Friday, 27 June 2008

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!

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