet access on route and it was actually wonderful to have a break from 'checking my email'.

Now I'm in Zanzibar for the lasts days of my trip: soaking up its ancient history, the sea breeze and happy to be alone.

My last week of teaching was a burn-the-candle-at-both-ends emotional roller coaster of experiences: focussed teaching, hugs, kisses and occasionally tearful goodbyes, leaving drinks and a party, gift giving and concerted efforts to manage the knot of sadness in my stomach that kept taking me by surprise. Needless to say, there was not a moment to spare for blogging.

Now I have precious little time remaining so have decided to hold up and write a reflective closing blog when I get back to London. Time and space is needed for my whole being to savour these last few moments in Africa.

Thanks for following my journey so far and please check my blog again in a week or so to read a rendition of my final reflections.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Yoga in Rwanda

Ive been teaching 8-10 classes a week. A We-Actx driver comes and picks Hanna, my co-teacher and I up and takes us to various places venues around Kigali where we hold the yoga classes - spaces in clinics, local community halls, etc. Co-teaching has been an interesting and, at times, challenging experience. Hannah and I have been gradually synchronising our ideas and methods of teaching, drawing on strengths, supporting weaknesses and slowly finding a pattern that works for both of us. On the whole Hannah talks through the classes while I give adjustements and direct the poses and flow of the class, suggesting modifications as needed. Of all the classes I’ve been teaching with the We-Actx-yoga programme, the following have been my three favourites.

The Inyange Girls Yoga Group

Inyange is the name of a bird that can be found near cows - and sometimes water - and is the name that has been chosen for the teenage girls group I have been teaching for the last two and a half months. In Rwandan culture, Inyange signifies purity, good nature and a welcoming demeanour. Inyange is the image painted by the traditional Rwandan dancer; simple and genuine, graceful and light, with arms spread like wings. Adding the tools of yoga to this cultural sensibility has created a healthy bag of tricks to support the young girls through puberty and beyond.

The project director and coordinator was particularly keen for us to start this new group for teenage girls in order to support their physical health and strength and to bolster confidence and self-esteem. Not least so they have a better chance of warding off any unwanted sexual advances that might come their way. I was sad to have to stop teaching the children’s yoga group - they are joyful bundles of love and immense fun to teach. Hannah now teaches this group, sometimes with the help of interns or volunteers who often go to the children’s class to hang out with the little ones and share in the love. Meanwhile I have had the pleasure of starting up the new group for teenage girls and have been focusing on Astanga sun salutations and standing poses. A few of them have done yoga before but all are taking to the practice like fish to water. They work well, with enthusiasm and commitment and are improving steadily.

Clara shone out as a natural leader and soon became my assistant. When I arrive for class she comes straight up to greet me, takes out the yoga mats and calls the other girls to get ready. I invited her to join another group we teach on Mondays so she could progress a little faster than the others. She brought two friends along, Natalie and Anna, so I now have 3 assistants under my wing.

All of the girls are HIV+ and a few of them are orphans, cared for by older siblings or relatives. The girls who live with their families are happier and more emotionally stable than those who have been taken in by members of the community. A couple of them had been very depressed since discovering their HIV+ status and one girl used to sit near her counsellor every time they met and cry. When asked why she was crying, she said it was because the counsellor reminded her of her mother. Another of the girls was so despondent she didn’t want to wash or have water on her skin. Now with guidance and support from the counsellor and regular yoga classes, both are much happier and have a stronger mental state.

I talked to them a couple of weeks ago about how they were finding the yoga, what profession they’d like to pursue and to demonstrate their favourite yoga pose. Here are some of their responses: -

“Feel well. I have better moral and no longer feel unhappy. My mind is calmer and my thinking is settled. I want to be a translator.” Mary demonstrated forward bend.

“I feel more healthy. I want to be a doctor”. Fatima demonstrated Triangle pose.

“ I feel a change in my body. My bones and body feel stronger, I feel healthy. I want to be a doctor and to teach yoga.” Amanda demonstrated Side Angle pose.

“I no longer feel my bones twisting. My body feels stronger. I want to be a musician.” Sandra demonstrated the dancer pose.

“I used to have aching muscles, not so much now. My chest pain is reduced. I want to become a nurse.” Na’weh demonstrated Chair pose.

Hearing this feedback from the girls was music to my ears and encouraged the idea I had of training up my assistants to talk through Sun Salutation A and B and a few standing poses, so that the group could keep going through the month of September while the yoga programme is suspended. Two new teachers arrive in October.

Last Sunday I got each of the assistants to talk through Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) A with the whole group. They all did extremely well, showing variations in confidence in speaking out and leading the group. Clara was most confident in her delivery and had an inventive use of language - I learned some new phrases that I can add to the ‘Kinyarwanda for Yoga’ notes Hanna and I are compiling as a teaching aid for future volunteers. Salima had the firmest grasp on the sequence, was very clear in her instructions and kept a good eye on the group. She got the group to count the five breaths during Downward Dog in English! Anna was the most shy in her delivery but nevertheless gave a fine example of rising to the challenge of steering the group and moved through determinedly despite others trying to take the reins from her. Where one of the assistants forgot to remind the others to lengthen through the spine, she remembered to draw attention to the breath. Where another was not so strong in her voice projection, she was good at keeping an eye on the group and reminding them with “ fatanya ibirenge”(feet together) and “rambura ibirenge” (toes pointed). Between the three of them I am confident they will keep their group going until the new teachers arrive. It was a joy to see and praise their strengths and support them when they faltered. After this, other girls shot their hands up, wanting to lead the group. “Teacher? Me, me!” So we did one last round with them all talking through together.


Another class I do is at the Ineza sewing co-op on Wednesdays and Fridays. The group has been doing yoga for a couple of years and they are very competent. We arrive at 3pm and wait a while for them to wind up their sewing for the day, move the machines to one side, sweep the floor and get their kit on, while laughing, joking, bickering and making fun of each other. The group is of mixed ability, some strong and agile while others have limited mobility, largely as a result of injuries sustained during the Genocide years. One woman wears a leg brace as a result of Polio, another has limited movement because of scar tissue on her back, and a few of the women have limited movement in shoulders, hips and ankles. The group have appreciated getting a few more modifications so that the less able ones can also join in and feel integrated into the group.

The Ineza group are so deeply bonded and take such good care of each other that being witness to this has been an education in itself. I have slowly got to know them as individuals - their sense of humour, physical idiosyncrasies and other foibles - and slowly became comfortable and confident enough to joke and lark around with them. Hanna and I have danced, sang songs and exchanged bits of information about our families and personal lives. I’ve painted their nails, bought a few of their products and helped cut cloth for items they are making. They have made me a pair of trousers and customized products, shared fragments of their stories and marveled at my dreadlocks, incredulous to the fact that they are real and not extensions. We have hugged and kissed and taken hundreds of photos. We are a yoga family and we will all be sad to leave each other. The women find this 3-month changeover difficult - just as they get to really know, trust and love the teachers, the teachers leave - again and again.

At a recent meeting, one of the group members asked if teachers could stay for longer. We explained that we would love to stay longer and that, as much as we have enjoyed working with them, we have family and jobs/ studies to get back to. Of course, the group understood but still they had to ask. They told us a story of when they were offered sewing training from We-Actx a while ago. The training was to take place in a town a few hours away from Kigali and would run for 2 weeks. They discussed and discussed who would make up the delegation to receive the training and bring it back to the group. In the end, no one was willing to go because they didn’t want to leave their families for two weeks. The separation after the bonding is a sad part of the process that all volunteers and the groups we teach have to go through. Still, we all have photos, memories and stories to share.


The last group I want to talk about is the Nyabugogo group. With this group, play is a big part of the practice. The group has a counseling session first, during which they share problems, worries, stories and news. We sit with them, listening and watching, not understanding what is being said as each woman takes her turn. We 'hear' their bodies speak and the tone of their voices recount their experiences. Sometimes they cry. The whole group is enveloped by the sorrow but there is a sense of lightness too. We are all held by deep love until the one with tears feels calm enough and ready for the next woman to talk. All tears are heard - the understanding of the counsellor and the empathy and kindness of the group is inspiring and supports the women when in distress.

When the circle is complete we can start the yoga. Not everyone practices every week. Some feel too tired or weak so they sit against the wall to rest and watch, but nevertheless enlivened by the yoga activity and energy. Slowly, coaxing the women into a place of movement, we warm up, moving away from the sadness to slowly enter into the breath and body as a place of fun, discovery and healing. Children join in too, and if the woman with newborn twins is there, she sometimes hands her babies to the resting women so she can also join in. It is a pleasure to see sheer surprise on the women’s faces when they find something new. Sometimes awkward or a little shy or embarrassed; they seem to be discovering their bodies for the first time. I imagine they are marveling at the unknown, untapped wonder of their multilayered physical, emotional and mental being - delighted to be alive.

We play with the sun salutation sequence, make mandalas with standing poses and have fun with balances. We teach poses that incorporate eye gazing and mirroring, poses that build stamina, challenge coordination and get the group smiling. We are constantly reading the group, modifying and adjusting them as required. On the floor we rock and roll the spine, hold poses for longer and slowly move back to stillness. By the end of a class we have moved through all the sadness, physical discomfort and worry. The heart is salved, the body is bolstered the mind calmed and laughter has soothed our souls. We all leave feeling happy, together, loved and looking forward to the next week.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Amafaranga (money) and Yoga

Money for Yoga - Yoga for Money

A few weeks ago I taught an extended yoga class at Heaven- an outdoor café in my neighbourhood, Kiouvu, with a beautiful view overlooking the city. I had wanted to do a 108 Sun Salutations event, like the one I did in London that raised money for this trip. The Kigali yoga community was not ready for that so I taught a Yin-Yang yoga session instead: the first of its kind in this city.

The event came about because several people who come to my weekly class at the US Embassy had asked if I could teach on Saturdays. Also, previous We-actx yoga volunteers had been in conversation with the venue about starting up classes. Not wanting to commit to a weekly class, I approached the manager at Heaven Café, Sara, to discuss the possibility of the venue hosting an extended yoga class every few weeks to raise funds for We-actx yoga. She agreed. We set a date, fixed the price and put the word out; hoping people would sign up.

In discussions about pricing the event, Sara had said there might be resistance if the price was too high, people being used to things being a little cheaper. There were mutterings in the yoga community, which at the moment is pretty much made up of expatriate NGO employees, that the price of RF10,000 (approx $18 or £10) was too high. I stuck to my guns, kept putting the word out and waited to see what would happen.

20 odd people signed up and 15 came along, including a few We-actx volunteers. The event was a success. It was a pleasure to teach and those who attended felt unquantifiably better in body and mind and said they would most definitely attend future yoga fundraising events. We raised RF120, 000 (approx $200). Another session was scheduled for mid August and I hope future teachers will keep this modest income generating event going.

I have also been asked several times by Rwandans (outside of We-actx’s remit) where they can go to learn yoga. At RF5, 000, the weekly class I teach at the US Embassy is too expensive for lower waged folk. I’m looking into where I might be able to teach a regular class, at an affordable price for the less well off Rwandan public in Kigali. In spite of the scepticism I have encountered in relation to yoga now and again (yoga being un-Christian, aligned to sorcery etc.), there does seem to be a growing interest. Daddy, owner of Torero Cafe in Kigali is thinking about hosting a free taster sessions in the back room of the venue. There is not much time for this opportunity to come to fruition but its good to at least plant the seed. Much like yoga volunteers did at Heaven.

I have been thinking a lot about money in relation to yoga as professional work and my expectations around both. This is obviously a big and complex subject which at ground level is affecting my voluntary experience in ways that make me want to review my work values, expectations of payment and money in relation to yoga.

On the one hand, I have experienced expats shying away from paying what I would consider to be a fair price for a yoga class they would have to pay a lot more for at home. Wanting to pay a teacher RF5, 000 (approx, $9.00, £5.50 or €6.32) for a one hour private one-to-one session seems untenable. Even though Kigali is one of the most expensive African cities - food and rent are not at all cheap - expats generally earn a handsome wage and have a comfortable lifestyle to compensate for living so far away from home. A smoothie in Bourbon café (the Starbucks equivalent in Kigali), will set you back RF3, 500 (£3.50). It’s a bit pricey, but those who can happily pay for the pleasure and the convenience do.

As a yoga volunteer, I am here to give free yoga classes to We-actx service users: HIV+ genocide rape survivors and their children and the medical/administrative staff. The former have very little income and the latter are better off but on the whole earn much less than the average expat. I teach them all willingly and with a real sense of joy. When I teach yoga to the relatively wealthy expatriate western community, I find I have an expectation of payment aligned to my skills and training. So, although I also teach my expat clientele with a sense of joy, I have found myself on occassion challenged around the issue of payment and needing to renegotiate fees. Here I meet the thorny issue of yoga and money head on.

Yoga texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, advise us to think not of the fruits of our labour and to give from the heart with love, in the spirit of true Karma yoga. This seems effortless when teaching We-actx service users and staff but more challenging when teaching people who I perceive to be relatively wealthy. Why is this? My shifting sense of alignment, identification, ego, self worth, social values and self-awareness all interplay in an ongoing negotiation I have with myself and others here, each and every working day.

Money's to Tight to Mention.

Now, on the other hand, I have had numerous experiences of being asked for money by Rwandans - sick and disabled beggars on the street, children and people who are obviously not completely badly off but have much less me – who they see as a bottomless pursed ‘muzungu’ (foreigner / white person). I have many reactions and responses depending on numerous things. How much change I have, how much time I have and how present and open I am in the moment of engagement. I tend to give a few coins to children and beggars when I have change. But with opportunistic beggars, trying their hand at getting money out of a tourist/ expat, I can feel more defensive: not all people who come from the west are rich. I do not have endless resources. I am not a bank! Even though I am better off than many here. I have been asked for hard cash, clothes and books from people some of whom I know and am working with. It’s difficult to have to say no so often. But at home in London, I can find myself shutting off.

I have passed beggars by with hardly a glance. Heartlessly rejecting their encounter, preoccupied by an internal dialogue I cannot bring into the brief moment of engagement. Sometimes I connect, chat, laugh and am persuaded or feel inclined to give. At other times I simply want to enjoy meeting someone on the street without money being involved. I don’t want to feel I am buying a moment of human interaction. I don’t want to feel that the main reason people talk to me when I’m out on the street or want to befriend me is that they need or want money. But maybe it sometimes is.

Of course I have been stung a few times, paying over the odds for this and that. It happens. Soon after I got here, I asked a small favour of someone and, not yet knowing the relative value of money, over tipped wildly. I saw the look of surprise on her face and noted the split second of hesitation before she quickly took the money out of my hand before I caught on. I had not intended to give so much and felt I had been inadvertently stung (or stung myself!). On reflection, if the tables were turned, I’m sure I would probably have done the same myself and in the scheme of things it was not a huge amount of money. But there is so much more to it than money. There is the much larger personal and social context at play.

Yet another angle is the positions of NGO organisations that engage many volunteers to carry out their vital work. The days of volunteers receiving expenses (minimal) for their services are, on the whole, long gone. These days it seems to be the norm to pay to be a volunteer. Not only for travel, board and lodging costs but also a fee for the opportunity to gain experience through voluntary service. The problem with this situation is that it tends to favour those who have the financial resources (or access to people with financial resources) to pay for voluntary experience. Though of course one can always fundraise - where there is a will there is a way. Many thanks to all those who contributed to my Rwanda fund that paid for me to be here having this very life changing voluntary work experience. Discussing this over dinner this evening, all sorts of things came up: for some, the idea that volunteer work is essential for their feeling of humanity; that organisations with a high volunteer turnover are loosing people because they take them for granted, while those organisations that invest in valuing their volunteers (not necessarily through financial remuneration but sheer appreciation) enjoy joyful and dedicated service; that long term involvement in voluntary work can lead to the unhealthy belief that, in general (i.e. outside of voluntary work), it is ok to remain unpaid for services rendered over and above ones job or one is unwilling or reluctant to have to enter into negotiation to get a reasonable wage, etc.

It’s all very interesting and challenging. I mull over the knowledge that the privileges many of us enjoy in the West are often built on, cause and perpetuate poverty in other parts of the world, both currently and historically. Yet I can’t say I am not happy that my mother moved to England from Nigeria to join my father when I was almost five years old. I would have had a very different life had we stayed in Lagos. Not that I would have been more or less happy, but I would most probably have had far fewer opportunities and been raised in a much, much less materially comfortable environment.

What is it that makes expats (myself included) want to pay less? Is it just because we are in Africa and Westerners have come to expect things in Africa to be cheap (er)? Perhaps it’s something to do with our perception of Africa and Africans that are filtered though distorting lenses of colonial and postcolonial histories? Or maybe it’s that some of us know what things should cost and pride ourselves in paying the ‘right’ price – not the ‘muzungu’ price. Yet muzungu prices are an inherent part of the tourist economy, which is desirable and nationally promoted. Conversely, do people who are poor really think that everyone from the west is rich? I imagine some do and some don’t. I have an inkling that, for a good number of years, I believed all white people were rich because my father was wealthy enough to take us away from the poverty we lived in in Lagos and bring us to a relatively luxurious life in London. (Our home was in fact a modest lower middle class household). It’s a matter of perspective, experience and education among other things. And, dealing with this at ground level is not easy but a necessary part of daily life not just here in Kigali.

It is possible to be on either sides of the equation at different times. Is it possible to move beyond a binary equation and look at things more in terms of relationship? It is all so complex. We are all so fluid. Some of us are oppressors; some of us are the oppressed. Roles are reversed in different contexts. Sometimes we are so open and trusting and want to give the shirt of our back while at other times we are so mean - caught up in our own selfish desires and needs, with not a thought for the suffering of others. Then there are times when we are grounded, present and able to move from the heart and embrace others with loving kindness - here in lies the purpose for my pursuit of yoga.

There was something poetic about my fundraising experience of teaching westerners yoga and donating the proceeds to women genocide survivors and their children. We are all linked by the practice of yoga. Different kinds of resources are enlivened, redistributed, exchanged and pooled. Numerous connections and relationships are made. Women who would never practice yoga learn and become adept - availing themselves of the immeasurable healing tools that yoga has to offer. I hope some in time will become teachers themselves. Genocide rape survivors who the west forgot can perhaps feel support and care from those who rejected them. Their lives in turn give testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and our collective ability to reunite: to return to love, regain hope and delight in laughter while moving and maneuvering with patience, acceptance and dignified humility beyond hatred towards some kind of peace and forgiveness.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Nyungwe Forest Adventure

Tuesday 7th July 2009

Last Saturday was 4th July, liberation day, a national holiday in Rwanda marking the Rwandan Patriotic Front's liberation from Habyarimana's dictatorship that had wracked the country with genocide. The day was celebrated with a massive concert at the national stadium and a week of talks, lectures and discussion on the theme of liberation: this year's slogan being "Dignity is our Strength".

“Rwanda today is a nation renascent, a country in an advanced stage of rehabilitation, and one looking to a brighter future. The high level of political stability and peace since 1995 has encouraged the repatriation of millions of refugees, while the main instigators of the genocide are being tried at the Arusha Tribunal in Tanzania and in the Gacaca courts in Rwanda….

During its tenure in power, the RPF has placed strong emphasis on reconciliation, and has largely succeeded in forging a sense of national, rather than ethnic, identity in Rwanda.
The autocratic and divisive political structures that formerly denied minorities a meaningful political voice have been replaced, for instance with the implementation of cellular councils that involve local communities in important decisions at grassroots level. Furthermore, although poverty remains endemic to Rwanda as it does to most other Africa countries, economic liberalisation and civil stability have stimulated a consistently high annual economic growth rate since 1995, and today there is a tangible economic buzz about Rwanda that bodes well for its long-term future. Tourism will play a pivotal role in fostering the economic infrastructure and prosperity that nurture future political stability.” Quoted from Rwandan tourism website.

In need of some light relief, instead of going to the liberation day concert I took a tourist trip out of town. I went to visit Nyungwe forest with an international group of 5 fellow volunteers: Hanna (Finnish), Jammie (Canadian), Noam (Israeli), Chloe (American), Gia (American) and Frank (Rwandan). Chloe and Gia had been in Kigali for only 24 hours and Frank is an ex WE-ACTx employee.

Nyungwe Forest national park, in south western Rwanda, is a popular tourist destination, being one of the last remaining forest areas of the country and home to chimpanzees (but unfortunately we didnt see any). The park is located south of lake Kivu on the boarder of Burundi and was established in 2004. It ranges in altitude fro m16000m to 2950m above sea level and covering an area of approximately 970 km² of rainforest, bamboo, grassland, swamps, and bogs. The nearest town to the forest is Cyangugu, 54 km to the west. According to the brochure, the Nyungwe forest has a pre-historic atmosphere, rich in biodiversity, supporting 250 different types of trees and shrubs and a vast range of flowering plants, including over 100 species of orchid and giant Lobelia. Through a maze of well kept trails, walkers are guided to various viewing points to enjoy the stillness of the forest. I was in for a treat and happy to have taken the opportunity to be a tourist in this amazing country.

One of the challenges of planning a trip with a group of people where no one in particular is in charge, is that arrangements are talked about but can remain unarranged. Everyone thinks someone else is taking care of things. Last Thursday evening we found that Hanna had bought us all a ticket for the bus but no one had organized accommodation. On the morning of our departure after several phone calls to different guest houses, we managed to find one that wasn't full and booked three rooms. Thankfully we were sorted.

We gathered just after noon at cafe Bourbon - a Starbucks type coffeehouse at the Union Trade Centre shopping mall where all the Muzungus (white people) hang out. Itching to go we waited impatiently for Jammie’s takeaway cappuccino and sandwich and my banana cake. We had a 10-minute walk to the bus stop and our bus was due to leave at 12.30. A few of us were worried we might miss it or find our seats had been double booked. Apparently it happens. 10 minutes later, snacks in hand, we all hurried out towards the bus stop getting there with a few minutes to spare. It soon arrived and after only a shortly wait, during which time we bought apples and chatted to locals, we boarded and were directed to our ticketed seats clustered at the front of the bus. I sat next to the driver in what is known as the CEO seat and enjoyed the whole journey there spellbound at the stunning views and chatting to my fellow passengers: a young student of tourism who lived in Kigali and worked in Chyangugu (six hours away) at the weekends; a student from Uganda who was studying in Australia and revisiting other East African countries on his summer break; and a very quiet fellow sitting in the front seat next to me. It felt so good to be with people in a friendly lighthearted way after the intensity of the work I’ve been doing and the recent genocide memorials visits. Unable to talk with the quiet young man sitting next to me - he spoke almost no French or English, and I almost no Kinyarwandan - we became ipod friends listening to Chris Berry and Pangea’s 'Dancemakers' album. Bobbing our heads, tapping our hands and feet and now and again sticking a thumb up to each other and nodding our mutual pleasure of this funky intercultural Afro beat, pop band.

The lush emerald green landscape whizzed past us, too fast for me to take decent photos. Rwanda’s economy is small and mainly agricultural with coffee and tea as the main export crops. I saw many fields of tea and bananas -the staple crop. Other main crops are corn, cassava, sweet potato and other roots, peas ,beans, melons and sorghum (a type of cereal grain). I saw a few fields of sunflowers and every now and then a crop of mud bricks laid out by the roadside to dry in the sun. Flowers splash colour everywhere - bougainvillea, hibiscus, frangipani, roses and lots of others I don’t know the names of.

After a five-hour bus ride, our bus driver, Jean Pierre, dropped us off at the guesthouse just before dusk. It seemed there had been some misunderstanding and we had missed our stop and were at the ORTPN which was the wrong guesthouse and was fully booked. We called the Gisakura guesthouse where we had booked rooms to say that the 7 of us would be making our way there within the next hour.

“Ahh! Seven? But there is only one room.” came the reply.
“But we booked three rooms.”
“No, there is only one room. No space for seven.”
Another misunderstanding!

We discussed our options. It was dark; there was no public transport and not many cars traveling through. Cyangugu, the nearest town, was too far away so we decided to walk the fifty minutes back up the road to Gisakura guesthouse. The landlady surely wouldn’t turn us away at night – it was just one night. We’d all squeeze into the one room. Noam headed out to the road, saw a car and stuck her thumb out. We persuaded the driver to give us a lift up the road to our guesthouse and to wait until it was clear we were all going to be able to stay there - thank goodness Frank was with us to negotiate. The landlady was lovely, concerned about the misunderstanding and eager to help make us more comfortable. In no time she had organized an extra double bed, brought us water and offered us a meal. We declined the meal and ate the picnic we had bought from Kigali. We sorted out payment, ordered breakfast for 6am and then romped noisily on our two mattresses, happy and relieved.

Our four-hour, 14-kilometer waterfall trail walk started at 8.00am. We met our guide, Robert, who asked if everyone was in good enough shape and offered us all a walking staff. Robert kept us informed about the flora and fauna of the forest as we went along and was happy to answer all questions asked. We were instructed to leave no litter, not even biodegradable waste like banana skins or apple cores, as this would encourage monkeys to expect food and hang about causing mischief. We were also asked to take nothing away which was tough, as usually, I gather a few things for my cabinets of curiosity: seeds, pods, leaves, petals, fragments of bark, termite-patterned bits of wood, bits of fur, remnants of malting skin, dried flowers, etc. part of an on-going art project collection of mementos from my numerous encounters with nature around the world over the last ten years. It was a fabulous day of walking, paddling, talking, looking, listening, connecting with the forest, taking photographs and being generally enthralled by the boundless wonder of nature.

Just after setting off on our walk we came across a colony of fire ants. A fire ant bite can cause several health problems, sometimes serieous. Captivated by the expansive views in the beautiful morning light, a few of us stopped to take photos and missed Robert's warning not to stand still for too long. As we rejoined the group I saw people dusting down their clothes. I looked down and let out a horrified yelp. My clothes were covered in ants. The skin all over my body shrank as I went into my infestation phobia reaction, hopping and jumping around, frantically stamping my feet trying to shake off what seemed like hundreds of ants but was probably more like 30. They crawled up to into my trousers and shirt in no time - I now know where the phrase 'ants in your pants' comes from! They didn’t give up easily and I had to scrape them off my clothes and fish them out of my undies- luckily I didnt get bitten.

The path wended its way through tea plantations and slowly into the forest, progressively getting more dense and dark. I was reminded of the Australian rain forest I visited near Brisbane and felt the same appreciation for the wild exuberance of the forest: the countless species of trees, plants and flowers, the numerous shades of green moss, the cushioning of mulch under foot, the carpets of purple, pink or white petals, the fallen logs

that had been thrown down across the path in the midst of a storm and had been sawn through to free up the footpath. The moss covered vines reminded me of old Tarzan movies and looking up at the sky through the filigree of leaves reminded me of Islamic ceramic tile art. There wasn’t much in the way of larger animals and no monkeys, though we'd seen a few on the roadside as we travelled into the forest on the bus.

Walking through the Nyungwe forest was mesmerizing. At times was engrossed in conversation, taking photos or walking alone. I slowly dropped in to a more reflective frame of mind. Pondering my experience of being in Rwanda so far, remembering loved ones at home and thinking of the hundreds, probably thousands, of people that had trodden the same footpath - smelling the earthiness of the damp undergrowth and cool freshness of the air, enjoying the visual stimulus of shapes, colours and the filtered light - marveling at the wondrous interior of the forest as if in another world. I stopped now and again to rest and look out at the view when the forest opened out.

As we walked back, I stopped to change my shoes and lost sight of the group. The path forked and I didn’t know which way to go: right towards the tea plantation or left to what looked like more forest. I had a moment of indecision and near panic. But I had been feeling so happy and content from the walk that I was able to avoid a sense of panic and trust that I would find my way. I started to see several Rwandans, strolling slowly, arm in arm. I was enjoying the loveliness of the light and the green of the growing tea. Finding myself walking along something of a thoroughfare, I asked a few people here and there, in English and dodgy French, the way back to the ORTPN guesthouse. They looked at me uncomprehending. I came across a massive congregation of people who had just spilled out of a church – it was Saturday afternoon, perhaps it was a wedding or special service. Three mixed race looking men, walked towards me and introduced themselves. They were from Cape Town and working on the tea plantation. They were happy to hear I had recently visited Cape Town and we exchanged news. They gave me directions back to the ORTPN guesthouse and I carried on more confidently. Walking along the main road I suddenly heard my name. It was Robert. He was on a motorbike looking for me. Ahh! Georgina where did you go? I told him my story, very pleased that I had turned left and taken what turned out to be a slightly longer and more adventurous route back. I hopped on the back of his bike and was at the guesthouse in a few minutes, in time for a quick bite before the bus back to Kigali.

Robert led us to a place where we could swim. Those of us who took the plunge were at first shocked to the marrow by the cold, then revitalized, warmed and delighted by the experience. As we walked back through the forest, I wondered if Robert ever tired of guiding people through the forest. I asked him. He smiled and said he enjoyed his job very much, loved the forest and especially liked leading the more difficult red trails that took 6 hours and led walkers through much more challenging terrain.

As we walked back, I stopped to change my shoes and lost sight of the group. The path forked and I didn’t know which way to go: right towards the tea plantation or left to what looked like more forest. I had a moment of indecision and near panic. But I had been feeling so happy and content from the walk that I was able to avoid a sense of panic and trust that I would find my way. I started to see several Rwandans, strolling slowly, arm in arm. I was enjoying the loveliness of the light and the green of the growing tea. Finding myself walking along something of a thoroughfare, I asked a few people here and there, in English and dodgy French, the way back to the ORTPN guesthouse. They looked at me uncomprehending. I came across a massive congregation of people who had just spilled out of a church – it was Saturday afternoon, perhaps it was a wedding or special service. Three mixed race looking men, walked towards me and introduced themselves. They were from Cape Town and working on the tea plantation. They were happy to hear I had recently visited Cape Town and we exchanged news. They gave me directions back to the ORTPN guesthouse and I carried on more confidently. Walking along the main road I suddenly heard my name. It was Robert. He was on a motorbike looking for me. Ahh! Georgina where did you go? I told him my story, very pleased that I had turned left and taken what turned out to be a slightly longer and more adventurous route back. I hopped on the back of his bike and was at the guesthouse in a few minutes, in time for a quick bite before the bus back to Kigali.

We got the 3pm bus back. Unfortunately the ride home was not as delightful. For the first couple of hours the bus hurtled at breakneck speed down hill, the driver swerving at speed and not always avoiding the numerous potholes. We were all sat at the back of the bus, nauseous and struggling not to be sick over our fellow passengers. This time I had the worst seat on the bus - the middle of the back row. I was thrown up and down and side to side and had to relax as much as possible, becoming a reed in the wind, to avoid injury from all the jarring movement. Things eased off once we got beyond Butare with both the decreased gradient and heavy traffic slowing our driver down. The sundown was not as spectacular as the dawn had been and darkness fell thickly. Without electricity, there were very few lights on the hills, just the odd flicker and a few oil lamps in roadside shops. I was amazed at how people walked around effortlessly without torches, some still carrying loads on their heads, well versed with balancing in the dark. As we reached Kigali the hills lit up and slowly the throng of people on the streets increased. We got off the bus a little stiff and tired but totally content. We walked home slowly, enriched and enlivened by our trip and quietly looking forward to the dinner we knew would be waiting.

Wednesday 1 July 2009


Genocide Recordings
Sunday 28th June

*** Please note: some of the content in this post is very disturbing. ***

Yesterday (Saturday 27th June) a few of us went to a screening of ‘Genocide Recordings’, part of the 5th Annual Rwanda Film Festival (12-28th June) that has been taking place the last couple of weeks. We got to the venue an hour early, or rather the programme started an hour late....

Several short films were shown. ‘Massacre at Murambi’, by Sam Kauffmann. Murambi is the site of a newly built secondary school where one of the world’s most horrifying mass murders took place. Over 50,000 Tutsi were urged by the Rwanda authorities to flee to the school for their safety from the murderous Hutu militia. But it was a trap; nearly all of them were slaughtered. ‘Flowers of Rwanda’ by David Munoz, a reflection from survivors looking at the situation in Rwanda now and a discussion about the role of educational films in moving forward from genocide. The work of British television journalist, Nick Hughes, was the most stark and haunting. He shot the only known media footage of killings taking place during the genocide.

Hughes film documents his return to Rwanda 14 years after the genocide to try and find out who had been killed and who had done the killing in the horrifying few minutes he captured on film in 1994. He interviewed people from the area where the killing had taken place, showed them his footage and pieced together the events, locating survivors and those who had helped people to survive. A Gacaca court hearing was arranged on the strength of this evidence and perpetrators who had been identified in the footage by the community were invited to admit their crimes. All denied the crimes.

The following extract about Gacaca courts is the UNIFEM website: United Nations Development Fund for Women,

‘Gacaca, Rwanda's traditional, community-based conflict resolution system, was used historically to adjudicate local property crimes and civil disputes. In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan government revived and revised this indigenous mechanism to assign jurisdiction over some genocide crimes……

As the majority of survivors and witnesses, women's participation has been an important element of the Gacaca system. For example, although in the past women were not permitted to serve as Gacaca judges, the government has required that at least 30 per cent of the judges be female. According to one scholar, "The community basis of Gacaca allows women to participate on various levels, recognizes their role in the reconciliation process, and gives them an identity beyond that of victims."

It was a difficult experience to watch this screening of people being slaughtered and to see onlookers at the scene jigging about, dancing. But it was also compelling to see survivors, although devastated by the recording, driven to watch the footage again and again, craning their heads toward the small computer, searching the screen and their minds for the identity of the perpetrators, knowing they now lived among them.

There was also a short documentary about the 1dollarcampaign, which is a project to raise funds to build houses, homes, for genocide orphans who stay at school during school holidays because they have not family and nowhere else to go.

In between films there were talks exploring possibilities for recovery and reconciliation and song performances evoking forgiveness and unity, hoping to salve the trauma of this national tragedy.

Genocide Memorials
Tuesday 30th June

Today I went with my housemates, Hanna, Jammie and Noam, to two genocide memorial sites. It was so good to get out of the city. Good to see the endless, lush and beautifully rolling hills of Rwanda but gut wrenching to contemplate the remnants of mass murder and a struggle to grapple mentally and emotionally with the extent and horror of the genocide crimes.

We went first to the church at Nyamata, 30km from Kigali. 10,000 people were massacred in this church and 40,000 in the surrounding areas. The church was administered by European Clergy who were killed once it was discovered they were protecting Tutsis. People had sought refuge in this church because during the 1959 ousting of Tutsis, those who sought safety there had been spared.

The site, lovingly maintained, is decked with purple and white bunting and bouquets of flowers. Purple is the colour of death in Rwanda. I entered the church slowly, halted after just a few steps by scene the before me, my diaphragm and throat tightened against the rising tide of emotions. I saw mounds and mounds of dirty, dusty remnants of clothing piled up on wooden benches, blood stained walls, shrapnel holes in the blood-splattered ceiling and instruments of death on the altar. I recalled the work of Christian Boltanski, a Paris based installation artist whose work wrestles with death, memory and loss. I sat down for a while to get a hold of myself before moving slowly through the space, full of sorrow for the people who had been murdered - suffering brutal and merciless death.

We were told by our guide and Banner, our very well informed taxi driver, that clothes and bones were gathered from outside the church and the surrounding area and bodies were still being discovered to this day; pregnant women were held down on the altar, babies violently ripped from their bodes and we were shown a blood stained patch where a baby had been bashed to death against the wall. It was impossible to take it all in. Shocked and enraged I started to take photographs, forcing myself to witness this aftermath, present to the experience of my whole body in revolt against what I was seeing and had been told.

Outside in the courtyard two underground caverns have been dug to house countless bones and coffins, each containing the bones of 10 or more people. Walking along the short, very narrow, claustrophobic corridor, surrounded on either side by stacked coffins and shelves upon shelves of bones and skulls, some of which were cracked from the powerful blow of a machete, again brought the enormity of the crimes home. Feeling a bit nauseous, it was a relief to get back out in the open and feel- very aware of my alive body - fresh air in my lungs and warm bright sunlight ton my skin. The purple and white bunting blowing in the cool breeze, the pale blue sky, and brightly coloured flowers and the blue-green hills in the distance all quietly comforting, helping me to regain a sense of cohesion.

We drove on to Ntarama church, just a few kilometers away from Nyamata on the road back to Kigali. This genocide site has been left as it was after the bodies were removed. Again remnants of clothes were hung on the walls and also the rafters of the church. There were shelves of skulls (some very small), bones, piles of personal belongings and weapons. 5,000 were slaughtered at this site, mostly women and children. Behind the church were two small buildings where people had also been killed. One building was a Sunday school for the children the other a kitchen. Nearby there was a wall of names of the deceased, a work in progress. We all stood and walked around drying our eyes, taking in the devastation, feeling countless emotions and speechless. Then, dry-eyed, we signed the visitors’ book, left our donations and instinctively sought contact with the children who had gathered outside to watch the group of Muzungus. Amakuru? Amakuru? How are you? We called out. After a moment’s hesitation, their chorus response, Nymesa! Fine! brought a smile to all our faces, lifting our spirits as we got into the car to go.

We drove back in silence and stopped at Gahaya Links, a basket making business started by two Rwandans sisters, employing over 4,000 rural women, many widows from the Genocide. A few women were sitting together outside the main warehouse talking, one feeding her child, about to start making baskets. Inside, the splendour of their handiwork in countless colours and designs of traditionally woven baskets, bowls and mats. I received this sight as a celebration of traditional Rwandan handicraft skills and a testament to the enduring strength, survival spirit and sustained recovery among women in Rwanda.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Day of the African Child

Sunday 21st June 2009

It’s Sunday and I have an extra day off, resting, reading and relishing the extra time on my hands.

Last Tuesday was ‘Day of the African Child’, an annual event which commemorates South African children who lost their lives protesting against poor education….

“In Soweto, South Africa, thousands of black school children took to the streets in 1976, in a march more than half a mile long, to protest the inferior quality of their education and to demand their right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of young boys and girls were shot down; and in the two weeks of protest that followed, more than a hundred people were killed and more than a thousand were injured. To honour the memory of those killed and the courage of all those who marched, the Day of the African Child has been celebrated on 16 June every year since 1991, when it was first initiated by the Organization of African Unity. The Day also draws attention to the lives of African children today. This year's theme is the need to ensure all children are registered at birth.” UNICEF

Four years ago We-Actx chose this as the day on which to celebrate the good health, future possibilities, hopes and dreams of all the children in the We-Actx programme, linking the importance of their lives to the wider history of Africa.

All age groups, from the 4-5 year olds to the 18-20 year old young adults, worked hard for weeks preparing for the day’s celebrations. Watched by proud parents, invited guests, local government representatives and We-Actx executive, many of them displayed their diverse talents during the half day programme of music and dance performances, poetry and comedy sketches. There were speeches from the We-Actx programme directors, the giving of prizes by to those who had excelled and also a few choice words from the United Sates Ambassador to Rwanda - including a smattering of Kinyarwanda, which had everyone raising their eyebrows, impressed.

The ambassador described the children as the ’lights of Rwanda’, and asked them all to look into each other’s eyes. “Can you see the light in the eyes of the person sitting next to you?” The children ogled each other. Some smiling brightly while others had fun pulling faces; some pensive while others were confused as to what was being asked of them. He then turned to the parents and asked, ‘Do you see the light in the eyes of your children? That light is the light and hope of Rwanda: the light from the future stars of your country.” I wasn’t sure how to interpret this. It reminded me of drama exercises I used to do while doing theatre studies in Amsterdam and creative personal development workshops I did in London soon after the shock of losing one of my beloved sisters. On the one hand I felt slightly embarrassed. It was so American, so cheesy. On the other, here was a very simple technique employed to bypass the critical mind and connect to the deeper place of hope and inspiration that is a perpetual source of creativity and love in us all. This is the light that shines so brightly in children unless it is dimmed and marred by the harsh consequences of social unrest, war or, in the case of Rwanda, Genocide. Poverty, HIV infection and the attendant maladies of ill health, mal nutrition, social stigma, lack of education, the trauma of genocide and genocide rape together with that of sexual abuse etc. all combine in different ways to impede the lives of the children and families all We-Actx staff and volunteers serve. There was something very special and necessary about this day of celebration that reminded everyone just how precious each and every one of the 600 odd children present that day really is and that in the wake of so much devastation, hope lives on in the lives and dreams of all Rwanda’s children.

Speeches were followed by a slap up Rwandan lunch of rice, spinach, bean stew and or meat stew, baked potatoes, macaroni cheese and a bottle of Fanta. The children were served first and, as a few of the volunteers queued up to get food for the children, I noticed several Rwandan guests or perhaps journalists taking the opportunity to photograph ‘mzungus’ (white or rich people) serving food. It was good to meet and mingle with more of the We-Actx staff and to see many of the women I teach out in their Sunday best. Happy, proud and enjoying a little respite from the hardship of their daily lives to celebrate the good health and future hopes for their bright and beautiful children. The event made the front page of a local paper, hailed as a success all round.

Monday 22nd June 2009

Numbers in some of the groups seemed to be a little low and after a little investigation through the group counselors, we discovered that many of the women are tired: they walk a long way in the heat of the dry season to get to the class, or they have been working for hours before the class. They are hungry and thirsty and don’t have money for food and yoga is relatively or completely new to some. Speaking with Deirdre, who was instrumental in setting up the We-Actxyoga project over a year ago and overseas all the teaching, we are beginning to understand that the yoga we offer is not just a way to exercise and relax body and mind but also an opportunity to have some fun, feel happy, elevate serotonin levels and feel loved.

As a result, Hanna (my co-teacher) and I have loosened our teaching approach considerably. Astanga yoga follows a set sequence that is repeated each time one does the yoga practice. This is both a benefit and a possible drawback. On the plus side, once the sequence is learned, one has a very well designed yoga sequence for life. The down side is that the practice can lack creativity and become a bit too serious if followed to the letter blindly. Although heavily modified, the yoga we’ve been teaching the various groups has followed the Astanga primary series sequence fairly faithfully. Letting go of adherence to the set primary sequence even further has brought change, liberating creativity and freeing us up to be more playful and spontaneous.

Yoga classes taught after the emergence of this new understanding last week were much more fun. There are fewer struggles with the language, the adjustments and the pace and more connection to joy. Rearranging the sequence a little, including in a variety of balance poses, being led by spontaneous movements women made and weaving them into asana (yoga poses), things began to flow more freely. These small changes have upped the entertainment factor in our classes, making way for more laughter, more energy, more sweat and more of the “happy” hormone, serotonin. Serotonin occurs naturally in the brain and greatly influences an overall sense of well-being. Stimulated by exercise, laughter happiness it helps to regulate moods, temper anxiety, and relieve depression. It is also credited with being a natural sleep aid. All of which will go a long way to bringing health happiness and healing the women who come to class.

The notion of yoga as performance or entertainment might seem contrary to some but its ability to unlock, release and stimulate healing in the body-mind complex is now undisputed. I feel as if I’ve turned a corner and got my yoga teaching groove back!

Tuesday 23rd June 2009

Its now the early hours of Tuesday morning and im still buzzing from the best an most sociable weekend yet in Rwanda. This included a delicious brunch overlooking a spectacular view of Kigali with a few members of the yoga group I teach at the American Embassy; a few films shown as part of the 5th Rwandan Film Festival and a twilight hour leaving party which offered all who went from the house their first dance in Rwanda. The band played butt shaking Congolese style music that, in spite of the sporadic problems with the mic and speakers, kept us going after other guests had gone. The waiting staff and musicians and our selves the last limber occupiers of that starlit, green dance floor.