Monday, 2 February 2009

Agnes's retirement do at Kivumu

January 30th

Today I’m fed up with statistics and want to get out and visit a couple of schools. But I’ve been so preoccupied in the past few days that I haven’t got round to organising anything (and even if I had, on past experience it would all have to be changed the next day). So I drop off some District papers at the office and find a quiet place in the D. O. compound to ring schools. Five phone calls and about 600 francs worth of air time later, I’m getting sorted.

Gilberte at Biti puts me off saying she’s not at school today, but she can do Monday. Florent at Nyabisindu also agrees to Monday afternoon, so at least that’s a full day sorted for next week; two schools within walking distance. Vérène at Munyinya will see me on Tuesday; Munyinya is a prime candidate for one of the Bridport community’s water tanks and therefore this will be an important visit. In the afternoon I will try to do Gitarama primary and walk home afterwards. Edith at Mushubati is going to a meeting somewhere this morning, but will see me on Wednesday morning. Wednesday afternoon ought to be Remera, whose exam results this year have been little short of catastrophic. I’d like to take Claude with me for that one, so I’ll have to beard Claude on Monday and then ring Christine to confirm. That’s two more local schools; if I take a moto to Mushubati I can walk to Remera and walk home the back way to Gitarama through the fields. See how easy things are becoming in my second year, when I know where everything is and don’t have to worry about getting lost? Final choice for today is Kivumu, a school which is on the extreme edge of Muhanga in the Kigali direction and doesn’t easily pair with any other. I ring Agnès, the head, and ask if I can come and see her this afternoon. She welcomes me like a long lost friend and immediately agrees.

Back to the office routine. This time I tidy up and print off all my exam statistics, both for primary and secondary, and my sheets of comments on them. They’re on Claude’s desk by mid-day. I’m so, so relieved to get that job done. I’m feeling that we need to visit some secondary schools for inspections. There’s a bunch whose results are crummy; most are either in Gitarama itself or at Shyogwe, and I want Claude to come with me so we can do a more thorough job and I can see how he goes about evaluating a secondary.

So what happens next? – I get landed with another huge job. Védaste, the statistician, has just finished his Master’s Thesis and wants me to proof the English. His English is just as creative as my French, so it’s a massive job. We print off a copy of the body of the text, but I spend at least 40 minutes just smoothing and re-phrasing the introduction and credits. It’ll take me at least a week to do the rest. I can’t really refuse him, because it was Védaste who helped me with the French commentary on my big primary census report last year. Oh well, it’ll be a new experience for me. At least people trust me enough to want me to help them.

We have some university students on a sort of work experience placement in the District Office. One of them begs me to let him borrow my flash drive for the morning. I’ve only just finished cleaning it up after Védaste borrowed it; it came back with four viruses on it including a version of the dreaded “Raila Odinga” virus. Fortunately my virus checker is up to date; it tells me it has deleted all viruses but I’m no longer confident that it does. This student promises to bring it back within an hour, but, of course, he doesn’t. I’ll be cross if he thinks I’ve donated it to him as a gift.

The problem with virus checkers is that you can’t win – no single system seems to catch every virus, and if you put two or more on your machine they seem to interfere with everything and slow the computer down to a standstill.

After lunch I take a moto to Kivumu and march up to the school. I ask the first teacher I see to tell the Directrice that I’m here. She looks at me a bit straight and tells me the Directeur isn’t at school this afternoon. Now I know my French is pretty “cassé” at the best of times, but I’m pretty sure Agnès isn’t one to have a sex change job, and begin to wonder what’s going on. After a few minutes all is explained. As part of the general shake up of schools over the Christmas holidays, Agnès was forced to retire. She’s beyond the earliest retirement age (55) but was intending to stay on till about 65. She has been replaced by Idlebald, who was formerly head at Bwirika in the same secteur. (And for HTB readers in Bridport, Bwirika is the place where I first suggested we locate our church-sponsored water tank). Agnès has no doubt assumed that I know she is retired, and is expecting me to call in on her at her house. OK, but I haven’t a clue where she lives.

As I’ve arrived at the school I ask if I can watch some lessons. Fortunately the teachers recognise me from previous visits and training days, and they phone Idlebald who agrees. I watch a very creditable maths lesson in English, then a less effective English lesson (ten year olds who have only got to the stage of learning simple plurals such as cow – cows, flower – flowers). I wish this teacher would stop saying “tones” when she means “stones”. In the maths lesson the dreaded Rwandan interchangeability of “R” and “L” surfaces again; a little tot brings a smile to my face when she pronounces “whole numbers” as “whore numbels”.

At the end of the afternoon Idlebald rolls up and we talk in general terms about the need for English training. I’m getting tired of schools hinting that unless I personally guarantee to them (and therefore nobody else) a large share of my time to teach them English, then there’s no way they can be expected to improve their results.

At the end of the afternoon I’m invited to a meeting which turns out to be Agnès’s retirement do. There’s the teachers, and priest who acts as Chair of the Parents’ Committee (Chair of Governors in an English context), and a group of parents (the committee itself, paralleling our Governing body). What I thought was just a quick fanta and a chat turns into a two hour marathon. Agnès has come down from Kigali for the occasion. It’s lovely to see her, and she insists I sit next to her and we chat like old friends. She wants to know how Cathie’s getting on; she didn’t know Claude was now a daddy; she has been looking for a new job in Kigali but is finding it difficult because she’s not a fluent English speaker and in the new Rwandan order they’re not recruiting high level personnel unless they’re fluent in English.

We have a proper meal, beautifully prepared and served by parents, and fanta. There’s prayers (two, one for the drinks and one for the eats), and speeches, speeches, speeches. I guess I’m going to be asked to speak, and sure enough, I get given a slot. Fortunately I’m used to this sort of thing and have had time to think of some vocabulary, so I thank everyone for their welcome and explain how amazing a coincidence it is that on the day when I decide to drop in to Kivumu out of the blue, it happens to be the day they’re saying farewell to Agnès. I praise Agnès as their departing head, hard to replace, wise and hard working and intelligent and humane; I praise Idlebald as an experienced new leader in whom they can have confidence; I praise the teachers and tell the parents that those I’ve seen today are competent and hard working; I praise the parents, saying that without their co-operation the school can’t move forward. I remember to bring God into it and end up saying that by God’s grace and if we all pull together, we can address all the issues this school faces, and indeed the whole of Cyeza secteur faces. Pretty good, huh? Everything I say’s being translated into Kinya but I’m not sure who’s listening; they’re either answering their phones or slurping up their gravy.

Finally Agnès and I manage to escape together; she’s booked a taxi to take her back to Kigali; I leave her part way up the path and walk through the fields and past the cottages up to the main road. I’m besieged by very poor children filthy with dirt; faces encrusted with snot; ringworm rampant on their shaved heads. They’re dressed in rags; many are barefoot. This the real Cyeza; Gitarama’s just over the far skyline but here you’re a million miles away from its sophistication. The children are demanding money, food, sweets, pens – anything. I don’t have anything to give them; there are just too many of them, and in any case we’re being told again and again that giving handouts to people just encourages a mendicant mentality. But it’s hard. This is one of the most desperately poor parts of my district. Some of these toddlers won’t make it past their fifth birthday; malaria or gastro-enteritis or respiratory infections will kill them. Few of their parents are literate; the one thing they’re expert at is reproducing themselves. “We make the children; it’s God who will look after them” is the mantra.

When I reach the main road a taxi bus is passing and it stops immediately for me. I’m grateful to pile in, dry against the thunderstorm that’s banging its way all round me, and escape into the comforts of a luxurious flat, a bottle of beer, and the solace of writing my report on Kivumu and now this blog.

Best thing about today – being able to say goodbye to Agnes; getting out to another school, finishing my stats.

I know it sounds big headed but it occurs to me that in three weeks since I returned I have already visited as many schools as I did in the entire first term I was here, and also done as much stats work as I did in half a term in the spring. I’m sitting here listening to music from Guinea on my headphones, a bottle of Primus by my side and sharing some of my last precious pack of Twix bars with Tom. TGIF; I’m ready for the weekend.

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