Friday, 28 November 2008

roads, laptops and far too much sex!

November 28th

Although I don’t have an English class at the Office this morning, I’m up at 5.30 as usual and there by 6.45. I like these early morning starts; I’ve said before in this blog that it’s the best part of the day. Yesterday I realised that Mushushiro secteur hasn’t confirmed my training session with them today, nor told me which school to use. By the time I got back from Muhanga yesterday it was too late to contact them – the District Office was shut and Innocent would have gone home. When things get tricky I need a native Kinyarwanda speaker to clarify things for me! (Sorry, there’s about five different tenses in that paragraph. I’m beginning to mark my own writing as if it were an exam. And I’m failing the exam…)

So first thing this morning we try ringing Emerthe, the secteur rep. And we try and we try and we try. I have a go, Innocent has goes; finally I go to Claude with all my woes and he tries several times. Each time we get a pre-recorded message saying that the phone is either switched off or the person is not in the country.

Claude rings a couple of the other Mushushiro head teachers. Eventually we get the story. Emerthe has got a new phone, but she hasn’t told the District her new number. Since the head teachers’ mobile is the only way of contacting a school, we have a situation where Cyicaro (Emerthe’s school) is completely uncontactable from Headquarters. Not only that, but since Emerthe is the secteur rep, it means that it’s impossible to organise communication with any of the Mushishiro schools in a sensible way. Neither of the two heads Claude talks to has any idea about resources training today, so we decide to cancel. Claude’s hopping mad with Emerthe and embarrassed for me.

I’m cross, because it’s a wasted day, but at least this one’s not my fault. And I really need a rest. I can’t believe how three days’ training on the trot takes it out of you. My arm and shoulder is aching where I’ve been lugging heavy baggage on the back of motos, and despite an early night I still feel lethargic. Goodness knows what I would feel like if I had done 5 days consecutive training, as I had planned. Plus four day’s English lessons at the Office.

Anyway, I make the most of the morning reading up various reports in the Office, and planning some more English trainings for January. I try to make things relevant. Detailed instructions on a packet of medicine is a standard English Language training exercise out here. Instructions for loading a new programme onto their computers will also be applicable to all of them. And I spend some time creating a detailed job specification and advert exactly as it would appear in the “Nouvelle Rélève” newspaper. The job is for an EMIS and educational database manager – I might even be tempted to have a go for it myself!

I raid Claude’s office while he is out; there is a pile of “Nouvelle Rélève” papers on his table, covering September and October. Its very good practise for my French to read through them, even if to casual visitors to the Office it appears that I’m just sitting mucking about and reading the papers.

Firstly there’s an article about the new tarmac road from Gitarama to Ngororero. Although the road is being built by the Chinese, the chief engineer in charge of the whole project is Italian. I wonder what language they all communicate in. Apparently the locals along the route have been helping themselves to the blocks of stone used for culvert making and especially for the gabions. I assume they’re using the stone to build their houses. It has cost the project no less than 800 million extra Francs – a huge sum. The engineer is accusing the Muhanga population of being thieves; Yvonne, our Mayor, is stung to the quick and denouncing the thieves but promising to take action. It’s just like stuff in the “Bridport News” – parochial and defensive, but this is the national newspaper! The engineer also says that the road is guaranteed for ten years before it should need repair. But at the same time he admits that the section through the mountains just past Gitarama has been exceptionally difficult to build, and that there is a constant risk of “glissements de terre”- landslides, which become almost constant during the heavy rains.

The article confirms that the road will eventually go all the way to Gisenyi; Ngororero is about 45km from Gitarama, and Gisenyi is about another 50km further on. By around 2010 the route will have been done and a big chunk of the country will have been opened up. It’s just staggering how isolated most of these places are along the road. There’s whole areas the size of Dorset where it is so hilly, and the roads so poor, that people are simply shut in within their own communities all year round. You live in the community, marry in the community, go to market within about a 6km radius of your house, and during your entire lifetime you’ll almost never venture further than about 20km away from it. It’s just like England in the 1700s, before roads were surfaced and railways built. I dread to think what the amount of inbreeding is like in some of these communities! The whole idea of the new road is to open these parts of Rwanda to trade and to new ideas, as well as to take as much through traffic as possible out of Kigali. (All the heavy lorries from Congo to the south of Rwanda will eventually come this way, and what is currently for me a beautiful road with almost no traffic to spoil it will become one of the busiest highways in Africa).

Another article talks about a plan to give laptops to every school child in Rwanda. I’ve heard this mentioned before, and you’ll remember I wrote in this blog last week about an ICT training course being held at Gitarama primary school. But this is the first time I’ve seen stuff about computers for every child in writing. An outside, foreign aid organisation is making cut-down, cut-price laptops available; some 5500 will have been distributed by the end of this year, and thenceforth at the rate of around 50,000 a year. I’m still scratching my head over all this. Almost no rural schools have electricity, so they’ll either be spending a fortune on batteries, or the schools will have to buy solar panels (which are very expensive). I can understand that they will wire up schools in the towns, or wherever the main electricity grid runs close to a school (Munyinya and Nyarusange in my district are two prime examples). But can you imagine the wear and tear on laptops being bashed about over stone roads on their way to and from school? And if there’s a huge black market of parents, pupils, and even some teachers raiding their local primary school to steal textbooks and sell them in the local markets for food money, just imagine how tempting it will be to flog off all these computers. The average lifespan of a laptop is only four years or thereabouts, so in four years they will have distributed about 200,000. But there is an estimated 2 million children in primary schools across the country (up from 900,000 in 1994 – there’s a population explosion for you!), so you see the scale of the problem.

Any increase in ICT and in knowledge has got to be a good thing here; the “human capital” of Rwanda is at a desperately low level and I’m constantly surprised at how low the general level of education and understanding is. Rwanda is the first time I’ve been to a place where everyone is streetwise and cunning to the Nth degree, but abysmally backward in anything approaching formal education. It just seems crazy to be giving something as complicated as a laptop computer to households where neither of the parents can read and write, where the whole family lives in one room, and where the only source of lighting is an old tomato paste tin full of paraffin with a strip off somebody’s trouser hem as the wick. New roads – yes, definitely; rural electrification – yes, as fast as possible. But there are all sorts of other urgent priorities – hygiene, food security, health education and above all contraception, which are far more urgent than trying to shunt children from the 1700s into the computer age overnight.

Which brings me to the third article in the “Nouvelle Rélève”. The government here is beginning to square up to the Catholic Church over birth control. The Government really means it when it says you “must” not have more than three children per family. The average number of births per woman has gone down from 6.2 in 1992 to 5.5 now, which is something. And a 20% infant mortality rate means that on average every family loses at least one young child, usually to some combination of dysentery, malaria or respiratory diseases. At the present rate of increase the population will double to 16 million by 2020, and there will simply not be enough food. Rwanda will become like Bangladesh – a permanent “basket case”, forever dependent on foreign aid. Even if the population control measures are adopted with vigour, they expect the population will reach 13 million, and in a country not much bigger than Wales that’s a genuinely scary prospect. But I have grave doubts as to how well they can enforce their 3 children policy. The Rwandan male’s attitude is that is he’s going to get married he’s doing it for the sex and if he has ten or more children, well, that’s not his fault. It’s God’s fault. And therefore it’s God’s job to look after the children. “Je les ai mis au monde, mais Dieu s’occupe du reste”. In the very backward, rural secteurs it is common to see groups of children who are clearly not in school, dressed in absolute rags, and quite obviously fending for themselves. They raid their neighbour’s fields, stealing potatoes and plantains and making little fires to cook them. Children as young as six are living this way and often looking after even younger siblings. I can sometimes see these children when I travel up country, because a muzungu on a motor bike is so rare that these kids’ll break cover to come and stare. There is a prevailing attitude that God smiles on large families, and it’s undoubtedly true that women are judged on their fertility and see themselves as fulfilled in measure according to the number of children they manage to raise successfully.

Then last month the Pope, safely away from the realities of Rwandan rural life, repeated his line about every effective method of birth control being forbidden and that it’s celibacy or nothing. He should come to Cyeza or Kibangu.

Educated Rwandans are definitely having small families – they are no different from educated families in England or anywhere else in the developed world. But they are only a tiny proportion of the total population, and their forbearance does nothing to alter the overall demographic trends. I feel really sorry for the Catholic priests like Jean-Damascène who have to toe the party line from Rome, while at the same time trying to hold their exploding, and increasingly poor communities together. Make no mistake; rural Rwandans are getting poorer. Land is being subdivided more and more. Soils are getting so seriously exhausted that crop yields per hectare are falling fast. You can measure rural poverty by the proportion of people who have to buy seeds each year (because they’ve eaten their seed potatoes during the dry season, for example), or who buy artificial fertilisers to increase yields. The statistics for both these categories are going the wrong way, and a food security crisis is looming. While his Holiness waffles on about the sanctity of marriage and that it’s still a sin to disturb the intimacy of the act of union etc etc, I can see war, famine and disease galloping over the mountains towards us.

And what chance will a posh school laptop stand with these families?

The only hope seems to lie in getting girls as educated as possible. Educated young Rwandan women are very modern indeed. They’ll certainly not see life as an endless conveyor belt of pregnancies, and they want all the goodies of life, and they want them now if not sooner. They’ll tell the Pope exactly where to go. They’ll tell their menfolk exactly how many children they’re going to have, and when they’re going to have them. This sort of lifestyle is so much easier to do in towns like Gitarama and Kigali where you are safely away from pressure from grandparents and other tradition-bound relatives. In the villages things won’t really change for a couple of generations. And by then it could be too late. It would be ironic if the lasting legacy of the genocide was a subconscious desire to repopulate the country, and that this lasted so long that the country destroyed itself in an avalanche of hungry people.

OK, that’s enough on the subject.

Best thing about today – having time to relax, read, and think.

Worst thing – it looks as if by the time I come home next week I’ll only have done half my resource making training sessions instead of the three quarters I had planned. But it doesn’t matter; I have my whole second year before me! Nobody’s angry with me, and I can take life at my own pace.

Also, I’ve discovered that by not using the water heater and being sparing with lights and the kettle and leaving my ironing till next week, I should be able to keep the electricity flowing until Tom comes back on Sunday and he or I can get the meter recharged on Monday morning. So it’s not all bad.

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