Monday, 17 August 2009

Coq au vin and Spiderman buns

August 14th

Another funny day. Into the office at seven. It’s the day after the local government reorganisation is announced, and I’m not sure what to expect. Will everyone be dejected and facing redundancy or redeployment, or will they all be glowing and talking of promotions? In the event the reception is no different from normal; it’s a non-event. Everyone’s too busy to talk about things, so I’m writing this on Friday evening with no idea who is staying or going. Time will tell.

I need some facts from Claudine for a statistical return to VSO, and I discover that we have 42 employees in the District Office, of which 24 are men and 18 women. That’s a pretty respectable stab at gender equality, though most of the top posts (except the mayor) are held by men. These figures exclude the people already employed at secteur level, and my guess is that in the district as a whole there are probably around 120 local government employees.

I take a moto out to Gitongati school because Jeanne, the head, wants to see me to try to persuade me to give some money. Jeanne’s been ill and shouldn’t be in school; she looks grey and has lost her usual bounce. Her English is very limited, and I remember that when I inspected last year I found it so difficult to communicate with her that I scrapped the usual questions and just concentrated on asking her about her recipe for success. When I arrive at the school she’s not there, and I’m met by the second in command (the “responsable”) who is charming and speaks excellent English. She rakes me on a tour of the site while we wait for Jeanne to arrive. Gitongati school is one of the best in the district in terms of results, and in every way it is a model school. There is a beautiful garden which still looks attractive even now in the depths of the drought. The gable end of the main block has a big panel with the school motto. Around the gardens are little wooden panels with slogans on them – “unity and reconciliation” (in Kinyarwanda); “éducation pour tous”; “towards a better tomorrow”. There are blue and white planter pots outside the rooms, and Jeanne is waiting for the rains to come before she puts flowers in them. The school looks loved and cared for. There are well over 1000 children, but you wouldn’t think they had that number when you see how well treated all the grounds are. I curse myself for not having brought my camera, but I’ll take some pictures next week and post them for you to see just how good a local school can look!

Gitongati has big plans but lacks the means to realise them. At the rear of the school is a steep slope covered in banana trees. They want to buy this from the owner, put it down to grass, and keep a cow like the schools at Murama and Gikomero Catholic. At one end of the site is a ramshackle building which I’ve always thought was an old block of classrooms. It turns out that this building is the original Catholic church for the area. It’s still in use, but in any other country it would be condemned straight away. One wall leans out at an alarming angle; all four walls are obviously ridden with termites and the great, heavy tile roof is resting on I know not what! When I inspected here with Cathie last year there was another old block of rooms dating from the same time, all with bowed roofs and tiny holes for windows. These have been demolished in order to widen the playground. The problem with the Catholic church is that it is in the way. There is an area of “dead” land behind it which the school desperately wants to use for more play space, but until the church is removed, they’re stuck with two separate spaces and this unsafe building in the middle. The playground is not level, but it could be levelled at a reasonable cost. In that case the school could contemplate seeking funds for a proper basketball court or some other sport facility. It is attracting middle class children from Gitarama town, and their parents will soon be expecting more facilities than Gitongati has to offer.

There is another obvious solution – to demolish and rebuild the church somewhere else, perhaps in a corner of the school site. But, as Jeanne puts it, the congregation here is too poor to rebuild their church unless it actually collapses. (So if I were her I’d encourage all my pupils to tramp up and down alongside the bulging wall to undermine its foundations and hope to God that when it actually collapses there aren’t any children passing by….)

Gitongati has managed to get itself hooked up to mains electricity, and they have light and power in all the newer classrooms. This is almost unique in Muhanga District, and there’s every prospect that it will be the first school in Muhanga to take part in the “one laptop per child” programme when it eventually passes the gates of Kigali and heads into the countryside. You can just imagine the effect such an event would have on the school’s image locally – a state school full of computers for its pupils. Quite how Jeanne has managed to get this electrical connection I’m not sure; I suspect a combination of relentless lobbying, ruthlessness and some luck, too. But it is a considerable feat to have pulled off.

In one corner of the site is a partly constructed building, and it is the reason why I’ve been invited. The building is very similar to Stéphanie’s admin block at Shyogwe; it will be a staffroom and a store room for educational equipment. They want to know if I have any funds to help them complete it. They estimate they need RwF1.5 million, which comes to about £2000 or $2650. The building so far has cost them RwF300,000, which has come from parent donations plus some of the school’s budget. They can’t put any more in. I have to tell them that I can’t help – I don’t have that amount of money left, and all my money is promised for water tanks. Gitongati has three lovely big Afritanks (it was the school which gave me the idea of installing tanks in other places). I promise Jeanne that I’ll ask around, and I’m putting a specific appeal on my blog, but I don’t see what else I can do. The real problem is that if the appeal were to be for a classroom, various charities would look interested. But because she wants money for a staffroom and store room, however necessary these are for the good running of this successful school, they aren’t the sort of projects that charities jump at.

Jeanne also wants some English dictionaries. I tell her I will definitely help her with those. I’m going into Kigali tomorrow and I’ll call in at the Caritas bookshop and see what they have. The teacher says she wants the enormous big dictionary, but I say that I’m more interested in buying a bunch of little dictionaries which can go one per classroom for pupils to use as well as the staff.

Gitongati is an excellent school in every way, and with a visionary and effective head. It breaks my heart to have to turn her down with a request for only £2000, and for a project which the authorities would have provided in any English school as part of the capital building programme.

Back at the District office there’s nothing much to do. Everyone’s heading off for Friday afternoon sport and the start of the weekend. Soraya and I go into town via the post office (more delayed birthday cards for Kerry), and head for the Alpha internet café. This place really is a joy to use, with such a good connection. I send two dollops of reports to Charlotte so I’ll be getting all my VSO brownie points. But the next thing looms and needs forethought. We have a visitation from the VSO boss in the whole of East Africa next week, and the visit needs careful organising because Charlotte is taking the two people to Kamonyi as well, and knowing the propensity of visitors to run late we’ll have difficulty in fitting in a school visit before the lunch hour. Knowing my luck we’ll arrive at the school just as everyone’s whizzing off home for lunch and the change of morning and afternoon shifts.

In the afternoon I switch off from everything to do with work and concentrate on preparing this evening’s meal. It’s Tom’s farewell before he goes home and we will be six people. Guacamole is easy to make and always works well. Tom, when he comes home, makes an apple and cabbage salad which sounds odd but tastes great with raisins, peppers, cucumber, lemon juice and peanuts. For the main course we have coq au vin (in other words one of Momma’s chickens in a packet sauce) and loads of veg. But we really go to town for the puddings. I make a fruit salad (we have problems with fruit at the moment – at this point in the dry season most fruit is more expensive than usual and things like pineapples and paw paws are smaller and definitely less juicy) and also a jelly to serve with it. I also bake up some “Spiderman” buns which someone has brought out to me from England. They’re intended for children to make to learn how to bake, but everyone falls on them. They come complete with lurid blue icing and pink “hundreds and thousands” vermicelli decorations. And Becky and Karen bring a cake they have made too. All washed down with bottles of Primus. It’s quite a meal. I like entertaining!

The weather today has been on the change. It has been much cooler than yesterday, and windier too. During the afternoon we get a lot of cloud and things become unbearably humid. I can begin to imagine what India must be like just before the monsoon arrives. We eat with all the windows open because our flat, just under the roof, is very stuffy in these conditions. Half way through the meal we notice lightning in the distance. By the time we’ve finished eating we have thunder and there’s no doubt that we are going to get a storm. Of course, as soon as the storm gets really close we have power cuts. The electricity goes off and comes back on twice, and then goes off and stays off. We get out the candles, but the light show in the sky is so good that we all go out onto our balcony to watch it. We can smell rain in the air long before it reaches us, and eventually we can feel a delicate mist of water droplets hanging in the air. Meanwhile the lightning is incessant, and is now coming from all sides. Please, please, let us have some rain to clear the air and lay all the dust!

Just as our guests are leaving, the storm breaks. Nathan is OK, he’s on his moto and manages to get home before the deluge begins. Karen and Becky walk Soraya home, but on the way to their own place they first get chased by stray dogs (no joke out here in Rwanda, and everyone’s scared stiff of rabies), and then get soaked in the rain. And what rain – it hammers down well into the night. I go to sleep with my curtains open and enjoy the firework displays in the sky. We stick a bucket out on the balcony to catch rainwater – storm or no storm, it seems highly unlikely that our mains water will be restored any time soon!

Last thing at night I send a text to Delphine saying words to the effect of “isn’t it lovely to have all this rain”; I know their family is worried that their autumn harvest will be rubbish because crops are withering in the drought. She texts back with a very Catholic reply: “Yes, we’re very happy. Tomorrow is the feast of the Assumption, and if it is raining hard tonight it’s obviously a sign from God”.

Best things about today – looking round a school which is really making something of itself; giving Tom a good send-off, and listening to rain on the roof all night!

Worst thing – I hate seeing a school with a need, with ambition, and not being able to meet what is by any standards a reasonable request for help.

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