Friday, 26 June 2009

The Muhanga Nursery Conundrum; Drinking to the Queen in Kigali

June 17th

Slow start today – I spend an hour trying to finish off my presentation about nursery schools in Muhanga District. I’m still missing information from about ten schools but I’m sure the missing details won’t change the overall picture. The total number of pupils in nursery schools is a lot lower than I was expecting. In primary first year we have around 17500 pupils. One in five of them is repeating, so let’s assume the annual “cohort” is around 14000. If nursery education was universal I could expect the same number at the very least in the maternelles; in fact, a lot more than 14000 because many of the nursery schools take pupils for two or even three years. But the total number registered in our nursery schools is only around 7000, and that’s making allowances for the schools that haven’t sent in their data. So I conclude that less than half of those eligible are actually attending pre-school. Why might this be? It can’t be that the children are being employed – they’re too young. It is very likely that parents can’t afford the small sums levied to pay the wages of the “guardienne” (nursery teacher). It might be that parents can’t afford the clothes or kit (biros, little notebooks) the children use at school. It might be that the parents don’t see any need to send their children to nursery school (after all, the majority of rural parents never spent a day in school themselves). Most likely is that there simply aren’t enough nursery school places. In most of my primary schools you find the equivalent of four, five or six classes in year 1, but only one classroom for pre-school. In the majority of cases the nursery schools are run and owned by an association of parents, like a kind of co-operative. Parents pay a sum that goes to pay the teacher. The rooms are usually appalling – invariably they are the smallest, tattiest, least suitable rooms that nobody in the primary school wants. Or else the parents have had to work together through umuganda and build their own classroom. In these cases the rooms are usually of mud brick and about the size of your average English living room, but with forty to fifty little people crammed inside. In order to keep costs down, furniture is kept to a minimum. There is usually one blackboard, a cast-off from the primary school, a box of chalk, and filthy piece of rag or foam rubber to use as a “chiffon” (blackboard cleaner), and that’s the sum total of the nursery equipment. There are no pictures on the walls. In a very few cases teachers have rounded up a load of old slates and drawn the letters of the alphabet on them. These are nailed up around the wall. Children in nursery schools do quite a lot of singing, and most of them can do their letters by the time they start first year in primary. They are well “socialized” as a result, but they haven’t really learnt anything despite these years (age 5-7) being the years when young children learn faster than at any other time in their lives. The differences between the private sector nurseries and those in the poorer, isolated secteurs is startling. Ahazaza, in Gitarama town, stands comparison with any English nursery provision. The worst are little more than a child-minding service with minimal educational input. Very few of the staff have any teaching qualifications; in several cases the teachers never even finished primary school themselves, never mind secondary school. Ever since I started going into nursery schools I’ve been banging on about getting some proper teaching in them so that children have a flying start in primary year 1, but there are so many issues involved – money, training, materials – that I can see why it’s rarely happening.

But this is Rwanda and things are changing so fast it leaves you breathless. Some time soon, when the government has finished sorting out secondary education, there will be a big flourish into nursery. Come back in five years and see what is happening then!

Mid morning I go up to the office to see if Claude or Valérian need more information from me. Claude’s not about; Valérian is busy; the modem has disappeared heaven knows where, so I’m scratching around for things to do. Top priority now is to get the census sheets in from a whole bunch of secondary schools that are tardy in returning them.

I go back home and in the afternoon start ringing up the tronc commun schools to chase them. It takes forever – of seven “missing” schools, four answer their phones are are co-operative and apologetic; two won’t answer their phones and one school doesn’t appear to have a head. Now a secondary school without a head tells you something about how isolated many of these schools are. Whoops! – Mineduc is experiencing a kind of reality gap. They want graduate, English speaking head teachers for these lower secondary schools – ambitious go-getters with ideas and bags of energy. The prospective heads want the chance to make their name and get promotion to the well-paid upper-secondary schools as vacancies arrive. But they also expect to be living in a decent house somewhere where there are facilities such as electricity, water, paved roads, shops, and restaurants. So who wants to be the head of a school as isolated as, say, Kibyimba. It’s on the top of a mountain, surrounded by other mountains, and a three-hour journey from any facilities worth mentioning. At night you can stand in the yard at Kibyimba and look through 360 degrees and you won’t see a single electric light anywhere. Kibyimba, and the other schools like it, represents precisely what all these graduates are trying to escape from. To get away from these “primitive” living condition is exactly what motivated them to slog their way through school and university.

So at the moment I’m not sure how I’m going to get my data from Kibyimba. I’ll probably have to chat up the head of the primary section.

In late afternoon I go into Kigali for the Queen’s Birthday Bash at the Embassy. There’s a group of staying in the St Paul centre, and we get spruced up there before sharing taxis up to Kacyiru. At the Embassy all is decorated with balloons and bunting. We’re met individually by the Ambassador and welcomed. There are no formal speeches or toasts, but there is live music and by the end of the evening some of us are dancing. There is free beer or wine; most of the VSOs make a beeline for the wine because here in Rwanda buying wine at restaurants is ruinously expensive. Most of the VSO contingent are present, and we make sure we feast on all the little bits of sushi and nibbles brought round. It’s not enough to absorb all the booze, and we’re all tiddly by the end of the event. There are people from the American school in Nyamata who we last saw at the Nile River rafting centre in Jinja; there’s a girl who works in momma’s orphanage at Gitarama. There’s Raima from Ahazaza school. Tom hasn’t come because he’s looking after a visiting party from FHI. Some VSOs haven’t come because they don’t support the idea of the monarchy, or because they don’t like parties. More than half the total guests are volunteers; more than half the total are young people in their twenties or early thirties. When it finishes there’s the usual half hour of “where are we going now?” discussions; we end up crossing the road to another bar, and stay ensconced there till around midnight. I have all sorts of conversations with lots of people. And half of them are prefaced by “don’t you dare write about this on your blog but…..” Fair enough; this is a public blog and I’m certainly not in the game of embarrassing or ridiculing my friends. The more time I spend with the other VSOs the more I like them as a group of people. They are so varied, and so interesting, and beyond question my time here in Rwanda has been made even more enjoyable by their support.

Back to the St Paul centre around midnight, having drunk far too much, and collapse into bed. What I don’t realize till the following morning is that the volunteers in the rooms around me have come back earlier, and gone up to raid the Nakumat supermarket. They have come back with armfuls of crisps, Pringles, snickers etc and are having a midnight feast behind closed doors. Good for them; we all get times when we’re craving for western junk food and every so often we all weaken and splurge on imported goodies!

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