Thursday, 4 September 2008

Johnny won't be in school tomorrow 'cos he'll be making bricks....

September 3rd

The recent rains have washed the air clean. Visibility in the mornings is pin sharp. There seem to be two sorts of weather. Yesterday the day started with a cloudless sky, hot, brilliant sunshine – perfect for taking photos and “good to be alive” weather if you’re travelling in the countryside. Not so good in Gitarama town where the cars and bikes quickly fill the air with dust. These days tend to cloud over by the middle of the morning, and end up with thunderstorms around four in the afternoon, followed by beautiful sunsets and wonderful evening colours. I love these days.

The other sort of weather, as today, is cloudy, windy and really cool. In fact definitely cold if you’re travelling on a moto. It doesn’t rain, but the whole day is dull. It’s nowhere near so good for photos, and there’s something about the cloud and dullness which makes you feel depressed.

This morning Soraya is waiting for VSO to come and install her in her permanent house in Gitarama, so I’m inspecting on my own. I’m off to Shyogwe secteur, to Mbaré School. I’ve got a rough idea where it is, and that turns out to be better than the boneheaded moto driver who’s taking me. “Do you know where the school is?” I ask in my best French. “Yes”, he answers, terrified that if he doesn’t know, I’ll find another driver and he’ll lose my fare. So first of all he stops outside Cité Nazareth school – a private, boarding, rich, primary school which is on another planet from the little country school I’m after. So on we go. “Ask some of these locals where it is” I tell him. But he won’t; he’s too proud and afraid he’ll get laughed at if he admits weakness and lets on that he doesn’t know where he’s taking the muzungu.

On we go again. Now we arrive at Shyogwe primary itself. “No, it’s not this one” I tell him. On we go once more, further and further out, until we eventually end up in the middle of the countryside with no houses around us at all. Now mutley has to admit defeat. He turns round and looks piteously at me as if to say “you’ve brought me here, now get me out of this mess”. I tell him again to ask directions from some blokes working in the fields. Even now he won’t do it. So I call them over, and get them to explain to the driver in Kinya where to go to find Mbaré.

Of course, it turns out we’ve driven twice as far as we needed to. Back we go, back past Shyogwe school, back into the middle of Shyogwe village, back to within a couple of hundred yards of Cité Nazareth school. In the middle of Shyogwe village there’s a sort of village green, usually occupied by men fiddling around trying to mend bikes. Behind them, and partially hidden by them, is another road. A hundred yards down this road a lane winds up the hillside, with a huge sign saying “École Primare Mbaré 500m”.

So there’s another epic journey to find a school. I’m nearly 30 minutes late and have to apologise to the Head mistress who’s beginning to wonder if I’ve stood her up.

Mbaré is an interesting little school (well, its got 722 pupils so perhaps it’s not so little). The buildings are all of semi-dur, built in the early 1960s and in need of replacement. It’s the perfect example of how, even here in Rwanda, expectations are rising fast. Ten years ago everyone would have been perfectly happy with these buildings and counting their blessings that they had any sort of school at all. Now, people have seen pictures of the brick and tin “palaces” in the fortunate primaries, and these old constructions at Mbaré don’t cut the mustard any more. Roofs have settled so you can see daylight in several places (and rain comes pouring in). Floors are uneven brick – better than dirt, but difficult to clean. This school has spent money glazing their windows so that lessons can continue when it rains. They’re building urinals for the boys because 700 pupils can’t get through the existing toilets during break times, and the locals are fed up with kids going into their banana groves to relieve themselves. The school is on a flat hilltop with outcrops of sandstone breaking up the yard and making it a death trap for any games involving running. A road runs through the yard, and periodically games must stop because a lorry is coming through. The lorry driver doesn’t really make any allowances for the children, he just sits on his horn and ploughs through the yard. He’s laden with bricks from a brickworks down in the valley; if he stopped he might not be able to get his load started again.

The neighbours’ houses are so close to this school that there’s no room to plant shade trees. There is no shade at all for children at lunchtime unless they go back into the classrooms. There are some tiny flower beds outside each classroom, but the school doesn’t really have a produce plot like most schools. Shyogwe is a desperately poor secteur; the Head explains that they planted manioc this year, but during the holidays what the local goats and cows didn’t eat got stolen overnight by villagers. And that’s despite the school employing two watchmen. And there’s even a school house on the site with one of the teachers living in it.

Iphigénie is a typical primary head. She’s a lovely woman, 44, and with 4 children of her own. She lives about 2 miles from the school and walks both ways each day, so she’s trim and in good shape! She’s red-hot efficient at her administration and about the most conscientious of any head I’ve met out here in observing lessons and knowing what’s going on in her school. She’s also got a wicked sense of humour and we get on well right from the start.

This school has problems with children not attending. Iphigénie tells me that the local parents don’t really support the school. They pull their boys out to go and work in the brickworks whenever they’re short of money (frequently), and the girls to mind the younger babies when the mother go to market (twice a week). For some of them the attitude is “well, I never went to school and I’ve survived, so why do my children need to go? The boys are old enough to go out and work and earn money, and the girls are old enough to look after the little ones until they get themselves pregnant and start their own families”. For others, it’s not that they don’t set any value on education but just that the poverty here is so grinding that they’ve got no option but to pull their children to earn enough to keep themselves fed and alive.

Despite all these handicaps, Mbaré has English results which are significantly above the average for the whole District of Muhanga (a whole standard deviation above average). The results are really peculiar. If you measure success by the number of children who pass the year 6 exam to go to secondary school, then Mbaré languishes in the bottom quartile of the District. But if you look at the average scores of individual pupils in these tests, the school is close to the middle of the District results, and well above it in English. I can only conclude that what must be happening is that there are a load of children who are just failing the P6 exam, but whose marks collectively are close to the pass mark. So I tell this to Iphigénie, and that she needs to identify these children and get some intensive coaching done with them to lift their results just above the P6 Pass mark. Oh dear, I’m sounding like an OFSTED inspector lecturing an English primary about its SAT results!

I watch a 1ère lesson in French. The teacher is doing everything orally and is covering the verb “aller”. She uses me as a teaching aid. “Monsieur Bruce est derrière la classe” (I’m sitting right at the back). There are 60 children – yes, 60 – in the class and immediately there are 120 eyes all focussed on me! These little tots have difficulty with “Bruce” and it ends up as somewhere between “Bluce” and “Breece”. One little chap, Sosthène, (how’s that for a name) is told “aller dans la cour” and trots off down to the back of the room, through the door and into the school yard. Unfortunately the teacher is so fazed by my presence that she forgets she’s sent him there and poor Sosthenes languishes for a full five minutes before I gesture him back inside while her attention’s diverted elsewhere!

I’m sure you can tell from all this verbiage that I really love my job as an Inspector, and I’m never happier than when I’m out in the field visiting these little schools and talking to children and teachers. If only I could get some of you readers out here to help me and do some English conversation work with these children. In one day with any of you people they’d double their vocabulary and treble their understanding of English, and if you were here for a month or so we could transform the results in a school. If only. But, of course, I can’t get you out here, and there are 107 schools which need you……

In the afternoon I write my report. I feel very tired; it’s really intense when you’re inspecting. It’s like going to a school on interview for a headship – you’re trying to absorb all the signals visual, verbal and non-verbal from everyone, and at the same time go through your mental checklist of things to look for. Plus you’re maintaining conversations and doing the formal paperwork. And you’re doing it all in a foreign language (and one which is foreign to them, too, so there are moments when both you and they are scrabbling around for words to do justice to what you want to say). Now try getting to grips with the finer points of budget management in French, or just try how much French vocabulary you know to encourage a head teacher to tweak her exam results by selective coaching….. You get the picture!

I do the market, Tom buys cheese. Cheese has just shot up in price from around 2500 to 3500 francs; we think the excuse is that the Government has just imposed some severe quality control system and the makers are passing their costs on to us buyers (and some…). Only rich people an muzungus can ever afford cheese here.

We both watch videos all evening.

It turns out that Soraya didn’t move into her new house – VSO didn’t turn up. She’s not a happy bunny.

I’ve tried texting a school in Nyarusange secteur to visit tomorrow, but the school hasn’t replied. I don’t know if they didn’t get my text, or couldn’t be bothered to reply. I don’t know if they are expecting me or not. I don’t know if it’s convenient or acceptable for me just to turn up. All I can do now is get Innocent to ring them tomorrow morning early from the Office, and if they are OK then I’ll go at very short notice.

Mid evening Charlotte rings me from Kigali. Will I talk to the new batch of volunteers about the Volunteer Committee next week? Yes, no problem. Oh, and by the way, VSO Rwanda is going to organise motor bike competence training for people, including me. WHOOPEE! I’ve wanted this for yonks! I think there’s been a big screw-up in England and some of the volunteers coming out on the PHARE project (AIDS education) have not been allowed motor bike CBT training in England, even though they have bikes waiting for them here and are required to use them to get to and from their schools. But if VSO is going to organise and pay for training, then half my transport problems are solved.

Best thing about today – being out in the schools. The weather when it’s clear and sunny. The news about bike training. It’s been a pretty damn good day today!

Worst thing – lack of communication. Extra days announced at short notice when I can’t work and can’t plan. Grrrrrr!

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