Saturday, 20 September 2008

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!

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