Monday, 14 September 2009

Up north to Nyabinoni

September 8th

Another day, another big adventure. As usual, it’s a last minute thing to be able to make all the arrangements. Soraya’s sorted out the motos, and eventually I get through to Jean-Damascène, the priest at Nyabinoni, to ask him if we can stay. He immediately remembers us and can’t wait for us to come up to his parish. That’s so nice!

When our motos arrive they want an outrageous price to go all the way to Nyabinoni, so Soraya and I have a quick conflab. We ring Protogène, the head at Kibangu, and ask if he can find us two more motos locally. He says he can, and our problems are solved. We agree RwF10,000 for the Gitarama bikes to take us first to Murehe “B” and then on to Kibangu school itself, where we dismiss them. The ride up the Nyaborongo valley from Rugandabari is slow, dusty, and jolting. By the time we arrive at Murehe the collar of my (white) shirt is already stained an orangey brown from dust and sweat. But at least there’s no sign of rain.

Murehe “B” is an Anglican school. It stands, desolate and for all the world like an abandoned army barracks, on a flat piece of land surrounded by houses and banana groves. In one corner is the Anglican church, a low, poor building looking temporary though it’s probably been here at least forty years. Next to it is the pastor’s house. I’m walking round the school grounds trying to get a feel for the place and within a few seconds I’m surrounded by the pastor, his wife, and their three children (none of whom seem to be in school this morning). They invite me in for refreshment, but I explain I’ve come to visit the school and I must get on.

The head teacher is away at a meeting elsewhere (that turns out to be a recurring theme e all week and underlines the problem of head teachers being away from their schools for too much time to really know what’s going on inside them). Soraya and I address ourselves to the “responsable”, who is a nice chap and knows what he’s about.

The rooms at Murehe are like cowsheds, and poor buildings become a regular feature as we progress through the week 9with a couple of honourable exceptions). Low metal roofs without ceilings make them ovens by early afternoon. The winds are rising ahead of the rains, and the shutters flap and creak, disturbing everybody’s concentration. The shutters always open inwards, and with rows of desks always jammed right up against the walls there is always a group of pupils who need a sixth sense to keep ducking as the heavy wooden shutter flaps towards their heads.

Murehe “B” somehow manages to get surprisingly good results despite its general decrepitude. I sit through a secondary maths lesson where pupils are laboriously converting decimal numbers into fractions; the technique seems long and unnecessary; I’m beginning to feel that a lot of the Rwandan maths syllabus is maths for the sake of it rather than maths with any realistic everyday application.

Then there’s a year 5 maths lesson where pupils are converting hours to minutes (e.g. how many minutes in 11 hours?). This also seems a rather unnecessary exercise. Most pupils seem to get the process of multiplication by 60, and at least there’s a sense of pace and energy and he teacher congratulates pupils who arrive at the right answers.

Finally to a yr 1 maths lesson. Pupils are learning their numbers from 1 – 100. The teacher has drawn a number grid on the blackboard but never refers to it the whole of the lesson. First we laboriously chant, as a whole class, from 1 to 100. 1-10 is fast, but then the chanting slows down to a dirge. Next we chant the whole thing again, row by row. Finally the teacher picks on individual pupils, making them chant batches of tens before moving on to the next pupil. The children all have problem with “siggis”, and almost all of them are saying “threeteen” instead of thirteen. I can’t resist a smile when I hear 46 little people yelling out “threety-three”!

The children are having trouble with numbers ending in “0”. They go 36, 37, 38, 39 and then there’s a pause while everyone waits for a brave soul to guess what the next number is. At one point we go from 39 to 80. The teacher corrects them most of the time, but not always. There are better ways to teach numbers. When the whole class, or most of them, are chanting, they are all engaged and happy. But as soon as we get to individual pupils the pace slows, and pupils start to disengage. They’re fidgeting, and heads are starting to go down on arms on desks. One little boy is sound asleep and has to be carried out of the room by the teacher; I suspect he’s got malaria rather than that he’s just tired.

The children don’t write anything all lesson, which is Ok for some of the time in year 1. Mind you, all they have are the stupid “post and rail” desks which aren’t wide enough to rest their exercise books on properly. No wonder their letter formation and handwriting is so appalling.

Yet, despite all this criticism, here is a primary which came about 25th out of 94 in the District last year, beating modern, rebuilt schools and other schools in the more affluent areas around Gitarama. It just shows that the key to everything is the quality of the teaching. But oh dear, this school needs bombing and rebuilding. The water tap (shared with the villagers) is broken and nobody seems to be bothered about fixing it. They go and get muddy, dirty water from the nearest stream.

We travel through the foothills of the Ndiza mountains to Kibandu. At Kibangu we meet Protogène who is one of the new breed of energetic, ambitious heads of tronc commun schools. Soraya gets straight into class; I do the admin inspection first. Kibangu has a huge rate of redoublement. We discuss this (it is one of my bête noirs of the Rwandan education system), and he puts it down to the large size of classes in years 1 and 2, meaning that pupils who don’t find reading and writing easy can’t get much individual attention. Most of his parehts are illiterate, and there are probably not more than a dozen books in the homes of all 843 pupils, so there’s pretty much no help coming from home. The maternelle teacher is untrained and unqualified; there is no programme of study for nursery education and, this being Rwanda, people are reluctant to go out on a limb and create their own thing for fear of criticism. So, in other words, nothing is being taught in the maternelles except the recognition of letters and numbers as shapes on a blackboard.

An even bigger problem at Kibangu, as all all the schools I visit this week, is abandonment. By years 5 and 6 half of all the pupils who should be in school have left. Again, I ask Protogène to talk me through the situation. The answer is a few pregnancies (to girls as young as thirteen and fourteen in some cases), but mostly it is due to pupils simply abandoning the area. Often their parents have no idea where they’ve gone.

Now picture yourself in Kibangu. It is a small village in the middle of nowhere. Every road in and out is going up and down mounbtainsides. There’s no work except heavy drudgery in the fields for the boys, and housework for the girls. You can’t blame a young person of fifteen or sixteen, still trying to get through primary school, for deciding that their future leaves in getting the hell out of Kinbangu and off to the bright lights of Kigali or Gitarama or beyond.

Right on cue, as we’re talking in Protogène’s office, in comes a woman with her daughter. The girl is about 14-15 and has that sulky expression you find the world over in teenagers who think they’re in for a hiding. “I don’t want to be here” is written all over her face. The girl is in primary year 2 (at her age!), and has decided to leave school and work as a domestique for a local family. Her mother had no idea where she was. The girl has decided that being a domestique isn’t worth the work (low pay, and who knows what else has been happening to her in somebody else’s house), and she’s agreed to come back with her mum and ask if she can be readmitted to school. Protogène says yes, of course, but I wonder how long she’ll stay.

One lesson I watch at Kibangu is yr 5 social studies. The teacher is well prepared, energetic, and her English is excellent. But the pupils are lethargic and don’t want to get involved. “Hard work” describes it perfectly. We start with a chanting song to get them active; the teacher uses the new textbooks, but there’s a constant buzz of talking round the room which is annoying. The subject matter is tricky – one of the things the teacher is trying to do is explain the idea of spacing your children through birth control. She does it imaginatively, but even though she’s a good teacher and working hard, the pupils don’t make it easy for her.

And outside the room, the windows are surrounding with literally dozens of other pupils who have been allowed out of their classes by their teachers “so they can go and look at the muzungus”. Some of them are asking me for money in voices loud enough to disrupt the lesson. I’m spitting rivets at the teachers who let them out, and eventually at Protogène who didn’t see anything wrong with it….. Eventually we have to close the windows and soldier on in semi darkness, and still the idiots outside are shouting through the shutters.

When our two new moto drivers arrive we find the fare they’re asking is much, much less than our Gitarama drivers would want, and we realise we’ve stumbled on a good idea: go to the first school from Git and then get the heads to find local transport for the rest of the journey. It’s slightly risky because there’s a possibility there won’t be a moto around to take us, but I n Rwanda it seems to be the case that if there’s money being offered, anything can be arranged if you’re prepared to wait a while…. Oh well, I might be regretting this idea in a few blogs’ time!

We bump and jolt on to Nyabinoni; the route is familiar but it doesn’t get any shorter or less tiring the second time. Three and a half hours all told on motos in one day isn’t anybody’s idea of fun, and that’s just the outward journey.

When we get to the presbytery neither Jean-Damascène nor Bosco, the new priest, are there, but the houseboy and Séverine, the domestique, take charge of us. Séverine is a lovely girl in her early 20s who remembers us from last year. She speaks some English and without the priests around is eager to practise it. Eventually Father Bosco arrives. He’s come to replace Father Bernard who left at the end of last year to be the second priest at Rongi and to be head teacher of the new secondary school in Ntarabana. We were with him last week, so Bosco’s interested to hear all about the Rongi set-up.

Bosco turns out to be a star. Jean-Damascène is away at Kabgayi on business for a couple of days, and Bosco gives his time to us as our chauffeur and general mentor. He speaks reasonable English but much better French, so we speak in English when Soraya is with us, and in French when it’s just him and me.

Soraya and I are given exactly the same rooms as last year, so it feels like coming home. There’s electricity, and unlimited running water! That’s a welcome change from Gitarama. The water comes from a mountain stream; it’s cold but not icily so, and showers are refreshing rather than an ordeal. When we came last year the priests had a solar panel for electricity. But things have moved on. Jean-Damascène seems to have an engineering background. What he was planning to do last year is not up and running. The Catholic Church has built a micro-hydro scheme in the valley next to the village, and is generating enough electricity for us to be able to leave lights on all night. (The Anglicans, in bitter rivalry with the papists up here, have also built their own hydro in the next valley along. But the Catholics have the bigger stream and therefore the more juice…… Oh dear, to think that we even have religious rivalries over the number of light bulbs you can run through the dark nights!)

After two full inspections and hours on a moto you can understand that we’re very tired. We eat at about half past eight because we’ve been waiting to see if Jean-Damascène would make it back from Kabgayi. He texts to say he’s staying at least one more night, so we gobble our food (we’ve neither of us had time for lunch today) and as I share a bottle of Primus with Bosco I thank the Lord that the Catholics here are not “dry” like the Anglicans. Séverine has fixed me up a mosquito net, and I think I’m fast asleep about ten seconds after hitting the pillow.

Best thing about today: just being up here in Nyabinoni. Both Soraya and I love these northern secteurs; the scenery, the isolation, the feeling of being out of the traffic and hustle of Gitarama and into the “real” Rwandan countryside. It’s so dark and quiet up here….

And we’ve also managed to do two proper inspections today. That’s already four this week in just two days, and there’s more to come!

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