Monday, 23 March 2009

"Education Day" in Gitarama

March 21st – 22nd

I need a quiet weekend to recharge batteries and rest. Nothing much happened on Saturday – I’m writing this first thing Monday morning and its difficult tor recall much during the day!

I go up to the District Office to print out the extra stuff that Claude wants, but all the rooms with printers are locked, so I have to ring Claude and get him to come in and unlock his office. Never mind, the work gets done.

Tom is stressed out with a sale of redundant stuff at the FHI office. It raises around $1000 which is a real achievement. Toasters, a TV, and suchlike are all sold (including the fittings from the FHI guesthouse my family stayed in when they came out to see me in July). But the two items most furiously sought after are mattresses, especially ones which are clean and free from bugs, and curtains.

The main event of the afternoon is that I go and get a haircut, and not before time. I need to look human for the Education event tomorrow.

The girls invite us over for a meal in the evening, so we load up with bottles of beer and set off. They’re determined not to be outdone by our Mexican poker night a few weeks ago, and so they’ve done us a massive spread of goodies to eat. I never realised just how filling pancakes could be. What makes things even more impressive are that they have done all this cooking on a single charcoal stove instead of our luxury gas burners!

During the meeting the conversation turns to the stupid and dangerous exploits we got up to when we were younger, especially when we were drunk. No names – this is a public blog! Just let me say that it’s amazing that any of us survived to adulthood without cirrhosis or criminal records or worse! The conversation winds its way through different kinds of sexuality (are bisexuals confused or just greedy?), through naturism (Why are public nudist spots always populated by middle aged, saggy types instead of nubile youth….?) and curves round to music (everything Manu Chau does seems to sound the same).

After eating the poker school resumes in deadly earnest. Provided that you’re not playing with real money, poker is great fun and we all take turns to bluff outrageously or force each other into huge bets by upping the ante very early.

By eleven o’clock we’re ready for bed. A really nice, gentle way to spend a Saturday night with friends.

Sunday is District Education Day. Soraya and I are up, scrubbed, in our best clothes and at the stadium by half past nine. We expect to be the first to arrive and have to wait for hours, but the place is already pretty full. (We still wait a good hour before the action starts). The Maire arrives, and two bigwigs from the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC). We are in the “posh” seats
because by now we are established District Office staff. Behind us are rows and rows of headteachers and parents’ representatives – from every one of our 150 schools. Cue lots of waves and smiles to and from friends, but the truth is that when there are so many people you tend to lose everyone in the general throng. On each side of us there are hundreds of schoolchildren from local schools close to Gitarama (too expensive to bring whole crowds down from up-country). The stadium is awash with the national colours; everything is blue, yellow and green. There are two flags flying but some fool has put one upside down. I think everyone notices but equally everybody pretends it hasn’t happened. Nobody does anything about it.

There are big plaques everywhere saying “Imbuto”. Everyone is wearing “Imbuto” teeshirts in yellow or green. Soraya and I are given teeshirts – they even get the sizes right – but later I have to give mine up to a worthier cause. “Imbuto” means “seeds” in Kinyarwanda, and the theme of the day is seeds of change. “Imbuto” is a national Rwandan organisation headed up by the President’s wife, and there is a chance that she might attend. (She doesn’t). The teeshirts have slogans on the back: “Ba inkibuto y’icyeza, N’ishema Ry’akakobwa” (“we are leading the way in Cyeza so that others can follow us”).

A couple of stockmen lead four cows into the stadium; the cows are munching happily on the grass. Soraya look at each other and think this is typically Rwandan that even when there’s an official function, somebody won’t pass up the chance to find some fresh pasture for their cattle wherever they can! Across the other side of the stadium a group of street children hang around and watch all us posh people in our finery. These kids have got absolutely nothing to do; they’re bored to tears and a distraction like this is free entertainment for them and manna from heaven!

Many of the women employees at the Office are in their Rwandan robes, all looking wonderfully elegant. Emmanuelle from Ruli is in a very posh robe; it turns out that she’s due to address the gathering later on.

As at any big Rwandan gathering, the local army chief and police chief are invited; they’re both sitting directly in front of Soraya and I; two completely shaven heads glistening in the sun!

It’s been a very hot morning so far; I’ve been forced to bring hat, sun cream etc because the stadium is a merciless place if you’re exposed to the full heat of the sun for any length of time. Fortunately after a few minutes we get shade under the canopy, and we have comfortable seats, too.

A group of Muslim pupils in “Imbuto” teeshirts and trainers, but with their Islamic headscarves, start us off by singing the national anthem. The official welcomes and introductions take a good ten minutes. Then one of the local schools sings for us.

There are speeches and awards all morning. A woman, and an elderly husband and wife, are to be given a special award for their work in taking in and bringing up dozens of orphans during their lifetimes. The little old lady is painfully thin, stooped, and frail looking. But she speaks forcefully and makes everybody laugh with what she’s saying. While the speeches are going on one of the stockmen brings a bunch of aromatic herbs and grass to the centre of the stadium and lights it. Smoke drifts across, happily not in our direction. Soraya and I look at each other – all we need is for this idiot to start a bonfire and the entire official ceremony will be kippered. Why don’t the police chuck him out? – after all, there’s about two dozen police, armed to the teeth, standing guard around the stadium!

The aromatic smoke brings the four cows up to the fire, and at this point Soraya and I realise we’ve missed the point. These people, as a reward for looking after the orphans, are being presented with the cows as a gift from a grateful District. (Funded by yet another branch of the Rwandan Government). So the official party goes to inspect the cows while all the rest of us sit and watch. The cows are cross-breeds between Ankole and Holstein; one is a lovely caramel colour.

The District’s top performing girls are all given awards – certificates, and holdalls containing block notes, dictionaries. Oh, and little pencil cases which have come from Bridport, Dorset! No boys are given awards; the purpose of today’s awards is to boost girls’ self esteem and spur them on.

We have some good drama from a senior section at St Joseph secondary. A teenage girl struggles to be allowed to continue studying and go to college, while her grandparents insist she be married off and produce sons as fast as possible, and the parents waver between supporting the daughter and supporting the grandparents. Enter a women’s rights counsellor who gives the grandfather an enthusiastic ticking off, to loud cheers from everyone in the stadium. The whole thing is carried off with great gusto, and even we muzungus can see that there’s a lot of firsthand experience coming into play with whoever wrote the script! You don’t need to understand a word of Kinyarwanda to get the message, and that’s the whole point of effective drama.

We have poems; a girl reads confidently while the lad with her is shaking so much that his words must be a blur on the page.

The absolute top performing girl in the whole District is given a special present – a laptop computer. This draws gasps of envy, and not just from the other pupils. She’s a lovely young lass (I get a chance to talk to her later); she has to embrace the men from the ministry, the Maire and all sorts of other officials, and then give an acceptance speech. When she does so it’s without notes, fluent, confident, and there’s something she says which must be a real home truth because the whole place erupts. Cue thunderous applause and a filmed interview for Rwanda TV with a young woman who we will most certainly be seeing more of in a few years’ time.

Now it’s time for my part of the ceremony. Claude has come up trumps and the certificates I designed for our top performing schools have been framed and look lovely. A whole bunch of primary and secondary heads are called out in front of the crowd and publicly congratulated and presented with their rewards. A couple of them who know I have produced the certificates give me a “thumbs up” as they return to their seats. AT LAST we have an event where we can reward success without at the same time blaming and slagging off the less successful schools….. I feel very proud because I think this is the first bit of tangible evidence that I’m starting to change the culture at District Office level.

By now the sun has gone in, there’s rain clouds around and the temperature has dropped ten degrees. We’re all freezing. The wind has got up; crash – over go the pots with grasses and flowers stuck in them for decoration. Wham – the “Imbuto” posters flap and bang and fall on pupils sitting around them. Whoops – a tablecloth flies off into the crowd. Decorative shields flap menacingly where they have been loosely tied to pillars. Swirls of dust from the football pitch in the middle of the stadium blow into our faces.

Emmanuelle takes the stand and gives a long report on a visit she has made to the most progressive primary school in the country. It’s detailed, and everyone listens in respectful silence. Emmanuelle always looks strained at these public gatherings, but once she starts speaking she relaxes and takes command. It’s quite a tour de force and must have established her as the authoritative voice on what our local primaries can expect to adopt given our local budgets and staffing.

Finally, after two long, tedious speeches from the Ministry men, we finish. One of them rashly says the Budget is done and due to arrive imminently…

No; we’re not quite finished. At vast expense, the District is feeding everybody. Fantas for everyone – including hundreds of children – beers for the distinguished guests. Little foil trays with mini meals – lumps of cow and cold roast potatoes. No cutlery, but a toothpick to use as fork and to flick bits of cow around afterwards. Dammit – that’s where our training budget has gone – to feed this multitude!

Delphine texts me to say hello and that she’s not well today. I text her back and say to come for an English lesson when she’s feeling better. I’m only back at the flat for an hour, and just getting warmed up, when she arrives – she’s decided she’s feeling better already and has taken my invitation literally! So we spend an hour lifting her English. The living room table is full of fruit and veg where Tom has been shopping in the morning, so we do a session on food. I’ve at least got her sorted on the difference between “I am eating” and “I eat”. Now we start to tackle the Rwandan “R” and “L” confusion. It’s infuriating! Take carrots, for example. In Kinyarwanda they’re “ikaroti”. No problem – it’s her native language. In French she knows “carrottes” and pronounces it perfectly. So why, when we try English, does she say “callots”? She’s not messing about; she’s acutely embarrassed. I don’t mind; I find it all quite funny in the end.

The evening meal is a lively affair; Nidhi has come down from Kigali for the weekend, and Britney, who has been working at Momma’s orphanage but fallen out big time with Momma’s paternalism and authoritarian regime, has found a place in Kigali and wants to talk to us about security.

Moira and Kerry come round after the meal, Kerry to collect some data from me and all of us to plan a film night on Wednesday. Woody Allen here we come! After that, yet again, we’re dead tired and fall into bed. I’m barely awake enough to talk when Teresa rings!

Best thing about today – seeing a suggestion of mine become official District policy and seeing it put into effect. That’s really satisfying.

Worst thing – my neck is hurting. I think I’ve been spending too long hunched over this laptop.

No comments: