Sunday, 31 August 2008

Family day out to Akagera

Some pictures from our family visit to Akagera National Park on August 13th. This is my favourite - sunrise over Lake Ihema. You're looking towards Tanzania in the far distance.
Frolicking hippos. You really get close to them.

Tyical Akagera scenery - shallow lakes, swampy marshes, and the Mutumba Hills in the background.

African fish eagle

A family of Topi. If you compare these pictures with my March photos of Akagera you'll see how the grass has gone from green to brown as the dry season bites. We need the rains soon...

How to build a house on the cheap!

August 30th

Umuganda today, so there’s no point in trying to go posting blogs at the internet café or shopping or any of the other usual Saturday activities. Tom gets up and goes off to do Umuganda with his FHI colleagues. I still feel guilty about not doing umuganda. You’re supposed to do it either through the umugudugu (the little cell of houses around where you live), or through your work. But we live in a commercial area with very few other dwelling houses, and we can’t find out where our umugudugu begins and ends or who the responsible person is. And certainly nobody turns up at the District Office to do community work! I think a lot of the D O crowd think their (relatively) large salaries lift them out of any work at all! I’d be more than willing to do the odd umuganda just to say I’d done it. (That’s what Marisa and Els did). Oh well, at the end of September I might join Tom’s crowd.

He and Christi have a good morning of it – there is hardly anybody from FHI doing umuganda either, so they are directed to join the market traders. This is a huge group of people, but it’s noticeable that it’s almost entirely the women who turn up to do umuganda. The traders are building a house for a vulnerable/disadvantaged family on the outskirts of town (this is a common umuganda project), and Tom spends to morning hoeing down the approach path to the house trying to get it level. The house has been built where there were eucalyptus trees, and hoeing is difficult because the ground is still full of roots. He’s got blisters by the time he comes home, but he’s made friends with the market traders. He does some vegetable shopping with them on his way home and gets noticeably better deals on his produce today than I do!

Apparently the market traders have agreed among themselves that if one of their members doesn’t turn up for umuganda he or she has to pay a fine of RwF1000 (£1). So far they have raised more than RwF200,000 towards materials and land costs for their house.

I spend a lazy morning catching up on myself, and as soon as the shops reopen I go and do a big shop up for food. We’ve already decided this afternoon will be a cook-a-thon to restock the freezer, which at the moment is just a vast expanse of white shelving.

In the afternoon Tom’s mincing meat and making a meat base; I’m making a huge batch of vegetable soup – cabbage, celery, onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots, peppers, imboga, tomato puree, and whizzing it up with a hand mixer when its cooked. That’ll fill several Tupperware boxes and be a damn good standby on days when we’re too tired to cook anything else!

The day passes like this – cooking, shopping, catching up on writing blogs and emails, and reading. I’ve just finished Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns”. It’s set in Kabul during the recent turbulent times in Afghanistan and it’s tragic at a Hardyan level.

In the evening we go round to Soraya’s for a meal, and Tiga comes up from Gikongoro. She’s spent nearly four hours getting here (matatas hanging around waiting for customers at every single stop) and is seething. But we haven’t seen her for ages and ages and it’s really good to catch up on the gossip. She’s definitely finishing with VSOP in Rwanda at the end of October (as soon as her school term and teaching commitments finish) and will probably try to do another VSO placement in a different country. In her own words “I’ve never felt so much not belonging as I do here in Rwanda”. We all know exactly what she means. This society is so closed, and so introverted, and to preoccupied with its recent sufferings, that it’s not a joy to be here. You feel all the time that people are afraid top be happy, afraid to celebrate. Tiga’s spent a long time in the Caribbean area where the outlook on life is so much more outgoing. I don’t blame her; my attitude is that it’s taken me six months to begin to understand how this place works, and I’m just getting to the point where I can be properly useful. It would be a shame to throw all that knowledge away and restart somewhere else. I’m going to stick it out here.

Tiga gets off the bus in the middle of Gitarama but doesn’t know where Soraya is staying, so texts us for directions. I go to meet her. She’s outside the “Delta Club” where Tom and I quite often eat. Tiga immediately confirms one of our long held suspicions. “Did you realise you asked me to wait for you outside a brothel?” she says. She’s already had a couple of refusable offers while waiting for me.

Anyway, Soraya cooks us whole tilapia fish in a savoury sauce, and we eat like kings. We can’t drink alcohol because the (Christian) guest house rules don’t allow it, and in any case Soraya doesn’t drink and Tiga can’t dink because she’s awash with amoebas which make her retch at the smell of alcohol. So while there’s plenty of gossip we’re not exactly raucous.

We invite the girls to our place for Sunday lunch and trudge home to bed at half past ten. Gitarama is strangely deserted – there’s hardly anybody out on the streets.

Best thing about today – seeing Tiga again.


August 29th

Well, the bigger your hopes, the more easily they’re dashed. Tom and I walk up to the office, Tom to try to get the next sixth month’s rent out of Claude, and me to go up to a school opening at Rongi.

Problem was – when we got to the office there’s no sign of Claude. Emmanuelle, the heads’ rep from Shyogwe was around, and tells us Claude has left half an hour ago with a man from the ministry. The rotter! Claude shafted me three ways today – I missed out on the jamboree to Rongi; I missed the chance to brief him on what I’d been finding on my inspections; I missed the chance instead to go with Soraya to Mushubi. She had set off early with the VSO crowd in a pick up truck to get her heavy furniture out of the school house at Mushubi, and store it in the guest house in Gitarama.

Tom had to go to Kigali, definitely disgruntled at not getting his rent (we’re not two months in arrears and I expect he’ll be throwing me out onto the street in a few days’ time), and I sat around trying to look busy for two whole hours just in case Claude had been on one of his usual diversions and was about to reappear and take me with him to Rongi at any minute.

So Friday turned out into another “down day”, and once again it’s not my fault. It’s just a case of the Africa thing working against me.

While I was waiting I found a copy of the major report on Poverty Reduction Strategy from 2008-2012 which to anyone reading this blog probably sounds like a good way to fall asleep, but is actually riveting reading. In a few pages it manages to combine a very detailed economic analysis of where the country is, a list of intended actions at central Government level over the next four years, and very concisely all the targets that each part of the country – including our volunteer community – is supposed to be heading for. This is so useful I can’t believe why VSO hasn’t given us all a copy.

In fact, with a whole day ahead of me, and nothing to do, I take it upon myself to make an abstract of the important bits to give to all the new VSOs when they arrive next week or whenever it is.

So that’s what I do. I go back to the flat and work like a Trojan all day long making a précis of the report. Twelve odd pages long, and that’s just my summary. As I write this blog I’m still seeing statistics slide past before my eyes!

The evening also has its moment. Tom’s left me unsure whether he’s coming home tonight or staying over in Kigali (it’s umuganda tomorrow, so a good time not to be in Gitarama). At quarter to seven I decide he’s in Kigali for the night. I can’t ring him and confirm because his mobile phone’s playing up. So I make supper for me and the guard, and I’m just in the very act of doing the washing up when Tom arrives home. Shamefacedly I have to confess that I’ve cooked stuff and we’ve eaten the lot. He’s very good about it; there enough stuff left in the fridge so that he doesn’t starve.

One of those crazy days. Claude, I hope your ears were burning all bloody day long!


August 28th

Today is one of those days which seems humdrum and wasted; then suddenly takes a new turn.

I’m a bit fed up in the morning because I’ve tried to arrange inspections for today with no less than 5 schools, and every one has either not replied at all to my text (how rude – it only costs 5p to send me a reply, even if it’s to tell me to get lost), or put me off. The range of excuses grows daily. Here’s this week’s batch so far:
You can’t come because I’m involved in a Gacaca case
You can’t come because my children are seriously ill
You can’t come because we’re doing a preparation run for the P6 exams
You can’t come because it’s inconvenient
Can you come sometime next week…… and so on!
I’m especially fed up because I’m making a special effort to be business like this term. I’m acutely aware that I’ve only got until the middle of October to do my visits – after that date it’s end of year revision, exams etc and there’ll be no more inspections till January. Also, I’ve got Soraya with me and I’m trying to get her up to speed as fast as I can. The only way you learn how to do school inspections is by getting out there and starting, and each time you do one you do it slightly better.

So I’m miffed I’m not on the road, but at least I can say it’s not my fault (this time). I go in to the office and go through the Remera and Mushubati reports with Soraya. She finds several silly mistakes which I’ve overlooked (like putting the wrong school’s name on a graph – how’s that for calculated to rub them up the wrong way!).

We try to print out a top copy of each report for Claude, but the office printer is out of toner, and the whole District Office is out of replacement toner, so things’ll have to wait. After all, I can give Claude an electronic copy of everything except the lesson observation sheets.

By lunchtime we’ve done all we can. Soraya is going down to Mushubi tomorrow to finally collect all her furniture from the school house. Tiga’s coming to stay with her on Saturday night. They’re meeting Els in Kigali. I’ve told Soraya to invite Els to Gitarama Saturday night so that she and I can sort out our training presentation to the VSO new arrivals in ten days’ time. See what I mean about things beginning to get busy once you’ve been here most of a year…..? I can’t imagine how I managed to fill my time during the lazy days of July….

After lunch I have an appointment to meet Karen and another bunch of primary teachers in the “Hotel Splendide”. This is Gitarama’s newest hotel and does its best to live up to its name. It’s brand new, the dining room staff are immaculately dressed, everything works, (well, nearly. The gent’s loo has a picture of a lady on the door, honest, and instead of a washbasin to do your hands afterwards they’ve put in a full scale shower. Whoever has a shower after doing a pee?)

At the Hotel I meet Christine who is the head teacher of Kabgayi “B” school, and Marie who is head of Kabgayi “A”. There is huge confusion at District office because our documentation there has Christine as head of both Kabgayi primary schools and also Remera school, which I visited last Tuesday. Now Christine is a large and formidable lady, but even she can’t run three schools, about three miles apart up Rwanda’s hills! The woman in front of me is definitely Christine. So who the hell was I inspecting on Tuesday? – it certainly wasn’t Christine and whoever it was, she was far too embarrassed and diplomatic to put the muzungu right over names…..

In ten minutes I’ve got all my inspections sorted out for the next week – Monday at Kibanda in Muhanga’s hill country (Upton family reading this – I’ll be going out on the road with the Chinese engineers!) Tuesday morning with Marie at Kabgayi A. Wednesday at Mbare next to Shyogwe, bumping along that dirt road, Teresa! Friday with Christine in Kabgayi B, which is one of the giant schools with 1700+ pupils. Thursday will be writing up reports.

Things get better. Claude is at the meeting with Karen. I remind him that he and I are supposed to be meeting tomorrow morning. He immediately looks sheepish and I know without him saying that he’s double booked himself. Turns out he’s going up country to Rongi to the formal opening of Ntarama primary school. “That’s not a problem” I chirp up, “I can come with you if there’s room in the car and we can talk on the way”. Claude thinks this is a great idea. So tomorrow I’ve wangled myself a day out, and an official invitation to the formal opening of a school. Ntarama school is just a few yards down the hill from Rongi Presbytery where I spent a night with the alcoholic priests last term. They’ll be there for sure (It’s a church school), and the only shame is that I won’t be able to take Soraya on this jolly with us. Never mind. I’ll take my camera for sure. Watch this space.

After lunch I manage to do a few minutes’ blogging while the power lasts, then back to the flat for a rest. I feel I’m on a real high because suddenly everything has worked out right. Little things please little minds.

Karen says Claude’s been telling her he’s very pleased with me and that I’m an “homme impeccable”. Not quite sure how that translates but I think it’s a compliment.

So now I feel I’ve already done a good day’s work and it’s only four in the afternoon. So I decide to take the rest of the day off and catch up on a week’s blogging.

When Tom comes in we’re both too tired to do much cooking, even though Janine has bought us bags of fruit and veg and meat. They can wait till tomorrow. We’ve both eaten well at lunchtime, so our evening meal is fried cheese sandwiches and fruit salad. The guard gets reheated cooked rice and beans and a handful of grated cheese. Midway through doing all this the power goes off. You can tell the rainy season is arriving by the frequency of power cuts. The power seems as if it’s going to be out a long time; the entire town is in darkness except for car headlights and the odd business which can afford an emergency generator.

So by half past eight we decide to call it a day and go to bed. There’s nothing else to do!

Best thing about today – isn’t it nice when everything falls into place. And I notice it’s often when Karen’s involved that things work out smoothly.

Teaching geology in French

August 27th

Into the office all businesslike because I need to dig out some census forms and print out some stuff before we hit the road. Today’s real luxury. We’re inspecting Mushubati school and I already know exactly where it is and how much I should be paying the motos. So when mutley the moto driver comes up with all his “thousand francs” crap I draw myself up to a full two metres and give him a broadside about how I’m not a bloody tourist and he’ll take me for two hundred or else….. Soraya’s killing herself with laughter while all this is going on. Mutley caves in and we chug at jogging speed along the level and through the bumpy bit where the Chinese have put in a new culvert.

Upton family – Mushubati is where the road to Ngororero (think Chinese engineers) splits from the surfaced road to Kibuye (think endless bends and matatas with overheated engines).

The school just a few yards up the hill from the main road. Its grounds end in an unfenced cliff some twenty feet high, dropping sheer onto the carriageway. On top of this cliff are a score of excited little boys who are nearly wetting themselves because two muzungus are about to come up the path to their school….. Right on the corner itself there’s a little patch of grass which has been taken over by cycle vélo drivers, who lounge around repairing endless punctures and making comments at any woman who passes.

Mushubashi is an interesting school. Firstly it has an unbeatable view across the hills towards Mushishiro; at this time of the morning the sunlight is still quite low and everything just looks soooo beautiful. We’re both stopped in our tracks on the dusty road and gape at the vista in front of us.

The school buildings are a motley collection, and none is really fit for purpose. One’s too low, one’s too small, one’s too old, one has a low tin roof which must be unbearable on a hot day. The “playground” is on a steep slope with outcrops of quartzite rock running across it. There’s not the slightest attempt at landscaping, and to reach the lower classrooms means a dangerous slide down the loose grit and dust and old leaves covering the surface. The Head, Édith, has an office like a little cell, painted vivid green. But she’s on the ball, and we have a really good time inspecting. As at Remera, it’s lovely to see lots of our rice-sack posters on display in rooms. (It’s very good for to ego to walk into an African classroom and see a map on the wall and think: “I made the original of that”!)

Highlight of my morning is to observe a geography lesson in French. They’re talking about the volcanoes national park, and in particular Karisimbi, and Nyiragongo volcano in the Congo. He’s a good teacher, very professional, and he manages to teach them some technical geology vocab which pleases me no end. So at the end of the lesson I take a couple of minutes and give them some more about the geology of Nyiragongo and why it’s such an acutely dangerous volcano. Yay folks, I’m teaching geology in French! If the niveau de magma in the cratère gets too high à cause de the pression ge gaz volcanique, then you get an eruption imprévu très violent. You get the picture. The kids did, that’s for sure. Some of them have relatives living in Gisenyi under the very mountain.

At breaktime Soraya and I are mobbed by most of the 800+ children. The little ones are daring each other to stroke my arms when they think I’m not looking (they think we white men are as hairy as gorillas). They don’t know what to make of Soraya. Half the year six children are taller than her. They love it when she smiles at them.

Last lesson of the morning is yr 6 English grammar. Forty five minutes of grammar – who, whom, which, that, whose. I hope the teacher doesn’t pick on me to answer a couple of questions ‘cos I haven’t a clue what the correct answer is. In England we use “that” and “which” almost interchangeably. And if we English almost never use “whom”, why on earth are these poor children having to learn it?

In this primary school there are some nineteen year olds among the year 6 boys (good job they’re still in the uniform of khaki shirts and shorts, or I’d mistake them for the teaching staff).

Édith is planning to teach all subjects in French from year 2 next January. I’m not sure how well that’s going to work. There’s also issues to confront her with. A redoublement rate of more than 26% - that’s a quarter of the entire school being made to repeat years. And her year 6 is less than 5% of the school population – what’s happened to everyone else? There’s an enormous drop off in the proportion of boys relative to girls as you go up through the school. Something’s wrong here, but it might be the parents rather than the school. And in a school of 814 there is only one handicapped child. There should be around 80 (10%) with some form of special needs. So where are they? Working in the fields? Hidden away at home from shame of mental weakness?

I spend the afternoon writing up my report.

In the evening Karen and I join the FHI gang to say goodbye to Jerry and Christine, the American/Canadian couple who have been staying in the FHI guest house for a month. We have real home made pizza (ecstasy…) and home made punch, and home made chocolate brownie cake. Then we play parlour games for an hour while the lights flicker on and off. The rainy season isn’t just coming early, it seems to be arriving right now. It’s been cold and windy all day. I should know, because I’m actually so busy at the moment that I’m using motos to go everywhere and save time. Tonight there’s thunder and a long shower of rain, just what we need to knock out the power and get sticky mud all over our sandals.

Best thing about today – pizza and brownies. And the school inspection wasn’t bad, either.

Worst thing – What, you mean that’s the last of the pizza. What about these slices. Oh, they’re for each of our night guards…..

Footnote: seen on a second hand tee shirt in Gitarama:
“If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you”………

Fun and games on the road again!

August 26th

Today I’m inspecting on my own at Remera, one of the primary schools on the fringe of Gitarama. I haven’t the foggiest where it is, so Innocent gives me rough directions and tells me it should be about 300 francs on a moto.

Outside the Office, one moto driver asks for 2000 and the other tries to undercut him by wanting 1500. I tell them what they can both do, and walk up the road a few hundred yards to the next junction. Here a driver takes me for 300 francs.

The trouble is that yet again he takes me to the wrong place. He assures me the buildings up above me are Remera primary school, but they turn out to be Karama secondary. A woman passing just gawps when I ask her the way to Remera; she doesn’t know and is terror stricken that she can’t tell the white man what he needs to know. She looks as if she’s afraid I’ll strike her for not knowing. Then a farmer comes out of the field and rescues the situation. He takes me back to the main road and calls a cycle vélo for me. Back we go to the main road junction. The cycle driver is pouring with sweat because he’s had to pedal uphill for a mile. He gestures up a hillside and says 300 metres. Oh Yeah…..

In three hundred metres I pass a primary school, but it’s Mushubati School, which I’ve booked to visit tomorrow. A teacher there confirms I’m on the right track and up I go, up the hillside, past the maternelle where sixty little people all rush out to watch the strange sight of a muzungu walking past their little school. And on I go, and on, and on. A mile and a half later I see a school in the distance; surely this HAS to be Remera. And it is. It stands on a wide hilltop, strung out across a wide flat expanse of ground. It feels spacious and there’s even some grass left in the playground – remarkable here in Rwandan schools.

There’s a big maternelle, overflowing from their little hut and the chapel they use as a temporary classroom. For fully ten minutes they sing to me and do their little action songs. They sing about being little birds so I tell them this big bird has come from England, across the lake, so meet them. Cue gales of shy giggles from the girls and some serious formal handhakes from little boys. Some parents are doing voluntary umuganda this morning; they are rebuilding another mud-brick hut to use as a further extension for the maternelle. One man is up to his calves in thick mud, mixing it into mortar to glue the mud bricks together. I make a point of shaking hands with all of them and thanking them for their efforts. This is a diplomatic thing to do, and they’re clearly deeply touched that a white man has even deigned to speak to them, let alone thank them for working.

I realise that across the valley is the whole of Gitarama spread out before me, and that I’ve travelled about five miles in a letter “C” shape this morning to end up barely a mile from my flat.

Remera is a funny set up. The head mistress is long on her problems but short on strategies. She has no development plan, no budget, and no targets to raise her standards. Her results are the worst in the district. Yet she’s a lovely woman, caring, kind, sensitive, and the children clearly like her. She has huge numbers in her 1ère, and these will give her real accommodation problems as they move up through the school.

One teacher welcomes me into her room, beaming all over her face. And on her classroom walls are no fewer than five of my rice sacks, with the human skeleton, maps, and language rules in multicolour on them. It’s a lovely sight. The most decorated room in any primary I’ve visited, and absolute proof that our training days are paying off big time.

I sit in on English and French lessons. The problem in this school is that virtually nobody on the staff is fluent in English; the training need is absolute. I agree to come back and spend a day teaching English with them. I’ll make sure I bring some resources with me which they can use, too. I’ll also try to get Soraya up here to work on a more regular basis with them.

I’m talking with the Head as we’re finishing. She asks me about my family. I then discover this woman is trying to cope with two physically handicapped young children at home, as well as run a school. I don’t know if there’s a husband around to help her, either.

Back at the flat I work hard all afternoon finishing entering primary results data onto my laptop. It’s so good being able to give these head teachers a sheet with a statistical breakdown of their results subject by subject. There’s usually something I can praise them about, and it makes my inspections so much more constructive.

Just as I’m getting into the report on her school, my phone rings. It’s Charlotte from the VSO office. There is a possibility of two short-term (3 month) NAHT primary Headteacher placements here in Muhanga, and can I suggest two likely schools. Oh, and can I do this by the end of Friday. Well, Remera’s certainly a place where an organised, efficient English head could make a huge difference. I’ll need to go back to the school and talk to the head again, very soon.

Suddenly VSO seems to be setting up a real cluster of placements here in Gitarama, where Karen and I would be the experienced volunteers. Karen, Me, Soraya, Geert’s replacement at Shyogwe, a Rwandan “national volunteer” possible sharing accommodation with Soraya, and two English head teachers.

Best thing about today – I’m getting back into the swing of work, and things seem to be going well. I’ve had another interesting journey trying to find a school, too. I now know the exact locations of almost all the schools in Shyogwe, Nyamabuye and Cyeza secteurs, and that’s a quarter of my entire district. That’s very satisfying to me.

Worst thing about today – I spent so long entering stats into my laptop that I didn’t get the Remera report finished. Tomorrow I’m off to another school and I know, I just know, that I’ll muddle the two of them up when I do the rest of the report!

The church of girls in Kigali

August 24th

Up early for a Sunday and off to Kigali with Tom. I’m going to meet up with Marisa and say my farewells to her before she returns to Canada. She’s done her eight month placement and is planning to travel home via Uganda and Kenya, which is pretty adventurous. Of all our little group of six volunteers, Marisa is the one with an almost identical job to mine, and she’s been great at sharing ideas and making sure we both support each other. There’s be someone new coming in to replace her in September, but I’m going to miss her. Yet another experienced volunteer is leaving our little family!

Tom is coming with me for a different reason. Last week he went to a church in Kigali and was struck by the astonishing number of very pretty young Rwandan women attending. That sounds like a challenge neither of can ignore, so we’re scrubbed and preened and heading to the Free Bible Church by just after nine o’clock. The church is right on the outskirts of town, a brand new building. It is off the matata routes, and runs its own little matata to collect worshippers from a point at the end of the usual bus line. There are two services on a Sunday morning; we have to wait I the shade for the earlier one to finish before we’re allowed in. The church is huge; it has tiered seats like a theatre, an excellent sound system and the words to each hymn are projected on to the walls so everyone can sing. And there’s lots of hymn singing. It’s a far more eclectic and exciting atmosphere than the Presbyterian Church we’ve been going to in Gitarama. The singing is accompanied by real live music, and a drummer who knows when to stop. There’s also a good choir; 4-part harmony and empathy with the congregation. People in front of me really are dancing in the aisles.

And the pretty young girls are there, too, in droves!

I have to stand up and introduce myself as a visitor, which gets me a hug from the lovely young woman immediately next to me. Can’t be bad. Imagine that happening in Bradpole…

The service lasts two hours, of which the entire final hour turns out to be a sermon about sexual faithfulness. They must have known I was coming! The Pastor is a Rwandan who has spent a long time in Uganda; surprisingly he preaches in English and an interpreter translates into Kinyarwandan. The sermon is not without its moments – “if your husband is being unfaithful and then wants to come back home to you, shut the door in his face and throw him out”. So turning the other cheek is passé, now, it seems.

Sexual faithfulness is a big issue here in Rwanda. Many men have two families on the go at the same time, and spend time with each “wife” in turn. Often the wives know of each others’ existence, but they’re economically dependent on the men to provide for the droves of children and can’t afford to boot them out. Of course, it’s a perfect vehicle for the transmission of HIV and every other sexually transmitted disease in the book, too. And there’s still this stupid idea that somehow it’s not “manly” to wear a condom.

So alas, after an hour of dire warnings and Old Testament quotes about adultery neither Tom nor I are mobbed by gorgeous young women at the end of the service. We do meet a bunch of gap students from Oregon who are going to be doing a performance in the church that afternoon. You can tell they have only just arrived because the girls are dressed as if they were on their Oregon campus (i.e. pretty uncovered by Rwandan standards), and the boys are pink from the sun. They look awestruck when we tell them we’ve been here for a year (Tom) and eight months (me).

In the heat of the day we saunter the two miles back to where the public buses run. Fortunately it’s all downhill. Tom’s going straight back to Gitarama, I’m meeting Marisa at “La Galette”. We order our food – much cheaper than buying stuff in the shop, which is wildly expensive – and while we’re eating we watch the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on a television. It’s the only bit of the entire Olympics I’ve managed to watch. Seeing Boris Johnson trying to look dignified as he received the flag ready for 2012 just makes me squirm, as does the entire song and dance routine with a red bus and aging rocker trying to recreate Led Zep from the 1970s. Oh dear, if this is what London 2012 is going to be like, then I want to be volunteering in somewhere like Outer Mongolia - perhaps teaching in a ger for the duration!

Marisa is laughing at my lack of patriotic enthusiasm; if I cringe any further I’ll fall under the table!

As we walk back to the town centre to catch our buses we meet Soraya, who’s on her way home from Kibuye where she’s being saying goodbye to Caroline. (Tis the season for farewells with a vengeance).

Back at Gitarama it’s the usual Sunday night muzungu meal; rather sedate this time with only about six of us.

Best thing about today – a church which is popular, comfortable, and a service which is welcoming, exciting, and funny all at the same time.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Ward's leaving party

This is Ulrika, a German volunteer (not VSO) who manages an orphanage in Gitarama. She is very much one of our Sunday night get-together gang.
Ulrika with Ward (in the middle) and an Argentinian doctor who is working in the obstetrics department at Kabgayi hospital. Ward is our "entertainments manager" - he's the one who texts us to say there's a football match on at the cultural centre, or that there's a band playing at the night club, so we're going to miss him now that he's leaving. His day job is as an agricultural adviser in Mushishiro and Kabacuzi secteurs, within Muhanga district. He's a Flemish-speaking Belgian; his house is full of posters in Flemish and none of us cannunderstand a word of them! Three of the non-VSO or FHI Gitarama muzungus!

Ward talking to Karen

Karen does watercolours to relax, and she's really good at it. While she was doing this painting of first communion inside the church at Gitarama, she and I were talking about Warminster and people we both knew in common in the town. If you double click on the picture you should be able to blow it up big enough to see details of people's clothes and the banners hanging from the ceiling.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Over budget!.... and bloody termites!

August 22nd

Another working day today. I meet up with Soraya at the bus park and we go off in a matata to inspect Munyinya school. It’s my first inspection since the middle of June, and high time I got myself back on the road. Munyinya is on the outskirts of Gitarama in the Kigali direction; it’s one of the easiest schools to get to because it’s only a few hundred yards off the main road and one of the rare places I can reach by bus. For Soraya it’s the first school she’s been to with me, the first she’s formally inspected, and I think it’s the first Rwandan primary school she’s been to other than as a venue for in-service training for teachers. (At Mushubi she was teaching entirely within a secondary tronc commun school). Quite a day, then.

Munyinya is a big school with just over a thousand pupils. It’s a fortunate place because almost all the buildings are modern, the originals replaced by a Belgian charity in 2003. But in typical Rwandan fashion, there wasn’t any money left to install water (children have to go a long way down a valley to a stream which is dirty), or to install electricity despite the buildings being within 300m of electricity pylons, or even to level off the central courtyard to make it suitable for games. I really can’t understand why, when they’ve got all the builders on site, they don’t just go the extra mile and make a proper job of everything.

The inspection goes well. This school is exactly on the District average in all its results, and there’s nothing serious I can find to fault it except that it’s not setting academic targets, and seem to be a bit too cosy to be average when similar schools around Gitarama are in the top 10% of the District’s results. On the other hand the Headmistress is far sighted and has a really good strategic plan where she’s looking towards having electricity, water, sports accommodation, and playgroup and tronc commun accommodation all within the next five years or so, funds permitting. Now that’s pretty good for Rwanda.

The tronc commun provision (key stage 3 in English parlance) is interesting. There seems to be a profound switch in Government policy away from building new, entirely separate secondary schools, towards extending primary schools so they cover key stages 1-3. This is called “basic education” here, and it makes a lot of sense. The policy seems to be to choose newer, bigger primary schools which are pretty central to their secteurs, and extend them for lower secondary. This means that secondary children would not have so far to travel to go to school; it means that these new buildings would not have to have boarding facilities; and it would be especially suitable for the young mothers nursing their babies who make up a sizeable proportion of the secondary school population. The local choice seems to be between Munyinya and Gatenzi primaries, both of which I have inspected. Both have new buildings; both are average in terms of results. Gatenzi has the bigger site but Munyinya is closer to the main road and therefore more accessible. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. Perhaps they’ll extend both!

We eat at “Tranquillité”; Karen is there with a group of special needs teachers. We say hello, but they’re having a working lunch so we do our own thing. Once again, Karen says our training at Biti on Tuesday is still being talked about locally in glowing terms, so at least we’ve got some things right!

In the afternoon Soraya is off to Kibuye with Caroline. The Belgian girl finishes in Rwanda next weekend, and I think Soraya is taking over care of her pet rabbit. Tiga was supposed to be also going to Kibuye but there’s something up with Tiga which we’re not certain about. She’s mentioned to Soraya that she’s thinking of leaving her school house and moving into Caroline’s place when she vacates it. I can understand Tiga not wanting to be next door to the head teacher and just across the hedge from the school site, but it’s quite an inconvenient long haul across town from Caroline’s place to the school.

I have an appointment at Shyogwe in the afternoon; it’s crunch time on the building project. First of all I take my laptop and show all the photos I took on my last visit to the master mason and all the labourers. We have to find a corner in the shade so that anybody can see the laptop screen, and I have to have three goes to show all twenty or so labourers their pictures. They’re more than happy to see themselves on screen, and I think it’ll make taking any future pictures easier! Then at the same time there several hundred little primary school children all pushing and shoving to see the pictures, too, and we have to get pretty physical with some of them to keep order and prevent my laptop being damaged in the scrum.

The meeting with Stéphanie and the builder is a bit fraught. We now discover that the materials costs alone come to more than our original entire budget for construction, and we spend most of the afternoon calculating labour costs. Each skilled mason costs RwF2000/day (£2); each labourer RwF700 (70p). That sounds peanuts in English terms, but remember that we’re trying to build and equip 4 entire rooms, and modernise some existing ones, all for 20,000 euros. That’s a tall order.

Eventually we calculate the total building costs at around 14 million francs. I have to make a decision. We could cut the number of windows, and use mud cement instead of proper cement in some parts of the walls; we could leave the interior walls bare brick instead of rendering them, but it isn’t going to save huge amounts of money and I’m anxious not to spoil the new rooms for the sake of a few thousand francs. So I tell them to go ahead with the original specification. It means we’ll just about have enough money to buy new furniture for the four rooms, but most of the other projects – water, electricity, glazing in some other rooms, teaching materials – are discarded until some other institution comes up with money.

Part of me feels terribly deflated about this – it’s as if I’ve raised their expectations and then had to pull back on them. But the Rwandans are not worried. They’ll be more than happy with these rooms, which will be the best in the school by quite some margin. I’m more concerned about how the Dutch will take it, but I don’t see what other decisions I could have made. Even if I’d penny pinched at every opportunity we still wouldn’t have had enough money to do much more than build and equip these four new rooms.

The classroom in which we’re talking has funny grooves and holes throughout its walls. When I ask, Juliette explains that they are termite tunnels – the room we’re in is absolutely infested with termites. It’s quite amazing how these tiny creatures eat away at mud bricks so such an extent that parts of the walls resemble Aero chocolate. Thank goodness we’ve remembered to include termite-proof membranes in the new building!

By the time I get back home I’m really tired. I’ve ended up walking most of the way from the primary school to the main road before finding a moto. Friday afternoon is Shyogwe market and the places is miles busier than I’ve ever seen it before; every cycle vélo and moto within a mile is frantically busy. Tom is in Kigali and won’t be back till late, and for supper I simply defrost and reheat the leftovers from last night’s lentil stew. Tom’s also knackered when he gets in and we’re too tired and lazy even to wash up (rare for us). We watch videos till about eleven and collapse into our beds.

Best thing about today – getting out on the road again. Seeing the Shyogwe foundations complete.

Worst thing – having to trim my hopes and expectations on the Shyogwe project.

The Tour de Rwanda

August 21st

Down early to the internet café and I spend the best part of two hours uploading pictures as blog entries, and sending emails to all and sundry. For the first time this month I feel I’m electronically caught up on myself!

There’s nothing much happening at the district office and nothing really for either Soraya or me to do. We drift down towards “Tranquillité” again for lunch. As we get near the town centre every market porter and every lad hanging about suddenly sprints towards the main road. We can hear sirens in the distance, approaching. At first we think there’s been some major road accident and everybody’s racing to see who’s been hurt, or who is lying dying in the road. Then I think there must be a food drop of some sort to get this lightning reaction from so many people.

We turn down the little lane that leads from the market to the main road, and see the road lines two deep with people. Before we can think, and before I can get my camera out, a police motor cycle outrider hurtles past, followed by team cars. We’ve intercepted the “Tour de Rwanda” cycle race – our national equivalent of the Tour de France. A few seconds later a group of about a dozen cyclists flashes past. They look severely professional, dressed in all the gear and riding what look like seriously high-tech bikes. There’s stunned appreciation from the crowd, but not much noise. A couple of minutes later, and more support vehicles later, the rest of the riders appear. By this time the crowd has woken up and these riders get a huge cheer. A couple of minutes later there’s the meat wagon and a final police motorcyclist and it’s all over. We’ve seen the Tour de Rwanda en route from Butare to Kigali. Rwanda is a punishing country for cyclists – it’s hilly, there’s the altitude to cope with, and it gets hot. These guys must be seriously fit.

By the end of lunchtime I’ve managed to fix an inspection for Munyinya school tomorrow morning and I’m feeling a lot better that I’m getting back to “proper” work.

In the afternoon I’m back at the office for a while finding Munyinya’s documents and printing off their results charts – it’s so good that I’ve got all this statistical information to hand; it means that when I visit a school now I go in the door with a pretty good idea of what I’m going to find and what I want to ask them!

Back at the flat the rest of the day drifts somewhat. I feel jaded and have to have a siesta. Tom’s late coming home and it’s down to me to cook, so I do a lentil stew which we tweak by adding curry. It’s Tom’s first venture into the land of lentils and I have to say it doesn’t taste too bad. We’ve soaked the lentils for 24 hours but they’re still slightly crunchy; when we do lentils back home we pressure cook them and they’re really soft. I don’t know whether they need more than an hour’s cooking or whether they’re supposed to taste crunchy!

Today is Teresa’s birthday, and we celebrate with fruit salad and jelly and custard. Hope you’re reading this, Teresa! I try ringing her to say HB but she’s out, so I have to leave a message on the answer phone. Well at least I tried!

My shoulder is still giving me a lot of trouble at night, and in addition I’ve managed to catch a cold during all my moto rides on Tuesday, so I’m feeling under par tonight. And one of the side effects of both this altitude and the whole Africa thing is that even if you’re the slightest bit below par seems to take forever to get back to normal.

Funny day today – not the business-like start to the autumn programme that I intended, and entirely my own fault for not getting on the phone to schools quickly enough yesterday!

Autumn Planning Day

August 20th

Today’s a planning day with Soraya. We meet up in the District Office, harmonise diaries (mostly social things and the forthcoming VSO training week for new arrivals). Then we pencil in dates for the eleven follow-up resource-making training sessions after yesterday’s pilot day so that we cover the whole of Muhanga District. It means I’ll have a lot of formal letters to write to the Districts and I mustn’t leave them until the last minute like I usually do!

Soraya wants to talk to Claude about his expectations for her but of course he’s out to Gisenyi at some meeting or other, so it ends up with us doing our own things as usual.

I take Soraya over to the post office and introduce her to the postmistress and arrange that she’ll be sharing the same post box as Tom and me.

By now it’s getting pretty close to lunchtime, so we adjourn to “Tranquillité”. In the afternoon I go home to the flat. What I’m supposed to be doing is writing these letters to the districts and arranging the training. What I actually do is sort out all the missing blog entries during the family holiday. There’s no chance of me being able to remember all we did a fortnight ago in sufficient detail to make it interesting, so I decide to do a series of picture essays – after all, with the family here we did take lots of photos. So I’m compressing pictures and selecting ones to show the world, and that takes up most of the afternoon. A good job done, too and quite a load off my mind.

I also prepare emails to send to the Dutch about the Shyogwe project, and while I’m at it I write down all the latest Gitarama gossip to send in emails to Cathie and Geert. Even in the three weeks of August there’s a lot of changes, and if Geert in particular came back here tomorrow he’d be surprised at how much if different from his last days at the end of April.

I’m supposed to be fixing for Soraya and I to do an inspection tomorrow at Ruli ADEPR school, but when I ring Emmanuelle I get a torrent of such fast French that I can’t really absorb anything except that she’s at a meeting tomorrow so it’s not convenient. Blast; I’ve left it too late to try anywhere else.

In the evening I go to the internet café and upload lots and lots of material onto the blog, but there are still all the holiday photos to do. The connection gets slower and slower (there’s so many people using the machines that there’s not enough chairs for all of them) so there’s no point in trying to fiddle around with pictures. That’s a job for tomorrow.

Best thing about today – feeling that I’m getting my autumn planned out more efficiently than I did the spring term!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The road to Ngororero

My own District of Muhanga has stunning scenery, and I wanted to make sure my family saw sone of it. Here are some shots from the road being built right through the mountains of Muhanga towards Ngororero.
The road is being built with the help of Chinese engineers and the Chinese government. It is full of major earthworks - this is a relatively minor cutting. In a couple of places whole mountainsides have been shaved away to create a ledge for the road.

Gisiza primary school huddled in its valley. (Remember that if you double-click on these pictures they'll blow up to full size)!

Two shots of the Nyaborongo River, one of the biggest in Rwanda, which marks the boundary of my District.

Typical scenery in the hills and mountains of Muhanga. You can see from this picture why one of my biggest problems is just getting from place to place to do my job!

Rwanda - the "land of a thousand hills"

It really is the most beautiful country you could imagine.

Tea estates and monkeys - the far south of Rwanda

N.B. These pictures are slightly jumbled because they' were taken on two different cameras and my computer has separated them out....

This is outside the National Museum of Rwanda at Butare with the monster 4x4 which we hired from a colleague's fiance. It felt like driving a minibus, but a 3 litre turbo engine was brilliant for overtaking lorries on these twisty roads!
Rice paddies outside Butare. These fields are tended by inmates from Butare prison in their pink or orange jumpsuits!

Typical small village between Butare and Gikongoro

As you leave Butare and head west, the scenery becomes much more dramatic and mountainous.
Roadside shots snatched from the car window between Butare and Gikongoro.

Lovely little glade beside the main road.

Tea estates beyone Gasarenda. The slopes these tea plantations use are amazingly steep.

Another shot of the Butare rice fields.

..... and another. Rwanda is aiming to be self sufficient in rice by 2011.

Typical scenery in the far south.

The further south-west you travel, the more mountainous and dramatic the scenery becomes.

Tea as far as the eye can see. Get drinking, you readers - these people need the income!

This is what yur tea bushes look like close up. They're a species of camellia.

Tea plantations stretch right to the boundary of Nyunge Forest National Park.

The locals in Nyungwe were keeping a close eye on us.

Nyungwe Forest - temperate "jungle". It's untouched forest, but cool rather than steamy. There are absolutely no paths in these hills and you could so easily get completely lost and never be seen again!

We bought up lots of the museum's stock of souvenirs because they are made by young people at a training centre there. These are troubled youngsters whom the museum staff are trying to re-integrate back into society by giving them skills, and so we were pleased to be able to support them by buying their produce.

Family visit to Gisenyi, Aug 4th and 5th

It rained nearly all day when we went to Gisenyi at the northern end of Lake Kivu, so instead of ravishing pictures of scenery, flowers etc, here are pictures of the Uptons making the most of a cold and grey day - on the Equator!
It's a tough life with VSO.....

Danger - card sharps at work

OK, so I may have come half way round the world to visit you, but it's more than your life's worth to interrupt my Soduko.....

....and this lake water is FREEZING!

Family visit to Kibuye, Aug 1st and 2nd

Kivu is calm and moody-looking first thing in the morning!
Inter-island ferry for tourists and islanders

Andy makes the moves

Canoeing dude

Fishing boats tied up at Kibuye fish market

It's Sunday morning and this big boat is bringing Congolese people from Idjwi Island some 20 miles across the lake to church at Kibuye

Together after nearly 7 months apart!

Another early morning shot of Lake Kivu. Bear in mind that this is only a tiny section of the lake - Kivu is one of the world's big lakes, considerably bigger than the whole of Dorset

The shore of Kivu is broken up by thousands of little bays and is dotted with islands. Every hundred yards you get a different perspective.

The view from our church guest house balcony

When we eventually found a sloping lake we remembered that we'd left our waterskis back in Bridport....

Tea on the terrace, anyone?

You've had far too much writing from me, so here are photos from our family holiday beside Lake Kivu at Kibuye.