Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The water tank comes to Cyeza School

June 1st

Up to the office for seven to see if I can get some blogs posted, but Claude isn’t there, so nor is the modem. I spend an hour transcribing some secondary census stuff that’s just come in, and make a crib sheet for today’s school visit.

Then to the post office – my anniversary card from Teresa still hasn’t arrived, but as usual there’s a parcel from Australia for Kerry; I’m not carting it all round Cyeza this morning so I take it back to my office to collect later.

Back to the town centre and meet up with Catherine, and we take motos to Bishike school. Bishike is at the far end of Cyeza, and to get to it we have to drive past Cyeza school, itself, which is very convenient for the return trip today. It has rained most of the night and while the main road is dry, there are deep puddles and patches of treacherous mud on the off-road section. Between the main road and Cyeza village itself there’s a long, long descent down a deeply rutted road, with bone-jarring ridges of red rock alternating with gravelly gulleys. It’s difficult enough on a good, dry day. Today it’s a real test of the moto drivers’ skill. All credit to Catherine – she doesn’t bat an eyelid; just hangs on for dear life like I did on my first few trips by moto.

Bishike is a poor school: poor in its results; poor in its buildings; poor in the level of wealth of kits parents. The buildings are of mud brick and are tired and worn. The floors are uneven; some are of brick and others of earth. The room being used as a maternelle is a disgrace and sums up the worst in Rwandan primary schools. This is one of the classrooms in the main school block but it’s in such poor condition that even for year 1 and 2 it’s considered too awful. So the preschool children use it. The floor is not even made of earth; all the earth has long since been scuffed away by little feet. The floor is made of angular stones; pieces of bedrock which have broken off. It’s dramatically uneven, and would cause serious injury if someone fell onto it. The roof is also uneven and so worn that you can see daylight in many places; we are told that when it rains heavily there is so much water coming in that it forms a pond in the centre of the room on this wretched broken floor. The stagnant water attracts mosquitoes. The windows are tiny, and on one side only. When it rains they have to be closed and no teaching can take place because the room is too dark to see what’s written on the blackboard. The blackboard is so worn that it’s a “greyboard”, and white chalk doesn’t really stand out against it if you are sitting at the back of the room. The walls have been whitewashed, so at least there is some sense of somebody cherishing the room, but there is nothing on the walls, just two blackboards (front and rear; common Rwandan practise), with numbers and letters written on them.

It’s the furniture which I find so distressing. As at Busekera there are some seats made of earth bricks. These are amazingly uncomfortable to sit on; there are jagged pieces of mica and sharp-edged stones protruding from the bricks and if you sit on them for any length of time they chafe your legs raw. You have to have a banana leaf mat to take the edge off the roughness. In the rest of the room the seats are logs hammered into the soil with a narrow, uneven, rough-sawn plank across. One plank has come loose and collapses while we are in the room, spilling children onto the floor. There are no desks in this room; just rows of these poor little benches. Children have to try to balance their notebooks on their knees. Is it any wonder that their handwriting is awful, and when they try to do their numbers it is almost impossible to distinguish between a 1, a 2 and a 7?

To cap it all, the headmaster isn’t here today. We’re met by the “responsable” and a young woman teacher, Marie-Chantal, who was teaching at Kivumu last year and whose lesson I observed there. She’s an extraordinarily beautiful young African woman, also very lively and lovely to talk to. What a pity she’s married……. I’m told the head has had to go to hospital; something about an accident which I don’t fully understand. I don’t think the head himself has had an accident, and my nasty scheming mind wonders if he has taken fright and left the school to his deputies to manage. I’m not going to turn round and go home just because he isn’t here, so I make the most of my two teacher helpers and do a tour of the school. Bishike has no electricity and no water. There are two playgrounds, one for the boys and one for girls, and enough level land to support a volleyball court and a small football pitch, so in this respect it is better off than most. The gardens are extensive with many coffee trees, full of berries (I show Catherine the coffee berries and once again another European has her first sight of coffee growing on bushes!), many avocado trees and potato and carrot patches. While we are walking under an avocado tree a fruit falls heavily onto the ground. In England that would be the cue for the health and safety people taking an axe to the tree in case a falling avocado should brain some child; here it’s just a cause of laughter. It would be considered sacrilege to destroy something that was capable of producing food.

Everyone is fascinated by Catherine – why isn’t she married yet?; what are her first thoughts of Rwanda?; but at the same time they’re delighted she’s come out to visit her dad here and they’re even more pleased that she’s come out to visit their little school instead of taking herself off to see the gorillas or some such.

The toilets at Bishike are plentiful in number but primitive to the nth degree. There is no livestock in the school but they are thinking of keeping rabbits. On the other hand the school was raided recently by thieves who made off with most of the contents of the vegetable garden. In such a poverty stricken area as Cyeza people don’t even respect their own children’s school. That’s what acute hunger and malnutrition do to you.

We go into several lessons. In one class there’s a boy who is obviously stunted from malnutrition. His head and hands and feet are far too big in proportion to the rest of him. He isn’t wearing even the simplest uniform. He’s barefoot. He gets every answer wrong that he’s asked; he’s almost certainly here without any breakfast and his brain function is being hampered by chronic malnutrition. Further up the road, at Kivumu, the Franciscan monks have been operating a feeding programme for children in this condition. Unfortunately they can’t feed more than a handful of the most needy; this boy is in the wrong school at the wrong time and goes hungry. As he gets older his brain function will become more and more impaired. His mates will think he’s thick, but in reality he’s just underfed; probably the youngest in an enormous family of loved but inadequately fed children. It’s heartbreaking to see.

Year 2 are doing English; their pronunciation is quite good except for the word “box” which becomes “bockiss”. “The chalk is on top of the bockiss”. Year 1 are doing simple subtractions in maths and we get the number “siggis” once more – this pronunciation for 6 seems universal across the District. And, as usual, the children try to do the sums without showing their working out. The teacher is a bit ambitious – 7-7 = 0; but for these little children the concept of zero is not easy to grasp and I think she should have avoided calculations ending in zero.

At breaktime we meet all the teachers; they are also fascinated by Catherine and she gets chatted up by one of the young men on the staff who can’t believe she can be 28 and not married….. I’m not getting into that discussion so I talk to the children. All 350 of them are gathered round staring at us as if we are freaks. I do some songs with them, using actions, and within thirty seconds I have most of the kids imitating me and laughing their heads off. It makes breaktime go quickly and we’re no longer freaks but entertainers. I’m helped by the male responsable who is a really decent guy and puts himself out to make me feel welcome.

After break we go in to see yr 6 who are doing the biology of human reproduction. Now in any western country this is a subject so immediate and fascinating that it’s impossible to make it seem dull. Not here…… The lesson is a dreary catalogue of the characteristics of egg and sperm cells which drains any interest or relevance from the topic. Many of these students are post puberty; no doubt one or two are already sexually active and many of the girls are being pressured to have intercourse with the local menfolk. Yet all we cover in this class is the morphology of the gametes themselves. Nothing about the context; nothing to help them control or channel their emotions. We could be talking about broad been seeds for all the relevance this material has! Sometimes I despair at the sheer irrelevance of so much that goes into the Rwandan curriculum.

I can’t really do any of the documentation of the school because it’s all locked away in the head’s office. I doubt if it would really add anything to my impressions anyway. The teachers here re on the whole competent and dedicated; the faults are largely the fault of the system, of the way Rwanda organises its education. There’s one very young girl teacher who I recognise from a training session last year. I know she is an excellent teacher and that the children like her and respect her. She is very quiet but, like Marie-Chantal, has the more beautiful face. And yet she looks completely different from Marie. There are definitely types of African faces; the young girl has the facial type with the prominent forehead (like Delphine) whereas Marie has a more triangular face with extraordinarily full lips and the most beautiful eyes.

We have a “pearls of wisdom” session at the end of our visit, and I have to do it in French. I have to tell them that their school is in the bottom quartile for the District, and that they must improve their science and maths results and get a grip on boys’ results too, but it’s the head I should really be talking to. Then we’re onto the bikes and off to Cyeza school. There is heavy rain in the near distance and I’m convinced we’re going to get a soaking. The moto drivers are reluctant to stop en route, but I insist we halt at Cyeza.

At Cyeza we find that Jacqueline and Jeanne d’Arc have gone home for lunch, but the prospect of a muzungu bearing money brings them back at the double, and I hand over one and a half million francs to them. Even better; the water tanks – mine and “the Italian job” – are well under way. The foundations are finished; the tanks fixed in place so that they cannot be stolen, and all the guttering connections are in place. The workmen are fixing the outlet pipes into “my” tank. The tank holds 10 cubic metres; it’s lower but fatter than the “afritanks” but just as good. It has a filter at the top to keep out muck. The guttering and drainpipes are all in place; they are hoping to get “my” tank finished and operational by the end of this week. That will be wonderful; if we continue to have heavy rain in the next fortnight or so the tank will fill up quickly and Cyeza will have water to last it through the dry season. They’ve put a concrete pit at one side of the tank so that there is plenty of room to stand jerry cans under the taps, and any leaking water won’t erode the base of the tanks and in years to come make it tilt. The engineer-cum-builder knows what he’s doing and I’m pleased with his craftsmanship.

I take some quick pictures to put on the blog; anyone from Bridport reading this take note – the fruit of all your fundraising is now in place in plastic and cement and stone for you all to see!

We’re lucky and it doesn’t rain on us as we drive home; this is fortunate because Gitarama has had a very heavy shower and where they are doing building work all the way up the main road it has become a sea of mud.

In the afternoon I write up my report and Catherine rests; Africa is beginning to catch up with her and all the excitement of the last few days is taking its toll. Kerry comes to collect her parcel and we get marooned in the house while yet another thunderstorm passes. As soon as possible I nip round the market, and Catherine and I cook up an enormous vegetable and sausage stew for dinner. Tom’s working really late in Kigali and won’t be back to eat any of it, but there’s plenty to save for tomorrow.

Meanwhile Joe, and then Ken, have rung me asking for places to stay in Gitarama for themselves and their Rwandan partners doing the REAP survey for Mineduc. (This is the teacher training exercise I was originally going to do but had to drop out because of Catherine’s visit). They have difficulty in finding anywhere – would you believe that all hotel accommodation in Gitarama town is booked up? – and they end up staying in the paroisse at Kabgayi which turns out to be cheap and very comfortable. So there! Catherine and I go out to have a drink with Joe and his Rwandan colleague before they launch off to Ngororero at the crack of dawn tomorrow.

We’re both tired and ready for bed.

Best thing about today – another interesting school visit; I’ve been to every single school in Cyeza. And there’s the little matter of seeing my first water tank almost ready for use. That’s a pretty good day’s work by anyone’s standards!

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