Saturday, 5 September 2009

Right up in Rongi

August 31st

Up in the pitch dark at four o’clock and ready waiting in the bus park at half past five. I keep getting taken by surprise at how fast dawn arrives here in Rwanda. At five o’clock it is still pitch dark. By half past the sky is lightening and has taken on shades of violet and deep blue. By half past five there are all shades of grey, and at around a quarter to six the sun lifts above the distant hills as a bright red disk, with magenta clouds and a dusty veil surrounding it. Then within ten minutes it is completely light.

Human activity follows the same parabola. At five there is practically nobody about. By half past five the streets are getting busier, and by six things are almost at their normal level. The bus park, empty at quarter past five, sees a steady procession of taxi buses arriving. Their drivers and convoyeurs are wrapped up against the cold in thick parkas and they look thoroughly miserable. Most won’t have eaten, and certainly not washed. They just jump out of bed, possibly change clothes (or, there again, possibly not), and go out of their huts to work. At this time there are almost no passengers about, but all the matata crews want to get the first busload to Kigali and steal a march on their rivals. So the earliest buses station themselves in the middle of the busiest road junction in the entire town; completely blocking the road, while every person they see passing they hustle in the hope that they have a fare ready to go to Kigali or Butare.

Soraya has booked our motos, and Natete and Joseph arrive soon after five thirty. Within five minutes we have negotiated the price and we’re on our way through the cool of the morning. As we head up the “Great North Road” and through Cyeza secteur the “cool” becomes downright cold. The sun is well up, but is shielded from us by the hills; we are descending down into a river valley and following the stream towards Kabacuzi. This will be the first time I have been to Rongi for over a year, and what a difference that time makes! Last year the journey seemed an endless procession of bends and hills, log bridges and huts. An endless succession of curious onlookers, goats, banana plantations, stinky outside toilets, and women carrying baskets and bowls of produce to the nearest market. All these things are still there, but the place names now all mean something to me. Bwirika with the polluted water supply. Cyeza, with the Bradpole water tank just peeping through the hedge. Bishike huddled on its hilltop. Busekera hiding up a side valley. All these are schools I’ve visited and which I know. Then we’re out of Cyeza and into Kabacuzi secteur and the place names are familiar, but the schools are not. Rutongo, Ngoma, Kavumu.

Eventually we come up a little rise and immediately we’re into strong sun and blinding light. The road is dry but very jolting. Endless spurs of mountain to contour round; endless little log bridges to carefully ease our way across. Down the steep slopes there is a stream chattering its way towards the Nyaborongo, with massive piles of sand and gravel testimony to the power of flash floods during our torrential rainstorms. And every square inch of land is cultivated.

It takes two and a half hours to reach Rongi school, and by then my backside is complaining. And we’re not done yet. We pay off our big motos, but we now have to negotiate our programme for the coming few days. We have agreed with Rongi school that they will find us a local moto driver to take us between schools. This will be cheaper than keeping our big bikes from Gitarama for three days. We sit while they negotiate a price. The amount they come up with – RwF 60,000 – is eye watering, but we don’t know the distances involved and we have to assume that the schools are acting in good faith. At least, if we’re being overcharged, the money is going into school accounts rather than into some private individual’s beer fund!

We agree to visit schools separately because my inspection visits are much longer than Soraya’s training visits, and we want to fit in as much as we can. So we agree to visit two schools a day; I will do four and come back on Wednesday morning to do my training session with the new VSO volunteers in Kigali; Soraya will do six schools and come back on Wednesday evening. Soraya is going to start with Rongi and Ntungamo; these are the only two Rongi schools I have already visited so I will give them a miss. I’m going to Nyamiyaga in the morning and Ntarabana in the afternoon. So I have a further thirty minute ride on the trials bike to Nyamiyaga. The ride is hard and fast, and the jolting on my spine and buttocks is horrendous.

Nyamiyaga is a lovely little school perched high on a mountainside. I have completely forgotten just how beautiful Rongi is. Everything is still bright green, even in the height of the dry season. There is water everywhere. There’s plenty of bird life, too, and the people are so friendly. Every person I pass waved to acknowledge me, and I soon feel like the Queen, almost waving back automatically at everyone.

We go through Rongi market, by the riverside cliffs; deep bone shattering ruts and very little space to pass among the market women. They will not move over to let anybody pass for fear of losing their pitch to a rival. Then there’s the beautiful view down to the Nyaborongo river itself; I’ve posted pictures of it in the past but it still takes my breath away every time I see it. On this occasion the rice fields are well advanced and next to the muddy brown water is the most intense vivid green of paddy, with shallow water glinting among the green in the sunlight. Then we’re off up delightful little wooded valleys, lost in the folds of the Ndiza mountains, and we’re climbing along tracks layered with eucalyptus chippings where many of the trees have just been harvested. By now it’s around nine o’clock, and the air is full of the scent of cut eucalyptus.

Nyamiyaga is at the same time a school at the back of beyond, and a school which is among the most forward looking I’ve been to. Its head, from January to Easter, was our old friend Étienne Nsanzimana, who has now gone to study in Burundi. He has been replaced by another, who makes me feel welcome and that I’m doing them a favour by coming to their school. I’m almost certainly the first muzungu here in years, since the original white priest left Rongi presbytery. Every single child in the morning session – 300+ - crowds round me to see this white apparition. The youngest pupils are genuinely scared (they didn’t know I was coming), and hover in the background.

Étienne has found the money and the will to convert a disused classroom into staffroom, head’s office and store. He has put in a ceiling for insulation and re-plastered the walls. A group of parents is in the process of constructing three new classrooms ready for the next intake of secondary students in January. This is what Soraya and I love about Rongi – there’s an element of get up and go, of self help, of a determination to do the best for themselves. And just as well, too, because it is so difficult to get to that until the rural roads are tarmacked it will be always the last place anyone reaches from Gitarama.

And there’s more. The school is busy building new toilets, not just to provide enough for the secondary students but to completely replace the foul, smelly ancient ones used up until now. They are setting up a canteen to feed their teachers and the secondary students some of whom, while only working a long morning at school, will have had to cross a mountain range every day at the break of dawn in order to get to school for 7.30. And still more – the school is planning to set up a hairdressing salon in a redundant building to earn money, remove the need for the local villagers to travel miles for a buzz cut, and perhaps give one or two older pupils some vocational training. Now how’s that for a school three hours from civilisation!

They’ve had setbacks, too. Étienne has written a proposal for the local bank for a loan to buy solar panels so they can use a computer for management and for the secondary ICT. The security on the loan is a grove of eucalyptus trees, worth more than a million francs. But the bank has refused, and there is no electricity – yet. What a dismal performance by the bank to refuse a loan to a school which is so dynamic. Never mind, Nyamiyaga will be lit up one day in the not too distant future.

And one room, standing right on the edge of a virtual cliff down to the approach road, is unusable and unsafe. Courtesy of last year’s February earthquakes there are spectacular cracks up two of the walls, and the section in between is poised to launch itself down the valley and on top of any passing pedestrians at the slightest provocation. At one point the racks are easily big enough to stick your hand in.

Nyamiyaga has decided against keeping cows but has gone for rabbits instead. They are being bred at the school, and then sold or given to the poorest families for them to breed themselves and to give a source of cheap meat to the villagers. So I have to do so bunny cuddling at break time, much to the delight of the little children. (One little girl gets really upset; the baby bunny almost disappears in my hands and she thinks I’m going to kill it in front of her, or eat it there and then!).

You get a feel for a school when you visit it, and Nyamiyaga feels good. It has a three year strategic plan. Its parents are seriously supportive. It has real leadership from the head, and a supportive and co-operative staff who make a point of coming to talk to me instead of sulking in the background. The lessons I see are OK; I watch the usual pathetic attempts to teach secondary ICT without any equipment or visual aids.

Nyamiyaga’s children are very poor; I see more children without any shoes here than I’ve ever seen in all my time in Rwanda. But this is a school with a heart and I’m going to give it a good write up.

There’s no possibility of eating at midday, so soon I’m off to the second school. The moto’s exhaust is loud and raucous, and in the stillness of a world with no cars and no electricity you can hear it coming for miles as it plugs up the hairpin bends and winds round the contours towards me. Then we’re bumpity-bump down and down to a shaded bridge by a clear, rushing river, and just as abruptly up and up again to Ntarabana.
Ntarabana is that rarity – a brand new school. There are only four classrooms and of these only three are occupied by the primary children. The fourth houses the maternelle every morning, and the staffroom plus head’s office in the afternoon. They need a building programme of at least three more rooms as soon as the catholic church can scrape the money together. There is no head; the school is run as a satellite of Nyamiyaga. This isn’t altogether successful because there’s always a conflict of interest in the arrangement, so Ntarabana has its own budget but the day to day management is by Nyamiyaga with a “responsable” looking after the immediate running. There is no electricity, and no water – not even in this brand new school. There is a new secondary school just across the road, and pupils have to trudge a hundred yards up the mountain to get water from the “big” school. Fortunately the only vehicles using the road are my moto and the priest’s, so it’s not exactly like trying to cross the M25.

Ntarabana has excellent buildings of brick, and someone has thought things through by installing modern airbricks to give not just ventilation but a source of light on both sides of each room. There’s still no glass in the windows, just wooden shutters, but even with the shutters closed in a storm you’d (just about) be able to see what you were doing. The budget didn’t extend to a ceiling. There are flower borders well planted, but dried up and dying while we wait for the rains to come.

I go into a year 2 class and meet the pupils. At the back of the room is a giant. Thomas is 22, but is still in the second year of primary. He’s almost as big as the teacher. He’s wearing the compulsory khaki uniform of primary school boys, including the shorts. It just looks ridiculous. Poor Thomas; he’s a nice lad but he isn’t academic, and it quickly becomes plain that Thomas will always be in year 2 until he decides that writing and all but the most elementary reading aren’t his forte.

I watch a maths lesson where pupils are doing their seven times table. The teacher sends a child out, and five minutes later he returns and jumps about and fishes around in his shirt as if there’s a bee got in there and is stinging him. But all’s well. He produces fistfuls of pebbles which he’s picked up from the yard. Joy, oh joy, we’re going to use a visual aid to do our maths! It’s a good lesson apart from the usual “siggis” and “threeteen”; but there again even the teacher’s English is hesitant. The pupils are playing a game with him; they’re bored in maths and one by one they ask to go to the toilet. The same group of boys who had asked to go in the previous lesson now have another five minute break. They dare not linger on the loo because the teacher only lets them out one at a time. They shoot out of the door as if they were about to wet their pants, and return dragging their feet to make the exeat last as long as possible.

The teacher gets his revenge, though. At breaktime he only lets them out one by one, and only if they answer a question accurately. The noise of thirty five little people yelling “me, teacha’” and flicking their fingers to get his attention is enormous.

By four o’clock I’m worn out, not to mention starving. It’s only a few hundred yards up the hill to the presbytery, and I trudge slowly up there to find Soraya already installed. Father Peter remembers me from last year and we catch up on gossip. He’s on his own tonight because father Bernard, who doubles as the head teacher of the secondary school, is on a trip with some pupils. We don’t eat until half past seven and by then we’re both almost too tired to bother. The housekeeper shows me to my room; she’s thought there would only be one of us and hasn’t made up the bed. Someone else has been using it, even to the extent of leaving their toothbrush on the wash basin. I’m expecting her to strip the bed, but all she does is smooth out the sheets and tuck them in. Obviously, I don’t qualify for clean sheets. Good job I’m too tired to bother!

In the pitch dark of the Rongi night, with strange creatures croaking and calling from the mountainside opposite, and only the moon flitting between clouds for company, you enter a whole new world. You can hear water gurgling somewhere below; the occasional coughs of cattle in their byres, and the sounds of crying babies and laughter from adults. Miles away to the East, towards Kigali, you can see a bright spot of orange where a fire is burning. And that’s it. There’s nothing to do but go to sleep. Father Peter is watching TV, but it’s only the news, and all in Kinyarwanda, so it’s not exciting. Rwandan TV news tends to be an exhaustive treatment of what the president or government has done that day, which seems to consist mainly of shaking people’s hands and awarding prizes and sitting around conference tables. It makes “Big Brother” seem exciting.

I’m so tired I don’t care. I have a clean room, running water which is cold but not freezing (it comes straight off the mountain stream nearby), and a feeble but welcome electric light. And at the moment that’s more than I’ve been getting in Gitarama, and all that I need.

What a great day! Rongi rocks, and there’s more to come tomorrow…..

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