Monday, December 28, 2009

Guest Post: Andrew Mitchell's Rwandan Diary

This summer Andrew Mitchell, the shadow international development secretary, returned to Rwanda for the third year to lead a group of 100 Conservative volunteers on development projects. In this diary, he records an inspiring, moving and occasionally hilarious fortnight.

Saturday July 18
We descend through a stormy sky into Kigali, the capital of this lush, verdant country of lakes and rolling hills. Piling out of the plane, we load our boxes of English dictionaries and exercise books on to waiting trucks. Around the airport perimeter are children with lime-green wind-up laptops, given by international donors as part of a scheme to connect Rwanda to the internet. They are here because the airport is one of the few places with free wi-fi. When our boxes are safely loaded, we drive off into the dusty Kigali night. I'm staying at Solace Ministries, a guesthouse run by Rwandan Christians. It's good to be back.

Sunday July 19
We visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial site, one of the biggest mass graves in the world, where 300,000 victims of the 1994 killings are buried. Bodies are still being recovered. In 90 days of that terrible year, a total of around 1 million Rwandans were murdered across the country - most dispatched by knife or machete, with a ferocity and speed that even Adolf Hitler did not match. Most of those who died were from the Tutsi minority; their killers were extremist militia from the Hutu majority. The inter-ethnic hostilities that led to genocide had been formented under Belgian colonial rule and worsened under a guerrilla war in 1990. It is impossible not to be moved by the memorial. Many of our volunteers are in tears. I meet Sifa, a woman of 83 who saved the lives of 43 people during the genocide, mainly children, by hiding them in her house and facing down gangs of Interahamwe, a Hutu militia. She must be the bravest person in the world. For many of our volunteers, Rwanda is a life-changing experience. We're here as part of Project Umubano - the Kinyarawandan word for friendship, partnership and co-operation. The project aims in its modest way to assist Rwanda's schools, health service, legal system and private sector. Education in particular is a powerful tool to dispel ignorance and intolerance, resolve conflict and reconcile people - as well as lifting children out of poverty. Equally, if its economy is to grow, Rwanda must attract private-sector foreign investment - something it will only do if it has a strong, independent judiciary with robust property and contract law. We are here to learn how Rwanda is shaping a peaceful future for itself and to gain a greater understanding of international development. Rwanda represents the worst and the best of Africa; we hope that in office the lessons Conservatives have absorbed here will help us on a wider scale. Everyone on this trip is a volunteer - teachers, lawyers, doctors, politicians and people from the private sector who have responded to our invitation. Everyone pays their own way.

Monday July 20
I awake at 5am, nervous. Today is my first day in the classroom. Forty-five of us are teaching 1,500 Rwandan primary teachers from all over the country. They are here to learn English grammar, vocabulary and comprehension, to expand their conversational abilities and - most importantly, how to pass on those skills to their fellow teachers and their pupils. I spend two hours re-reading the two-week syllabus agreed with the Rwandan authorities. My respect for teachers has always been huge, but never more than now as I contemplate holding the attention of a class of 50 Rwandan teachers aged between 22 and 54.

Tuesday July 21
So far, so good. We're getting along well in my class. But not as well as Rob Halfon, our prospective parliamentary candidate for Harlow, who is powering ahead next door. Today he got his class to compose love letters - a good way to help with grammar, vocabulary and comprehension in one exercise. Shamelessly, I plagiarise his idea. The most moving letter in my class comes from the oldest woman and is addressed to her husband of 28 years. Her words are tender and surprisingly fresh - more what one would expect from a teenager than a woman in her third decade of marriage. Few Rwandans have been untouched by the appalling events that overtook their country in 1994. That they retain the ability for love, affection and family life is all the more astounding, as is their energy and their hope that they can reconstruct their country. We prepare for a general knowledge quiz. 'What is the name of the leader of the British political opposition?' I ask. Four hands shoot up. 'Yes?' I say. 'Tony Blair,' says one, confidently. Er, not exactly! Thankfully, some in the class know David Cameron's name. Our message must be getting across.

Wednesday July 22
After school, I head off to the National Stadium where Alistair Burt, Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire, and Les, a Football Association coach, are training hundreds of coaches and youngsters in the art of football. Today they are handing out kit given by the FA and others to the tired but delighted kids. Children here know their English football. Arsenal and Man United shirts are eagerly seized on. As MP for Sutton Coldfield, I enquire of the whereabouts of the Aston Villa strip. It must have been left on the plane...

Thursday July 23
We head off to meet President Paul Kagame, another Arsenal supporter. He is generous about Project Umubano, saying: 'Many people give us money and tell us what to do, but very few come here, roll up their sleeves and get involved - and for three years running.' We have a frank discussion about how to make progress in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, from where my colleague Mark Lancaster, shadow minister for international development, has just returned. We have a lively discussion about Rwanda's recent dispute with the BBC, in which the corporation's local service was accused of broadcasting interviews likely to inflame tensions. We also talk about the rights and responsibilities of the opposition in a democracy.

Friday July 24
After class, I catch up with volunteers who are producing a handbook for new Rwandan graduates. Many students had their education interrupted by the genocide - they now need help making the transition from classroom to work.

Saturday July 25
Umuganda is a Rwandan tradition where on the last Saturday of the month everyone is expected to do community work. No one is exempt - President Kagame planted banana trees - and we're talking legally enforceable hard graft here, not a little light charity fund-raising. Around 80 of our volunteers join a team of thousands in downtown Kigali, building a drainage ditch. Flanked by the Minister of Finance and the Minister for Infrastructure, I inexpertly wield a pickaxe. The star of the day is Desmond Swayne, parliamentary private secretary to David Cameron, who organises the transfer of tons of stone into our ditch. We go home nursing minor cuts and bruises. I wonder for a moment about introducing a similar scheme in my constituency, but think better of it.

Sunday July 26
For the third year running, we play cricket against a Rwandan team. The ground is at the Ecole Technique Officielle - where 2,500 Rwandans were killed, a massacre portrayed in the film Shooting Dogs. This year we lack Francis Maude, the shadow cabinet office minister, and his batting skills. We also lack the support we had last year from the head of the Tony Blair Foundation in Kigali - to whom we gave asylum in the Conservative Party Cricket Team. We are thrashed by the Rwandans, who no doubt will soon embarrass the England national team. I sit and watch with the British ambassador thus narrowly avoiding the humiliation heaped on my colleagues. Last year I umpired, but dodgy decisions have relegated me to the boundary. To play cricket on this infamous site is an emotional experience. But it is also a sign of optimism, confidence and hope in a country now forging ahead - and likely to join the Commonwealth soon. In colonial days, Rwanda was ruled by the Germans and Belgians, and has few past associations with Britain. That is changing.

Monday July 27
I head off into the countryside to see our medical team in action. While I'm away for two days, my class is taken over by my 18-year-old daughter Rosie, who is one of our volunteers and currently on her gap year. Embarrassingly, when I return they say they would rather keep her. 'When is Rosie coming back?' they ask. Not only has she captivated our class, but she is also much stricter than me, insisting on hard work and discipline. So much for easy-going youth.

Tuesday July 28
The doctors are extraordinary. Their leader is David Tibbutt, a Conservative councillor in Worcester and a retired cardiologist who has been coming to Africa for 30 years. Malaria cases are more prevalent this year, but most of their work is muscular-skeletal - injuries caused by backbreaking work in the fields in the daily battle to subsist. Amazingly, Project Umubano doctors have treated more than 5,000 Rwandans in the three years we've been coming here - as well as helping to train numerous nurses. Next I travel to Nyanza, south of Kigali, to meet some of our lawyers collaborating with the Institute of Legal Practice. The rector praises the work of our barrister Suella Fernandes and her colleagues - not only while they are here, but also through the links they're forging with British legal institutions. A leading City law firm is providing training, law books and funding. From there on to Butare, Rwanda's second city, where we have a big team of teachers and lawyers led by Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the shadow minister of state for international development, and Nick Hurd, shadow minister for charities and son of Lord (Douglas) Hurd. Teaching English is more challenging here than in cosmopolitan Kigali because people have less exposure to the language. Nevertheless the predominantly young team is rising to the challenge - as the Rwandan head teacher organising 300 teachers in one of Butare's schools, tells me enthusiastically.

Wednesday July 29
I get a call from David Mundell, the shadow secretary for Scotland, who is leading a group of our legal volunteers in Sierra Leone as part of Project Umubano. He describes the hair-raising eight-mile journey from the airport across the shark-infested sea to Freetown, the capital. Volunteers plumped for a half-hour boat ride in an overloaded boat over choppy waters under stormy skies, scarcely comforted by the flimsy but colourful life jackets. The other options were an old Isle of Wight hovercraft, an ex-service Ukrainian helicopter or a four-hour car journey over a muddy 'road'. Once they made it to Freetown, volunteers found their slightly shaken skills and experience were in high demand.

Friday July 31
Time to say goodbye to my class. The class captain - elected on the first day - makes a touching presentation. 'I can use so much that we have done together with my own pupils,' he explains. I have spent nearly two weeks learning about Rwandans' lives as well as trying to boost their English. As always, I'm impressed by these teachers' tenacity, resourcefulness and ability. They're incredibly hard working, and determined to better themselves and their country. Without doing down our own schools, I'm struck by the way students and teachers in developing countries embrace education - it is the best way to lift their communities out of poverty. In Rwanda, they think it is a privilege to be in a classroom - they are hungry for knowledge.
My two weeks have been humbling and inspiring. We shake hands and hug each other as we say goodbye. I choke back the tears. Friday night is the final project dinner. Ninety of us gather at a restaurant overlooking the Kigali skyline. Before we eat, speeches are delivered, but unusually for a Tory Party function, there is no raffle. My team are thanked for their organisational prowess and finally there is a speech by Christopher Shale, the grandfather of Project Umubano who led the team producing the handbook for graduates. He encapsulates everything we feel: 'All our lives have been changed by our time here.'

Saturday August 1
We pack up and prepare to leave. No one pretends we can achieve more than a modest amount in a fortnight. But we have made a small contribution to this beautiful, tragic country. And within the Conservative Party our project helps ensure there are even more people passionate about international development - who have tasted the reality of life in a developing country and are determined to tackle global poverty. We just need to improve our bowling.


Unknown said...

I remember a military man once saying that a platoon of the Black Watch could have saved a million lives in Rwanda.

I'll accept some exaggeration there, but no doubt a larger scale military intervention could have saved a million lives.

Amazing, no, that those on the self-anointed 'compassionate' left are the very people who turn a deaf ear and a blind eye when a people needs saving - much preferring instead to rant on about (something called) international law, bleat about George Bush, and whine on and on and on and on about how 'it's only for the oil'.

Hypocrites the lot of them.

Not A. Loon said...

What a wonderfully inspiring story. I hope that this work continues if the Conservative party form the next government and some of the participants find themselves serving in senior positions therein.