Sunday, 28 September 2008

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!

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