Thursday, 5 February 2009

"pliz put your trowa on the beech"

February 3rd

As I walk up to the office today the air is beautifully clear and positively chilly. More like an English spring morning than an equatorial one. By eight o’clock I’m on a moto and off to Munyinya primary school, situated on a hilltop just off the main road to Kigali. The views in every direction from this hill are stunning – row upon row of hills stretching in almost every direction to the horizon, and only missing in the East, where the land gets progressively lower through Nyamata and eventually falls to the swamps of the Akagera National Park.

Lots of people are speaking to me; some making fun of the muzungu who’s travelling on foot rather than in a chauffeur driven car; children are trying out their three English sentences. Somebody calls out from behind; I turn, but before I can answer them I suddenly see on the Northern horizon the entire five Rwandan volcanoes, all absolutely clear of cloud, and all lined up like a row of skittles. In all the thirteen months I’ve lived here I’ve never seen such a wonderful view, and certainly not from Gitarama. If only our flat was on the top of this hill….. (I’d never leave it to go to work!).

Of course, I haven’t got my camera with me.

When I arrive at Munyinya I find a whole group of tronc commun pupils lined up outside a room. They have been allocated places at the school, but there are no teachers appointed yet. (Kigali bureaucracy rather than Muhanga ineptitude at work). So these teenagers (and other pupils who must be in their early twenties), are having to try to teach themselves until staff arrive.

In the other corner of the school I see two brand new water tanks. Munyinya was a prime candidate for one of the Bridport community tanks, but for the second time we’ve been beaten to it by another charity donor, this time a big Belgian NGO. It doesn’t matter, because there will be plenty of other schools for Bridport to donate tanks to. It also means I can get an accurate cost estimate from Vérène, the head teacher. Inflation has raised the prices of everything here by around 10% since last summer, and the value of the pound has gone down about 20% against the Rwandan franc, so what I had budgeted for at £1600 per tank will now cost around £2200, and still rising. But at least I now have some accurate estimates to work from.

I do my usual informal inspection and sit in on two classes. There’s quite a good English lesson with yr 6; the teacher is using songs (action songs), and concentrating on getting the children speaking. This is a welcome change from endless written grammar. He tries doing “vox pop” interviews with some of the children but its hard work and they don’t get beyond the same wretched formulaic phrases. Munyinya’s results for the past two years have made it the quintessentially average school for the whole District; average overall and in each subject’s results. Despite this lack of academic excitement, especially when compared with some of the other Gitarama schools like Espérance’s at Gahogo, parents seem to be falling over themselves to get their children into Munyinya. True, Vérène now has water on site and should have electricity by the end of the year, but for parents prepared to make their children walk up to 5 km to school in tropical heat, there are more academically successful options locally.

The year 4 science teacher is covering agricultural tools, and I worry because other schools I’ve visited were doing the same lesson two weeks ago. When I go through children’s books I discover why. The silly woman is doing a complete repeat of a lesson done a fortnight ago because she daren’t risk losing face by trying to teach something in front of a muzungu and having the children fail to learn or respond. I could crown her – it’s such a waste of everyone’s time. And even then, when she sets written exercises most of the children are getting wrong answers. Even those who are cheating and referring back in their exercise books to the last time they covered this work. Her English is fair, but those of you reading this blog in England would have trouble working out what you did with a “trowa” or to name which artisan uses as “beech”. (Trowel and bench respectively). Funnily enough, she gets “wheelbarrow” just right and I’m spared another session of Mbare’s “wierbollows”.

One sad piece of news – I can’t go into a year 5 class because one of the children’s mothers has just died and the funeral is taking place this morning. The Science teacher is going to the funeral as are some of the children’s friends. Deaths are very common here; of teachers as well as of parents and children; funerals are an everyday event.

I do a debrief with the two teachers and with Vérène; she’s a good head but I tell her that she’s got to pitch her sights higher on exam results. Her facilities are fast becoming the best in Gitarama, but that won’t count for long if her results stay so average.

A quick matata ride brings me back to the district office. Before I left this morning I left my new laptop for Cessie, the ICT girl, to see if she could load a full, up to date version of Microsoft office onto it. (After all, I’m working for the district and I’m employed by them, so there’s nothing criminal in using their office software bought for all the employees). To her credit Cessie has not only loaded it, but it’s a far more up to date version than any I’ve seen. Wow Cessie – you’ve absolutely made my day!! I tell her that she’s got to marry me so my software will never get jaded – there are a bunch of other women in the room (all of whom know me from last term’s English classes), and the whole place falls about laughing. I’ve just about got to grips with the Rwandan sense of humour and that quip hit the nail on the head.

Charlotte’s coming to see us this lunchtime, but has been delayed on route, so Soraya and I go down to Tranquillité for lunch and then arrive back at the office in time to meet and greet. With Charlotte is Andrea, the Canadian girl who placed me here in Rwanda, and her boyfriend. We chat with Claude; Claude’s starting to say he wants me to stay for a third year. I tell him that Teresa might have an opinion on that… Anyway, Claude himself has applied to do a Master’s degree in England next year; if he gets sponsorship from the Government he’ll certainly do it. I don’t know who would hold the fort while he was away, but he and I make a good double act in the office and it would feel decidedly odd to be working with someone else.

During the course of a conversation with Soraya we both realise there have been a lot of changes of head teachers since the end of last year. Nobody, of course, has produced a list of who’s who and their contact numbers. I don’t want a repeat of last Friday’s faux pas when I visited a school only to find there was a new head who wasn’t expecting me and wasn’t on site. We ask Béatrice if she has a list, and she produces the attendance list from the big meeting of ten days ago.

I start going through it and realise that nearly a third of headships have changed. Some have retired, some have been forced to retire on grounds of age or competence (lack of); others have been transferred to other schools. Our friend Étienne in Rongi has been moved to a bigger school. He was in the office yesterday; he didn’t say anything about it to us and we had no idea, so we couldn’t congratulate him. I’m really pleased that he has been promoted, though; he works hard and thoroughly deserved all the success he can get. And he’s staying in the secteur which needs just the level of energy he possesses. Also, around a half of the head teachers have new phone numbers. It’s just total fluke that almost every school I’ve contacted this term has kept the same head and same phone. It’s the schools out in the rural secteurs where the changes are most pronounced. Teachers are badly paid, living conditions are hard, and the lure of easier lives in Kigali means that staff turnover out in the sticks is huge.

So my homework for tonight, as soon as I finish this blog, is to transcribe a photocopy of the head’s contact details so that all the Muhanga VSO contingent can arrange to get to schools. Every time I think I’m clearing the decks of urgent business, another crisis arrives which needs time spent on it. It’s ages now since I had a weekday evening when I wasn’t working till ten at night.

I work late in the office and finish today’s special project, which is a power point for Claude to show the mayor. With my new wizzy office software it’s a breeze until I want to save it and can’t find the “save” button. I have to drag Claude away from his petitioners to come and show me where it is!

Tom’s had another long and gruelling day involving having to replace a car battery; Christi’s been trying to move furniture into her new place and has got caught in today’s thunderstorm which has decided to arrive in the evening rather than the afternoon. Soraya’s got landed with running a training course on Saturday morning. I’m still hoping that the two of us might be able to get across to Epi’s new place in the east; we could go on Sat afternoon and return on Monday morning. If we both work Saturday morning then nobody could criticise us! Problem is – Épi never seems to answer her phone.

Best thing about today - absolutely everything. School visit; volcanoes; computer fixed; task completed for Claude.

Worst thing – where’s my sodding keys? Just how long does it take to get a small package from England to Gitarama? Whose office are they languishing in? Or is some miscreant trying them systematically in every muzungu property in the country…. I WANT MY KEYS!

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