Sunday, 28 September 2008

Claudine's list

  1. When I do inspections I always have a slot where I ask the Head teachers what things make them angry about the school system; what things prevent them achieving what they would like to do. The response varies widely. Some heads are almost afraid to mention anything negative in case it rebounds on them. Claudine, however, the head at Mata, gave me an enormous list, which I have translated, and slightly shortened. It gives you a perfect insight into the kinds of difficulties which these heads – good people almost without exception – face in trying to list standards and create the kind of literate society Rwanda needs.


    Not enough children are succeeding in exams and there is a need to raise the success rate, especially at P6
    There is a shortage of teaching material
    The latrine provision is insufficient
    There is no provision to catch rainwater to use for hygiene
    Hygiene provision at the school is not good enough for the number of children
    There are not enough classrooms
    Children are sent to school by their parents without materials (pens, exercise books)
    The number of children abandoning school is unacceptably high. Just as bad is the number who are pulled out of school for a few months to work, and then sent back by parents who expect them to carry on where they left off.
    There is a shortage of sports equipment
    There are no properly prepared games areas on the site
    Many children do not eat anything at mid-day; by late afternoon they are too hungry to concentrate
    Many children arrive late (and sometimes teachers too)
    The absence rate among teachers needs to be reduced
    Too many children do not progress from Mata to secondary education
    Many classrooms are in need of refurbishment
    Parents do not show support for the school by coming to meetings
    Yields from the school gardens could be improved with more investment
    There is a shortage of furniture
    Children who are HIV positive have inadequate provision to meet their special needs (N.B. HIV rate in primary school children is around 5%)
    Books are being stolen from classrooms and sold in local markets by desperately poor families
    Crops are being stolen from the school’s fields by local destitute villagers
    There is not enough money to pay for adequate security guards
    The school is not fenced for security

    Anyone fancy a headship in Muhanga?

Francoise's shopping list at Kaduha

September 26th

Today makes a straight five in a row of school inspections. I’m feeling the strain; today it’s a case of “thank God it’s Friday!

I get some stuff printed off in the District Office. Not in the education office though – there’s still no power in the wall plugs, but in the process of fiddling around with themI get a shock off one of the connections. Rwandan wiring isn’t what is ought to be.

Claude’s in at the office. It turns out he’s running a two-day INSET on inclusive education for all the secteur reps. I feel a bit miffed that neither Soraya nor I have been asked to contribute or even to sit in. We could both of us make a contribution, after all! And also I’ve been left out from a mass inspection this week. Have I offended somebody? I don’t think so….. Anyway, I’m having a ball travelling out to the rural schools.

I show Claude where I’m planning to go next week and tell him that none of the schools has yet confirmed. “Give me the list” says Claude, “and I’ll just tell them you’re coming”… Nice one Claude – that’s everything I needed!

We ordered our motos last night and they’re ready waiting for us. They charge us far too much. It seems you can’t win. As soon as you try to make a regular booking with one of them, they take it as licence to rook you. Next week I’ll just go to the bus park and choose somebody different. I’ve pretty well done almost all of the close-in schools, and each journey will now get seriously expensive, and even more so next year unless I have my own transport.

The entire main road from District Office to Mushubati junction is now dug up; parts have been rollered flat with earth and gravel all ready for the tarmac, so it’s faster than yesterday. But we still end up playing chicken with oncoming traffic in some sections.

Today we’re off to Kaduha. This is a small primary by Rwandan standards – a mere 570 children. It’s way out in the countryside in Nyarusange secteur, but only just off the main road to Kibuye. Getting to it is easy, and we arrive punctual and relaxed. Soraya’s with me today again, and I like it when I’m inspecting with someone else. It’s less pressure. The only problem is that while Soraya can understand my broken French, she isn’t confident enough to speak it herself, so I have to do most of the talking.

Today is easy for Soraya. Eugène, the head, speaks quite a lot of English. This is the guy who was doing an inspection at Gikomero when I was also there, and he listened in to my debrief. So he already knows my style and knows what I want to see. He’s primed his staff, and it’s a nice, relaxed, easy morning.

Kaduha is a relatively new school; originally it was an annexe of the bigger school at Cyiciro, but has now expanded to its current size and contains children in all six years from 1ère to 6ème so it counts as a separate school. The buildings are fair; the grounds are huge but you can’t say where the school property ends and the Catholic Church lands begin. That tells you a great deal about how closely the church and primary schools are intertwined here. At one end of the site there’s an old mission church built by a Spanish monk in 1938. The building is so old it almost counts as a historic monument by local standards. The whitefriar monk was the first missionary here, and he in effect brought Christianity single handedly to this corner of Rwanda. The church is no longer used, but the building is stoutly built in stone with courses of brick. The roof is intact and with a reasonable amount of money it would make a big room for a maternelle. I must tell all this to Claude. Anything rather than these crummy mud-brick buildings people keep putting up. The problem with maternelles is that the District doesn’t want to know. It can’t afford to build them, so it tells parents it’s their responsibility. That means you get the parents in each parish pulling together and building their own maternelle, which they run as an association. All very well, but these are poor people, so they obviously build as cheaply as they can That means cramped, mud brick buildings which need constant maintenance and are never really fit for the job. Here at Kaduha you have potentially the best maternelle in Muhanga. All it needs is enough money to rehabilitate the building. Come to think of it, the interior space is big enough for a badminton court.

There’s a water tap on site, but it’s also used by the local villagers. During the entire morning there’s an endless procession of women and children filling up jerrycans and traipsing to and fro across the school green.

There – I knew it! There’s been something niggling at the back of my mind all day and I’ve just realised what it is! Kaduha’s grounds are grassy, with lovely eucalyptus trees for shade all round the edges. Virtually every other school has a yard of bare mud or (worst of all) bare, jagged rocks. Kaduha is green. It has grounds that any of you reading this would want to sit on and picnic while you look out at the mountains across the valley.

Both Soraya and I observe three lessons each. One of mine is the same lesson about household budgeting that I saw at Buringa on Wednesday. The teacher faces the same problem of an abstract concept with which most of the class can’t identify. So she sets them to make a shopping list; then they price it out. Bananas, maize flour, sweet potatoes, rice, beans, and tomatoes – they price it all up at about RwF5000 for family sized quantities. (Interesting, because it tells me how much I’m still being overcharged at muzungu prices!). Then she tells the children they’ve only got an income of RwF2000, so they have to cut out some of the food. The ensuing discussion is good, and the kids learn the concept of budgeting. Lets give a big round of applause to Françoise, the class teacher, because she’s done exactly what I wanted her to do and go from a concrete example to the theory. She gets a “très bien”; if she’d done a bit more to make her room visually stimulating she’d have got an “elite”. See, there’s hope yet for the Rwandan education system!

That turns out to be the best lesson I see. I like the rapport between teachers and children at Kaduha; people don’t need to raise their voices and the children are pleasant and at ease. Eugène pops in and out of the lessons I’m watching; he’s clearly nervous about what I’ll think. He tells the children to not be frightened of me and act normally. Which, of course, absolutely terrifies them…..

At breaktime we’re not mobbed by all the children, which is unusual. They’re all off into the ground playing football of watching us from a distance. So we’re able to talk to the teachers. One of them has a gorgeous six month old baby with her. With all the others we’re sitting on the grass in the playground. The baby cries, so she whips out a breast and starts feeding the child in mid conversation with us. The other children are so used to this that they don’t even notice…. But I find it difficult to sustain a conversation with someone while there’s slurping and hiccupping coming from her chest….

Unusually for a country school, Kaduha doesn’t have any gardens, never mind livestock. Eugène is negotiating with the priest to take over a patch of abandoned land to use for farming.

It isn’t till we’re ready to debrief to the whole staff that I realise I’ve forgotten all about the inspection administrative. I’ve been so enjoying sitting in on lessons. So we do a lightning speed inspection which ticks the boxes but leaves out most of the detail. I’ll have to wing it when I write my report.

Finally a “pearls of wisdom” session with the staff, all ten of them. These sessions are definitely getting easier because I’m tending to say the same things each time. You feel like a politician on the stump. Leave them feeling good; praise whatever you can find to praise, just give two or three things you want to see different next time.

I like Kaduha; it’s a welcoming school and it reminds me of some of our rural primaries back in England.

Back in Gitarama I buy a housewarming present for Soraya, then go home for a siesta and to write up my report. It turns out that I have to do a lot more imaginative recreation of things I forgot to ask than I bargained for….

During the evening my next week’s plans are thrown into confusion. My Monday school asks me to come on Tuesday; but my Tuesday school can’t have me on Monday. Then I discover there’s a very little school called Muhazi which seems to have escaped all the exam results statistics – it just doesn’t appear anywhere. I’d have thought it didn’t exist except that I’ve got the census sheet for it on my bed. Perhaps I’ll give them a call on Monday morning.

Best thing about today – being out in the country. Inspecting schools and actually feeling relaxed about it. Even my French is getting better by the day.

Worst thing about today – nothing at all. For the millionth time, this is exactly what I came here to do.

Le Beau Petit Frere

Le Beau Petit Frère

This is a lovely example of the sloppy, sickly style of poems they use in schools in Rwanda. For goodness sake, surely there’s something better than this! On the other hand, in nearly nine months of school visits this is the first time I have found a school specifically using poetry as part of its languages teaching. Good for you Rutaka, a tiny school in the depths of the Muhanga mountains!

Le beau petit frère
Qui nous est venu
Dort dans sa corbeille
Tout rose et tout nu.
Puisque chacun je prend
Pourqoui ne veut-on pas
Que je tienne dans mes bras ?
J’ai touché la tête
Très, très doucement
Maman n’a rien vu !

Poetry, creativity, and Soraya's little pests

September 25th

Today will be my 30th official school inspection this year. I’m on course to make my total of forty before the window of opportunity ends.

I meet Soraya at the office. I need to print off some stuff about today’s school, but today there seems to be a problem with power – the lights are working but not the power sockets. Never mind, I’ve read through all the school documents this morning already, and I’ve got the place fixed in my mind.

We hire our motos – two drivers we’ve both used in the past – and off we go, back along the Ngororero road. There’s not so much cloud rising out of the valleys, and it’s already a hot and sunny morning. The visibility is one again pin sharp, and things are already starting to turn greener after the recent rain. With my fleece on against the wind from the motor bike, it’s a perfect morning for going to work.

As usual, nobody’s quite sure where Rutaka School is. Claude’s not in the office to ask. Innocent hasn’t a clue. Beatrice thinks she knows where it is (and it turns out she’s dead right, too). My moto driver is sure he knows, but he doesn’t really. He seems to think I want to go back to either Kibanda or Gisiza. Soraya’s driver thinks he knows where it is, but my chap won’t listen and races off ahead. Soraya tries to ring me to tell us we’ve gone past the turning, but I can’t hear my phone against the noise of the bike and the wind in my helmet. We end up at Gisiza having overshot our turning by about 5 kilometres! My driver’s not best pleased, but as his mate tells him, it’s his fault for charging off ahead and not listening to better advice!

Now I know you’re getting tired of all my superlatives, but Rutaka’s setting is spectacular even by Rwandan standards. You climb right up to the highest point in the Ndiza mountains of Muhanga, then disappear down a rabbit hole of a road. After a few yards you pass the “cellule” office, and the road drops down steeply into a seemingly endless valley. The views are wonderful. My driver’s getting used to me and stops to let me look at the view. These moto drivers only come out to this sort of rural backwater once in a blue moon, and today even they are impressed by what they can see. Over there on the opposite mountainside are the primaries at Ngoma (blue tin roof) and Gikomero (grey roof) which I visited last week. Out of site behind us is Gisiza in its enormous bowl-shaped valley. A big stream is twisting and glinting down below us in the morning sun. Every single square inch of land is a mosaic of tiny fields, some with bananas, others with smaller crops. Hardly a square metre is not being cultivated.

The road plunges down and down. Every now and then we think we must be just about there, but suddenly there’s a hairpin bend and we can see hundreds more feet below us. We see the school in the distance far before we arrive there; it appears to be on another mountain altogether, but the road contours around and around. Every few yards is a mud brick house with hordes of children waving to us or glowering suspiciously. Motos are rich people’s transport and rarely seen here. This is desperately poor country where people struggle to make a living. The slope angles are enormous; two people working the same tiny plot may be twenty feet above or below each other. Two muzungus on motos are like aliens from Mars descending here. The road is narrow, and on the downhill side there is nothing to stop you plunging down for ever to the valley floor. I’m glad I’m just a passenger.

The school is lovely. Small, welcoming. Some of the buildings have been recently replaced by Tom’s FHI organisation. All the buildings have shaded corridors outside to protect children against rain and sun. It’s a pity they didn’t put ceilings in while they were at it. Justin, the head, is well organised, ambitious, and positive. We’re introduced to everyone, including yet another school cow. The barn’s big enough for three more. One end is belching smoke; it turns out this place is so isolated that there’s no chance whatsoever of staff going home for lunch, so they all club together and pay someone local to cook it for them. And some of the children are so poor and malnourished that they regularly feed eight or so of the most desperate with their own food at their own expense. I like this school; it has all the humane attributes that I didn’t pick up at Buringa yesterday. And, of course, I’m that much better prepared and more receptive.

The lessons we watch are good, too. One young woman does a poem with her 3ème French class. The subject – a new baby brother – is unbearably twee, but at least somebody is doing poetry in the primary schools! (I’ve posted it as a separate blog entry). Thumbs up for Pétronille, then! She gets a “très bien” grade for her lesson, and a round of applause from all her colleagues at the final debrief. This is a staff which works as a team. The other teacher is trying to teach her 4ème class “types of sentence” (interrogative, exclamatory, declarative, imperative). She transforms a perfectly normal, deadly dull lesson by asking her class to create their own examples of each of these types of sentence. Most of the kids find this too hard – they are so drilled at just copying down what the teacher writes on the board that they’ve got no real concept of being creative on their own. But this teacher, Pélagie, also gets a “très bien” from me; she’s been brave enough to try an experiment and I tell her I’m so pleased with what she’s doing, and that she’s to carry on asking the children to be creative however hard they find it. And not to take any criticism from anybody else! So she also gets applause, and Justin’s given the message that what she’s doing is fine by me and to give her room to manoeuvre!

We have another “pearls of wisdom” session with the whole staff. They’re very insistent that we need to come out during the holidays and do a whole fortnight’s training. I think that level of input is beyond VSOs means, but I’ll pass it on and also to Claude. There’s a crying need for English training coming from every single school; it’s the single most common cried du Coeur from the Rwandans.

On the way back we get the motos to stop so we can take some pictures, but the problem is that the landscape is so huge that even my nice camera can’t do it justice. Back home we go, and I’ve inspected just about every school we pass on the way. Gisiza with its sloping football pitch. Mata with its coffee orchards. Mushubati on its road junction site. Nyabisindu with its catch-up unit for older children who are still illiterate. I know them all!

Soraya and I eat at Tranquillité. During the conversation I notice she’s scratching her wrists. Soraya admits that she’s still plagued by bedbugs and can’t sleep at night. They’ve travelled with her up from Mushubi in her bed and bedding. OK, I’m not having any of that and I do the “surrogate Dad” act big time. I need to go to the bank, so I draw out some extra money and lend her enough to buy a new mattress. We march straight up to the shops and buy one there and then. It’s a good “Rwandafoam” one like mine, but single bed size. We carry it home, and straightaway throw her old mattress and bed out into the yard. There’s another bed frame in the house which she’ll use, and she’ll change her sheets. Poor Soraya, as if she hasn’t suffered enough already this year. At least now she’s in Gitarama the rest of us can wade in and lend a hand when things go wrong for her. She’s tried every kind of disinfectant, spray, smoke bomb against them but nothing seems to get rind of them. Horrible little buggers, these bedbugs. I hope it pours tonight and washed the little sods clean out of the mattress and all the way down to the Nyaborongo river!

Back home I write up my report. Joe, the new volunteer in Nyamasheke, is trying to contact me but we keep missing each other’s messages. I wouldn’t be surprised if he, too, wants to come up and shadow me for a day or two on school visits. That’ll be no problem, but he’ll lave to come on a different day from Amy and it’ll have to be within the next fortnight.

Best thing about today – the journey to Rutaka and also the little school itself. I want to go back there next year.

Worst thing about today – just the sight of Soraya’s arms and the very thought of bedbugs makes me think I’m itching myself. What purpose do they serve in the evolutionary chain, I wonder?

Snow joke at Buringa

September 24th

Tom’s been up since about half past five and leaves at six to go to Kigali. Soraya comes round at a quarter past seven to get some data to help with training courses she’s planning. Then she goes to work at home; she wants to come to Rutaka with me tomorrow but she’s so diligent and is determined to get all her planning done today so she can hand it in to Claude first thing Thursday. I get off to the office at the usual time and to my huge relief find that Innocent didn’t manage to ring Nyarutovu School yesterday, asking if I could come and inspect them today. I’ve done a typical Brucey screw-up and potentially treble-booked myself today. I must have been in a dither after my trip to Mata with Hayley yesterday. Firstly I misread a text from Buringa; I thought they were saying it was inconvenient for me to come whereas in reality they were saying it was OK. (Please note that abbreviated French in text messages is a whole new ball game, believe me!). Then I had texted Cyicaro to ask if I could substitute them for Buringa. Finally, I had asked Innocent to ring Cyicaro but given him Nyarutovu’s phone number by mistake….. Not the best way to make friends and influence people. I know it seems pathetic but it’s partly because I’m working a week ahead of myself – planning today the visits for next Wednesday etc, and there are so many schools who put me off that it’s easy to muddle who you’ve called and has refused you with who is left to do in that particular secteur.

Anyway, by a quarter past eight I’m on the road. The Chinese engineers are going great guns with ripping up the main road between Gitarama and Mushubati; they’ve dug it all up right the way to the District Office. When the bulldozer clanks past with its tarmac destruction device operating, the noise is unbelievable. Unfortunately they’re not so quick at relaying the tarmac, and it’s absolute chaos as everybody – construction lorries, graders, steamrollers, buses, pedestrians and motos of all shapes and sizes - jostles for space on the piles of gravel or broken up tarmac. Nobody wants to walk or drive on the smashed tarmac- it’s almost impossible to keep your balance. The newly laid earth and gravel is muddy and too deep, and vehicle tyres here are so bald that you can’t get any traction and you skid about and dig great holes in the dirt. It’s just like trying to drive on a beach. So everyone wants to use the tiny strip where previous lorries have flattened the earth down into a smooth line. It’s only about four inches wide, and its jammed with people. Wednesday is market day; every woman within sight is carrying huge loads on her head. We have two near misses in a couple of hundred yards at one point. There is only one golden rule on these roads – whoever is biggest has priority. That means the diggers, graders and bulldozers are king of the road. How some of the little children don’t get squashed is a mystery – they’re so frantic to see what the builders are doing they’re almost getting themselves under the steamrollers.

After Mushubati we’re on the new main road. At long last they’ve swept up most of the loose gravel that’s made it so dangerous for bikes; the gravel is lying in little heaps every ten yards or so. The heavy storm last night has cleaned the air; everything looks greener and fresher. The views are among the best I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot because this is one of the most scenic roads of all. As we drive up through the mountains you can see for miles. Row upon row of serrated hilltops, with fluffy white cloud slowly rising out of the valleys. I wish I had a movie camera and could simply pan round through 180 degrees and somehow show you on this blog – you just wouldn’t believe how wonderful it is. For the millionth time I bless my good fortune at being posted to Rwanda, and to this particular part of Rwanda!

Unfortunately all this reverie doesn’t last long. Neither I nor the moto driver are exactly sure where Buringa primary school is, but we know it’s in Mushushiro Secteur, so we turn off at the archway to Mushushiro and drive on hopefully. The road here has no surface at all, not even mud or gravel. Through the actual village of Mushushiro it is simply an expanse of bare rock which outcrops like serrated ribs for a distance of a couple of hundred metres. Its absolutely bone jarring to cross.
Eventually we get back onto gravel or earth and whiz down through trees. After a long while we see a sign for Buringa Secondary school. Just down the road there’s the usual combination of church, clinic, meeting rooms – and a biggish primary. Good, we think, we’re there and not too late.

I dismount. I pay my driver, and ask him to come back for me at one o’clock. By now one of the teachers has come out to greet me. I assume its Mr Ndajimana, the head. But it isn’t. We’re at the wrong school. This is Mushushiro Primary. There’s no signboard to say which school it is (a bit naughty, because they’re all supposed to have put up signs by now as a District directive). Fortunately my driver hasn’t quite driven off, but it’s been a near thing. The teacher explains to my driver that Buringa primary is quite a long way away, in fact it’s on the opposite mountain. So off we go again for ten minutes. By now my moto driver’s grumpy and demanding more money. I make a quick calculation. If I refuse, he almost certainly won’t want to come and pick me up. It’s far too far to walk back to the main road and hitch a ride (that was my original intention). So I have a brainwave. I don’t have the actual RwF1000 extra he wants in ready cash, so I tell him I’ll give it to him with the same amount for the return journey when we get back to Gitarama. Yay, nice one! That’s make sure he comes back for me (and it works like a charm at one o’clock. He’s there early to collect me!).

Buringa is a big school – 1144 children – and a successful one. Its ranked 12th in the District. But I don’t enjoy my visit. I’m not as well prepared as I usually am, and I’ve done silly things like leaving my prompt sheet behind at Mata yesterday and forgetting to print off another one in the office. The Head’s not as welcoming as most directors are, and he doesn’t make it easy for me to visit classes. I intend to visit three, but we only manage two, and one of them is only a 20 minute lesson. Considering how successful the school is, the lessons are not up to much. One woman is trying to explain household budgeting to 5ème (believe it or not that comes within the science curriculum). In true Rwandan style it’s all done terribly theoretically, and I grit my teeth thinking “for God’s sake, woman, give them some concrete examples first and draw your principles out from the examples”. But she doesn’t. Mind you, I do approve of having household budgeting in the primary curriculum, especially as 87% of these little kids won’t make it to secondary school and several of them are quite possibly already running their families on a day to day basis. The rate of illiteracy among the adults out here in the countryside is simply staggering.

At one point we simply run out of things to say to each other and I go for a stroll to give me some space and to enjoy the views. The Head is efficient, but I think he resents a muzungu coming in to inspect him and making formal judgements after only a couple of hours in the place. Good for him – if I were in his position I’d probably feel the same. But why the hell didn’t he have his staff better primed for me – I’ve given them several days’ warning? Why on earth didn’t he organise more than two classes for me to see? Why on earth did he give me a nervous man in his probationary year as one of my teachers to observe? I’m not stupid but I can only make judgements on what I actually see during the time I’m there!

The Head doesn’t have an office or store room within the school buildings, but the office of the local “cellule” (parish) is adjacent to the school, and he’s taken over a spare room in the building. So while we’re chatting there’s a whole string of middle aged Rwandans coming and going, often with letters or official forms which they’re bringing to be read to them. Without exception the elderly people are courteous and deferential to this muzungu, and when I try to speak to them in Kinyarwanda they roar with laughter and clap their hands together as if it’s the funniest thing they’ve heard all day.

From the cellule office I can see way down into the valley bottom. The river has risen hugely overnight and is chocolate brown – that’s a year’s worth of soil washed away in one night. Here they bore the brunt of the storm yesterday. The Head tells me that for a few minutes it was snowing on the mountain top above the school. Just fancy that – snow, in September, on the Equator! Right now it’s very hot in the mid-day sun outside the school; with my hair cut very short I feel it straight away. Inside the classrooms it’s positively chilly; these rooms have windows on both sides and I’m invariably sitting in a through draught. The window shutters open inwards and as usual they’ve stuffed desks right up against the windows so children are constantly banging their heads against the sharp wooden corners.

Ah, now that summarises the difference between Mata (yesterday) and Buringa (today). At Mata when I commented about the shutters the head said straight away “OK, we’ll move the desks”. Here at Buringa the head doesn’t even reply; he gives me a look which says “you’re here to look at pedagogy; don’t tread on my domestic arrangements”. But that’s not true; I’m charged with commenting on anything and everything. Don’t get me wrong, Jean de Dieu is a thumping good head and a nice guy, but we’re not quite connecting properly this morning. You can’t win ‘em all.

We end up with a fanta and pleasantries with one of the other teachers; I debrief the two I’ve observed. Jean tells my moto driver about a short cut home to Gitarama. It turns out the short cut is a footpath straight over the top of the mountain. It’s unbelievably rough; I continually have to get off and walk because we can’t get even this big moto up the hill with two people on it. At one point I just about fall off; I manage to save myself by grabbing a boulder.

In the afternoon I sit in the armchair and doze off to sleep. When I wake up I’ve been snoring so hard that my throat is sore! All this fresh air and travel is catching up on me.

Best thing about today – the scenery. And the scenery. And the scenery.

Worst thing – trying to be diplomatic and look for positive things in a lesson which is really boring (despite the teacher really trying her best). Once again, it’s not her fault; it’s the way the teacher training system works here. It’s the way she’s been taught to teach. You should see the look on both teachers’ faces when I tell them to take risks, to experiment, not to worry if things don’t go to plan, to try something new, to make children work in groups. That’s heresy here! But I’m going to keep on saying it until I fly home!

Tickling cows at Mata

September 23rd

Another day, another inspection. This time I’m taking Hayley with me. She’s one of the new batch of volunteers but based here in Gitarama and living with Soraya. Hayley’s placement is with the YWCA in Muhanga; she’s not a teacher and has been working in the NHS back in Bristol. At the moment she’s trying to find her feet and YWCA haven’t really got a detailed job description worked out for her. So I decide to take her with me on a school visit. Its company for me, and it’s a golden opportunity for her to get out into the gorgeous countryside and learn a lot about local schools and how the place works. Soraya’s still working on her training plans and is not coming with us to day.

We agree to meet at the bus park at 8, but we’re both there early so we walk up to the post office and I introduce her to the postmistress. So from now on, whenever there’s mail, they know that any of the four of us – me, Tom, Soraya and Hayley – can collect the mail for each other. Needless to say there’s no mail waiting for us. Tom’ll be cross; there’s a parcel of DVDs on its way out from England for him and they seem to have been ages arriving. I reckon they’re in the sorting office in Kigali waiting until there’s a full sack of letters for Gitarama.

I show Hayley round our District office and introduce her to Innocent. Claude’s not there. I get Innocent to ring a school to confirm tomorrow’s visit because they haven’t rung back to say it’s OK for me to go there, and it’ll be a fair journey out into the mountains of Mushushiro.

We hire a couple of little motos and set off. It’s trying to rain and we hope it won’t come on a heavy downpour. Where they’re digging up the main road we have to get off and walk at one point – there’s thick sand and gravel on the road and our bikes can’t cope. When we get to Mata we enter the school the quick way – up a flight of stairs and straight through the middle of their coffee plantation. It’s the first time Hayley’s seen coffee growing (not surprising when you come to think of it; it’s only her second official day at work), and I show her how the beans lie inside the pulpy red fruits.

Mata is a funny mixture as a school. The agriculture side of its education is wonderful. Its site is enormous and they’ve got a huge acreage under coffee. It brings them in RwF100,000 a year which is pretty good going. (That’s a teacher’s salary for more than three months). Each class is given a little plot and there’s intense competition as to who can get the heaviest yield. Even now, after the main season has finished, some of the trees are bent double under the weight of fruit. (I know this because the headmistress insists on showing us round every little bit and I’m ducking under the branches getting showered with raindrops).

They’re also growing manioc, and vegetables. The vegetables are harvested by the staff. (The coffee, of course, is fiddly to pick because you have to pick each individual cherry when it ripens. So the children pick the coffee). Most of the school staff live in Gitarama town and they’ve hired a local woman to cook them lunch each day, using as much produce as possible from the garden.

But pride of Mata’s small holding is the cowshed with two beautiful Rwandan cows. The adult isn’t very friendly and has serious looking horns, but the calf comes to have its nose tickled. It’s got beautiful coloration and reminds me of a Channel Island cow. The staff are enjoying fresh milk with their lunches!

Then it’s down to educational business. Claudine, the Head, has been a Secteur inspector in the past, so she knows exactly what documents I need to see and they’re all ready for me. I can’t fault her administration.

O K, what about the downsides? Well, for a start, Mata has the highest rate of “redoublement” (repeating a year) of any school in the district. 41% of the entire school is repeating, and in 5ème this rises to 55% which is ridiculous. I ask her why and she tells me a long list of woes – children frequently absent to work for their parents; whole swathes of children who abandon school for a couple of months during harvest time and then reappear expecting to be able to carry on where they left off. A lot of children don’t eat at mid day; by mid afternoon they’re too hungry to concentrate so they can’t learn. A lot of staff absence, too.

At breaktime we are surrounded by all thousand children; Hayley does very well and survives without becoming flustered. Three of the teachers save us by getting the girls to dance for us. (As usual I’ve praised the Head for maintaining a traditional dance club at the school and helping keep Rwandan traditions alive). Immediately all the children form a circle and sing and clap and we’re entertained for ten minutes. Then, of course, the girls drag us into the circle to dance with them and the whole school erupts into shouts of laughter. This is the best breaktime entertainment these kids have had in weeks! We try our best; my attempt at a graceful cow dance probably looks more like a dying rhino.

Because the dancing overruns the end of break, we only have time to watch two lessons (Hayley can’t judge lesson on her own; she’s here as an observer so she comes with me all the time). Our first lesson is with 2ème and is a real cracker. We start with a song. The teacher is teaching parts of the body - arms, legs, feet, hands, fingers – and she doesn’t make a single false move. The children sing again, and she ends the lesson with a game (“Simon Says”). The children are all completely active, engrossed, and positive. It deserves an “excellent” grade, and I don’t give them very often! At the end of the lesson I teach them another song “This is the way I touch my arm….” And everybody – class, teacher, Headmistress and Hayley – is joining in!

Then we see a 5ème maths lesson. Gilbert, the teacher, is only 22 but he also does a very good lesson. He’s doing maths, and in 5ème and 6ème the school uses the “système professorale” which means that instead of one class teacher trying to cover everything, each teacher specialises in a couple of subjects and teaches these to a lot of classes. Our Gilbert is specialist in Maths and English. That’s an odd combination but means he’ll never be out of a job in Rwanda! Gilbert is doing the addition and division of units of time. We get the standard TTC stuff in his exposition. I still don’t understand how these children do their long division; it’s completely different from the way I was taught back in 1950s England. But it clearly works for them so I let them get on with it. He sets some exercises from a textbook which are too difficult for most of the children. (For example, express 10,000 seconds in hours, minutes, seconds. What’s 3 hours and 15 minutes divided by 5?) Remember that you can’t do these on a calculator…. Gilbert’s a bit flustered that the children are making heavy weather of the tasks when he’s got the Head and two muzungus in his room. But he’s young, and this is only his second year of teaching, and when he gets a bit more experience he’s also going to be a good operator. His paperwork is perfect; he’s a tiny little fellow but he has a real presence and he never has to lift his voice despite having a class of forty who are more than ready for their dinners! He also – and this is the very first time I’ve seen this happen in Rwanda – systematically collects all the children’s books to mark them properly. Go Gilbert, you’re miles better than a lot of the more experienced old men!

At the end of the morning I have to do yet another “pearls of wisdom” session. It’s nice to be able to give nothing but praise to two of their teachers (all 14 plus the head are sitting in her office in front of me; Hayley looks worried in case they expect her to say anything profound in French!). We have a long question and answer session, and finally we‘re able to take our leave. It’s been a long morning.

Hayley’s amazed at how lovely the scenery is; I’m afraid I’m beginning to take it for granted along this stretch of the Ngororero road! If she thinks this is wonderful, just wait till she gets into the mountains proper!

We haven’t arranged any pick up time with motos, and I fancy hitching a lift home. Sure enough the third vehicle to pass picks us up. It’s a “Caritas” (Catholic relief Charity) jeep with the vicar of Kibuye in it. He’s fascinated with us and we chat happily all the way home. By the time he drops us off outside my flat he’s trying to persuade us to come to Kibuye and do some training for him! We promise to look him up the next time we’re in Kibuye (Hayley and the newbies are going there in a few weeks’ time just like I did to compare horror stories after the first few weeks in placement).

Hayley stays for lunch (the final dollop of the weekend’s lentil stew) and then we go our separate ways, her to check into YWCA to see if they have any more work for her and me to write up my report. Her YWCA office is about 200 yards from the flat, so we’re all living and working in the same little part of town.

Late in the afternoon there’s a huge thunderstorm, with continuous lightning. It’s a pity, because I’ve just finished writing up my school report and I’m about to go down to the market. I dodge the heaviest rain; the lightning really is spectacular and it’s centred over the mountains just behind Mata. Some villages over there are definitely getting their share of rain. So perhaps the proper rainy season really is coming at long last. In the market the stallholders are all closing up; I manage to persuade one to open her sack of onions and sell me a handful. The potato merchants have already stuffed their sacks of spuds in their sheds, but I know they won’t be able to resist a muzungu’s cash.

Of course, the power goes off. Tom and I end up preparing and cooking a super chicken stew by candle light. Loads of spices including bay and ginger. (Well, why not. Chuck in a bit of everything, I say, and see what it comes out like). It ends up one of the best meals we’ve had in months. The sauce is fabulous, the chicken more tender than any other we’ve eaten here. And there’s enough sauce left over to serve as gravy for another load of vegetables and perhaps some cheese tomorrow!

Man, we’re living in style!

Best thing about today – being able to show off the delights of rural primary schools to Hayley. Mata’s brilliant school garden. Being able to sit back and really enjoy a lesson with some of the youngest kids. Non stop lightning from a storm occupying half the entire horizon. Chicken stew.

Worst things – nothing really. Even peeling spuds by candle light won’t bother me today.

Cuddling bunnies at Gikomero!

September 22nd

I’m well into my routine now. Up at 6; leave the house at 7.30 having read through all my school papers and ready to do battle. A moto up to the Office where, ohmygawd, somebody’ actually bought toner for our printer! (Probably the guy from Planning who I keep chucking off his computer to print my things)! I print off the details for the whole week’s schools, touch base with Claude and Innocent, and walk back into town via the post office to find a big motor bike. No post for any of the four of us. Nobody loves us (again).

Half way into town the motor bike driver who took me to Kibanda recognises me and stops to see if I want a lift. His nickname’s Kazungu. Dead right I want a lift, and he’s got his fare.

Today I’m off to Gikomero Protestant, an Anglican school which sits about 400 yards from its Catholic rival. I suppose the obvious thing would be to do both schools the same day, but I find it too tiring to work like that.

I know exactly where this school is after our wrong turning last Friday, and it’s only just gone 8.30 when I roll up – one of my earliest arrivals ever at a school, and one of the least stressful. Wot – to arrive at a school without getting lost – this can’t still be Rwanda! The Head’s name is Théoneste – goodness knows what the derivation of that name is! I’m there no more than 5 minutes when someone else rolls up on a moto. He’s the head at Kaduha, the school I’m inspecting on Friday. He’s also come to inspect lessons at Gikomero.

I’m speechless. Why on earth has Théoneste agreed to have two people inspecting the same primary school on the same day? Are we both going to be sitting in the same room? And what if we disagree over whether we think something’s good or bad? Just imagine – two inspectors squaring up to each other for a (verbal) punch-up while 15 staff and 800+ kids gather round to watch the fun.

It turns out that the Kaduha guy is concentrating on checking things like teachers’ preparation books and the cahiers where they keep notes on training sessions attended. My job is to do the admin inspection of the main school, and evaluate the quality of teaching. So we don’t seriously overlap. I suppose Théoneste’s idea is to get it all over and done with in one day. But just imagine the kerfuffle if an English school had OFSTED and also local authority inspectors in on the same morning!

OK, so we do the tour of the site. This school is in “semi-dur”, but it’s been well looked after. It turns out that, yet again, Tom’s FHI charity has pumped money into the school. The classrooms have all got ceilings for noise and heat insulation. The playground’s been levelled, and there’s a tarmac volleyball court complete with posts and nets. The school’s just got through to the finals of the District schools volleyball tournament, too. So why doesn’t Théoneste say on his census form that he’s got a sports club?

The school’s in an “L” shape, with the Anglican church making up the third side of a big rectangle and a dispensary the fourth. There’s a little clump of banana trees, and a small coffee orchard. Just off to one side is the priest’s house and his little bit of garden, filled with manioc plants. The school has a dinky farm which the head takes me to see. Inside a walled compound there are cages and cages of rabbits. Rabbits of all sizes, all well fed and looked after. We open a cage with some baby bunnies and I take one out to give him a cuddle. (Bunny must be the only African I’ve met who doesn’t take one look at me and yell “muzungu”. Everybody else does….) This is a cute little rabbit with white, chocolate brown and grey fur. He’s got delicate little ears and the usual wriggly nose and his fur’s as soft as only rabbits’ can be. He’s also got sharp little claws and I put him down before he can draw blood. Can you get rabies from bunnies? I don’t want to find out the hard way….

I never in a million years thought I’d spend time in Africa as a VSO cuddling bunnies! But then I never got to cuddle the pig at Kibanda or the cow at Ngoma…

Back to reality. We rattle through the admin inspection; obviously one of the other Nyarusange Heads has told this guy what I want to see and he’s made sure it’s pretty well all ready and up to date. His stock book is a work of art; it must have taken him hours to draw up and maintain. There’s an issue here. These heads waste so much time laboriously writing out by hand things we just bash into a computer. And ten, twenty times a year they have to fill in the same details on different forms for different destinations. You can’t “cut and paste” with a biro and ledgers! My kingdom for a container load of solar panels and simple, robust laptops (not heavy great worn out desktop machines)!

While we’re doing this a deaf and mute woman blunders in through the open door of Théoneste’s office. She’s confused and thinks we are the dispensary. She has a huge suppurating wound on her foot; it looks like a burn or scald that’s become infected. As soon as she sees a white man her hand comes out for money – it’s a reflex action. Théoneste is embarrassed and quickly shoos her away towards the dispensary. Five minutes later a middle aged man wanders in; he’s not quite all together as he should be. He has seen me from the playground - people coming to and from the dispensary wander straight through the children’s play area. He keeps asking me for a hundred francs and gets stroppy when Théonest once again moves him on. There are lots of places like this where the churches – Protestant or Catholic – have set up little power bases with hospital, school, clinic, etc, and this sort of event happens to volunteers all the time. It’s an occupational hazard of visiting schools out in the countryside.

Then I’m into classrooms. I watch four lessons, and not one is really inspiring. Two are so totally dull; it feels as though the world has stopped spinning and time has come to an end. There’s hardly any decoration on the walls – virtually no posters, and not a trace of kid’s work. The children’s handwriting is bad, too – they’re not forming their letters well. I have great difficulty in understanding what they’re written, even when they’ve written it in English. Partly this is because they don’t teach children to print, and they don’t ever print on the blackboard like we do in England. Everything’s done in a flowery cursive script that takes ages to make legible.

In my debrief I mention these two criticisms; I do my usual plug for rice sack wall posters, and I tell them to spend time working on the children’s handwriting. Up pipes one young teacher, who tells me it’s all the fault of the Government for banning the use of slates in years 1 and 2. (Slates may be banned but I’ve seen them in use twice, and those of you who follow the blog have seen my picture to prove it). Parents are too poor to provide pens and buy exercise books for their children, so they simply don’t do much writing at all. “OK”, I say, “what about making them practise on the blackboard”? In Rwandan schools the blackboard covers two whole walls; there’s tons of space to give children a chance to write. “Oh yes”, they come back, “we hadn’t really thought of that”. I tell them (loads of these teachers live in Gitarama) to ask around offices or other places which use computers in the town because offices usually have truckloads of waste paper only printed on one side. They think this is beneath them until I explain that many English primary schools and maternelles do exactly that, and most English primary schools have acres of children’s work done on recycled computer paper. So that’s all right then, if the English do it that way….

The 1ère teacher has taken the dreadful “play it safe” approach and done the most basic French lesson she can think of – introducing members of their families. (“Je m’appelle X; mon père s’appelle Y; ma soeur s’appelle Z” and so on). That’s on the first page of the year 1 text book. One by one the whole class of 50+ are dragged up to the blackboard and made to recite their families for me. I’m supposed to be impressed by this, but I’m not. I have a go at her and ask her why she’s not making the children work in pairs or groups to do their reciting, with her walking round and checking. She looks at me horrified as if I’ve suggested something immoral. It would make a lot of noise, she thinks. I might lose control….

Honestly, I thought we’d nailed all this stuff during the training sessions Cathie and I did last term. But no. The bloody TTC (teacher training college) method is so rigid and they’re so petrified of trying anything new….. I now know that if I ever get unleashed on a class for a whole week (something we did consider at one point) there would be all hell let loose, with accusations of ruining the children’s ability to concentrate and undermining other teachers. Of course, everybody knows that children can only learn anything if the teacher tells it to them, and children only learn if they’re kept in total silence….. Give me strength!

After my inspection I have one of these “Brucey’s pearls of wisdom” sessions which runs on a lot. We end up with a fanta with all the staff. I get served first and I’m just about to have a swig when one of the teachers steadies my arm. I’ve forgotten that here, even before you drink a coke, you have to say a long winded extemporised grace. Oh well, the fanta was warm to begin with so it doesn’t mater….

It’s not a bad school, Gikomero, but it’s dull. There’s no spark. I’d hate to be a pupil there. The school sits, like all the others in this part of Muhanga, amidst fabulous scenery; it has water, sound buildings, adequate furniture….. But it’s just deadly.

How do I keep this note of frustration out of my formal report? With difficulty. And the worst of it is that it’s no use fuming at individual teachers, or the head. It’s the whole way of thinking here in Rwanda. How do we change the culture and get them to experiment, to take risks, even to fail now and then without reprisals so they can learn from their mistakes? There’s an old Japanese proverb something along the lines that “a nail which sticks up gets hammered down”. So the TTC’s teach that there’s only one method to teach and that’s just what everyone does. And if you try anything different somebody will hammer you for it and bang goes any prospect of promotion.

One sideline. I ask the teachers (14 including the Head) how many of them have been out of Rwanda during their lifetimes. Two men are Congolese nationals, but nobody else has ever been out of the country. And that’s a clue to what’s going on here in our schools. Rwandan culture is so introverted, introspective, obsessed by its recent disastrous history, that it can’t seem to absorb anything from outside the country. And people are too poor to travel. It ends up with the dreadful, mind-numbing attitude that “how we did it in the past, that’s how we’re going to do it today and how we’re going to keep on doing it”. Doesn’t matter whether it’s what you grow, what you cook and eat, how you live your family life. Nothing changes. So the rest of the world moves on and Africa, and Rwanda in particular, gets left behind.

OK, time to put the soapbox way and go to bed!

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Out in the countryside

E P Ngoma at playtime. Beyond any doubt, in terms of buildings this is one of the absolute best schools in the District. It's also on a windy hilltop, but the views are stunning through about 270 degrees. If this was a hotel you could charge the earth just for the panorama!

Ngoma's pride and joy. On the day of my inspection this was the only creature at the school not being put through Maths and Kinyarwanda exams!

E P Cukiro in the wilds of Nyarusange. Another modern school. It's only about 20 miles from Gitarama but feels a million miles away, lost deep in the hills. It's the middle of lunchtime and most children have gone home to eat.

Les reves de ma vie

Every yearVSO runs a workshop at Kibuye called the "Kivu Writers' Conference". Beside this beautiful lake we spend a long weekend encouraging some of the best secondary school students in the country to polish their writing skills. They can write in French, English or Kinyarwanda, and in a variety of genres - journalism, poetry, creating the opening chapter of a novel, or even business letters. It's a well establish event and has enormous prestige among those schools who have children selected to take part. I like the poem below - "The Dreams of my Life". It's worth persevering with the French to read it right through!

Les rêves de ma vie

Je rêve d’une Afrique magnifique
Comique et angélique
Vivant le bonheur pacifique
Comme une musique poétique

Abreuvent ces âmes altérées
Par une source éthérée
Dans une matinée
Au prêt de la destinée

Je me crois déjà à Montréal
En cherchant l’idéale
Au niveau mondiale
Ce sera génial!

Quand les visages de tout âge
Des paysages de l’entourage
Viendront avec courage
Vers l’avantage de notre héritage

Je rêve d’une éducation contemporaine
D’une africaine non vilaine
Sans peine de moirer la laine
Sans surmonter un plaine

Peu de problèmes qui s’entassent
Dans ce monde qui amasse
Plus sentir sa personne lasse
Sur sa place en classe

Plus de famine sans réforme
Où les enfants sans famille
Foncent forcement avec fureur
Dans la foule qui fourmille

Assise sur ma chaise ronde
J’ai le rêve d’un monde
Faisant fuir comme une onde
Tout ce qui est bombé

Construction sans destruction
Instruction sans distinction
Contemplation de l’animation
Acquisition sans révolution
Conquérir et acquérir
Dans une lutte victorieuse
Accomplir ce plaisir
Avec une fierté radieuse
Vie pleine d’aisance
D’espérance et tolérance
De science et connaissance
D’abondance et de croyance

Ou les êtres de l’humanité
Vivront en plaine sérénité
Jouissant d’une fraternité
Sincère et méritée.


Meeting the school cow at Ngoma

September 19th

Alarm set early today; I need to finish off my report on Cukiro School before I go to Ngoma. At my advanced age I find that if I leave one report till after I’ve visited a second school, I get the two hopelessly muddled. So I’m a bit late getting to the office and for the third day in a row I take a moto from home. I tell myself it’s because I’m, busy, but in reality I’m just lazy and I’m getting bored with the long walk up through town!

Up to the District Office to collect Soraya and see if I’m going to get another lift with Claude or Innocent, but no joy on both counts. Soraya texts to say she’s going to have a planning day at home, and Claude and Innocent aren’t forthcoming with offers of transport. I’m glad Soraya’s getting straight into planning her work; that’s a good sign and she’s only been coming with me to get some experience of what primary schools are like. She’s been to about six with me so she’s already got a good impression from a wide range of schools.

I find a good motard because I know I’ve got a hilly run again, and off we go. It’s a beautiful morning and I feel relaxed about life. I’ve got a rough idea where the school is, which is more than the driver. First he tries to drop me off at Karama secondary school, about ten minutes out of Gitarama. On we go. I remember the right turn that Innocent pointed out to me yesterday, and we take it. So far, so good. Of course, there’s not a hint of a signboard for the school.

What Innocent didn’t tell me is that after turning right, we have to turn right again. But we sail on down the road for a couple of miles till we reach a school. “Hey”, I think, “this is too good to be true”. And so it turns out. The school we’ve cruised into is Gikomero Protestant, the wrong school. Gikomero is in a different secteur! Actually, I’m inspecting this one on Monday, so it’s a useful false move – Monday will be a piece of cake.

We drag a teacher out of her classroom and ask for directions. It’s no use her explaining to me; she needs to talk to my diver in Kinya. He’s reticent about going into her classroom. We end up having the conversation with her entire class of 50-odd little boys and girls hanging out of the doors and windows.

Back up the road and eventually we find the right trail. It’s just an overgrown lane with a green strip in the middle. There’s absolutely no clue whatsoever that it goes to anything other than a few houses. How on earth am I supposed to find these schools when I start going out on a moto on my own?

Ngoma turns out to be worth the trouble. It’s a brand new school, built two years ago. All built in one piece, and with a tronc commun section attached and open. The toilets are adequate, there are about 6 afritanks catching rain water – enough at the moment to last them through the dry season. The walls are brick, the roofs are tin. The windows are glazed, and are on both sides of the rooms. It’s the lightest, airiest school I’ve found so far. The room interiors are plastered and emulsioned. A Rolls Royce of a school. They have a solar panel which generates them about three hours of electricity a day.

What’s not so good is that despite these lovely rooms there’s absolutely nothing on the walls – no posters, nothing to stimulate children or fire their imaginations or serve as aide memoirs. It’s as if nobody dare sully the fresh magnolia paint!

The children are well behaved to the point of being subdued. After a few minutes I discover the reason. The whole school is doing assessment tests today in maths and Kinyarwanda. I watch three lessons – 2ère, 3ème and 5ème. All of them consist of children working through a blackboard full of problems and exercises. I’m none the wiser in the Kinyarwanda, and the maths is so dull I find myself yawning.

I can’t do a proper critique of their lessons because these teachers aren’t teaching in any normal sense; they’re going through the tests question by question, with one child working the answers through on the blackboard while the others watch like hawks, ready to pounce if he or she makes the slightest mistake.

This is a high achieving school. There is a really all embracing strategic plan. It’s not without its problems – parents who don’t support, staff who live a long way out (one woman is due to give birth in less than fortnight and is absolutely enormous), and like Mbare it has a public road running right through the yard with vélo taxis and the occasional car churning through.

Highlight of the morning is that when the head greets me, and I ask for a tour of the school, the very first thing he shows me is the school cow! Not a Holstein as at Murama, but a real Rwandan cow. She lives in a dinky little wooden shed. There’s no proper cultivated garden as in most other schools (Ngoma hasn’t got much room), but there’s a patch of cow grass which is being carefully eaked out to feed her. She’s being well looked after - compared to many cattle I’ve seen this one is sleek and well fed. She even lifts her head at the right moment to have her picture taken.

We end up with a debrief in front of all the staff and a fanta before my moto comes to collect me. He’s a good driver and I’m beginning to recognise their tabard numbers to use them again ; 112 and 115 are good. Number 106 is the twerp who abandoned Soraya and I at Gisiza….. I’ll walk rather than use him again.

Back in Gitarama I call at Soraya’s but she’s not there – she’s up at the District Office. However Hayley is at home and is pleased to have me as her first visitor. It’s her first full day in Gitarama; she’s been in to her workplace (the YWCA) but has been given the afternoon off to finish settling in. She’s getting to grips with brewing up tea on a paraffin stove. It’s slow and sooty and smelly and I’m so glad Tom and I are using gas for cooking.

Back home I spend a boring afternoon writing up my report, and trying to finalise my schools for next week. I’m going to try to do five inspections, and three have already confirmed. It’s just the ideal time for visits – the weather’s perfect with no rain during the day this week; the roads are easy to manage; the views are just superb beyond words, and I’m right out in the wilds where few white people ever go. Prime gawping country for every Rwandan I pass! It’s absolutely everything I came here for, and with the added bonus that I know Claude is happy with what I’m doing.

Late in the afternoon Irene drops in; her Dutch manager has just arrived and for some reason they’ve come down to Gitarama. She brings biscuits; I make tea. He’s well impressed that Irene seems to have contacts everywhere, so we don’t let on it’s just a fluke that we know each other.

The evening passes quickly with trying to get blogs updated and a load of other domestic stuff. It’s been a hectic three days and I’m really tired. Almost like being back at proper work….

Best thing about today – being out in the countryside doing what I like doing. A wonderful school – new, good quality teaching, good results. It makes you optimistic when you find somewhere like this. In three days I’ve moved from a school with real problems to one which could be a model for all the others to follow.

Mooching round Nyarusange with Innocent

September 18th

Soraya comes in to meet me in the office, but Claude wants to sit down with her and talk about how he’s going to use her, so that means I’m inspecting without her again.

I’m inspecting two schools today and I know it’s going to be really tiring. I need to know how to get to Cukiro; I’ve only got a vague idea where it is. I know it’s a long way out in Nyarusange secteur, close to the Nyaborongo river. Claude scratches his head and then tells Innocent to come with me. I had no idea that Innocent was able to go into schools and do inspections, but he turns out to be very useful. He knows all sorts of things I haven’t discovered yet, and he asks for things which I wasn’t aware were required. Once again, I think I’ve been letting schools off lightly.

But the journey turns out to be yet another epic. We agree we’ll go to Nyarusange school, right next to the main road, and ask for directions there. First we have to double back into town to get petrol. Off we go into the freshness and bright sunshine of the morning. It’s going to be a hot day, perhaps with thunder later on. The District moto is a hard riding bike; the padded seat isn’t quite big enough for two people. There’s a large metal frame at the back for luggage, and it cuts into your buttocks every tine you go over a bump. Even on the tarmac road there are bumps of one sort or another every few yards! On the dirt roads I’m sure I’ll end up singing soprano!

We reach Nyarusange and I jump off to find the Head before we’re mobbed by children and cause total disruption. (This is a school of 1800+ children, remember – two people on a moto will be the highlight of their day).

When I breeze into his office I get a shock. It’s absolutely full of ballot boxes from Monday’s election. They’re big tubs of clear plastic, with metal lids with padlocks. What is amazing is the votes are still in them – you can see the voting slips. Nobody seems to be guarding them – in England there would be police and officials of all sorts standing over them. Here at Nyarusange the Head is having a conversation with another teacher; the door is wide open. The votes were supposed to have been sent to Kigali for counting by midnight on Monday, so I really don’t know what’s going on here. The implications are so serious I don’t even feel like asking the guys why they’re still lumbered with all this clutter. After all, most of his office has been taken over!

The Head says to Innocent that it’s too tricky to describe the route to Cukiro, he’ll come part way with us. We chug off uphill. Fifty yards later Innocent suddenly stops. A warning light has come on the instrument panel. The moto is only a few months old – what can be wrong? It turns out we’ve virtually run out of oil, and the engine is within minutes of seizing. We can’t go any further. The Head rings a mate who goes and knocks up one of the semi-employed men living by the roadside, and sure enough somebody unlocks a little shop which just happens to have a stock of engine oil. We refill the sump and go off again. Time’s passing; I’m not going to be able to watch three full lessons (or so I think).

On and on along the Kibuye road; we’re passing through Mount Mushubi. The hills are steep and the road exceptionally twisty. People are patiently walking up and down these hills carrying loads on their head to some distant market. Every so often there a glen in the middle of the mountains, a beautiful little bowl-shaped valley with a stream in the bottom and lush pasture. The sides are terraced for cultivation up o the point where the slopes are so steep that even Rwandan’s daren’t risk breaking the soil. These parts are forested. Every so often there’s a scree of rock trickling down the mountainside. I suspect a lot of these are old mine workings, usually for tin in this part of the country (but for gold in Nyungwe).

We reach Kaduha primary school and here the head at Nyarusange says farewell, after pointing out the track leading to Cukiro in the distance. We’ve already gone about twelve miles on the tarmac road. I assume the school will be just over the hill.

I’m wrong. We wind up and over a hill, then corkscrew down into yet another beautiful valley. This is completely lost to the outside world; it could be a Shangri la which only comes into existence at particular times. Cows are grazing, so somebody here has money. Now we zigzag back up the mountainside, round and round until we’ve done nearly a 270 degree turn. We flatten out onto the top iof a ridge and there’s a village in front of us. Innocent makes a grand gesture with his hand to the right. There’s a brick Catholic Church in the semi-circular style they like here. Behind it there’s a hedge of euphorbia shrubs, and behind it a long building which is Cukiro School.

Cukiro is new and well built (by the church). The shutters are painted bright yellow, but there’s not much up on the walls and the classroom interiors are bare brick. Because we’ve taken ages to get here we agree to go straight into lesson observations. (We can do the admin stuff with the Head during her lunchtime). Innocent comes in with me, and we spend half and hour in each of six classes – we really go to town. The teaching varies – some very strong women teachers, but one or two rather woolly men… I’m already exhausted with trying to think and write my comments in French on the fiches d’appréciation (the formal lesson observation sheets).

During lunchtime we debrief with the Head and have a tour of the school. Despite it being only about seven or eight years old, she’s been given no office and uses the parish church vestry if she wants privacy. The maternelle – all 80 little tots with one teacher – meets in the church hall behind the church proper. Most of the time the Head sits in the back of somebody’s classroom to do her admin. But then, as she tells us, she’s got a lot of young women on the staff and their absence rate is very high. Either they’re on maternity leave, or their children are sick, or they’re having to look after relatives. In these cases the Head is the only “supply” teacher around. It plays havoc with any attempt to manage the school properly. I’m amazed this woman has managed to observe as many lessons. She’s one of the few Headteachers to have been in post before the genocide – and to have lived to tell the tale. Not that she’s going to tell me anything about it….

She’s bitter about the lack of support from many parents, who either choose not to send their children to school at all, or pull them at any opportunity if there’s the chance of work in the local stone quarries or to help carry bowls of vegetables to market.

Her exam results are poor, but then if the children are frequently not at school, what can we expect. This school is poles apart from the middle class pushyness of Gitarama primary.

Innocent and I hurry back to the Office – as an example of how remote this place is, it takes us a good fifty minutes on moto. And Nyarusange is supposed to be one of the nearest secteurs to where I live!

Back at the office I meet up with Soraya. She’s grinning like a Cheshire Cat and has had a brilliant morning. Not only has she sat down with Claude and they’ve agreed exactly what he wants her to do, but during the morning he’s had a meeting with all the secteur reps and introduced her to them. They’ve all taken a shine to her and they’re queuing up to book her to come and do trainings for them. She’s suddenly the most popular person in the Office!

By now it’s two o’clock and there’s no time for lunch. We’re due at Ahazaza primary. This is an exclusive private primary school, one of two serving Gitarama. Raima, the Head and owner, is an old friend by now (Cathie used to work three days a week for her), and Raima bumped into Soraya by chance yesterday in Kigali. The little school is delightful; talk about a culture shock after the privations of the state schools! Only 65 or so children; resources coming out of their ears; high quality teaching; an emphasis on English which means these little tots in maternelle are already as fluent as most mainstream children in 4ème. Inspecting these classes means shifting up into altogether another gear.

By the end of the inspection its half past five and I’m starving. I’ve got to buy food for tonight in the market, so we get away from Ahazaza as fast as we politely can, and go our separate ways.

In the evning I try to write up both inspection reports, but only get Ahazaza done and part of Cukiro. I’m getting old. I just can’t concentrate long into the evenings these days.

Best thing about today – everything. The moto ride (despite having a sore bum); the ballot boxes at Nyarusange; the lost valley before Cukiro. The contrast between Cukiro and Ahazaza. Meeting really intelligent 6 year olds who can talk to me in English. They are the future movers and shakers of this country (for good or ill). It’s fascinating to watch them at six – the pretty little girl only too aware of her looks already; the big boy who likes to throw his weight around with the others; the little plump girl from a wealthy family who isn’t quite up to the same standard as everyone else and knows it….. Give me a child until he is six and I will show you the man….

On a double date with Claude!

September 17th

Back to work properly today after no fewer than five days of not inspecting schools (am I getting withdrawal symptoms?). Up early to the District Office, and all the usual drill of finding our printer still without ink, and having to bump a colleague off his computer in order to print stuff. (They’ve got used to me now and make a joke about it. The muzungu’s always in a tearing hurry; they ask me where I’m off to today and I always get that shake of the head or frown which means “why on earth are you taking yourself off to some God forsaken dump like that when you could spend all day in this nice efficient office”). Would I trade places with the planning department, then? You’re kidding. I’d rather boil my head!

Soraya’s in Kigali today with the new volunteers. It’s the final day of their training course and they’re more than ready to leave Kigali and get into their proper jobs. I’m not sure what Soraya’s doing with them; it might be the shopping expedition to the Chinese bazaar. Rather her than me. I’m off into the deepest countryside today.

Innocent doesn’t know where Murama school is, which is worrying. If he doesn’t know, what chance have I got with the idiots on motos? Claude comes to the rescue. I go to ask him, and he warns me that Murama’s “got problems”. That’s in its management and teaching. What he doesn’t tell me until a few minutes later is that Murama’s got far bigger practical problems – it’s almost impossible to get to. The normal road access to it is impassable due to a landslide, and nobody’s got round to repairing the route. (The blockage happened some time ago). The school’s reachable on foot from the Ngororero road, but it’s a long walk and impracticable if I’m going to have any time to inspect. There’s a back way through Cyeza secteur, to Bilingaga and on along a rural lane, but it’s a bugger to find and a long way round. Most probably a moto driver would refuse to risk it.

So Claude decides to change his schedule for the day and come with me, driving the District moto with me on pillion. We’ve only got one crash helmet between us (I’ve taken to not lugging mine around because all the moto drivers carry a spare), so we swap the helmet between us depending on whether there are police around or not. (A sort of real life “after you, Claude”!) We first have to go into town to get petrol because, of course, this is Rwanda and nobody will dream of buying fuel for their journey and leaving some for the next user. Then we’re off up the Kigali road and turn off onto the “Great North Road”. It’s the first time I’ve been up here for a couple of months and it’s nice to be ploughing along familiar lanes. I’m watching carefully how Claude controls the bike; after all, if I pass my VSO moped exam, this will be the machine I’ll use! Claude himself isn’t too proficient, and certainly not used to a heavy muzungu on the rear; we do some epic gear changes which end up with me nearly castrated against the luggage bar! My eyes are watering and not with the cool wind!

Part way to Cyeza we stop to ask directions. Even Claude hasn’t travelled this way to Murama before; he knows the general direction but in Rwanda the roads are so twisty because of the hills that it’s easy as pie to take a wrong turning and find yourself only a couple of miles from where you want to be, but an entire hillside away.

The six locals give us seven different sets of directions, most of them contradictory. One seems to sending us to Kabgayi, and even I know he’s talking rubbish. Small boys emerge out of nowhere and close in to gawp. One is so close his hair is virtually touching my helmet. He’s barefoot, filthy where he’s been playing in the dust, and has two trails of snot all down his face. He’s wearing a girl’s padded coat about four sizes too big for him, and I think he’s starting to show symptoms of kwashiorkor. Cyeza is a poor area with huge population pressure.

We make a decision on our route and drive on, stopping every mile or so to ask other people and check our way. The route starts to look familiar and I find I can navigate Claude as far as Bilingaga primary school – I remember it from my previous visit. (I walked all the way back from Bilingaga to the flat, a good ten kilometres).

The soils are terrible here, plants are stunted and there seems to be little or no humus left in the ground. Manioc stems push out of gravelly earth riddled with reflective lumps of mica.

Eventually we come down a steep hill and reach the school. Between us and the school there is a river, too wide to jump. The only access is a log bridge. This consists of four or five logs, with earth jammed between each log to make a roadway. However, most of the earth has either dropped out into the stream or is about to do so, and it looks desperately unsafe. Claude makes me get off, and between us, and with the help of a couple of unemployed teenagers, we very gingerly push Claude on the bike across. It requires exquisite precision to balance the bike on a log (only about 5-6 inches across); the slightest false move would send both Claude in his best clothes, and our new District bike, into the river. That wouldn’t be cool, and would involve an awful long walk home.

Once across the bridge we turn into serious Inspectors. Murama is a new school (built 2000 by Tom’s FHI organisation); it sits in a little narrow valley surrounded by green hills. It’s not as mountainous country as Kibanda or in a huge natural amphitheatre like Gisiza, but it occurs to me that I haven’t yet found a school in Muhanga secteur which wouldn’t draw oohs and aah’s in a tourist photo.

We go straight into observe a year 5 lesson, both Claude and I. It’s dire. The teacher simply repeats a previous lesson he’d done last August – we find the kids’ exercise books with exactly the same work – and same questions – already done. Who’s this guy trying to fool? Did he think we wouldn’t look at their books? Why does he want to play it so safe? It becomes clear that despite giving the school about ten days notice of this inspection, this guy has been taken completely by surprise, has panicked, and decided to play safe.

The children are surly and won’t participate. The room’s dull, with very few posters on the walls despite being watertight and crying out for something to stimulate these children.

Unfortunately we have to carve him up in our debrief; I give him the next grade up from a failure and Claude definitely thinks I’ve been too soft on him.

The second lesson is better, but even here the teacher doesn’t make use of the new English textbooks which have all the work in it all ready done for him, and some much more imaginative exercises than he’s giving them. He’s teaching months of the year and has issues with his pronunciation. “January” becomes “Januar” and “Februar”; “August” becomes “Augusta”. And on and on.

The head mistress doesn’t fare too well in her Admin Inspection either. Claude tells me to do the inspection while he observes, and helps with a bit of translating here and there. She has a good development plan and budget, but a lot of her other paperwork is not up to date or not done at all. She hardly ever observes lessons. When we press her on this one, she says there’s so much staff absence that she spends all her time covering their classes.

This school really has got problems. Most of the parents are illiterate and not supportive. Pupil absence is high. Staff absence is ridiculously high, and they often don’t bother to give a reason for being away. (We tell her to give us chapter and verse from now on, and Claude or I will haul them up. There could be some jobs at stake). The repeating rate is sky high – more than half of year 1 is repeating, and 58% of the top year. The head is being driven by the school and not the other way round like it should be. There’s no electricity, no water nearby, and when it rains heavily the river floods and the school becomes to all intents and purposes inaccessible. Children who live across the river have to risk their lives either on a slippery, unsafe log bridge, or ford a raging river up to their middles. There’s not a hope in hell of the maternelle children or the little ones in 1ère and 2ème going to school on those days, and in the rainy seasons that can be just about any day. I dread to think what this place was like during the enormous thunder and hail storms we had back in February.

And yet. The banana plantation is thriving, and there’s a beautiful cowshed with a Friesian cow and calf, with plenty of grass and nice straw for them. What sort of a school builds a Rolls Royce stable for its animals but doesn’t provide the head with an office or the school with a secure store room?

Well, we give a summary report to the Head and staff; there are some good things; it’s not all bad, but it’s depressing. The school needs money, it needs materials, but more than anything else it needs leadership. I’ve asked the head whether she’s had any management training, and yes, she had some in 2005 (all local heads did). I’d love to roll up my sleeves, get in there for a month, put the fear of God into some of complacent sods on the staff, put up posters here, there and everywhere, and shake the place out of its lethargy!

Back home I write up my report, and get ready for the double inspections tomorrow.

Best thing about today – doing a double act with Claude. He sees things I don’t (and vice versa). He’s much more critical than me – I think after so many inspections I’m “going native” and getting too sympathetic to all their woes. As you can tell from this account, I just love these ventures out into the unknown every day. No, it’s not a venture, it really is an adventure. When I walked into the District Office this morning I had absolutely no idea of any of these problems of accessibility, of management, that this school faced. All I had was its statistics. Now you see why my job here is so fascinating!

A doughnut day

September 16th

A doughnut day today. I’ve got stuff to do first thing in the morning and last thing in the afternoon, but a gaping gap in the middle.

Up to the District Office to see Claude; he’s in the office, relaxed, with only a minimal queue, and he wants to chat. I give him the wedding present Teresa and co brought out with them. He tells me to my face how pleased he is with what I’m doing, and that he’s delighted I’m going to stay a second year. He particularly likes the amount of detail I’m putting in my inspection reports. We talk about Soraya’s role, and I ask him to make time to sit down with her and talk about her job this week before she gets depressed about being kept in limbo.

Then Claude asks me to help him write a letter in English to VSO about Soraya’s rent. The rent for her house is enormous, about RwF200,000 a month. (Well, what do you expect – it’s a 5 bedroom mansion!). The District only pay RwF32500 for me – I’m cheap and cheerful. It’s been decided at top level that the District will pay 30,000 for Soraya; the rest must come from other sources like VSO or YWCA (who own the building). It’s not for me to quibble over the amounts, so we load a sheet of official headed paper onto the computer screen and I write a formal letter for the Chief Executive to sign. I must say, it looks pretty cool. I quite enjoy committing other people to spending large amounts of money! I can’t take the letter to VSO with me even though I’ll be in Kigali in an hour. The Chief Executive has to sign and stamp it, and no doubt that will take several days….. C’est le lenteur administratif.

Off to Kigali straight away on the first available bus (a stopper, but thank God a very fast one), and straight to the Brussels Airways office in the Mille Collines hotel. Eric has told me there’s a ticket sale on, and we all want to know whether it’ll be applicable to our going home at Christmas. But, of course, the sale ends at the end of November. December and early January is another blasted “peak season”. So after five minutes our hopes of a cheap and comfortable flight to Gatwick are dashed. Brussels Airways is easily the most expensive option.

Next I go up to the VSO office and spend hours on the internet, catching up with all manner of stuff and even finding time to look at what people have sent to me via facebook. Now that is something – the first time since I arrived in Rwanda that I’ve had the luxury of being able to waste hours online. There’s also various bits of VSO business to sort out with Mike.

People drift in and out of the Office, but by and large it’s quiet. Late in the afternoon Kersti drops in on her way home from school. We’ve arranged to talk about the Earth Science module she’s teaching; she’s getting hung up on the geology aspects and, of course, they’re just up my street. She lends me a copy of the course textbook (very up to date, beautifully illustrated, quite an advanced level, and just about every single example used in it comes from the USA). We start off looking at plate tectonics and I describe to her how I used to teach it (“imagine the earth spinning in space as a football sized sphere of custard. The custard has a skin on it. That thickness of custard skin matches the thickness of the earth’s crust…..”)

We run out of time quickly, because I need to catch the last bus home. We agree that Kersti will do a division of time for her course to give me an idea of how many lessons to devote to each topic, and that I will do her a load of lesson notes based on the textbook. I don’t mind; it’ll be nice to be doing some geology again after nine months of broader curriculum stuff, (or even English teaching methodology which I’ve discovered is definitely not my strong point).

It’s a long time since I left it this late to come home to Gitarama, but I know the road so well now that even in the pitch dark I can tell which of the seven hills we’re grinding up or skittling down. Even in the pitch dark there are still women at Rugobagoba waiting to sell pineapples and jars of honey to passing traffic.

While Tom and I are eating there are lots of text messages flying back and forth between me, Els and Eric about flights. Eric may be able to book something on behalf of all of us on Friday; I’ll need to text him on Saturday to check. I never thought that arranging a flight home could be such a palaver.

It’s been a funny day but a good one. Compliments from Claude, disappointment with flights (we’re none of us any further forward), success on the internet and repaying some of Kersti’s hospitality to me by assisting her with her teaching preparation.

Election Day in Gitarama

September 15th

Election Day. Our orders are to keep a low profile. On no account are we to do anything which could taken as showing we’ve got involved in national politics. If things get ugly we go into emergency mode and await evacuation to Kigali. If the election results are disputed and there’s mob violence we’ll be flown out of Rwanda at the earliest opportunity.

What an anticlimax. The day is a damp squib. First of all, Tom and I have been expecting that shops and businesses will be closed, no transport running – a total lockdown like on the day of the Presidential visit. In the event most shops and the market stay open; it’s just public buildings and the banks which are closed. Atraco buses aren’t running at all, but most of the other operators like SOTRA are at least running a skeleton service. (They need to – people have got to travel to their home districts in order to vote). The buses are packed.

In the distance we can see long queues at Gitarama primary school. All schools are closed, whether or not they’re being used as polling stations. Everything is quiet and orderly; it’s just like early on a Sunday morning.

We’ve been expecting frantic last minute processions; lots of noise with parades of motos blowing their horns; bus loads of unemployed men shouting and singing (I’ve been told they’ve been paid up to RwF20000 a day to go up and down the town and look enthusiastic for one party or the other. Don’t know whether it’s true but I’m certain these people are being paid to advertise a political party. Would that be allowed in England?).

We’ve been expecting a suffocating police and army presence to ensure security; we’ve been expecting to have to produce our green residence cards every ten paces or even to be told to stay off the streets until the voting period is over (and we’ve deliberately got enough food ready to be able to do that).

The huge poster with a cow which I’ve put on the blog has been taken down early on the morning of the election.

It turns out that most people were waiting to cast their votes by six in the morning; by about nine o’clock - which is when Tom and I surfaced and ventured out – most of the voting was already over. Their votes cast, the population just got on with business as usual. We weren’t hassled; we never had to prove our identities, and the rioters at our gates never materialised. Dare I say it – we even felt a bit disappointed – it would have woken Gitarama up to have a bit of election day drama!

So in the end it turned into a bit of a non-day. We couldn’t really go anywhere or do anything; we rested at home, read our books, did some more batch cooking, watched DVDs. I got a load of blogs and other material ready to send home; I need another good session on the internet to catch up with everything.

And in any case the election result is a foregone conclusion. They’re just going through their paces to keep money flowing into Rwanda from abroad.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Election poster in Gitarama

Thought you'd all like this. The main FPR party wants to project an image of prosperity, so what does it use: a cow. And not a Rwandan Ankole cow, but a western Holstein. Where else in the world would they try to win your vote with a picture of a cow?

Sunday on the go in Kigali

September 14th

I wake up to the sound of church choirs in no fewer than three neighbouring churches! One has the usual karaoke drum and chord accompaniment and is boring. One sounds like children and is weak. But the third is unaccompanied, four part harmony and is spot on. Every now and then one of the other choirs drowns it out, but when you can hear them clearly they are just simply the best!

Neither Eric nor Mike are up and about, so I shower and have a cup of tea. The others surface just as I’m ready to leave.

Outside it’s misty, and the last thing most people are expecting to see at this time on a Sunday morning (eight o’clock) is a muzungu with a rucksack. I plug into my iPod and stride on at a brisk muzungu walk, hoping I don’t make a tempting target for muggers.

Walking up the hill towards Remera centre you pass an area of small bars and little restaurants. There’s nothing quite as dispiriting as night-time businesses at the start of the day. The ground is littered with beer bottle caps and paper rubbish (but no empty bottles, glass or plastic – these have deposits on them or can be traded for cash, so are recycled instantly). At night the bars are lit by bright lights or fairy lights; in the foggy morning light today they just look tatty and grubby!

I call in at the VSO office but Karen is on the computer with her god-daughter who has just arrived from England, so I collect mail and move on. I walk up to the Amani guesthouse and pinch some breakfast from the new VSOs in residence.

Motor cycle training is supposed to begin at nine. By twenty to ten we are just about ready to get started. Two mechanics have brought a Yamaha 125, a big machine (the same one as the PHARE VSOs will use every day) and they park it inside our classroom. For an hour and a half we’re given a lecture on all the theory of the bikes – how to maintain them, how to use the gears safely etc. I’m glad everyone’s thinking of proper bikes and not those piddly little motos!

Four volunteers have had CBT training before leaving England; for them all this stuff is old hat. And it’s delivered in fractured English and Rwandan French, so we have two goes at understanding it but none of us fully understands everything even after two languages! Anyway, I learn how to use the gears, how to check the oil, where the choke is, and basic safety tips.

At the end of the session I get a chance to sit at the business end of the bike (first time ever for me) and play with the controls. I’m going to have to work on my arm/foot co-ordination in order to work the gears smoothly. The others say it takes at least a couple of days to get the hang of it.

Then Enias and the mechanics take the four volunteers who have already done training up to Kicukiro stadium to put them through their paces on the bike before being let loose in the wilds of Rwanda. The rest of us have to return on Tuesday morning to begin our practical training. That means I’ve got to cancel one of the few schools I’ve managed to fix a date with, and if the training continues all week I’ve got four others to cancel as well. Never mind, I’ve been grumbling about not being trained on bikes ever since I got my posting to Rwanda and VSO refused to train me in England, so I’m overjoyed it’s finally coming to pass. The other District VSOs like Els are jealous that I’ve been included and they haven’t; I fancy Charlotte and Mike are going to get some “why him and not me?” phone calls on Monday.

Eric rings from the VSO office; like Els and I, he’s been looking into flights to England at Christmas and has found a cheaper one with Kenya airlines, but it doesn’t leave until December 8th and returns January 3rd. That’s later and earlier than I would like. He also tells me that Brussels Airlines is having a sale this week, but that you have to call in at the Mille Collines office to get the deals – you can’t do it on line. Eric will be back teaching in Kabarondo after today, so I volunteer to go into the office on Tuesday on my way back in for bike training.

From Amani I walk back up to Remera through mid-day heat. The fog has lifted and the sun is really burning hot. I’ve arranged to see Kersti and go through the Earth Science module she’s required to teach at the American School to see if I can help her with anything.

The problem is – she’s not there. She’s double booked herself and is down at UTC in the town centre talking to Paula. Never mind, this is how Rwanda works. We have a quick phone conversation and agree to meet at the end of Tuesday’s training.

Then I walk back in the heat to the VSO office to use the computer. Amanda is on the machine; she’s just had her hair done in braids; thick ones at the front fading into tiny thin ones at the back of her scalp, and it looks lovely. I while away half an hour going through the library books and finding a couple to read. Then I’m able to use the computer and blog photos of the Shyogwe building project, and email the Dutch end of the operation to say things are going well; here’s the photos for proof; we need the second slice of money immediately because the building is going so fast that unless they send it right away the builders will stop until it comes!

The practise here is to pay builders after each stage of operations – after the foundations, the walls are up, the roof is on etc. And after each step you need cash to buy materials for the next stage. There’s no such thing as builders working on their own credit until the money comes in as a lump sum at the end of the project. Nobody has enough capital to do that. This is one of the real effects of desperate poverty. As I blog my pictures I start looking at them as a Westerner would – a Dutchman for instance. Nobody is wearing protective clothing. There are no helmets; the women are wearing headscarves to protect their braids. Nobody wears goggles even when they’re chopping bricks in half or cutting the quartzite stone blocks (there break into edges as sharp as glass; a splinter in the eye would blind you for life). Nobody wears boots; the women are up and down rickety ladders with heavy loads on their heads and just wearing the cheapest plastic sandals. Nobody wears any kind of overalls, just their normal clothes. The women mixing mortar end up covered with cement dust all over their skirts and feet. That must burn them after a while. Ladders are made of tree branches, the rungs held on with bent nails, and the ladder tied in position with banana leaf cords. Scaffolding is made of tall saplings, in some cases so recently cut that one still has green leaves sprouting from it. The upright poles are far longer than necessary for the height of the school; I assume they don’t want to cut perfectly straight long poles in half and that they’ll take them for use in a subsequent building project. There’s no wastage except for hundreds of brick fragments (the Rwandan bricks are a lot softer than ours, especially the bricks we used on our vocational training courses at Bridport), and piles of stone shards littering the ground.

I like the master builder; he’s a tiny little man, softly spoken and gentle, but he sees everything and nobody messes around on the site. I think he’s bemused to have a white man coming to take pictures of him and his workers. I must remember to take my laptop with me next time so I can show everyone their photos I’ve just taken! I wonder what the young women workers would say if they realised their pictures are on the internet and that people in at least three continents are looking at them!

After the internet I walk up to Stella Bar where we’re finally saying farewell to Shelina. She’s only been here a month, but everyone likes her and we’re sorry to see her go. It turns out that tomorrow, just after she’s stepped out of the plane in Nairobi, she has an on-line interview with VSO for the post of National Volunteer manager for East Africa. The only problem is that as the afternoon goes on she starts to feel really unwell, and eventually has to abandon her own farewell party. Giudhi and her boyfriend are just leaving so they walk her home. Poor Shelina, I hope it works out for her – she’s such a hard worker and I know she’ll be exactly the right person for the job!

While we’re there we’re joined by Paula. First of all she announces a party at Gahini in mid-October. That’s a must to go to. Then she produces another stash of jewellery and handbags made by rehabilitation clients at Gahini, just as she did at Mel’s Kibuye party, and we all buy enthusiastically for presents for our families. Then I discover the reason why Kersti missed my meeting with her was that she was talking to Paula about her (Paula) taking over Kersti’s old job in Byumba. So I’m able to also talk to Paula about the Byumba setup and I think between us we’ve convinced her to stay another year and go up to Byumba. The scenery there is stunning; the church authorities are supportive and proactive; there’s Irene for company and I know that she and Paula will hit it off together. Finally, Paula’s fed up with being a teacher in just one school and wants a wider role like mine and Els’s. Go for it, that’s what we all tell her!

As if I haven’t done enough walking for the day already, I traipse back down the cobbled road to Kicukiro and get a matata to the town centre, then have to wait nearly an hour for a bus to Gitarama. Late Sunday afternoon is a very busy time to travel in Rwanda; churches are finishing their afternoon services and everybody like me who’s come into the capital for the weekend is leaving it to the last minute to go home. But we have a brand new bus, a really big and comfy one with air conditioning (switched off, of course), and it’s a glorious evening ending in a full African moon hanging over the endless hills. I think it’s by far the most beautiful sunset and evening since I got here. I’m sitting in real comfort, plugged into my music, in a bus whose driver has not bothered to turn on the bus radio (that’s almost unheard of here), and it’s a fast run home.

By the time I get to Gitarama its time for the weekly muzungu meal; Karen and god-daughter are there, but we’re down to a select bunch of six people. The air’s full of big flying ants; must be something to do with the combination of full moon and recent rains); they look alarming but don’t bite. They just make a mess when you squish them.

By the time I get back home I’m absolutely dead on my feet, and I pile straight into bed.

Best thing about today – nearly everything. Lots of networking, lots of meetings with friends. It’s so nice to be one of the crowd and a part of everything.

Worst thing about today – I’m tired. My feet are sore. My knees ache from walking on uneven surfaces. I’ve got to cancel school visits I’ve tried hard to arrange. Never mind – I’m enjoying myself!