Monday, 11 May 2009

Musange - where Mushishiro seems to go on forever!

May 6th

Today I’m taking Priya, the medical student, with me to Musange school. She’s never been to visit an African school before (understandably), so the whole day is a bit of an adventure for her. It takes ages to negotiate with motos in the bus park, but eventually we’re off and on the Chinese road and up into the mountains. The weather is rather dull and the views aren’t as good as they can be, but for Priya it’s all new and she’s taking photos and video clips with her camera all the way along the road. At least she’s thoroughly used to riding on motos!

To get to Musange school you first have to go to Buringa and Mushishiro villages, then you turn off and bolt down a little track to the valley bottom. You pass a brickworks erected in steps up the hillside, with workmen throwing new bricks into the back of a pickup parked at a crazy angle on the steep slope, then bump across the valley marshes and cross a muddy stream on a rattly log bridge. Women are coming to do their washing, but how on earth they can wash stuff properly in this brown, soupy water is beyond me.

Then you climb up past endless coffee trees and pass a flat plain on which stands a bedraggled little hamlet, forlorn and lost in all the green expanse. For the next few miles you wind around the contours; spur after spur after spur, each one almost identical to the last but just slightly different. Some have houses on the tops; others have houses literally carved into niches in the steep slopes. In the distance you can see Buringa with its big secondary school; it never seems to get much further away however many ridges you pass. Finally you go through a plantation of conifers and eucalyptus, scented strongly now that the sun is breaking through, and come to a fork with a sign saying “E P Nyabitare”. Nyabitare is Friday’s school, but at least I now know exactly how to get to it. There is no sign for Musange, though. We pass the church and paroisse, and continue on and on until eventually, on a hilltop in the distance, we see the unmistakable outline of a Rwandan primary school.

To say that Musange is isolated is like saying the South Pole’s a long way down. For miles we have passed not a single shop, or dispensary, or anything other than scattered huts among green fields and endless precipitous slopes. The scenery is amazing but, boy, is this a long way from anywhere. In the far distance you can see the Nyaborongo river, so I know this is the furthest out school of my district in this particular direction. The Head, Immaculée, is experienced and very competent. She comes to meet us at the gate, and the fact that I’ve brought a non-teacher visitor unannounced with me is not only no problem, she positively makes Priya feel welcome. A mark of Immaculée’s dedication is that she has to get up at four in the morning to walk to school – every day! There is an acute shortage of housing for teachers in this area, and everyone has long distances top travel to work. We feel guilty that we have breezed in on motos, and will similarly vanish back in great comfort at the end of our visit.

The Musange school site is enormously elongated along a hilltop; the views in every direction are superb. (I know, I seem to say this about every school I visit but it’s true). There’s just no words left to describe a panorama of nearly 270 degrees of green mountains, with tiny farms scattered all among them. Here and there you see plumes of smoke from charcoal making or tree clearance. Once or twice there are ugly brown scars where erosion has claimed an entire mountainside, and the topsoil has been lost forever. Criss crossing the hills are earth roads. What’s conspicuously missing is any sign of modern industrial development. No pylons, no surfaced roads, no factories. The biggest buildings you can see are churches and schools (sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the one from the other).

Immaculée takes us on a tour of the site. The main block of classrooms has been rebuilt about five years ago in brick, and the rooms are lovely. Concrete floors, windows on both sides (but not glazed), high roofs under tiles. I’m going off metal roofs – they just get too hot at mid day and too noisy when it rains. There is a staff room, well equipped with desks and store cupboards for each teacher. There is a small flat surface for volleyball. The edges of the site are grassy with trees for shade in the dry season. The gardens are productive with pineapples (like me, Priya sees her first pineapple plants close up in a Rwandan school), cabbages, carrots, maize and banana trees around the edges. There are the remains of a cowshed but no cow. Immaculée tells us that the school had a bull, raised from a calf, but as he grew bigger he got too boisterous to be safe around primary children, so he went to market and was sold. They are deciding what livestock to keep next; perhaps rabbits because at least they don’t pose such a safety hazard to the children.

Then we pass a big patch of green which doesn’t belong to the school and is surrounded by dwelling houses. It’s reminiscent of an English village green, except that it seems totally unused. The odd goat chews at the edges. The grass is long and coarse. It’s not being cultivated or grazed or even used as a football field in a country desperately short of flat land. I find it a bit of a conundrum. Then we come to another block of classrooms where the first years and maternelle are housed. Two rooms are out of use; workmen are busy repairing the roof. One man is introduced to us as the chairman of the parents’ committee. Here he is in his dungarees, up and down ladders and supervising the work. The roof tiles are being put onto a fresh layer of roseaux, using mud cement; periodically we suffer near misses from gobbets of mud thrown onto the roseaux by over enthusiastic parents working up above.

The first year almost works like a separate school; there is a teacher responsible for overseeing them on a day to day basis – this block of rooms is several hundred yards from the rest of the school. Close by is another, bigger, level playing area. Here a group of children are doing P E; the boys are stripped to the waist but retaining their shorts (after all, who in Rwanda can afford the luxury of P E kit?); the girls are perspiring in the usual uniforms. You can just imagine the body smells in the close confines of a classroom after a P E lesson!

We are introduced to the maternelle children, stunned into absolute silence at the sight of a muzungu and, well, how do you describe Priya? To me she looks totally Indian; to these children she’s muzungu, but a kind of muzungu they’ve never seen before and have no idea that such a creature exists.

Immaculée takes us further, to the very edge of the current site, and indicates a couple of buildings hundreds of feet down and nearly a kilometre away. These are former rooms used by the school; mercifully the recent building programme made them redundant to requirements. Unfortunately, as the school roll grows well past 1000, and there’s talk of starting at tronc commun section at Musange, these wretched, distant, substandard rooms may have to be reactivated. I really hope not – they are far too far away from the main school and far too crummy to be acceptable.

Musange comes across as a lovely school – isolated, to be sure, but run by humane and caring professionals who are doing their best in difficult circumstances.

When we go to visit classes Priya comes with me, because it’s not fair to her or the school for her to evaluate lessons with no prior experience. The classrooms have many small posters, but they are dog eared and all in French. The only commercial posters we see are big diagrams of human reproductive organs in the yr 6 room; these exist throughout Rwandan primary schools. (Remember that many primary pupils are in their mid to late teens and some are probably sexually active. It’s not like an English class of 11 year olds). The teacher is covering water pollution; he has a small range of vocabulary words to teach and repeats them again and again. His pronunciation is pretty good; his blackboard technique sound, and by the end of the 45 minutes we decide he’s done a pretty good job

Next we go to a year 3 maths lesson where pupils are learning to add big numbers. Again, everything is in English. I simply can’t believe how the primary teachers here are managing to switch to English so successfully, and it tells you reams about the professionalism and dedication of our best teachers, despite being paid a pittance (if they’re even paid at all – see tomorrow’s blog). This young woman teacher keeps saying “threety” instead of thirty, and “threeteen” instead of thirteen, which gets a little annoying after a time. Also instead of the ubiquitous “siggis” for six from the pupils we start getting “siggisi” which is even more cumbersome. What is it with the “x” sound that they find so hard? The teacher sets exercises, but the children mostly can’t get them right. As in many schools I’ve visited, they seem so reluctant to set their work out properly. They’re desperate to use the minimum space in their precious exercise books, so work is squashed into ridiculously small corners where they don’t have room to line up numbers underneath each other, or to put the “carry over” digits. It’s not altogether surprising that so few come up with the right answers. As usual I go round the class during exercise time, correcting and helping. So does the teacher, and so does Priya, which is lovely.

We end the visit with a “pearls of wisdom” session to the staff. Usually I do this in French, but today I’m starting to feel tired so I do it in English. They understand the gist even if they don’t understand every word. And, after all, I’m not OFSTED. I’m not here to find fault, to pick holes. I’m here to show then that someone at District Office knows they exist and cares about them. As Immaculée says, I need to be their ambassador and relay to the Office the kinds of problems they are facing. I’m here to find things they are doing well and praise them to make them feel good (an easy job in this school), and to gently chide or nudge them where I think they could be doing better. (e.g. get some wall posters up in all your rooms; make sure they’re in English and make sure the presentation is such that you and the children feel proud to look at them).

Well, we rattle and hum our way back through the Mushishiro countryside to Gitarama, and fall famished into “Tranquillité”. It’s beginning to look as though the restaurant will do very well out of us this week! Nathan joins us, then we separate; Priya to the internet café and me to the flat to start writing up the visit while its fresh in my mind.

I’ve got a scouring feeling in my stomach; I think I must have eaten nearly two thirds of a kilo of strawberries in two days and perhaps that’s proving a bit too much of a good thing! The afternoon turns out to be a madhouse with visitors and interruptions; in the event I get little of the Musange report written. Blast; that means I’ll need to get up early tomorrow morning.

Best thing about today – a school visit on a fine and sunny day in a beautiful place. Both Priya and Jenny tell me what I already know – I must have just about the best VSO placement in the whole of Africa!

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