Friday, 26 June 2009

Mad Monday in Gitarama

June 22nd

A mad day today, but in a nice way. Into the office for seven as usual. Claude is there, and all the others. I get started on some work. Then Claude calls me into his office for a meeting. I immediately feel guilty and wonder if I’m about to get a rollicking for slacking…

But no, Claude is actually having a departmental meeting! My God! - It’s the first time we’ve met together as the education department in all the eighteen months I’ve been in Rwanda. I think the mayor must have told each department that they need to have regular Monday meetings. I wonder how long it’ll last! I have to tell the others what I’m doing this week (fighting the secondary schools to get their census results, and agreeing the presentation with Védaste); Innocent and Valérian have to do the same.

Then Claude says that we must make sure we have an open door policy and be friendly towards visitors. I try not to smirk. The others are hardly ever in their offices, and there’s never any system to tell visitors where they’ve gone or how long they’re going to be away. I type up a little sign to put on our door, in English, to say the door is always open. At that point Claude asks me if I have left my office unlocked to come to the meeting. I say yes. He tells me straight away to go and lock it so that nobody can come in and pinch my stuff…. So my “open door” policy lasts about ten minutes!

Claude also says I have to talk to everybody in English, so as to help them improve their English. I’m already doing this most of the time, but I usually find that if I want specific information from somebody it’s safer to do the greetings in English and then ask for the information in French. Otherwise they just say “yes” to everything and I’m none the wiser.

We are told to remember that we are here to serve the clients, and to be client friendly in our approaches to the visiting public. When we’re here!

He wants to talk to Soraya about her contract (like mine, it needs formally renewing for our second year and signing off by him and the Mayor). I explain that Soraya’s in Nyamata today, helping Els with a training session.

Eventually all the others go off to the committee room for the big morning meeting of the whole District staff. This is always held in Kinyarwanda so there’s no point in my being there. I carry on in my office, this time with Védaste, and we look at the draft presentations I have prepared. Védaste is happy with them. But what he really wants is for me to write for him, in English, a covering letter for a funding proposal he is making. I do him a letter, but it’s not an easy thing to write. There’s the kind of covering letter you would write in an English context, and then there’s the infinitely more flowery Rwandan version. We settle for a compromise, and I just hope it works.

Claude comes back and asks us to try to work out for him the proportion of seven year olds who are actually in school (in French this is called “le taux de scolarisation”). This, like Védaste’s letter, is a very tricky thing to have to calculate. We know exactly how many children are in school, but we have to use guesswork to decide how many seven year olds there are in the District, and the resulting figure is very much a work of fiction. But if it keeps the District happy then we’re OK with it. The question is, does it meet Claude’s targets?

Midway through the morning Jeanne arrives from Nyabisindu school. She wants to have her copy of the school census because she needs some figures from it for a report. That’s no problem. I take the opportunity to ask her if she’d like to come and join the Gitarama muzungus for a film night next week; she says “yes”, so it looks as though I’ve got myself a date…. She saw me in Kigali last weekend but didn’t get a chance to get close enough to say hello.

She’s barely out of the door when Aléxie, the Cyiciro head, comes in. Cyiciro is the isolated school out in Nyarusange secteur where I’m paying for her water tanks and pipework to be repaired. The bill comes to RwF129000 which in one sense is a lot, but if it means the school has clean water then its money well spent. I tell her I’ll go home later in the morning, collect the money, and meet her to give it to her. She blanches at the thought of having to carry all this money around, and asks me if I’ll pay it directly into her school account. That means a trip out to a rural bank branch at Mushubati, but if it gives her peace of mind then I’ll do it for her.

I carry on working all morning until twelve; then I escape back to the flat. I have rung a couple of secondary schools who are promising to get their census data to me during the afternoon, but I’m not holding my breath for them and if I’m not in the office they all know which is my door and they’ll usually just slide the stuff under the door to wait for me. (It’s one of the unexpected benefits of Rwandan doors being so badly fitted!).

At the post office there’s a newspaper for me, and various other stuff for the rest of the gang. After lunch I try to work out how I can combine going to Kibuye with getting Aléxie’s money paid in to the bank. I reckon I can just do it. I pack a rucksack for Kibungo, including taking my laptop because there should be some Uganda pictures to exchange with Épi. I take a moto to the bank out at Mushubati, but on the way I realise I’ve left my phone charging on the bed and I’ll have to go back for it. Cyiciro school banks with the “Banque Popularire de Rwanda”; this is the only local bank which puts its branches out into the countryside. All the others only have branches in towns. So the B.P. is the most popular bank for rural primary schools like Cyiciro. When I get there the bank is closed for lunch hour and there is a crowd of people waiting for it to re-open. The door is open but the caisse position is closed. As it’s very hot outside, and I’m the object of intense curiosity to all the local people waiting around, I decide to sit inside in the cool shade and wait for things to get started. One local, a French speaker, strikes up a conversation through the window, and everybody else pushes close to learn what the muzungu is doing here. It really is an event of great interest that a white man has come to this bank –it’s a well known fact to Rwandans that muzungus never bank outside the towns and rarely venture outside them, too. And this muzungu appears to have come on foot, as well (I left my moto at the roadside and dismissed him). They’re all agog to find out why I’m here, and they’re very direct with their questions about my business. Why I am I here? Did I really come all the way on foot, in the heat? Who am I? Where do I live? What is my nationality? Am I married?

I’m rescued by one of the bank staff who overhears the conversation and leads me in to an inner office where she has been eating her lunch but has now finished and is waiting for her colleagues to return. She also asks lots of questions. When I explain that I’m here to pay a large amount of money (RwF130,000) into a primary school account to pay for repairing the school’s water supply she gets very chatty, and it turns out that she lives only a few hundred yards up the road from me in Gitarama.

As soon as the cashier returns I get priority treatment. They’re all fascinated to know where the money is coming from (my local church) and why I’m giving it to this particular school (because it is stupid to have a water tank but not to be able to use it because the pipework is broken), and whether I’m handing out money to all the local schools (unfortunately, no!). Eventually we’ve done all the transactions and I can leave. I text Aléxie to tell her she can breathe easier now the money is in her account, and as there is no moto I start walking up the big hill back towards Gitarama. Various motos pass me, but they all have passengers. I have to go more than a mile, and past the Mushubati road junction, before I eventually find one. It is very hot, so I’m walking slower than usual to adjust.

Back at the flat I find Janine in the middle of cleaning, so I’ve just got time to say a quick hello and drink a cup of water. In this heat I can feel myself dehydrating. I manage to get a fast bus to Kigali, and I’m really lucky in that I get the very last seat on a big bus which is just leaving for Kibungo. This is a definite stroke of luck. Most of the buses to Kibungo are little sardine-can matatas and I am lucky have a big Coaster bus. Also, I was expecting to have to wait for up to an hour for the next bus. The penalty is that I’m jammed on to one of the tip-up seats and everyone else has dumped their bags where my feet need to go. As usual, they’re reluctant to move anything to make any space for me, but after I’ve almost trodden on someone’s luggage they eventually clear some floor space for my great feet and we can leave. One happy stroke is that I’m sitting in between two very shapely young women! I read my paper on the easy bits of road, but some parts are very twisty and the driver is in a hurry. Eventually I start feeling road sick so I have to abandon the paper.

After Kayonza one of the girls gets out and for the last ten miles I get a decent seat. It’s a long time since I was in this far south-east of Rwanda and I have forgotten how nice it is. It is lower and hotter than Gitarama, but the roads are straighter and the scenery is quite pretty. Everything is still green, except for any plants growing by the roadside which are already dusted with brown mud from passing vehicles.

By the time we reach Kibungo it is dark. I know roughly where Tina’s place is, and get out at what I think is the right stop. I soon realise I have got out too early, but I’m within walking distance. I ring Tina and discover that she has been in Kigali all day and is actually on her way homeat the moment, but on a later bus. Soraya, too, is still on her way from Kigali after doing a day’s training with Els at Nyamata. Tina tells me to go and wait at Épi’s house and we’ll all meet up when the girls arrive from Kigali. So I walk a few miles in the dark and I’m very pleased with myself because I recognise Tina and Tom’s house on the way, and I navigate myself to Épi’s little house with only one false turning. (Someone has built a mobile phone mast and cabin in the middle of what used to be the path to Épi’s, and in the dark I can’t see where they’ve rerouted the path). There’s no moon and it’s all very black. Fortunately there aren’t any puddles, but the ground is uneven and it would be dead easy to twist an ankle. I try to ring Épi to let her know I’m coming, but as usual her phone is playing up and cuts out after about ten seconds. When I knock on her door there’s quite a pause, and then Épi and Fausta, her domestique, peer out of the window to see who’s threatening them….

I have to explain to Épi why I’m here – a spur of the moment decision to help Tina with some training. But it means Épi and I can have a long chat before the other girls arrive, and we can swop pictures from the Uganda trip, and I can give Épi my flash drive and a list of Congolese music I want Jeanneau to get for me.

Eventually Tina calls to say she and Soraya are home and have food for us. Meanwhile Fausta has cooked potatoes in a lovely peanutty sauce, so we hastily eat them. In Rwanda it is criminal to let any food go to waste. Fausta has lost her voice, but is a very religious soul, so I have to say a quick grace before we eat. The night is calm, clear, and warm. The stars at Kibungo are amazing.

After we’ve all eaten I show the girls my “stellarium” program on the computer (it is a wonderful piece of software which imitates star positions and movements). We find we can set the location of the programme even to Kibungo. That’s simply staggering – Kibungo is a small town in a tiny country in the middle of Africa. It makes the whole world feel a really small place!

Eventually we go out into Tina’s front yard and lie on our backs on the gravel, with the computer, and try to match what we see in the sky above us with what we can see on the screen. Cygnus, the swan, is flying right over us. Scorpio is also almost directly overhead. Further down we can clearly see the Southern Cross. Yay! I’ve always wanted to see the cross because it’s the classic southern hemisphere constellation. And now, after coming to Kibungo, I’ve managed it! Orion has disappeared I know not where, and unfortunately the great bear is partly obscured by houses and hills around us. The Milky Way is unmissable. Every so often a shooting star streaks across above us.

By now we’re all tired. We walk Épi past the dangerous part of Kibungo. (Where the taxi buses leave there is always a crowd of men hanging around. It feels sleazy and even I feel uncomfortable there. You should see the reptilian looks these blokes give to the girls….).

Back at Tina’s we bed down for the night. Tom is home, so there’s one spare bedroom for Soraya, and I use cushions from the sofa and camp on the living room floor. It isn’t cold – there’s a two inch gap under the outside door. The cushions are from Tom and Tina’s sofa which was infested with fleas when they moved in; tonight will be the ultimate test to see whether all the little buggers have been exterminated!

It’s been a great day! This is exactly what VSO should be about, and it is precisely what I hoped my African experience would be like.

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