Monday, 11 May 2009

Delphine's house

May 5th

An unusual day today. I’m off to re-inspect Rutarabana primary school; this is only the second time I’ve been to re-inspect a school. Normally I’ll just do a “dipstick” to check they’ve implemented all the curriculum changes from the New Year. But this school worries me and I want to see if things there have improved since last year. Rutarabana is very close to Gitarama, but is stuck out in the countryside. In a secteur where most of the schools are rebuilt, high achieving, go-getters, this is a little run-down, mud brick backwater. Last year Cathie and I inspected it at the end of February; this is the school where one of the classrooms had a roof in such a dangerous state that the room had been abandoned and the class was being taught under a tree in the rainy season, (and in the hot sun, too).

Well, not a lot has changed. The roof on the offending classroom has been repaired, but by the parents’ association and certainly not with any help from the District. And the school still feels a despondent place. The head hasn’t done an action plan or a budget because he says he’s waiting for the annual capitation grant from the District. Now I know it’s scandalous that the capitation grant hasn’t yet arrived, but, all the same, other schools have action plans and have at least provisional budgets. Last year the head’s office was full of furniture waiting to be assembled. At least this time the office is back in use, but the school still seems acutely short of furniture, with pupils four to a desk in many cases. Some desks have been borrowed from Remera school up the hill. (Four to a desk means that pupils barely have room to write in their books and is a real drawback to learning). The head has done precious few lesson observations, either. I know this term has been full of distractions with the new curriculum, double shifting, teaching in English etc, but you would think that by now all the heads would be busy evaluating what is going on in their lessons. Not a bit of it here. I really wonder what he does with himself all day. Even his formal report to the District for the end of the spring term isn’t done. He shows me a fancy template which it’s going to be done on, but there’s not a word of content in it. Methinks I’m going to have to tell Claude that this guy needs a firework up his backside to get him moving again. Isn’t it funny how when you visit a school there are some headteachers you take an instant liking to, and others who rub you up the wrong way. I’m afraid our Dieudonné is one of the latter; not much about him that I can see is remotely “God given”.

The school’s garden looks neglected; the classrooms are bare. There are some posters on the walls, but they are all old and usually in French. It’s almost as if the place has given up the fight. And yet the numbers on roll have gone up from just over seven hundred to nearly eight hundred, a fearsome rise.

The school’s results bear out the atmosphere of decline. It is 72nd out of 94 in the yr 6 results, and one of the worst performers (but not the very worst) of the schools close-in to Gitarama. Moreover, Rutarabana has a spectacular imbalance between its boys’ and girls’ results. Last autumn their girls did them proud and had one of the best pass rates of any primary in the District; the boys on the other hand…… came nearly bottom of the heap. Dieudonné doesn’t seem particularly concerned when I point this out to him.

Rutarabana has many problems. The roofs still leak in almost every room; the floors are desperately uneven; the furniture is too little, creaky, old, and too small for the older pupils. It doesn’t have water or electricity. It’s the school that time forgot; what it needs is a firebrand head who will take on the District and rejuvenate the place.

OK, let’s get off the soapbox! Into classes I go. Year 2 maths, fifty children in cramped conditions doing addition of two digit numbers. The teacher is trying her best, and I mustn’t lampoon her, but every bad English cliché in Rwandan primaries seems to surface here. “Look at here!” is the standard command when you want the children’s attention. The sum on the board is 86 + 24 =. So the teacher says it in English and the children copy. “eightee sickis plice twentee fower equalsi” is what it sounds like. I’ve all but given up trying to correct this “siggis” or “sickis” pronunciation of the number 6 - it’s virtually universal in Rwanda. She also pronounces three digit numbers à la americaine: 241 is “two hundredee fourtee one”. But at least she knows the pupils’ names and refers to them by name. She sets the usual three or four exercises at the end of the lesson, after children have been called out to do examples on the board. With a muzungu watching her, she only asks the better pupils to work through on the board. At that point I’m quite hopeful and impressed by the standard. This all changes when she lets the kids work on their own. It takes some of them five minutes to find their pens and books. Then they drag out writing down all four sums; writing them down is a valuable time waster when you don’t want to work out the answers. The children’s laying out is the problem – they rarely write numbers neatly above each other. They are taught to talk aloud when they work through examples on the blackboard; when they have to work on their own, in silence, they don’t seem able to cope.

I watch a yr 3 maths lesson as well; these little souls are doing multiplication of two digit numbers (36 x 12 =). This teacher is genuinely trying hard; she uses English all the time; her blackboard technique is fine, and she’s patient with them. Unfortunately she has set them examples which turn out to be really difficult for them, and the majority of the children don’t cope. In terms of learning outcomes the lesson is a failure, and the teacher feels humiliated. She starts blaming the pupils, accusing them of not trying, but in truth she needs to set easier examples and work up to the hardest ones. She’s afraid I’m going to put a black mark on her record, but I reassure her and just tell her she needs to do the lesson again and use smaller numbers.

In the end I’m glad to get away from Rutarabana; I haven’t enjoyed my morning in the countryside.

Now comes the interesting part of the day. If you’ve read previous blogs you’ll have discovered my little Rwandan student Delphine, who I’m giving some English lessons to. She lives in Rutarabana. I know her parents want to see this muzungu who is helping her, and for me it’s an opportunity to see a real rural smallholding in all its mucky glory. Remember that everyone I work with at the District Office or in schools is educated and relatively affluent; Delphine’s family is the real rural thing. She comes to the school to meet me and we set off along little paths round the edges of banana fields and plots of beans and cow grass. The path winds and twists; frequently I think we’ve arrived at the house but instead we plod right alongside one of the neighbours’ on our way. There are some very surprised locals who see Delphine accompanied by a muzungu, and the tongues will definitely be wagging this afternoon. I ask Delphine if she’s worried by this but she says no. She’ll have to be careful, though – to be seen with a muzungu is for the neighbours to assume the muzungu is supporting you and therefore that you are wealthy and can be tapped for a loan. And jealousy leads to malicious rumours….. Still, I won’t be going there very often again, if at all.

We reach the house and I’m introduced to mum, to a younger sister, and to the very youngest sister, a seven year old who is absolutely speechless when a muzungu comes into their house. She’s off to Rutarabana for the afternoon session and bolts out of the door as if a dragon’s after her.

We go to inspect the livestock – three goats, at least three cows, a sow and at least five or six piglets who are determined to come into the living room and squeak every time someone kicks them back into the yard. Chickens peck at nothing in particular. Birds are chirping in the banana trees next to the living room. Outside the front door is a token little garden, planted with flowers and multicoloured shrubs.

This is not your bottom line of poverty family. There are eight children, and it looks as if all eight will have money found to send them to secondary school. Dad is a mason and is away working in one of the neighbouring secondaries (the family struck a deal with the school whereby the children get greatly reduced school fees but the dad is on call to fix any building problems however short the notice). Mum speaks a token amount of French, and I speak a token amount of Kinyarwanda, but we manage to communicate enough sentences for me to convince her that I’m not a threat to Delphine’s safety. The living room walls are decorated with a few photos, but mainly with religious icons and ancient, dog eared calendars. The room is divided into two halves; one end is the “comfy” end with a sofa and armchairs, and a very battered sideboard where all the best crockery and glasses are stored. There’s a fluorescent light fitted to the ceiling, but it’s just for show, or just “in case”. The house is lit by a single paraffin lamp at night. The other end of the room is devoid of furniture except for a couple of wooden benches. When all the extended family is here there are eight children, two parents, at least one pair of grandparents (who have the smallholding next door), and either one or two aunts. It must feel more like a church meeting than a family!

Don’t get me wrong. The house is spotlessly clean; the welcome is genuinely warm, and the only problems are those involving my Kinyarwanda and their French. Out comes the photo album; pictures of so many children I can’t tell one from the other; everyone looks so stiff and unsmiling in their photos.

They insist on feeding me; we have rice, beans and cabbage which is their standard dinner. With bananas from their own trees for pudding. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone just go and pull a load of bananas off a tree and put them on a table to eat. I’ve anticipated they will feed me, and I have brought chocolate and sweets as a gift for the family – it’s the one luxury I’m sure they’ll all enjoy. I’ve also ordered another three kilos of strawberries from them, and Delphine produces them in a bucket ready for the journey home. The two batches of strawberries mean I’ve probably doubled their weekly income this week just on behalf of my VSO colleagues. And the cost of my share of the strawbs is the same as if I had booked a moto to take me back home from Rutarabana school. Everyone comes out a winner.

Now it’s time to leave; mother escorts us all the way down through their plots of bananas and beans and peas and sweet potatoes to the edge of their land, as is the custom, and we say formal farewells. In the morning I have arrived at Rutarabana on a moto; I know half the route back to Gitarama but the first bit is tricky and Delphine has to come with me to the point where I know where I’m going. It’s a convoluted route – Rwandans are experts at finding the shortest and easiest route between two places, even if it seems we’re walking through people’s back yards at times. I’d hesitate to come this way on my own.

Back at the flat I divvy up the strawberries and put them in the fridge. I get part way through writing up my report, and suddenly the flat is full of people. Becky has come back from her meeting with the Mayor of Kamonyi; she hasn’t got anywhere with her accommodation but at least they want her to start work as soon as possible. Priya and Jenny arrive back from their trip down south to Butare; they’ve gone to Murambi (Gikongoro) to see the genocide museum there. I’ve warned them it isn’t for the faint hearted and they return shocked at what they’ve seen, just as I was. Tinks comes round to collect her kilo of strawbs, as does Moira. At one point I’ve got Becky crashed out on my bed, exhausted after being talked over for the whole morning (the meeting about her accommodation and work was conducted entirely in Kinyarwanda between n the District and VSO, with just the minimum being translated for her to keep in touch); and four other women nattering away in the lounge. God knows what the guards and the other locals make of my domestic arrangements! Every time somebody new arrives I make another mug of tea; by the end of the afternoon I’m awash with tea.

In the evening Tom and I cook up a bean stew with slices of chorizo sausage, and very good it is, too. Now that Hayley and co have finally said farewell to the couch-surfing boys I can ask them to help me out with accommodation for some of these visiting women. We decide that Becky will stay with us, and Jenny and Priya will sleep at Soraya’s because the girls have two spare bedrooms. Isn’t it funny how you don’t have visitors for months on end and then suddenly our two houses have had five guests all arriving within the same ten day period!

I’m intending to inspect three schools this week, but Priya and Jenny both want to come out with me on visits (and I am only prepared to have one other person with me at a time), and Becky is also desperate to get into a primary school as soon as possible. I think I’ve got everything lined up, when Becky’s arrangements are changed yet again. Unfortunately it means that I’ll have four inspections in four days, which is pushing things when you take into account the time it takes to write up my reports. It’s a good job the coming weekend is a quiet one!

Best thing about today – everything really – visiting a school (however depressing the school), going into a real rural family’s house, stuffing myself with strawberry puree, hosting half the muzungu women in Gitarama…..

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