From Russia with Love by Tom Grass

 

From Russia with Love by Tom Grass

'When an old man dies, a library is lost’ Or in Norman Gatarayiha’s case, a perfect garden, hidden behind twin gates and high walls down a dirt road behind the Freedom Hotel just past Kimironko in Kigali. Norman’s ‘Rwanda Unique Nurseries’ truly deserves the status of a national treasure – a landscaped garden, seed bank and nursery where Rwanda and East Africa’s ornamental plants are nurtured and protected for future generations by the nation’s preeminent horticulturist. In his private garden, a circular bougainvillea bush stands alone on a lush grass lawn while in the public garden outside peacocks dart down winding tunnels bursting with the flowers, plants, trees and shrubs, all planted when he returned to Kigali from exile in Kenya twelve years ago. “I wanted to study ‘La Plante Ornamentale,’” the francophone Norman says, “but not when I was a child. When you are young you’re not able to see the future. The inspiration came with time and my selection by the Rwandan government after my studies. You see, I won a scholarship – a ‘Bourse d’Etat’ to go and study in the Soviet Union in 1980.” Norman’s house itself backs onto the extensive landscaped gardens. Stepping inside past his Scottish terriers one is reminded of an ethnographic museum.  Original tribal masks from across the continent compete for space with gourds, gris gris from Congo, beautiful cobalt blue mosaic embossed pottery he makes himself and mahogany book shelves stuffed full of books on horticulture.The entrance to Unique Nurseries through a double gate to its paradiseHeading into the Soviet Union Sitting on his banquette sofa, Norman is at ease as he begins to tell his unique story: “I arrived and knew nothing of the ‘Russe’ – I didn’t know what to expect. I had only seen one or two whites but I was just so happy to be in Europe. To me then all whites were Europeans and of course, there, I was an oddity, one of the few Africans in Moscow under Brezhnev. I was put in with a family who spoke only Russian and I had to use mimicry to communicate with them,” he remembers.  Comparing the Rwandan and the Russian way of life was impossible. They were so different. Communism and capitalism didn’t interest me either. The only thing was to be at that great university and to study plants. After seven years in Russia at university and after three years of research he received his doctorate. “I read as widely as I could, getting Western journals and magazines on the black market to feed my singular vision to return to Rwanda and to decorate my homeland with beautiful vegetation.” Despite his immersion in the science of plants, Norman says that he never once let his imagination journey home to create his own garden. And this was just as well. For when he did return in 1987 he found the country was not yet ready to offer full time employment to a man of his education and vision. “At the beginning I worked for the government as a gardener but I also worked construction, as a driver, but it was my activities as a collector that kept my dream alive during those years.” Several months after his return from Moscow his wife to be, Olga joined him from Krakov, in the Ukraine that was then a part of the Soviet Union. They lived together on a small plot of land behind the Novotel in Kigali.Helping Others to Learn While working in the large gardens of the ‘Les grands hommes de Kigali’ Norman began to collect the seeds that were to secure his future success. The ‘pipinerie’, as he calls the seed bank in Kaciru was where he began to first grow the plants that he would then deliver to foreign clients thereby securing his reputation as the go to gardener in the city at that time. Then, as now, Norman wanted to pass on what he had learned to others. “I made one project to teach young men and women at that time but when I went to the authorities they didn’t finance me.  I was poor then but I was, and I still am, determined that the riches of Rwanda that are the seeds in the soil in this garden and the knowledge needed to grow them do not remain in my head.” Norman used his own resources to collect cuttings then. At the beginning he only planted indigenous Rwandan seeds but then when the war came and he went into exile in Kenya in 1994 everything changed. “I saw plants in Kenya that were beautiful so I made a seed bank there. The plants from Kenya had more decorative value and so, twelve years later, when I returned in 2002 I brought them back.” A year later, Norman was asked by the authorities to plant Kenyan Duranta on the verges in Kigali and later he designed and landscaped most of the major roundabouts in Kigali. But despite these projects he has found that a commitment to a deeper understanding of the plant science beyond what is merely beautiful has not been forthcoming. Keen to make this point, Norman stretches out his right arm, touching his bicep with the index finger of his left hand.  “If my arm is all that can be learned about horticulture I am here but when youngsters come here to learn they will perhaps only stay for three, perhaps four months, just long enough to reach here.” He touches the first knuckle of his outstretched right hand then shakes his head: “and then they leave because they can be paid more as gardeners elsewhere. But I understand they are poor and they need to earn money and when the Ministers, the businessmen and the ambassadors come here asking if I can help them find a good gardener I position these young people with them but there is never any offer of aid to set up a training facility. That makes me sad.” Walking around his own garden, Norman is now keen to pass on his years of experience in landscape gardening and the plant science that underpins it to future generations. How to make a seed bank, how to germinate and propagate plants – all the skills that Norman is conscious will be lost to Rwanda if he dies without first finding a successor.Gardening as a Business But he is optimistic by nature. He says that the demand for beautiful gardens is growing in Rwanda with the influx of capital and the continued presence of NGOs and foreign aid and he has recently worked for the Minister of Defense and the Ambassador of the US Embassy. “‘I don’t think there is a market for a big European style garden centre here so from the beginning I had to open a simple plant store.  Mostly people here want to hire a beautiful garden like this one for their marriage and there is revenue to be generated that way but these moments are fleeting, captured by a wedding photographer who chooses one of the pretty spots like here,” he says, pointing to a beautifully sculpted bush.    When asked, Norman is clear on what a good garden can offer Rwandans at home.“It is a place where family and friends can feel safe to relax and discuss things that are important to them. And it is something to invest in for the future.” As he leads along paved pathways to the nursery where thousands of plant cuttings grow in compost bags surrounded by a protective hedge he is keen to stress that the salary of a market gardener in Rwanda is limited. “The salary isn’t big – you only earn money when you sell plants and flowers but during the months of rain many people come because that is the time to plant. Probably 80% of my revenue comes in this way through plants sales and about 20% from garden design.”   Returning to the house he stands by his extensive bookshelf and points up the racks of journals and fat reference books. “I have many journals and correspond frequently with the UK. Research is very important after talking to the garden’s owner when you can understand their personality and origin and if they have a specific purpose for the garden. The US Ambassador needed to maximize a limited space for receptions. At the same time he wanted them to be surrounded by pretty flowers.” Meeting Norman and visiting his garden should be an essential part of any gardener’s itinerary. His unique African style is matched by his long view. A philosophy born of a life-time of study and hard experience; that plants are living things that must sometimes be carried across borders and must be carefully nurtured from one generation to the next if we are to continue to admire their beauty in gardens of our own design.Norman and his second wife, Beata DushimimanaTOP TIPS FOR YOUR GARDEN DESIGN LINELine is very important in garden design; curved, straight, horizontal or vertical, they can be shaped by pathways, trees, a hedgerow or the horizon beyond. Each has a different effect and draws you into the garden dictating where visitors look and where they go. Curves are good for pathways, offering oblique, obstructed views that spike curiosity and beckon to the explorer in each of us. Straight lines are more formal and classical while horizontal lines calm us down and provide stability whereas their vertical counterparts are like columns, projecting strength and dynamism. LIGHT Rwanda has some of the best sunrises and sunsets in the world as light and shade work overtime in the magic hour after dawn and before dusk. Colors change in intensity and as the light increases the more colorful objects advance upon us, appearing closer than they actually are. FORMRound forms can stabilize herbaceous borders where a vertical, thin plant like a cactus might look out of place. Repeated, narrow verticals also add stability. Alone, that same thin cactus looks awkward but well placed among wild grass or bamboo will provide a sense of security, the plants resembling sentinels guarding a fence line. SCALEThe artist, Andy Warhol used to say, ‘People like things big’ but a forty-foot Scotch-Pine tree will diminish a tiny garden and crowd out the light whereas thin flowerbeds alongside driveways are often overshadowed by a big house. 

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