2018 FIFA World Cup, Rwanda Style

FRA vs BEL 10th July

I’ve never been a huge football fan, not since I was eight years old. I wouldn’t even describe myself as a take-it-or-leave it soccer follower. In fact, I actively dislike the game, including the rules, the negative side of fandom and especially the players - the overpaid, whiny, fake-diving, drink-driving, wife-beating bastards that society holds up as idols and role models. However, when England make the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup even I sit up and take notice.

A rapt crowd follows the game at Arena

Not having watched a game in possibly 12 years, what better place to break my fast than a small town in Northern Rwanda? Musanze is the closest town to Volcanoes National Park, home of Rwanda’s share of the last surviving mountain gorillas and the country’s tourist epicentre. Given the hype around the apes I was surprised to see hardly any other mzungus (white people) in town. Maybe everyone had been put off, as I had, by the recent doubling of the price of gorilla tracking permits to $1500. Hey, if it helps protect the critically-endangered species then fine, as long as it isn’t all going to line pockets of politicians and army colonels. We can but hope.

I was staying in a crappy little hotel, $8 a night, clean but sparse, which appeared to have no other guests. I’d found it on booking.com that morning but the receptionist (i.e. the bored girl sitting at the bare desk in the bare hallway playing on her phone) had never heard of booking.com and didn’t speak English anyway. It was actually kind of refreshing. The important thing was that the guest house had a bar and night club, the windowless cube's black-painted walls streaky with lurid slogans, which had been filled with chairs for this evening's semi-final clash.

By 8pm all eyes were on the old television stuck up in one corner. There were plenty of patrons, all male, intently focused on the game and displaying a range of loyalties. Given Rwanda is an ex-Belgian colony, and Belgium planted the seeds for the 1994 genocide that ravaged the country, and that France had actively supported that genocide and helped the perpetrators escape, I would have found it hard to support either side, but like true football fans these guys cheered for whichever side featured players from their favourite Premier League team. Fair enough, I suppose. It’s sport, not politics.

I semi-interestedly watched the 1st half before leaving to check out the town’s other venues. I was really just looking for the best place to watch the next night’s England game, and I found a suitable location during the 2nd half. This bar was an open courtyard with several glowing TVs and a raucous, mixed crowd. This was more like it! I grabbed a Primus beer and took a vacant seat, immediately drawing conversation from the guy beside me (“What is your team?”), and watched until France scored and the place went off. France were through, and I’d found my venue for the England game.

As professional looking signage as I saw for any Worlord Cup game

ENG vs CRO 11th July

My face fell; the bar was deserted. Before you roll your eyes at the inevitability of it all, this was a different bar. Actually, it was anentirely different town. My plans had changed; I’d awoken early that morning for a day trip up one of the volcanoes in the National Park – Bisoke. The Park HQ was a fair drive out of town in a lovely green neighbourhood on the slopes of the mountains, and I had to hire a vehicle and driver to take me there. On arrival I was herded together with more mzungus than I’d seen in the entire country so far, most of whom were here to get up close and personal with the gorillas. I soon discovered, unsurprisingly, that they were all staying in fancy lodges around the park rather than in the bland town.

Myself and a group of like-minded (read: poor) folk spent the next six hours ascending and descending the dormant peak, which forms part of the border with the DRC (where I had originally been planning to go on this trip, but that’s another story...) It was a good enough hike and there was a fairly nice crater lake on top, but the real highlight of the day was spotting four real-life mountain gorillas a couple of hundred metres along the volcano’s flank. We stood watching them for a while, entranced at our luck and also at the thought that we’d saved $1425 on a gorilla sighting. Naturally it was a pretty poor view compared to what the dedicated tour would have provided, but still!

The reason for this digression is that on the trek I met a Swiss guy, and at the end of the day he needed a lift into town, which I willingly offered. I asked if he was watching the game tonight but he replied that he and his mate were driving to Gisenye, on the shores of Lake Kivu, and would I like a lift? I was all set to go there the next day anyway, so I was torn between staying and watching the game in Musanze, ostensibly by myself, and having a free lift and guaranteed good company at an unknown venue in Gisenye. I quickly chose the latter, and as luck would have it we met two more English lads on arrival who were just leaving our hotel for the game. We were still stinking from our hike so we arranged to meet them at kick-off at a bar that had been recommended to the Swiss, the New Tam Tam Bikini Bar & Restaurant.

And this is where my face fell. The NTTBBR was a nice enough beach restaurant, except it was completely empty, dead as a doornail. Not even the English lads were there. At least it had a television, and as the clock was just ticking over to 8pm we had no choice but to stay and watch it, and eat goat kebabs and drink Primus. For the whole 1st half I was fretting over the complete lack of atmosphere, because after all, if you don’t appreciate the game you need a bit of ambiance to draw you into its bosom. As the whistle blew I was all set to leap up and look for a more happening venue, but fortunately that wasn't necessary - one of the poms appeared to tell us they’d found a much better place three bars down the beach. We were saved! What a guy!

The five of us spent the 2nd half huddled on a bench, sloping down the sand, watching the green grass of Russia projected onto a flapping sheet, almost in focus. It was an exciting match, I have to be honest, especially since at full time we had to leave the beach and move inside because the rising tide was lapping at our feet and, more importantly, the projector extension cord. Extra time was tension followed by horror when Croatia scored, followed by brief disappointment at England being knocked out, followed quickly by apathy when I remembered I didn’t care about football, followed by lots more beer. We stayed out half the night - it was great!

Our semi-final beach bench berth

ENG vs BEL 14th July

Three days later, alone again, I wandered the streets of Huye searching for another likely venue. By this time I was in the south of Rwanda and still mentally scarred from visiting a particularly graphic Genocide memorial. One of the most amazing things about Rwanda is its peaceful atmosphere, considering the brutal slaughter that the Hutus inflicted on the Tutsis 24 years ago. Far from the violent reprisals one would expect from an African state, when Paul Kagame and the RPF freed the country from the grip of madness in 1994, there followed a period of reconciliation and almost forgiveness. The perpetrators were imprisoned, yes, but there were no revenge attacks, and the ethnic labelling of Hutus and Tutsis, practically invented by the Belgians to foster division, was completely wiped away. “There is no Hutu or Tutsi now,” I was told every time I asked. “We are all just Rwandans.” Beautiful.

The genocide memorials ranged from calm but chilling rural sites to a dark city museum populated by wailing women in floods of tears. Exhibits included museum panels showing the history of the genocide, film of bodies in the streets and children with horrific machete wounds, empty buildings where thousands were slaughtered, blood-stained walls and clothing, rows of skulls and long bones in glass cases, and sober statues and poems. Huye’s effort capped them all with a collection of actual corpses, exhumed from their mass graves, mummified and preserved with lime powder, their twisted limbs frozen forever in writhing agony. It was a confronting and memorable experience.

I thought a good 3rd/4th playoff might cheer me up, except that Huye on a Saturday night was almost flatlining. This is the country’s second city, a university town and tourism hub. Hot bodies should have abounded, but after several tours of the street grid the likeliest location I could find was the Hotel Ibis, an upmarket mzungu joint which had enough punters to provide a modicum of atmosphere but little in the way of enthusiasm, and support for England was vacant altogether. I guess it’s hard to cheer for a team in a 3rd/4th place playoff anyway, never mind play for one, as England showed by their losing performance. In the end, nobody really cared and I went straight home afterwards.

Standing room only in Burundi's most happening bar

CRO vs FRA 15th July

And so to the final. The Final of Finals. Surely on this day I would find the best crowd of all? Fortunately I left Huye in the morning, but not north to Kigali where western-style bars and ex-pats were guaranteed, but south into tiny, war-torn Burundi, a country where I couldn’t be sure of electricity, let alone a raucous crowd of footy fans. Poor Burundi has been in more-or-less permanent political strife since independence in 1962, and is blacklisted on every travel advisory website. ‘Avoid all travel,’ says the Canadian government, ‘due to ongoing political tensions, civil unrest and daily armed violence.’ To cap that, the country is one of the world’s poorest and ranks absolute last on the World Happiness Scale 2018!

Undeterred, I caught a bus to the capital, Bujumbura, and polished off the city’s main sights in approximately 90 minutes. The rest of the country is practically off-limits, but luckily I was more interested in the afternoon match. Worried about again missing out on the pleasure of shared experience, I logged into my Couchsurfing account and contacted a local host, Bosco, who agreed to meet me for the game. CS is not just for blagging free accommodation but is also useful for finding a friendly face to show you around a foreign town. My wife calls it Rent-a-Friend which suits it exactly, and the world is a better place for it.

Bosco suggested a bar called Arena which happened to be five minutes from where I was staying, quite fortunate since it is inadvisable to walk around Buj at night. Entering Arena, I was amazed. No dingy nightclub or plank shebeen this, but a gorgeous western-style bar centred around a sunken swimming pool and five big-screen televisions. The placed was jammed with fans both black and white, faces painted up and ready to party. Possibly the entire ex-pat community was here. The French flag and scale model of the Eiffel Tower out front gave an indication of general support, but I was cheering for Croatia. They may have knocked out my team but well ... I’m English. I couldn’t possibly support France!

It took a while to find Bosco in the throng but with him came an instant friendship circle, my World Cup Family. A jolly, middle-aged, middle class Burundian, he welcomed me with smiles, beer and introductions, and I settled down to watch the game with a cosy feeling of camaraderie. Although the loudest cheers coincided with France’s many goals, there was some support for Croatia and despite the dismal score line we celebrated heartily when our team broke through the French defence. The 2nd half was extra special as the sun sank into Lake Tanganyika and Arena's massive outdoor screen came to life. The back lawn filled up with silhouetted figures, jumping and waving in the twilight as flights of bats streamed overhead.

Finally, inevitably, it was over. France had won again, damn them. The winding down of the French celebrations was the signal for a reggae band to strike up in the corner, and the evening continued in a very pleasant vein thereafter. Sure, my team lost. In fact I picked a loser every match, but who cared? I was half-drunk and merry and ready to dance the night away in friendly, perilous, football-mad East Africa!

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