Sunday, 15 June 2008

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!

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