Friday, 27 June 2008

Gitarama blues!

June 25th

After yesterday’s euphoria, today’s blog is much more heavyweight!

Into the Office all fired up and ready to do my best shot at the census presentation.

Claude meets me at the office steps to say sorry, but there’s no room free today so he’s postponed the event until sometime next week. I now feel like a punctured balloon. Suddenly this week’s gone from being madly busy to being almost empty. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday’s events all cancelled or postponed.

And it’s worse than just a minor nuisance because we’re right at the end of the window of opportunity for visiting schools. Next week is exam week, then marking week etc, and if I can’t get into schools this week then I’m stuck until the Autumn terms begins in mid August.

On top of everything else I’m still suffering badly with a chest infection which I can’t seem to shift. My voice is back to normal, but I’m coughing and sneezing and bringing up thick phlegm everywhere. (Sorry, you really didn’t want to hear all that, did you?)

So I’m caught all ways. I’m not really well enough to be doing anything worthwhile, but at the same time I’m not ill enough to be bed-bound. But, hey, we’re VSOs and infinitely flexible so we’ll make the best of the situation.

In the Office I find a new report just come in. Its all about orphans and OVCs (“Other Vulnerable Children” in Rwanda, and it makes chilling reading. I make a summary of its main points. This is exactly the document I’ve been looking for and it answers all my questions about orphans arising from the school census.

In summary, Rwandans DO define orphans as including one-parent families. Now just think about these figures
There are 825,000 orphans in a population of 9.3 million
There are 2 million vulnerable children
Over 79% of all the children in Rwanda are considered “vulnerable” (i.e. their health, education, life expectancy and general quality of life are significantly reduced, mainly as a result of poverty)
23% of all children in Rwanda are orphans
Of these, 22% are AIDS orphans and 26% are “true” orphans (neither parent alive)
67% of the entire population in my southern province are living in poverty and 12% are destitute “living in abject poverty” in the words of the official definitions. This is the worst situation in the entire country.
Rwanda is ranked 163rd out of 172 countries in the world in terms of development and poverty levels.
Only 13% of households earn or produce to the value of more than $0.33/day (about 20-25p per day in English money)
So even on my VSO allowance of £150/month I am in the top 1% of wealth in the southern province
The population is growing at 2.75%. And if 2.75% seems a small figure, it isn’t! It means the population will double in 26 years. There’s not a hope that Rwanda will ever be able to feed twice as many people as it has now – it can’t feed the people it has at the moment! There’s no land left, and what land there is has been farmed already to the point of soil exhaustion and declining yields. So there is a window of, maybe, 10 years to try to do something – reduce family size, educate people, get industry going, square up to the Catholic veto on birth control and abortion – before we reach a tipping point. Otherwise there will be civil unrest, massive deforestation and soil erosion, famine, war etc. The first things to go will be the national parks – how can anybody justify keeping territory for antelopes and gorillas when people are starving to death?

So I must shut up whingeing if my meetings are postponed and get on with trying to make a difference in this sea of misery and poverty. Isn’t it ironic that all this destitution exists among one of the most beautiful places on the globe.

Before I can digest the facts in this report Védaste comes to claim me and I spend the rest of the day working through the secondary census figure with him. Now Védaste
really is both dyslexic (he has to have two goes at spelling almost all words of more than five letters) and also dyspraxic (for someone who works all day on a computer he’s amazingly clumsy with his keystrokes, and I don’t think it’s got anything to do with me being there with him). We crawl through the presentation, changing things and checking all our data once again. We work right through lunchtime, and by four o’clock I’m starving and we’re both glazed from looking at computer screens. But we’ve agreed what we want to say and he’s written it in French in a form he thinks won’t cause offence to the assembled multitudes!

Here’s the key point. We know that here in Muhanga there are at least 5000 children every year in the top class of primary school. At present the numbers who go on to secondary schools are less than 3000, even including children in the new schools that are being built. But from 2015 the Government is committed to making secondary education both free and available for all children. (I think it’s linked to the “Milennium Development Goals” that Gordon Brown is so proud of championing). So all 5000 will want to go on to secondary schools, at least for the first three years (“Tronc commun”). So from 2015 we’re going to need at the very least15,000 secondary places in tronc commun, plus a minimum of 5000 in the upper three years of secondary. So we need a minimum of 20,000 secondary school places. The total secondary population at the moment is well under 12000. We need to find 8000 places in seven years. That’s at least ten big schools of 800 children to be built – more than one a year. But, wait – Muhanga only has 168 places in its teacher training school, and barely half of those actually go into teaching when they finish at the school. So we have to build at least one other teacher training secondary school. And we’ll need at least 200 classrooms to equip with furniture, books, computers etc.

Now, given the poverty indicators I’ve described above, how on earth is this going to happen? And how can I emphasize the importance of modernising rural primary schools, installing electricity, water tanks etc etc against this background?

I don’t want you to think everything in Rwanda is doom and gloom. Rwanda has bucked the world trend in AIDS/HIV, though nobody really understands why. The AIDS infection rate peaked here in about 1993 and has been dropping ever since. The women in this country are among the most emancipated in sub-Saharan Africa (though that fact hints more about what’s happening in other countries than suggesting anything really exciting about Rwanda). There is political stability and one of the fastest growing economies in Africa (though at the cost of heavy-handed discouragement of any realistic political opposition).

It looks as though my contribution to world development, peace, harmony etc etc is going to be through a handful of power points alerting this District to what the data is showing, and the need to plan ahead. And if I can manage that, then my placement here will not have been a waste of time and I will be able to come back to Dorset with a clear conscience. Everything else – training teachers, school inspections, being an ambassador of goodwill etc – pales into insignificance. I’m one of only a tiny handful of VSOs with access to massive data on a District scale and also (because of my gender and age) people will listen to what I’m saying.

Now you see why my statistical presentation to the Head teachers and District officials is so important!

On the domestic front, Tom and his parents are back from Kibuye and have enjoyed their trip. They insist on cooking supper and I revert to my usual role as washer-upper and chopper of vegetables.

In the evening I finish going through the Orphans report, but I’m feeling really grotty and I think I’m running a slight temperature, so it’s an early night.

Best thing about today – the orphans report, and feeling that I’ve got something important to say and figure to back me up.

Worst thing about today – I just wish I could shift this chest infection.

Rwandan traditional dancers in Cyeza

June 24th

Apologies for an enormously long diary entry, but how much of what follows could I reasonably leave out? Nothing, I reckon. As I seem to keep on saying, today sums up perfectly why I’m one of the luckiest people in the world to be a volunteer here in Rwanda.

Today is a work day and I’m determined to feel fit. Off to the internet café to try for one final time to send Sarah’s wedding email, but once again I’m defeated. A slow connection, and viruses on my computer which slow it down even more. And no doubt the fact that I’ve now got several gigabytes of music on the machine isn’t helping.

Oh dear; I’ll have to send Sarah and Ross a CD which will arrive after their honeymoon, and just a lame text email to wish them all the best on the day. But, folks, I did try – many, many times. I’ve been growing old waiting for the thing to attach itself to the email.

First I go to the District Office to see if their computer person is around and can de-bug my laptop while I’m off visiting schools. But, of course, the curse of Africa strikes again and we discover he’s away in Kigali all week. And, of course, there’s absolutely nobody to deputise in his absence; nobody with access to his anti-virus software; nobody with the skills to help me. So I’m going to have a dodgy computer till next week, and I’m planning to get together with Cathie and share a lot of pictures later this week. Why do things always pan out like this?

Today I’m visiting two schools, Sholi and Busekera. Both are in Cyeza secteur, and when I’ve done these two it means that Cathie and I have between us visited every single one of the Cyeza schools – the first secteur we can tick off the list.

Of course, nobody in the office knows where either school is. (Just imagine the furore in Dorset if nobody in County Hall could tell you where Sturminster was, for example….). I’m convinced that many of these people, once they’ve managed to get themselves out of the countryside and ensconced in the towns, try as hard as possible to forget all about the countryside. The countryside’s like a bad dream for them – memories of privations and primitive living conditions when they were younger. They really can’t abide to go back into the countryside unless it’s at the wheel of a 4x4 and with a guaranteed same-day return!

Neither do the boneheaded moto drivers outside the gate have a clue where Sholi is. I even explain to them in Kinyarwanda as well as French. Eventually one berk offers to take me for RwF1500. I’ve got more idea where I’m going than he has. But I just want to get going and ask for instructions on the way, so I jam on the spare helmet and off we go!

It’s a beautiful sunny morning, not yet scorching hot, and the mist is just about out of the valleys. Everything is still green and fertile, and Rwanda looks just gorgeous as usual. I immediately forget all about computers and bless the day I chose to spend a year working in this paradise of countryside.

The journey out is an absolute hoot. If I wrote what follows as a pantomime skit you’d think I was exaggerating. But all that follows is true. As we get deeper and deeper into the countryside I can feel the moto driver losing his confidence. He’s way out of his usual territory, and he’s realising that 1500 isn’t going to make him a killing from a stupid muzungu but cost him far more in petrol and time than he’ll get back in cash. First he goes very quiet. Then he slows down. Then he tries to save petrol by switching off his engine and coasting at not more than walking pace down every slightest downhill gradient. He whines and whinges about wanting more money. (Venantie in the office told me to reckon on RwF3000-3500 for this trip, so I’ve been laughing up my sleeve ever since this guy took off for 1500 with a cheesy grin on his face thinking he was on to a good thing). First I tell him I’ll pay him 2000, and then when I’m worried he’s almost at the point of dumping me in the middle of nowhere and cutting his losses, I offer him 2500. Even then, we’ve got miles and miles to go. Sholi is the very furthest-out school in Cyeza secteur, and Busekera will be about 5-6 miles parallel to it and almost in Kamonyi District. (But I haven’t dared tell him yet that I’m going on to Busekera in the afternoon).

Every few hundred yards we have to stop and ask people where to go. Of course, we get conflicting advice. One guy directs us up a track which I absolutely know is wrong – we’re puttering up the Great North Road – or we would be if we weren’t having to stop and walk up every hill. This track he’s indicated for us is a dead end to a parish house.

We cross one ridge and descend, then another, then a third. We have been through three little crossroads markets. We’ve passed Bwirika and Cyeza schools. Mutley sees another school in front and brightens up until I explain to him that actually it’s Elena Guerra not Sholi, it’s a secondary not a primary, and that anyway it’s definitely in the wrong direction. We need to bear off to our left.

Finally there’s the most tremendous long hill which we slog up on foot. The views are even better than earlier – distant blue hills stretching now in all directions to the horizon. Not a town in sight; just thousands of tiny huts and cottages dotted higgledy piggledy across the slopes. Vast expanses of bananas, manioc and coffee trees – I’ve never seen such amounts of coffee. Way down hundreds of feet in the valley bottoms, where the marshes have been reclaimed, cultivation is even more intense. Other than on hilltops and the steepest slopes there’s barely a square metre of land which isn’t being cultivated. Some of the slopes are really steep, but not terraced, and it seems a miracle to me that there isn’t wholesale soil erosion everywhere. But there isn’t any erosion, just prolific plant life everywhere doing its best to support an even more prolific human population. Because while it looks like paradise, this is farmland stressed to the limit and barely able to support the enormous population living from it. Yields are starting to fall even as the tidal wave of humans continues to grow, and I fear that in ten years time this could be a paradise truly lost. Bittersweet thoughts on such a beautiful day….

But back to the adventure in hand. My chauffeur’s wearing a thick parka and pushing his moto up and up the mountain, sweating profusely and cursing and swearing these bloody muzungus who ask for lifts into the countryside. Most definitely he’s not a happy bunny. Now he’s asking for 5000. So I tell him that last week I paid 5000 to go all the way to Rongi. (Not true, actually, but close enough…) And I’m sticking at 2500 and if he dares leave me he won’t get anything. He’s younger and fitter than me, but I’m bigger than him, and he knows that if word ever reaches the police that he beat up a muzungu for money, he’s as good as dead. So he mutters and splutters and kicks stones into the long grass until we reach the summit and can see the school a hundred feet down below us.

Finally we drop down a grassy slope to Sholi. There’s a brick church and a school, and one dwelling house next to the school. The school’s all in semi-dur and looks run down, but not as bad as some I’ve seen. Valens, the Head, comes out to meet us. I’ve been trying to visit his school on and off since the beginning or March, and I think both he and I had pretty well decided we were fated never to meet.

I know that I’m going to need a moto to get back home after the visit – this is a distance even I can’t contemplate walking. So I ask Valens to explain to Mutley that I want to go on to Busekera in the afternoon and then back home, and will he wait for me. Mutley looks close to tears….. There’s frantic gabbling in Kinyarwanda for a few minutes. Then Valens, bless him, comes to my rescue. He says that I’ll definitely need a motard, not a moto, to go on to Busekera and home. This is a distinction I’ve never really grasped before. A “moto” is one of the little puttering mopeds, while a “motard” is a proper motor bike – 125cc or more - to cope with the hills. I know all this makes sense, just as I also know it’s going to cost me far more than 2500 to get home. But then I’ve plenty of cash with me and I can reclaim it all from VSO. So we agree, and Valens tells Mutley that when he gets back to Gitarama he’d better have a motard here for 1230 or there’ll be hell to pay.

Mutley takes off away back home as if he had a Roman Candle up his backside. Or at least, he does for the first few yards until even with just him on the machine he’s got to stop and push it back up all the hills. I bet he’s making little models of me tonight and sticking pins in them!

(Sorry readers, but I’ve been robbed and overcharged by motos so often that I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve spent relating today’s little story!) Hee Hee!

After all this fun, the school inspection gets even better. Valens’ school has loads of banana trees (well, this is Cyeza after all), and coffee as well. He’s being offered 120francs a kilo for his coffee beans. That’s just 60p per pound in old money. (Now how much do we pay for a pound jar of Nescafe?). I see two good lessons, including the little first years learning the French for knives, forks etc. The teacher’s a lovely woman but she’s speaking her French with a thick Kinyarwanda accent so instead of “une assiette” its “uner assieter” and “une fourchette” becomes “uner fourchetter”. Spoken this slowly and clearly it’s fun. It’s when I’ve got to try to decode all these extra syllables in a rapid phone conversation that life gets really tricky!

And the 1ère class don’t have exercise books at all. They’re all using slates. How’s that for the 21st century? The slates are battered; their edges look as if the kids have chewed them. But they’re treasured possessions – many of the children have little cloth bags to keep them safe. Rwanda never fails to surprise me.

At the end of break time the whole school lines up for me to inspect them. 791 curious faces peering at the muzungu. I do my best to introduce myself in Kinyar, and these kids actually understand what I’m saying. I get a round of applause. I tell them, too, that they have the best English results in Cyeza (true last year), and the best kept school flower gardens I’ve seen anywhere (probably true, but at least here all the plants are in flower and haven’t been trampled down). Cue an even bigger round of applause. Then they sing for me, and go on singing as they march off in lines into their classrooms. It’s beautiful and very moving. Some of the lads look sixteen if they’re a day and as for the older girls – there’s a few who are bigger than their teachers in every dimension!

I’ve mentioned clubs and societies earlier to Valens, and on the spur of the moment he talks to one of the women teachers. Five minutes later the entire top class is doing traditional Rwandan dance for me in their classroom. Complete with the maîtresse dancing, too, and two of the lads doing the male dancing master role with big sticks. Everyone else is singing and clapping and so obviously enjoying every second of the show that it’s simply wonderful. I clap in time with the rest of them, and that goes down well, too. They do a series of about twelve short dances each of which segues into the next. One girl is beating time on a drum which rest’s on her neighbour’s shoulder. Nobody is in the slightest bit self-conscious about the dancing. They all want to dance. They all seem to know the moves. The maîtresse is dancing as if she were one of the girls, and the girls are accepting her as one of them. They’re perfectly in time and fluid and graceful as they move.

I congratulate everyone and tell them I really like their dancing, and that it’s so tremendously important that they keep their Rwandan culture going. But, in truth, they don’t need any encouragement. The children will dance at the drop of a hat. Some of the little ones were virtually dancing as they marched into their classrooms at the end of break. How have we managed to lose all this heritage in England? – we have an enormous repertoire of folk and country dances, but it feels as if it’s only the over fifties who do them.

I decide I like Valens; he seems very honest and genuinely caring. He’s responsible for two primary schools and two maternelles, and neither of the maternelles are adjacent to the primaries, so it’s as if he’s got four separate schools to keep tabs on. Now some of these rascally heads would use that as a pretext to always be on the road and never actually in any of their schools. But Valens produces a sheaf of lesson observation reports which proves he’s into classes at least one day a week.

After we’ve finished he produces bottles of fanta for both of us. I’ve brought a sandwich for lunch; he dines on packets of biscuits from his hospitality box. On his office walls are pictures of his school’s games teams. And his dance team, complete with the maîtresse, and in full traditional costume, dancing at some fête in front of the church. Wow, do they look magnificent in all their blue costumes and tassles! I’d pay good money to see this group again – they’re streets ahead of the Ruli children last week, and even the Ruli kids were pretty good!

Promptly at 12.30 a motard rolls into the school yard. Its time for me to go on to Busekera. Valens decides he’s coming with me. And that we’re all three going to ride on the motard, and all three of us without crash helmets. VSO will crucify me if they ever find out!

We jolt and bump down the mountainside, and then for a couple of miles up the Great North Road, then off up a side valley for about three miles. I ask Valens how far he lives from school – I haven’t seen a moto of his anywhere in the yard. He tells me he lives six kilometres away and that he cycles to school. CYCLES! Up these hills? He must have legs of steel!

Now you definitely don’t get muzungus very often in Busekera’s side valley. Or motor bikes, either. We get not only kids but even adults running down from the fields to look more closely at us. We wave at everyone. And everyone, absolutely without exception, waves back or speaks pleasantly. I’ve said so many “mwiriwe nezas” that my voice is faltering in the dust clouds.

Busekera school is new – it only has five years of children in it, but it has been built cheaply and already it looks scruffy. The new classroom for next year’s year six – the top and final class – is built to eaves level and there are blocks of semi-dur (mud brick) drying in the sun. There’s absolutely no playground to speak of, and the only flat land is covered in timber for the new classroom roof.

Children emerge from every bush and tiny pathway once they hear the motor bike arrive. There are 394 children and soon pretty well all of them are lined up in front of me, staring at me and checking that I don’t have two heads. The little ones are genuinely frightened if I move too close to them. Even the teachers (all women here) are staring. I decide to “do a Cathie”. Standing in the shade I teach them two songs, one of which is an action song (“Do as I’m Doing, Follow Me”). They like this, even the older children are joining in. The ice is broken, and I’m accepted as something pretty close to a human.

And when the children gather up formally for the start of afternoon school I get not only a couple of lovely welcoming songs in Kinyarwanda (complete with complicated foot stamping and clapping), but the full dancing routine again. This time the children don’t need a teacher with them, and even the little ones of eight and nine are shaking their backsides and stamping their feet. The entire school is singing the chants and clapping – who needs drums? The neighbours come out of their houses and out of the fields to watch. For a full fifteen minutes, in the hot sun, I’m treated to a wonderful display of precision dancing. And it’s all such fun, too. Some of the girls who are dancing are dressed in real hand-me-down uniforms with patches and darns all over the place; the bigger girls are bursting out at the seams of their dresses and the smaller boys have their older brother’s shorts with the leg bottoms turned up. There’s quite a few children without shoes. This is a poor secteur, remember. We’re all really reluctant to stop the fun and go to lessons, but alas we must.

I start off observing a first year lesson. The classroom is ridiculously small – 5m by 4m, and the 43 children are jammed in like sardines.

Now get this – this school is so poor that there isn’t any proper furniture. There are long benches made of mud brick, and the children all bring woven mats the size of table mats to cushion their bottoms from the hard and sharp mud blocks. Desks consist of rough wooden planks the size of floorboards resting on lengths of tree trunk which have been hammered into the soil of the classroom floor. The walls are just the crumbling red earth of Cyeza made into a slurry and plastered over the mud blocks of the wall. In the desiccating sun you can actually see a fine haze of soil particles as the building starts to decompose in front of your eyes.

So, you English primary teachers, how do you fancy a class of 40+ in a space the size of your living room and with walls and furniture made of mud or tree trunks?

And yet the teacher – who can’t have been more than about 23 or 24 – does an absolute blinder of a lesson. She sings; she makes the children do actions; every single child participates; she knows everybody by name (bear in mind that we’re talking “double vacation” here; she’d have had the other half of this class for morning school, so her real class size is around 86 children). She’s teaching parts of the body – hair, eyes, ears, nose, mouth; she has a big picture as stimulus; everything is put in a context. She could have written the VSO Rwanda teaching manual. So take a bow, Resteide Nyiraneza, because your lesson absolutely made my day on a day when pretty well everything was exceptional!

By contrast the French lesson I observe is dull and unimaginative. You can do a lot with prepositions of place but Mme Umugiramana plays it safe and just uses the board duster, an exercise book, a biro and a box of chalk.

When we’ve finished I’m asked to do one of my “pearls of wisdom” things to everyone. This is so much easier to do now that I’ve been doing the trainings. I really boost Resteide, and try not to sound too critical of the other teacher. These people are trying to cope with huge classes; crappy buildings; an almost total lack of equipment; a head teacher who’s split between four sites. They don’t need me to make them feel bad. And to find someone who does such a good job with the youngest children of all is so rare it almost makes me want to cry!

I’m on a high all the way back home; I cook another adventurous tea (onion omelette with Brucey’s peanut sauce might sound yuk to you, but I tell you it tastes fab), and I’ve now spent TWO HOURS writing up this blog entry which is about the same length as a piece of Open University coursework!

And all the time I’m writing I’ve got Irene’s lovely music playing in the background: East African music and it includes all the songs which are engraved on my memory from the hairdresser opposite my flat. Irene – I love you!

Best things today – you gotta be joking. How do you improve on days like today! YAY, Rwanda rocks. Keem ‘em coming!

Tea for two and lots of music from Byumba

June 23rd

I’m still not feeling right – can’t regulate my temperature. I don’t actually have a temperature, but whatever I wear either feels too cold or too hot, and I’m desperate to keep my chest warm and get rid of this cold and phlegm which are still lying on it.

The plan for the day is to lie low at home as far as possible and get all the work I need done on the census presentations for Wednesday. So as soon as Tom leaves in the morning, with his parents, for Kibuye, I sit and down and crunch numbers for hours.

By lunchtime I’ve worked myself to a standstill; I’m not wildly excited about the secondary presentation, but I certainly feel secure with the primary one.

In the afternoon I go to the internet café to see what emails have come in (lots, and Oh Dear, there’s so much flak flying around from my botched decision to cancel today’s training….) and try to send Sarah’s gorilla-point to her. But once again I’m thwarted by a bad line. I’m beginning to think she’s not going to be able to get this damn thing before the day!

During the afternoon I stroll through the market. I’m feeling confident enough now to banter with some of the women on the stalls, and I know they recognise me as a permanent resident rather than one of the transient muzungus who seem more and more common here.

I go over to Cathie’s to see how she’s feeling and talk shop ready for Thursday’s marathon training session at Nyabinoni. Cathie’s sprawled out on the floor; she felt better this morning and went into Ahazaza school. This turned out to be a mistake, and she’s overdone things.

She’s turning out books and papers; this is her last week at work and to me it almost feels like a divorce! However, we decide to postpone the Nyabinoni training for a week. This will give me more time to recover, reduce the amount of stuff I’ve got on my plate, and give us a chance to get Els over from Nyamata to help with the training. We really do need two people for these jobs, not just to spread the load and help rest each individual’s voice, but because at one point we split into 1st and 2nd cycle groups for sessions, and clearly I can’t do both on my own at the same time!

Things just get better and better as the afternoon goes on. Els texts back to say she’s on for Nyabinoni; she’ll have to stay over with Tom and I on Weds and Thurs nights but that’ll be fun, as well as a change for her. I think her Director doesn’t let his muzungu girls out for long distances on motos, so Els is going to have quite a learning curve by the end of next week…. Just hope to God she doesn’t hurt her back or do anything else which might get me into trouble!

As the sun sets I’m busy peeling veg when the phone rings. Out of the blue it’s Polly ringing from England for a chat. What a lovely surprise! I fill her in on some of the most recent happenings, and vice versa, and I’m pleased to know she’s still not ruling out a return to Rwanda sometime next year. It’s lovely to hear her voice again, and I’ll pass on her news to the other volunteers as I meet them.

Irene’s workshops run on a bit, and my grand feast which I’m so proud to have prepared has to be warmed up from nearly cold – for once in my life I was ready right on time, but she was late. Never mind, I’ve proved to myself that I can make a decent meal for a guest if I’ve got plenty of time and don’t feel stressed!

After eating we spend hours swapping music files from our computers. Somewhere in the process mine manages to pick up another virus, but whether from Irene’s stuff or whether it’s a latent one from last week I couldn’t say. I’m going to have to see the person in the District Office tomorrow and get my machine cleaned, even if it means I have to cancel one of my inspections.

It really never ceases to amaze me how in the space of a few seconds we can transfer literally dozens of CDs from one computer to another with no reduction in sound quality. I’m so happy I could run naked round the garden! (Don’t worry – I wouldn’t want to scare the guards…). I’ve got lovely music from East and West Africa, Brasil, Mexico, Peru, Colombia….. It’s so nice because whenever things get difficult or if I feel miserable, I’ve not only got all my favourite music to listen to, but loads of new stuff to explore and get to like.

If anybody reading this stuff is thinking of coming out as a volunteer, you really mustn’t underestimate the power of music to keep you sane and balanced. An ipod or other mp3 player, or a computer with decent speakers, is a necessity not a luxury!

Irene is staying at Kabgayi which is only a couple of kilometres up the road. By the time we’ve done with all the music swapping (we’ve been doing it for about two hours solid, and that’s just transferring things from one machine to another without properly listening to any of them), it’s about eleven o’clock. It’s too late to risk motos so we walk. It’s a lovely fine, moonlit night and after a big meal and a day spent mostly indoors it’s a pleasure to get out and listen to the crickets in the grass. There’s quite a breeze blowing, which is unusual from Gitarama. Irene notices how much warmer Gitarama feels after Byumba, but then Byumba is exceptionally high, cold and wet!

Back home I tumble into bed, happily!

Best thing about today – the day just got better as it went on. Suddenly this week is feeling manageable.

Worst thing – I’m back in the same situation as I was at the end of March with a computer virus that is getting seriously annoying and where I need outside help to shift it.

Frustration Sunday at Gitarama!

June 22nd

Lazy morning, feeling headachey and out of sorts. Arrange with Tom to go to the FHI office to use their internet. I want to post some blogs, update my antivirus And try to send Sarah’s gorilla-point.

By mid-day I’ve been there nearly three hours and still can’t get an internet connection, so abandon. (Tom’s at church with his parents; I’m being a heathen).

Walking back home when I drop in at my internet café and find a good connection there. Curses - I’ve just wasted more or less a whole morning trying to get on line when there’s a good connection up the road. Blogging is quick, then it’s an hour-long wait for the antivirus programme to download. It will cost a lot to download, but it has to be done. But even this doesn’t go to plan, a third of the way through the download it stops, and doesn’t seem to have updated my system. Frustration, frustration. Or “se patienter” as we say here! Oh for broadband….

One nice thing happens – Irene texts to say that she’s coming to Gitarama for Mon-Wed on a JRC refugee workshop, and we arrange to meet up for a meal and to swap music. Also I’ve got to go and see Cathie to finalise stuff for the Nyabinoni training day on Wednesday. So I’ve only have Monday morning guaranteed undisturbed time to finish my census work and get my French phrases inside my head.

My voice is starting to improve – until I start to use it for any length of time. Like when Ward breezes into the internet café, very chuffed that Holland have been knocked out of the Euro Cup by Russia…. Good old Ward; he’s the most cheerful person I’ve ever met!

The afternoon is muggy and I decide to stay in the flat and work on my presentation for Wednesday. By teatime I’ve broken the back of it and feel a lot more confident about the veracity of some of the data. I really don’t know how Béatrice was adding up her figures – almost nothing mine matches hers!

In the evening we go to eat at Delta; this time there’s about twelve of us – Tom’s parents come, Ulrika is there and Ward. We also meet another two of the young Americans on the orphanage building project, a man called Andréas who is staying at the Franciscans’ set-up at Kivumu, and Israel – a black South African who is visiting Gitarama and who had been told that all the muzungus would be here on a Saturday night. Once again we cover about six nationalities, and converse in English, and sign language and writing with Janine. Janine tells me that Marion has been ill for some time in Kigali – seems we’re all going down like ninepins at the moment.

Best thing about today – getting some work done on my presentation for Wednesday, but it’s a pretty small bright point in a really flat day.

Worst thing – it’s just SO frustrating to plan things involving the internet and constantly find I’m frustrated by power cuts, broken connections, slow upload speeds etc etc.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Another glimpse at the new image.

Not sure how long I'm going to keep up this clean shaven malarkey....

Speechless in Kigeme - part 2

June 20th-21st

This is the day I discover that the Kigeme guesthouse has a luxury and economy tariff. When I stayed in the guesthouse last weekend I must have been on the luxury tariff (£4 per night including breakfast of omelette). Today we’re on the economy tariff. That’s £2 per night, folks. But the Ritz it ain’t! Breakfast is sweet tea and just bread with marge. Not even jam! And not much bread, come to think of it. Clearly its going to be a long morning!

Tiga arrives in a gorgeous dress she’s had made for her by the women tailors in the refugee camp. This means its miles cheaper than I’ve paid for my shirts in Gitarama, and she’s got a matching tote bag, too. But then, I don’t have a refugee camp on my doorstep, do I?

Anyway, there’s no time to dwell on fashion; Friday is my day and I’ve got a 90 minute slot to fill with “Brain Gym” and VAK learning and all sorts of other educational jargon. Beaminster School – be proud of me! All the stuff I’ve half remembered from countless INSET days comes tumbling out, pared down and packaged for a Rwandan context and delivered in slow and deliberate English.

By lunchtime I’ve just about finished. As soon as I stop, and relax, I find my voice has gone completely. I can barely whisper. All my VSO colleagues are concerned and worried for me; the Rwandans just laugh. It’s another one of these situations where because they face such privations in everyday life, and have been through such traumas in the past, that they come across as insensitive and uncaring. They’re not really; it’s just not done to show too much concern because death and disaster visit them so often.

One little example of this – I talk to Anne-Miek about the number of head teachers who put me off visits by saying relatives are seriously ill or that there has been a death in the immediate family. To me this excuse seems to come up far too often to be believable. But Anne-Miek warns me that it’s probably true. Life expectancy is short, people are plentiful, and deaths are all to frequent.

Funny thing, too – in sixth months I’ve never seen a funeral in Rwanda. Anne-Miek explains that out in the rural parts the dead are quietly buried in a corner of the family plots of land. So if this crop of manioc is particularly tasty, you can probably thank grandma!

Now anyone reading this blog doesn’t want to hear a load of detail about training teachers except to say that it can be great fun as well as tiring. We do lots of singing, plenty of scenarios involving getting the children more physically active in their lessons and trying to get away from lists of notes on blackboards. For God’s sake let’s get children more participative in their learning. To give you just two little examples of what we’re up against: the Rwandan accepted view is that if there is noise in a classroom, then the children can’t be learning. So they frown severely when we tell them to divide a class into pairs and let the children practise speaking English or French phrases to each other. Tiga even got criticised by her Préfet d’études for having noise in her English class – and that’s in a secondary school! Another example – I keep telling people to use the coloured chalks they have to make headings and key words stand out. And to encourage those children who can afford both red and blue pens to use the red for headings and key words. So I find that Tiga also does this (in the most prestigious secondary school in Nyamagabe District, remember), and the Headteacher comes in and asks her why she’s using coloured chalk and why doesn’t she just go to the magasin and get some more white chalk like everybody else. I tell you, changing the culture here is like fighting the tides. All the teachers – even our little bunch of “superteachers” from Muhanga and Nyamagabe schools – are terribly afraid of being criticised by someone in authority. There’s a profoundly conservative, academically elite, 1950s view of what is acceptable in the classroom here, and it’s as if the whole of the 1960s and 1970s teaching revolution in Britain never happened. Where is Baroness Warnock when you need her?

On a lighter note we say prayers before each meal; sometimes these are rambling monologues even if we ask the volunteer prayer-leaders to be concise. So on Saturday the volunteers all perform the “Superman Grace” before lunch, complete with actions. Cue twenty four Rwandan teachers who’re not sure whether we’re being serious or taking the mickey out of their belief.

Cathryn knows a kiosk at the Kigeme road junction which sells mandazis, and as we’re all rattling hungry by elevenses time she nips out and comes back with bagsful. We’re all stuffing our faces with fatty dough balls and giggling like guilty children.

One of the teachers has brought her little baby with her because she’s still feeding her. She is a wonderfully contented little girl, a real little charmer, who gets cuddled and mothered by just about every single volunteer – me included – during the course of the two days. Soraya’s got the photo to prove it!

On Friday evening nobody’s much bothered about watching a video, but Anne-Miek goes to try to get the Diocesan projector. (Our course is being held at the Diocesan Education centre and the Anglicans are heading up this particular training. Not bad, considering we have mostly Catholic teachers, at least one Moslem and the odd Adventist and Pentecostalist, too). There’s a brand new video projector in the Diocesan store, but nobody has ever dared use it. This is typical Rwandan thinking – “if we never use something then it can’t break down and we can’t possibly get blame for any damage to it”. So the damned thing stays locked in a cupboard in its original packaging!

Not even Anne-Miek is prepared to risk the wrath of the church authorities if a bulb blows on the projector. So it is decided that anyone who wants can sit and watch my power-point on “My School in Rwanda”.

Cue around twenty teachers all peering at my laptop and clucking and chortling (the Muhanga people) as they see their school on screen. Or laughing when they see that somebody else’s school looks in tattier condition than their own! I’m relieved when they tell me they like the pictures, and that they think I have been fair and accurate ion what I’ve said.

Early on Saturday there’s a flurry of text messages about next Monday’s resource-making INSET – Ken’s on holiday, Mans has been double booked by his boss; Anne-Miek needs a rest and I’m speechless. There’s only one thing to do – postpone the blasted thing. Hooray – that gives me more time to rest my voice and prepare my presentation to the Muhanga heads on Wednesday.

However, by Saturday lunchtime it is clear that my voice isn’t going to recover quickly. I can help Anne-Miek with some of the work (she is also feeling run down and has had to go to her house and lie down for a few hours), but I decide that I’m really being just a passenger on this training course and what I need to do is go home and get some rest and just stop talking to anyone.

So that’s what I do! I bail out a day early and go home to get better.

Speechless in Kigeme - part 1

June 19-21st

It’s Thursday. I’ve got so much to do I barely know where to start. There’s Elson’s flash drive to return to him before he goes off to school – he’s got all his physics lesson plans on it and I miss him at my peril! So that’s a half past six in the morning walk to Cathie’s house and back.

I finish my report on the Ruli school inspection from yesterday – I find that if I don’t do the write ups straight away, I forget too much detail. However much I try to write things down, I find that so much information is visual and impressionistic, and at my advanced years my memory seems to wipe itself after about 24 hours!

Then there’s the SORAS office manage to see in his office underneath our flat; we want to be reimbursed for the cost of replacing our bath tap. But the manager’s not there, and the office staff can’t tell me whether he’ll be in today, so I’ve wasted ten minutes.

Next it’s down to the internet café in the middle of Gitarama to download some more stuff on “Brain Gym”. Success – no problems. Flush with enthusiasm and a reasonable internet connection I try to send Sarah’s wedding gorilla-point, but discover its way too big for the grotty internet connection to handle. I do, though, manage to catch up on a whole load of emails and then find that a lot of them need replies.

Up to the papeterie to buy heavy paper for certificates for all the training course members. Cathie was going to do this but her back is really bad and she’s going to miss the course altogether. The only stuff the stationer has is very heavy and way, way too expensive, but faute de mieux I have to buy it. At least I’ll get reimbursed eventually.

At the post office there’s my Guardian Weekly and a letter for Tom, who is already off with his parents to Butare.

In the Office I’m desperately scrabbling around for duplicating paper to print my inspection reports and my teaching notes for the training course. There’s never any paper in the machine itself, and everybody squirrels away little handfuls of paper in their (locked) drawers. But Claude’s in his office and on the phone, so I go in bold as brass and take a pinch of paper to see me through. Phew; it’s a relief to get them printed at last. I plonk the inspection reports onto Claude’s desk to make it look as though I’ve been inspecting loads of schools this term…. Then I spend half an hour waiting for the resource technician to make copies of the course certificates.

So far, so good, but at this point the day begins to go pear shaped. The Muhanga office photocopier – the only one for all the reprographics in a district of several hundred thousand people – can’t cope with thick paper. All my expensive certificate paper is a waste of money. I can’t go to Kigeme without certificates ready to hand out, so we just whip them onto ordinary paper. I doubt whether anyone will look at them after the day itself!

At this point I’m back on schedule and ready to go back to the flat and pack leisurely and efficiently. But also at this point Védaste the statistician breezes in and wants me to show him how far I’ve got with my secondary census data. Not far enough, actually – it’s not at the top o my list right at this moment. But I can’t really refuse him, and we spend something like two hours – two hours – going through the powerpoints frame by frame. I need Védaste to help smooth my bad French, but as well as discovering that he’s quite seriously dyspraxic with a keyboard, I’m also sure some of his French is not quite right. Both of us, of course, are working in our second languages so it’s hardly surprising!

I also discover that there are no fewer than five new viruses on my flash dive that he’s been using, plus any amount of his material from other jobs. He’s just using my flash as if it was his own!

I tell him I need the flash to do last minute alterations, so at least I get it back. At some time next week I’m going to have to spend time updating the virus checker on my laptop – it can isolate these viruses but not destroy them. They keep reappearing and have to be knocked out every time I start my computer. They don’t affect how it works – yet - but I must see them off a.s.a.p.

By now it’s clear that I’m going to be seriously late for Kigeme unless all my bus connections run smoothly (unless you’re very lucky, Kigeme is three separate matata rides from Gitarama). Fortunately the first two do go smoothly, and by the time I get to Gikongoro I’m only half an hour late. At least two of the Muhanga teachers who are doing the course are on the bus with me, so I realise that “five o’clock sharp” is going to be a Rwandan 5.00.

As the bus driver puts me into the privileged front seat on the matata to Kigeme there’s a chorus of jibes from the back. I turn round to find three other VSOs – Antonia, Berthe and Cathryn – all sitting at the rear. Then Mans runs down from the Nyamagabe district office. He’s just finished work for the day and is taking our bus home to Gasarenda. He and I have both got very long legs so we end up squashed together in the front. His stepson Peter, who is here on a visit, has gone down with malaria since the science expo last weekend. That means he must have been bitten and infected on his very first night in Kigali. Now that’s what I call bad luck! And he’s been taking malarone, too!

It’s amazing – the Rwandans on the bus are nearly outnumbered by muzungus and quite clearly feel cowed! We don’t get all the usual comments.

At Kigeme we stash our things in the guest house. Boo hiss – my room’s nowhere near as nice as the one I had last weekend, and doesn’t even have a power point in it.

We start the training course and I have to do a presentation on CAPACE – our home-made Rwandan teaching methodology – because Cathie’s not here to do it. By the time I’ve finished I realise that the cold I’ve been brewing since last weekend has got worse, and that my voice is deteriorating fast.

The food on this course is going to be “traditional Rwandan” too. This saves money, but means we get huge amounts of rice, potatoes and beans and very little else. The nice thing is that we get the sweet, milky, spiced “African tea” (the African version of chai), and I quite like it.

Nearly everyone’s there from the VSO crowd; Soraya is there and while nothing is absolutely definite it does look as though she will be coming to work with me in Muhanga. I don’t get any comments for or against my new shaven appearance and I can’t decide whether it’s because they haven’t noticed or because they aren’t interested. But everybody’s tired and we’re off to bed by just after nine o’clock.

I’m sleeping in a bottom bunk bed, just like in an old fashioned English Youth Hostel. Only the top bunk has a mosquito net, but we’re so high up here that I decide to risk it and sleep net-less on the under bunk and not risk falling out if I have to get up in the night. Oh the joys of middle age! There’s a full moon, and the only sounds in the night are distant voices coming from the boarding blocks of Kigeme secondary school on one side of me, and the refugee camp on the hillside half a mile away to my right. As we’re walking back from the teaching room to the guesthouse the refugee camp is a little sinister. You know there are several thousand people there, and you can hear them, but because there’s no electricity there are absolutely no lights at all. Not even from cooking fires. Just disembodied voices – men, women and children – coming towards you across the depths of a deep valley from the hillside opposite.

Best thing about today – somehow managing to get everything done and get to Kigeme not too late.

Worst thing – discovering that a load of printed stuff I need – I’ve left it behind in Gitarama. I must have put my towel on top of it on the bed when I was packing in such a mad rush. Curses. Never mind, I can get round things by making up a load of flip charts.

Through the little byways of Gitarama

June 17th

Now today was supposed to be an inspection day, with two primary schools at Ruli getting the visit. However, this being Rwanda, the Head of the Pentecostalist School hadn’t bothered to text me back as I had asked, to confirm. Even more annoyingly the miscreant was Emmanuelle, who is the secteur rep and one of my buddies. True to form, when I rang her she was off at some meeting, so I couldn’t go. Her school is always known locally as “Ruli ADEPR”. It took me some time to discover that ADEPR stands for “Assemblée de Dieu de l’Église de Pentecôte de Rwanda”. So you see why we all stick with the initials!

No matter, I had plenty of other work to do and went to see the other school (Ruli Catholique) in the afternoon. Well, I arrived by moto to find a modern school (built 2000 by a Japanese charity) and nobody expecting me. Ten confusing minutes later and I’d worked out why. I had come to the wrong school! Curse this system where all schoolchildren have the same colour uniform! The mistress in charge saw the funny side of things and hoiked out a yr 6 lad to take me to the Catholic school. This was just visible on the next hill across the valley, and involved a twenty minute slog through tiny little footpaths that wound their way round people’s houses and through the fields. It was a lovely walk. I met all sorts of people who I’d never have encountered, and began to see how the houses in the countryside all fit together into an endless pattern of smallholdings, banana plantations and huts.

Mathilde, the Headmistress at the Catholic school made we welcome. During the tour of their site I discovered that the school grounds include a small hilltop with strategic views for miles and miles in all directions. To the south you can see our flat in the distance and the silly little spire of Fatima chapel. To the east you look out over gradually reducing hills to the flatter lands of Bugasera and almost to Burundi. To the West the hills of Cyeza tumble on and on forever to the horizon. Jeanne says that when the air is clear you can see all the volcanoes from her hill, and I’ve no reason to doubt her. Today, though, the air is full of dust and so hazy you can barely see ten miles. However, I can see all the other schools of Shyogwe – Munyinya looming on yet another hilltop; Mbara almost hidden in a valley; Cité Nazareth and Shyogwe over against the long ridge of Shyogwe village.

On this hilltop the school has planted lots of trees; some are old, eucalypts some fifty feet high and almost ready for harvesting. Others are tiny saplings planted only a few weeks ago. It is most unusual to find a school where forestry, rather than crop growing, is the main expression of agriculture. A welcome change.

The school itself is less impressive. A stone built building looks like a single decently sized classroom but actually houses three classes in indescribably cramped accommodation. This is the original building, put up by catholic priests in the 1950s (and an early school in these parts by Rwandan standards). The other buildings are more recent but all are scruffy. There is a water cistern, but it’s been empty for two months and unless we have a lot of heavy rain during the dry season it won’t fill again until the autumn. The nearest source of drinking water is a spring about a mile away in the valley.

The lessons I see are OK, but the school is struggling and losing children to other places with more successful track records in years 5 and 6. There is no development plan, and I get the sense that the school has given up the struggle against its better equipped neighbour.

At the end of the afternoon the children go to their clubs, and the dance club put on a display for me. The school has only a tiny area of flat land, and the girls are kicking up a regular dust storm as they go through their paces. The dance club is very popular, and it feels that around half the school is clustered round watching me watching the girls. There’s no music as such; the girls dance to chanting from their mates- a bunch of some twenty or so girls who belt out the verses with huge gusto. Meanwhile on the other side of the buildings the boys are trying to play football on a steeply sloping part of the hillside. To get to a proper pitch they have to be taken over a kilometre away from their school, and only then if the other users of the pitch are willing to let them in. It’s not an ideal situation.

I give my report and sign their official record of inspection, then Mathilde walks me all the way back to the main road. She’s lived in this area all her life except during 1994, and she becomes the first person to open up to me about her genocide experience. Her family had to be continually on the move, leaving areas as they became too risky and seeking refuge in other districts. She doesn’t say whether she lost any relatives, but in this country we just assume everybody has lost family. Now, in 2008, she’s well established with five children of her own, and she knows everybody. She points out that this house belongs to a high official in the old regime, and that one to the head teacher of a neighbouring school. There is electricity brought in tantalisingly close to her school – another kilometre and it would be worth considering. But electrogaz charge a ransom for connection, so even though she can see other people’s lights all around her in Gitarama and along the main road, her school stays dark.

At the flat I meet Tom’s parents and we decide to eat out. Tom and co are fresh back from Akagera; meanwhile the accommodation they used at Jambo Beach seems reasonable and clean and I decide to book it for Teresa and co in place of one of the nights at Beau Séjour. Eating out is not without its dramas – at Delta they decide they’ve got no food to offer except brochettes. Tom’s parents aren’t keen on brochettes. So after a drink we decamp to Nectar and all go for omelettes. Nectar seems short of food today, too, because half the filling in our omelettes turns out to be peas. Oh well, can’t win them all.

I work till very late at night and get the main part of my report on my inspection done before turning in.

Best thing about today - all in all a good, productive day’s work.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Changing the image

June 16th

OK, so this is the day I decide to have a major change of image. My hair needs cutting and I’m not going to be a wuss and wait until I can persuade VSO George to cut it; I’ll go to the barbershop across the road and let them do their worst. So by half past six in the morning I’m their first customer. The massive stereo is cranked up and blasting to the nation, but it actually sounds louder in our flat than in the shop. This is because the shop is on the first floor, and the speakers are mounted on the balcony decking outside. I can’t see whether they’ve got a CD player hooked into it, so I’m still none the wiser as to whether I can make them a CD of stuff I like and have them play it occasionally….

There are two men who run the shop; one is older and is the reggae fan; the other is a young lad. It’s the young lad who cuts my hair. He’s just as nervous as I am about cutting muzungu hair, but he works very slowly and carefully and does a really good job. He disinfects the clippers (Rwandan barbers don’t use scissors – ever) with a small bottle of gin. OK, but its industrial alcohol, not gin, that’s in the bottle. He dusts my face all over with talc at the finish, and I decide on a whim to go the whole hog and get rid of my beard for a while. All the girls are getting hair extensions and braids and changing their image, so why not me? And so many people I’ve met here say they don’t like beards anyway. And it seems to forever need dying to keep it brown. So off it comes.

Yes, after forty two years of hairy face, with only one small period of shaving, I’m wandering around Rwanda beardless!

Of course, to match the occasion the weather’s taken a turn for the worse. It’s cloudy and so, so cold – and on my newly bare cheeks it feels about 10 degrees colder than last week. It really does feel weird without a beard.

The funny thing is that almost nobody is commenting on it. All my colleagues at work studiously avoid saying anything. Tom’s still away at Akagera with his parents, and I haven’t seen either Cathie or Karen since the weekend. But just wait until Thursday when I meet all the VSO crowd at Kigeme for the English training course….

Cathie’s hurt her back and is resting at home.

At the office I finish the P6 mock exam in English, and take it to Florent at Nyabisindu school – it’s just up the road from the District Office. He gets his English teacher to have a look at it with me. There’s a melee of little faces pressed against the windows as we go through bit by bit. This young girl teacher has also had a bash at setting an exam, and we knock out some bits of mine that she says are too hard for her kids and substitute some of her stuff. In twenty minutes we’ve agreed on the format, and I go back to the office and retype and print it off. The exam these children will do in English will be exactly the same in format and appearance as the real thing this autumn. This is one of my aims: these children get flummoxed when they meet a printed exam paper – because it’s so fresh and clean they’re almost afraid to write their answers on the sheets!

I’m so pleased to have done something today that will make a real difference both to the local children throughout the District, and to the hard pressed English teachers in Muhanga.

I also manage to get all the secondary census data entered up. However, when I start trying to collate it all and put it on charts and diagrams I’m back to the old problems – each school seems to have decided to leave out some sections where they think the data is hard to collect (or where they just can’t be bothered to do the work), so I still can’t get a complete comparison. Never mind, I’ve got plenty to go on. The revelation to me is that the secondary schools – with their more educated teachers and far better facilities – are even more hopeless than the primaries at making their figures add up consistently. Damn it; most of the bigger secondaries have got electricity, and have computers! What are they all up to!

The moral to all this is that I need to get into some of them and start doing some inspections.

Sholi primary has put me off yet again from inspecting them tomorrow – this time the head says he’s on an R E training course at Kabgayi. But he’s invited me in next week, so I’ll hold him to that.

It means I have to change my plans for this week. Tuesday will be an office day, preparing stuff for inspections and for the English training course. And on Wednesday I’ll try and visit two schools in Shyogwe. Ruli ADEPR (Pentecostal) school is very good; Ruli Catholic next door is almost as weak as Cyeza in its results. So I text the head teachers and wait to see what excuses they’ll come up with….

In the evening I decide to make my Dad a CD compilation of photos from Rwanda. He’s just bought a modern flat-screen TV and it must be compatible with his CD player, so he should be able to see my photos on a 32 inch screen. Yay!

Over the weekend I’ve both caught a cold from this sudden change in the weather, and I’ve also managed to get a strep infection in my throat which is making me miserable.

Cue hot cocoa for supper and a relatively early night!

Best thing about today – everything. It’s been another good day.

Worst thing – if my throat doesn’t clear up by this time tomorrow I’ll have to get some penicillin from the pharmacy. This Rwandan self-diagnosis and self-prescription game is a laugh!

New week, new look

African style shirt
Western style shirt

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Amanda and the Mouse

Amanda and Alicia are two volunteers working in Rwamagana in the eastern province of Rwanda. Alicia is American and an English teacher; Amanda is Canadian and a Science teacher at the same school. Alicia has her own blog. This little gem comes with their permission.

SO, I think this dude called Gabrielle once attempted to take on a Lion. I don’t know how that worked out for him…. but I bet he never attempted to take on a mouse! Lions sleep like 20 hours a day.. really how hard would it be.. wait out those 4 hours when it’s awake, sneak up on it during one of the 20 hours it’s a sleep.. and boom! Done deal!! A mouse however….. does not sleep 20 hours! (and nor does Amanda as long as there is a mouse running around in her room!!)
So, before Christmas holidays, we discovered we had a mouse in our house.. oh what a louse!! We did some serious cleaning and removed a whole bunch of “stuff” we had been saving over the course of the year (toilet paper rolls, candy wrappers, boxes, every possible thing that had “potential” for becoming a teaching aid was saved…) however, as the mouse had found a house in the recycled goods, we decided it was time to release them and so burned them in a massive bonfire in our back yard. So, our logic followed that if the stuff was gone, mousey would be gone too. (logic is different in africa !!! We’ve leanred that time and time again!!) So, mousey having lost his house, relocated to another corner of the house… MY CORNER!! He took up residence in my room (or at least it became his toilet as his little “presents” were everywhere.) Having failed to find a trap before holidays, Tracy (my wonderful sister who came to visit me) and I simply packed up all the food, (he had alreay chewed through a tupperware container) packed up all my stuff into suitcases and piled it on my bed. I left for holidays and hoped for the best…..
…. I got the worst!! So, on my return from holidays, I’m hot, I’m sweaty, I’ve been on a bus since 6:30am, I’ve left Kibondo which I love, I have to start working again which I don’t love, I’ve walked up the hill with my BIG bag, and all I want to do I sleep!! But what do my eyes discover.. f*@&ing MOUSEY has found a new a toilet ALL OVER MY BED!! It’s absolutely COVERED in mouse caca and weewee!!! And he’s chewed up my sheet, the zipper on my suitcase, a blanket and a pillow!! YUCK!!!! I bet no lion ever did that!!!
So, spring cleaning began once again and the new year’s resolution was to BUY MOUSE TRAPS!! So, the next day in kigali , Alicia went on the mission of traps but unfortunately only found poison!! (we should have known better.. any mouse that can chew through a zipper cannot be stopped by poison alone).
So, the first night we spread out the pellets, 34 in 4 different spots. Then we covered all the water (cuz apparently the poison makes them thirsty.. when they miss water, they the leave the house and never come back.. sounds like a fairy tale… “and the little girls live happily ever after” hahahahah) So, that night it eats the 34 pellets! Every single one!! “the girls rejoice.” We dance a little dance thinking it’s over!! Alicia and Amanda have taken on the mouse and WON!! Yeahh!! Hooraaaaaaaaaayyyyy!! Girl power!! (what email doesn’t need a little spice girl reference!!!) So, then as we’re cleaning again… what do we see….. (any guesses???)
..MOUSEY!!! As we were cleaing out our cooking room (of the other recycled goods that we didn’t burn because they had real “potential” out ran MIGHTY MOUSE (mousey is too lame of a name for a mouse that can survive 34 poison pellets!!!!!) We discovered that in the cooking room, there had been a shower bag (a plastic baggie thing that’s black that heats up in the sun and works as a shower..??? don’t know, never used it.. ) but sure enough, it still had water in it!! AND Mighty Mousey had managed to chew THROUGH the bag to get to the water!! Hence surviving the poison of 34 pellets!! Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!! We did manage to have him cornered in the cooking room.. but only to realize we didn’t know what to do…. Stab him with a knife?? Poke him with a broom??? What does one do when one has a mouse cornered?? (serious question.. not rhetorical… cuz you never know.. we may have him cornered again.. and we would really like to know what to do.. so please, feel free to write in with suggestions!!)
So, we had him cornered and somehow neither of us were ready for stabbing him so, we spayed Raid (insect repellent) on him, but then that ran out, so we sprayed deet mosquito spray on him…. and then dumped a bunch of poison pellets in the corner with him…. it didn’t work…. He later ran away…
So, once again that night, packed up the food, covered all the water and put out even more pellets!! He dined on the pellets in my room and left the other ones untouch. We knew that he was still alive.. and this was confirmed when later that night as I came to my room, ready for a nice sleep only to find FRESH mouse caca and weewee ON MY BED!!! Sheet number 2 ruined.. and this time on the mattress too!! DOUBLE YUCK!! So, cleaned up the bed.. loaded up the pellets..and attempted to sleep!! NO SUCH LUCK!! By 300am, I heard Mighty Mouse scurrying arounbd my room and chewing on something (which turned out to be my bookcase!!!) so, at 400am, realizing I wasn’t going to be sleeping any more, I started making the new schedule for the year (did I mention that I made the scehdule in october (the night I stayed up til 400am doing the impossible math problem… well, the director decided to reassing some classes, thus meaning that the schedule needed to be adjusted… changing one class is kinda like Jenga (that block game from the good old days..) Its like taking out the 3 bottom blocks and hoping that the entire structure doesn’t fall over!!! It’s not possible! So, at 400am, I once again tackled the schedule, and worked straight through until 1:30pm before finishing!! I’m not sure what I hate more scheduling or Mighty Mouse.. it’s a toss up!!!
So, again, we put out more pellets, (naïve little girls that we are.. but that was all there was as there are no traps in Musha..) and sire enough it ate more pellets, continued to poop in my room, continued to keep my up and continued NOT TO DIE!! I bet Gabrielle’s lion didn’t last that long!!! Yesterday (day 4 of the Mighty Mouse adventures) I was in my room, packing to go to Kigali and out runs Mighty Mouse from under my bed!! He scurries around my room a bit and them runs under my book case! I get out the mop and put on shoes and we have it out a little.. but not surprisingly, HE WINS!!! He eventually escaped my room and is somewhere that only he knows!!!
So, I’m now in Kigali helping to train (scary) the new volunteers and refreshed after my first mouse-free sleep in 4 nights! It’s wondeful! I’m not sure what havoc he’s reaping on my room right now but before leaving I packed everything in bags, I sood them on end and even took my mattress off my bed and stood it up!! TAKE THAT MOUSEY!!! So, I’ll fill you in when I get back!! Today’s mission is ONLY to find 10 mouse traps!!!!!! If the traps don’t work, I think we surrender, I donate my room to him, we’ll make a plastic little crown and he will become our ruler to which we will bow before!! I’ll keep you updated!!!
Hope everyone is doing well!! And living a mouse free existence!!!
Peace out!amazingamandainrwanda

I was talking to Amanda and Alicia at the British Embassy party and asked permission to copy this blog. I asked her how the mouse situation resolved. Answer – not in any way you’d expect. In the past the girls have had bats in their loft (noisy and dirty) and wild bees (dangerous); but mousie’s nemesis arrived when a pair of owls took up residence in the loft. Mousie was careless one night and ended up as owl food.


Hung over in Gasarenda

June 14th

Wake up feeling hung over and fragile. Only consolation is that Épi’s feeling even worse! Both vow we’ll never ever touch demon drink again……. Or at least, not until this evening. So it’s a slow start to the day, trying to rehydrate and keep some food down. We both look rough, as if we’ve slept on the tiles, and not even a cold shower does much to combat it.

Kerti’s supposed to be coming with us to the Science Expo at Gasrenda (she’s a science teacher after all), but she’s going down with a cold or worse and I’m sure she’s got a temperature. So she decides to stay put in Kigali and we’ll give her apologies.

By the time we’re leaving Kigali, George is already in Butare, three hours ahead of us, so we tell him to say we’re coming in our own good time. George scores brownie points; he had the presence of mind not to follow us all down to Car Wash last night!

It’s a long bus ride to Gasarenda – five hours even on a fast bus from Kigali. We have to change to a stopping local matata at Butare and take the opportunity to raid the Supermarket there are get some goodies to eat. The Lebanese owners immediately recognise us and come over to greet us – it’s nice to feel we’re both known even so far away from our home bases.

It’s a long time since I last went to Gasarenda, and I’ve forgotten just how mountainous and steep the area is. Last week I was raving about the hill country of Muhanga; this part of Rwanda is definitely higher and wilder. It’s also one of the very poorest parts of the country. For the first time since arriving in Rwanda I see a child with the swollen belly of kwashiorkor, and people’s clothes are scruffier. Coming from the relative prosperity of Kigali the change in well-being is very marked.

It’s chilly in Gasarenda even in mid-afternoon and everybody looks pinched and miserable. From the main road you see very little of the town; Gasarenda is the classic one-street town which extends off to the side of the main road to Cyangugu for a good mile along a dirt road. It makes a stab at civilisation – there are bars with flashing neon signs, and a wide range of shops, but nothing can hide the poverty behind the facades.

Han and Mans live here, and we’ve dropped off our rucksacks with their guard to lighten our loads. Épi’s been feeling rough all during the journey down, but a good walk in the fresh air is just what we both need and by the time we reach Han’s school we’re feeling adequate to face the rest of the day!

The Science Exposition has been put on by Han’s science club, sixth formers at the TTC. Now here, English readers, you need some explanation. In Rwandan secondary schools everybody follows a common core for the first three years. This is called “tronc commun” and roughly equates with our English Key Stage 3. At the end of Tronc Commun you sit an exam, and the marks from that exam determine where you go next. You can express a preference for a particular course, but you have to get high enough marks to take it. The final three years of secondary school are specialised and each secondary school offers one or two specialisms only. This means you normally change school after tronc commun. The most prestigious “sections”, as they are called, are math/physique and bio/chimie, and these invariably attract the brightest children. The rest split among a wider range of courses including vocational (mécanique, infirmières, comptabilité), or arts courses “sciences humaines” and “lettres”, all of which have a lower status.

The school in Gasarenda is a TTC - one of the specialisms is teacher training. It’s like an English school where, after the first year in the sixth form, you do a specialist teacher training course as the final part of your “A” levels. So the students who are mounting the exposition are all final year sixth formers, but they are also about to be the next crop of primary and even secondary school teachers. Remember that, even now, less than 1% of the Rwandan population go to university, so therefore teachers with degrees make up only half the secondary school staff, and are very rare indeed in primary schools.

Han has worked hard with her students, and there are some thirty or so experiments being demonstrated – from physics (periscope, experiments with light and sound and mixing colours) to chemistry (lipids, osmosis). I’m pleased to see there’s a nod to geology with the volcano experiment (red coloured water with bicarb of soda and vinegar – the girl demonstrating gets a huge cheer when her miniature Karisimbi blows its top and erupts all over the table cloth).

Cathie and Elson are both there, of course – it’s where Cathie taught for two years before coming to Gitarama, and where she and Elson met each other. He was on the teaching staff too. Cathie takes me to show me the new plastic water storage tanks they’re putting in with money raised from Canada. It’s just like what I want to do with some Bradpole church money at Bwirika School, but at Gasarenda it’s on an enormous scale. Four 10,000 litre tanks look as though they could supply the whole of Gasarenda! But the tanks really do work, and they make such a difference. Just imagine what people would say if an English comprehensive required its children (all of whom are boarders) to spend half an hour or more every day going to fetch water from a muddy spring half way down the mountainside.

Elson’s filming everything and everyone in sight. He’s wearing a new shirt – and the material looks familiar. It’s the other half of the green material that Cathie and I bought in Kigali. And (of course), because I wanted a shirt made to an African pattern, Elson has had his made to an English style. Good job I didn’t decide to wear my green shirt today……

The idea of us being at the exposition, apart from showing solidarity to Han, is because we want other science teachers to consider doing something similar at their schools. That’s not going to be easy, because the TTC is better resourced in science than most other secondaries, and because we really need to get the Rwandan science teachers here to see what can be done. George has brought a colleague from Nyagatare. But there’s nobody else. It’s not apathy – once again we’ve fallen victim of the Rwandan penchant for arranging things at the last minute. We’ve had this science expo date in the calendar and published to schools for ages. And then the Government decides to call its own secondary INSET meeting at about a week’s notice, meaning that our schools have a conflict of duties.

After the exposition finishes there’s the compulsory fanta for all the student helpers, plus official visitors, in Han’s classroom. By now it’s almost dark. The Headteacher of Nyamagabe school is there (Tiga’s school), and he’s brought the school pick-up truck, so we commandeer it as he’s leaving to take us back up through Gasarenda town to the main road. We end up with the back of the truck thick with people, and eyes popping in the town as muzungus are seen relegated to perching in the BACK of the truck instead of taking up the privileged seats inside. Lord, you don’t have to lift much of a finger to cause a stir here!

We bounce back to Anne-Miek’s house in Kigeme. Kigeme is about ten minutes’ drive towards Gikongoro from Gasarenda. Kigeme is the local stronghold of the Anglicans in the south of Rwanda; like the Catholics at Kabgayi they have made it the focus of the area with schools, hospital, clinic and meeting places. And there’s the guest house for visitors, which is where the four of us – me, George, Étienne (the other science teacher from Nyagatare) and Épi will be staying. The rooms are clean and basic individual cells, with shared bathrooms. There’s lashings of hot water, mozzie nets on the beds, and it’s only £4 a night with breakfast included!

But first we go to Anne-Miek’s cottage. This is a small, cosy, semi detached place with the guard’s sleeping closet in the centre and with two Nigerian nurses sharing the other half of the cottage. As we’ve come into Kigeme we’ve ordered take-away brochettes and ibitoke (boiled spicy plantains) from the café at the main road. By the time we’ve warmed ourselves up with tea and beer our food’s arrived. Both Épi and I feel absolutely washed out, so I force down half a glass of beer to show willing. She’s not even going to risk another drop of alcohol…..

As we stumble down the corridor to our rooms in the silence of the Rwandan night we can hear talking from the Congolese refugee camp on the hilltop opposite. They have no electricity there so there are no lights. It’s the mirror image of the camp I went to at Gihembe. It’s just as bleak, high, cold and hopeless. Épi and I look at each other and think of the privileged life we’ve led during the past 24 hours – from Embassy reception at Kigali to nightclub to being able to pay for buses to being fed three times a day – and suddenly we feel very humble. Life’s a lottery and there’s no doubt that we’re the winners.

And this coming week is “world refugee week”; Samira is organising events in the camp all day on Friday and Épi is supposed to be coming over to help (providing she can get Thursday afternoon off from school). She’s never been in a camp before and I tell her she must make sure she goes. I will be in Kigeme doing the English training course with lots of others, so I don’t expect I’ll get to see anything of the camp. But sure as hell we’ll all meet up for a drink during the evening.

Oh how nice it is to have a soft bed, a quiet night, no mossies, and to be (relatively) sober!

Best thing about today – just about everything once I’d sobered up!

Worst thing – why can’t they put some magic ingredient in beer that stops you drinking it after three pints or so? Now there’s an experiment to set for the next science expo!

My evening with the Queen.......

June 13th

Slept badly; whether as a result of dehydration or after banging my head yesterday evening, I can’t be sure. The knock to my head certainly rattled all the fillings in my teeth! And my back and neck are tender after all the pounding from various motos over the last few days.

Determined to make the most of today. Call at the post office and lo and behold there’s a letter from dad, a parcel from Teresa with Marmite amongst other things, and a packet for Tom. Good start to the day.

At the Office I find all the secondary census sheets waiting for me, so can get straight on and start entering up the data. At long last I can make progress on the statistics again and get a proper grip on what’s happening in “my” secondary schools! Get more than half way through when the power goes off! Work on until my laptop battery is almost out, then decide to call it a morning and return home (It’s virtually lunchtime, anyway).

Get well on the way to setting the mock P6 exam for all of the Muhanga schools – about 4,500 pupils will be taking this exam so I’ve got to get it right! Then it’s time to pack a rucksack and set off for Kigali.

At this point my luck runs out a bit; I have a long wait for a matata from Gitarama (like that phrase, sounds like the refrain of a song. Replace “The Girl from Ipanema” with “The Matata from Gitarama”….. (stop rambling and get on with it – Ed).

When I get to the Mu Muji bus station there’s rows of buses, but none to Kimironko. So by the time I find one and eventually arrive at Kersti’s to drop off my bag and freshen up, it’s already time to be going to the British Embassy for the Queen’s Birthday orgy.

Épi’s at Kersti’s but there’s no sign of Kersti for quite a while. By the time we’ve said all our greetings to assorted boyfriends (not mine, obviously), brothers and hangers on, we’re getting quite late for the party.

When we arrive at the Embassy the security is much less severe than last time I came there. We’ve all phoned in our RSVPs, but in true Rwandan fashion the Embassy has managed to mislay them. But since we all have our invitation cards we’re all admitted and find more than half the other VSOs tucking into wine and nibbles as if there’s no tomorrow. Tom’s unhappy – last year there was fish and chips for all the guests and he was looking forward to a good fill-up; this year it’s little tasties with dips. But there’s draught Mutzig beer and somehow our glasses just keep getting filled up……

There are only about 400 British Nationals in Rwanda, and when you take into account the wider VSO contingent we make up a sizeable proportion – probably the biggest single element. It’s always nice to meet some of the people from the “far east” of Rwanda who I don’t often see. Hester and Joe from Rusumo and Chris and George from Nyagatare are all there, and once again we all invite each other to come and stay for a weekend. The east is stonking hot at the moment; I think Gitarama must be at least ten degrees cooler than where they are. Tom is at the reception with some of his FHI pals. He’s in Kigali all weekend; his parents fly in on Sunday and he’s taking them more or less straight to Akagera before bringing them back to Gitarama. I won’t see him again till Tuesday night at the very earliest.

I thought there would be speeches by the Ambassador, or that at the very least we’d all salute the flag and sing “God Save the Queen”, but no – there’s nothing else to do but eat and drink. So that’s just what we all do. By the time we finally leave we’re all tipsy or beyond.

There’s the usual half hour deciding where we’re going to go; nobody wants to make a move in case it turns out that all the others go somewhere better. Just like students…..!

In the end we decide to go to a bar called “Car Wash” (because it’s located right next to a car wash with a very prominent billboard advertising it). And there’s me thinking this was some really original, off the wall name for a club…..We spend ten minutes haggling with taxi drivers right outside the embassy gates. This infuriates the embassy security guards; no vehicles are allowed to stop anywhere near the embassies in case they have bombs on board. But you’d have thought that with twelve or more muzungus obviously on the point of boarding the guards would shut up about it!

Anyway, we all get to Car Wash in time to see the last half hour of the Holland versus France football. The French are still very unpopular in Rwanda, the so the final result – Holland thrashing the French 4 : 1 – is wildly popular. Cue even more drinking by everybody there.

In a corner there’s a reggae band; they give up while the footie’s on because nobody’s listening to them. When the football’s over they start again and it just so happens that some twenty or more VSOs are in the mood for dancing. So we take over the dance area. This acts like a magnet for crowds of single Rwandan men who just can’t resist the sight of white girls dancing, and reckon every white girl in town is just dying for a beefy Rwandan escort. In a few minutes there’s barely room to shake a leg and the air’s thick with beer and B O fumes……

By this time most of us realise we’re well past the safety limit with drink. Épi’s already been taken home to Kersti’s, and all but the die-hard clubbers decide it’s time to call it a day. It’s not much after one in the morning, but a lot of us have got either events to go to or even trainings to do the next day, so it’s definitely time to leave.

When I get back to Kersti’s I find Irene is sleeping on the spare room mattress, so I take the big sofa in the lounge. It’s not too bad a place to sleep, even though her house seems to attract mosquitoes and I have to squirt Deet over myself at intervals during the night.

Best thing about today – everything. Friday the 13th turns out to be another great day. Parcel from home, work to do at the office, free beer care of Her Majesty and partying with my friends. What more could I ask for? Also, today I’ve confirmed bookings for Teresa and co at Kibuye; Nick’s confirmed I can hire his car, and Samira’s offered her house when I bring the family down to Gikongoro. That’s what I call a good day!

Right on in Rongi

June 12th

Can’t remember when I last spent a night in such totally silent surroundings. No cars, no radios outside the windows, no people passing in the streets. Not even any noise of wind or night birds or insects. There’s just total silence. I sleep well till the priest revs up his moto and leaves at 3.45a.m. He’s going to a meeting with the Bishop at Kabgayi, and that starting time is an indication of how long it takes to get to Gitarama on a little moto.

The shower is freezing cold, so not a place to linger. However, it’s lovely to have a clean room and bathroom, so I’m ready and certainly refreshed at just after 6 in the morning. It’s going to be a lovely morning, with the mountainsides behind the presbytery just becoming distinct. The lemon trees in the courtyard have leaves covered with blight, but the lemons are forming nicely on them. I decide to wait until a little later to take a photo.

By 6.15 I’m in the church for early morning mass. There’s a congregation of 15, which surprises me, and a lot of them are school children already in their uniforms and going to church on their way to school (which surprises me even more). The church is light and airy and welcoming, and as the service goes through the sun hits it and everything is bathed in a soft, golden light. All the congregation are surprised, to put it mildly, to have a muzungu at church with them. So at the end of the service the priest introduces me to everyone and explains why I’m here.

Then we charge back to the presbytery for breakfast. Bread is difficult to get and very expensive in Rongi, so in its place we have a mash of boiled carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes. We have this with omelettes, and a good cup of tea. The whole ensembles works pretty well, and I certainly feel that I’ve had a solid start to the day!

Unfortunately there’s now no chance to take photos because a thick fog has descended and you can barely see one end of the church from the other. Blast! Why didn’t I take some photos earlier when I had the opportunity!

I’m not allowed to pay formally for my board and lodging, so I make a suitable donation to any good cause the priest sees fit to support. It’s entirely the right thing to do and ensures I’ll be welcomed back if I want to return for a future visit (and I probably will).

Étienne is late coming to pick me up, so the priest walks me down the lane towards the village in the direction Etienne will come. Everyone says hello – the workmen building a new house, children on their way to school, women going to till their fields with baby on back, hoe on shoulder and basket of seeds on their heads. We hear Étienne long before he arrives; he’s got a dodgy silencer on his bike and the sounds reverberates off the tight little valley walls. He’s apologetic; there’s been some minor family crisis and a relative has already been round to see him this morning. In the countryside people wake up very early, and even my 6 o’clock start means I’ve had an indulgent lie-in by their standards.

We bounce and thump our way down the valley, past the river Nyaborongo again (I’m never ever going to tire of that view), and up through the lane which feels as if it’s going through everyone’s fields and backyards until we reach the school.

On the way we pass a brand new secondary school under construction at Ntarabana just below the vicarage. There are six classrooms being built, of brick, and the standard of workmanship looks good. A new primary school sharing the same site has already been open for two years. Because it’s such a small school it’s run as a satellite from the nearest big primary, and won’t become a school in its own right until it has a full six years worth of children. Then it will be my school number 108, and secondary number 28! However, the primary has caused a stir because it’s a catholic school, but being run from a public (state) school. This is an almost unheard-of set up in Rwanda and caused a lot of raised eyebrows. I bet the Catholic church is counting the days until they have complete control!

At Rongi the mist is starting to lift and it’s going to be a hot day. Cathie’s already there, and we are shown our room – it’s in the secondary school and a pleasant place to work. (The primary and secondary share the same site at Rongi; it’s one of these “groupe scolaire” set-ups).

The atmosphere at Rongi today is completely different from the depressing place that Cathie and I inspected in February. There is bright sunlight, to begin with. All the secondary children come to speak to us – their teachers are late arriving. One teacher turns out to be the “stagiaire” from the presbytery; when he’s not being a priest he doubles as maths, geography and R E teacher. On the blackboard in his classroom there’s a very detailed anatomical drawing of the male genitalia, labelled and coloured, left over from a previous lesson. Cathie and I have a giggle at whether he feels embarrassed walking into such a background. (And when the lesson is over the drawing is still there; he’s chosen to ignore it and use the blackboard at the other end of the room. Most Rwandan classrooms have blackboards at both ends, and it’s easy to flip the desks round and reverse the layout).

The teachers we’re training are a happy and co-operative bunch and we have a good atmosphere right from the start. When we go out to do our games we’re mobbed by children from the secondary school – it’s their break time – and instead of just closing in on us and gawping, like primary children, they shout encouragement. When we play “What’s the Time Mr Lion” they’re nearly wetting themselves with laughter. It really is a tremendous atmosphere. The mountainsides look gorgeous, and Rongi feels like Paradise on earth. Just at the moment there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

Étienne and the secteur secretary are well organised, kind and thoughtful. Because there’s a canteen at the secondary school they’ve ordered a meal for everybody, and have even included our two moto drivers – how’s that for kindness!

They make me promise to come back next term, and also to set titles for an English competition among their schools to encourage capability among the children. Rongi’s results in the P6 exam are well below the district average, and need to more than double to exceed the average. Some schools are certainly going to find that a major challenge, but plenty of these teachers are young and keen and willing to try new ideas, so I’m hopeful.
We really have to tear ourselves away from their kindness and hospitality, and mount up on our bikes for the long slog back to Gitarama. I find that because I know the road now, it feels a quicker run. But my back is still aching and my backside still feels as though it has been sawn in half! At least my shoulders are getting a chance to recover after being rubbed raw yesterday. Oh, the joys of travelling on dirt roads!

In the evening Tom and I go out with William to the “Petit Jardin” for brochettes and ibirayi. Its William’s last day here before he returns to Kigali, and shortly afterwards to Kenya. After the clammy fog of Rongi we have a warm evening and a pleasant meal, but not until a chair has collapsed under my weight as I try to sit on it. I smash my head against a wall and see stars for a few seconds. Perhaps I had too much beans and rice this lunchtime….

Best thing about today – everything. A really memorable day, and I’ve decided more than ever that I really love my District, and that Rongi is an absolute gem – once you’ve battled your way there!

Worst thing – I really regret I wasn’t able to get photos at the presbytery. The site is magnificent and the priests and housekeeper so welcoming. It’s the first time I’ve ever stayed in a church house, and I’m willing to bet few of my VSO colleagues have ever done so, either!

Head teachers' jolly - an absolutely brilliant day!

June 11th

(Apologies once again for a very long entry, but this proves to be another exceptionally good day).

Today is my second “Head Teachers’ Jolly”, more formally known as a mass peer inspection of an unlucky primary school. I know that we’re going to see Kadehero primary, that Kadehero is in Rongi secteur and therefore a long way up country, and consequently we need a seven o’clock start. I’m terrified of being late and of keeping the others all waiting for me, so I make sure I’m there early.

By seven o’clock there’s me, and Emmanuelle from Shyogwe, and nobody else! Of course, I’d forgotten. It’s a Rwandan “seven o’clock sharp” – in other words it’s an earlier-than-mid-morning departure. It’s not until a quarter to eight that everyone seems to be there. We’re still not quite sure, because some of the heads from up-country will be travelling separately, and nobody’s sure who’s told whom if they’re coming with us or not.

First of all our matata turns out to be a Toyota land-cruiser. Either no matata driver would risk his bus this far up north, or else somebody thought they were getting a better deal by hiring this car. It means that we’re jammed in a small space. Instead of me getting a prime window seat in a matata, I’m squashed into the dickie-seats at the back of the car, with my knees round my ears and one buttock on a protruding metal hinge. This proves a serious error of judgement as the day goes on.

We drive off towards Ngororero for all of half a minute – turns out we’ve gone to intercept Évalde from Nyarusange who’s hitched a lift to Gitarama but is running late. Then we set off in the opposite direction towards the main road to Kigali, reach the junction, and immediately turn back to District Office. Claude’s secretary has phoned to say there’s a packet of letters, including our dispensations to be out of school and spending district money, to collect from the D O and take with us to Rongi secteur. Then somebody decides it would be a good idea to get a picnic lunch because there’s nowhere to eat near Kadehero, so we drive off in a third different direction into Gitarama town centre where we buy food. I’ve come prepared with sandwich and bottle of water (standard VSO procedure), so I score brownie points. But someone still buys me a packet of crisps and peanuts – can’t have the muzungu fading away during the company’s time, now can we!

So when we finally set off for Kadehero it’s more like half past eight than seven o’clock. This turns out to be a fatal flaw in our plans.

I’m expecting the driver to take us via Mushushiro and across country on tracks new to me, but instead he plays safe and heads up the Great North Road through Cyeza.

Now, readers, you’d think that being inside a 4WD car would be infinitely more comfortable than jarring along on a moto. However, I can tell you that in reality it’s just the opposite. The car lurches and bumps, and in the back seats all the movements are magnified. Évalde’s notorious for getting car sick, so he’s in the front. Emmanuelle’s the Queen Bee of this trip, so she’s also holding court in the front. Just like last time in February all these senior head teachers behave like children on a school trip – there’s laughter and ribaldry all the way until they’re all too exhausted to speak. It’s a tremendous atmosphere – if you’re comfortable enough to enjoy it.

Here in the back of the land cruiser I’m being jolted so hard and so often that the skin of my back across my shoulders is rubbed raw, and my flesh is weeping onto my shirt! Ouch!

From time to time there are gangs of men and women working on the road, shovelling spades of dirt into the ruts to try to even them out. I ask Florien what’s going on – today isn’t Umuganda, so why are these people doing community service? He explains that it’s a new idea for punishing criminals. In order to keep them out of prison, petty criminals have to turn up and do so many days of forced labour a month. If they fail to arrive, or won’t work, or won’t oblige the gangmaster, they go to prison. Of course, they’re all happy to be living at home and not in a Rwandan jail, but at the same time they don’t exactly work themselves to death on the roads. A passing 4WD means they all lean on their shovels and gawp until we’re completely out of sight.

I’m getting well used to the Great North Road now. Look, there’s Bwirika school on the left with its polluted spring. And here we’re just passing Cyeza primary which I inspected yesterday; over there on the hill is Elena Guerra secondary where Cathie and I did a training session. And eventually we pass Kanyanza primary where all the children line the road to see us pass. You don’t get that many cars this far up the road! I wonder if these children remember me playing “Simon Says” with them?

Eventually we reach Rongi school and drive into the yard. It’s after playtime, but all the children are still in the yard and the staff are gossiping in the shade in a corner. It turns out that none of us, and especially the driver, have much idea where Kadehero school is. So with 800 children looking on we get directions from the staff, and (of course) drive off the opposite way to where they’ve pointed. By this time I’m so uncomfortable I’ve pretty well given up caring, but it turns out we’re going to the Rongi secteur office which is at the top of a steep hill and really difficult to access with anything other than a pony. And they don’t have horses in Rwanda!

At the secteur office we drop off our official papers, and because we’re in Rwanda nothing happens without a ten minute chat. There are a dozen or so people, mostly elderly men and women, patiently waiting in the sun for papers to be stamped or permission given for various official businesses, but everything waits while the visitors in the car are greeted and the presence of the muzungu is explained. Then, of course, everybody has to come and shake my hand. The concrete next to the bench is wet with spit where they’ve all been expectorating all over it – talk about an incubator for TB!

We retrace our route for several miles, then turn off and start climbing up and up the mountainsides. The sun is out, and despite the discomfort of the car, the countryside outside the windows is simply ravishing. Huge slopes, covered in green forest or terraced to within an inch of their lives. Eucalyptus all along the road, and leafy woods where the ground is just too steep even to think of farming. Ranges and ranges of hills opening up in the distance whenever we cross a ridge. The road twists and turns and we go up and up and up. I’ve long since lost track of what compass direction we’re heading in. It feels as though we negotiating, not very successfully, a three dimensional maze. In the distance it’s still hazy and misty, so not good for photos, but for the thousandth time I’m staggered by just how beautiful Rwanda is and how privileged I am to be able to work here. At this altitude it is cool and breezy, not at all hot. Perfect weather – just like Dorset in May! From time to time the track crosses bands of rock and the car jolts so abruptly that my head cracks against the window. Even the other head teachers are quiet now; we all just want to get there and get the journey over with.

We cross a meadow on a projecting ridge and in front of us is a primary school. We all relax and grab our bags. But no, this is Burerabana primary. Kadehero is further on, and further up the mountain. So it’s another quarter of an hour until we bump across a field and there in front of us, at last, is our goal.

By now its 12.40 and we’ve been four hours on the road. Half of us are bursting for a pee, but nobody in their right mind ever uses school latrines. So with all the children watching (it’s the middle of their lunch hour and because going home means walking down the mountain – and returning back up it – most children either bring food to school or go without dinner altogether) we rush into a little copse to relieve ourselves. Talk about how to make a dignified arrival…….

Across to the right of us the mountainside is covered in dense forest. The Head of Kadehero sees me looking at it and explains that it’s one of the last surviving fragments of virgin forest in Rwanda other than the big Nyungwe Forest national park. It’s hugely threatened by local people cutting trees illegally for firewood or to make charcoal. The penalties are severe, but these people are desperately poor and don’t see why they can’t take advantage of a free supply of something they can sell. I think this fragment of forest is too small to contain any interesting wildlife, and certainly not monkeys, but it’s nice to see that some of it is surviving, however precariously.

I’m collared by the secretary of the secteur and taken to speak to a year 6 class. They’re all shyness and giggles, and despite being told they can talk to me either in English or in French they can barely string two words together to make conversation. Their English is so weak as to be virtually non-existent. This explains some of Rongi’s exceptionally poor success rate at the P6 exams. But then, just think about it – who would willingly come and teach on the top of this mountain for a pittance when, if they can speak English, they could get a decent job in Kigali working as a hotel porter?

The Headteacher rescues me from the class – the rest of the school has all lined up in the yard (i.e. a sloping field) to welcome the important visitors. The reason for our coming is explained, and I manage to introduce myself in Kinya-Rwanda which sets the children off in giggles. I’m trying to be culturally sensitive but I think I’ve just proved once and for all how crap I am at their language. But it’s broken the ice.

We spend the rest of lunchtime talking to the staff. They’re all lined up in front of us in their white coats, looking apprehensive. (I don’t blame them). One lad has only been teaching for about three weeks; he’s a replacement for another teacher who died suddenly during April.

Lunchtime is over, and the children start their afternoon lessons. All of us headteachers, plus the local secteur reps like Étienne who have come on their own motos, adjourn to a classroom. It appears there are two items on today’s agenda; more important than inspecting the school is to finalise arrangements for a “mock” P6 exam which is going to be the same for all the schools in Muhanga, and held at the end of June. We spend ages discussing dates, and even longer haggling over money – how much is being paid to people to set and mark and print off the papers (there are about 4,500 children in 6ème who will do this test). I offer to set the English section for free because I want to make sure it’s accurate and because I’ve got copies of past papers from Cyeza primary to use as templates. This offer is jumped on by the others – but I must get it finished by the end of this weekend (despite the fact that I’m travelling south to Gasarenda on Saturday), and the stuff needs to be all checked and ready for duplicating by next Wednesday.

By the time we’ve finished this part of our business it has become clear that we don’t have time to inspect any lessons. It’s getting close to the end of their afternoon, and we know we face a four hour drive back to Gitarama. Just think – we could have had our planning meeting in the District Office and been back in our schools for the afternoon. Instead we’ve spent a small fortune hiring a car, and I’ve had an uncomfortable ride but an unforgettable journey round some of loveliest places on earth!

It’s a pity we’re not doing the inspection. They wanted me to do an “Inspection Administratif” with the head, and I’d carefully done all my homework last night. I’ve got charts of drop out rates, repetition rates, pass rates at P6 for past years and so on.

Étienne’s gone off somewhere on his moto for half an hour, and returns with a couple of crates of fanta strapped on the back, and a box of biscuits. Its Rwandan tradition – nothing can happen without fanta and something to eat. How me managed to get all the stuff up the mountain without it falling off and smashing is a mystery to me.

So before I can take any pictures of children or classes or even the forest, we’re back in the land cruiser and heading home again. After a mile we realise we’re going the wrong way, and the driver makes a seriously hairy seven point turn at the edge of a sheer drop. Even Emmanuelle goes very quiet while this is happening, which is quite something. But then she’s sitting in the front and can see how far down the drop is….

Further down the mountain we get stuck for a while behind a lorry whose brakes have jammed. We can’t possibly pass it, so we just have to wait patiently. All the men except me get out, standing around the lorry, looking sympathetically at the wheel, and offering advice. They start to get in the way of the driver and his mate.

Eventually the driver gets his lorry moving, and we pass it on a hairpin bend. A couple of miles later and a thousand feet down, we come to a road junction. Our diver and a couple of the heads flag down the lorry. It turns out that I’m being transferred to the lorry so that our car can take a short cut back towards Gitarama. Ha! I can see the road they’re taking – it might be a short cut but they’re going to be shaken black and blue before they even reach Nyabikenke, let alone Cyeza!

So now I’m in the lorry (yes, the one with the dodgy brakes….), going down and down and down the mountain while the driver’s trying to talk to me in broken English and telling me that he’s seen me around in Gitarama and will I give him English lessons in return for Kinyarwanda conversation practise. It’s the last thing I want to do, but this is Rwanda so I say “yes, of course” and hope it doesn’t ever happen.

There’s one point on this road where we pass over a col with such sharp drops on either side that it’s like being on a bridge 500 feet above a river. If it looks scary from the land cruiser, it looks bloody terrifying from the lorry – we’re so wide we’re virtually hanging over the drop on either side! The driver stops for a second to show me the view, then just when I’m fumbling for my camera he pulls away again and the opportunity’s gone for ever. I’m highly unlikely ever to come this way again.

Eventually we reach civilisation – well, ten shacks and a mosque in the middle of nowhere – and I’m dropped from the lorry. Now I transfer to Étienne’s moto. This is an old machine with a slipping chain, and which leaves a smokescreen of foul blue gunk behind us. Alongside us is a second moto with three people on it, including the Rongi secteur secretary. I’ve told them I’m staying at the presbytery tonight, and Étienne’s explained that it’s at the opposite end of the secteur and too far to walk. He’s not joking, either. We bump and jolt, crunch and jar for a good half hour before we start climbing up a second mountain. On the way we pass Rongi police station. The young copper on duty pulls over the second bike because it’s illegal to have three people on a moto. Much explaining later he comes up to meet me and shake hands. He speaks quite good English, and wants to know if I can get him cassette tapes of English and a handbook to go with them. This is a common request in Rwanda; the answer is always along the lines of “quite possibly; I’ll look out for some and tell you when we next meet”.

By now it’s getting dark; the sun has gone behind the mountain and night will fall completely within twenty minutes or so. (I still can’t get used to how quickly night arrives here on the equator). We climb up through forested slopes, past tiny mud cottages and goggle eyed children until we see a secondary school still under construction. This is Ntarabana, and it means we’re almost there. And finally, with my whole body aching and complaining, we round a bend and in front of us is a massive brick-built church, ultra modern in design, and an extensive presbytery.

The priest comes out to meet me; he remembers me from when I visited the Petit Séminaire at Kabgayi, and I’m introduced to the second priest and a stagiare (a sort of work experience) priest. That’s good news – I’d half expected it to be just the two of us; four means we can share the conversation. The secteur rep is here to ensure I’m received by the priest in a fitting way (Oh God, these dreary formalities); he doesn’t know the priest and I have already met each other and he’s amazed that we seem to know each other’s names in advance. Meanwhile the woman housekeeper is flitting around but I’m not introduced to her at any stage of my visit.

Out come more bottles of fanta. As well as being tired and aching I’m full of gas from previous fanta. So is the secteur rep who lets out a belch which echoes round the hillside. That’s all right, then!

My room is adequate; bare cement floor with a strip matting next to the bed. There are two single beds, a couple of old wardrobes whose doors hang open, and a decent table and chair. There’s a dim light bulb, but at least this place does have electricity. There’s an en-suite bathroom with cold shower. It’s exactly what I expected – and very welcome. Around the room are religious pictures (why oh why do the Catholics go in for these sickly pubescent versions of Mary, and why are Mary and Jesus always shown as white western Europeans and never as Africans or as Middle Eastern figures?) “Lumen Christi Spes Mea” seems to be the motto, but it’s rather lost on me, as is “Que la parole du Seigneur se répande et soit estimée”

It gets dark very fast indeed. I’m left in my room, wondering if there’s to be an evening meal. When I rang the priest I didn’t specify that I wanted feeding, so perhaps I won’t get any. All I’ve had since 6 in the morning is my packet of crisps and bottles of fanta. By half past seven I decide I’m definitely not going to be fed. Its pitch black outside and so, so silent. The mountainside behind the presbytery has long since sunk into the approaching darkness, and the moon hasn’t yet risen.

So I munch my peanut butter sandwich, trying to make it last as long as I can, and my little bottle of water, and try to imagine its one of Teresa’s roast dinners. Some hopes!

Finally, at gone eight o’clock, Father Philippe comes to collect me – supper is ready.

The living room is a revelation. On the one hand you’ve got an amazing collection of Catholic clutter – crucifix, icons, posters, Lourdes calendars etc. But there’s a telly in the corner and the other two priests are watching the news! Better still, when the priest pulls aside a curtain there’s not only a huge dinner on the table but bottles of beer, too. We eat well – chicken (just about the first I’ve had since arriving here), beans, chips, rice, cabbage salad. Bananas for dessert, and tea or coffee. We say a long grace, then fall upon all this food. When it’s pretty well all gone, we say another quick grace.

We’re all tired and it’s gone nine o’clock, so as soon as I decently can I make my apologies and go off to my room to bed. Father Jean Damascène is going to Kabgayi on his moto tomorrow and will be leaving early, so none of us are having a riotous evening.

This presbytery is so high that its mosquito free; I think all bugs of every sort have given up trying to reach it. It’s a cold night and when the moon is up the view from my window is of mountains and pine trees. Not in a million years would anybody imagine this is Rwanda – you’d all think you were in the Rockies!

Best thing abut today – simply everything. This is precisely what I came on VSO to do and enjoy. Despite being bruised and aching, I must be the luckiest person in the world!