Friday, 13 February 2009

Chucking bombs at Remera

February 12th

I’m well into a very pleasant morning routine these days. I’m up and out of the flat before Tom stirs, so I have a quiet time to gather my thoughts - a very healthy thing.

At the office, the first hour is admin time – I go on line, check emails, update my virus checker and scan the entire computer, print off visit reports from the previous day, read the “New Times” on line and the check the BBC Africa site for news. There’s a fair bit of meeting and greeting friends as they drift in and out of the office, and all the above comfortably fills the first hour.

Today I’ve started getting lots of replies to my Birthday Bash invitations, and it’s already clear that I’m going to need a quiet afternoon to finalise everyone’s accommodation wishes!

I arrange local visits to schools to arrive around half past eight; that means the schools have had an hour to get going and for heads to sort out any problems involving absent staff. It also means I can get a two or three hour visit comfortably finished before lunchtime. Nothing’s going to come between me and my lunch!

At just after eight today Claude announces he is ready to escape the office and come with me to inspect Remera primary school. Soraya wants to come too. Claude and I go on one of the District motos; Soraya has to hire a commercial bike. He gives me his diary to hold, and I have my wallet of papers, so I’m holding on the grab rail with just one hand. Neither of us is wearing a helmet – VSO will carpet me if they read this! Claude is not a natural moto driver, and his gear changes are jerky and erratic. Also, throughout the morning he’s getting phone calls every five minutes, so as we’re driving on the main road he’s fumbling in his pocket for his phone. When he’s got his phone he uses his throttle hand to hold it, so we’re coasting throughout the time he’s talking and gradually getting slower and slower as his phone conversation progresses. We’re weaving all over the road (the trunk road to Ngororero and Kibuye) and I’m hoping to God there isn’t a juggernaut bus bearing down on us from behind. On one occasion he leaves it too late to regain control of the bike and we’re within a split second of being dumped in the middle of the tarmac. When we leave the main road and take the dirt lane to Remera things get even more exciting; we suddenly lurch to a near stop in front of a ditch or rain gulley, and his gear changes are so snatchy that several times I’m all but thrown clean off the bike. I can tell you that it’s a relief when we see Remera school in the distance!

Yesterday Claude was looking very executive in a dark suit and scarlet tie; today could be “dress down Friday” except that it’s Thursday. He’s wearing a teeshirt from one of the many evangelical groups around here. So here we are, off to give Remera school a ticking off and a not-so-veiled threat of serious repercussions if they don’t improve, and yet written across Claude’s back is the slogan “humbly confess to all people you have offended; sincerely forgive all your offenders”. The trouble is, we’re not in a particularly forgiving mood with E P Remera!

The school failed dismally in last year’s exams. It ranks 92nd out of 94 in the district (compared with Mushubati next door which came 21st); it is by far the worst in the “home” secteurs close to Gitarama town. Just over 60% of all its pupils failed the exam, and if we had continued with last year’s simple pass/fail system I estimate that over 80% would have nothing to show for their 6+ years in school. There’s no obvious reason for such a woeful performance; the area is not as destitute as Cyeza; it is not exactly remote (I can see my flat and the whole of Gitarama town from its playground); the buildings and facilities are crummy but so are those in many far more successful schools. So it’s beginning to look like poor leadership and ineffective, sloppy teaching.

The previous head was given her marching orders over Christmas, and Felix, her replacement, is somewhat shell-shocked at what he’s walking into. At one point his hands are visibly shaking as he’s confronted with the District director of education and two scary muzungus. He’s left under no illusions of the magnitude of the task ahead, either.

This is the first time I’ve ever gone into a school and been seriously on the war path, but there’s just no excuse for this place’s bad results. The new head isn’t to blame, of course, (he’s been transferred from Gitarama primary school which is consistently one of the best in the District), and I’m really after the teachers. Many of these are long-term time-servers and I fear rather complacent.

We watch a maths lesson, all three of us plus the new head teacher. Emil, the maths expert, speaks in English for most of the time; he’s well prepared; he’s in control and his manner is calm and professional. His vocabulary and pronunciation are adequate. The children are suitably cowed by having five adults in the room and behave well. But it’s a repeat of a lesson given previously with very little new material. The classroom roof is in a dreadful state and some of the tiles look pretty precarious to Soraya and I. There’s almost nothing on the walls except an ancient map of Rwanda so eaten away at the edges with vermin that it’s scandalous it’s still in use, and some dingy, dog eared home made maths posters mounted so high that few pupils look at them. The cartridge paper they’re drawn on has turned grey from years of sunlight and dust. The teacher divides the kids into groups and pits each group against the other, so he’s ticking a lot of boxes. If all the teachers at Remera were like this I would be hopeful, but the problem is that they’re almost certainly not – I think this guy has been hand picked because he’s the best they’ve got.

Finally Claude and Soraya and I sit all the staff down and tell it to them straight. I say that their results are absolutely unacceptable and must improve, or else….. Claude takes over and completes the threat: if the results are not vastly better next year, then they can expect to be replaced as teachers. I know from the fate of so many head teachers that this isn’t just an idle threat. So do they – they’ve seen their previous head dismissed. They squirm in their seats and look at the floor. I go on to point out that they’ve got no excuses – their children are not as poor as in other secteurs; their buildings are neither better nor worse than many; they’ve got just as many and few resources as other schools, and in fact they’ve had more training from us than almost any other secteur.

We find something to praise, of course, but the overall message is pretty clear and stark. Part of me wants to be around next year to see whether we’ve succeeded in putting a bomb behind these teachers. But part of me thinks that a lot of these people are not capable of improving. We tell them we’re setting up opportunities for them to visit their counterparts in the vastly higher achieving schools that surround them; you’d expect them to jump at that chance but they just look miserable. I hate to say this, but I’m beginning to understand why OFSTED in England came up with the idea of being in “special measures”. It needs applying very sparingly, of course…..

Two little snippets from this maths lesson tell you a lot about why education in Rwanda is failing so many of its children. The lessons are so dull that they get bored, switch off and drop out of school. Imagine you are living in a basic hut with no facilities and existing on a diet mainly of beans and rice and about RwF300 per person per day (36p). You’re then set with this maths exercise: “If meat is sold at RwF 2460 per kilo in a market, how much would you pay for 0.755 tonnes of meat?” For God’s sake – these children never eat meat, let along try to visualise a tonne of meat! And just look how arbitrary the amounts are: 2460 per kilo, and 0.755 tonnes. In what way can this piece of work be said to have the slightest relevance to these children’s lives?

The other example – this entire maths lesson was on “Divisibility”. In other words we’re looking at the abstract concept of how you can tell whether a number is exactly divisible by, say, three, or eight, or eleven. It’s so dry and meaningless! I say to the teacher, you must put this stuff into a concept. Why not say that you have a group of eight children and you discover under a tree a bag with RwF 12682 francs in it? Can you divide the money exactly among you so that everyone’s happy? (or some similar context). All it takes is a bit of imagination on the part of the teacher.

Back at the office I help Agnès from Cyeza write a letter in English confirming that she’s been dismissed from her post at Kivumu because she’s too old, and asking for advice and help from the social secretary. (How’s that for a surreal thing for a volunteer to be doing, and to one his best allies among the Rwandans, too?)

I print off copies of my Social Studies translated yr 5 textbook for three schools and I know that word is going to get round that the muzungu has done the translation, and I’ll have half the district banging on my door next week for more copies.

Claude wants my advice on how to buy a good second hand English (i.e. RHD) car at an affordable price (there’s been a rumour circulating here that Rwanda is going to change to driving on the left, and in this country the wildest rumours are the ones that become fact). I’m not quite sure how to advise him other than to look at websites.

Védaste has given me the second draft of his thesis (72 pages of it) and wants it proofed again a.s.a.p. I’m not sure how many of my original changes he’s actually put into place.

Michael rings to say his diocesan schools are getting hysterical at not having Social Studies books in English, and can he help me translate them. I arrange that he’ll do part of the yr 4 book and I’ll do the rest. I really MUST get started on that tonight!

One thing has been cleared up today – the “new” head of Mata school comes into the office with Florent from Nyabisindu, so I’m able to ask them in French about the situation with these new headteachers. They both explain that the new people are the heads of the tronc commun sections only, and that the “old” heads are still in charge of years 1-6. Thank God for that – it’s a far more sensible situation than I feared. Jeanne, the dolly-bird head at Nyabisindu, had given me a false impression; I hope it was just a translation glitch and that she hasn’t got airs and graces about being the top dog….

In the late afternoon John Robert comes round to the flat for his English lesson, we have a discussion-based hour and he’s starting to open up about issues such as press freedom in Rwanda (if you don’t support the government in every way you tend to get forgotten from briefing meetings etc).

Then Tom texts to say he’s being held very late and I’m to ignore him and cook for myself and the guard. I’m setting to in a sharp thunderstorm to make an omelette before the power goes off! Just as I’m getting started, in come Soraya and Charlotte to collect the soup they left in our fridge last night. But it’s throwing down a storm and they’re wet through, so they stay here and heat up the soup on our cooker. (Hayley’s doing her own thing back at Soraya’s place). They call it soup, but it’s so thick they can eat it with a knife and fork, and so spicy that I have to run for a glass of water before my mouth lining dissolves.

As I’m walking home tonight I notice that the “Secret Garden” restaurant is being demolished. I don’t know what for – whether it’s being rebuilt or whether it will become yet another block of tiny grocery shops all selling exactly the same things. Also, on a plot at the end of the market there’s a steel framework for what looks like yet another petrol station going up. Honestly, the pace of change in Gitarama is just mind-boggling.

Best thing about today – everything. Just reading this through shows the sheer range of things I’m getting up to, and how much I’m becoming accepted as part of the team at the District Office. If anyone reading this is thinking of doing VSO then I can’t think of a better day to show them the sheer variety of working life here!

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