Thursday, 3 September 2009

From the “craddle” to the grave – Zinjanthropus would turn in his!

August 27th

Why is Védaste always hanging around when I’m deeply engrossed in something and want to concentrate undisturbed, yet when I want to find him he’s never in his office. “Védaste, ari héhé?” - “Where’s Védaste?” His little assistant just shrugs her shoulders. She doesn’t speak anything except Kinyarwanda, but she’ll be sure to tell him that the big muzungu came looking for him. I want to give him the final, checked version of his thesis and get the responsibility for it off my mind. Fortunately I can get to his computer, so I put the magnum opus on his screen and leave him a note.

Next I want to pin down Jeanne, the head at Nyabisindu “A”, about her S1 exam results – worst in Muhanga. I’m sure she was avoiding me yesterday; she’s probably embarrassed and has lost face and doesn’t want to have to admit failure to the muzungu. So I ring her and say I’m coming round, and that’s OK isn’t it? It’s not in Rwandan custom to refuse a statement like that, so I’m rather arm-twisting her. But she’s got to confront the results and she needs help to formulate an action plan so that she can show she’s doing something to raise standards at the school.

I’m intending to go out to inspect Nyabisindu “B” primary out in Nyarusange this morning, too, but as I walk to Jeanne’s school I realise that just ain’t gonna happen. Jeanne welcomes me and we go through the results. It isn’t all doom and gloom. Her language results – English and Kinyarwanda – are really quite good. But her sciences and humanities are dreadful.

We find there are just two of the four teachers who are involved in all the failing subjects. We talk about an action plan; I’ve given her some suggested targets and things she must do, and she seems receptive. Then she says she wants me to come with her into some of the classes where the failing teachers are working. We go first into geography. The woman is covering world climate and natural vegetation zones (yet another dry classification of knowledge with precious little relevance to these kids. How can they visualise “temperate grasslands” or “arctic tundra” in Rwanda without anything visual to help them?).

The lesson is crying out for her to use diagrams – text boxes on the board; spider diagrams, tables and charts – anything, please, except bulleted lists they use all the time here. The teacher knows her stuff, but by the end of the lesson I’m bored and if I were one of the pupils I’m sure half of the terms used would just be a jumble of letters to me. It’s odd – she eventually remembers to use Nyungwe as an example of Equatorial rain forest. But it never dawns on her to talk about Akagera as an example of savannah even though it’s in Rwanda. Mind you, when I ask Jeanne how many of the pupils will ever have been themselves to either Nyungwe or Akagera, to see for themselves what these places are like, she laughs at me and says “none, silly”. Travel costs money.

The woman does tiny little sketches of tropical rainforest with its canopy and undergrowth and lianas creeping up the trees, and of savannah with umbrella shaped bushes and so on, but she never makes anything of them and – crucially – she doesn’t get the pupils to copy them. She knows her stuff at least as well as I do, but she hasn’t got the foggiest idea of what these children need giving to them in order to learn. One part of me wants to boot her up the backside, get to the front and get on with teaching the stuff my way. But that wouldn’t do any good in the long term; to humiliate her in front of the class would be unforgivable. And if she can’t see, if she can’t sense, that things aren’t working and that she needs to teach in a different way – if she isn’t aware of these things, then what is it going to take to get her to change? I tell Jeanne she needs to get this teacher to visit one of the more successful schools and see somebody else at work. But teachers here resist the practise because they feel it’s an admission of weakness. And in Rwanda people are so vulnerable, so insecure, that they never, ever admit to having weaknesses. It’s so difficult to get the idea of peer mentoring accepted, even among head teachers.

Then we go to see the same teacher teach history to another class, and within forty minutes the whole reason for Nyabisindu’s appalling results becomes crystal clear. This teacher is trying to explain about Africa’s history in terms of its isolation from the rest of the world, with oceans on all sides, deserts, jungles, and just the Isthmus of Suez to connect it to the rest of the world. She scratches a map on the board, but doesn’t annotate it and doesn’t get the kids to copy it. So the whole purpose of the map – which would have been the perfect way to get her concept across – is lost. Then she starts talking about Africa as the “cradle of humanity” (she calls it the “craddle” of humanity). She talks about Zinjanthropus, and Olduvai Gorge, and the Leakey’s discoveries in 1959. She’s got all the facts. But she never gives the children any written notes; never gives them definitions or transforms the information into simple, logical points that they can follow. It eventually takes a brave boy (he looks about 20 years old but we’re in the bottom year of secondary school) to ask her to explain what the word “cradle” means.

At the end of the lesson she tells them to write an answer to “What do you understand by the term “Africa as the Craddle of Humanity?” She waits ten minutes to give them time. Jeanne and I go from desk to desk and realise we’re found the cause of the school’s problems with history. At the end of the lesson the teacher takes in each pupil’s response. Jeanne calls for them to come to us, and she and I go through them. Not a single pupil – not one – has the remotest idea what they’re talking about. They’re confusing the concept of isolation with the concept of human origins; words like Olduvai and Leakey haven’t sunk in at all. There’s no time to debrief with the teacher because another lesson is already starting. I make Jeanne promise to talk to her as soon as possible. (In a way I’m quite glad not to have to talk to her. She’s not a bad person, but what can I say to her that wouldn’t destroy her self confidence?). But Jeanne and I talk about what we can do; fortunately Jeanne’s on the same wavelength as me and I know she’ll not mince her words with this person.

We agree that I’ll come in next Friday to look at the Science teacher in action. Meantime I’ll make the school some rice sack maps of the world, of Africa etc so that they will at least have the most basic resources for geography. (There’s a small globe of the world in Jeanne’s office; the staff must know it’s there but it never occurs to them to borrow it as a lesson prop).

I go back to the office and write up my lesson observations. I never intended to do another inspection at Jeanne’s school, but, well, there you are. There’s no way I’m going to get to the other Nyabisindu School today; it can wait until next week.

Cyeza school’s results are the next worst to Nyabisindu “A”s, so I’ll need to go there as well. (Hey, it looks as though as soon as I get water into a school, the results plummet there). And Kabgayi “A” and Murehe ”A”are hardly beacons of excellence, either.

By early afternoon it’s very hot and I’m feeling tired and jaded. I come home and work from the flat. There’s a local man who’s a bit mentally insecure, and he’s taken it into his head that he wants me to translate into English a letter he’s written to Tony Blair (in his post-Gulf War role as roving emissary for world peace) about how a permanent, secure order can be created for Rwanda in particular and Africa in general. It runs to about eight pages. The obvious thing to do is to tell the guy to sod off, but if I do that he’ll be constantly hounding me, so I agree to do it but that I’ll need at least a week to finish it. Hopefully he’ll then leave me alone. And all I’m going to do is translate it; I’m not going to sign it or indicate that I agree with what he says. Some of his ideas are sound; others I’m not so sure about. The roots of conflict here in Africa seem to be a toxic combination of tribalism and naked greed. Blair at his most persuasive won’t make much of a dent in that lot.

By late afternoon I’ve done a page or two and I’m terminally jaded and headachey. When Becky and Moira ring and ask if I want to come out for a drink and to eat I virtually jump out of the chair and head for the door. We eat at the “Green Garden” where the brochettes are juicy and the beer cold (and cheap) and watch night fall on Gitarama. As the sun sets the surrounding hills become pin sharp, and we all feel the same thing – this really is a glorious place in which to live. I’m convinced I’ve got one of the best VSO placements anywhere in the world.

Then we’re brought back to earth because the power goes off, and stays off till about 9 30. I get back to the flat but without power (or water) there’s nothing I can do, so I go to bed and listen to my iPod. When the power comes back on I get up and try to do another half hour, but I’ve lost it by then and all I really do is play computer games for an hour or so.

Best thing about today - feeling that I’m getting into the thick of things and doing my job properly, and also that I’m being accepted by the head teachers.

Worst thing – Electrogaz……….Grrrrrrrh!

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