Sunday, 15 June 2008

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!

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