Monday, 23 March 2009

Up the creek at Gasovu

Monday March 16th
This turns out to be yet another of those brilliant days which sums up what the VSO experience is all about!

Today I’m up country inspecting at Gasovu in Rugendabari secteur. Rugendabari is one of the most distant secteurs I can realistically travel to these days. It’s the usual beautiful morning. I don’t go to the office because I know I’ll get sidetracked if I do; so I find a taxi bus and within a few minutes we’re off into the mountains.

As soon as we hit the mountains we go into mist – the valley mist is rising quickly today. I’ve never been to Gasovu before, so I’m a bit on edge and need to make sure I don’t get lost. I think I know roughly where Gasovu is, and I’m squinting out of the windows through the fog to look for the sign.

When we reach the sign I realise that I’ve confused two schools. The school I’m going to is Gasovu; but in the place where I thought it was is Gasave school. It slowly dawns on me that Gasovu is way up country, not reachable on foot without a very long walk, and that I’ve screwed up my travel arrangements today.

I try to get out of the bus at the next stop, intending to find a moto. I have to cross three people to get out and none of them will move for me, so I have to climb over them. At the final moment I catch my sandal on something and quite literally fall out of the bus onto the ground. Half the passengers say “sorry sorry sorry”; the other half snigger.

At this point I’m rescued by a lovely young woman who must be a teacher in one of the schools I’ve already visited. She recognises me, asks me where I’m going, stops all the sniggers in the bus, and tells me to get back in and she’ll show me where to get out.

We run down and down until we cross the river Nyaborongo. Now we’re outside Muhanga District, and we’re in the Western province! Today is turning into a real adventure. Quite how I’m supposed to get back across the river and into my own District is something of a mystery at this point. I know for a fact that there’s no other bridge across the river for tens of miles each way. Some miles down the road from the bridge she stops the bus and tells me this is where I need to get out.

The ground is pockmarked with gravel pits where men are digging stones for foundations for the new road to Ngororero, and there’s deafening noise from a quarry where a whole mountainside is being carved away to give building stone for culverts and gabions. The woman tells me to go on down the track in front of me, which runs along the edge of the Nyaborongo valley, for four hills (how’s that for a Rwandan expression of distance)! Then I will come to a point on the river where there should be a ferry. I will need to take the ferry because the river is far too strong and deep to ford. After I cross the river I should see Gasovu schools – primary and secondary – up in the mountains above me. The secondary school is the one on the right-hand mountain. All I have to do is climb the mountain.

That’s all folks – walk past four hills, find a ferryman, climb the right mountain. And just think, I could be stuck at home in England wondering what to do with myself and reduced to watching daytime telly!

I set off down the track. It is cool and fresh; there is low mist, and the river here runs through quite a gorge. The mountainsides around me are dark and looming, with banks of trees coming and going in the swirling mist. People are working in riverside plots of land. A tributary stream flows into the Nyaborongo at this point; its bed is a jumble of boulders brought down by flood rains, interspersed with brown, glutinous mud that would be treacherous to fall into. There are thick reed beds alongside the river itself so that I can’t actually see the water, just an occasional view of swirling brown between waving reed tips. The water is viscous, boiling and churning with endless whirlpools and loops of current.

I walk down past the first hill, and realise that it’s going to take me a long, long time to pass four entire hills. At this moment a young lad on a moto drives by, and asks me if I want a lift. It’s decision time. I could go on with my adventure and try to reach Gasovu on foot, but by now it’s already half past eight and I know I would be massively late. When I pass four hills I’ve got to look for the ferry. There is no guarantee that the ferryman will be there – he might be sick, or gone to look after his fields, or anything like that. Were I fluent in Kinyarwanda I could stop some of the farmers and ask them to find the ferryman, but I realise that out here nobody is going to speak French and English, and I could end up stuck.

So I accept the offer of the lift on his moto. I realise it’ll cost me a bomb because the driver knows he’s “got” me isolated in the full countryside. It’s a pity – it would have made a brilliant story to arrive at a school via a ferry crossing of a dangerous river and a trek up the mountainside, but it would probably be afternoon before I reached the school. And then, of course, there’s the prospect of the journey back……

This young lad is even worse on a moto than I am. We stall and stall because he isn’t used to having a passenger. Twice he almost dumps me in muddy patches on the track where his rear wheel runs away from him. When we eventually get back to the main road he drives too fast, and on each bend I can again feel the rear wheel breaking away. I’m very conscious that I’m wearing no protective gear at all, not even a helmet, and that if I came off the bike at this speed it would probably be fatal. When we reach the dirt road that leads to Gasovu – the “road to the end of the earth” – he doesn’t slow down very much. I’m airborne a lot of the time as we bucket over ruts and bumps, and the prospect of getting unsaddled is still very real! He clips a pedestrian, a woman carrying a sack of cow grass on her head, and she yells at us. A couple of children jump for their lives as he demands the best line through a particularly tight corner.

It’s a relief when, in the distance, I see Gasovu approaching. But because of the nature of the terrain it still takes us another fifteen minutes of wriggling round the contours to arrive there. He charges an extortionate amount, but I’ve got no alternative but to pay, and at least it means I’ve reached the school, and only fifteen or so minutes late.

Fulgence, the head, is charming. He’s absolutely delighted that someone from Gitarama has managed to reach his school. Gasovu is a very small secondary school of 250 children. There are boarders, but only girls, and the boarding accommodation is being phased out so that within two years it will become a day school. Gasovu is a well established secondary school, but Fulgence is a new head teacher. It is my first proper inspection visit to an established secondary.

We go for a walk round the rooms and site. The boarding accommodation is not much more than a shed (see the photos on a separate blog posting). It is just a big room jammed from end to end with bunk beds. There is not a shred of privacy. Just as at Elena Guerra there is no personalisation of space – no posters on walls, no little possessions to make any of the girls feel that their little space is “home”. There is no running water. A couple of taps inside brick cubicles for privacy are the only washing facilities, and ditto with a couple of showers. There is no running water in the showers; you have to fill a bucket from the tap. A small hedge around the boarding block gives token privacy, and is festooned with knickers and other clothes drying in the sun. All the girls have to do their own laundry, and there’s nothing to stop outsiders coming onto the site and raiding their clothes from the hedge.

The kitchens consist of a small, dark, soot-blackened shed with most of its floor space given over to storing firewood. At one end is a roaring fire with a single, massive, cauldron of rice and beans on the go. The ceiling is of corrugated iron and is low. The fire is very hot, and the sun is beating down on the iron roof to make the entire building into a low oven. The cook’s face glistens with perspiration. There doesn’t seem to be any preparation area; I think any measuring or mixing must be done on a wooden bench outside. In one corner are a few sacks of rice and beans.

The office is light and airy and spacious. There are two computers, one of which is broken and the other works intermittently. There are two printers; one is broken and the other works after a fashion but they have no instruction manual for it and find it impossible to adjust. On the wall are some very ancient gestetner skins; I never saw a gestetner machine but I presume it must exist gathering dust in a corner somewhere. By the door there is the fallback reprographic facility – an ancient typewriter with a manky red-and-black ribbon, looking like a throwback to the 1960s. Gasovu has a generator for electricity, but it is ancient and prone to breaking down, and its power output is insufficient for any modern idea of a school. The walls are decorated with calendars (calendars are just about the favourite form of advertising here, especially for government agencies, and everybody has at least two or three in their offices). But these calendars date from 2006, 2007…… they’re curling at the edges and are a sure sign to me of inertia on the part of the previous school administration. What’s conspicuously missing is a 2009 calendar. Isn’t that funny?! At the other end of the site is a half-finished brick building which will become a new office for the head, and another office for the school secretary. Why they think that separate and new offices should be a priority beats me, but there you are. It’s been the pet project of the previous head. At least when it is completed the existing office will become a decent sized staffroom and marking/preparation area.

The classrooms are well made of brick, and have ceilings to insulate from rain noise and summer heat. But the ceilings are too low, and I find as I observe lessons during the late morning that the temperature builds up and up and I’m so thankful to have been placed next to a window where there is some breeze coming through. It wouldn’t do to have the inspector yawn too many times or to fall asleep mid-lesson! The roofs are in bad repair and every room has large water stains on the plywood ceilings; in one room the water has rotted through the wood.

Like most schools, this one is perched on a little hilltop on a protruding lump of mountainside. Far below is the Nyaborongo river – if I really had crossed the river and climbed the mountain I would have been in a hell of a sweat when I arrived!

We say hello to the school cow, and Fulgence shows me the primary school on a similar knob of rock about a kilometre away. There is also a small dispensary and hospital there, so at least if any of his boarder girls fall ill there is some sort of medical attention close at hand. The school gardens are looking very overgrown; somehow during the transition from one headteacher to another the Gasovu pupils and staff have been slack at their gardening. And in any case I think Fulgence has much higher priorities at the moment than ensuring the cassava is weeded.

The school buildings are in an “L” shape, with room for another block to accommodate the eventual full-sized tronc commun school. In the centre of the “L” there is a volleyball court, and a rudimentary six-a-side size football pitch. The pitches are marked out with broken bricks and stones, and there’s a considerable layer of stony gravel everywhere because hundreds of feet have scuffed away every blade of grass which dared grow. Fulgence is determined to add a volleyball court, but it would a fair bit of earth moving to achieve.

I observe two lessons. A geography lesson is dreadful. It is revision; the whole lesson is given over to the teacher talking and asking questions. She’s worried at my presence and it makes her voice harsh and her manner aggressive towards the children. We cover the earth in the solar system, the various branches of geography etc. I resort to doodling on my blocknote pad.

I’m brought up with a jolt in 3rd year Maths, because the teacher is revising binomial equations and I realise I’m out of my depth right from the start. I try to cringe by the window and hope to God he won’t ask me a question or ask me to confirm if a pupil’s answer is right. I wouldn’t have a clue! The children seem to know the answers, and he gets many of them to work through problems on the board. Needless to say, there’s not a single poster or anything visual to stimulate children’s minds.

In all my visits to secondary schools so far, I have never met a teacher who was sarcastic, or vicious, or unpleasant to pupils. It’s just that the system is soooo dry and cerebral and unimaginative. I can quite understand now why some of our volunteers have got into trouble when they try to bring European-style teaching methods with them: in one case a volunteer faced a student boycott of his class because the children thought that what he was doing wasn’t “proper” teaching!

Gasovu is in the bottom quartile of our secondaries in terms of results, but by no means the worst in the District. It’s a classic case of a little school set up with good intentions to bring a chance of secondary education out to the remote countryside, and in that respect it has served its purpose well. But times move on, and expectations rise, and the place either needs serious money spending on it (not least in terms of access to it), or it needs closing and the children shipping elsewhere. Unfortunately the latter is not an option, and the budget is too strained to allow the former.

Fulgence rings for a moto to take me home. I ask him about returning via the ferry, but he tells me to forget about it. As he says, if you get down to the river (not an easy path, by the way), and the ferryman isn’t there, you’ll have to climb back up the mountain. By then it will be late afternoon and you might get stranded in the valley overnight…..

The moto driver (a different, professional one this time) also charges a lot, but we get back to the main road safely. I wait ten minutes for a taxibus, but the only one which passes is already full. And if it passes up the opportunity to milk a muzungu then you can be sure it’s really full!

The next vehicle is a pick-up truck with two Chinese engineers in it, and they immediately stop for me. So I return home to Gitarama in luxury! One of the engineers speaks reasonable English, but (as he himself puts it), he’s learnt his English from American films, which means he drawls with a mid-Pacific accent and uses phrases straight out of John Wayne. It’s a hilarious ride back.

I have time to raid the market for vegetables, and then its home for a quick wash and tidy up because I’ve got Delphine coming for an English lesson. She’s very sweet but her English isn’t nearly as good as it needs to be, and at times the lesson is hard work.

When Tom comes home he brings me yet another birthday present, this time from him and Christi. Some lovely Rwandan woven bowls in my favourite coffee colour, and a couple of locally made candle holders. Those two really are such thoughtful and caring people.

Together we cook up a real storm; another three course meal ranging from avocado to garlic bread to an enormous savoury main dish, and with the last remains of Kersti’s birthday lemon cake to finish.

After today’s adventures you shouldn’t be surprised when I tell you I’m so tired I can barely move.

Best thing about today – absolutely everything. Once again, this is exactly what I came to Rwanda to do!

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