Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Views to die for!

May 29th

Another early start, on our big bikes past Mata, Mushishiro and Kabacuzi; this time we’re going to Nsanga School in the secteur of Rugendabari. This is the farthest to date we’ve been up the “road to the end of the earth”, but in the next fortnight we’re going to get to know it well!

We just get past Mushishiro and we enter dense fog. It’s cold and clammy. My helmet visor mists up immediately, and we’re driving virtually blind. Fortunately there’s very little else on the road at this time of day. The road surfacing is coming on apace; where there was hard soil the first time I did this road, there’s now a smooth and fast tarmac surface, albeit with a lethally slippery coating of mud in places. It needs someone to go for about ten miles along it with a pressure washer to make the road safe. The road is so new there are no markings yet, and eventually we reach the point where they’re spraying tar and chucking surface gravel onto it.

Everything here is calculated to make the most of unlimited manpower; things which would always be done by machines in England are done by teams of a couple of dozen labourers. I suppose this is what England looked like when they were building the canals and railways!

The thing I find surprising is that in the places which have been tarred for some years, they are busy ripping up the tarmac. I understand that unless you do this the surface won’t last – you can’t just put another layer of tar over the old one. It just seems a shame, though, that in a country where there’s so few tarred roads they should be digging up some of the little there are.

When we reach Nsanga the fog is so dense we’ve got no idea what the place looks like. All we know is that the last kilometre or so is through thick forest and hairy log bridges, then into dense banana groves. The forest bits have a really European feel to them – it could be the Lake District. But then you see the banana trees and, hey, this is Africa after all! The school has banana trees so close they’re virtually touching the windows. You could almost stretch a hand out and pick your dinner! Birds flutter right up to the open classroom door, wagtails and sparrows. Where the classrooms have been put on a patch dug out of the hillside, rainwater oozes and drips from the soil bank and there’s frantic chirping as the littlest birds bathe in the tiny puddles.

Outside on the other side of the rooms is an earth road, and a group of soldiers comes past carrying long poles from freshly cut trees. They’re just as surprised to see us as we are to see them, but they’re very polite. One man is so small that with his arms wrapped round the pole he’s carrying, his rifle is virtually dragging in the dust and threatening to trip him up. I have to turn away so he can’t see me giggle!

Nsanga is a primary and secondary school on the same site. We are to be based in the secondary. This is a real find – by far the best accommodation in all our training sessions. Nsanga is a brand new secondary, part of Muhanga’s efforts to increase the number of secondary schools ready for when secondary education becomes free to everyone around 2015. At that point the schools will all be swamped, and unless they do a hell of a lot more building there’ll be chaos just like the early years of primary.

The school is tiny. It consists of just one block of three classrooms, so new that they’ve only just painted the blackboard and we can barely write on it. The blackboard paint rubs off on our chalk, on our hands, and unless we keep well clear, on our clothes.

But the funniest thing of all is that Nsanga Secondary School has just one class, of 35 children. It only started operations this spring. The children are pleased to be in their new school, but they seem very isolated and really need a lot more people to give them more interaction.

Our training goes well, though the level of fluency in this group isn’t good. Cathie has to leave before we finish. She’s had a telephone interview for a job in Canada, and has to get to an internet café by mid-day to send through documents and be on hand to answer any questions they have arising from them.

This means I’m left on my own to finish off the session. It’s no problem, except that these teachers need a constant eye kept on them, and we’re using both spare classrooms in the school so that they can trace their pictures on all the windows available to us. By the time we finish I find one of them has taken one of the original drawings and left us her (much inferior) copy), others have pinched extra rice sacks to make more posters for their schools (they were supposed to be the sacks we gave out tomorrow), and that Évalde, the secteur representative and all round good guy, has distributed to everyone our huge bag of sweeties that was supposed to last us for the next three sessions!

And to cap it all, it isn’t until we’re climbing over the big ridge of hills on the way home and I feel distinctly cold that I realise I’ve left my new fleece behind in the classroom. I’m so weighed down with all my stuff and all Cathie’s and distracted by talking to people, that I clean forget I’ve left it on a table. I try ringing the head teacher when I get home, but can’t get any reception. Well, someone might be honest and return it, but I don’t hold out much hope. Thank goodness I’ve got my old fleece in the flat – I’m going to need it for these early morning runs!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As we go through our training session the mist outside gradually clears to reveal the most gorgeous views. Impossibly steep hillsides, deep, narrow valleys, roads twisting and turning like demented snakes, rows of serrated hilltops stretching away to the horizon in every direction. The school is sited high on a spur jutting out into the void, and the views are simply breathtaking. Down there in the far distance is the River Nyaborongo, a muddy brown snake curling through the valley bottom. The new tarmac road twists and turns so much that it’s difficult to make sense of it until you watch a matata careering along on its way to Ngororero. We’ve seen some beautiful views in our travels but this just beats them all. If I had to teach here I’d never get anything done! It makes all the bumpy roads worthwhile; I pinch myself again to believe this is isn’t just a dream. Poor old Tiga and Épi and Soraya – they have the same views every day. For Cathie and I there’s new vistas every Thursday and Friday, and they just get better and better.

I think it’s a general rule, too, that the further up-country you go, the better the scenery becomes. Certainly the more dramatic and rustic it gets!

We’re out in the school yard doing some of our teaching games like “Simon Says” and “What’s the Time Mr Lion?” when the children come out for their break. These children are very polite and keep sufficient distance away from us, so we continue with our games. The children think it’s the funniest thing ever to see their teachers playing at being children. They don’t know who to watch first – the two muzungus giving orders, their own teachers who are also all standing round and watching us, or the visiting teachers from all the other schools in the secteur who are playing the game. “What’s the Time Mr Lion?” is a counting game, and within a couple of minutes we have a couple of hundred children doing the counting as well as our eighteen trainees! It’s a lovely atmosphere.

One group of older primary children all seem to have babies with them, strapped to their backs, at break time and lunchtime. I’m not sure whether these are “filles mères” – girls who have had children at around thirteen or fourteen, well before they finish primary school, or whether they’re somebody else’s babies they’re just looking after. I’m afraid they’re “filles mères”, though I never see any of these very young girls feeding the babies. One of our trainees, though, nips off midway through the morning to nurse her little girl. The baby’s hair is quite long (unusual here), and beautifully soft and fluffy even though completely curly. When you see African women with the very tight, wiry curls, you think their hair is going to be bristly to the touch. Quite the opposite, in reality, especially with the children….

Back at the flat I eat far too much for lunch, then collapse on the bed for a doze. Waking up an hour later I feel guilty and rush around doing ironing, boxing up a fruit salad for the freezer, washing the bedroom floor, and lots off little household things. By the time we’ve cooked and eaten I’m even more tired, too much to want to bother watching a film!

Best thing about today – the panoramas from Nsanga School. Wonderful stuff; it’s good to be in Africa!

Worst thing about today – I’m pretty sure I can say goodbye to my fleece!

No comments: