Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Rugebdabari - the school due for demolition

May 25th

Today dawns bright and sunny and clear, and I’m off up-country. I ring up Rugendabari primary, which is an Anglican school about 33km up towards the wilds of Nyabinoni. It’s almost next door to the school where Becky and I were rained off last week, but today’s weather couldn’t be more different. Despite the sun, there’s a chilly wind blowing, and I’m still full of cold. I’m mighty glad of my fleece on the bike.

We climb up through the mountains and descend again on the other side. There’s valley mist, occasionally rising to meet us on the road, and good views but not so clear that I can see the volcanoes in the distance. The Rwandan volcanoes really are shy beasts!

The earth road towards Kirwa which defeated us last time is no problem today; it is simply a jarring, spine crunching ride over ruts and ridges. You can see where vehicles trying to struggle through last week’s mud have completely ploughed up the smooth earth surface the District so painstakingly laid last year, and reduced the road to its usual rubbish state. It begins to look as though the dry season may have finally arrived this weekend, and none too soon, either!

Neither the moto driver nor I have any definite idea where the school is; fortunately it is well signposted. We leave the “main” dirt road along the Nyaborongo valley and take off steeply uphill. The road surface deteriorates even more, with bands of rock outcropping which shake us all about.

I start noting that every house seems to have a cross painted on it and the word “azimuka”. House after house after house – every house alongside the road. The only time I’ve seen this sort of thing before is on the road from Ruhengeri to Gisenyi where it was to indicate that the houses were due for demolition as part of the road widening and improvement process. Well, up here in the back of beyond there’s no risk that they might be on the point of installing a tarmac road, so it’s all a bit of a mystery.

But the mystery turns rather sinister when we finally get to the school and we find that every single building in the school also has the cross and “azimuka” painted on it. Now surely they can’t be proposing to demolish the school? Then I see that the church – not yet completed and built rather shoddily of mud blocks, and with scaffolding still surrounding it - also has the cross and “azimuka” legend. And finally, what I take to be a small classroom adjoining the school has the sign, too. It turns out that this building is the priest’s house.

As I write this blog entry – on Monday night – I haven’t managed to confirm what “azimuka” means with a Kinyarwanda speaker, but it looks almost certain that it indicates the places are due for demolition. I can understand the church being condemned: in the 2008 earthquakes the highest death toll was where churches collapsed on their congregations in the middle of Sunday service (the big quake came at about ten o’clock on a Sunday morning). The government introduced new building regulations for churches. This church at Rugendabari looks a very flimsy structure, built on the cheap by the impoverished parishioners. But the school? The buildings at Rugendabari are no worse than in many other schools I’ve visited, and actually better than, say, Muhazi and Rutarabana. And why so many houses? – for an entire kilometre up the mountainside there’s barely a house which has escaped. Some of the houses seem strongly built and certainly no more suspect than the average dwelling here. (Remember that very many houses in Rwanda are built by their owners with help from relatives and friends, especially in the countryside. It’s really rare for someone in a place as remote as Rugendabari to pay a professional builder to put up a house for them unless the slope is so severe that the foundations need expert handling).

Oh dear – this “azimuka” business has given me a big, big problem. The reason for coming out to Rugendabari was precisely because it is the nearest Anglican primary that I haven’t yet visited, and hence a prime candidate for a water tank. Even better; when I arrive I find that there is no existing water tank, no tap, and no source of water anywhere close. The school sits on a very bleak and exposed spur of mountain with lovely views, but to get water means a long trek down into the valley up and down a 40 degree angle slope. Children have to bring their own water to school in little jerry cans or washed out cooking oil pots. It would make the ideal place to install our Bradpole tank.

What makes taking a decision even more difficult is that we know that in the cases of condemned buildings it is usually impossible to get any definite answer as to when the place will be demolished. It may be imminent; it may not happen for years until the place is so run down that it effectively dismantles itself. The Anglican church can’t afford anything at all, and certainly it can’t afford to rebuild an entire school. (Remember that at Shyogwe it let one block get into such a state that the roof collapsed, fortunately not during a period when pupils were in the rooms below). The District won’t want to demolish and rebuild the school; all its money will be needed to make more classrooms for the tronc commun sections over the next two years. Similarly I can’t see funds coming from Central Government in Kigali. So that means one of two things. Either a foreign charity will suddenly arrive with bucketfuls of cash and do the job properly, or the school will limp along for years until somebody finally gets round to organising a rebuild. I can quite see the District moving in with minimum warning and demolishing the church and all the houses (including the priest’s), we’ve seen that happen in Gitarama town ahead of the President’s visit. There’s no compensation, either. People have to seek their own salvation. Sometimes life in rural Rwanda is unbelievably harsh for these people. Rugendabari is a really poverty stricken area; you can see it in the clothes people wear.

I just don’t know what to do about this blessed water tank. I will try to speak to Emmanuel, the chargé d’éducation for the Shyogwe Diocese, as soon as I can. What I don’t want to happen is to pay a lot of money to get the tank installed, and then for the school to be knocked down within a matter of months and the tank stolen or destroyed in the process. But surely the thing to do is to get the tank installed, because they really do need it, and tell them to use their loaf when the school is rebuilt and make sure they salvage all the pipe work etc and re-install it in the new building. But can I really take that risk; is it fair to those people in Bridport who have worked hard to raise money to pay for the thing? Why is such a simple and obvious thing like putting water tanks into Rwandan schools giving me so many complications?

The head is called Assoumpta, so with a name like that she’s almost certainly a Catholic. The school’s not bad; it’s about a third of the way down the District “league table” in terms of results, and for a school that’s so far out in the wilds that’s not bad at all. Also it’s quite strong on languages, which is very unusual for such a rural set up. I go into four lessons; year 6 Kinyarwanda doesn’t really do much for me; it would help if I knew what was going on in the lesson but I don’t! At least the walls are covered with some very familiar rice sack posters – this teacher came to Cathie’s and my training session last year and there must be half a dozen maps, diagrams and other bits of my creative efforts plastered on the mud brick walls, gathering dust gently and completely irrelevant to the lesson taking place in front of me.

Year 4 science is better, the teacher says everything in English but he’s so keen to make sure the children understand and so that I can report that they really have learnt stuff that he then repeats everything word for word in Kinyarwanda. It all means that he’s talking nineteen to the dozen all lesson and the children’s responses are pretty well just monosyllabic grunts to say “yes, we understand”, whereas in fact they’re just saying it to humour him and there’s no guarantee they’ve learned it at all. They don’t make any notes at all in their books, but I notice that there’s a second science lesson later in the morning and I assume they’ll sort things out during that time. The teacher is trying to teach the human digestive system without any resource material at all except for a wall poster. It’s almost the only time I’ve seen a wall poster being used properly as a teaching aid during my school visits. His vocabulary is surprisingly good, even if his pronunciation is very “Franglish” at times. The only words he really screws up are “to chew”, which he makes sound like “teachar”, and the liver which he pronounces and writes as “silver”. I put him right in my debrief to all the staff at the end of the morning. But he’s a young man, energetic, confident, and just the sort of male role model the young boys need in front of them.

In a year 2 maths class we get excellent English spoken; children are doing division by two. It’s a real rigmarole the way they make the children set things out, and it seems a very long winded way of doing things. We start by reciting our two times table; my God, that takes me back to a primary in Winchester more than fifty years ago! At the end of the lesson she even sets homework and makes it clear that there’ll be hell to pay if it isn’t done by tomorrow!

Finally the young English teacher, a tiny woman, comes in to the same year two class and we do telling the time. I hadn’t realised until I came to Rwandan just how ridiculous the English word “o’clock” is to any foreigner. There’s no logic to it, and it always gives them problems both in speaking it and writing it. (I’ve seen everything from “o’cock” to “locock” “o’cook”). Despite the teacher’s best efforts – and the fact that she is at last using the new English textbooks supplied to all our schools – I question just how much English these pupils understand. The teacher draws three clock faces on the board. We start with the heading “What time is it please?”, which is fair enough. We do the first example on the board. “It is two o’clock”. Then she sets the children to do two more on their own. Chaos ensues. Some of the children think “What time is it please?” is the answer and write it beside each clock face. Others write “It is two o’clock ten” and “It is two o’clock seven”. Or “It is two seven o’clock”. They’re just copying formulae from the board without really understanding what they’re doing. And yet their accents are really good for year 2 boys and girls. Of course, at least one of the kids at the back of the room hasn’t been listening to a word she’s said; this kid is trying to surreptitiously do his maths homework during the English lesson. He gets caught fair and square and disciplined with a smartish clout to his ear, to everyone’s huge amusement. The children here have a habit of trying to write in their little exercise books while holding them up in the air, so they can squint over the top of the book to read what’s on the blackboard more easily. I can see their point, but the result is shocking handwriting which wobbles and spiders all across the page.

At the end of the morning I do a debrief to everyone. It’s not a bad school at all. It doesn’t have a strategic plan, but then if the bloody place is threatened with demolition and no prospect of rebuilding it’s a bit rich to say you must have set targets for the next five years….. Will we still exist in five years’ time?

Back on the moto and I try to do a quick sweep of pictures before I leave so that I’ve got something to show you all back in Dorset (see separate picture essay on the blog).

It’s a lovely run back to the Office. I collect Soraya and we go for lunch at “One Love” to see what their lunchtime menu is like. Answer – a lot more expensive than “Tranquillité” and the meat is still half gristle. I can’t see what Tinks thinks is so good about this place, and nor can Soraya. Perhaps we’ve just caught it on a bad day, or chosen the wrong thing on the menu.

Back at the flat I get some work done, then Hayley and Charlotte come to collect tofu and bread which we’re keeping for them in our freezer. When Tom gets back we cook up a massive evening meal. It’s our “Bank Holiday” feast. Garlic bread with tomato salsa as a starter. Fresh chicken stew with our bird from Momma’s – meaty, tender and with far more flavour than your Tesco flabby white offerings – in a coq au vin sauce; then strawberry coulis with yoghourt added. (We’ve decided that we need to boil Delphine’s strawberries or we’ll get sick; and freezing strawberries seems to reduce them virtually to pulp anyway). We only use half of the tub of berries; we might try an improved trifle version tomorrow.

It’s SO NICE to have our water back on at last.

Best thing about today – everything. A thoroughly good day and a classic example of all the best things about my work out here as a VSO.

Worst thing – while I’ve been out at Rugendabari Delphine’s been doing a test in the District Office to see if she’s suitable for a job there. She rings late evening to say she was OK (just) on her English but failed on her computer skills. So will I help her with her computing? Yes, of course I will if I can fit it in around everything else I need to do. Once again, the situation she’s in shows you just how difficult it is for a reasonably bright youngster from the deepest countryside to better themselves here in Rwanda. All through lower secondary school she was taught computing as a theoretical lesson, in a school without electricity and without computers, and with the whole subject being taught from drawings on a smudgy blackboard. She had a couple of years in a school with a handful of computers, shared one machine between about fifteen kids. Now she’s had a two year period without really touching a keyboard at all. Is there any wonder that kids like her fail the tests, and get frustrated and negative about their chances of every improving themselves?

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