Sunday, 28 September 2008

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?

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