Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Let’s talk about the blog

September 19th


Into Kigali early and straight in to the many changers. Today the rate is 915 to the pound. Then in to the internet café next door. This is reputed to have the best connection in town, but this morning the service is intermittent and sluggish. I don’t manage to post any blogs, and in a way that’s just as well. There’s a formal reprimand waiting for me from VSO, in the form of an email, about the content of the blog. That comes as a bolt from the blue. In all the 21 months I’ve been here I’ve only had two requests either to change something I’ve written or to anonymise individuals, and in each case I’ve done just that. Someone, or some people, have been making formal complaints to VSO without having the courtesy to speak to me first.

OK, they’ve had their say. Now let me have mine. Firstly, I’m aware that there is a very wide readership of this blog, and that the parents and friends of many volunteers read it. I’m also aware that it seems to be the one Rwanda blog potential volunteers are able to find before they come out. That is not something I have engineered. It’s because of the way the google search engine works, and I can’t do much to change it except leave place names out of the titles of posts.

Secondly, my blog is my personal diary; it’s my confessional. Anyone who has read the September postings will see that my life here is a mixture of the exhilarating and the intensely frustrating. The blog is where I celebrate the former and work the latter out of my system by writing about it. It’s my diary. It’s not intended to be a formal factual account. Again, reading the September entries there is at least as much positive about the country, its schools, and its teachers as there is negative. The sub title is “the ups and downs of life as an education adviser”, and that describes exactly what I’m writing about. I’m not about to airbrush the negatives or hardships away, and the whole integrity of this blog lies in it being honest and in its immediacy. If you want a scholarly account of life in Rwanda, or an official presentation, then you need to look elsewhere.

Thirdly my blog is not, and never has been, an official VSO affair. I have included the mandatory disclaimer.

Fourthly, I write the blog primarily for me, and not for other people. The pace of life here is fast; things we did last week seem months ago, and even the zaniest events of last year are half forgotten. I write in my language to make these two years in Rwanda come alive for me when I go back over it in years to come. The reason I post the blogs is so that my family back in England and elsewhere can read it and follow what I’m doing. Letters take weeks to reach home; blogs are instant and include pictures. I have many friends in my home area who want to learn about life in Rwanda, and many people have raised money for the various projects I’m funding here to bring clean water to schools. I never set out to write it as a briefing document for potential volunteers or their families.

Having said all the above, I’m genuinely hurt if people have taken offence at things I have written. It’s not my intention to lampoon or undermine people or institutions. I’m giving two years of my life as a volunteer to build them up, and by and large I think I’m doing a good job. So apologies if I have offended you; no doubt you’ll stop reading the blog, and the problem ends.

It seems to me that I have a choice of four routes with the blog. One is to remove the entire thing so that nothing remains accessible on the internet. I’m reluctant to do that because it means that one two people will have effectively had the power of censorship over me, and will have destroyed something that the majority of people who speak to me feel is useful and entertaining. Another is to remove all the text postings, but leave the pictures on the assumption that people are less likely to take offence at photos with short captions. That won’t work in the long term because you need the text postings to give context to the pictures. The third option is to make the blog private, with a password to gain access. This means that only people who correspond with me will be able to access it, and it removes any chance of people coming upon it by accident. (So, for example, the Danish architect who wrote to me last week asking for photos of traditional Rwandan buildings so that he could gain ideas for his firm’s building project in Rwanda – people like this man would not get any help). The fourth is to write the text in such a way that it will be difficult for anyone to take offence. I’m not sure whether this is practicable – it would mean writing two blog entries for each day, one private one for me which reminds me of what exactly happened, and another milder version which conceals most of the gritty things that make life here both amazing and exasperating.

At the moment I’m not sure which option to choose. I am discussing the problem with my volunteer colleagues here, who are my main support network. I’m still blogging, but may not be posting text for a while.

And, finally, if the person or people who felt offended is/are prepared to identify themselves, maybe we can get together and discuss things. Anonymous complaints from your volunteer colleagues or staff are insidious because they destroy the trust which we need to operate as the VSO community here.


This incident puts a dampener on the day. I have some shopping to do, and the plan is to meet up with Tina and Becky and have lunch together. In the event I go back to Gitarama on an early bus and bury myself in work for an hour, and then try to catch up on some rest.

Moira, Kerry, Charlotte and students from Kavumu are doing Akagera today; I hope the park has had some rain in the last week, otherwise it’s going to be an exceptionally dusty experience for everyone. I think it’s a tremendous idea to take all the students round the park; as westerners we tend to assume that most Rwandans have been to all their National Parks. The reality is that even many of the wealthiest and most educated section of the community have only been to one or two. And for pupils in the rural schools Rwanda’s parks are about as accessible as the surface of the moon.

In the evening it’s Karen’s birthday party. The theme is “wear a tee-shirt with a catchy slogan, a tee-shirt you’ve picked up in the market”. Becky and Karen have found an extra large one and have it waiting for me at their house. It’s bright red with the slogan “rather have hog’s breath than no breath at all” (oh dear, did I forget to clean my teeth this morning?). No doubt you’ll see the pictures eventually.

Christi has made an enormous birthday cake, and we have iced tea and homemade pizza rolls. Helen has found a house to live in which is only a hundred yards or so from Cathie’s old place; about the same distance from me as Soraya but in the opposite direction. Tom’s due back in a fortnight; there’s a rumour that he has shaved his head completely. Tom – if you’re reading this, make sure you’ve got some photos when you return!

Today marks an entire month without any water in the taps. The reservoir which supplies Gitarama is, so I’m told, completely dry. There is a spring somewhere in the vicinity which is still flowing, but there’s no way it can supply the whole town. I’m told that they are putting water through to particular parts of the town for a couple of hours at a time, and only then to particular taps. This probably explains why the SORAS houseboy tends to take my jerry can each evening and bring it back first thing the next morning. We’ll need at least a week of heavy rain before the reservoir fills enough to be usable, and I imagine water for the first few days will be unusable because of the amount of muck in it.

Speaking of water, Karen and Becky found, in their daily bucket of water, an enormous pink worm, like a piece of string. We’re not sure whether it was a species of tapeworm, but you certainly wouldn’t want the eggs from that thing hatching inside you! They’ve been boiling water for 20 minutes at a time ever since!

Back home with Léonie; the night air is cold and there’s lightning flickering in the north west, but a clear sky overhead. I watch a video “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and fall into bed, but the nightclub is thudding right through to five o’clock again, so sleep is intermittent.

Not my best day in Rwanda. Were it not for the support from our local volunteers and my colleagues at the District and the schools, I’d be tempted to leave Africa to its own devices and get the first plane home.

Water for Muheta, and the rains come at last!

September 18th

Today is an early start; I’m going to Muheta and Gasovu primary schools. These are the two furthest out schools in Rugendabari secteur, and by the end of today I will effectively have been to all the Rugendabari schools. There’s a little satellite school at Mpinga, but it only has years 1-3 and I’ll only go there if I have a half day clear when I’m going further up the valley. Muheta is about the furthest it’s practical to go if you’re trying to do two schools in a day.

Joseph arrives on time at seven and we set off through the cool morning across the mountains and up the Nyabinoni valley road. The weather is different today. The cloud is lower and consists of lumps of greyish black cumulus. It’s just a matter of time before the rains arrive, and I’ve got my heavy cagoule in my bag. The visibility is clearer, but not good enough to see the volcanoes yet from the mountain road.

To get to Muheta you have to pass a roll-call of schools which anyone who has read this blog will be familiar with – Nyabisindu, Biti, Mushubati, Gitongati, Mata, Kivomo, Rutaka, Kibanda, Gisiza, all the Mushishiro bunch, Nyamatete, Gasave, Nsanga, Rugendabari, Kirwa Catholic and Kirwa Adventist. That immediately gives you an idea of how far out we’re going. All along the Nyabinoni valley are gangs of T.I.G. (“pronounced “teege”) workers, improving the road. After Kirwa, contouring in and out of all the little gulleys on the earth road, we pass Gasovu secondary on the left on its little hill, then Gasovu health centre on the next little hill, and finally we come to a small village at a crossroads which is Gasovu centre. The primary school is just off to the left, but we are first heading up into the mountains to Muheta. The road to the school is hairy, and I most certainly wouldn’t want to come here on a bad day. The road is steep, and in some places has almost been made into steps because the vast majority of traffic here is on foot. There are places where I have to get off the big moto and let Joseph gingerly ease his way up the mountain. Needless to say, the views are superb. By the time we approach the school we are about three quarters of the way up from the Nyaborongo to the summit ridge of the Ndiza mountains. Fortunately there are signs to tell us where the school is, otherwise we’d never find it in a month of Sundays. Eventually the road gets slightly better and we pass through a dense forest of eucalyptus to end up on a hilltop, and there in front of us is the school.

The school’s situation is unusual in two ways. Firstly because it is located actually inside a government forest. There is no playground; no football pitch or volleyball court as in most schools. The buildings stand on a small, “L” shaped, patch of land where trees have been cleared, but from the flower beds outside each classroom the trees extend as far as the eye can see and cover the entire hilltop. Better, it isn’t like an English planted forest with gloomy conifers and nothing as ground cover; here the eucalyptus lets light through to the floor, and under the trees is lovely short grass. It’s a beautiful setting, with shade and tranquillity.

The other unusual feature is that Muheta is a split site school; the year 1 and 2 classes and maternelle lie about a hundred metres in altitude and half a mile away below us on the next hill. Léonidas, the head, is not there – someone has called a meeting of all the secteur heads today. But Alfred, the “responsable” knows I’m coming and welcomes me. He turns out to be a first class English teacher, and when I sit in on a lesson with his year six group it becomes one of the most pleasant lessons I’ve ever observed herein Rwanda. At the end of the lesson he asks me if I’ll answer questions from the group, and it becomes clear that they’ve prepared a series of questions. “How old are you”? “Are you married?” “How many children do you have?” are all pretty standard; but I also get “What are you going to do when you leave Rwanda?” which is not an easy one to answer.

During the lesson a little girl comes into the classroom, clutching a ball made of banana leaves and twine. She looks about 5 or 6 years old. Nobody pays any attention to her, and she seems to be accepted as “part of the furniture”. I soon discover that she’s Alfred’s daughter. She’s a lovely little thing, and not the slightest bit fazed by the muzungu who has come to the school. Later in the morning Alfred’s young son, also below school age, is around. I like the way these two tinies are accepted by all the older students with no fuss. In another lesson I sit next to one of the year 3 pupils; he is barefoot and wearing absolute rags. Nothing that he’s wearing is without patches and darns, everything has ragged seams and holes scuffed at the elbows. Poor little chap.

I see two more good lessons, and the “pearls of wisdom” session at the end is a dialogue. I like almost everything about this school. Their brick rooms are big, with windows on both sides, and feel welcoming despite the lack of material on the walls. The mud brick rooms not only have windows on both sides, but have been painted white inside. You can’t imagine just how much that improves the rooms as a working space. They are just about the only mud brick rooms I would feel happy to teach in. Furthermore, Muheta is finishing a big renovation project with its parents, to create two additional big rooms. One will be a staffroom, head’s office and store room; the other will be a library. Now this is the second school in a week to start talking about libraries (the other is Kibangu which is a much bigger primary with a tronc commun section).

On the top of the forested hill is a water tank which supplies the school, and possibly some of the surrounding houses too. The tank is buried, and Alfred tells me that water is piped into it from a spring high up on the opposite mountain. If I understand him correctly, then that is no mean feat of engineering. Next to the school is a concrete apron and tap for filling jerry cans, just like I’ve had installed at Cyeza and Gatenzi. But the tap is missing, either stolen or broken. So at the moment water has to be brought from another source and laboriously carried up the hillside from the year 1 and 2 buildings. I ask Alfred how much it would cost to repair the tap. He says about RwF14000 (£15) to fit two taps. And that’s not all. The school wants to turn one of its toilets into a wash/shower room, especially (but not exclusively) for the older girls to use. They would need to run a pipe down from the taps to the toilet block, about a hundred yards, and install piping and a shower head etc in the cubicle. The total cost of everything would be about RwF200,000 (about £220). I immediately tell them to get me a detailed estimate and that one of the VSOs will pay for the work. I know that Moira has some money from her Irish community and is asking me to look out for a suitable scheme. This is just what she needs. I take a lot of pictures to make a power point for her and to send back to Bray to show her sponsors. And if the Irish don’t want to fund this project, then I will. Muheta is yet another little school where there seems to be a spirit of get-up-and-go, and it will be my pleasure to help somewhere so isolated. By the end of the morning Alfred has rung the local “technician” (plumber) and gives me a written quotation for the work. So I tell him to go ahead with it.

As we leave Muheta all the children want to come up and say goodbye, and especially the year 6 class. We bump down the mountainside, stopping every now and then for me to take photos. Joseph is enjoying himself this week; he’s never been to most of the places he’s taking me to and he’s discovering parts of his district he didn’t know existed.

Some of the hillsides have huge gashes in them; you can see some of these in one of the photos. I can’t work out whether these are natural erosion gulleys from a long time ago, or whether they’re caused by mining. If they are from mining, it is most probably in search of Coltan. Coltan is prized everywhere at the moment and is an irresistible source of extra cash for anyone lucky enough to find an outcrop. The deposit tends to occur in long, thin seams like tin veins in Cornwall. What usually results is a vertical scar running up the mountainside with bright orangey-yellow rock exposed. The exposed earth gulleys immediately in the rains, and the land never recovers. But coltan mining is very recent (the stuff is used in mobile phones), and these features look to old to be coltan. Oh well, another unsolved mystery.

We cross the main earth road up the valley at Gasovu village, and run a few yards up the next hill to the primary school. The head is also away at the meeting, but the reception I get here is very different from that at Muheta.

It turns out to be difficult to find lessons to observe; there is a lot of Kinyarwanda being taught on a Friday afternoon, and a Maths and Social Sciences teacher is away. That doesn’t leave me with a lot of choices. In one lesson the teacher sets the pupils some exercises and then spends twenty minutes telling me how he is hungry and underpaid and that there are no resources at the school. A second lesson is much better. But the debrief with all the staff goes badly. For the first time ever since I arrived here I get the feeling that I’m not only not welcome, but that they’re dismissing me. They don’t accept the advice I’m trying to give them. They go on and on about what they haven’t got. One teacher in particular is dominating. When he says, in so many words, that it’s all right for me to come up the valley on an expensive moto and tell them what to do, but they can’t do it because they’re underpaid etc I lose my cool and tell him to back off. It occurs to me that they must think I’m some fat cat expat being paid a huge sum to come and impose on them. I explain that I’m a volunteer. But they don’t seem to be listening.

Their issues about pay and resources are valid, of course, but they also apply to all other primary schools, most of which are accepting them as givens and doing their best in the circumstances.

Outside it has started raining and it’s time to leave. Some of these teachers can hardly contain their glee when they point out that I’m going to get soaked on my way back home, and when I catch my foot against a stone and nearly stumble on the patch up to where Joseph is waiting with the bike, they break out in jeers. I think they feel they’ve “seen off the muzungu” and his fancy ideas.

It’s a shame. It leaves a slightly sour taste at the end of another very heavy week of visits, and I feel sorry for the pupils in the school. Their buildings are reasonable; the school has a lot going for it including solar panels on the office roof. It achieves respectable results but there is still plenty of room for improvement especially in languages. I don’t know if I’ve just caught them on a bad day, or whether one particular teacher with an axe to grind has been able to dominate the afternoon.

You can’t imagine a bigger contrast between today’s two schools. Gasovu’s results are far better than those at Muheta, but, by golly, I know which school I’d rather teach in!

OK, so it’s starting to rain. There’s no doubt, now, that the rains have at last arrived. There is thunder and lightning, and after a mile or so we seek shelter in a cluster of houses by a log bridge across a stream. Now remember that this is the earth road to Nyabinoni that Soraya and I spent seven hours navigating last autumn, and the same road where Becky and I had to turn back a few months ago. The very last thing I want is to be stuck here on a Friday night, and especially not after the reception I’ve just got at Gasovu.

Fortunately the rain stops after half an hour, and I tell Joseph to get moving. He’s reluctant, because when we look northwards towards Nyabinoni and beyond, the sky is jet black and you can see the most torrential rain falling. There’s still lightning in the distance. Joseph doesn’t want to get caught out in the open in that lot, and I don’t blame him. But I tell him that we’re still a long way up the valley and when we reach the main road we’ve got the mountains to cross. We need to get moving. If the rain comes we’ll be stuck here for hours, and by then it will be dark.

The problem with Joseph is that while he’s a safe driver and I have complete confidence in him, he’s also very slow. We averaging something not much better than jogging speed, and the road twists and turns so much that here we’re actually heading towards the storm, and a few seconds later we’re outrunning it. He keeps looking over his shoulder and muttering, but I can see that the storm is very slow moving and that if we can only make the main road we should be able to outrun it all the way home to Gitarama. It’s nerve wracking for both of us. I realise I should have taken pictures of the sky, but at the time I didn’t want to waste a second and just needed to get the hell out of the valley road and head for home!

We inch past the villages – Kirwa, Rugendabari, and eventually come to the main road junction just below Nsanga. We’re both tense, because what we can’t see is what the weather is like on the Gitarama side of the mountains – if the storm is already in Gitarama we’re going to get swamped. But, again, there are places to shelter at Mushishiro and Mata and Mushubati, so every four or five miles we can hole up if necessary. We both heave a sigh of relief as we come over the second summit cutting near Rutaka and see, if not blue sky, then at least high, thin clouds ahead of us. Behind us the sky is like something out of an artist’s impression of Noah’s Flood. The rain seems to have definitely passed Kibanda and is probably at Gasovu or Kirwa. But we’ve managed to outrun it.

I pay Joseph and send him on his way. He’s done us well this week. Back at the flat I set to and cook, using whatever remains in the fridge. I also start making Moira a power point about Muheta’s water supply proposal while I’ve got an omelette cooking in the frying pan. Not one of my better ideas. I look up after a minute and the kitchen’s full of smoke and I’ve come within a hair’s breadth of setting the flat on fire!

It’s been another busy week. I’m now up to 96 formal visits to 67 different schools, and I’ve already done more visits this term than in any of the other five since I arrived.

Best thing today – everything about Muheta.
Worst thing today – some of the things about Gasovu (but not everything – one lesson was good).

When being a headteacher means negotiating with your neighbours to buy more land.

September 17th

Off to Nyarusange secteur today with Léonie. The main purpose for the day is to show her how I operate so that when she starts looking at schools in Kamonyi District she’s got an idea of what to expect, and with a bit of luck we’ll have a degree of compatibility in how we look at places. We meet Claude just before leaving, so now he can put a face to the name, and we ask him to have words with her Directeur when he next sees her and explain how he works with Soraya and I so as to make things easier for Becky and Léonie.

Nyarusange is a school I’ve inspected before, but only the tronc commun section, so I feel justified in spending time looking at the primary part. But to show Léonie how I operate, we do the tour of the site and the Inspection Administratif as well. Nyarusange is a huge place, with 1800 primary pupils, plus 150 in the TC section and another 300 expected to come over the next two years. By about 2015 it will be at least 2500 strong.

The school is busily mobilising its parents to build more classrooms for January. They need four, but are only getting enough money to create three. That means either Prudence is going to lose his head’s office, or the staff their staffroom. Watch this space! And for 2011 the problem is even more acute. The school has a narrow, “L” shaped patch of land, and it is now all built over except for the playground. The playground is already inadequate for around 2000 pupils and must not be nibbled at; it is one of the very few playgrounds which is both flat and virtually big enough for a full sized football pitch. Prudence is committed to negotiating with one of the school’s neighbours to buy a plot of land so that he can enlarge the site and build. But even that is not simple, because the site is very steeply sloping and there will need to be a fair bit of earthmoving before any bricks can be laid. And they need more toilets. It’s a sign of the times that even one of the two school cows has been sold off to bring in some badly needed revenue!

The admin inspection is different from virtually any other school. Prudence is deep into ICT; he has his own computer and every document is neatly word processed. His strategic plan is really excellent and I pinch a copy to have on my flash drive to use as an exemplar elsewhere.

Nyarusange is a good school. It came 18th out of 94 last year, and 10th in Science. But it has problems – there is no water on the site. Imagine – a school of 2000 without water. And there aren’t (yet) the jerrycans of water, soap and towels for hygiene that you see in many other schools. The toilet hygiene is well under way to being put right, but the place really needs five or six Afritanks; their needs are way beyond my capacity to meet.

We watch three English lessons; an excellent one in year 6 where the teacher even asks pupils to be creative and write their own sentences using prepositions of place; and two other very reasonable lessons in which pupils are always applauded for right answers; where the teachers know and use their names; where the pace is fast and pupils are purposeful and want to learn.

The “pearls of wisdom” session at the end is a happy affair, and Nyarusange is a school we’re congratulating but suggesting ways of becoming even better. (Rwandan teachers almost never differentiate lessons so as to stretch the brightest pupils. This is something we’re suggesting to the Nyarusange teachers, and they seem receptive to the idea).

Nyarusange has lost two teachers at the moment and is struggling to find replacements. One teacher is off ill and may be away for quite a while. The other, a man, was arrested last week and nobody is expecting him back any time soon. If he is found guilty he won’t be able to teach ever again. Nobody is telling us what his crime is, which suggests it’s serious.

It’s hot and stuffy, and we need to move on to Kaduha. Prudence has gone to a meeting in Gitarama so Gaston, the former head, takes us in hand and insists on taking us out for lunch at a local bar. Here we dine on rabbit (complete with the head), ibitoke and a sauce with no spoon or method of using it. I’m not expecting to eat at all at mid day, and we’re rather caught off guard; not least when we realise we’ll have to pay for both ourselves and the four staff who’ve come to eat with us. Nice one!

All very well, but it means we’re very late getting to Kaduha. I’m not going to bother with another Inspection Administratif, so we settle for a quick tour of the site and visit two classes. The contrast with Nyarusange is profound. Kaduha is small (600 pupils) and has performed badly, coming 88th out of 94 last year. Unfortunately, as soon as we start watching lessons, it becomes evident that it won’t be doing much better this year.

We find year 4 pupils who can’t do their four times table (6x4= anything from 12 to 32), and yr 1 pupils who even at the end of year one can’t draw their numbers up to ten.

I feel for Eugène, the head, too. He’s a thoroughly nice guy and yet I know that if he doesn’t raise the standards here pretty quickly he will be held responsible. As we’re leaving we notice the old church which use to stand in the school grounds, and which we thought the school was going to convert into an all purpose room, has been demolished. But the news is good. The Catholic Church is going to rebuild the premises (which dated from the 1930s and thus counts almost as a historic building out here in the countryside) with a new church, a catechism room for the youngsters, and some sort of all purpose room (which may or may not include part of the church floor space). That’s good news for Kaduha.

Back home, too tired to cook tonight. So out to Nectar for a mélange and then settling down to write up today’s reports. I’m so looking forward to a quiet weekend and the prospect of a public holiday on Monday!

One of my favourite schools

September 16th

Hooray, it’s still dry and I’ve got two new schools to visit. I’m woken at 5.30 by a phone call from Joseph, my moto driver. He’s misheard the phone call I gave him last night and has turned up at the District Office at daybreak. I tell him to come back in two hours’ time. I’m sure I gave him the right time. His English is nonexistent; his French isn’t up to much, and I could hear his wife in the background when I rang him. I think he was a bit distracted.

Anyway, eventually we set off through the morning cool and cross the mountains into Rugendabari. I’m off to Kirwa Adventist School. This was the one I tried to get to with Becky when she first arrived here, only to find the earth road up the valley had turned into glue.

This time there’s no problem. The river winds below me, and beside the road are gangs of prisoners preparing the surface for a layer of earth to level it. (They’ll just about get the earth spread in time for the rains which will turn it into glue again, and the first truck that tries to go up the valley will dig deep ruts, and we’ll be back to where we were last month). What a total waste of time and effort. Come on you Rwandans – you need to tarmac this road!

Kirwa Adventist is a very successful school. Its number ten out of 94 in the exam result league table from last year. It’s perched a long way up on a hillside; the approach road is steep, bumpy and unforgiving. There’s a big brick Adventist church, and the school buildings make a “U” shape with the church closing off the fourth side. Some of the buildings are very nice structures in brick, light and airy and welcoming, but the rest are mud brick. A water pipe, its tap long since removed, is pouring a thin stream of water down the hillside when it’s not being used by the school or the surrounding villagers.

Gervais, the head, is a lovely guy. He’s also a good manager, a man with vision, and he is leading the school brilliantly. There’s a well thought out development plan with performance targets, a lively budget, and the ability to harness his Adventist parents. The school gardens are harvested, but have banana trees, and the remains of cassava and bean plants. Cow grass is already sown and growing because the school plans to have a cow as a money making venture next year. They need to rebuild the toilets, one block of which is spectacularly derelict, smelly, and looks about to career down the mountainside and deposit its loathsome contents on the villagers below!

There are three mud brick classrooms nearing completion, and I assume they are ready to start a Tronc Commun section next year. But no; one is for the nursery, one for the head to give him a permanent office, and the other will be the staffroom. That will give an older, full size classroom as a store.

In Gervais’ current office, in an empty classroom, prominent on the wall, is a certificate of achievement for good exam results from the Adventist Congregation of Rwanda, and another one done by me and presented to him last May by the mayor in return for his school’s excellent performance.

We do the admin inspection – needless to say, Kirwa’s paperwork is in excellent order. Then I watch three classes. In a social studies session in year 6 the teacher goes at a cracking pace, and manages to sustain his pupil’s involvement throughout a session on “protecting important public places”. I think that’s more than I would have been able to do! I go through his planning book and copy his name onto my official observation sheet. But at the end of the lesson I discover his real name isn’t the one on the register, but Jean Bosco somebody. According to the head, the previous incumbent has fled the school and probably Muhanga District in disgrace, after having raped one of the year six girls in his class earlier this year. Well, the school has gained from his departure, because our Jean Bosco is a cracking good teacher and gets a really good write up from me!

Another teacher with a year four group is doing the past continuous (“I was going to the market” etc). One little lad makes me laugh out loud when he accidentally comes out with some broad Dorset and shouts in response to the teacher’s question “the nurse were looking after the patient”.

I do a “pearls of wisdom” with the whole staff, and then Gervaise asks me to speak to the entire school, assembled on the playground. Fortunately the weather has clouded up and it’s breezy and pleasant rather than baking hot. The children here are simply delightful; as Joseph drives me down the hill (we have to go at not much more than walking pace because the ground is so uneven) we are surrounded by dozens of pupils at the start of their lunch break. Not one of them asks for money; every single one wants to talk to me and many of them very politely say “thank you” to me for coming to visit their school. What a lovely place. Definitely one of my top half dozen schools for achievement, ethos and general pleasantness.

There’s no time for lunch today; I’m off to another school for the afternoon and I’m already late. Nyamatete school is very different from Kirwa. It is new, and this is the first year it has had all six year groups present, and qualified to be an independent school in its own right with its own head teacher. Christine is alarmingly pregnant, and I worry for her on the way to and from school because of the state of the approach “road”. Nyamatete turns out to be one of the most inaccessible schools in the entire District. I would definitely not want to try to reach it in very wet weather. There is no proper road into it; you have to follow a little footpath down a steep hillside; it’s more a scramble than a walk and with lots of bare earth the path would be treacherous in rain. Then you have to jump across boulders to cross a stream. (I’ve long since given up with the moto and told Joseph to go back up to the main road and wait for me for a couple of hours). The stream would be positively hazardous if it were to be swollen with a flash flood, and because it’s literally backing onto the highest part of the Ndiza Mountains I bet the rain comes down this valley like a tidal wave.

Then I have to walk the best part of a mile down a little, steeply sloping path until I eventually come out at a depressingly grubby hamlet, and finally the school. The school is one of the poorest I’ve ever seen in terms of construction, despite being new. It’s a carbon copy of Busekera school in Cyeza, which really shocked me last year by being so appallingly built as a new venture. Nyamatete isn’t quite so awful, but runs it pretty close. Uneven earth floors, mud brick walls, but at least they’re all plastered on the inside. There’s an enormous grassy playing area, with a football pitch. However, there’s such a dip in the middle of the football pitch that the little boys playing in the dip almost certainly can’t see either of the goals because they’re over the horizon of the dip! One good thing about Nyamatete is that they’ve spend what tiny capitation grant they get on making sure all pupils, even in yr 1, have proper desks to write on. Consequently their letter formation is better than some of the Nyabinoni schools’.

There’s a “succursale” being built in one corner of the playing field, and it looks as though some of the neighbours are also trying to encroach onto another corner of the site. Most Rwandan primary schools have lots of trees planted round the perimeter to give lunchtime shade to pupils, and eventually to sell for firewood or as roofing beams for houses. Nyamatete is unusual in having just about no trees at all. This gives it a forlorn, open, bleak aspect which the mud buildings don’t help. From one angle it looks as if the first heavy rainstorm will melt it back into the hillside whence it came!

Despite the general grottiness of the buildings, Nyamatete gives me two good lessons, one of them very good indeed. The year 1 teacher is almost too active, but her class are absolutely riveted by her and they’ve got all the body parts learnt off pat. They think it’s really cool when she tells them they’re going to sing to the muzungu in his own language, and we spend half an hour shaking our heads, arms and legs and pointing to various bits of our anatomy. Some of the weenies are so desperate to be chosen to answer questions that they get up out of their seats and rush to the front of the class. This teacher’s got a sense of drama in her gestures. She gets pupils to repeat phrases row by row rather than that tiresome one-pupil-at-a-time business. Her classroom has got plenty of posters, as has the year 5 room I go in. And some of them are copies of the rice sack posters we showed them at a training last year! And the year 5 teacher actually asks pupils to be creative and compose examples of prepositions of place for her: that’s unheard of in most Rwandan schools.

There is a “school clap” which Nyamatete uses for every good piece of work or right answer to a difficult question. They clap, clap, clap, stamp, stamp, stamp, and then all do a Rwandan clap and shout out “yes, class!”. It’s lovely. At the end of the lesson I say “thank you” to teacher and class; I tell them they have a really good teacher and we do the Nyamatete clap for their teacher, Valerie. The little ones think this is even better and they’re all buzzing with talk about it, and me, as I walk out of the school fifteen minutes later!

It just shows you that the buildings aren’t the paramount thing; it’s all about the quality of teaching. I don’t spend very long in the school; the head teacher isn’t there when I arrive and I can get most of the information I need from Brigitte, the “responsable”. I decide I’m too tired to do the full admin inspection, and since this school has never had year 6 pupils before, there aren’t any past exam results to discuss.

I slog back up the steep path, over the stream, and emerge perspiring onto the mountain road where Joseph is propped up against a tree snoozing, while the wind is blowing a gale down the mountainside. I can’t be bothered with the tremendous views this afternoon; I feel really tired and just want to get back home.

I call in at the office to say I’m back, and tell them I’m off on my travels for the next two days. Claudine is still in the office at well after four o’clock, and still surrounded by head teachers from the up country schools have are evidently not going home tonight and will have spent two whole days and night in the fleshpots of Gitarama! Claudine warns me that Monday is a public holiday (Eid ul Fitr), and that all schools will be closed. So, knowing that, why on earth did the heads of Butare and Ngoma agree to me yesterday when I said I was coming to see them on Monday? Honestly, this Rwandan inability to say “no” or to contradict a muzungu is driving me crazy!

In town I meet Léonie, so I can tell her the pickup arrangements for tomorrow morning, and explain that we can’t go to Nyabisindu “B” school because the bridge that leads to it is down and is being mended. I’ll try to get us into Kaduha instead; I ought to give it another look over.

Back at the flat I decide to cook up a pasta meal, but I’m so tired while I’m doing it that I get some of the quantities wrong and it doesn’t taste as nice as it should. Oh well, just got time to try to write up a school report. And if all else fails it looks as if I’ll have all Monday to write reports and compile the missing blog entries!

It’s been another good day. Two more new schools done, and some good lessons seen.

Meeting and greeting, plotting and scheming, a conversation with the Bishop

September 15th

Today is Gacaca. It’s also one of the big head teachers’ meetings in Gitarama, so there’s not much point in arranging to go out and visit schools. I decide to stay in Gitarama and try to rest up a bit.

Instead, I’m flat out in the office printing copies of inspection reports to give to all the schools I’ve visited recently. That’s not as easy as it sounds because the only printer is at Claudine’s desk, and since she’s the payroll person just about every single head thinks he or she can have Claudine’s attention for ten minutes to solve financial problems relating to their particular school. There’s a constant scrum of people round her desk, in front of her, beside her, even behind her. I’m frightened that somebody will move clumsily and trip over the printer cable and smash my laptop on the floor. That would be a tragedy….

Jeanne from Nyabisindu school comes in to say hello and remind me that her dowry ceremony is fast approaching. Good job she reminds me because I was very close to agreeing to do a training with Soraya right up in Rongi on the same day. I might have fun and games getting back to Gitarama in time for the do if it rains hard next week, but we’ll have to play things by ear. As always here, where personal relations are concerned, there’s another agenda. What she’s really asking is whether I’m prepared to make a contribution towards her dowry. It’s the way they do things here. So I pull her leg and ask her how many cows she thinks she’s worth. Quick as a flash she says “ten”. That’s a huge amount, I say – even Cathie, so far as I remember, was married for seven cows! That’s what I like about Jeanne, she thinks big and she’s got the cheek and charm to carry it off. So I pledge some money towards her dowry, and hope that her (lawyer) fiancé knows he’s taking on a high maintenance partner in a month’s time!

Next I have something approaching a contretemps with the Bishop of Shyogwe. He wants to take over the four new rooms we’re building with money from Holland and use them to start a tronc commun section. But this is not what we agreed when we gave them the money, and I tell him that the funding providers won’t accept anything which leaves the year one classes in their dangerous rooms. The debate gets quite heated; the bishop is anxious to trace another 5000 euros that once again seems to have got lost somewhere in all the financial progressions between Amsterdam and Shyogwe.

The meeting is supposed to start at ten; by eleven there’s a throng around Claudine and Claude finally loses patience and tells them to shift themselves down to the meeting right now! The meeting is being held on one of the local schools, St Marie Reine. It has a lovely big hall, with an amazing mural on the wall. St Marie Reine’s speciality in the sixth form is pre-nursing training (actually it’s the only training most nurses around here seem to get), and the mural shows, from left to right, an idyllic rural scene with mountains, lakes and farms. Then there’s an earth road with a group of adults carrying an ill person in a litter. Finally, the right hand side of the mural represents Gitarama town with big buildings, and the hospital complete with land rover ambulance and stethoscope-toting doctors. It’s the best mural I’ve seen in the whole country. And, as usual, I didn’t have my camera with me to take a picture. (Well, would you take your camera to an official meeting of headteachers?)

The meeting is fairly chaotic, but just as happened up at Bubaji I get asked if I want to say something. I take the chance to tell 25 heads that I’ve got inspection reports for them to read, and I ask some heads of schools I want to visit if they’ll come and introduce themselves to me. The rest of the meeting is giving out the official entry forms, duly stamped, signed, and with pupils’ photos on, which are the entry ticket for this year’s primary 6 concours exam in October.

While they’re being issued, the headteachers come to collect their reports and most spend the rest of the meeting poring over my English, occasionally working in groups to try to translate my prose….

I’ve arranged solid visits for the next week or so, some ten schools, and various others going on until the end of the first week in October. I know the rains will probably screw everything up, but at least I’ve got to try.

On Thursday I’m taking Léonie as part of her induction to two schools in Nyarusange secteur. My plan is to go to Nyarusange itself, which is huge and right next to the main road, and then on to Nyabisindu B, which is new to me and out in the wilds. The head of Nyabisindu laughs and says not to come until early October. There’s a bridge down, and the workmen are trying to rebuild it before the rains come. The school is only accessible on foot, and only then with difficulty. If there is heavy rain in the next 24 hours the school will have to close because even its own pupils won’t be able to get there. Never mind; I’m infinitely flexible and I’ll just find another school. Kaduha, perhaps, which could only manage very mediocre results this year and could do with a follow-up visit. It’s another one which is conveniently right next to the main road!

As I leave the meeting I meet up with Stéphanie from Shyogwe and tell her about the Bishop’s brainwave to take her new rooms. Fortunately she’s absolutely at one with me on the issue.

After the meeting I go for lunch in “Tranquillité”, (and to try to put on a more charitable frame of mind), but there’s a funny feel to the place, and while I sit there for a good ten minutes, nobody comes to serve me. Now I know its Gacaca today, but they usually serve everybody. Eventually I get fed up and go down the road to “Nectar” where I’m served straight away. Black mark, “Tranquillité”; could do better!

Talking of Gacaca, as Soraya and I were walking down to St Marie Reine for the meeting we passed a Gacaca court in session. Four or five judges with their sashes of office, and about thirty or so people, all sitting under a couple of big avocado trees on a patch of grass just down from our office. At the same time very informal, but also very formal in their powers. There’s no way we could have taken a photo even if we wanted to.

Back up to the office in the afternoon. Étienne from Cyicaro is supposed to be calling in for me to download a virus killer on his stricken laptop, but he never appears. What I do find, though, is the absolute final secondary census form, from St Jean de Nyarusange. It’s not complete, but I’m beyond caring. I play around for an hour entering up the data and starting to do Claude a power point, but by then it’s more or less the end of the afternoon and the office is emptying.

All afternoon it’s been stiflingly hot and unbearably humid. The sky has gone that gunmetal blue colour and it looks as if there’s a massive storm approaching. And yet within an hour or so the heat and humidity have dissipated, and it’s raining a gentle shower for ten minutes. For the rest of the afternoon it is grey, overcast, quite chilly and neither raining properly nor ever quite not raining. I find it fascinating trying to judge when the actual main rains are coming. Every time I think “this is it – the big electrical storm is arriving which will mark the change” – things fizzle out.

There are still a lot of the headteachers either besieging Claudine in the other office, or trying to bend Claude’s ear. What is so lovely is that a lot of them come in to my office to say hello and generally pass the time of day. They’re treating today as a day out; there’s lots of laughter and endless gossip, all eventually probably more important than the formal meeting they were supposed to be here for.

Back to the flat via the market. I cave in tonight and pay 150 for a kilo of spuds. Everybody seems to be asking the same price; I suppose it must be something to do with the seasons and the prices rising before the rains come and bring on the next crop.

At the flat it’s an easy meal to prepare because it’s basically last night’s left overs plus spuds and peas and excessively spicy salami. Moira comes round to talk about likely schools to place her teacher training students and we spend half an hour going over the options in Muhanga district. I invite her to stay over for tea and it makes a nice relaxing evening, especially as between us we finish off some of the English chocolate I brought back in August, not to mention the odd nip of Mbanza to wash everything down!

Then, I’m afraid, it’s a quick attempt at today’s blog and preparing notes on tomorrow’s two schools. No peace for the wicked!

Best thing about today – feeling quite at ease with all the head teachers. They scared me to death when I first met them all in January last year; now they all know me and most of them will stop to talk. It’s a good feeling.

Worst thing – not getting out to any schools. Not my fault, but I’ve missed a precious day of dry weather when there won’t be many left….

Teaching about Ryangombe without resources

September 14th

Into the office early with a massive hit list of things to do. By five past seven I’ve printed off eight inspection reports and plonked them down on Claude’s table for him to read and be impressed.

What a pity he isn’t in today. And it means most of the things on my shopping list of jobs to do can’t be done because I need to get information or decisions from him. What’s the disposition of all the schools in Kiyumba? What’s he going to do to tell the Nyabinoni schools they mustn’t beat primary children? What’s he going to say to the local head teacher to stop her school preventing pupils attending until they’ve made a voluntary donation towards a building project? When can he get me an official government pad of lesson observation sheets….?

The Kibingo census form has arrived under my door, so I’m only missing one more now.

I spend no less than two hours blogging and dealing with emails (Claude has been thoughtful enough to leave the modem in his drawer), and then I ring Cyeza and arrange to go and watch History and Geography lessons there. Getting to Cyeza is so easy now – I know the price and route and everything else. I remember how distant it seemed last year, and how much I had to screw up courage to get on a bike on my own (without Cathie) and go there, and I laugh at myself. Why am I such a timid bunny at times?

Soraya comes into the office and between us we start planning for a Kiyumba week next week. We can’t get very far with this because we don’t yet know where all the schools are, and everything is going to depend on the rains, but at least we’ve pencilled in the dates and some possible schools. I’ll ring the priests at Kanyanza on Friday evening.

At Cyeza I dismiss the moto because I don’t know how long I’m going to be there. As it happens I watch two lessons with an hour’s break in the middle when I find a tree and sit under it to relax in the middle of the countryside and fend off all the curious people who want to come and stare at a muzungu who is hanging around doing nothing. I wonder if they will come and ask me for money; the kids are just brazen but the adults try to be more subtle. Nothing doing, guys, I’m afraid, and you can’t charge a muzungu for sitting under a roadside tree!

An extraordinary thing happens. A wave of pupils is dismissed from lessons and charges off down the dirt road towards the river and the surrounding houses. This seems odd; morning school finishes at 1215 and this is only about 11 o’clock. Then, around twenty minutes later and just as I’m going to watch my second lesson, these pupils all come back to the school. And every single one of them is carrying stones on their heads. Great big slabs for the older children; smaller stones for the weenies. In the meantime they’ve all made little carrying rings of banana leaf to protect their heads from the weight of the rocks. They silently process past the classroom window and you can hear the thumps as they add their rocks to the pile at the building site where new classrooms are going up. Nothing quite sums up the “do it yourself or do without” situation of the schools here. The pupils are literally going out to find stones to help build their new classrooms, and their parents are giving their time free each morning to make mud bricks, dig foundations, make cement and lay the stones and bricks to construct classrooms.

It’s the same teacher doing history and geography. She knows her stuff but has no resources and therefore it is difficult for her to make her lesson come to life. The class is sullen and unhelpful and there’s a constant buzz of talking in the back of the room even with me sitting there. In history she is teaching about the cult of Ryangombe. Ryangombe is a central figure in Rwandan mythology; the popular and successful hunter and leader who was eventually killed by a wild buffalo and now resides on the top of Karisimbi mountain. The pupils find it all a bit boring and irrelevant. In the debrief I suggest that next time she starts with the relevance of Ryangombe today. There are still men who like to model themselves on the warrior hero, and various rituals and observances remain. That would hook the pupils, especially some of the boys, and would make it easier for her to trace back to the roots of the legend.

After I’ve debriefed I start walking back towards Gitarama. There’s a fair amount of traffic on the earth road and I trust that sooner or later I’ll find a lift. It’s the heat of the day (I seem to make a habit of doing long walks at the wrong time of day), but after walking about half the entire distance I’m very relieved to find a moto without a passenger and negotiate a fair price back to the office.

Last time I came to Cyeza I got charged a lot for “waiting time”. Doing things this way has cost me 2500 instead of 4000, and a lot of exercise to reduce the flab I’ve put on up in Nyabinoni last week.

In the afternoon I’m working really hard on writing reports, trying to phone schools to arrange visits, and trying to do last week’s blog postings. I find that when I’ve been away on one of these trips up country every day turns out to be an adventure and trying to remember all of it for posterity means I’m writing long essays! But even reading what I’ve put about the Rongi trip ten days ago reminds me of incidents I’d already forgotten, and I find all this writing very therapeutic. I must be taking out all my frustrations on you people who are my readers! Sorry, folks! Rwanda is beautiful and I wouldn’t change my placement for anything. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. But, yes, it does get tedious and annoying at times.

Some schools for the rest of the week are easy to contact; others don’t answer their phones. I have to keep reminding myself that we’re in hill country and it’s quite possible that the teachers are never able to use their phones while they’re at work. Only three out of six schools make positive contact. Never mind, they’ll all be at a big meeting in Gitarama tomorrow so I’ll be able to nobble them and finalise my travel plans.

I cook up a huge vegetable stew so that there’s enough left for tomorrow, and by then I’m pooped and totally ready for bed.

Best thing about today – going out to Cyeza; it’s my 90th formal visit to a school. Ten more to go to my self-imposed target!

I'm getting preoccupied with water

Saturday and Sunday, September 12th and 13th

This is going to be a quiet weekend. Most of the girls are off to the north to climb Karisimbi volcano. My feet aren’t up to a two day climb, and in any case I’m too tired from the week’s visits. Soraya wants time to recover, too, so I’m resigned to being on my own until Sunday evening.

I don’t get much sleep during the night. The night club down the road is thudding out a heavy bass line until five in the morning, at which point the guard gets up and his dogs start yapping. After the infinite quiet of Nyabinoni, with nothing but the distant coughing of cows and the early morning buzz of bees around flowering eucalyptus trees, Gitarama sounds so noisy. I wish I were back up in the wilds!

I get up early and I’m fazed by the water crisis. There’s no water even in the downstairs tap. The SORAS houseboy tells me there may be no water for four weeks. That means I have about three quarters of a jerry can of water and nothing else at all. (Except for my filter, which happily I filled right up before I left to go on my travels this week). It means that I’m going to have to wander from house to house with a bucket to get water until the rains come and the system gets back to “normal”.

I start to minimise water. No washing – use wetwipes. No flushing the loo – shut the lid and let everything stink in there with the window wide open. Washing up in an inch of water and never mind if the pans aren’t 100% clean; then throw the filthy water down the toilet. No washing hands before I eat – use the disinfectant gel that’s been sitting on my bedside table for months. No beer – it’s dehydrating. Sips of water rather than gulps. Put all this together and my jerry can should at least last me all the weekend and possibly Monday too. That should give me time to find a way round the problem.

I get started on writing up my inspection visits. Six reports, each of around six sides. It’s a lot of writing. By late morning I’m on my fourth. Then two things happen in quick succession. The SORAS houseboy has found somewhere nearby which has water. He’s filled up all his jerry cans and asks me if I want him to get water for me. Do I want…… this guy’s a saint! He fills a jerry can and two buckets for me and my immediate problems are over. I can even have a wash in a kettleful of warm water and perhaps the luxury of a shave, too. Mustn’t frighten the locals too much with my ghastly grey stubble!

Its good timing that I’ve got myself civilised, because within the hour I’m hosting Mike and family en route to camp in Nyungwe Forest. There’s rarely a day when we don’t have some of the other volunteers calling round, but the twins are definitely the youngest visitors we’ve ever had here!

After they’ve set off south I finish my fourth report and start making lunch. I’m tired with eating other people’s food and want to make something of my own. I’m afraid I’m not very imaginative in these situations and it ends up as my usual vegetable soup, this time with sweet potatoes instead of “Irish” spuds because the latter are still an exorbitant 150 francs a kilo (15p) in the market. Sweet potatoes are only 100 francs, so how sad am I that I’m saving 5p…..?

By the end of the afternoon I’ve nearly finished a fifth report, but I’m getting seriously jaded and need a change. In the evening I cook up an experimental concoction with salami sausage in runny peanut sauce, French beans and carrots with shell pasta. It’s wholesome enough but it wouldn’t win any prizes. The guard, who hasn’t been fed for over a week, can hardly believe his eyes when I bring him a plate of food.

I decide to watch a video for the evening, and I manage to get one of Piet’s films (Vanilla Sky) to run using my VLC software. It’s a bit clunky – the film seems to be divided up into 20 minute sections and I keep having to find and load the next segment, but it passes the evening. When I’ve seen it I can delete it and free up more space on my hardware. I also spend half an hour tidying up music files; I discover that some CDs are on my computer twice and I need the space for all the photos I keep taking….

During the evening it starts to rain properly. There has been a gusty wind blowing for most of the afternoon, and It’s been evident the rains are upon us. I’ve spent an hour making lists of the schools I think I can visit during the next week or two, but I think I’m going to be overtaken by the weather sooner than I thought. I curse myself for not getting more done as soon as I returned from England in August, but there you are – hindsight is a wonderful thing!

Sunday morning dawns cool and windy. More rain to come. At least I’ve been able to sleep without night music or yappy dogs.

Up early and get the final inspection report done. That’s a load off my mind. I decide to go to Momma’s for church because with all the girls up the mountain we’ll be short of muzungus at the service. I decide to practise my water minimising new life, so I mix a kettle of warm and kettle of cold water (that’s about 3 pints, not much at all), and use it to wash hair, shave and shower. Then it flushes the loo. Ha! I’m getting the hang of this economising lark! Just takes twice as long as usual, that’s all.

At Momma’s there’s only Meredith and Edison, the two Peace Corps volunteers, besides me. The service is more disorganised than usual; they’ve had a problem during the night with a young man taking an overdose of somebody else’s medication, and they’re not sure whether he’s going to pull through. All the adults are preoccupied; the orphans are unsettled and fidgety.

At the end of the service Arlene (Momma) asks me to sort out a problem with children at a local school. The school is demanding 2000 francs from each child for a building project. That’s all very well, and happens at most schools from time to time, but while Momma will try to find the money for each of her orphans, there are another 26 or so local children from desperately poor families who she supports in some way, from supplying shoes (pupils are not allowed to come to the town schools without shoes) to providing money for pens and notebooks. Apparently the school is demanding money from these children as well, and I understand that one child has been told she can’t come to school until she finds the money. Now that’s not on. It’s almost certainly breaking the law here, and certainly breaks the spirit of free education for the basic nine years which is the government’s current mantra. The head teacher is a colleague of mine, but if I find she knows this is what’s happening then she’s damned well going to have to change in a hurry or she won’t stay head teacher for long! Anyway it means that on Monday morning I’m going to have to throw my weight about in the office over this issue as well as the Nyabinoni practice of beating children for offences like lateness. I feel confident enough now to make a stir without worrying about cultural sensitivities…..

Back to the flat and dine on some more of yesterday’s soup (it made four batches), with left over pasta thrown in. On a whim I defrost some strawberry pulp that’s been lurking in the freezer for months (Delphine’s strawberries from the last rainy season). I decide to bring them to the boil just in case there are bugs left in them. Boiling pulped strawberries doesn’t do anything at all or the taste, I can tell you, but having kept them this long I’m not going to waste them.

With my official inspection reports done it’s time to start catching up on blogs, and that takes the whole of the afternoon. Outside the wind is whipping the leaves around; it’s like being in Dorset in our everlasting gales except that the temperature here is about 20 degrees warmer and the leaves being blown about are on banana trees!

At the Muzungu meal we are sixteen, with thirteen VSOs because we have Jane and Amalia with us en route for their placements in the south. Many of the girls have just come back from climbing Karisimbi volcano and are full of it – the slog, the useless mountain paths etc. Our group of people is so big it’s impossible to have conversations with everyone.

Back home and sort out some photos for the blog, and then bed. Another busy week beckons!

Back from Nyabinoni to "civilisation"

September 11th

Up and off to early mass again. We’ve had a text from Claude to say that after all, he isn’t going to be able to come and pick us up in a car, so we have to arrange our own transport back to Gitarama. We decide that it will be cheaper if we can get the two moto drivers from Kibangu to take us down to the tarmac road at Rugandabari, and then get a taxi bus back to town. The system works well in the end, but we’re desperately squashed in the matata. At one point there are five people in every row except ours, and six (plus a baby) in one of them. That’s approaching Tanzanian standards of overcrowding!

On the way back Soraya wants to stop at Shaki primary to pick up some rice sacks she left for them to copy when she did a training there on Wednesday. Now Michael has been to Shaki and warned me how awful the place was, but when I arrive there I’m really shocked. The staff are hard working, but the buildings are just appalling. The whole site is treeless, bleak, unloved. The school was built around forty years ago and seems to have had no maintenance ever since. The walls are crumbling for want of plaster; even the grounds look unloved and uncared for. We go into the staffroom to find the floor lined with washing up bowls of water, where the teachers are trying to wash the everlasting mud brick dust out of their white coats.

The road down to Rugendabari seems to take forever. It’s extremely hot and sultry, and by the time we reach the tarmac I’m getting seriously dehydrated. Fortunately we don’t have very long to wait for a bus, and we shelter from the sun under somebody’s porch.

Back in Gitarama, the place seems hellishly loud and uncouth and frantic after the pleasant quiet of Nyabinoni. If anybody tells us “bet you’re glad to be back”, we’ll say that “no, really, we both feel more at home up in the wilds”.

It’s been a tremendous week. Eight schools visited, every single one of them new ones. We feel we’ve well and truly earned our spurs as volunteers, and also that we’ve finally earned some acceptance by the head teachers because we’ve demonstrated we’re prepared to go to any part of the district to do our job

E P Jandari - my smallest state school


Jandari is my smallest state primary school, with just under a hundred pupils in two shifts, morning and afternoon. It has been started to relieve pressure on Rutongo school which is a big primary of 1080 pupils in the wilds of Kabacuzi. Jandari is run as an "ecole satellite" of Rutongo. This picture is looking up into the mountains towards Jandari from the edge of Rutongo's playground. Although we are well into the rainy season the morniungs are often sunny and extremely hot, as you can tell from this picture!


This is a good example of a common economy measure when building schools. The main structural pillars are made of fired brick, but the intervening parts of walls are of mud brick, and the whole structure is held together by mud cement and not portland cement. As a result the cement is gradually washed out from between the bricks by rain. The initial construction costs may be cheaper than building "properly", but ultimately it's a false economy because the structures need constant maintenance to keep them in good repair. If there's no money for maintenance, as is often the case, the buildings gradually weaken and can collapse.


Pupils on their way home from Rutongo school pose outside Jandari's one and only classroom. (The class at Jandari is year 1; while most pupils are seven or eight years old, a few are eleven or older and are only just starting school at that age).


Joseph strikes a pose by the moto. He'd just been mobbed by a bunch of girls from Rutongo primary on their way home from the morning shift, and was glad to be able to escape!


The afternoon shift lines up for the start of school. It's baking hot, but they can't go in until they are quiet and orderly. Many were late arriving. Once inside the room we have prayers for five minutes before lessons start.


Priscille, the school's one and only teacher, in action. She is helped by a teacher from Rutongo school to give her some admin time. The children standing at the back had arrived late for the afternoon shift and were being made to stand and wait along the back wall as a punishment. (This is standard practice). Priscille is very popular and when she and I did a double act on how to pronounce plurals properly, the entire class was riveted.


Half the class. There are no proper desks, just these benches. All the pupils are using slates to write on, but most lessons are rote learning.


Jandari's one classrooms is on the left. The room on the right is a parish store but will get pressed into service in january when the next intake arrives.


Looking down from Jandari towards Rutongo and the "Great North Road". This photo makes the hill look much less steep than it really is.

So you think you can handle a bike............


This is my driver, Joseph, easing his way over a temporary bridge on the (only) road to Kibyimba school. The old bridge had been washed away during the last rains. The gaps between the tree trunks are in places easily wide enough to swallow the bike's wheels. I chickened out and walked across, partly to help him balance the bike better but mainly because I didn't fancy being dumped many feet down into a rocky ravine. A broken leg out here could be fatal! If you're in a 4WD with fat tyres, though,this bridge is a doddle.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Bringing water to Muheta School

This is a photo essay of my visit to Muheta primary school last week. I discovered that Muheta needs money urgently for rehabilitating its water supply, and providing a shower room. One of my fellow VSOs has some money from her community in Ireland and we felt it was the ideal project for them to support.

Just getting to Muheta is a challenge. It is a long way out from Gitarama town. You follow the valley of the Nyaborongo river and then climb and climb, up and up, winding in and out of little valleys and going back on yourself.


You thread your way up and up into the Ndiza Mountains.


Right now it's the end of the dry season and everything is brown and burnt up. We need rain.




The only access road corkscrews its way up a mountainside. It it terminally muddy and slippery in the rains, and chokingly dusty in the dry season. In places there is a sheer drop off the side.


Some rooms at the school are beautiful, with windows on both sides and little patches of flower garden outside. But these are only a few of the rooms.


Other buildings in the school are the usual mud-brick ("semi-dur") design. These are old classrooms being converted into office + staffroom + store (on the right) and the school hopes to use the room on the left to set up a library. A library in a country district where houses have almost no books at all is a truly revolutionary idea. You see why I feel very fond of this particular school!


OK so much for the buildings. Now let's meet Muheta's pupils.


Muheta has almost no playgound, but it borders on this beautiful state woodland. Eucalyptus trees with grassy sward underneath and a real feeling of space. (Useless for ball games, though!). Up on the top of the hill is a big water tank fed from a spring which emerges even higher up the mountains. There's water in abundance even at the end of the long dry season.


This is the first project. The tap has disappeared, and we are going to pay for a double tap attachment. There is lots of water in the tank on the hill but at prsent it can't be used by the school.


I've posted pictures of a similar device in Ngoma District in eastern Rwanda, but this is an ingenious device using an old cooking oil can, string, and bits of wood to make a hand washing device. When you press on the pedal it tips the can and gives you a thing jet of water to rinse your hands. Alternative technology with a vengeance, and costs virtually nothing.


Our second project centres on the toilets at Muheta.


The latrines are very primitive. There is no running water to flush or wash hands after you use them. Muheta is a good school, though, and has water, soap and towels outside each classroom door. What we are going to do is convert one toilet cubicle into a wash/shower room, especially (but not exclusively) for the older girls. There is a general problem of girls dropping out in senior years, especially when they are not little girls any more but grown women, for lack of hygiene at the schools.


Rural houses - 1. This is absolutely typical of the kind of dwelling most pupils in the countryside have as their home.


Rural houses - 2. If you live in these there is no water nearby and you have to buy it from the water seller on his bicycle. Consequently water is at a premium and washing is only possible if there is water to spare.


How many more twists and turns are over the horizon?

Racing the muzungu down the road from the school. Despite the stones are the slope some pupils could outrun our moto - and a few of them were doing it barefoot!


This picture doesn't really do justice to the slope angle, but some parts of the (only) road to Muheta are so steep and so rocky that even with a big moto I had to get off and walk and let Joseph inch his way down, jolt by jolt.


My golly, don't they look suspicious! Just wait till they get running water at their school again!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

More pictures from Kibingo

Another shot of one of the log bridges we pass every few hundred yards. This is a "rolls royce" version which you can cross at speed.
A series of pictures to show you this lovely modern school in its setting.







The surrounding mountains really feel as if they're closing in on the eschool!



Loos with views!



Talking to one of the classes at the primary school.







Here you can see the edge of the landslip, a mixture of earth and big boulders. This is precisely the bit that worries me because I think it will move again after the next heavy rain, and we do not want to lose these beautiful school buildings.






The two secondary teachers at Kibingo.

Cassava carriers on the metal bridge.


Let's end with two lovely moody pictures of the Nyaborongo valley




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How to build 3000 classrooms in a hurry.

Rwanda is short of more than 3000 classrooms for the start of the next academic year in January 2010. This is how the country is going to solve the problem, using the army, parents, prisoners and engineers. Are there some lessons about local involvement which we could learn in England?

The Minister of Education, Dr. Charles Muligande, has emphasized the need for parents’ participation and commitment towards the campaign to build more classrooms ahead of the 9 -Year Basic Education programme in 2010.

According to the Minister, all parents should take up this challenge so that the needed number of classrooms can be available by the start of the academic year.
The 9 -Year Basic Education programme is a pledge made by President Paul Kagame during the 2003 presidential campaigns where he promised that every Rwandan child would have chance to study the first nine years for free.

As the next academic year approaches there is need to build 3,172 classrooms if the programme is to succeed.

“We initially needed over Rwf30 billion for the classrooms, but we managed to secure less than Rwf10 billion from our budget.

That is why we had to look for other alternatives like involving the people around the schools to help us,” said Muligande.

According to the plan, the ministry would avail raw materials and technical support, where an engineer in every district will be availed and a technician on every site and the locals would provide the man power.

The State Minister in charge of Primary and Secondary Education, Mathias Harebamungu, told this paper that so far 14 districts had received the needed raw materials whose transportation had been carried out by the Ministry of Defence, a stakeholder in this programme.

He also said that people’s response towards this was still positive despite more need to stimulate them more.

There will also be need to use services like TIG and parents making some financial contributions to make this programme a success.

Postcards from last week in Nyabinoni

Here is a long photo essay of our stay with the priests at Nyabinoni. Many of these pictures will need you to double click on them to blow them up to full size.



Late afternoon sun on the mountainsides.


Tharcisse, the head at Bubaji, in his office. It's also the staffroom and school store room. Bubaji is the school which ranks almost bottom in our Muhanga "league table" and by any standards has been a failing school for the past three or four years. Tharcisse has quite a job on his hands to try to rescue it.


The lovely little lane which leads up the mountain to Bubaji school.


Late afternoon light looking westwards towards Goma and Gisenyi.


The priests' living room at Nyabinoni presbytery.


Looking across to Karisimbi volcano over the roofs and water tanks of Nyabinoni school. While we were looking at it from a distance, a big bunch of VSO girls was just setting off to climb it!


This is the view from the church porch at Nyabinoni. Karisimbi once again in the background. About half past six in the morning.


Posing with some friends on the way back from Mass. Seven o'clock in the morning.


View from the road near Gisura school (which we didn't have time to visit).


The meeting point of the Nyaborongo and Mukungwa rivers. You can see the different colours in the water!


Another shot of the meeting point of the Nyaborongo and Mukungwa rivers.


Kibingo school - the very furthest point in Muhanga from Gitarama. The river flows just behind the buildings.


Typical log bridge on the main road.


A typical small village centre on the main road between Ngaru and Kibingo. If you live right out on the mountainside in a family farm, then this place is nearest approach to "civilisation" you're going to get....


View from the metal bridge at Kibingo, looking down the Nyaborongo gorge. Compare the width of the river here with the picture next but one below - here it's only half as wide but very deep and very fast. The river here must be seriously scary at the height of the rainy season!


Cycle delivery men with sacks of cassava on the metal bridge that goes from nowhere much to nowhere at all, near Kibingo!


The wide Nyaboronog just beyond the confluence. You can see the muddy and clear waters starting to mix here!


The staff at Ngaru primary school.


Pupils and teachers at Ngaru. Donatelle, the brilliant teacher in yr 2, is 5th from the left, half hidden behind a pupil.


The view up the Mukungwa river valley from the playground at Ngaru school.


Rice fields next to the river. When the morning sun is on them they absolutely gleam the brightest green you've ever seen.


A nice moody shot of the Nyaborongo in late afternoon light.


The building blocks of rural life in Rwanda - 1. A typical chunk of mountainside between Bubaji and Nyabinoni. While Soraya and I might rave about the scenery, the reality of life for the families who live here is harsh. Steep slopes, no amenities, deteriorating soils, and no fresh land left to cultivate. Well, would you endure these conditions if you could move to an easier life somewhere else?


The building blocks of rural life in Rwanda - 2. A close up of two of the smallholdings in the previous picture. Look how steep the slopes are, yet there's not a terrace in sight. How much of his soil will the farmer lose each year during the heavy rains?


Rural life - exercise books in one hand, hoe in the other. This lad is off to school at six in the morning, via the family fields; there's time for an hour's hoeing before school starts.