Sunday, 15 June 2008

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!

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