All is total quiet in Rongi until five in the morning, when the priest gets up and rings the angelus bell. Eight times, then eight more, then about twelve just in case any of us has turned over and gone back to sleep. The sun won’t rise for over an hour yet, and it’s still almost pitch dark outside, but apparently the Good Lord wants us awake and alert for the dawn.
I listen to my iPod for a while and greet September with a cold shower, and an even colder shave. Out of respect to my host, and to meet the locals, I join the sixty or so people for early Mass at 6.15. As usual there are women with tiny babies, feeding them during the service. There are workmen in filthy overalls, stopping for communion on their way to the fields, their hoes and hats stacked up against the rear wall of the church. There is a scattering of primary children on their way to Ntarabana or even Nyamiyaga on the next mountain, and there are a lot of secondary students from the college just a few hundred yards away. The secondary school choir leads the singing; there’s a drum to keep us in time and everybody knows the words and tunes so there’s no need for hymn books or tuned instruments.
Nobody is particularly fazed by my being there, and almost the last person to turn up for the service is my friend Thomas, the 22 year old from the local primary. This time he’s wearing his denims and looks like a man. He’ll have to change into his outsize shorts, though, before he goes to lessons.
Just as we’re waiting for the service to start, I take a picture from the church porch, looking towards the mountains on the far side of the Nyaborongo. The sun is about to rise; I want to catch it just peeping over the mountaintops, but Father Peter is raring to get started. Just a few minutes into the Mass, the sun appears and shines down the length of the church, filling the whole interior with an orangey-yellow glow and making the red cloth behind the altar glow like hot coals. It’s intensely dramatic. This church is aligned with its altar at the west end, which is the opposite to our traditional English arrangement.
There’s nothing to eat until after the service finishes, and breakfast is tea made with a vacuum flask of hot water, flavoured with a hint of ginger, plus the remains of last night’s ibitoke stewed up into a mash. This is common practise in Rwanda when bread can’t be found locally. You just eat it like a thick stew. It doesn’t have much in it except carbohydrates, but it fills you up and weighs you down and for an hour or two all is well. (A bit like porridge, then).
We’ve asked Jean de Dieu, our moto driver, to come at seven, and long before we’ve finished eating and made our farewells he’s waiting in the yard. Father Peter insists on giving us a blessing for the journey before we leave. And he’s getting his own moto ready to go and do battle with the “Banque Populaire” in Nyabikenke, an hour’s ride away on the Gitarama side of the mountains. Jean de Dieu takes Soraya first because she’s only going to Nyamiyaga and her journey is a mere ten minutes. While she’s gone I try to phone my two head teachers for today’s schools to ask them if I can come. (I’m darned well coming whether they like it or not, but it’s bad form to roll up without any warning, and I can’t automatically assume the bush telegraph has informed everybody. It turns out that it has, but I’m not to know that at this stage in things). In the still morning air, filled with the smell of wood smoke and the grey-blue of domestic fires rising into the sky, I can hear Soraya’s bike descending the mountain. And five minutes later we can see and hear her riding up the next mountain towards Nyalayaga.
Today I want to go to two schools, Murehe and Nyabugombe. I get through to Nyabugombe’s head; he thinks Soraya and I are coming together tomorrow and has arranged to be at a meeting today. But it doesn’t matter, he says come anyway and he’ll brief his “responsable” to take care of me. Murehe is more of a problem. Try as I might, I can’t get through to Callixte. The reception at the Presbytery is extremely poor; I have to walk up to the hilltop where the church stands, then turn towards Kigali, and make sure that as I hold the receiver to my ear I don’t more more than an inch away from the line of reception. Even when I can get reception, all I get is the “please try later” signal. By this time I can hear Jean de Dieu coming back up the hill, past the secondary school. So I set off for Murehe knowing that I’m going to bounce them by arriving without warning. I hate doing this because it’s unprofessional; but given that we couldn’t get through to them this morning and that we didn’t know in advance which schools we were going to visit, it can’t be helped.
Now the moto we are using belongs to Rongi school. Jean de Dieu turns out to be 19, resplendent in “John Lennon” type cap (like Soraya’s) and matching black jacket. He’s very much the man-about-town, if you can use that phrase in the middle of the backwoods of Rwanda. He’s having the time of his life showing off, driving muzungus through the mountains. It’s only much later in the day that I ask him which school he went to. He speaks no French or English and I’m chatting to him via Callxite, the head of Murehe, who’s translating from my French into Kinya. I’m surprised, to put it mildly, when I discover that this 19 year old is in fact a yr 6 pupil at Rongi primary school. No wonder he’s so keen to be driving us around – he’s missing lessons for two days, and with the school’s blessing! So how’s that, folks – I’m being chauffeured round the local primary schools by a pupil attending one of them. Only in Rwanda……
The route to Murehe is long and pretty but excruciating on the pillion of this moto. Jean de Dieu doesn’t really understand about driving with consideration for his passengers; he’s there for the adrenaline rush of careering down the hills and bouncing across the potholes. I can’t take any pictures during the ride because I’m hanging on for dear life. And, of course, don’t tell VSO but once you’re well away from civilisation in Rwanda nobody bothers with wimpy things like crash helmets, either.
On the way we pass a beautiful waterfall and I make a mental note to take a picture on the homeward journey tomorrow when I’ll be on one of the big bikes with better suspension and a proper pillion seat. (On the back of Jean de Dieu’s moto there’s a tiny seat squab, and then a big flat metal carrying rack for crates of Fanta, boxes of books, live pigs or whatever else you need to carry. And the metalwork on this frame is sticking right into my tender backside and virtually skewering me every time we go over a bump, which is about twice per second. It isn’t funny!).
To get to Murehe you go down a mountain, twist and turn for a few miles; go along a cliff edge above the Nyaborongo for a while; go through Rongi market and the wider village; then you turn off what the locals jokingly call “the main road” and strike up yet another mountain; cross it at the top; wiggle about for a mile or so. And then you see Murehe well below you and suddenly pitch down a ridiculously steep track which has been worn into steps because the majority of users are pedestrians, but nevertheless is the only sensible road into the school. It’s like riding down a staircase the length of a cliff, with uneven steps. I can tell you, it’s a relief to get to the school.
Callixte, the head, is standing in the school yard and sees me come. He thinks it’s him who’s got the date wrong and he’s not in the least put out when I explain that I’m coming a day early and he’ll have Soraya tomorrow. In the school yard he’s been supervising a host of the children who have been working, carrying bricks from one part of the site to another. The Murehe school site is a builder’s yard. Like at Nyamiyaga, Callixte’s parents are building more classrooms ready for next January’s intake. They’ve made a kiln in the middle of the playground, and the fired bricks are waiting to be taken to the building site (which at present only exists as a level platform surrounded by piles of rough stone for its foundations). The pupils are moving dried clay bricks to somewhere else so that they can also be fired. At least his new buildings will be made of proper brick and not the horrible “semi-dur” (mud brick) that pretty well all his other buildings are made of.
Because Murehe’s buildings are terrible. A whole group of rooms are so terrible they’re out of use. One is piled up inside with sand, collected (by pupils, during the school day) from the nearby river bed. Another has become a carpenter’s workshop with beams of eucalyptus stacked along one wall, and a thick bed of wood shavings on the floor. Two rooms are simply unusable; the mud bricks are so eroded that the structure is unsafe. But rather than demolish the place and be done with it, the building has been left standing; a magnet to the children in the evenings and a death trap in the next earthquake.
A long, brick built room, which I assume to be the Tronc Commun accommodation, turns out to be owned by the Catholic church next door and is the school’s dining room. OK, so it’s made of bricks, but they’ve used mud mortar and the rains have gradually washed out the mud so that each brick only has mortar attached to about half its bearing surfaces. The spaces where the mortar should be are deep enough to fit a Mars bar. Maintenance clearly isn’t Murehe’s thing.
And another group of brick buildings turns out to be the yr 1 and 2 rooms. The ground around the entrances has been so worn down by little feet that in order to get into the room, children have to hang on to the edges of the door frame and haul themselves up almost two feet to the level of the classroom floor. I’ve never been to a school with so many life expired apologies for classrooms.
The tronc commun kids are in mud brick rooms, but they have been repainted and replastered and while nobody would say there were luxurious, they are certainly in a different league to the rest of the school. So many classrooms are dark, poky places; the floors are bare earth or of brick with many bricks missing, so that desks rest at crazy angles in potholes all across the room.
By far the most lovingly maintained accommodation is that for the school’s two Frisian cows, housed right in the middle of the school yard just behind the brick kiln and no doubt downwind from its noxious fumes when it was fired. Everybody wants me to see their precious cows, but one is too hot and bothered to react to me and the other one seems a bad tempered beast, tossing its head at me before I’ve even stroked its nose.
The school dates from 1948, so it’s the same age as me. And I dare say much of it has had no serious renovation since it was built by the same order of education-mined Catholic priests who built Kaduha, Ruli Catholic and countless others of my primaries.
I observe two lessons. One is Tronc commun maths. They are doing indices (am x an) etc, and I’m out of my depth from the start. The lesson’s OK, and the relationship with the class is surprisingly good in view of how abstract the content appears to be.
Then I go to Solange’s English class, year 4 in the primary. Solange is gorgeous – petite, very black and very African looking, but with a dazzling smile and a lovely bubbly personality. (And I just love the way her bottom wiggles when she’s writing on the blackboard….). We’re doing adverbs of place. A pupil gets her words horrendously mixed up and we all fall about laughing, me included. The ice has been broken and the rest of the lesson is good fun as well as good learning.
Solange’s English is real Kinyarwanda English. We write the definition of adverbs of place and then she says “What isi an addyverb of place?” The whole class yells at the tops of their voices “Addyverbs of place are the wordees which tell us wheyar an action is done”.
Solange is great. She has bags of energy. Her class patently adores her and they’re practically fighting to be chosen to answer her questions. The clicking of hands when she asks a question sounds like a host of hammers on nails.
When I debrief her after the lesson, outside the room in the searing sun in the yard, the whole class cranes out of the glassless windows to see what the muzungu is saying to their teacher. Solange is acutely nervous and thinks I’m going to tear her apart, and when I tell her how pleased I am with her general approach she sags with relief. She knows all the pupils’ names and uses them. She praises right answers and never humiliates for wrong ones. Sure, her pronunciation needs polishing and some of her grammar is suspect (“near” is an addyverb of place. Peter is far of me), but I like her style and she’s already an excellent primary teacher. We need a whole lot more Solanges in Muhanga.
At lunchtime Callixte takes me to his house, next to the school, for a fanta. I won’t eat again until the evening, but at least I can try to keep hydrated. Scores of children follow us; as at Nyamiyaga they have seen so few white men they can’t resist tailing us. All the bold ones want to stroke my arms and see if my arm hair is bristly or soft. And as we leave the school to walk the few hundred yards to his house, lots of the locals also gather round to stare at me. Few speak; they just stand, baskets on the heads, hoes in their hands, goats held by leads, and stare and stare. It occurs to me that this is how it must have felt for the very first Western explorers who ventured into the Nyaborongo valley, only about a hundred years ago. It’s easier to speak to Callixte in French than in English, but few if any of the onlookers can understand a word we’re saying. Jean de Dieu arrives on the moto, scattering children to right and left, and we give him a fanta, too.
Then I have to wind myself up for the yawing, pitching, vibration machine that is his moto. This time it’s like climbing a stone staircase as we slowly chug back up the steep hill to the skyline and Murehe drops out of sight below us. A few turns and we’re at my final school, Nyabugombe.
If Murehe made me feel despondent with its poor buildings, Nyabogombe is inspirational. The “responsable” has heard my moto coming and has walked up the road to greet me. The afternoon shift of pupils is arriving, and as we walk in the intense heat down the hundred yards or so to the school yard we have an escort of well over a hundred pupils. The staff are there to greet me, too. The whole school (afternoon shift of about 350) is lined up in the sun and I have to introduce myself in English to them; the responsable translating for the little ones who haven’t learnt enough English. The entire school yells out “welcome, our visita” and then launches into the national anthem – all four verses – while I wonder if we’re all going to get heatstroke. The anthem is led by a year six boy who must be at least sixteen. Then we have the afternoon prayer with much crossing and bobbing, and a couple of notices. And then the pupils are running – yes, running – because they’re so eager to get out of the sun and into lessons.
Nyabugombe’s classrooms aren’t up to much except for two beautiful new ones which are light and which catch the afternoon breeze. The staffroom is simply the grottiest of the old rooms, taken out of use for pupils and given to the teachers. There is a small hut which is the head’s office. The school yard is raised above the general level of the buildings (or, more precisely, in order to fit the buildings onto the hilltop they’ve had to chop a ledge out of the side of the hill). But the area between the playground and the buildings has been deeply fissured by rain and little feet and it’s a death-trap to negotiate. The drop must be about three feet and you really have to be very careful how you manage it. At the end of the afternoon I debrief everyone and listen carefully to their complaints about lack of resources and - everybody’s bête noir – lack of training in English.
But I enjoy Nyabugombe; like Nyamiyaga there’s a feeling of hopefulness, a feeling that they will gradually pull the place together. Even their two cows are friendlier than the ones at Murehe.
Back to the Presbytery and a shower to wash the day’s dust and sweat off me. You should see my backpack. When I came here it was black. Now it has fine dust absolutely ingrained into the very fabric. It will never, ever, be black again.
While we are waiting for the evening meal I wander down to the secondary school at Ntarabana. Father Peter is there (he’s one of those priests who’s into everything, knows everyone’s business and is at the same time totally intrusive but also supportive). He grabs me and steers me towards a classroom where there are about fifty pupils. The secondary only has year 4 pupils (it is a new secondary just starting this year), but these pupils range from about sixteen to their late twenties. I introduce myself and we have a half hour question and answer session in English. Their English is very good, especially when you consider I am the only native English speaker this school has ever seen!
We go on a tour of the boys’ dormitories with Father Peter. The dormitories are the usual overcrowded, impersonal spaces. Some boys are resting on their beds while they wait for the evening meal, but our priest won’t have any of this namby-pamby relaxation and turfs them out into the sunset to go and do some physical activity and join in the evening volley ball practise.
We listen to the school, choir – very nice three and four part harmony and the boys every bit as pleased to be singing as the girls. We inspect the canteen and the kitchen. In the kitchen there are just two enormous vats about four feet in diameter, and fire so hot we can’t get within about ten feet of it. The fire is fuelled not by logs, but by entire split tree trunks of eucalyptus which are rammed into the hearth and then progressively pushed further in as one end burns away. One vat is covered with a lid; it must have either beans or hot water in it. The other has cassava paste which is being stirred by two young men. In order to eb able to do the stirring, these lads are perched on narrow brick ledges above the fire, in all the heat and smoke, and are stirring with enormous wooden ladles about six feet long. It looks positively medieval. They think it’s a huge joke to be photographed while they’re preparing the dinner, and they’re grinning like mad while shining with sweat and oblivious to the wood ash and drips of cassava which are covering their feet. I tell you, it’s a different world up here!
After tea Soraya and I take a stroll in the night air. It is too cloudy for the moon to give us much light; you can sense that the rains are coming in a matter of days. We talk about how much we’re both enjoying being away from Gitarama and out in the country, and we start planning an even more ambitious tour to Nyabinoni for next week. Then, by nine o’clock, there’s no light and nothing to do but go to sleep. Once again, we’re both tired out.
Today’s been an absolutely tremendous day. Yes, even the moto ride has been worthwhile because of the view. I’m so, so pleased we’ve made the effort and got ourselves up to this beautiful, remote part of Muhanga.
Saturday, 5 September 2009
Posted by Bruce's Rwanda blog at 13:54