I've just finished packing for my trip to Rwanda. We leave at 8pm tonight from Heathrow for an overnight flight to Nairobi and then an onward flight to Kigali.
I'm going to Rwanda to make three films for 18 Doughty Street - one on the genocide, one on life in Rwanda today and the third will be a film about the acitivites of the 40 Tory MPs and volunteers who are spending two weeks there doing good works. We'll be there for six days along with various broadcast and national newspaper journalists. David Cameron will be there for two days next week to launch the Globalisation Commission report.
It's not often I get that tingling feeling of excitement before a foreign trip, but I have never been to Africa before. Vicky Ford is already there and blogging about it and she has certainly whetted my appetite. I just hope my trip out there is not as traumatic as hers was.
I'm told the place we are staying has internet access so hopefully I will be blogging the trip at regular intervals. I'll also try to blog about things other than my trip, but it depends how reliable and easy the internet access actually is.
Well, it's 7.30am and we are on a two hour layover at Nairobi airport before getting a flight to Kigale. There's a group of lobby journos with us too, so Alice (Head of Production and ace camerawoman at 18 Doughty Street) and I are not alone.
Having been told just before we got on the flight that Kenyan Airways have the second worst safety record of any world airline, I have to say it was an excellent flight. I still don't know if my leg was being pulled. I spent much of the flight reading more of Alastair Campbell's diaries but despite that didn't get a wink of sleep.
The guy in front of me kept reclining his seat, which was a bit annoying. Each time he got up to go to the loo I reached round and put the seat back up, which horrified Alice. Sadly he then reclined it again after a few minutes when he got back.
Nairobi airport is like something out of a 1950s film set - lots of shouting, rather hot even at this time of day and dodgy decor. We just queued up at the transfer desk behind a man in a robe and the hairiest back you've ever seen. Alice nearly barfed her breakfast.The flight from Nairobi yesterday to Kigali took an uneventful hour and a quarter. I expected to be hit by a massive heat wave as I got off the plain, but far from it. The heat has been pleasant and dry with no humidity whatsoever. We were met in the terminal and whisked off to our hotel in the centre of Kigali. Only an hour later, having had no sleep for a day we started our tour of the Project Umbano projects. We met up with Andrew Mitchell and his team who gave us a rundown of wat we were about to face. There aren't exactly many spare hours.
We were then driven to an orphanage clled Giribuntu, where Tobias Ellwood MP was leading a team of volunteers (including Brooks Newmark MP and blogger Vicky Ford) to build a new classroom and renovate the existing buildings. It was a hive of activity. During our tour of the project more than forty locals turned up to join in. Word had travelled that white British MPs were building toilets - something guaranteed to attract people's interest.
I spent some time talking to a journalist from the only English language newspaper in Rwanda, the New Times. English has just been made an official language in Rwanda but literacy rates are very low and it doesn't have a huge circulations. This chap told me that it was quite difficult being a journalist in Rwanda. It's not a dictatorship but it's not easy to write articles criticising the government. His family were originally from Rwanda but left for Uganda in the 1950s. He had returned about a year ago as he wanted to help his country rise from the ashes.
And that's the thing you notice here. There is a tremendous commitment from everybody to rebuild and renew. In only ten years since the genocide a proper public administrative infrastructure has emerged. While there is still abject poverty people can see with their own eyes what progress is being made. There is a law that on the fourth Saturday in every month everyone has to help on a community project.
We then went to visit the Rwandan Minister of Finance to discuss how international aid agencies were helping his country's development. The good thing is that everyone I have talked to says that there is very little sign of corruption in Rwanda and where they find it they deal with it quickly. This is good news as Britain is Rwanda's biggest giver of development aid, at £46 million last year. Germany only gives £1 million.
At 7pm we all met up for dinner at the apartments where most of the volunteers are staying. Everyone had a story to tell and you could tell there was a real buzz about what was going on.
If you want other takes on the project visit the blogs of Vicky Ford and David Mundell MP. When we left David last night he was wearing a shirt which I can only describe as competing with my ties for colour. Apparently he was being taken to some of local Kigali fleshpots. Sadly I havenlt run into him today to see what transpired!
Another early start for a three hour drive to the southern Rwandan town of Butare. Our first stop was at an orphanage school. We were treated to very enthusiastic singing by the 107 children. Their classroom was the size of one which we would put 15 kids in, rather than 107.
The school is clearly struggling to exist despite its excellent teachers endeavours. They have started making Christmas cards and clothes to create an income stream. Because the school only takes orphans (of the 107 kids, 35 have HIV and 15 are heads of family) there are many local children who don't get the schooling these kids get. It was quite heart rending to see the other kids looking at us through the school fence.
Next stop was a nearby village which Project Umubano is helping by providing English teaching and helping with the re-roofing of a rabbit breeding enterprise. I have to admit I thought this was the poorest place I had ever seen in my life, yet one of the lobby journalists reckons there are far worse off places than this. There are very few roads in Rwanda. Virtually every village is reached by treacherous dirt tracks in a sturdy 4x4. The picture to the left shows the main street and the houses, which are made of local peat. As you can see, 18 Doughty Street's Alice became the village pied piper as all the local kids wanted to be captured on film. The look on their faces when she shows them the film and they can see themselves is a sight to behold. Just off to the right of this photo a man beckoned me over. He was holding a large jug, which contained the local beer, and invited me into his home. His house consisted of two rooms, one with a table and one chair and two posters on the walls and nothing else. No carpet, no other furniture, nothing. But I have rarely met a happier man. And that's the common theme. The people we meet are unfailingly happy despite the abject poverty they live in and their country's troubled recent past. Everywhere you go you meet happy, smiling people. They may be hiding deep sadness underneath, but they hide it very well indeed. None of the houses in this village have toilets, but several outside latrines are being built at the moment.
Each one is shared by five families at a cost of £170 each. I was given the honour of christening one of them. One of the journalists asked if I had brought a plaque. Ha ha. The rabbit breeding project is one which the Tory team in helping develop. The rabbits are meant to provide an income for the village. At first the villagers just treated the rabbits as food, but they are now trying to make it into a proper business. The roof needed to be replaced because the rabbits were getting too hot and not eating.
The picture on the right shows a couple of workers tending to their allotment. Even though Rwanda is incredibly hilly, virtually every acre has some sort of crop planted in it. Even so, in the rural areas there is still a degree of malnutrition.
We then drove for an hour on an incredibly bumpy dirt track to a village which doesn't even feature on a map. It's where two British GPs (one of whom is Andrew Mitchell's wife Sharon) are spending two weeks treating local people. We were warned that we would be crossing the 'Bridge of Death', which was a very rickety bridge with wooden slats. As we were in a Toyota 4x4 I didn't give much for our chances of getting across and wanted to get out and walk across. The driver wasn't having any of it and put his foot down. Well, we made it, although I am sure we dislodged a few slats while we were at it. The medical centre in the village is run by a group of nuns, but none of them have medical training. If I tell you there are only 400 doctors in Rwanda which equates to one doctor per 200,000 people. In Britain we have one GP per 2000 people. The task of the two British GPs is to train some local nurses and while they are there treat as many people as possible. In the first 5 days they treated more than 500 people. Word soon spread that they were there and they had to turn people away. Most people could be treated easily but there were at least three cases where I am sure they saved the people's lives. The nearest hospital is a four hour walk away. There is no other way of getting there. If anyone breaks their leg or physically cannot walk, they are reliant on neighbours to carry them there on a stretcher. And when they get there they have to provide their own bed linen and food. Makes you think, doesn't it? At the medical centre there are a number of inpatient wards including ones for TB sufferers, a maternity ward and one for those suffering from malnutrition.
It is this project which has affected me most so far. The sheer hopelessness of the situation is appalling. Sharon and David, the two GPs, will leave at the end of next week knowing that they have probably saved lives. But if they were there for the next two weeks they would be able to do the same. But they will leave a lasting legacy in the training they will have supplied to the nuns and other nursing staff. And they should be bloody proud of what they have done.
The running theme of the day was me thinking 'what can I, as an individual, do to make these people's lives better'? Now that probably sounds as if I have suddenly become a woolly liberal. Not a bit of it. But it is amazing how much very little money will buy here. And at the end of it, it is well directed money which these communities need - money which if it comes through government agencies might never get to where it is most needed.
When I was at the first orphanage I did something which later I thought was incredibly crass. I gave the head teacher $50 to spend on provisions for the school. I just felt it was the only way I could show him that I was so impressed by what he was doing. I refuse to give money to charities who spend a vast proportion of it on admin. I want to give money directly, to an organisation I care about and where I know the money won't be wasted.
Another very early start to head back down south to the village of Marambi, the site of one of the worst episodes of the 1994 genocide. It's also the site of a National Genocide Memorial. We were going at the invitation of Mary Blewitt, who lost 60 family members in the genocide. Since then she has started an excellent charity called SURF - the Rwandan Genocide Survivors Fund. Andrew Mitchell is on its board and she had done brilliant work in raising the profile of Rwanda and its problems throughout the political spectrum in Britain. She's also raised more than £7 million to help survivors of the genocide.
The day did not start well, when after only an hour into the journey I started getting stomach cramps. Knowing that there were two more hours to go until we reached our destination I was facing the embarrassment of having to ask the coach to stop for, er, well, shall we call it a pit stop. Luckily the cramps gradually went away!
It took more than three hours to get to Marambi. None of us knew what to expect. What we experienced will affect every one of us for a very long time indeed.
As well as the mass grave, in which 50,000 Tutsis are buried, there are at least a dozen rooms with dead bodies laid out, all cased in lime. The smell was something which will stay with me for a very long time indeed. One room was full of bodies of children and babies. It was at that point I lost it. Alice, my cameralady, was extremely upset and tears were rolling down her face as she filmed. I did a piece to camera which was, shall we say, highly emotional. We were then shown a site where French soldiers built a basketball court on top of a mass grave. I cannot tell you how hated the French are in Rwanda. Their soldiers were sent to Marambi and actually protected the killers, who had hacked to death 50,000 Tutsis in 48 hours. I'll be writing more about France and its role in Rwanda tomorrow.
We then met one of only six surviors of the genocide at Marambi. Take a close look at the photo and you can see the bullethole in the man's head. Because he had a bullethole the Hutu militias left him for dead. He escaped by walking through the hills to the border with Congo.
I then interviewed Mary Blewitt. She is such an inspirational figure. Her brother was one of the first to be killed in the genocide. She recently received a letter from the government asking her to exhume his body as they wanted to build on his burial site. So yesterday, thirteen years after his death she had to rebury him. She agreed to talk about it in the interview, and as you can imagine it was fairly emotional.
Just to say, the reason I am in Rwanda is to make three documentaries for 18 Doughty Street - one on the Conservatives and Project Umubano, the second on the genocide and the third on life in Rwanda today. So far we must have filmed about five hours of footage in two days.
When we got back to Kigali Alice and I had no way of getting back to our hotel so we decided to take our lives in our hands and hail two cabs. Why two, you may ask. Well, Rwandan cabs are motorbikes, not cars. So we were whisked through the streets of Kigali on the back of a couple of bikes. I can't pretend it wasn't slightly exhilarating, because it was. Alistair Burt MP (pictured above with the genocide survivor) has also taken to them apparently.
Tonight I had the somewhat odd experience of doing a live interview on News 24, from our hotel balcony in Kigali, but not on Rwanda, on David Cameron's apparent popularity problems. I don't know what it looked like on the TV, but it did feel as if I should have signed off by saying "John Simpson, Baghdad" as the setting was very similar to that which the BBC use in Iraq!
David Cameron arrived this morning and within half an hour of his getting here he held a briefing on the Globalisation Commission Report which is being published tomorrow. He then left for a visit to a local textile factory. Prior to the genocide it had a turnover of £80 million. A few uyears later it was down to £3 million but it has built itself back up now. It's going to move into making mosquito nets. Amazingly very few Rwandans have these nets which explains why more people die from malaria than from Aids. At the moment only 900,000 nets are produced in Rwanda every year, but this factory aims to up that figure to five million - probably the best healthcare investment that could be made.
From there we accompanied David Cameron to the National Genocide Memorial in Kigali, where more than 250,000 are buried. They have an amazingly moving exhibition centre, which really brings home to you the horrors that people went though only thirteen years ago. Cameron was clearly moved by the experience. He then placed a wreath on one of the graves.
Tonight we all attended a barbeue organised by the SURF charity, where all the twenty different project managers explained what they had been doing. The great thins is that all the lobby journalists on the trip have lost their initial cynicism about the trip and clearly understand the good works which are being done here. Will Woodward from the Guardian has written a blog on the visit today which ends with these words...
Occasions like this make the two-day visit seem less of a stunt and more of a necessary rite of passage for any aspiring British leader.
David Wooding of The Sun describes the 44 people here working on Project Umubano as "the real face of the modern Conservative Party". And he's right.