Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Rwandering up to Rugendabari

June 4th

Up to the office for seven o’clock. I don’t need to use the internet; all I want to do is phone a school and arrange today’s inspection, then get back to the flat quickly, pick up Catherine, and get on our way into the countryside. So how is it that within five minutes I’m connected to the internet? Answer: Claude’s left his laptop for people to use in the office, but Valérian can’t get the internet connection to work. Will I try it on mine, he asks, so we can find out whether the network is down or whether it’s just a problem with Claude’s computer? So I go on line immediately, and for the next half hour I’ve got Valérian trying to send and receive urgent official business emails as well as me trying to look up my phone numbers on the laptop and make notes on exam results and pupil numbers for Kirwa school. It’s a busy time, punctuated by Innocent wandering in and out before going up to Mushishiro, and Solange looking even more gorgeous than usual coming in to say hello and smile her beautiful smile at me….

Still, by eight o’clock I’ve been to the post office and sent off a CD of Rwanda pictures to Libby, who is coming to Nyamasheke this September to work with Joe. I’ve OK’d a visit for today to Kirwa Catholic school in Rugendabari, a long way up country and close to the farthest it’s practical to reach in one day.

I take a moto back to the flat and round up Catherine. The weather’s looking very uncertain; from fine and warm blue skies at half past six it has changed to complete cloud cover and a cold wind. Never mind, the cloud is high up and there’s no immediate risk of rain. We’ll risk the weather and set off.

Getting up to Rugendabari means going through Nyamabuye, through Muhanga secteur, past Mushishiro, right up to the top of the mountain pass and back down the other side. Then we slog up the earth road, the Nyabinoni road, for about five kilometres at little more than walking speed. The recent rains have churned up the road something rotten, and I now see why most of the important rural roads have to be virtually remade each year. Periodically there are gangs of workmen digging out the ditches and throwing the earth into all the rainwater gulleys and ruts that make motoring a painful experience on the backside. Actually they might be gangs of prisoners; they are all wearing identical blue overalls and ordinary rural fold tend not to do that.

I realise with some horror that I’m getting so used to the sight of the river Nyaborongo below me that I barely notice it any more. That’s ridiculous; here all around me is a view to rival anything in an English national park and I’m just treating it as everyday wayside scenery.

We arrive at the school just as morning break is starting; a combination of being later than usual leaving Gitarama and a longer than usual ride has thrown my schedule somewhat. So three hundred children on their mid morning playtime crowd round to see the two visitors. Visitors are rare here; visitors on motos even more so; two muzungu visitors on motos will be the talk of the village tonight. Edouard, the tronc commun head, comes out to meet us. Évalde, the primary head and one of my secteur rep friends, is on a training course somewhere up north, Byumba perhaps. Edouard is yet another really nice guy; he speaks good English and today, for the first time in ages, we do the whole inspection in English.

Kirwa is a nice little school, but very mixed. Three rooms are lovely brick buildings and pleasant to teach in. All the rest are mud brick, and some are so awful they are out of service at the moment. (But who knows what’s going to happen next year when they want more rooms for the tronc commun pupils). Edouard’s only got one single tronc commun class; he has two established neighbouring tronc commun schools, and pupils elected to go to them because they felt they stood a better chance in somewhere already up and running. (See – parental preference works even in this far flung corner of Rwanda!).

There are forty plus little tots in the maternelle; this room is just as bad as those at Bishike on Monday. There are no wooden seats, only mud brick benches. There are no tables; children are writing on slates on their knees and trying to practise their letters. But the slates, oh the slates!! – some are so worn and kibbled away at the edges that they have become roughly triangular. They are not actually made of slate, of course, but of some form of wood with a black painted coating. This coating has been chewed off, or picked off by little fingers so that in most cases there’s only about half of the original area of the slate left to use. The pieces of chalk that they’re using are smaller than my little fingernail. Many of the children are holding their slates at funny angles and screwing their heads round as they try to copy what the guardienne has written on the blackboard.

Kirwa C doesn’t have any proper playing field; its buildings sit like a monk’s tonsure round the edges of a little domed knoll. There’s a tiny shelf cut into one side of this hillock, barely big enough for a volleyball court. Edouard says he has been negotiating with parents and others to do some earth moving to improve the site. There’s enough acreage for a football pitch, but it would involve a prodigious amount of shovelling to put into effect. The soil is extremely poor; in contrast to many of my schools Kirwa only has a few patches of straggly looking maize plants. It’s not a patch on the manicured vegetable gardens of most of the primary schools, and even its flower borders have a half wild look to them. (Not helped by the children swarming all over and through them to get closer and closer to the visitors. I had to chase them off their own flower beds!).

Edouard’s paperwork is pretty good; he has a five year strategic plan (hooray! – at last! – but his fiche de stock is rudimentary and he hasn’t really got into the swing of inspecting lessons and doing written feedback to his staff. He’s going to have to be careful there – if staff feel they’re not being kept under a tight rein and not having official comments made on them as teachers, they’ll try to get away with murder.

We watch a year 3 English lesson and a year 5 maths lesson. The English is frustrating. The teacher is trying to distinguish between simple present – “I go” and present continuous (“I am going”). It becomes hard work. The children manage to get to case right most times (“He is” instead of “He are”), but seem to find real difficulty in putting “-ing” at the end of the verb. So we get sentences like “We are to playing a football”. At the end of the lesson I try to explain it again to them and make it simple, but the children seem so amazed that a muzungu can speak English that they are too dumbstruck to answer me. (I don’t think it has sunk in to many of them that a lot of muzungus speak English as their mother tongue. To these little people out in the wilds English is some alien procession of sounds that they are having inflicted on them).

In the maths lesson we are doing highest common factors and reducing fractions to their simplest forms. The teacher is extremely competent and professional, but there’s no warmth in her teaching. She does, however, set homework – the first lot of homework I’ve encountered in nearly a month. Now that pupils are working half days there are periods of daylight when they can be expected to do homework. Last year, with full days of teaching, by the time they had returned home and done their family chores it would be dark, and in houses with only a hurricane lamp and where the paraffin to burn in it is a luxury, homework tended to go by the board. We get the usual mispronunciation of “six”; in one memorable question it becomes “siggisteen over siggistee four has siggisteen as the highest common factori”. See – I’m getting expert at the Rwandan version of English. The teacher’s English is good except that she pronounces the “low” in “lowest” to rhyme with “now”, and it sounds really odd.

Kirwa has some funny results – of 94 schools it comes 20th in maths but 85th in science and 83rd in maths. Edouard has no idea why there should be such an enormous discrepancy, and it’s pretty unique among my schools. Kirwa also has one of the highest rates of redoublement of all my schools – almost one child in three is repeating a year. Edouard says it’s because the school sets high standards and refuses to let a child move up a year unless everyone feels he/she is ready, but I tell him that this rate of repeating must be brought down. It is one of the main reasons why children drop out of education before finishing all six years of primary school.

Our moto drivers are asking for more money because Kirwa is far further than they realised. They would have taken us to Rugendabari school – the wrong one – if I had not intervened and shouted to them. It’s coming to something once again when I know where I’m going more than the locals do! I’m offering 6000 for the return trip; they want 8000; I split the difference and agree 7000. After all, they are driving very carefully with Catherine because they know she’s not used to motos, and there are some dodgy bits of road we’ve come through including up to twenty log bridges and of these a handful which are desperately wobbly or with the logs so far apart it would be dead easy for the bike wheels to get stuck between logs and pitch rider and passenger down into the muddy stream far below. We’re just at the point of leaving Kirwa, surrounded by teachers, pupils and some villagers, when Catherine’s driver loses control, and she’s pitched off the back of the bike and lands heavily on the earth. She’s not muddy, but has a nasty bruise and scratch on her rump.

It stays dry all day, and in the end we have a very successful trip. Catherine wants to go straight home and rest, and I don’t blame her. It’s been about an hour and a quarter each way on the bikes, and when you’re not used to them that’s a hard experience, even on tarmac roads. I think Catherine has done brilliantly on these motos, and also in her relations with the pupils and teachers in the schools. She’s certainly not going to forget her African schools for a long time!

I go up to the office – Védaste has phoned me and wants copies of all my census stats. Instead of taking about five minutes we end up spending an hour in the office because his computer is playing up (again). A girl relative of his – very attractive and in her early twenties – wants a printout of her official exam results. Rwanda is very hip with this – the results are printed on a government web site and you have to input your exam candidate number to get access. We find that the best way to get to the official site is through the link on my blog, and Marie-Clarisse eventually gets her results. Then she wants to get those of all her girlfriends, and we spend half an hour trawling through the official slips. It’s an efficient web site, and puts a lot of our English exam results systems to shame. See – here is something to do with technology that Rwanda is already doing better than we are at home!

In the evening Catherine goes out for a meal and a girly chat with Becky. Tom’s off to Nyagatare in the north east, collecting an FHI visiting party who have been working there and won’t be back till tomorrow. So it’s just me and the guard to feed, and I do a huge meal. While I’m in the middle of eating the girls come back, closely followed by Hayley, Charlotte and Soraya who have come to collect Hayley’s “Guardian” and gloat that they’ve just had a sauna and massage in town. So for half an hour there are five girls in the flat, with me as the token male.

I’m writing this blog at half past nine; I’d intended to do three days’ blogs plus my Kirwa school write up, but I’m tired and it just isn’t going to happen!

Best thing about today – everything. A thoroughly nice day for me as well as for Catherine. She has had a really good look at African primary schools and has learnt an enormous amount about what everyday life means in this poverty stricken little country. So far we’ve managed to combine the touristy and working elements of life very effectively. She’s lived the life of a VSO and at the same time done some of the main touristy things everyone does here.

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