Monday, 21 June 2010

Life on the edge of the forest – the village of Banda

It’s easy to get swept away by tourists’ tales of gorilla tracking while staying in comfy lodges serving chicken and chips, but I decided to head to the village of Banda to camp for a few nights at a community tourism project (which is conveniently much cheaper) and get a taste of real life around the forest. The walk down from Uwinka, in the middle of Nyungwe National Park, was a steep one, quickly descending 600m from an altitude of 2,450m.

Looking down on Banda village

This community lives right on the edge of Nyungwe and has depended on it for fuel, building materials, medicine and for food. There are now efforts to stem this dependence and provide for these uses by means other than reducing the size of the remaining forest.

Camp site on edge of forest

As I struggled down with my wee rucksack full of guide books, a line of men carrying 5 gallon cans on their heads passed us….. going upwards. Making a living here involves hard work, very hard work. What was in the cans was the traditionally made banana beer, which will sell at the top of the hill and an hour bus ride away for about 40p a pint. They’re not shy of a banana or two in Banda and the brewing process, after ripening, squeezing and with the aid of some sorghum only takes two days (Cue banana montage).

Bananas from various angles

Village life is fascinating and once I laid eyes on Banda and the campsite I didn’t really care about birds and monkeys in the forest. The red soils are used for growing all manner of veggies including peas, sweet potatoes and of course bananas. But the soils get packed together and breaking them up for planting is a tough task.

Apparently I was fascinating too – every time you lift your head there’s a posse of little kids waiting to see what Umuzungu will do next

You know when you’ve been Umuzungu’d

Cesar, who helps run the project, took me round to see beekeepers, a traditional smithy, banana beer makers, the market and even the town’s micro-hydro project. These folks are partners in a co-op and they get a share of the profits afterwards so it all goes back into the community, and other goofy looking characters like me hopefully get a warm reception. Hopefully plenty more will come.

Brave young lad in tree next to traditional beehive

Cesar partaking in a refreshing banana beer at the local shop

Thatching roof on traditional house

Market square on market day

Market square on another day – beans drying in sun. 2 men are checking electoral register for upcoming election (betting man’s money is on Paul Kagame again).

Blacksmithery house – Smith wasn’t at home

Traditional medicine man’s house and garden – Doc wasn’t home either

Bees were at home

Jolly battery charging man was home at the hydro station. This is the only power the village has (funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society) and again involves quite a walk with a hefty weight. I’m sure it won’t be too many years before power and a decent road come to town. Who knows, then you might all be able to get a Banda banana beer. I can recommend it!

There are quite a lot of projects on the go in Banda. The local nursery school has been a big one. There are a lot of kids here, with about 2,000 of the 5,000 population being schoolies.

The new school ensures the poorest of these get a place. They’re all taught in English now and every five year old can say “Good morning teacher” (whatever time of day it is) and sing “Number one number one where are you, here I am here I am how do you do” very impressively (sadly video won’t load!).

The school has a milking cow to get some milk into the kids’ porridge and has a whole nursery of avocado trees ready to go (plant pots ingeniously made of banana leaves).

They get fruit off of them within 2 years and every child is already an expert tree climber for harvest time

Justin the proud nursery school headmaster outside his new school

There’s also an eco-lodge about to be built up on the hill by a US charity. With Edward Norton and Meryl Streep advertising it I can’t help but be a little sceptical about how eco (and how affordable) it might turn out to be……

Into the Jungle

After getting acclimatised to Rwandan life and with a little time before work begins, it was time to plunge into the forest. So I spent half a week inside Nyungwe Forest and the other half in the village of Banda, right on the edge of the National Park.

At around 1,000 sq km, and between 1,500 and 3,000m high, this is about the largest remaining montane forest in Africa. Over 1,000 plant species to be found, so many birds they couldn’t manage a pocket guide, gangs of monkeys including chimpanzees as well as leopards and other secretive mammals rarely seen. And many of these species don’t live anywhere else but Nyungwe. Buffalo and elephants have become extinct in the park just in the last 20 years and plans are afoot to bring them back.

Nyungwe is on the tourist route as many people come to track chimps on their way to see gorillas in north-west Rwanda but it’s very few people paying quite a lot of money and the busy-ish season is a short one between June and August. Despite it being a National Park, white people are still very much a novelty in the towns here. I never saw a single other person on any of the trails, apart from my obligatory guide, Claver.

On the edges of the park are a number of tea plantations, which are a good source of local employment and form a good buffer to stop baboons and other beasties from munching people’s crops. Rwandan tea is great, although most people choose to ruin it with 4 sugars and a mound of Nestle powdered milk – nasty stuff!

It’s an amazing forest to look at with a prehistoric feel to it - plants of all different shapes, from tree ferns and giant lobelias to huge trees like mahoganies, some covered in climbers and epiphytes.

The forest spreads south into Burundi and from the peaks you can see west to Lake Kivu and the Congolese border.

A lot of water flows out of this forest, feeding the rivers Congo to the west and the Nile flowing to the north-east, providing around 70% of the country’s supply on the way.

It’s a thick jungle in parts and there be many forest critters. Here are some of the less scary ones, including an orchid that is only known in the world from this one tree!

I saw chimps drumming posts, their poos, half eaten fruits, their nests up in the trees, marks where they’d tried to break into bee-hives for the honey (below) and logs they’d broken open for termites. I even heard them calling through the forest, but haven’t set eyes on them yet. The token monkey picture is a grey-cheeked mangabey in a slightly uncomfortable looking position.

I couldn’t believe how nice the forest is. I was prepared for the worst but it’s a fine temperature and hardly a mozzy to be seen, even down in Africa’s biggest peat swamp at Kamiranzovu. I have to say Scotland is pretty hard done by.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Gone roaming tropical

Bite se!

Nyungwe National Park in the mountainous southwest of Rwanda is going to be the focus of my work for the next 3 or 4 years. While Ellie is wrestling with seabirds for the RSPB, I’ll be looking at how different people use the forest, and how management may benefit some of the people who live on the edge of it. This will all happen through the medium of Norwich, or University of East Anglia to be precise.

So this summer is a two month reccy to meet people, figure out where to focus the work and learn a bit of Kinyarwandan (which is at least easier than Russian). And as it turns out I’ll be helping someone doing some household interviews in the villages to see how some of the community forest conservation schemes there have been working.

Kigali is one of the friendliest capital cities you could arrive in, unless you don’t like people. There's little formality and it’s very easy to get chatting to people.

Rwanda is a densely populated wee place (though I've been a bit shy on people pics so far). There’s people selling fruit, trying to cram you into a little taxi-bus, hurrying to one of the many diverse churches or (and this seems to beat both fruit and religion) selling ‘air-time’ for your mobile phone. Every second shop is a mobile phone shop and little representatives of MTN wearing high-vis vests are dotted every 50 yards. I was not once offered anything more illicit than air-time! And the unbelievable thing is that it costs a packet! Twice as much as in the UK. For a country with over half the population on extremely low incomes, this is quite confusing. I guess there’s a bit of a contrast with rural areas.

View from one hill to another with national football stadium in the background

People use every last bit of green space around towns to grow stuff – sweet potatoes, maize, bananas, cabbage, spuds. People are digging, planting, weeding, grass-cutting everywhere you go. It’s very hard to take a picture in Rwanda without there being maize, bananas, buses or hills in them (there are a lot of hills), but it looks pretty good. Kigali is a city on the move though. Investment has been pouring in and there is a lot of construction. This includes a lot of big houses where there used to be none (or where there used to be people’s food). And a lot of these big, fancy houses end up being offices for aid agencies, homes for mormon missionaries……

After meeting some people in Kigali to get permission to work in the National Park and get some local opinions, I headed to Butare which will be my base for the next two months. The buses are a dream and there’s two types – only leave when it’s full to bursting (which never takes long) or the slightly more pricey leave on time version…. I couldn’t help notice a stark contrast to Aberdeen buses which just have a few drunks aboard but are still 20 minutes late.

Butare is very peaceful compared to Kigali but still a bustling town and is home to the National University with around 10,000 students, and an unfeasibly large number of nuns.

English was introduced as an official language in 2008 and has superseded French in education, so you have to try both and pepper in some words of kinyrwandan to figure out the best one to use. In kinyarwanda, the day doesn’t begin until 7. 8am is called 2 in the morning etc. That makes much more sense!

I saw the English homework one poor lad had to do – a list of about 300 english verbs including to abide, to doth, to shod and to will. I suggested he may want to visit Stratford upon Avon.

Butare bus station

View of Butare with one of the many taxi-bikes in the way

Gangs of children roam the streets in broad daylight demanding a team photo or else

This is the house I’m staying in. You have to get used to the noise metal rooves make in the heat but it's a nice home

Bricks for building are cut straight from clays in the marshes below town

A view of the street

And the views from the house down the valley, with fields and banana plantations as far as you can see

Here’s one of the birds that turns up in the garden – red cheeked cordon bleu no less. I know it doesn’t have a red cheek, but what do I know about birds?

Sousa the fearsome guard dog protecting my honey stocks

The best looking primary school in the world?

Butare catholic cathedral