The Most Extraordinary Day

 Posted by Sarah & Brian at 12:42 am  Rwanda
Oct 072012

It started with a tagisi ride, another form of transport here. They are taxi buses, ramshackle minivans, which ply up and down the road into the hills from Gisenyi town, charging only 30p and cramming in more people than seems possible. Then we walked up a mile or so up the bumpy track to the Mubaru Clinic where Christine, the social worker and HIV nurse who co-ordinates activities for the women’s co-operatives, is based. Here we met 10 or so members of the Peace Co-operative. After an interval for warm greetings, news exchange and chat, we set off as a column this time through fields of maize and plantain trees. Once we had crossed a main track, it was up again, up and up, now walking on the usual volcanic rock and rubble.

It was green and peaceful with a view of the hills and the volcano visible in the distance. All along the way we were met with stares, followed by hand shakes and smiles once we had offered a Kinyarwandan phrase. The children ran to keep up with us or waved from doorsteps and bushes, all delighted to see Muzungus.This happens every day everywhere we go.

It had just began to seem we would never arrive when we did. We had come to support Jassera with her new home project. She lives with 2 children of her own plus an orphan she looks after, in a shack constructed out of patches of rusty corrugated iron with a torn sheet as doorway. Slowly, stage by stage as she can manage it, she is having a house built directly in front of the shack, a four roomed building with the steep shelved roof of new tin propped on tree branches above the walls that is common here as the cheapest available. With help from the Co- operative and gathering whatever income she can scrape from selling crops, she has just managed to get the roof put on. Today she had paid for 2 bricklayers to complete the gable walls.

The bricks were stacked inside the house. They are handmade from rock dust and mud, shaped with a mould and left to dry in the sun. We often walk past the ‘brick factory’ where an outcrop of soft red rock is the base for mass construction and where you can see a young man smashing the rock with a hammer. These bricks have been made by the women themselves;when more are needed they will have a collective session to make some more. Now they began passing them out of the house to the base of the tree branch scaffolding. Then they began the trip to the mud pool over the other side of the track, returning in convoy with large double handfuls of mud. This was the mortar.

Christine, social worker and now known as wonder woman, just hoisted herself up onto the first level of the tree scaffolding. Barefoot and bent under the structure she passed bricks and mortar up to the men at the top. Without a hard hat or glove in sight, they worked as a team, everyone doing whatever was needed at that minute to help each other and the project. Once the first side was finished, and quickly now because thunder was threatening, the tree branches were dismantled and put up again on the other wall. The spirit of the women was and is always extraordinary. Despite the difficulty of their circumstances and the labour involved,just as when gardening, they continually joked and shared news and ideas as if they had been sitting around a cafe table. Which none of them ever will do.

This work was too much for me. Brian was able to help although he took a break after a piece of brick fell from the top of the scaffolding to where he had been standing a moment before. I buckled from the first attempt to lift a brick. My role was children’s entertainer. The customary gaggle of ragamuffins had collected to assess how strange I was. After the solemn ritual of greeting and English practice, I ran through my repertoire of children’s action songs. ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ was a great success and soon I had a crowd hanging on my every move. When the rain finally arrived in a downpour, we all scrambled into the building, perched on bricks and felt the temperature drop. But Jaseera produced plates of hot food, boiled potatoes mixed with kidney beans, though where from is a mystery as all cooking must be done outdoors and we had seen no sign of it. Brian and I were given guest of honour status with large platefuls each and forks while everyone else ate off a communal plate. Our offering more than half back was much appreciated. After food, sorghum beer for all and especially purchased Fantas for us, Christine and Angel, our amazingly glamorous volunteer coordinator who goes everywhere with us and acts as translator.

Rain did not dampen the children. They threw me such inviting gazes that I decamped to another space and ran through all the songs again. Once my steam had definitely run out, they began to entertain me. They sang and danced for the next hour while we waited for the rain to slow down. Dressed in rags as so many are, without a toy between them,they exuded fun and joy in life.

The next time we saw Jassera, we asked about progress on the house but she shook her head- no more work had been done. This week we had a tremendous storm that shook the volunteers in our safe dry house. Up in the villages that night the bricks in a wall, partly dissolved by the driving rain, collapsed onto one of the women breaking her leg. She died later from complications caused by HIV, leaving 2 children, one a baby in arms, now being cared for by a neighbour.

After the rain stopped that day, we walked back the way we had come.


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