Thursday, 5 February 2009

A meeting lasting seven hours

February 4th

Yesterday was the most beautiful morning; today is cold and grey. I don’t even break a sweat on the long walk to the office. Christi’s just in front of me; I’ve arranged for her to see Valérian, the chargé, because she wants to talk to him about an assisted school place for one of the local boys she is mentoring.

In the office I work hard on the contact list of headteachers; by nine o’clock I’ve done all I can and yet there are lots of gaps where we haven’t seen heads since the start of term. I’ve learnt from experience that you can’t take anything on trust here; every single thing needs to be pinned down! You can bet your bottom dollar that some of the missing ones have new people or new numbers. But when I eventually finish it means I’ll soon have the only accurate list of school contacts in the entire District. As soon as I fill in the rest of the gaps I’ll get copies to everyone; not least Claude and Valérian.

One thing I discover today is that the selection criteria both for children going as boarders into tronc commun schools, and for the sixth form in secondary schools, varies by gender. Boys have to score fewer than 13 points to be accepted; girls are taken at up to 15 into tronc commun. (Remember that the lower the points total, the brighter you are). Boys and girls have to have less than 44 and 37 respectively to be accepted into upper secondary. It’s nice to see positive discrimination intended to increase the throughput of girls, but I wonder how the boys who are just outside the cut-off point feel about the process. There’s an awful lot of appealing going on against decisions, and Muhanga has had to defend itself against a throng of angry parents who apparently were blockading the Office while I was out at Kivumu school last Friday afternoon. The whole issue made it into the “New Times”, and Claude is quoted as saying he’d sort things out a.s.a.p. So that explains why Valérian was despatched to Kigali all day yesterday!

I haven’t arranged a school visit today, and just as well. There’s another one of these big meetings of all the District heads in the Cultural Centre. It’s due to start at 9; by ten o’clock most people are on their way, me and Nicole included. I’ve been showing Nicole how to get photocopying done here (i.e. go to the reprographics room and discover that as usual either the machine’s broken down or there’s no paper. Then systematically go into every department’s office – environment, legal, surveying, agriculture etc etc until you find a working machine. Look important, play the muzungu card and wait your turn on the machine. Works a treat…… usually!).

As we’re getting started on the meeting the sky grows darker and darker; a storm is on the way. Item 2 on our agenda is my powerpoint on the exam results, and I’m slated to talk to the assembled throng. Well, it’s actually a crowd rather than throng, because most of the northern secteur heads aren’t there. I think the storm must have come down from the north and made travel impossible – how many heads would have braved the sort of seven hour journey Soraya and I had up to Nyabinoni last term…?)

Just as we get up to do the power point there are two big flashes of lightning…… and the power goes off, and stays off for the next four hours. So no powerpoint. I have to stand up with my notes and talk. The rest of the meeting is in Kinyarwanda, but Claude has told them that from now on all meetings will be in English. He’s also told them to switch off their mobile phones, too, but after a few minutes they most of them secretly switch them on again. Every so often a head teacher will appear to crouch down as if in prayer; he or she has set the ring tone to vibrate and is busily resolving who knows what problem instead of listening to the Vice Mayor.

The meeting covers all sorts of major topics – exam results, the laptop computers being provided for schools, the need for extra teachers to make timetables work, safety issues and insurance for children in schools. Every so often Claude translates a key phrase for me, but I find thatI get sleepy when I’m just sitting listening to a torrent of words in a language I don’t understand. It’s a major effort not to yawn all the time.

We don’t stop for lunch; all we get is a bottle of fanta. You wouldn’t believe it was possible to cause so much noise and disruption in a meeting by bringing round bottles of fizzy drinks.

And it’s so cold! I’m sitting still on the Equator; I’ve got goose pimples all up my arms. I’m in with all my friends – Emmannuellie is next to me; Iphigénie and Christine are in front; Stéphanie and Goretti are close by. Emmannuelle whispers to say she thought muzungus never felt the cold because they had hairy arms. I kick her.

I’m thinking of all the things I could be doing instead of sitting out this meeting. I send Nicole home after four hours; I need to stay because right at the start I asked a whole group of heads, if they were present, to see me at the end so I can check contact details. So I’m caught. We eventually pack up at just after five.

Emmanuellie wants to talk to me; it turns out that she wants financial sponsorship for a degree course she’s doing. She’s got to re-sit a year to improve her grades, but can’t get financial support for re-sits from the District, and has spent most of her savings on Chantal’s wedding. (That’s almost certainly true; it’s the way Rwanda works). I tell her I’ll email home and see if any of my contacts in Bridport are willing to help. She’s a good, hard working head (her school is ranked 5th out of 94 in the district in the exams), and she deserves a break. She’s running a school, and bringing up two teenage boys on her own; her husband died not long after the youngest was born so she’s not had an easy life.

Back home I make a thick soup. Tom texts to say that he’s had a frantic day and didn’t get to eat until four in the afternoon, so won’t want an evening meal. I just cook for myself and the guard.

Soraya comes round in the evening to stash some food in our fridge, and while she’s here I manage at last to get through to Épiphanie on the phone and within a couple of minutes we’ve arranged to go and see her this weekend. Yay; at last I’m going to start getting to know the East of Rwanda.

Good things about today – getting the contact list almost done; getting a weekend away organised.

Bad things about today – boring meetings; wasted time; and even when it’s a friend asking, I hate being approached by people for money. My keys have STILL not come.

Oh, and P.S. – I think I’ve found the ideal school for the Elizabethans’ water tank. It’s Bilingaga primary, the one in the middle of the banana fields. The school’s had six new classrooms built last term, so there’s plenty of new roofs. It has no water at present. It’s in Cyeza, one of the poorest of all my areas, so it ticks all the boxes in terms of need. It’s the next school over from Bwirika which was the original candidate. Sometime soon I’ll go and see Abel, the head, and start talking seriously to him.

No comments: