Friday, 21 August 2009

Moving in high circles?

August 19th and 20th

As I re-read this entry before posting, I realise the timings and tenses are all over the place because I’m writing both retrospectively about what happened yesterday and also what’s happening right now. Sorry about that. Treat it as a challenge! It’s also turned into a massively long posting, but that’s because a lot happened today.

I’m starting to write this just before six on Thursday afternoon. I’ve already had to put the lights on. Above Gitarama the clouds are very thin; you can almost see blue sky. But all around, for 360 degrees, it’s really stormy; murky dark grey clouds and thunder are already booming in the west towards Like Kivu and Congo. The dust is being whipped up by gusty winds; a sure sign that there’s a storm around.

We’ve had weather like this for several days now, as the rainy season approaches. It looks as if the rains are coming early this year. The temperatures have dropped; there’s no comparison between the stuffy heat of Kigali this morning and the coolth (!) of Gitarama this evening. All the market ladies have their jackets on.

On the news they’re talking about excessively heavy rains in Sierra Leone, with flooding, collapsed buildings on hillsides and washed out crops. That’s what we dread happening here. People don’t have food security, and if their crops are washed out there will be widespread suffering and malnutrition. More than 80% of Rwandans are subsistence farmers and there is no system of food reserves at a national level to cope with unforeseen disasters.

I’m just back after a shop up. Beat this, you folks back in England: beautiful fresh carrots; 4 big ones for 5p. Three ripe avocadoes for 10p. Four pounds of potatoes, this time at the extortionate local price of 30p, but once again they’re absolutely fresh and look just like Désirée (pink skins). I turned my nose up at the local celery; today it’s limp and tired looking. After a good rain it will come back again. And a kilo of top of the range dried beans for 28p; from the look of these there be next to no wastage from grit or muck in with them (though they’ll still need painstakingly sorting, bean by bean). That’ll keep me occupied for half an hour tonight while I listen to my iPod. And five sweet potatoes for another 10p.

Once again it’s been a funny couple of days. I seem to keep writing this phrase, but it’s true. I’m finding it really hard to get settled into my routine after coming back from England. Partly my normal routine is thrown askew because Tom isn’t here. Partly, also, it’s because deep down I know I’m on the final leg of my time in Africa. Partly, too, there have been a lot of interruptions with VSO activities both this week and last week, and two schools wanting me to come out to them to discuss fund raising issues. It’s not that I’m not doing anything; rather that I’m not in my usual rhythm of inspections and trips up country. So I really must take myself in hand next week. (And, OK, I know I probably said that in last Friday’s blog, too!).

More thunder outside. I’ve got the dinner half ready; what’s the odds on the power going in the next hour or so? Going to stop now and finish the meal – eating trumps blogging, I’m afraid!


OK, dinner’s done and I’m back at the computer. The power’s still on but I’ve lit a candle just in case…. The lights are flickering all the time. The thunder has moved away, but it could come back during the night.

I’ve cooked far too much just for me and the guard; I’m beginning to understand how it feels when your children leave home and you’ve suddenly got to adjust your quantities from cooking for four or five to cooking for just one or two! Good job I’ve got some peppermints to take care of indigestion!

The plot next to our house – the very last green site between here and the town centre – looks like it’s just about to disappear under bricks and mortar. A big crane has arrived after dark and there’s the usual crowd of dozens of people arrived from nowhere. They stand and gawp and watch. Boredom must be so desperate here that they’re prepared to come out of their houses to watch a crane being set up. And, of course, our night guard – where is he? Is he guarding the flat against all these people, any of whom could use cover of darkness to try to break in? No, of course not. He’s out there in the middle of the throng, talking to everyone he knows. All he’s done is push the gate so that from a distance it looks shut.

(I only know this because when I go to take his dinner down to him he isn’t there. I wait ten minutes and go down again, with cold dinner. Somebody in the crowd has spotted me, of course, and warned him, and when I go down the second time he’s well inside our compound, and all obsequious and “murakoze papa” over and over). Slimy toad!

Yesterday started well. Claude was in, and Soraya and I sorted out some stuff with him. We decide that we’ll hold on to the census forms until the big heads’ meeting coming soon, then zap them while they’re with us. It’s our fault that we don’t have the census sheets; somehow they’ve got lost within the District office. I’m certain I haven’t been stupid with them, but there is so much paper flying around every day, and the system is so casual, that the errant sheets could be anywhere.

Then at around eleven o’clock we are visited by Mike (the country VSO boss for Rwanda), Charlotte (my programme manager, and two important guests. I remember to give Charlotte my signed contract, and that’s another little box I can tick as finished!

One of our guests is Marg, who is the CEO of VSOP worldwide. In other words, she’s the top managing executive of the entire VSO system. She’s relatively new in post and is travelling round to various countries in which VSO operates to see things at first hand and talk to volunteers. The other is Tiziana, who is Italian, and is the senior VSO officer for the whole Horn of Africa region – Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Both women work from Putney in London. Every few years VSO undergoes a large scale strategic review, and I think they are either in the middle of one, or about to start one, right now. This could, in theory, result in wholesale changes to the way volunteers work, so it’s an absolute privilege to have two such senior people come out to see us and have the opportunity to share ideas with them.

One specific topic we cover is the possibility of putting volunteers into secteurs rather than districts. The logic of such a move is clear. With the ten or so schools within a secteur, volunteers can make a real impact instead of being spread thinly across more than hundred schools in the average District. But the secteurs most in need are usually the isolated ones. Acceptable houses might be more difficult to find; running water and electricity almost certainly absent, and volunteers would be a long way and a long time from shops and each other.

We existing volunteers have got used to being mainly in towns, and with good roads so that it is easy to meet up at weekends. Any volunteer put into an isolated secteur would be in a very different situation, and would probably feel hard done by, even though isolated placements are the norm in many other countries. It’s a tricky decision, and it is an example of the sort of serious rethink of operations that VSO in Rwanda is starting to make.

We talk for half an hour or so with Claude about the volunteer system, about how effective we think we’ve been, about Claude’s perception of having volunteers etc. Then we take them all to Mbare School, in Shyogwe secteur. Mbare is where Nicole, one of the short term volunteers, was working from January to March. The idea is to show our visitors a school where the presence of a VSO has made a real difference, and this is very apparent at Mbare. Iphigénie is a good head teacher, but her office has been transformed thanks to Nicole. There are display panels with lots of pictures; there are loads of home-made resources in the store room; there is a set of sports strip Nicole brought out with her; on Iphigénie’s wall there is a year planner (though I notice there aren’t any entries on it from mid August to the end of the year).

Our visitors have a peep into one of Mbare’s classrooms. These are typical mud-brick, with bowed roofs, tiny, unglazed windows. They look tired and dark, but the children are all hard at work and totally overawed at the prospect of six muzungus descending on them! A couple of words with Iphigénie and the year six dance team are let out and form up behind the classrooms, next to the smelly toilets. (Behind the classrooms so as not to disturb those children still in classes). Lunchtime is in around fifteen minutes. But do you seriously think any work is going to get done when they can hear their seniors chanting and dancing? Fat chance!

They give us a lovely impromptu display, with six or so dancers and the rest of the class all chanting and clapping the songs. One tiny little boy grabs a stick to use as an imitation spear and does the warrior dance, prancing and posturing among the dancing girls. All are dancing barefoot. Everybody knows exactly how the words and tunes go. Within seconds we have little children coming out of the surrounding houses to watch, and soon we have the local women surrounding us as well, some with babies on the breast. It takes very little to start a celebration in Rwanda!

Everyone takes pictures and applauds, and suddenly we’re all back in the cars and bouncing along the rutted earth road from Shyogwe back to the main road and Gitarama town.

On the Shyogwe corner there are major earthworks in progress. Bulldozers and diggers have removed dozens of trees, and are gouging out a whole hillside. I can’t work out why. The earth and subsoil are being dumped across the main road at the edge of the marshes in the valley bottom. That’s potentially risky because it could interfere with the drainage system and irrigation channels in the marshes, which would destroy hundreds of little fields and thousands of local peoples’ food security. The tree trunks have already been removed, but dozens of men, women and children are swinging axes to break up the branches and roots left lying around. Every few minutes someone walks or pedals off with an enormous bundle of free firewood – an absolute bonanza for these folk. The site being cleared is right next to the big Shyogwe mass burial site. It’s possible they are clearing ground in anticipation of a lot more skeletons being discovered, but the scale of earthworks seems out of all proportion to the need for another burial pit. It’s a pity. Where there used to be a complete wooded hillside – a rarity in Muhanga where every scrap of land is used for food crops – there is now an ugly reddish black scar across the landscape.

Back in town we treat our guests to the delight of “Tranquillité”’s self service buffet. Twice the price of the set meal but more choice and you can pass on the cassava. However, the chicken and rabbit are just as tough and stringy as elsewhere, as Mike eventually discovers!

Then we go our separate ways. I’m back out to Shyogwe on a moto to meet up with Geert. He returns to Holland on Thursday (as I’m writing this blog he’s winging his way on Brussels airlines and no doubt tucking into something a lot tastier than stringy chicken, rice and beans). When we trot down to the school I get a big surprise. The school’s admin block is finished and in use. The building looks really lovely. It has electric light and power. Inside the big room Stéphanie is sitting using one of the two laptop computers she’s just been allocated, and she has a printer plugged into the mains and working. And to think that when I first went into the school last year she had no office at all, and spent her days sitting at the back of whichever classroom was least crammed at that time of day, carrying all her paperwork around with her from room to room in a tatty bundle. And she’s head teacher of the biggest primary school in the District, with 2300 pupils.

It’s an amazing transformation. The staffroom is lined with the school’s textbooks, and contains desks and tables at which those staff not actually teaching at the moment are preparing work or marking. In other words, Shyogwe has the luxury of a staffroom. What is supposed to be Stéphanie’s office has the other laptop computer, and a bunch of men are working on it at some document. The building has been given a ceiling of corrugated iron; it should act as a noise insulator against the rain but I fear it will radiate heat down at mid day. But, then, we made sure we gave the building a tiled roof, and tiles don’t conduct heat as much as metal. This building is a million years away from the termite infested classrooms of the oldest parts of the school.

Geert and I move on to the classroom block sponsored by Randstad. Here things aren’t looking as rosy. The canes (“roseaux”) on which the roof tiles will rest have been put in place. One entire side of the roof is tiled, but not the other. There are no doors, windows, or floors installed. But the master builder is on site, and we talk to him. There seems still to be an issue with transferring the money from Randstad to VSO Holland to VSO Rwanda to Shyogwe Diocese. The money seems to be stuck somewhere between VSO Rwanda and Shyogwe Diocese. VSO says they have sent it on; Shyogwe says it hasn’t reached them. With Geert on the point of flying home, its good old me to try to sort things out again. Honestly, I really hoped we’d have all this finished and the building virtually completed before Geert returned home.

I take some pictures, including the key one I’ve been wanting to get for weeks, with Geert and Stéphanie in front of the building. We agree that I’ll chase VSO and she will chase the Diocesan accountant constantly until the money arrives. Then we spend it according to these priorities – first the roof, because you can’t teach in a classroom without a roof in the rainy season. Then doors and windows, because you can’t leave anything in an insecure room, and that includes the furniture. (Why go and scavenge for firewood along the roadside if you could pinch your children’s’ school desks and chop them up for cooking wood?). Then the floors to be concreted on a base of big stones. And then, if there is any money left, we’ll plaster the walls and maybe stretch to some emulsion to make the rooms feel light and airy. Will we have all this done by Christmas? Your guess is as good as mine. But Geert has been to a school in Ruhango district which is similarly trying to scrape together money to finish a classroom project, and they are so strapped that they have tarpaulins as roofs for the rooms, but have installed doors and windows. That seems a crazy prioritising of needs to him and me!

Back again into town. I flag down what I think is a moto for hire, but it’s just a man on his own bike! He very kindly takes me to the main road, and for free, but can’t take me further because he doesn’t have a spare helmet and it’s against the law to have a pillion passenger without his “casque”. I just manage to get the five o’clock bus into Kigali, and by soon after half past six I’m at Kersti’s house in Gishushi. Kersti and Nick aren’t there; they’re at a wedding, but we’ve arranged that I can stay, and Étienne, the guard knows me. So I drop off my backpack and head up to Sole Luna restaurant. Here I meet up once more with Marg and Tiziana, and also some of the other members of the Volunteer Committee. As things turn out I’m the only education volunteer present (Sabine, Christiane and Florence are all on the disability programme), and spend the evening once more talking about our perceptions of VSO and at the same time enjoying Rwanda’s finest pizzas.

It’s been a long and interesting day. We’re eating good food and drinking cold beer, and Kigali’s lights spread out below us as far as the eye can see. Kersti and Nick arrive at the house at about the same time as me, but we’re all shattered so it’s off to bed pronto.

Best thing about today – Shyogwe’s new administrative block; being able to talk to two of the most senior people in the VSO management team.

Worst thing – seeing the Shyogwe classrooms not much further forward than last time I visited – almost a full year ago.

On a lighter note – I forgot to mention in a previous blog. Becky was telling some hilarious tales about one of the Kamonyi schools she went to this week, including one incident where the teacher was trying to carry on as normal while a goat clip clopped up and down the tin roof of the classroom. How can anyone keep a straight face when there’s a goat on your roof?

Also, from time to time we all get texts asking for money. While I’ve been writing this essay I’ve just received the following, all in upper case:


I’m pretty sure this is from a secondary school student who happened to be sitting just in front of me on the bus from Kigali to Gitarama last week. It’s commonplace for them to ask for your phone number; it seems to be a status thing to be able to say that they have a muzungu’s number in their address book. Usually there’s no follow up at all. Unfortunately this guy, like all the others, is wasting the cost of his text. There is just no money to support school fees, and it’s high time the government abolished fees for ALL pupils, and not just those in lower secondary.

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