Monday, 11 May 2009

The school without a Head

May 8th

I sleep right through from 6.15 at night to 5.30 in the morning; I wake up feeling ready to go. Today, for once, I’m inspecting on my own, and I know that today’s school – Nyabitare – is a combination of primary and tronc commun. I decide I’m going to try to visit both, so I set off on a moto an hour earlier than usual, at 7.30.

It’s a cool day. Firstly we are below the valley mist, then we have a long section driving through it, and finally as we climb through the Ndiza mountains on the Chinese road we rise above the mist. From the highest point on the pass the views are breathtaking even by Rwandan standards. I tell the driver to stop because I want to take some pictures. Every valley is filled with a sea of fluffy white cloud, absolutely level, with mountaintops protruding like islands in Lake Kivu. You can’t see anything at all in the valleys; the cloud is so thick.

But there on the distant northern horizon are all five volcanoes laid out for me, with Karisimbi looking particularly elegant. In all the many times I have been along this road I have never seen such clarity of air and such a wonderful view. I take a few snaps until my moto driver starts fidgeting; then we carry on the Nyabitare.

The route is almost the same as that to Musange (last Wednesday’s run); we branch off at the last minute and dive down a very steep slope to a school which manages at one and the same time to be perched on the top of a ridge, but hundreds of feet below the level of its approach road!

The roads are treacherous where it has been raining; the thin mud is actually the most lethal, and my driver (“Kazungu”, quite a character in Gitarama), is very careful. We slow pretty well to walking pace for much of the run.

When I arrive at the school there is a hiatus. I discover that Bonaventure, the head of the overall school and specifically of the tronc commun section, has not been seen since the Easter Holidays. He went home for Easter and never returned. It may be because his pay was in arrears – three of the newer teachers of the school haven’t been paid since the end of February - or he may have taken fright at the sheer isolation of the beautiful but remote place.

The primary head is not here either; he is at a meeting in Gitarama. I probably passed him on the road. This is annoying. Normally if the head isn’t there I abandon an inspection, but I have come a long way to get here and the moto is expensive. The head has already put me back from coming on Wednesday and we both agreed Friday would be fine; what must have happened is that Claude postponed the Gitarama meeting for two days and this head has forgotten to tell me, or just assumed that muzungus are omniscient and that I would automatically know not to come today.

But, as it happens I decide to carry on with my visit. We do the tour of the site. Nyabitare has a very long, extended site. At one end are some dreadful old rooms for years 1 and 2; the ground around the buildings has been eroded downwards by rain and generations of little feet to such an extent that you need a giant step to gain access to the rooms. Year one is working outside, practising their handwriting and learning how to do their letters. Every single child is using a slate – the first time I have seen this in Rwanda. Many of the slates are small, and you can see where their edges have been nibbled away by years of chinking around in their little neck bags they use to keep their precious school things safe. They also hold little orange pots, the size of salt shakers, in which are small chunks of wet foam rubber to clean off their mistakes from the slates. The children are charming but very apprehensive; it’s almost certain that I’m the first muzungu they have ever seen. I’m certainly the first non-priest muzungu ever to visit this school.

The rest of the accommodation is pretty good, with the tronc commun classes and the older primary children in brick built rooms with windows on both sides, high roofs and a feeling of adequate space in each room.

Going into double vacation has meant that a redundant classroom can be used as a staffroom, and I hadn’t realised until this week just how many schools would be able to improve the working conditions for their teachers by giving them a room. At least here at Nyabitare they are using one of the worst rooms for the staff instead of pinching one of the very best as at Gasovu last Thursday!

There is a head’s office partitioned off from the staffroom, and there’s another large space at the other end which combines a book store and – a room in which one of the women teachers is living. She explains that she lives in Butare, and commutes home every weekend. (It would be impossibly expensive to do the run every day. Even Nyabitare to Gitarama would be wearing). She is one of the staff who haven’t been paid for ages; I don’t know what she’s existing on. The capitation grant hasn’t arrived, so she hasn’t even got the “prime” (Bonus payment) to buy food. It’s a desperate situation. The room is cramped, grey, damp, badly lit. It has holes in the roof; there’s a charcoal stove and a few token other bits of furniture strategically placed to avoid the drips that come regularly through the old tiles and roseaux above. I promise to take up the pay issue first thing on Monday with Claude and Valérian.

I manage to do most of the admin inspection; some documents are locked away in the head’s cupboard and I can tell that others haven’t been done at all. Here, interestingly enough, is a school which has done a three year strategic plan but not got round to an annual plan. (Usually it’s the other way round). Their budget isn’t up to much; in fact it’s not a budget at all but a detailed list of expenditure to date. They are certainly financially accountable, but there doesn’t seem to be any allocation under specific titles. Hmm – I’m going to have to be very careful how I write this one up, because there may be other bits of paper in the head’s possession which would fill in some of the gaps I’m finding.

I’m able to go into three classes. Year two are learning the conjugation of “to have” in English with endless repetitions and by shouting out the declension so loudly that it rings around the rafters of the little room. Outside it’s started to pour with rain and I’m wondering what my return journey to Gitarama will be like.

Year 6 is doing Social Studies. They are totally passive, and the combination of a subject like “economic activity in ancient Rwanda” and the presence of the deputy head and a muzungu visitor reduces then to catatonic. It takes a good thirty minutes to get anyone to answer a question. The poor teacher is a probationer, just starting this term, and I feel for him. He’s going to be OK as a teacher so I give him a verbal pat on the back at the end of the class.

Just outside the classroom, just yards from the windows, one of the school’s neighbours has built and lit a charcoal kiln. This is incredibly antisocial; the kiln will be smoking and giving off noxious fumes for two or three days, and the smoke and fumes are drifting in and through all the senior classrooms. Why on earth couldn’t this fool have sited his kiln somewhere else? Sometimes Rwandans are extremely considerate to each other; at other times they are selfish almost beyond belief.

A year 4 Maths lesson is conducted all in English, but its hard work. The children are trying to write big numbers with decimal places in words. 123.456 would have to be written out in shaky longhand as “one hundred and twenty three and four hundred and fifty six thousandths”. The children are having difficulty distinguishing between hundreds and hundredths, and I wonder how many English year 4s would be able to rattle off the answers. After thirty minutes I get bored; fortunately I’m sitting by a window and I can look out across the hills – endless green with just the occasional little specks of huts breaking the variety of shades of green. Priya texts me from Kampala to say she has arrived back safely, and to thank me for Wednesday’s trip to Musange. I know she thoroughly enjoyed herself, and it gave a whole new dimension to her time here in Africa. Then Geert rings me from Holland, so I have to go out of the classroom to take his call. He wants to talk about the Shyogwe project, and we agree to book late afternoon for a conversation when I’m back and in the flat. I’m becoming so “Rwandanised” that I don’t even flinch now when my phone rings in the middle of a lesson!

Needless to say, the new maths and social studies textbooks in English haven’t arrived yet here at Nyabitare.

I never get to see any of the tronc commun classes other than sticking my head round the door and saying “good morning” to them. They’ll have to wait for another time, and probably another VSO volunteer!

By a quarter past twelve the rain has eased off, and my moto driver is champing at the bit to be off in case we have another long down pour like yesterday’s. I give my summary report and gratefully we take off to the sophistication of Gitarama. Fortunately the weather holds, but the volcanoes (and most other hilltops) have retreated behind their veils of cloud and the road home isn’t nearly so breathtaking.

Once again, by the time I reach home I’m absolutely whacked and have to put myself to bed for an hour or so.

Then Delphine arrives, distraught. She’s been mugged in town and her bank book has been taken, together with her identity card. This is desperate. With the combination of ID card and bank book anyone could withdraw her whole life savings, painfully accumulated to send her to university. The banks here are daft enough to follow procedure to the letter and to the total absence of common sense – nobody in their right mind would allow a total stranger to borrow their ID card and withdraw their total account, but here it would be within the rules and the banks would probably oblige. It’s just after five; the banks are shut. Some unscrupulous traders would probably accept payment on credit if the thief can show he could repay them tomorrow. We really have an urgent problem. Delphine is so defeated she can’t think straight. Her dad has got the family phone, but it’s switched off or out of credit. The girl, and the family, is well known at the bank, and known personally to one of the cashiers. So I tell Delphine that she’s got to get home a.s.a.p. and get dad to phone this person and get her account stopped. Then she’s got to be at the bank at the opening of business tomorrow to fill out forms and transfer her money to a new account so that it is safeguarded. The problem is that here in Rwanda you have to produce your ID card to open any bank account, and the thief has taken it. She will have to go to the police to get a new ID card, and that will take time. It may not even be possible at the weekend.

I say I’ll walk her home; by the time we’ve got this far it’s starting to go dark, and she has an hour’s walk in the middle of the countryside to get home. So we start off in the evening light up the empty valley towards the hill beyond which lies her village. It becomes clear that it will be pitch dark before we get to Rutarabana, never mind my return journey, and that I’m not certain of one section of the path. I would find it really tricky navigating among the little huts and fields in total darkness. She’s also panicking because there is one long section, one that we’ve just covered, where there are no houses at all, and this part of the track is notorious for robberies. If you are attacked and cry for help, there’s no families living nearby to come to your rescue. Understandably, she tells me I would be a prime target for robbers, and we agree that I will escort her to the point where houses start, and then get back quickly to Gitarama. And that’s what we do. The frogs are chiming in the marshes; the cicadas are making an enormous racket. Glow-worms and fireflies are darting in the air or winking in the undergrowth. A full moon has risen, and even at night this countryside is so, so beautiful.

Back at the flat Tom has cooked up some pasta; I still don’t feel very hungry and I’m beginning to suspect I’ve got some sort of parasite infection again. The evening seems to drag in front of us, so we round up Charlotte and Hayley and go down to Orion for a beer. I know I’m not really well, and it’s a relief to finally collapse into bed.

My God, what a week it’s turning out!

Best things about today – the view from the road, and huge satisfaction at doing four inspections in a week. By any standards I’ve earned my keep this week!

Worst thing – muggings. Irish Paula, the VSO in Byumba, was robbed in Kigali last weekend on her way to Kibuye, and there seems to be an increasing number of robberies on volunteers.

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