Wednesday, 28 January 2009

trouble in the refugee camps

A family's home in Gihembe refugee camp, taken when I visited it.

I'm just reading reports on the BBC that people living in the refugee camps at Kigeme and Gihembe have been taking to the streets to protest about Nkunda's arrest on Friday. (Gihembe is the refugee camp where I spent a week training teachers last March). Apparently Nkunda was tricked into entering Rwanda; he was told that Rwanda wanted to consult him about sending their army into the Congo; when he actually entered Rwanda they arrested him.

For the refugees in the camps, Nkunda is still a hero, and they see him as the only person capable of chasing out the Interahamwe militias and making the Congo safe enough for them to eventually return home.

The Rwandan authorities, however, take an extremely dim view of any protests that they haven't organised, so they sent police and troops in mass to the camps to disperse the demonstrators. We understand they were firing live ammunition, though it's not clear at the moment whether any of the refugees have been shot.

(Sigh.......) When is all this going to end?

"ten old years" in Ruli

January 27th

Up early even though I don’t need to be – but there’s a lot to do today. I can’t believe how hectic life suddenly is, after all those occasions last year when there never seemed to be enough to be getting on with.

Today we have hot water, and plenty of water pressure in the taps for the first time since Friday, so happiness is a warm shower and a leisurely shave. I work at home for the first hour, then trundle up through town to Janine’s house to give her the key so she can clean. Fortunately she lives only a couple of hundred yards from my office. (It’s supposed to be the safest location for private housing in Gitarama, with police station, District Office, law courts and inland revenue office – all with armed guards – within shouting distance).

I drop off some papers in the office and then take a moto out to Ruli catholic primary. What I thought would just be a short check up turns out to take the entire morning. Ruli was very weak last year, but has had a good set of exam results which have propelled it well above the District average. Secondly its teachers, more than any other in the schools I have visited this term, have rolled up their sleeves and are having a good go at teaching in English in years 4 and 5. Even social studies is being taught in English. This is really encouraging, especially after the half heartedness I’ve seen in some schools.

I sit in on three lessons; the year 4’s are learning about their District. Geography is so downplayed in Rwandan schools that these children don’t even recognise a map of Muhanga when they see it; they don’t know how many secteurs there are, or even where their own (Shyogwe) secteur is on the map. There’s so much emphasis on maths and languages here that almost everything else is sidelined. In the new primary curriculum there’s no science until year 4. The first three years are: English 6 hrs a week, Maths 5 hrs, Kinyarwanda 5, “General paper” 3 and compulsory extra curricular activities 2 (giving 21 hours in all). For years 4-6 the curriculum is English 5, Maths 5, Science and Technology 5, Kinyarwanda 3, Social Studies 3 and extra curricular activities 2. Humanities, arts, sport and even religion are all sidelined.

To show you how great the level of confusion is (and how difficult communication is in rural Rwanda), the schools don’t know for sure whether there will be a P 6 exam next year, or what language it will be in if there is one, or whether there will be something at District level to replace it. I know the answers to these questions as I’m writing this blog in the evening, because I talked it all through with Claude. But the schools don’t yet know, and the only way I can contact them is to text them. (By the way, the answers are yes, there will be one final P 6 exam in 2009; it will be available in French and English and schools can choose which language they will use for it (identical questions in 2 languages), and there will be some sort of District wide assessment each year to decide who is promoted up a year and who has to redouble.

Tomorrow I must make ten minutes to at very least text the seven schools I’ve visited this January with this information. Roll on the day when we can communicate electronically with even the most isolated backwoods primary!

I spend the breaktime doing a tour round all the classrooms. These range from light and airy to appalling. The very oldest rooms date from the original mission school of the 1950s – narrow, cramped, with earth floor and leaky roof. It’s made of drystone and is simply not fit for purpose. Ruli is supposed to be starting a Tronc Commun section this term, but when the men from Mineduc came to look at the school they realised there wasn’t a hope in hell of fitting extra children in the oldest rooms. So the rooms that were supposed to be for the year 7-9 pupils are being used by the younger ones, and a building programme will be started this year ready for a January 2010 start. Meanwhile the tronc commun children who were due to come to Ruli are going to Gitarama primary instead.

On a blackboard there are the remains of English sentences, obviously written by teachers. One lovely little piece has confused our word order and reads “I am ten old years”. Come to think of it, it puts a whole new slant to growing up. I like the phrase!

I get a moto back into town and hook up with Soraya at Tranquillité. Her wrist is still giving her a lot of trouble where she sprained it playing badminton over the Christmas break, and I know it’s worrying her. It’s definitely not broken, but it hurts to carry anything heavy, and in her house there’s always great jerry cans of water to heave about as well as sacks of charcoal. To cap everything she’s picked up a flea from the dog. Poor Soraya; she really does seem to have a hard time of it!

In the afternoon I go up to the District office. Claude’s out, and there’s a new lock on his door. Béatrice has a key, so I pinch his modem and do some blogging and emailing. One email is a reply from Charlotte at Programme Office to some data I sent her to pass on to DFID to give them feedback on the effects of all these curriculum changes. Apparently DFID have passed my report, and those of other VSOs, to Mineduc. Mineduc is now rightly embarrassed over what’s becoming clear is a totally botched attempt at curriculum change. There’s too much already committed to pull back, but there’s a growing acknowledgement that they’re going to need as many of us experienced Education managers as possible to help schools through the muddle.

Védaste wants to work on the analysis of my statistics, but we cannot find a missing sheet of data. I keep trying to phone Étienne to see if he knows the figures I want, but his phone is not working. Claude eventually returns and we have a catching up session, but by then it’s the end of the afternoon and there isn’t time to say all the things I need to say to him. He’s really happy with what I’ve done so far this term, but wants me to get on and start analysing the tronc commun data as soon as I’ve finished with the primary stuff.

One upshot of all this frantic activity is that English lessons for the District Office people are going to be put on hold until I’ve got some time to prepare them.

Tom’s in Kigali tonight, so back at the flat I cobble together something to eat; it’s not very appealing to look at but it’s certainly filling. Then I work solidly on statistics until nearly ten o’clock, by which time I’ve finished the big analysis of primary schools and there’s just this one page of data which is holding me up from completing all the rest.

I’ve got 2 newspapers sitting on my table unread; at the moment as soon as I finish one task I seem to land myself with two more to follow it.

Best thing about today – being busy. Going to visit schools for a second time is real fun: I know where they are, how to get to them, how much to pay a moto; I know the head teachers; I know what to expect when I get there. It’s easier to do a professional job, but it’s relaxing at the same time. Despite all the things I’m saying today about workload, I’m really happy and I know I’m being useful to everyone and starting to make a difference. You can’t ask for more than that!

spending time with Esperance and Imelda

January 26th

Last night I slept very soundly, as you might imagine, after my clubbing excesses on Saturday. Happily I am visiting two local schools today so I don’t have to be up at the crack of dawn. Off in the morning to Gahogo school; it’s my nearest primary and within easy walking distance (just a few hundred yards down from where Cathie and Elson used to live). I still manage to take a wrong turn and arrive late, but then it’s one of those beautiful fresh, cool, Gitarama mornings so I’m not bothered.

Espérance, the head teacher, is a friend and another one of these competent, dedicated female primary heads who glue the whole education system here together. I last visited her in February/March, and at that time she was based in an office belonging to the maternelle next door, and her office proper was under construction. Well, the office is still under construction, but the school and its parents have done some refurbishment of older classrooms in the intervening year.

I go to watch several classes, some very competent, others a bit more hesitant. All are in English. Espérance’s exam results this year are very good indeed; she has come about 11th out of the 108 primary schools, and she’s delighted because I have just got as far as her secteur in my analysis and therefore she’s one of the very first people to get a detailed breakdown of how well the school has done, (Even Claude hasn’t seen any of my stuff on performance this year yet!). What comes across is a sense of pace, a sense of professionalism that is very much lacking in those schools with poorer results. And the sense of pace is down to good leadership which doesn’t brook slacking, is organised, and has the expectation of success. One telling point illustrates just how competent this woman is – during the entire time that I’m at the school, she has a string of parents bringing their children (almost all older girls) to her and begging for a place at Gahogo during the children’s 6th and crucial year. And yet Espérance is so quiet and modest; she undersells herself all the time. She can speak English, but eventually we revert to French because she’s more comfortable with it.

As we discuss the various problems associated with the changes to schools this year, the maternelle next door to us has its mid morning break. A muzungu close at hand is simply irresistible. Within seconds there are little faces at the window, and then at the open door. As we talk, the knot of little children gets bigger, and the bolder ones start edging inside the room. Within a few minutes they are gathered all round me, almost sitting on my lap. A few brazen boys and girl’s stroke my hairy arms to check whether I’m a human or a gorilla who can talk. One girl then looks at her hand as if to check that my “whiteness” hasn’t rubbed off on her and spoilt her “blackness”. They’re impeccably polite, well turned out, and generally delightful little people.

From Gahogo I return home and I have time to write up my report. Soraya rings to touch base, and we eat at Tranquillité. She’s having problems getting a decent internet connection this morning. Claude has somehow managed to lose his office key (now what sort of silly person loses or forgets their keys – answer: me, Soraya and Claude have all of us done it within the last month!), and he needs stuff from his office for a meeting with the mayor. Soraya says that, when she left, Claude was sitting on the stairs in our office block working on his laptop and looking generally stressed and frazzled, while workmen tried to force his door open. As usual in Rwanda, that means a hell of a lot of banging with hammers or screwdrivers; Soraya was getting a headache from the noise reverberating in the echoing hallways so she left the office and came into town to find a cybercafé.

Ruli Catholique school, which I was due to have seen this morning, has asked if I can come tomorrow, and I manage to persuade Imelda at Gatenzi to let me come over this afternoon. There’s quite a logistical exercise involved in the rest of the day.

I go up to the office to return the results papers I worked on last night, and pick up another bunch. Fortunately Evalde and Étienne have returned the papers for Rugendabari and Rongi so I should have the full set to finish for Claude tonight.

I can only find a little moto to take me to Gatenzi, so there’s one hill where I have to get off and walk. At least this driver seems to know where the school is. Once again, it’s striking how the poverty gradient sharpens as soon as you leave the main road and descend down into Cyeza. Children are dressed in rags; one little boy definitely has kwashiorkor. All of them seem stunted. The soil seems little else but gravel, with precious little humus left in it. Children are everywhere; every woman either has a baby on her back or is suckling one. Its afternoon, and men and women seem to be lounging around everywhere; very few are actually working the fields (that would have been done this morning from the crack of dawn to mid-day heat). I can smell urwagwa long before I pass the bar selling it; a group of men are in various stages of drunkenness from happy and friendly to pretty well catatonic in the full sun. They must have constitutions like horses to survive the combination of fierce sun and too much crude banana beer.

Imelda welcomes me to the school. We do the usual stuff; hers is just about the only school I’ve found which has a canteen to feed the teachers at lunchtime. (They all pay a weekly sum for food and firewood). Imelda is another competent head, but her exam results are nowhere near as good as at Gahogo. There’s also a distinct lack of urgency among her teachers, and she’s going to need to crack the whip with them. After last Thursday’s big meeting in Gitarama, the school is re-writing its timetable for years 4-6. The children have been sent home, and all the teachers are in a room with a draft version of the new timetable chalked on the blackboard. They’re not exactly frantic to get it finished. One teacher is resting her head on her hands and dozing in a corner. By and large they want to use me as a punchbag to vent their frustrations at lack of English textbooks and such like. (That’s fine by me; it’s the reason Claude has sent me out to the schools). I try to make some sensible suggestions to help them, but they’re too far committed to one particular model to want to make wholesale changes, and to create any English-style timetable you would have to make drastic changes like having all lessons the same length!

I offer to translate some of the Social Studies textbook material to give them something to work on in English before new text books arrive. In Rwandan style, I agree to have a go at translating part of one book; within two minutes I’ve been given three different books to work on. There’s no way I can do all of it, but I’ll at least have a good try over the next week or so.

I can’t visit any classes, and I just want to get back and get started on translating or analysing all these statistics. I’m beginning to feel stressed with so much work to do!

I had intended to walk from Gatenzi to the main road; it’s about two miles and hilly, but it’s do-able. I’ve only gone half a mile when a big moto pulls up – Imelda has rung the motos and the main road and asked one to come and take me home. Gratefully I climb on it and off we go. Back at the flat I assume he’s going to ask for more than the 1000 I’m going to offer him, but he waves my money away – the school at Gatenzi has paid for him. How generous is that! I ring up Imelda and protest – the last thing they can afford to do is pay their money on motos for muzungus, but she just says that they wanted to do it and they’re so pleased that somebody has come to visit them and listen sympathetically and promise to tell their woes to Claude.

I’ve made an appointment with Claude for tomorrow afternoon; I hope he’s not called out on urgent business because there’s a load of stuff I need to run past him!

In the evening we are both very, very tired, and there’s not a huge amount of food in the place, so we make one of our best meals from scraps and eat well. I’m fighting statistics until well after ten in the evening, but I manage to get everything done that I can. Unfortunately one page of exam results has gone adrift in the office so I can’t give Claude the definitive preliminary results analysis unless I can find it quickly tomorrow.

Emmanuelle’s school at Ruli has done very well indeed and I text her to tell her she’s fourth in the District by my method of calculation, and has even beaten the mighty Gitarama primary. That makes her day and she rings back bubbling to thank me. I must also text some praise to Melchior at Kibanda and Jeanne at Gitongati; their results are superb. I reckon Melchior’s top ten maths pupils are so good that they could sit GCSE tomorrow and get an A* without really waking up! And Melchior’s is a primary school!

Off to bed so tired I can barely stand. I’ve managed to get some domestic chores done, but I’ll have to get up early tomorrow and finish some of the others.

bop till you drop at Cadillac

January 24th and 25th

A lazy morning, and very welcome after a hard week at work. Kersti’s off to the home of one of the parents at her American school for a “Jane Austen” lunch party. She’s trying to find a dress which has an empire waist, but out here our wardrobes don’t really run to fancy dress in any style. Anyway, she eventually looks the part and braids her hair just like Keira Knightly in the P & P film.

I mooch up to the VSO office and have a long session on the computer catching up with emails and other electronica. The place is completely deserted; most of the younger volunteers are going to Amahoro stadium to see the Rwanda youth team play Ghana in the African youth championships. I could have gone with them but opt for peace and quiet instead.

In the evening I go to Amani and finally meet the two primary head teachers who will be working with me in Muhanga this term. One of them, Nicole, came out last spring and worked in Kirehe in the far south east; the other, Sally is on her first visit to Africa. Nicole knows the ropes here well and will hit the deck running; Sally will need longer and more support. Nicole is allocated to the Kabgayi and Mbare schools; Sally is out in the banana fields of Cyeza. They finally leave Kigali and arrive in Gitarama on Wednesday, ready to start work on Thursday. I arrange to come over tomorrow afternoon and give them a briefing on their schools before I return to Gitarama.

We set off for the “family meal” and eat vast amounts of beautiful food. The sheer size of the VSO contingent is amazing – there are over 60 people at this do (including our office staff), but there are at least four volunteers not yet returned, so our total numbers as volunteers must be at least 55. I think that’s the largest it’s ever been.

The new arrivals are a varied lot both in terms of age and nationality; several Dutch girls, Canadians; at least two married couples with one person as the volunteer and the other as a non-volunteering spouse.

Gerrit introduces himself to me; he’s the Dutch-Canadian who I’ve been in correspondence with, and he has brought an envelope of cash from Geert in Groningen.

As usual at these events we have the traditional dancers; the same bunch as every previous time but they’re still very, very good and a joy to watch.

Hayley’s mother is over for a week, and Hayley has been allowed to bring to the meal, so Mrs Pert gets a chance to meet our entire bunch of volunteers.

After the meal we go clubbing and dancing, first of all at One Love (including Hayley’s mum), and then I go on to Cadillac with Paula and Sonya, The Rwandan men really don’t know what to make of me; an old man with two beautiful young Western women in tow. Even better, when they try to cut in on the girls they both make it clear they’re not interested, and we dance our feet off until about four in the morning. It’s the best workout I’ve had in years! By four o’clock I’m up for carrying on till dawn, but Sonya’s finding the waragi (gin) is catching up with her, so we pile onto motos and head off home. The girls are staying in Amani, and I’m back to Kersti’s.

On the way home the wind catches on my helmet visor, and the whole helmet blows off my head into the road. We retrieve it, but the plastic transparent visor is cracked and the moto driver wants me to pay him for it. No way, José; if you were that concerned you should have checked that I had the visor down and the helmet strapped in place. He’s a very unhappy little driver, but I’m not giving in and I’m not about to get into an argument. He decides I’m too big to fight and I walk off leaving him swearing at me in Kinyarwanda.

As you can imagine, Sunday morning really doesn’t exist for me after my excesses, and Kersti’s off doing some private coaching in the town. I have a chat with Nick about his job prospects; he’s being courted by an American company and the possibility of living in Los Angeles for a while is very appealing…..

I finally say goodbye and leave in the early afternoon and walk off my hangover en route Amani, and there spend a good hour giving Nicole and Sally the lowdown on all the schools thy will be working with. It’s the sort of things you can’t put in writing but that they need to know. How to approach people; who’s your friend; who wants a kick up the backside and who you need to listen to. I think both these head teachers will do a fab job when they get to know their schools, and it will take some more of the load off me.

Back in Gitarama I find Tom has been doing a marathon cook-up, and the flat is filled with the aroma of carrot and coriander soup which is cooling before we liquidise it and freeze it. I put my feet up for an hour (the clubbing is now really catching up with me), and then we head off to “Nectar” for our muzungu meal. It’s a small gathering (just this time). Hayley and her mum have gone up to Ruhengeri to watch gorillas. Piet is off to Kigali with his girlfriend; she’s been offered a job in a hospital there. Christi’s back, though, so we catch up on all her news. Next week we could be up to our full strength of around twelve people minimum. Gitarama’s not going to know what’s hit it!

Best thing about the weekend – dancing through the night.

Worst thing – I find I haven’t got a single name and phone number for any of the new volunteers. I’ve been too busy chatting to others, and trying to finalise dates for our forthcoming Ugandan trip with Épi. Never mind. Our group of 55 is far too big to be able to associate with everyone all the time. What a contrast to late August when the whole country seemed to be emptying of VSOs and we felt like the last remaining people on a sinking ship!

political intrigues in the Congo

January 23rd

Well, the big news today is that the rebel leader in Congo, Laurent Nkunda, has been arrested. There’s a big joint army operation going on, and about four thousand Rwandan troops have crossed into Congo at the request of the Congolese government in Kinshasa. The last two times Rwandan soldiers entered the Congo it was to invade the place, so times really do change. The thinking here is that Nkunda has become an embarrassment to Kigali. He is reported as becoming increasingly detatched from reality, hence the recent split with his second in command. He tried to escape from advancing joint Congolese and Rwandan forces by entering Rwanda with a stash of money and diamonds, but was recognised and arrested. I’m sure he genuinely thought he would be warmly received here as a hero. He’s made a terrible mistake and I don’t fancy his chances of survival much longer. Memories are long here, and there are fourteen years’ worth of scores to settle.

Meanwhile, the Rwandan and Congolese soldiers are trying to flush out and get rid of, once and for all, the last remnants of the Interhamwe militias who caused all the carnage in Rwanda in 1994. These gangs are well armed and roam at will through the jungles of eastern Congo. The Rwandans and Congolese will be hard put to remove them entirely; the jungle cover is too thick, and the militias will just slip across the frontier into Uganda until things quieten down. And the civilian population caught up in all this excitement will be dreading yet another army rampaging through their villages and fields. None of these African armies seems to be able to deploy without pillaging, raping and murdering on a grand scale. We’ll be really lucky to get away without another mass refugee crisis, just when last autumn’s refugees are beginning to return home. Eastern Congo really is a wretched piece of the globe in which to live. On top of everything else it’s still raining very hard every day around Goma; the roads are almost impassible, and ebola and cholera are both around. Lucky people!

OK, that’s the big picture. For me it’s yet another day of last minute changes of plan. I ring Gahogo school to confirm it’s OK to visit them this morning, but Espérance says she’s having a staff meeting to explain all the changes agreed at yesterday’s District meeting to her teachers, and can I come on Monday instead. I have to hurriedly ring Michael and put him off because he was going to do the visit with me.

So I go up to the Office and work up there all morning. I get half way through the big pupil by pupil analysis of primary results. I’m definitely going to have a weekend completely off work, and I should be able to get the whole thing finished by the end of Tuesday unless we have more interruptions.

In the afternoon I visit Ruli ADEPR (Pentecostalist) school. Emmanuelle is a special friend and a very useful ally. She runs an excellent school; I’m able to tell her that by any count she’s in the top ten with her results this year, and on one measure she’s fourth out of 108 schools. I’m expecting some sort of heavy religious presence in the school, but it turns out to have the lightest touch in religious terms of any that I’ve visited. The Pentecostalists built it, but in every other aspect it’s rather like Beaminster – Christian faith but of no specific denomination. Thank the Lord for that – I had dreaded going into an assembly and finding year six speaking in tongues!

Discipline is excellent, but the standard of spoken English variable. At least pretty well every teacher is trying to work in English in years 4 and 5. The school was rebuilt in 2001 by a Japanese organisation. It’s well built, but the rooms seem very dark. It’s a chilly, overcast afternoon (all the staff are wearing coats to keep warm), and the dark timber ceilings and unplastered brick walls make it feel gloomy,

I give Emmanuelle the photo album of prints from her sister’s wedding, and she likes it. That’s good.

After leaving the school I get a slow matata to Kigali and drop my stuff off at Kersti’s house. I’m not going to see too much of her at the weekend; we have different social events on our calendars! But we have an hour or so to catch up on news. Irene’s not back from Holland yet.

Finally we both go to Han and Mans’ leaving party at Sole Luna Italian restaurant. There’s a vast number of people there – around forty, and we take the whole place over. They can barely keep pace with the number of pizzas we’re ordering.

I find myself sitting next to someone I don’t know. This lovely young woman turns out to be Andrea Bacfalusi from Toronto, and she is the Canadian who first sent me the offer of a place in Rwanda. She’s visiting here for a couple of weeks, and is having great fun meeting all the volunteers she’s placed here and putting faces to a list of names. She’s especially glad to meet the Canadian volunteers like Alain and Épi.

Also there are a clutch of former volunteers who were just finishing their service when Han and Mans arrived, but for various reasons are still living in Kigali. There’s Chris who I flew to and from home with at Christmas. There’s Meg who has also stayed on in Kigali and is setting up a school. There’s Isadora who I last saw working for the YWCA and is now working for the UN at quite a senior level here.

It’s late when we finish at the restaurant. Kersti is going clubbing tonight with Catherine and some others, but most of us decide for an early night and to paint the town red after the VSO “family dinner” tomorrow. So it’s back to chez Kersti and Nick and bed. Nick’s been to some gala dinner with his MTN company mates; he looks absolutely immaculate in a sharp western suit – very much the upcoming businessman. A lot of his job consists in networking with the right people, and he’s becoming the only person in Kigali who really knows how to handle BlackBerry devices. That makes him infinitely employable among Kigali’s nouveau riche.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Kigali street scenes

I haven't taken any photos for a long time, so here are some of Marisa and Stephane's from last year. They give you a good idea of the mayhem that passes for traffic in central Kigali. Here cars fill the pavements so pedestrians have to use the road in the "old town" full of tiny shops selling hardware, electrical stuff, cloth material and such like.
The middle of Kigali is a slew of motos, porters carrying goods to and from shops, and pedestrians.

This is one of the better roads near the town centre, at a quiet time of day.

The epicentre of chaos. This is the little one-way street where all the taxi buses and longer distanmce buses are based. The traffic here just has to be experienced - words can'tdescribe it. Fortunately nothing can move at more than walking pace so while near misses happen every second or two, real accidents are rare.

Quadrilingual shop sign. Many shopkeers are reasonably fluent in Kinyarwanda, French, English, Swahili, Lingala; some have other languages, too. This may be one of the poorest countries in the world, but as linguists they often put us to shame!

Results day at Gitarama

January 22nd

Into the office for seven o’clock; I know Claude has a big meeting he wants me to attend but I don’t know when it is. Emmanuelle rings me as I’m walking to work and tells me the meeting is at ten, and is for all the Headteachers, and won’t necessarily finish by early afternoon. That means that I can’t do my visit to her school, as I had intended, and also I can’t ring a substitute to do a compliance check on the new curriculum. So I have a blank afternoon to do some preparation for English lessons for the District Office staff. (Or so it looks at half past six….)

As soon as I get into the office, everything changes. Within seconds of opening up we’re mobbed by head teachers. It’s results day, not just for the primary P 6 exams but also for tronc commun. There is so much riding on these results for children – whether they have to repeat a year; whether they can go to secondary school, not to mention family pride. Even one of our cleaning ladies is patiently waiting in a corner to be put out of her misery as to how well her daughter has done. (Between us we find her child’s results quickly, and the little girl has passed very well).

Valerian, the Chargé, slaps two fat envelopes of results papers onto the table. There is only one copy of results for each school, and a dozen hands immediately start rifling through them to find what has happened at their particular school. I’m horrified – we need to make at least one copy of all the results slips because if the heads go off with the originals we have nothing to show what their results were. We only have one, very slow photocopying machine. Why on earth didn’t Claude call the meeting for Friday and give us all time to get things photocopied, and even a preliminary analysis of all the results done?

I’m redundant in the middle of all this excitement, so I settle down at the photocopier and in half an hour I have copied about eight schools’ results; all of Shyogwe secteur and a couple of others.

Just to make life even more exciting, this year they’ve completely changed the format of results. Languages (English, French, Kinyarwanda) results are not shown separately but amalgamated into one score. The overall scores are not given as percentages but as a number; I have no idea what the number actually means (is it a percentage compressed into a single digit number; does a “6” represent a score within a range of percentages)? Also this year they have classified results into four tiers – “Grand Distinction”; “Distinction”; “Satisfaction”; “Passable”. Note that these terms are all in French at a time when we are supposed to be speaking English. Best of all, the pupil with the lowest mark has the best result. So a total score of 3 means the child is exceptionally bright; a score of 27 suggests there’s nothing but fresh air between their ears.

When I get a few minutes to myself I start tabulating results, and find that the pass rates are enormously higher than last year. In English terms it’s like when we went from “O” level to GCSE and almost all the students passed. The words “pass” and “fail” lost their meanings and what really mattered was the grade you obtained. Well, the same is happening here in Rwanda today. Good schools like Ruli ADEPR and Gitarama primary are doing a lot of hand slapping over the number of their “Grand Distinctions”.

So in the very last year of the P 6 exams they have given us the results in a completely new format which makes it very difficult to draw comparisons with previous years. As I write this I can’t work out how I can show whether a school is on a continuous upwards trend with its results, or completely variable. To a certain extent my Rwandan colleagues aren’t bothered; every year’s results seem to be taken as isolated events and there’s little interest in longer term trends.

I start explaining something to a teacher in French and get told off by Claude who wants me to use only English. Then two minutes later I’m being demanded to tell them the English word for a stapler and staples.

Just before nine the pandemonium subsides; Claude has gathered up all the results and taken them into his office. I go and liberate them and in about an hour I have half of the entire results in summary form on my laptop. Now I’ve got a constant procession of teachers coming round behind me and tripping over my power cable, trying to copy their percentages from my computer screen.

At just before ten I go to the Maison de Culture, where the meeting is being held. I should be one of the last to arrive, but the place is three quarters empty. They arrive in dribs and drabs; I’m tucked away at the back, and the meeting finally starts just before eleven. Absolutely nobody except me has switched off their mobile phones, and every minute there’s a naff ring tone (“jingle bells”, I mean, come on chaps). Claude publicly asks me whether I mind if the meeting is in Kinyarwanda. Nanki bazo, I reply – I’m not worried. I’ve got one of the nice heads besides me who will translate just enough to keep me aware of what’s being discussed.

So for the next two and a half hours I’m trying and failing to stay alert in a stuffy room in a meeting I can’t really follow. Some of the topics being covered are to do with the new primary curriculum, and are the same issues I’ve picked up on my school visits. But because everything is in Kinyarwanda I can’t work out what they’ve decided. I nearly get up and give my version at one point, but decide that it’s their meeting. So I keep mum. I’ll talk to Claude at some later time. Other topics covered include pupils using mobile phones in class (now there’s an indication of how fast Rwanda is developing!); the new specialisms being offered by upper secondary schools, and the usual squabbles about money.

After the meeting I go to “Tranquillité”; it’s nearly two o’clock and I’m starving.
Michael is there, fuming because his motor bike has broken down yet again and prevented him for visiting Muhazi school this afternoon. I tell him not to bother; the head of Muhazi was in the meeting this morning, and is probably spending the afternoon gossiping with the other heads instead of returning to her school. He’ll have a wasted visit if he goes. The clutch cable on his bike is giving endless trouble, it’s the result of a crash somebody’s had on the bike in the distant past (maybe it was Geert coming off the machine on a bad road). Also the bike is drinking oil and petrol and costing Mike a small fortune in fuel.

We catch up on our various school visits (he is doing the same dipstick inspections as me, but concentrating on the local Anglican schools. I’ve got Catholic, Pentecostal, Adventist – you name it, I visit it)! I tell him about the results just in, and in a flash of inspiration I suggest he comes back to the office with me and we’ll photocopy all the Anglican school results for him.

So that’s what we do, and it fills the afternoon. We can’t do all his schools, but we do most of them. Various heads have taken swathes of results sheets and gone to find commercial photocopiers in the papeteries in town – the office photocopier is just too slow to cope, and today we’ve already used an entire fortnight’s worth of paper. Goodness knows when these heads will bring back the top copies of the sheets they have taken, but please, please let’s hope they do so!

By four o’clock I’m tired, and we go our ways, me with three secteurs’ worth of results in my rucksack to analyse for homework. I want to have done the analysis of all the schools which the new NAHT volunteers will be particularly supporting, and I need to give all this information to these people as part of their local briefing. I have discovered that one is called Sally and the other is Nicole, but I don’t know which is covering Cyeza and which is covering Shyogwe. The new volunteer based with Hayley is an Australian girl called Charlotte; I’ve seen her photo but know very little about her except that she’s about 24 and very well travelled.

At the flat I work right through the evening with a small pause to help Tom prepare our meal. We have a precious tin of chicken curry that Tom has brought back from England with him, and avocadoes and pineapple as starter and pudding, so its an absolute feast. We need it; we’re both working really hard at the moment, just as hard as if we were back in our respective old jobs in England.

Best thing about today – feeling welcomed by all the heads, and getting stuck into work.

Worst thing – nothing. That’s two really super days in a row. Two school visits tomorrow and then it’s PARTY WEEKEND in Kigali!

compliance checking at Kabgayi

January 21st

Two schools to do today; both at Kabgayi and both within easy walking distance of the flat. This means I can have a lie in on a working day. Soraya arrives at half past seven, and by eight o’clock we’ve walked to our first school. It’s one of the beautiful African mornings with thick mist rising out of the valleys, and a near cloudless blue sky above. At this time of the morning it’s cool and fresh, and the whole day makes you want to get up and work.

Kabgayi B has a formidable head in Christine, but she likes us and we are welcomed like long-lost friends. She has thought about what she wants to tell us, and we gallop through all the questions I need to ask. It’s typical of Christine that she insists that all the conversation be held in English, and we only revert to French when she gets stuck. (Just as well, because I have to translate back into English for Soraya).

What is interesting is that the concerns she raises are almost identical to those Iphigénie told us yesterday. And some are entirely predictable. Fort example, the decision to start the school day at 7.15 is causing 60% of Christine’s pupils to arrive late, some very late. The reason is that parents still insist that children do chores – feeding goats, fetching firewood, getting water – before they set out for school. The children are already getting up at crack of dawn. None of their houses has electricity, and it’s virtually impossible to expect them to get up and start doing chores or getting ready for school in the dark. OK, so those at school in the morning have all afternoon to do chores, but there are some chores, especially with animals, which have to be done in the mornings. We are going to need to educate the parents to make other arrangements for their chores and ensure their children are at school punctually, but that will take time.

There is a hair raising tale to tell of timetables. Christine shows us hers, and then that for Biti school. (Remember that every head teacher has had to write a timetable and not one of them has had any training in the art). Christine has every class covered, but at the expense of her staff. Rwandan teacher contracts stipulate a 40 hour week, with actual class contact time varying between 24 (secondary) and 30 (primary) hours. The cost of covering all her classes means that all her staff are on 38-40 hour contact time. They have almost no time for marking or preparation, and they aren’t happy. In addition, many of them are trying to do degree courses at evening classes in the town, and others are going to special English classes set up over the last few weeks to improve their ability to communicate with their classes. They are underpaid, undervalued and not necessarily bolshy or lazy.

At Biti, by comparison, the head has stuck rigidly to a 30 hour maximum contact time, and with the teachers she has been allocated by the government it means there are lots of classes left unsupervised. So we have reception children in first year left to their own devices in classes of around 50 for long periods of time. There is simply nobody to teach them. Rwanda doesn’t have any system of ancillary teachers, teaching assistants, or surveillants. The safety implications are worrying, to put it mildly. We agree that I will raise the issue at my meeting tomorrow with Claude as a matter of the highest priority. This is, after all, exactly why Claude wanted me to visit schools and see what was going on.

We go into a couple of lessons, an STE (sciences terre et économie) which is doing farm implements exactly the same as at Mbare yesterday, and then a good maths lesson. The teacher sticks to English the whole time. She is actually doing some maths, but the children are working far behind where they should be at this age because they’re using most of their brains to remember the correct words for numbers in English. Eighty three minus fifty one is not easy when you’re only ten and you’re doing all this in your third language. I marvel at the teachers’ dedication and the sheer sticking power of most of the children.

We leave Christine’s school after a couple of hours and walk back to the flat. We have a long lunch break and write up our report. I’ve made another of my fresh salsas; Soraya goes across the road and comes back with bread so fresh it’s almost still warm. We dine on cheddar cheese sandwiches and salsa.

In the afternoon we walk all the way back to Kabgayi to visit Goretti’s school (Kabgayi “A”). This turns out to be a very different proposition. First of all Goretti herself asks to speak in French rather than English. Goretti is nervous and defensive, but much more seriously the place seems almost at a standstill because they haven’t received specific instructions as to what to do. They seem to be petrified to take any initiative in case it turns out to be the wrong move and they get criticised. So, for example, they don’t know whether religious education is supposed to be in French, Kinyarwanda or English, so they’re not doing it. Likewise the “General Paper” in infants, and the Social Studies component in juniors. There is a well established Social Studies syllabus, but it, and the newly arrived books, are in French, and they don’t feel competent to translate it.

The afternoon feels as though it has become one long complaint and list of reasons why they can’t or shouldn’t do various things. I feel like banging my head against a wall at one point.

The most surreal moment comes when I look at some children’s books. The year 4 STE teacher is doing farm implements, just like those at Mbare and Kabgayi “B”. And here’s the difference: at both the other schools the teacher wrote in English and tried her best to explain in English. Despite my mocking her pronunciation, the Mbare teacher did at least try her best to teach in English. Here at Kabgayi “A” the teacher has drawn all the implements on the board and the children have dutifully copied them into their books. But there’s not a word of explanation in any language, and the whole lesson has been conducted in silence. The teacher says she can’t cope with the English; she’s not supposed to be teaching in French, so she opts to play safe and not say anything at all. I can’t think of anything which better illustrates the Rwandan terror of being found to be in the wrong. My God, what a situation! How on earth are these children ever going to learn and become confident users of English in this environment.

At about this point I decide I need to get out of the school to preserve my sanity. The three schools will have an NAHT volunteer arriving on Wednesday to help them, at my behest, and I need somehow to brief this woman before she launches into them!

Back at the flat just before it rains, I write my report. The walk home with Soraya has given me time to simmer down. I’ve now been to three schools in a day and a half, and have three more to do before the weekend, plus ten more next week. I do a quick flick round the market. We haven’t had much fruit for a long time; we keep intending to ask Janine to get us the fruit salad ingredients at Rwanda prices, but I can’t wait. I get a lovely ripe pineapple for a good price, and do even better on ripe avocadoes.

Tom gets out his new oven and we have a three course dinner of avocado, spicy pasta bake, and fresh pineapple chunks. I can almost sense the roughage building up in me……

Best thing about today – being out to schools, the weather, our evening meal.

Worst thing – nothing. Bring it on!

wierbollows in Shyogwe

January 20th

Up early as usual and off to the office. Tom, meanwhile is back to Kigali and breaks his record by taking barely 25 minutes from out of bed to out of the house. There’s no way I can do things that fast and I’m not giving up breakfast for anybody!

On the way to the office I detour via the middle (earth) road and call in at Janine’s house to give her the key so that she can clean and collect our laundry. Now we’d arranged it all last night, but when I arrive she has to be dug out of bed by the housegirl, and a beautiful but sleepy eyed Janine comes to the door in her pink pyjamas. The three of you reading this who know Janine will understand the joke – she is never, ever, anything other than immaculate when she comes round to the flat – Janine couldn’t be scruffy if she tried. So, of course, I pull her leg.

Fortunately her first evening at University (last night) has gone well; they seem to have been talked at rather than done a lot of serious work, but she’s still keen.

At the office I manage to get the modem off Claude and download the Antivirus programme, and generally catch up on even more emails. Védaste asks me to help him; his personal laptop has some strange pattern of markings on the screen. It can’t be from dropping it or jabbing the screen with something sharp; it has to be a virus. Fortunately, because I still have the modem, I can upgrade his virus catcher, and then we check the two flash drives he’s using. One has only about 5 or 6 viruses on it; the other has 44. And he wonders why his machine is crashing?

At lunchtime I collect the key back from Janine (who by now is dressed, as usual, like a model, but is engaged in doing our laundry), and chug back to “Tranquillité” where I’ve arranged to eat with Soraya. Then it’s off on a moto to Mbare school to meet Michael and do my first school visit of 2009. I like Mbare and I like Iphigénie, the head. The school sits on a hilltop surrounded by banana fields; you’d never guess that if you walked a couple of hundred yards in one direction you would see the whole of Gitarama laid out before you.

The visit goes well. Iphigénie, as per when I did the formal inspection, is well organised and just so pleasant. She’s only had a couple of hours warning that I’m coming, so everything is very much “as you find us”, including herself who is late getting back for the afternoon session because of some domestic crisis. I’m not so keen on the teachers who are hanging around outside their doors gossiping just because Iphigénie isn’t there to crack the whip at them. Honestly, they’re worse than some of the children. As soon as they see her approaching they scuttle back into their rooms.

Among the problems are the ones we suspected – teachers have been doing INSET courses virtually non stop since the end of the autumn term – ICT, Maths, Science, English, and the extra hours they are having to work this term are putting all sorts of stress on them. Marking and lesson preparation are suffering.

The text books they use in subjects like maths are still in French, but they are having to do the teaching in English. (For example, how many of you reading this blog could give commands to add, subtract, divide or multiply in French)?

The lunchtime is too short for the teachers to eat properly, and certainly not long enough to enable them to go home to eat, which is what most of them had been doing. The answer seems to be to shorten the morning and afternoon breaks, and I’m sure that’s what Iphigénie will do in due course.

Also, we predicted that writing a timetable would prove to be a problem, and in Mbare’s case it has given real hassle. They have a very big year 4 which needs splitting into three classes to keep within the government’s maximum of 50 children per class. So they actually have 11 teachers but every afternoon there are 12 classes to teach. So either Iphigénie has to buckle down and teach (which she shouldn’t do because she’s needed to manage the place and do internal lesson observations, to say nothing covering for absent staff), or a whole series of classes does “General Studies” or “Social Studies” untaught. It’s not a recipe for success, and it’s to the children’s credit that the place is remarkably quiet during our visit even though there are at least two classes going untaught (another teacher is off ill, which is worrying at this stage of the term).

The extent of the problems facing these schools becomes apparent when I sit in on a year 5 Social Studies lesson. They’re doing the provinces of Rwanda – a simple map of Rwanda with the vocabulary of North/South etc and Northern, Southern. Not more than about ten words of English, but the word order can be tricky if you’re used to French (Province de l’Est = Eastern province). The teacher is pretty good with his English, but a lot of the children are very weak. “What’s this province?” says the teacher. “Eet ees Rwanda” answers a boy at the back. I really feel for the teacher, especially with a muzungu in the room. At the end of the lesson I give them some pronunciation practise and at least get them all up to speed with the compass directions. What more can I do?

Michael leaves at afternoon break to go to a meeting with Bishop Jared at Shyogwe Diocese Office; this is when he’s going to broach with Jared the possibility of our borrowing the Diocesan 4x4 to go up country and do a general inspection at Nyabinoni. If Jared wants any more leaning on, then I’ll see him and lend support – but I think Michael’s probably more persuasive than I am!

My second lesson is yr 3 STE – science and technology. The lady teacher has prepared beautifully, with a blackboard full of drawings of farming implements, and has brought examples of almost all of them to show the children. So far so good, but her pronunciation is so poor it negates everything else. A hoe is a hoo; a rake is a lake (this Rwandan mixing of “R” and “L” sounds), and I can barely keep a straight face when she says “you use a wierbollow to carry the sowa”. (You use a wheelbarrow to carry the soil). I try to correct the pronunciation with the children, but they’re too used to this woman’s version and mine is harder for them.

So, what do we conclude? – at one level the schools are coping remarkably well with these changes. The heads are stressed to the limit, and the class teachers worn out already in the second week of term. But classes are under 50, English is being used, and double shifting is in place. Only about half the previous amount of material is being taught in each lesson, but its early days and we live in hope that things will improve.

One example of just how confusing the changeover is comes in maths. Do they use American English or English English? In one room I see “four hundred twenty six” on the board (American version). Raima on Saturday asked me whether she is to put commas or full stops to indicate thousands (i.e. 1,000 or 1.000). Do we write today’s date as 20/01/2009 or 01/20/2009? All these decisions need taking and communicating. I tell Iphigénie to always use the English version, but then I would, wouldn’t I?

I walk all the way home from Mbare; I did this walk in November and know every inch of the way, so it’s a relaxing end to the working day. I just get home before we have a huge downpour which lasts some three hours, unusually long for Rwanda.

Tom gets back from Kigali very tired again, and we combine to cook up a storm including a precious tin of herrings which he brought from England.

In the evening we listen to Barak Obama’s coronation on World Service. The whole of East Africa is ecstatic about having a black man in the White House, and expectations are high, especially in his ancestral Kenya. We listen to his inauguration speech, where he systematically ticks all the boxes – military, African roots, slavery, religion etc. Both of us can’t resist thinking about who wrote the speech, and we have in mind Toby Zeigler from “West Wing” and his team of helpers, drafting and re-drafting to exhaustion point. It’s a good speech and I really hope he can deliver. If it all turns sour there will be plenty of people here in Africa ready to quote it back to him.

Christi’s back from America today, and Tom has picked her up at the airport, so the only one of our regular gang not yet back is Tinks. There are domestic reasons why she can’t return yet, but she’ll be with us some time in February.

Best thing about today – getting my antivirus fixed; visiting a school. And there are two more booked for tomorrow.

Worst thing about today – still no keys, just a delayed Christmas card for Tom and Christi. I’m trying to break in a pair of new shoes during the evenings and they are giving my feet hell. I think my feet must have swollen in the heat out here.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

stewing in Kigali

January 19th

Into the office by seven with a long list of things I need to do, preferably on-line! Claude is there and makes a fuss of me to welcome me back. He’s had a good Christmas and the new baby is doing fine. He doesn’t say anything about naming ceremonies. But then there’s already a queue of people waiting to see him, and we’re both busy. There’s Ernestine from Muhanga secteur and a load of the District Office staff coming and going from the office, all of whom come up and greet me like a long lost friend. It’s lovely. I manage to pin Claude down for ten minutes before he’s off to meetings and lost for the rest of the day. I show him my motor bike CBT and he’s happy with it, but he wants us both to go and talk to the local traffic police. So even with a CBT I’m not assured of a permit to drive, but if we can make me known to the local bobbies I’m sure they’ll agree, and I’m such an easily identifiable person out here that once we’ve got through that stage of approval there’ll be no problem of me being pulled over on the road. That’s my theory, at least, and it’ll be interesting to see how things work out on practice.

On the education front I discover that my written version of the changes to primary schools is not the latest one, and Claude tells me to download the latest from the MINEDUC website. That’s just the cue I need to ask him if I can borrow his computer modem for the morning. He gives me a list of things he wants me to check on when I visit schools, and I say I’ll start by doing a quick re-visit of all the local schools to see how things are settling down. Twenty three schools in Muhanga have started their tronc commun sections already, and some of those are my friends such as Kabgayi B and Kivomo. I’ll get out to see them as soon as I reasonably can. The key things he wants me to check are that all the schools are using double shifting for all of years 1 – 6; that class sizes are no more than 50; that the subjects being taught match those in the new curriculum documents. (The question at issue here is whether French is being taught – my older version of the curriculum changes says yes, it should be; the latest version apparently has deleted it). French is to be used as a medium of instruction at least for the current year, so one of the biggest hurdles to improving learning has been removed, especially for the infant sections, and at least for one year.

It will be interesting to see how the schools have cooped with timetabling, and with handling teacher redeployments and redundancies. It’s certainly a challenging time to be a primary head teacher here in Rwanda!

After I’ve finished with Claude I go to see the ICT girl in the Office and she helps me install the Government modem software on my new laptop. It doesn’t load without some difficulty but eventually I’m connected to the internet. Yippee! I can spend the rest of the morning catching up with emails, downloading the latest itunes system to update my new iPod, and changing my antivirus programme to the one the district uses. I’ve decided that since no antivirus programme seems to catch everything, I’ll get rid of the Macafeee stuff which came with my new computer and use Antivir which seems to be the district preferred system. It’s very easy to update and every time I borrow Claude’s modem I should be able to keep my system protected. We’ll see, won’t we! All these downloads involve huge amounts of information and even with the high speed modem it takes ages to safely receive them. I’m not going to be able to get anything else done this morning, but I’m very happy with what I have managed to do! At the last minute I have a setback; I’ve downloaded an antivirus programme and I’m talking to Soraya, who’s just arrived, and I manage to click something which loses the antivirus. Curses – I’ll have to do it all again tomorrow – if I can get at the modem. Right now my computer’s totally unprotected….

Just as we’re leaving Claude says for me to tell him when it would be convenient for me – yes, ME, to have the baby naming ceremony! Immediately he’s distracted with another phone call, and over lunch I say to Soraya that I’m going to suggest Sunday so that it doesn’t mess up the other weekend social arrangements. Am I selfish or what!!

I nip over to the post office to collect any mail. My keys haven’t arrived yet, and it would have been something of a miracle if they had got here so early. There’s just the usual business stuff for Tom. I have to pay another RwF8500 to keep our post box going for a second year, but this time Tom and Soraya and Hayley will chip in so it won’t really cost me very much at all.

I’ve arranged with Michael to meet him for lunch at Tranquillité before I go in to Kigali; I need to brief Michael on what Claude wants from us and I think we can work together to cover a lot of the local schools. Soraya comes too and we have a business lunch before I go charging off once again on a stuffy bus to the capital. Michael and I agree to do “dipstick” inspections for a couple of weeks, some days together and some days separately, just to see how far schools are complying with the new requirements. I think that now I know where schools are, and if I plan carefully, we can quite easily do two a day.

We have carte blanche to design how we’re going to evaluate them, and as well as feeding results back to Claude I’m going to forward them to DFID in Kigali because they need grass-roots information on what is going on in schools.

If the bus is stuffy, Kigali is like a sauna. The old town and market area are simply awful. I get my business done there as fast as possible and take a matata up to Kacyiru and the parquet. It’s a “new” matata – i.e. second hand from Dubai, with Arabic lettering all over it – but new to Rwanda, and the seats and suspension are very good.

My heart sinks when I reach the parquet; the office I need to go to is surrounded by dozens and dozens of people, all getting police checks done before starting university or perhaps even secondary school. There’s never a queue – come on, everybody, this is Rwanda – and if I’m not assertive I’ll never get served by the end of the afternoon. So I play the muzungu card and force my way up to the door, and inside. Fortune deals into my hands; because I’ve already handed in my application I have one woman to serve me; for all the dozens of first time visitors there’s just one other woman. Of course, she hasn’t yet got round to actually filling in my form on her computer, but in fairness it’s almost at the top of the pile. We have a laugh about my photograph (one of the original VSO ones from 2007 with me bearded) and she straight away processes my paperwork. Even then, I have to wait around ten minutes while she wanders the corridors to find the only person in the building who’s authorised to stamp it.

Finally I get out of the place. There you are, folks, I’m certified clean and an A1 upstanding citizen by the Rwandan police, a safe risk to leave with your children and not a threat to the state or to public safety.

Up to the VSO office by moto to hand the thing in, and get yet another ticking off for leaving things until I am actually an illegal alien. These government offices apparently have a system – if you are handing in most forms you do it in the morning; if you are collecting them you can only do it in the afternoon. Quite how that squares with the dozens of people handing in their clearances earlier this afternoon, I’m not sure. Perhaps nobody told them of the rule, or (more likely) they’ve had long journeys in from the countryside. But VSO won’t be able to actually hand in my papers for the visa till tomorrow morning. (And even after all this Flavia from the VSO office rings me in the evening to ask where my passport and visa application form are because they’re not with the police clearance papers. No Flavia, I gave them to Jean Claude on Friday)! You begin to see why I hate all this Kafka-esque bureaucracy. Why on earth can’t they have a “one stop shop”, in one building, where you can hand everything in one morning and pick it all up the following afternoon?

During the afternoon Épi rings me to ask where she has to go to pay for her police clearance; she’s got another month to get it done but very wisely she’s going to get things sorted well in advance. Once she’s back out in the sticks at Kibungo it’ll be a lot more trouble to do anything official than now while she’s languishing in Kigali. Smart girl!

Charlotte asks me to come down to Amani and meet my new NAHT head teacher VSOs who will be based with me in Gitarama, but I can’t because it’ll make me too late for the bus home. I’ll see the head teachers on Saturday, anyway. We still have some problems with fuel here in Rwanda, and some garages seem to be holding out for higher profits by refusing to serve customers and pretending they’re out of fuel (unless you have managed to get hold of some tokens being circulated around Kigali). Down at Nyabogogo there are massive queue for fuel as we’re on the journey home. The fools are backing up into the main road; in England that would be a bit dangerous and considered antisocial; in Kigali traffic its damn near suicidal but everybody shrugs and says “what’s the alternative?”

I get another matata back to the town centre; I’m on one of those grotty seats by the door and have to keep getting out to let other people off. At one stop a muzungu gets in next to me; we look at each other in surprise. It’s Tom, also on his way home. Honestly, the chances of not only being on the same bus but sitting next to each other are millions to one, and yet it’s just happened! Tom’s had a fraught day; he still hasn’t completely resolved his problem with a container full of wares to America and some missing customs paperwork, but he’s on the way to getting it done.

Back home we cook up a massive omelette, and have comfort food for pud – instant custard and Tesco mars bars!

Best thing about today – seeing Claude, getting some computer jobs done, getting my police clearance.

Worst thing – losing the antivirus programme; sweaty, smelly, crowded Kigali.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Being lazy for the weekend in Gitarama

January 17th-18th

A nice, quiet weekend – well, almost.

On both days I lie in until eight o’clock, which feels almost like mid-day out here. Mind you, it’s not too easy to sleep in that late – the guards outside the flat are up and about from just after six, chopping branches off the tree in the back garden and generally making as much noise as if it were mid morning.

I manage to spill what little sugar we have left all over the kitchen floor and in the food cupboard, so I have to spend nearly half an hour mopping it all up before we get invaded by ants and cockroaches. Then I head off down to the shops and buy more sugar and other things. I’m intending to go to the internet café, but there is no internet connection at the moment. Outside it’s really hot after a chilly night. I decide to wander up to the post office and see if our Boite Postale needs renewing (it must do and it’s in my name so I’m the person responsible for renewing the subscription). On the way I meet first Christine, headmistress of Kabgayi B school, and then one of the teachers from Shyogwe. They confirm my worst fears that primary schools are really struggling to adjust to the new curriculum, with hundreds of children essentially marking time while teachers get to grips with new timetables and new roles. While I’m talking to the Shyogwe teacher a car beeps at me, and inside is Raima from Ahazaza primary school. She wants to talk to me and commands me to come up to her house, just a few yards up the road.

For an hour and a half I’m explaining the new system to Raima and trying to help her with her staffing problems. As usual she’s been left out of the loop by the District authorities, and neither Claude nor Florent at Nyabisindu school (her official secteur rep) have been keeping her in touch with developments (at last, according to Raima they haven’t). If what she says is true then the District has been very naughty towards her.

By the time I leave Raima’s it’s too late to go to the post office, and the district office will probably be locked too, so I drift home via the market and buy some food. I have one of my green soups for lunch and beef it up with whole cooked peanuts, boiled pasta and hot chilli spices. It transforms it from a bland nothing to a dish with an interesting texture and a kick like a mule!

Tom’s out trying to get the FHI truck fixed and doing battle with garages in Gitarama who bump up their prices at the sight of a muzungu. These people really never learn that we know we’re being overcharged. Tom threatens to show the bill to a Rwandan colleague and that if he’s been overcharged he’ll never use the garage for FHI business again. Suddenly there seems to have been a mistake with the labour charge, which is promptly halved.

In the afternoon we generally chill out and doss, playing on computers, reading; Tom has a games machine and is busy building a city or some such activity.

In the evening we realise we haven’t got much food in, but we’re too lazy to rush to catch the end of the market, and in any case it rains hard and long during the late afternoon so most of the market traders have given up and gone home.

We eat out at “Le Petit Jardin” and have good brochettes and spicy potatoes. I really think that’s one of the best Rwandan meals you can get – I prefer the ibirai to chips.

Sunday’s much the same; we decide not to go to church in the morning but to go to St Andre for the 4.30 mass in the afternoon. (St André is Janine’s church and is where Chantal’s wedding took place). We do the market in the morning and load up with vegetables, and experiment for lunch – Tom buys tortillas and makes cheesy quésdillas; I make one of my fresh salsas to go with it. That’s loads of fresh veg and a good meal – we can neither face anything for pudding!

I go to the internet café and eventually manage to post some blogs and pictures. It’s fiddly getting a new computer adjusted to different local settings every time. I want to try the “wireless” application at District Office tomorrow, but I’ll need to get our ICT girl to help me.

More chilling in the afternoon; I’m still trying to understand how to use the Vista system on my new laptop. I don’t seem to have “Publisher”; my iPod software seems to have reverted to the original version which is too old fashioned to support my new iPod, and I can’t get a “filter” function on my spreadsheets. I wish I’d spent more time on all this while I was back in England, but somehow there never seemed to be enough time. Tom has the FHI pick up truck at the flat so we drive to his office and walk the half mile to St André. The mass lasts an hour, is in French, and while Tom can’t understand a word of it I can get the gist and translate some of the main bits for him. There’s no sign of Janine in the choir, so we’re going to pull her leg tomorrow.

After church we walk through town to Nectar for the muzungu meal. On the way we’re mobbed by little children who all want to be lifted up and swung; they squeal with delight and it’s really nice to see children still very innocent and completely unafraid of the muzungus. Not one of them – not one – even thinks to ask us for money, either.

At Nectar there are the usual suspects: me, Tom, Hayley, Soraya, Michael; Piet is there with his Austrian girlfriend who is a paediatrician just out of training. She’s very nice, and is here for ten weeks, no less. That’s the same amount of time as a three month VSO placement! I offer to take her with me on a school visit. She says if they can fund her a placement at Kabgayi hospital she’ll stay and get the experience, so she’s up for a challenge if it all comes to pass!

I escort the girls home and then return for a quick cup of tea and bed. On the way back the stars look lovely; there’s one section of the dirt road where there are no lights at all and it’s pitch black all around you. A nuisance as a pedestrian but ideal if you ignore the ruts in the road and look up to the heavens. Orion is clear, but upside down. I keep forgetting to go out onto the balcony with my laptop stellarium programme when all the lights around us are switched off. A power cut would be the ideal time. Tonight there’s too much light to do it from the flat, and the odd flash of distant lightning ruins your night vision as well.

I must get up early tomorrow if I’m to have a chance of seeing Claude before he gets besieged by callers, so I need my sleep.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Joe's pictures from Nyamasheke

This is Joe's favourite picture so far, and I've included it because it's so good. Sunset over Lake Kivu.
Remember that if you double click on any of these pictures they will enlarge full size!
Lake Kivu at Nyamasheke. Joe is based here, some miles north of Cyangugu, in the Western province but in the very far south-west of Rwanda. He has by far the longest journey to get to and from Kigali - a whole day's ride on taxi buses over some atrocious roads!

fishing boats on the lake. Kivu has very steep banks and is a tremendously deep lake. There are relatively few places where the shores are accessible for a walk along the edge!

a big church in Nyamasheke which was completely destroyed in last February's earthquake and has just been rebuilt

evening light over Lake Kivu

dedication service in the church rebuilt after last february's earthquake

this is the view Joe has every day as he walks to and from work

Santa Claus and a christmas carol

January 16th

Once again in to Kigali on the early bus. This time I’m so organised I even manage to get the 6.30 departure, but at the price of having to leave some things untidy at the flat.

The conference runs well, but the room becomes stiflingly hot by mid-day, and we are all wilting. Fortunately my group is doing its thing in the very first session so I’m able to do a tolerable impression of being keen and wide awake. We have to draw the curtains in order to see power points on a screen, and this gives everyone a heat headache and we all get steadily more dehydrated despite drinking as much water as possible. The afternoon is really tedious; I’m trying hard (and just failing) to stay awake.

On both the journeys in and out there has been someone knocked down in the road between Nyabogogo market and the town centre; there’s just too many people trying to cross the road and too much traffic all trying to be heroic and overtake in silly places. I just stand amazed that there aren’t more accidents, and those of you reading this who have been into central Kigali will know exactly what I mean.

After our session launching our “How to….” Guides, which goes pretty well, we have some input from the boss of DFID. This is the local arm of the British Government’s aid agency, so he’s a useful guy to know and one we need to cultivate. He needs our grass-roots information to inform his high level plans, and we need his influence on MINEDUC to remove some of the most stupid and regressive practices this country operates. I have a moan at him about the mismatch between syllabus and exam questions, and he immediately asks me to provide some chapter and verse to give him ammunition in the next joint meeting between DFID and the Rwandan Ministries. For the first time in years we, as VSO, now have an ally at the highest levels of Rwandan government. Richard, the DFID boss, has done VSO himself at some time in the past, so he knows exactly where we’re coming from.

I miss part of one session and take a moto up to the parquet in Kacyiru. This is the headquarters of Rwanda’s legal system and contains the Supreme Court and all sorts of other admin and juridical offices. My reason for going is to complete a police clearance form to say there are no criminal charges outstanding against me since I arrived here, and hence I am safe to be issued with a second annual resident’s visa. I’ve been dreading all the bureaucratic rigmarole, but in the event it couldn’t be simpler. The office is small, the woman in charge is friendly, we speak to each other in French (so much for all government departments going over to English from January 1st!), and the whole business is done in ten minutes. The clearance form amuses me – even for a foreigner to get his visa renewed they want information like the names and addresses of both my parents (Heaven, hopefully), and they make a distinction between my profession (teacher) and my occupation (education management adviser) which never happens in England.

I have to go back on Monday afternoon to collect the clearance form, and with that form VSO will actually get my visa done. I’m really grateful to VSO for that, because getting the actual visa can mean an awful lot of standing around in different queues, and it can be a trial unless you speak Kinyarwanda and have got on first name terms with some of the women in the issuing office…. Today is the last day on my current visa; in theory I become an illegal alien from midnight and could be deported. (Don’t worry, Teresa, it won’t happen!). In reality the worst that will happen is that they will fine me, but if they try that I will make a scene and argue that I have instigated as much of the procedures as possible before the expiry date on my visa, and then play the hopeless, helpless muzungu card. And neither Épi nor Soraya have bothered to get green cards issued for the previous year, so they could be in even greater trouble!

We have a sharp rainstorm at the end of the afternoon; the first proper rain in a week.

By the time I get back home its dark, and I feel absolutely whacked. Most of the rest of our gang are staying over in Kigali and probably going out drinking or clubbing, but I’m quite glad I’m back in sleepy Gitarama. It’s an early night for me! Tom, bless him, is cooking up a super meal with some spicy sausage he bought in Emmanuel’s store in Gitarama, and we wash it down with a beer or two.

Poor Tom’s had a dreadful day; he’s had to drive out to some of his craft suppliers. On the way the pick up truck has a flat tyre, and he discovers to his horror that someone’s “borrowed” the wheel nut spanner so he can’t get the wheel off to replace it. Cue much phoning up and wasting of time before he can get back on the road. He’s not a happy man by the end of the day, especially since FHI has put him in charge of logistics at the Gitarama end of the operation, which includes responsibility for vehicles, houses, equipment and just about everything else.

During the day I’ve been talking to Soraya. She saw Claude briefly on Monday and told him why I wouldn’t be in the office all week. She says Claude wants me to get out to as many schools as fast as possible next week and see how they are getting on with implementing all the changes to the primary structure. That’s all very well, but Claude and I need to have a little chat about what degree of compliance is reasonable at this early stage. That will occupy some of Monday morning, and then I’ll have to leave him and go charging back into Kigali for my police clearance form.

I think I need a quiet weekend; the following weekend is party central with Han and Mans’ leaving “do” on Friday night, and welcome meal for us to meet the new incoming VSOs on Saturday – no doubt followed by some clubbing or other antics. At my ripe old age I need to pace myself.

Épi and Soraya and I have all decided that firstly we intend to go and explore the far south east of Rwanda (Rusumo) as soon as possible, and also that we definitely want to all go to Uganda in April and do some white water rafting. It’ll be tricky, though, to get the dates perfected. The obvious time to go is during the Easter break, coinciding with Genocide week here. But we only have a fortnight’s school holidays at Easter, and Épi will be expected to travel to Kibuye for the formal memorial ceremony to the members of her family killed in 1994. We’ll fit things around all these constraints if we can; we reckon we need at least eight days to do things properly. Épi is still waiting to hear where she’ll be living in Kibungo; as soon as she’s decently installed Soraya and I will pay her a visit and see this part of the country, too.

All the eastern volunteers have been complaining that Kigali’s chilly; I’m complaining that it’s hot and stuffy. Good job I’m not based somewhere like Rusumo; I’d be melting.

Surreal sight of the day 1 – a pick up truck with its rear loaded at least ten feet high with foam rubber mattresses – dozens and dozens of them. While foam rubber doesn’t weigh a lot, I think the driver has no idea of the amount of wind resistance they produce, and he’s having trouble making it up the hill to the town centre roundabout. Talk about laying a smokescreen from his exhaust!

Surreal sight of the day 2 – on the edge of the roundabout in the very centre of Kigali is a huge billboard advert for Coca Cola. It’s still carrying their standard Christmas advert, featuring an African Santa, complete with wire rimmed semi-lune spectacles, white beard, red coat and knee boots, brandishing bottles of Coke to ecstatic Africans. They’ve had the sense to omit snow, but there’s tinsel and Christmas greenery. It just looks ridiculous here; I wonder how much some advertising executive got paid to dream up that one! Few Rwandans have long white beards, in fact long hair is completely absent except for the expatriate Ugandan rasta colony who seem to live in the nightclubs.

Surreal sound of the day – we’re in the St Paul Centre, a Roman Catholic combination of public guest house and conference centre, with an auditorium and chapel attached. At mid-day, while we’re deep in discussing AIDS/HIV strategy, a church service begins in the chapel, and someone is singing, loudly and flat, a hymn to the tune of “Once in Royal David’s City”. We all got the giggles.

So it’s been a good week, but hard work and I really feel as though I’ve earned my keep. Now it’s half past nine on Friday night and I’m off to bed. I can barely stay awake long enough to write this blog! Night night, everyone….


January 15th

I have a later start today in Kigali, but still get the same bus in. I wander up to the Sierra (Indian) supermarket and have a browse to see what things they’ve got there. There’s a super collection of spices, both in bulk and in small sachets, but everything’s a lot more expensive than in Gitarama. (Italian pasta shells are 1500 in Kigali; Turkish pasta shells 900 in Gitarama – and taste just as good).

I meet first Ruairi, and then (after I’ve gone into Blues Café for a coffee to wait for our meeting to start) I find Heloise and Chris from Nyagatare. We drink coffee and generally chill for the best part of an hour. I discover that Heloise and Tom have both been to Rwanda before, doing anti-HIV work when they were students. I’m quite surprised at how well travelled so many of these young volunteers are, and how many of them have done more than one stint of volunteering with another organisation before signing up with VSO.

Today and tomorrow we have a conference for all the volunteers working in education, whether they are District Officers like me, Teacher Trainers like Soraya, HIV trainers like Heloise or others like Hayley with her YWCA brief. Just about everybody is there, so there’s a lot of meeting and greeting.

I start getting a lot of grief from VSO because my resident visa expires tomorrow, and apparently the police clearance I need before it can be renewed takes some days to come through. I could be in line for a fine. On the other hand, the dates in our visas seem wonderfully random; mine is dated neither to the day I arrived in Rwanda, nor the day I started work in Gitarama, and in any case I didn’t actually receive it till well into April. Nobody else has a visa so close to its expiry date as me: Épi’s ends in February; Soraya’s in May; Tiga’s some time in between those extremes. I may have to miss part of the meeting tomorrow to go to the Parquet in Kacyiru to collect and fill in the police clearance form. I hate all this bureaucracy; it’s very easy for Rwanda to play games with us because we don’t speak the language or properly understand the system, and I wish the VSO office staff would do the things for us. I know that in Tom’s FHI outfit, for example, there’s one person who spends virtually all her time making sure everyone’s documentation is up to scratch.

At lunchtime we meet a group of Americans who are coming to work as teachers in Rwandan schools for a year. They seem to be spread across the country, and I wonder if I will have any in Muhanga. I wonder, too, if there has been any co-ordination with the District (i.e. whether Claude knows if they’re coming), and it will be fun if I roll up to inspect a school and end up watching the lesson taken by an American!

We spend an interesting afternoon discussing VSO’s education programme for the next three years. Our existing licence with the Rwandan authorities runs out in the middle of 2009, and is largely built around the idea of volunteers going into individual schools as English or Science teachers. We have moved a long way away from that model, and at the present time most volunteers are working in Districts, like me. There’s a pretty general feeling that working in the districts is spreading ourselves too thinly, and that it would be better if we simply focussed on a few secteurs, or even on just one secteur. To make things more interesting, there’s a proposed shake up of the country’s educational administration system due, which will transfer some powers down to secteur level.

If I were to have been allocated to a secteur I would only have around one or two secondary schools and seven to twelve primary schools to work with. That would mean I could visit each school once a month, and I could begin to make a real difference. It’s far too late to change the pattern for me and the current volunteers, but working in Rwanda would be very different for those who followed me. The most needy secteurs in Muhanga district are Rongi and Nyabinoni in the far north, and if Soraya and I were secteur based we would be living in a village somewhere up there in the wilds, and not in comfortable Gitarama. I think I would miss the sheer variety of schools I see on my travels even just within Muhanga. It’s good that the Rwandan system is so open that changes of this magnitude can be discussed, but I wish they would plan further ahead and give a greater lead-in time for people to prepare themselves.

We are given a description of schools in Cameroon, visited by Ruth and Charlotte from our Programme Office over Christmas. I really must stop grumbling about Muhanga schools, because the situation in the far north of Cameroon is awful. The school buildings are so bad they’re almost non-existent, and the government’s policy is to give a community three teachers only; if the community wants or needs more teachers they have to pay the salaries themselves. As you can imagine, education in Cameroon is in quite a state! Oh, and education there is almost exclusively for boys. Rwanda really is a shining beacon of gender equality in Africa, and in some aspects (primary enrolment) is almost as good as England. (I wonder what the reaction would be in England if the Government announced that all children would only be attending school for half the day, and that teachers would be teaching nine hours a day plus marking, preparation and compulsory extra curricular activities!)

I have to wait for a later than usual bus home, and it’s completely dark when I reach Gitarama. Fortunately, yet again Tom has the dinner almost ready, and we’re both pretty tired after that. Roll on the weekend and an opportunity to rest and have a lie-in.

Best thing about today – most of it really, it’s been a nice day

Worst thing – I’m feeling pressured and stressed about renewing my visa. I really don’t want to be landed with a hefty fine because the system here is so slow that they can’t process my paperwork quickly enough.

How to be a District Education Offocer

January 13th and 14th

Tuesday and Wednesday follow the same pattern. Up at half past five; out of the flat by half past six, and on the seven o’clock bus to Kigali. Everybody working for the bus company recognises me, and it makes for a relaxed start to the day.

All during the days we work hard at our “How to….” book. By the end of Tuesday we’ve finished the text; Wednesday is for copying it and compiling and making forty copies of the CDs of back-up materials. Three of us have new laptops with Windows Vista, which is very different from XP and takes a lot of getting used to. The air is blue for a while until we find our way round the CD copying software!

Amanda has finished her volunteering spell in Rwamagana but has just landed a job in Zanzibar. She is pretty well the most “Africanised” of all the volunteers; I really think she’d find it enormously difficult to slot back into American life if she went home.

As the days pass we learn more details about the primary curriculum changes. Tronc Commun (the first three years of secondary school) will now be free; only the second three years will be fee paying. French is not just being dropped as a medium of instruction, it seems that it not even to be taught at any level in schools. That is an enormous change and will be so, so difficult for primary schools to take on board. The public exams at the end of primary year six, my main yardstick for assessing school performance, are being abolished and the only formal exam will be after nine years at school (the end of the “Basic Education”).

During Wednesday Tiga and Michael both arrive from Europe, and Antonia who after three years working with deaf children at Butare is coming back to do a new project near Kibuye in the Western province. She’s another thoroughly “Africanised” volunteer, but one of the most experienced ones still in the country and it’s lovely to have her back.

On Tuesday evening Tom and I dine at Soraya’s; she’s doing a special Philippine meal in honour of Matteo. Matteo is a young Italian teenager who has been doing a spell of volunteering with the Franciscan community at Kivumu. He’s a lovely lad and we are going to miss him. I still find it difficult to get used to that aspect of being a volunteer - it is a game of constant comings and goings, and just as you get to know somebody really well and appreciate them, they leave for home. Matteo’s an adventurous soul; he took himself off along into the Congo over Christmas. He went to Bukavu and bought a ticket on the lake steamer towards Gisenyi. This is a very long journey, at least a full day. Unfortunately the steamer’s engine broke down, and its cargo of potatoes had to be jettisoned. The children on the ferry had the time of their lives throwing mountains of potatoes overboard to lighten the load and help the first boat which came to rescue them.

We haven’t had any proper rain all this week; it feels as if the rainy season has properly ended at last. Immediately this is the case, the roads get covered in a layer of fine dust, and you can already feel it between your teeth after walking along earth lanes.

Surreal sight of the day on Tuesday – a pick up truck speeding through Kigali town centre with a Christmas tree – still fully decorated – being disposed of by one of the main town centre shops.

Impressive sight on Wednesday – traffic slows to a crawl on the main road near Parliament house, and a high speed convoy rushes past with President K in a Range Rover. I could see him quite clearly. That’s my second sighting since I arrived here. And I’ve never ever seen a British Prime Minister in the flesh!

Yet another bad road crash on Wednesday morning. I think a lorry’s brakes must have failed on one of the steepest hills on the Kigali road; the wagon is on its side with the cab mangled beyond recognition. Poverty - and the inability to afford proper maintenance – almost certainly claims another life.

Looking ahead, I talk to Paula and suggest a combined Bruce’s birthday bash and St Patrick’s day celebration in march, just like the one we had last year. I tell everyone to keep the weekend of the 14th clear, and Paula’s going to sound out the rest of the Irish contingent which is far greater than last year. There Rwanda Irish society is planning some flash event the following weekend, but tickets for it will cost around 35000 francs and its being held in the Serena Hotel. I think the price will put some people off, and hopefully they’ll come to my do at Gahini instead!

I’ve downloaded a set of pictures from Joe who is our first volunteer in Nyamasheke. He has had a difficult start, coping with isolation and a house so small you could barely get inside the door – more like a monk’s cell. But now he has a nice modern house and a view across the lake to die for! I’m going to post some of his Nyamasheke pictures because, although I haven’t been there (yet), it’ll show you just how beautiful parts of Lake Kivu shore can be!

Best thing about these two days – getting our “How to “ offering complete.