Monday, 14 September 2009

Epihanie's classroom at Gitumba

September 9th

Well, well, well. It’s the 9th of the 9th of the 9th. And at 0909 this morning I was hanging on to a bucking moto for dear life and trying not to be castrated by the sharp edge of the carrying rack just behind the pillion seat. But first things first.

The priests now have a night guard at the presbytery. He’s an ex army man and spends the night huddled up in about three layers of jackets and a camouflage cape. We’re high above the river valley here, and nights are cold, especially as last night when there isn’t any cloud. Last thing before I went to bed I went out to the edge of the presbytery site, away from the lights, to look at the sky. Above me it was clear, with an infinity of stars scattered across the sky, and the Milky Way so bright and so real that it looked like a swirl of white smoke across the heavens. Towards Goma the air was thick with cloud, and a free light show of lightning flickering constantly in the far distance. Not near enough to mean a storm was coming, but just enough to be an entertainment, and to remind us that the rains are on their way.

The night guard comes off duty just after five, and announces his departure by turning on his radio loudly. And I mean, loudly. Even when I try to drown it out with my iPod it still dominates. And the music is end-to-end religious choruses. Well, I suppose that if we’re lodging with the priests…..

This morning I decide not to go to Mass at 6.30. There will be two other mornings for that. I spend the hour getting yesterday’s notes re-written so that I’ll have an easy job writing them up at the weekend. With six schools being seen in three days it’s imperative I keep good records so that I don’t forget stuff or get the schools muddled up with each other.

Breakfast is lovely mini mandazis, freshly baked and fluffy. The Lord knows where the housekeeper got these from, but they go down a treat and we pig out on them. With them we have coffee and sorghum porridge. This looks like a thinned down version of wallpaper paste, and probably tastes about the same. You need to add sugar and a dash of strawberry jam to give it any flavour. Alternatively you can drink it from a mug – it’s that thin! There are also loads of sweet bananas and a whole pineapple cut into quarters. We’re positively oozing vitamins as we set off for a hard day’s graft.

After breakfast there’s a hiatus while Father Bosco sorts out the transport, and while I try to ring my two schools for today. Soraya’s only going to Shaki; I’m leaving that particular school because it’s one of the Anglican ones and I know Michael’s already made the long journey out from Shyogwe. I find that today, of all days, there’s a secteur reps meeting at Bubaji school. Nobody has told us about it at the Office. What it means is that there will be a car coming up from Gitarama to one of the most isolated schools (not to mention worst performing) in the entire District, and heads from every secteur will be converging there for a meeting. And the heads of every primary and secondary in Nyabinoni won’t be in their schools today.

Why on earth don’t people tell us these things? Last year I’d have postponed visiting a school if the head wasn’t there. Now I’m just ringing up the head and saying “I’m coming; you’d better be ready for me….” They just ring their “responsable” and say “the ruddy muzungu is landing himself on us today; you’d better clear everything up and tell everyone to dust off their lesson planners….”

The priests have two ancient moto; they’re the Yamaha 100cc trials bike types which are ideal for mountain roads but buggers on your backside! Bosco says he’s going to drive me, but we need a driver for Soraya. Bosco send the houseboy up to the church building site and comes back with Jéremie who just happens to be the older brother of Siméon, the Nyabinoni school caretaker and a friend of ours from last time. The two boys are carbon copies of each other; they could be twins. When on one occasion they both appear at our doors together it’s uncanny!

Soraya goes off with Jéremie and I bounce down the ruts with Bosco towards Gitumba school. Now the advantage of lodging with the priests, and having one as a chauffeur, is that it establishes your bona fides like nothing else ever could in this part of the world! Safe in the patronage of the clergy I wave at everyone as we pass; one hand doing a regal wave and the other hanging on to the grab bar for dear life. The suspension on these bikes is rough; they’re built to get your up mountains but not necessarily to do it in comfort. One deep rut too many and you bounce clean off the back and down a few hundred feet of mountainside.

Gitumba is a little primary built along the side of a tiny but successful rural secondary school. What I take to be a decent size store room for the primary turns out to be a dormitory for the secondary, with beds jammed into every available corner. Gitumba has a couple of decent brick built rooms, but even in these the screed covering the floor has been poorly made up (somebody skimping on materials to save a bob or two, perhaps), and the screed is coming away in chunks to reveal the brick and stone rubble underneath. This isn’t just a cosmetic issue. With the floor so uneven it’s almost impossible to get desks to stand firm without wobbling, and you can just imagine the consequences for pupils’ handwriting.

The exam results last year were awful, and it doesn’t take much asking to find why. One teacher; the only real English specialist in the school, died last year and it took months to persuade a replacement to come and live up here. So year six effectively taught themselves, or tried to. Unlike at Buramba, which had the same situation, Gitumba is a small school and there simply aren’t enough other teachers to share out a deceased colleague’s workload between them.

I go into a year 1 English with a lovely young teacher called Épiphanie. We start with a version of “heads and shoulders, knees and toes” but she’s forgotten most of the tune and makes it up as she goes along. But the room; the room. I made these notes on my observation pad:
• Classroom is a lean-to with sloping, red-painted low-set asbestos roof. (Yes, asbestos, like we used to have for garages in England in the fifties and sixties)
• There’s a rectangular hole, serving no purpose, on one side of the roof. Rain will come through in torrents during the downpours. The roof has almost certainly been transferred from some other building.
• The floor is earth, uneven, worn into rounded lumps by little feet (including many without shoes)
• Most of the plaster has worn off the walls, revealing the square shaped adobe blocks underneath. In most places you can see glimpses of daylight through gaps in the mud mortar between the adobe blocks, and there’s a faint haze of adobe dust in the air which lines your teeth after an hour in the room
• There are two small glassless windows with wooden shutters which swing about in the gusty wind and threaten to decapitate any pupil who stands up
• The blackboard is not fixed to the wall but plonked on a wooden frame; it’s tilted back like a giant version of my laptop screen.
• The roof is supported by eucalyptus beams, thick with orange brown dust, The final shreds of bark still hang from the tree trunks years after they were put into place
• The spaces between the top of the walls and the asbestos roof are packed with mud which has periodically fallen out giving wafts of dusty air into the top of the room.
• Pupils at least have proper desks rather than the wretched “post and rail” type, but they are the enormously long kind. There are six of them arranged from front to back, each housing seven or eight children. Pupils in the middle of the room are seriously jammed in and find it difficult to get out to come to the blackboard to write on it.
• The only other “furniture” in the room is a raised mud brick platform at the back on which stands a jerry can of water, and a twig broom for sweeping the floor (with earth floors and at this time of year you have to dampen the floor with water and then sweep it every single break time or the dust becomes choking by the end of the next lesson)
• On the wall is a nail with a towel hanging from it. Gitumba is good on hygiene.
• There is a small teachers’ desk in the front right hand corner; on it there is a long, slender stick. Whether this is a pointer or a cane is difficult to say. (Later in the week we discover we have an issue with Nyabinoni schools which are still caning pupils for disobedience, lateness or other offences. Caning is officially illegal here, but whoever comes to Nyabinoni to check up on them?)
• There is a filthy “chiffon” (foam rubber padding from an old cushion, used as a blackboard cleaner), and a box of coloured chalks.
• On the walls above the blackboard there are some ancient mathematical shapes – rectangle, various triangles etc – in cartridge paper, now almost illegible and brown with dust and watermarked by rain.
• There is an old, torn poster on the wall, home-made, and giving some of the phonemes that are frequent in Kinyarwanda but which children find difficult (“iki”, “ibi”, and the letters “m” and “n” which Rwandan children all too often confuse).
• There is not a single cupboard or shelf, not a textbook or commercially made poster.
• Outside the wind is creating dust devils in the yard

OK, people – fancy swapping this environment for your nice, clean, well equipped classrooms? And we wonder why the exam results from some of our Rwandan schools are so poor. But three cheers for Épiphanie; despite this squalor, and because she’s never known anything better, she teaches a good lesson. I just wish she’d get the kids up out of their seats and into the yard, and we could do the circle game and keep everybody on task and involved instead of this endless asking one pupil at a time technique. We have another pupil asleep in the lesson (once again, is he tired or has he got malaria?).

Stéphanie teaches Maths to yr 5 and is dealing with profit and loss. The whole lesson is about calculating loss, which seems absurd in a country where just about everyone is a market trader and would die of shame rather than ever incur a loss. Bernard does yr 6 English and we start with “If you’re happy and you know it, clap the hand” (sic). We’re doing the rules for the formation of adverbs and pupils find words like “truely” and “quickily” easier than the correct forms. Also we have an epidemic in this class of “m” and “n” confusion; of “a”s and “o”s written exactly the same way, and even “e” and “l” which look the same. It’s all because they teach pupils to learn their letters in script form, rather than as print like we do in England. (And my friend Bernard, the teacher, is one of the worst culprits; he’d probably do a smashing copperplate if he was given the materials, but on a scratchy blackboard he’s a darned nuisance).

Never mind. Bosco comes to pick me up at half past twelve; he’s aghast when I tell him to take me straight to the second school, and insists that we have to eat first. He’s right, of course, because to get to the afternoon school, Bubaji, we have to go right past the Presbytery.

Bubaji is a mile up what jokingly passes for the “main road” up this part of the Nyabinoni valley, and then a mile or so straight up the mountainside on a delightful green path with overhanging trees. When we get to the school I discover the entire posse of all my friends the secteur reps still in their meeting. And I can’t observe lessons because they’ve dragged every Bubaji teacher bar one into the meeting to listen to the words of wisdom. (That leaves one teacher to supervise about 250 pupils in six separate rooms). For the secteur reps to come here is quite a coup; Bubaji never gets visitors; it is one of the most forgotten and isolated schools in the District. The buildings are simply dreadful; if you’ve ploughed through the description of Gitumba above then you get the general idea.

And who should be chairing the secteur reps meeting but Valérian who has come all the way up from Gitarama just for the day. Mind you, they’re all surprised to see the muzungu has made it this far into the wilds. I am asked to join the meeting; it’s all in Kinyarwanda but I know what they’re talking about but not exactly what they’re saying. They give me a fanta to shut me up and carry on. The social affairs secretary from the secteur is there; he’s new in post but seems a decent guy. He speaks reasonable English and is genuinely pleased that I’ve come to his patch.

Eventually Valérian asks me if I want to say something to everyone. Knowing that I’ve got a captive audience I launch into the same seven or eight points I’m making to every school I visit. There’s a lot of nodding from the secteur reps and Valérian; I think (I hope) that what comes across is that I know what’s going on in classrooms and also understand the limitations they’re working under.

By the time the meeting finishes there’s not time to observe classes at Bubaji. So I use the time to have a long talk with the head. Bubaji is the next to bottom school in Muhanga in terms of results. They’re dire. (It also has all the other problems of high redoublement and heavy abandonment in spades). I want to know why the results are so crummy. Tharcisse tells me. He’s new as head this year. For the past two years there’s been a sort of war taking place between the old head and his staff. Teachers turned up late, at all hours, or not at all if they felt so inclined, and totally ignored the boss. Pupils were quick to catch on that there was no real authority in the place and pleased themselves whether they arrived for lessons. By any standards you choose, Bubaji was, and to a certain extent still is, a failing school. OFSTED would shut it down tomorrow. OK, so the old head has gone, and all but two of the teachers who were there at the time have also departed. But the damage remains. Tharcisse has the air of someone out of his depth. In this situation you need a leader with unquestionable authority, a martinet who stamps his mark on the place and who nobody can challenge, until the school is back on an even keel. Tharcisse is not the man for the job. He is quietly spoken, and has a permanent nervous, hang-dog expression. He reminds me of a dog which is constantly kicked and holds itself close to minimise the damage from the inevitable next blow. We talk for a long time and there’s very little positive I can do to help him except that I promise to see if I can find a small slush find from the District to help him buy a stock of biros and exercise books to resell at cost price to those pupils whose parents say they support the school but send their kids every day with nothing to write with or on.

Back at the Presbytery Soraya and I compare notes on a fascinating day for both of us. Jean-Damascène isn’t back yet (he somehow gets himself back late at night; goodness knows how – all motor transport up the valley stops right at sunset). We shower; we rest and write up our notes; we eat; we go to sleep. That’s it.

Best thing about today – getting to grips with almost the worst school in Muhanga. I think I probably learned more this afternoon than the sullen, damaged pupils at Bubaji. And just being up here at the ends of the earth is like a working holiday for both Soraya and I.


Daniel said...

My name is Daniel Drolet. I am a writer in Ottawa. I am doing some work for CUSO VSO and I would like to use some of the posts on your blog for an article I am writing that will help CUSO VSO recruit volunteers. I need to know that you are OK with that. Please contact me at
PS - I have a blog that has nothing to do with my work but it seems I have to use it to contact you....

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce, my name is Mathilde Maijer. I am from Wageningen, municipality in Holland with a 30 years' friendship relation with Nyabikenke - Ndiza, now part of Muhanga. One of the projects is the support to four schools: APS, ETG in Gitumba, ESN and CFN in Nyakabanda. In these 4 schools we are at the moment financing the installation of internet. I was just reading this blog on the Gitumba school. We financed a dormitory there, I hope it is not the one taken from the primary school. Anyway, next week we will visit Ndiza so I will find out myself. I wish I had come to know your blog earlier, as you just left the region. I would like to keep in touch.