Since I arrived in Rwanda life has been something of a rollercoaster ride with many ups and downs. Fairground attractions are not usually my thing but this is turning into an incredible and unforgettable journey. So much has happened and most of the time it feels like I am living my life in a BBC documentary.
My first week at the Noel was spent observing planning and thinking about the changes that I would like to make. There is so very much to do; toilets and showers have no running water and despite constant repair they remain poor, hand washing facilities do not exist, the cows and goats roam everywhere and children play amongst cow pats and rubble, toddlers amble about all day with no real play or educational structure, the older children need direction and help with social skills and jobs……the list is endless…..
I spent time helping the Mamas in the baby and toddler rooms, once again preaching the virtues of nappies instead of rags. It should be easy to get the point across….. but it never is. Every time I tell them, it is like the first time and when they see me coming they rush to reinstate the nappy changing areas which seem to disappear overnight.
Life here is very hard.
Personal hygiene is a bucket and cold water, food is cooked on charcoal and wood fires, clothes and nappy washing is by hand and endless, bedtime is spent sharing a bunk with two or three others….or if you are a toddler….a mattress on the floor.
Despite all of this, there are many smiling faces, no one is hungry and most children go to school.
On my last visit here in June, I began the task of creating a Point Foundation office in readiness for this longer trip – somewhere to work from, organise and plan. It was good to see that the Noel carpenters had made the office furniture, and some helpful volunteers had kindly painted the office, complete with the Point Foundation logo and motto, Live, Life, Learn. On my first Saturday, an army of Noel children set about cleaning the room and ceremoniously carrying the furniture from the workshop and putting it all in place.
On Sunday morning I was in my very small and basic bedroom pondering the day, when I heard an unusual noise outside. I opened the window and for the smallest of moments I thought it sounded like machine gun fire in the distance. For obvious reasons I dismissed it and got on with my day.
Monday came and I remember sitting eating breakfast with Madame and some of the other Mamas and they were all listening to the radio quite intently. I motioned to the radio to ask what was being said but they only returned blank and silent stares. The day continued but not before I had checked the BBC news on my iPad to read about the unrest on the border between The Congo and Rwanda.
Later that afternoon, Karen and Charles Trace arrived and we discussed the situation. I had been assisting two Dutch eye specialists, Linda and Lieke, who were carrying out important eye checks in the Clinic and we decided to continue to get them finished before going to the hotel in Gisenyi to have supper and to make plans for the rest of the week.
We arrived to hear gun fire and the sound of rocket launchers and bombs exploding just over the border. Worse, we could see flashes of light as the bombs lit up the night sky.
Traveling at night over long distances is really not an option in Rwanda and so we made the decision to stay until the morning and assess the situation then. Kigali, the capital, is a three hour drive away, not a journey to be undertaken in the dark.
I returned to the Noel and lay awake for over an hour and a half listening to the sounds of distant gun fire. When silence fell, I slept.
Almost immediately on waking the next morning, I knew things were different. From my room I could hear the sound of car horns constantly pipping. In Rwanda there are very few pavements and cars often pip to stop people walking into the road. This morning the car horns were pipping constantly. In the kitchen, one of the nurses whose family live in Goma was crying and everyone else looked tense.
Outside in the yard there was a feeling of anxiety and at the end of the Noel driveway I could see hundreds of people, families, toddlers, the elderly, mothers with babes in arms walking along the road carrying their lives on their backs. This endless procession of people carried on throughout the day as they fled their homes and the fighting. In the distance the mortar fire continued for over five hours.
It was not long before members of the army and the district arrived to speak to Madam. They told her that all volunteers must leave the orphanage immediately because if things escalated we could become targets for the rebels and for looters fleeing the Congo. They would see us as wealthy people and we would be putting ourselves in danger and attracting danger to the orphanage. I told her I could not bear to leave her defenceless with all the children, it felt like we were abandoning them. She said that the army would protect them and that she was a Rwandan; if she was to die here then that was meant to be, but that was not for me, and I must leave.
We began to make plans as quickly as possible. Some Italian volunteers had already left in one of the Noel vehicles which just left the battered land cruiser. Steven, my husband at home in England, had telephoned Pfunda Tea Company across the road and they kindly said that a vehicle could take four of us at 3pm. Some American volunteers who were staying close by arrived to see what they should do and we told them that like us, they had to leave. Bags were hastily packed.
Over the next couple of hours we secured the Point Foundation office with all the things we could not take, cleared my room in express time, ensured that the Noel had enough food and access to money if needed and said our tearful goodbyes. The sound of gun fire and rocket launchers continued in the distance, it was a surreal situation.Charles arranged for the Noel vehicle to take all the American volunteers and two Dutch girls to Kigali and by 2pm it was on its way. Karen, Charles, Didier and I remained to make the final checks and finally left at 4pm after leaving money at Pfunda Tea for emergencies.