Friday, 28 August 2009

Cukiro and Nyanza - two schools for the price of one!

August 24th

Into the office expecting another slow day. Sure enough, Claude seems to have abandoned the weekly team meetings. They lasted just twice. In fairness to him he’s very busy this morning; within a few minutes of the office opening there is a queue of people waiting to see him or ValĂ©rian.

Another school has pushed its census data under my door – only three left now. I spend the first forty minutes keying in the details. During the night I’ve convinced myself that there’s a secondary school at Shyogwe which I’ve completely forgotten, and I make plans to go out quietly and see them in the afternoon. But eventually I remember that the school has changed its name, and I have their information under the new name.

That reminds me, in the new primary school atlases there seems to be once again a wholesale renaming of towns in Rwanda. The town of Gitarama has, for the past three or four years, officially been the town of Muhanga; now I notice in the atlas that it’s called Nyamabuye. Muhanga and Nyamabuye are both the names of secteurs within Muhanga District; Muhanga secteur is roughly in the middle of the District, and Nyamabuye is the little secteur which contains most of the built up area of Gitarama. It’s inconceivable that the atlas has been produced without being scrutinised for political correctness, so we must assume there’s some intent on changing the names again. It’s ridiculous and I wish they would make a final decision and stick to it. There are practical implications, too. On road signs, even on the new ones, where places have changed names someone has painted out the names on the road signs in black paint. Of course, this being Rwanda, they haven’t finished the job; the “wrong” names have been painted out, but nobody has bothered to paint in the replacements. Perhaps they know the names will change every year or so, and they don’t want to go down as the operative who put the wrong words on the signs…. It also means that all the rice sack maps of Rwanda we have produced with teachers during the past year are all “wrong”, too. And yet, everybody knows exactly what you mean if you speak about “Gitarama” as a town.

Soraya comes into the office and says that today she’s off to Cukiro school in Nyarusange to do some training with them. I’ve been trying to motivate myself to get out to a school and do a visit, and this is the ideal opportunity. We ring Cukiro and ask if I can come too; I’ve already inspected the primary section but there’s a tronc commun part now, only one class, which I haven’t seen yet. We discover that the head is at Nyanza school. Nyanza is a “satellite school” of Cukiro; in other words it’s a new school to cater for the ever increasing rural population of Rwanda, and until it reaches its full complement of six years of pupils it is administered by the nearest school – in Nyanza’s case it is Cukiro. I have never been to Nyanza and haven’t the faintest idea where it is. So it turns out into a perfect day for me. Soraya arranges the motos and at eleven o’clock we roar off through the countryside to Cukiro. Cukiro sits in the extreme south west corner of Muhanga, a long way along an earth road. It’s not the easiest school to reach. You leave the main road after about twenty kilometres, wind round a hillside and descend into a broad valley. At various intervals along the valley bottom there are log bridges, some very flimsy, which you have to negotiate to cross streams. The main river is shallow and prone to flood during the rainy season. At the moment, at the end of the dry season, there is no problem of flooding, but the road close to the river is covered with fine sand brought down by last season’s floods, and for a hundred metres or so it’s like driving along a beach. The bike fishtails and at one point I’m sure I’m about to be unseated. You next have a long winding climb up a hillside, on and on. At each corner you think you must be there, but all you see is the next spur of hillside. The surroundings are wall to wall banana trees, cassava plantations, stands of maize or beans, and in many cases fields already harvested and dug ready for planting at the start of the rains.

We arrive at Cukiro to find that Nadine, the head, is still at Nyanza but is on her way back to meet us. Soraya waits for her, but I go straight into the tronc commun class because their lessons finish for the day at two o’clock and I’m hoping to watch two lessons, one with each of the two teachers employed to cover the curriculum with them.

The teacher hasn’t yet arrived for this lesson, which was supposed to start ten minutes ago. The pupils are without exception in uniform; pale blue cotton shirts and dark blue trousers or skirts. The uniform is perfect and they would put an English secondary class to shame. The entire secondary school consists of one class of around fifty pupils. Because Cukiro is out on a limb in the extreme corner of the district, it has not reached the size hoped for. Pupils from Kaduha school are supposed to come here, but Kaduha is on the main road and it is easier for their children to go to Nyarusange village where there is a much bigger school, and electricity, and even a shop! On the other hand, children from the corner of neighbouring Ruhango district find it easier to come to Cukiro because their designated school is miles away, up hill and down dale, and the whole situation illustrates the sheer difficulty of getting yourself to a school in this hilly terrain.

The teacher is in his first year of work. His English is just about adequate and he’s clearly flustered by having a native speaker in the room. We’re doing basic algebra but, my God, I’ve never seen algebra made so theoretical and dull. Why on earth can’t he give them some practical examples to show its relevance and break things up a bit? The class is attentive, and seem to understand the work at least as well as I do, if not better. (It’s interesting how the way maths is taught varies so much from one country to another that something which we all understand from our upbringing can seem completely unintelligible when presented in another culture).

One thing I do like is that he splits the class in groups and they work competitively against each other in their groups. From the way they go into groups it’s obvious that he does this habitually, and it’s not something being laid on for my benefit. But on the other hand he hasn’t learnt their names, even though he only teaches fifty pupils. I hate it when the teachers says “you” and points to a pupil. It’s so dehumanising and it undermines what is otherwise a good rapport from a new teacher and his class. He’s hot on his gender equality, asking boys and girls alternatively, but he hasn’t thought to put any stimulus material on the walls. As with most of these tronc commun sections in Muhanga, the walls have just one or two tatty old wall posters, usually home -made and in French, dating from when the room was in use by primary pupils. Oh well, all this goes into my report for Claude and he can make of it what whatever he likes!

On we go on the motos to Nyanza, the satellite school. In my mind I have the notion that this is just down the road. It isn’t. It’s down the long winding hill, across the river, and up another winding hill, then across a windswept, bleak, bare piece of ground and on ever smaller paths so that we’re convinced someone has directed us the wrong way. Needless to mention, neither of our moto drivers has ever been here before and you can sense they’re getting twitchy about being so deep into the countryside.

Eventually, against all the odds, we drive across a full-size football pitch which occupies almost the whole of the only flat hilltop for miles around, and there, nestling into the side of the hill is the school. It only has 264 pupils, and is one of the smallest schools in Muhanga. There are only five year groups, but there are also only four classrooms. This school is only made possible by double vacation. Also, for this year at least, they have a full sized staffroom. At the back of the school are no fewer than twelve latrines. Nyanza has, without a doubt, the most generous provision of toilets in the whole of Muhanga. There’s no water on site at all, and the nearest spring is about a mile away and down a long hill. So water isn’t used very much to clean the loos and the smell is overpowering within ten paces. There is a hedge all round the school and a small patch of sweet potatoes. A few very stunted trees line another side; these trees have been pollarded almost to death for firewood.

All four teachers are outside their rooms watching us arrive, and this sets the tone for the afternoon. Nyanza has absolutely no sense of urgency at all. The children are compliant enough, and teachers keep on disappearing from lessons to talk to each other outside the rooms. I know that some of this is to do with how they’re going to cope with the two of us visitors, but it’s unnecessary. I watch two more maths lessons; in both cases the children are simply given exercises to do. After twenty minutes or so, the class stops and pupils in turn are told to come up and work the examples through on the blackboard while the rest of the class looks on and corrects them. Understandably the class gets bored and fidgety.

I say to the teachers that next time they’re to divide the class in groups, divide their blackboards into panels (the blackboards are enormous and cover two entire walls of the rooms), and make each group work the examples in their own wall space while the teacher watches and corrects. The staff nod and say the right things, but I know that as soon as I leave they won’t take a blind bit of notice of what I say. I’ll talk to Nadine, who spends a day a week covering Nyanza from her base at Cukiro, but what this place desperately needs is a proper headteacher in permanent residence to put a bomb behind the lethargy and get this place off its backside! The walls are just as bare as at Cukiro, but at least one of the teachers seems to know his pupils’ names. Two of the teachers have so little English that we can’t use it to converse, and I have to do all my reporting back in French. The class one teacher seems to be doing little else but getting the children to sing – sing their alphabet, sing the parts of their head etc.

During one lesson it’s difficult for any of us to concentrate because a posse of villagers comes right up to the door and windows to stare in at the muzungu and see what he’s doing. One man, possibly one of the parents’ committee, comes right into the room in his gumboots and sits down just behind me, pushing the two boys up to the far end of the desk. He never speaks to me; he just stares at me. He looks intently at my lesson evaluation sheet but I’m pretty sure he can’t read, and so it’s all meaningless to him. The class teacher has to shift herself and tell the parents to buzz off so we can get on with the lesson. You certainly don’t get many white men in this corner of the District!

By the time I finish and debrief the staff it’s late and our moto drivers are unhappy; they don’t want to get caught out after dark in this sort of remote terrain. We bounce back over the rutty tracks to the main road; everywhere along the track we have people coming out of their houses to see muzungus who are evidently so rich that they can travel by moto instead of on foot like everyone else. It makes me feel slightly uneasy….

Back home it is almost six o’clock. I know Soraya won’t have much food in her house, and I have plenty, so we join forces for a meal. Vegetable soup; my “Simba salad” with homemade potato salad, eggs, cheddar cheese from home, salami and loads of fresh salad vegetables; and finally fruit salad. Mid way through, Becky and Karen come round with a problem and we agree on a resolution between the soup and the main course!

By the time this is all over I’m too tired to either write a blog or write my work reports, both of which I’d promised myself I’d do before bed. The only thing I do is bag up loads of red beans, which I’ve part cooked, and freeze them for the future.

And so to bed. Best thing about today – without a doubt, getting back into schools. Thanks, Soraya, for putting a bomb behind me!

Worst thing – I hate going to bed with work unfinished.

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