Friday, 26 June 2009

Vegemite or Marmite? - the Great Debate

June 15thth

Well, I had good intentions. I had planned to go up country today to inspect Kirwa Adventist school up in Rugendabari, but never left the District Office. Why? Because in the first place I forgot to ring the head of Kirwa yesterday to see if it was OK to come to see them. And officially we’re already into “revision week”, ahead of exam week, so there’s no guarantee that there will be proper lessons being taught at the school when I struggle to reach it. And it’s not as if there isn’t plenty to do in the office. My rucksack weighs a ton because I’m starting to ferry in all the textbooks, past “concours” exam papers, schemes of work and various other bits and pieces that I’ve been accumulating in the flat these eighteen months. I’ cleared space on a shelf in the office and all this paperwork will become the District library or reference collection. I’m writing “please do not remove from the District Office” on everything, and I’m borrowing Valérian’s official stamp to put over the text books in the hope that it will deter head teachers from pinching an extra copy of everything for their school. It probably won’t work but it’s worth a try! And it’s one of my “things to do before I go” I can tick off the list.

So I spend a lot of the morning online with the modem, which I’ve managed to prise away from Védaste. As well as all the usual stuff I make links to the DFID and British Council websites and start looking on them to see what they’ve got to offer in the line of paid jobs for people with my sort of experience. Not a lot, is the answer. One has an opportunity for teaching English to military personnel in Libya. The other has a generic post in working with countries in post-traumatic situations. On the face of it, two years in Rwanda might seem to be an interesting background for the role; but then I have visions of being sent to Afghanistan or Darfur for a year – no thanks! There’s adventure and there’s something several steps beyond it!

Eventually I get started on a proper report for Claude and others about the primary census. While I’m doing this Valérian comes in and wants to know how many schools have internet connections. That’s easy – two primaries out of 109 (and one connection is already broken) and three secondaries out of thirty who have so far sent me their census papers. I bet there’s a flap going on at mayor level this morning with Kigali demanding information and Valérian and others being sent scuttling around to find the answers. Since this is an official response to a formal request for information I have to write out my answer on the computer, print it, and sign it.

Ten minutes later Claude appears. Officially he’s still on leave, but he’s come in to find some other information. He wants the statistics on how many handicapped pupils we have in our primary schools. So I have to do the same thing as with Valérian and print out the data and sign on the dotted line for him. I think it’s really cool that I’m the official keeper of all this information, and lovely that they all trust me! But there’s definitely something afoot from Kigali and everyone is running around like headless chickens trying to dig information out from obscure files, presumably to answer Ministers’ queries in parliament.

By lunchtime I’m bored with being in the office and I’ve broken the back of my official write-up. I’ve learned a lot from last year’s experience. I’m making it much shorter, less elaborate and with a lot less of my interpretations and more plain facts. I’m pleased that my work is as accurate as it’s possible to get, and I certainly stand by my figures. That’s very important in a country where if the facts don’t show what powerful people want them to show, they tend to be kept hidden. There can be all sorts of angst about divulging unwelcome information and people tend to get evasive when asked for it.

I call in at the post office and lo and behold there’s a parcel for Tom and I. It’s from Karen and contains packets of sweeties and chocolate. Wow – somebody certainly loves us. Thank you Karen, if you’re reading this – you certainly made our day. God bless you!

Back at the flat I get stuck into making a power point of charts to illustrate the report. Again, I make it much less elaborate than last year’s. It says reams about the amount I’ve learned over the past year that things I ranted about in 2008 I now accept as givens in 2009. To a certain extent there’s a fine line to tread in commenting on the statistics: if there is something you, and they, can’t realistically change in the foreseeable future, such as crummy school buildings, do you make a big song and dance about it? In one sense yes, because if they are just accepting that it’s OK for school buildings to be in such a state then it is my job to sound the alarm and make them realise that things need to change. In the other sense no – they are generally well aware of the state of many buildings, but there is no money to replace any except a small fraction each year, and there are plenty of other calls on their finance. And officially my role is as an adviser, not a manager, so I can draw attention to things but I can’t demand on them being changed. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m not still a school manager with power and a mandate to DO things!

Late in the afternoon Charlotte comes in with Sarah. Sarah is an Australian friend who is visiting her. The girls have come to collect some tofu which we are keeping for them in our freezer. We launch into Teresa’s simnel cake which has been burning a hole in the top of our fridge since Catherine’s arrival. It tastes gorgeous and it isn’t going to last long! Charlotte has also come to invite Tom and I round for a wild evening of poker in the evening. And why not? – I’ve done some good work today.

No sooner have the girls gone when Delphine arrives. She’s just finished her first day’s work as Becky’s domestique and she’s come to tell me about it. She’s pleased that she’s managed to cook on an electric cooker (Delphine’s family, like almost all rural Rwandans, cooks on charcoal), and she’s cleaned the house from top to bottom. Becky has a big, four bedroom and two bathroom house, and Delphine is agog at the sheer size of it. During the school holidays, when the teenagers in her family are home from school, they are jammed into their own place like sardines. But today she’s pleased that she’s managed to cope; she’s cooked Becky a Rwandan-style evening meal for today; at some stage during the week Becky will cook with her and teacher her some western cooking and like that the two girls will get on well. Here is another subtle ethical dilemma. In exposing Delphine to the sort of houses we live in, we are raising her own expectations in life; she will want to spend her adult married life in this sort of comfort. But, realistically, what chance does she stand of meeting a Rwandan man who will be able to afford this level of accommodation? Are we being cruel to her in putting her face to face with a lifestyle she will never be able to emulate? My answer is that I’m in the business of trying to raise people’s expectations. Even if she is never able to live in a house as grand as Becky’s, there are aspects to it that she probably will be able to match and in striving to match them she will raise her standard of living. We can’t just educate these young Rwandans and then leave them with no expectations other than mud houses and paraffin lamps. That’s no recipe for the modern, cutting edge Rwanda the government is trying to achieve.

Matteo, the young Italian lad who has been staying with the three girls for a week or so, is moving into Becky’s place tonight and will occupy one of the spare bedrooms. And possibly the new long-term FHI girl who is arriving in July will take a third room. I’m very happy with all this – its company for Becky who otherwise is living on her own in a big, rattling house a long way from the rest of us across town, and with a rough area nearby, and it will greatly reduce the amount of rent VSO ends up paying for the place.

Tom is working hard in Kigali; there is yet another group of FHI visitors and he is on the go with his logistics hat on, making sure everything goes smoothly for them. So I cook for myself and the guard, and then drift across to the girls’ house.

The poker evening is a wild night. First of all I’m savaged by the dog as I go into the compound; he scratches my arm and draws blood. We know Pappy has had all his rabies jabs so I’m not in the slightest worried about that, but we slather the wound with alcohol rub to keep out any stray germs. There are seven of us for gambling – the three girls plus Sarah, and myself, Tom and Nathan. I go bust twice during the evening, and then on the very final “stake all” round of the evening I win. Would you believe it?

The highlight of the evening is the great blind tasting stand off between English Marmite and Australian Vegemite. I’ve taken our toaster and bread to the girls’ house, and we try once and for all to see if they taste the same and (if not), which tastes better. The only person who is not used to either Marmite or Vegemite is Soraya, so we blindfold her and give her two bits of toast slathered with the spreads. I should add that by this time in the evening we’ve had quite a lot of wine and beer between us and we’re all pretty loud.

The answer is – they taste quite different and even look different. Vegemite is much blacker than Marmite. Vegemite tastes slightly sweeter; Marmite has an acerbic aftertaste. Even tasting blind, if you have the two of them together it’s very easy to tell which is which. As to which is the best – well, that’s a question of taste. But then as an Englishman I’ve known all along that Marmite is incomparable…..

By ten o’clock we’re all pretty drunk and we’ve all got to work tomorrow, so we call it a day. Walking back to the flat, Tom and I are chinking nicely with empty bottles in our rucksacks, not to mention a toaster. The moon is very late in rising, and none of us has a torch, so we’re stumbling through all the ruts and gulleys in the lane. The stars, though, are superb.

It’s been a good day. Despite all the jollies I’ve done some good work and justified my keep!

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