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Educate Together Blog

Educate Together Blog

'Remember, Renew, Unite’

Ciaran Burke, Bracken ETNS

In the second part of his blog, Ciaran Burke, teacher at Bracken ETNS and volunteer with VSO in Rwanda, describes city and village life and addresses the issue of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 during which between 800,000 and one million people were murdered. 

I had researched Rwanda before coming. However it is still surprising how green the country is. The tourist office calls it the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ and that is certainly true. Kigali, the capital, is located in a valley and is surrounded by hills which contain the suburbs. Kigali has all the facilities of a modern city. You can buy pretty much anything that you can get at home although some things may be a little more expensive. The city is clean and well laid out. Along the sides of the road beside the paths are deep drains, two to three feet, that carry away the rain water. Even after a torrential shower the roads are not flooded or waterlogged.

For people new to Africa it is a surprise that in Kigali there is a cinema with the latest American releases and different types of restaurants - Italian, Indian and Chinese. However, most of these facilities are for the wealthier Rwandans and the ex-pat communities. Locals tend to shop in the large vibrant markets that sell everything from food to hardware. Most of the markets also have stalls where you can buy fabric and then have clothes made out of it by someone sitting at a sewing machine beside the stall. Many female volunteers have had a few dresses and bags made as they are great value. Ever wondered where all the clothes that go to charity banks go? They can be found in the markets here. You often see people in brand- or slogan- covered clothing from Europe. One of the first guys I saw walking down the street had a t-shirt saying ‘Sarcasm just one of the services I offer’. 

Kimironko district, Kigali

 

Amongst all the modern surroundings of the city you still find sights uniquely African. Grass is cut with a short hand scythe so cutting grass can be a day’s work. Men in Rwanda will often hold hands when having a conversation to show that they are concentrating on what the other person is saying. Rwandan people are very direct with personal questions and this is not seen as rude. Rwanda is a predominantly Catholic country and religion, marriage and family are the primary concerns of the people.

The city feels very safe. Although there are armed police at points around the city, I have not found them intimidating and they have been very helpful when I’ve spoken to them. The feeling within the city, and one that Rwandans often express, is that they have a secure country. They are constantly aware of threats to that security.

It is difficult to say anything about the Genocide. It was such a horrific event. The people are generally very accommodating and friendly and on the surface it is hard to see any obvious tension. However, there is a genocide memorial in almost every town. The Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali is harrowing, explaining what happened in Rwanda and also containing a history of other genocides worldwide. There is a children's room that would just break your heart. It is hard to reconcile it with the experience of meeting the people here. I am sure that people say the same about other countries where genocides occurred. Many of the genocidaires escaped to the Democratic Republic of Congo or other countries but, as the genocide was so widespread, there are obviously still people in the community who were involved at some level.

It is not officially recorded now whether a person is Tutsi or Hutu. There is a week in April to commemorate the Genocide and the slogan ‘Remember, Renew, Unite’ is used to frame the activities in that week. There is also a legacy in the disability sector here - amputees are more common than other countries due to the survivors of the Genocide and VSO has a number of volunteers in disability services as well as education. Rwanda is very forward-looking. It is a country in a rush to move forward in all areas and this desire to move away from the past as quickly as possible is understandable.

Outside of Kigali the silvery blue of the Eucalyptus trees cascade down the hills amongst crops and houses terraced into the hillside. Although Rwanda is smaller than Ireland there are significant differences between the different regions. There is the vast expanse of Lake Kivu in the west, the volcanoes national park in the north and the flatter plains of the East with the Akagera national wildlife park. It is a beautiful country.

The main roads between the principle towns are good A roads, single lane each way with a good surface. The government is in the process of widening some of the main roads and paving some of the secondary dirt roads. I am based in Kirambo, a village north of Kigali surrounded by more hills and mountains. There are many houses with numbers painted on the side and all of these are under compulsory purchase order to be knocked down in order to build the a wider road. The house where I live is due to be demolished sometime next year as part of this road building project. The actual new road itself will arrive too late for me so for the moment it’s a forty-minute journey on the back of a moto taxi on a dirt track road to get from the main road to Kirambo – a trip that can be a bit rough with a laptop in your backpack.

Village life is very different from life in Kigali. In Kirambo there are shops selling all the basics and vegetables and fruit are fresh and full of flavour. There is a market twice a week which sells food, clothes, fabrics, bags, hardware and bicycles. People from the surrounding areas lead reluctant goats, sheep and pigs over the log bridges along the track which runs through the valley leading to Kirambo. Adjusting to the pace of village life has been the most difficult part for me as a volunteer. I have lived in a city all my life and find the size of the village and the lack of variety of activity challenging. I find I need a break in one of the bigger towns every couple of weeks. 

I know I will only get a flavour of the culture and the people in the time I will be here. I would recommend volunteering to people want to take a break from their current environment and to contribute to the development of another country.

 

Read part one of Ciaran's blog here

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