Sunday, 28 September 2008

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.

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