Dirt rich in ru­ral Rwanda

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - STELLA MARTIN

RWANDAis known as the land of a thou­sand hills, but land of 10,000 val­leys might be a more ap­pro­pri­ate de­scrip­tion. Af­ter all, it is the com­plex net­work of val­leys that de­fines the hills. Roads and towns, like the one in which my hus­band and I are based as vol­un­teers for a year, are built on the ridges, but it is on the hill slopes and in the ver­dant val­leys that food is grown to feed Africa’s most densely pop­u­lated coun­try.

From our house we can gaze into one such val­ley. Thickly stitched with crops and threaded with red-brown tracks, it weaves around hills, skirt­ing spurs and col­lect­ing trib­u­tary val­leys en route. On our evening strolls, ex­plor­ing the maze of dirt tracks in the neigh­bour­hood, we be­gin to ap­pre­ci­ate the com­plex­ity of the lo­cal ge­og­ra­phy as fresh van­tage points re­veal pre­vi­ously con­cealed side val­leys, soft, moulded scoops of green span­gled with ba­nana plants.

Our ex­plo­rations are spoiled some­what by the at­ten­tion we re­ceive. ‘‘Muzungu!’’ The cry goes up as we ap­pear. Young chil­dren come skit­ter­ing to see the strange aliens with their pale skin; a gig­gling band tails our ev­ery move. Adults, too, re­mind us that we are not of this land; they stop to stare at us, some­times open-mouthed.

I first de­scend into the val­ley with some US Peace Corps vol­un­teers, muzun­gus who live lo­cally. They have been set­ting up demon­stra­tion per­ma­cul­ture plots at the in­vi­ta­tion of landown­ers to transform a spare bit of land into a veg­etable patch. Laden with hoes and spades, we wind down the hill­side past farm­ers en­gaged in the end­less task of dig­ging and weed­ing their ba­nana, sorghum and bean patches.

With a Rwan­dan lan­guage teacher and a Ja­panese vol­un­teer, we make a multi­na­tional task­force. We ar­rive on the val­ley floor and set to work.

The peo­ple in the val­ley are dirt poor but also dirt rich. The red-brown soil is won­der­fully fer­tile, sprout­ing with green­ery. Houses are built from blocks of mud dug from a hole in the front yard and as­sem­bled on a dirt floor. The chil­dren’s clothes — char­ity shop cast-offs — are suf­fused with mud; they play in dirt yards and on dusty tracks and fol­low their par­ents into the fields. If you have to carry your clothes to the near­est wa­ter body to wash them and need to carry drink­ing and cook­ing wa­ter home in jerry cans bal­anced on your head, would you bother with the point­less task of wash­ing these kids’ clothes?

Trips to the val­ley be­come a reg­u­lar event. The Amer­i­cans speak good Kin­yarwanda and com­mu­ni­cate well with the val­ley dwellers. Side by side with the landown­ers, we dig and hoe, deeply loos­en­ing the soil in prepa­ra­tion for quest­ing veg­etable roots; these plots can en­rich the peo­ple’s di­ets with car­rots, onions, beet­root and cel­ery.

But the ef­forts of us for­eign­ers are pa­thetic and the lo­cals soon take the lead, vig­or­ously shift­ing the soil, fu­elled by no more than a gruel of maize or cas­sava flour with a few beans.

In Rwanda it is rude to call an older per­son by name; a woman is usu­ally known as the mother of one of her chil­dren. With my white hair, I must seem im­pos­si­bly old and even­tu­ally I am told they have de­cided on a name for me: ‘‘Uwimana’’. It trans­lates as ‘‘per­son of God’’. I am em­bar­rassed but touched and also pleased, for in this one small patch of Rwanda I am no longer a muzungu.

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