Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Water for Muheta, and the rains come at last!

September 18th

Today is an early start; I’m going to Muheta and Gasovu primary schools. These are the two furthest out schools in Rugendabari secteur, and by the end of today I will effectively have been to all the Rugendabari schools. There’s a little satellite school at Mpinga, but it only has years 1-3 and I’ll only go there if I have a half day clear when I’m going further up the valley. Muheta is about the furthest it’s practical to go if you’re trying to do two schools in a day.

Joseph arrives on time at seven and we set off through the cool morning across the mountains and up the Nyabinoni valley road. The weather is different today. The cloud is lower and consists of lumps of greyish black cumulus. It’s just a matter of time before the rains arrive, and I’ve got my heavy cagoule in my bag. The visibility is clearer, but not good enough to see the volcanoes yet from the mountain road.

To get to Muheta you have to pass a roll-call of schools which anyone who has read this blog will be familiar with – Nyabisindu, Biti, Mushubati, Gitongati, Mata, Kivomo, Rutaka, Kibanda, Gisiza, all the Mushishiro bunch, Nyamatete, Gasave, Nsanga, Rugendabari, Kirwa Catholic and Kirwa Adventist. That immediately gives you an idea of how far out we’re going. All along the Nyabinoni valley are gangs of T.I.G. (“pronounced “teege”) workers, improving the road. After Kirwa, contouring in and out of all the little gulleys on the earth road, we pass Gasovu secondary on the left on its little hill, then Gasovu health centre on the next little hill, and finally we come to a small village at a crossroads which is Gasovu centre. The primary school is just off to the left, but we are first heading up into the mountains to Muheta. The road to the school is hairy, and I most certainly wouldn’t want to come here on a bad day. The road is steep, and in some places has almost been made into steps because the vast majority of traffic here is on foot. There are places where I have to get off the big moto and let Joseph gingerly ease his way up the mountain. Needless to say, the views are superb. By the time we approach the school we are about three quarters of the way up from the Nyaborongo to the summit ridge of the Ndiza mountains. Fortunately there are signs to tell us where the school is, otherwise we’d never find it in a month of Sundays. Eventually the road gets slightly better and we pass through a dense forest of eucalyptus to end up on a hilltop, and there in front of us is the school.

The school’s situation is unusual in two ways. Firstly because it is located actually inside a government forest. There is no playground; no football pitch or volleyball court as in most schools. The buildings stand on a small, “L” shaped, patch of land where trees have been cleared, but from the flower beds outside each classroom the trees extend as far as the eye can see and cover the entire hilltop. Better, it isn’t like an English planted forest with gloomy conifers and nothing as ground cover; here the eucalyptus lets light through to the floor, and under the trees is lovely short grass. It’s a beautiful setting, with shade and tranquillity.

The other unusual feature is that Muheta is a split site school; the year 1 and 2 classes and maternelle lie about a hundred metres in altitude and half a mile away below us on the next hill. Léonidas, the head, is not there – someone has called a meeting of all the secteur heads today. But Alfred, the “responsable” knows I’m coming and welcomes me. He turns out to be a first class English teacher, and when I sit in on a lesson with his year six group it becomes one of the most pleasant lessons I’ve ever observed herein Rwanda. At the end of the lesson he asks me if I’ll answer questions from the group, and it becomes clear that they’ve prepared a series of questions. “How old are you”? “Are you married?” “How many children do you have?” are all pretty standard; but I also get “What are you going to do when you leave Rwanda?” which is not an easy one to answer.

During the lesson a little girl comes into the classroom, clutching a ball made of banana leaves and twine. She looks about 5 or 6 years old. Nobody pays any attention to her, and she seems to be accepted as “part of the furniture”. I soon discover that she’s Alfred’s daughter. She’s a lovely little thing, and not the slightest bit fazed by the muzungu who has come to the school. Later in the morning Alfred’s young son, also below school age, is around. I like the way these two tinies are accepted by all the older students with no fuss. In another lesson I sit next to one of the year 3 pupils; he is barefoot and wearing absolute rags. Nothing that he’s wearing is without patches and darns, everything has ragged seams and holes scuffed at the elbows. Poor little chap.

I see two more good lessons, and the “pearls of wisdom” session at the end is a dialogue. I like almost everything about this school. Their brick rooms are big, with windows on both sides, and feel welcoming despite the lack of material on the walls. The mud brick rooms not only have windows on both sides, but have been painted white inside. You can’t imagine just how much that improves the rooms as a working space. They are just about the only mud brick rooms I would feel happy to teach in. Furthermore, Muheta is finishing a big renovation project with its parents, to create two additional big rooms. One will be a staffroom, head’s office and store room; the other will be a library. Now this is the second school in a week to start talking about libraries (the other is Kibangu which is a much bigger primary with a tronc commun section).

On the top of the forested hill is a water tank which supplies the school, and possibly some of the surrounding houses too. The tank is buried, and Alfred tells me that water is piped into it from a spring high up on the opposite mountain. If I understand him correctly, then that is no mean feat of engineering. Next to the school is a concrete apron and tap for filling jerry cans, just like I’ve had installed at Cyeza and Gatenzi. But the tap is missing, either stolen or broken. So at the moment water has to be brought from another source and laboriously carried up the hillside from the year 1 and 2 buildings. I ask Alfred how much it would cost to repair the tap. He says about RwF14000 (£15) to fit two taps. And that’s not all. The school wants to turn one of its toilets into a wash/shower room, especially (but not exclusively) for the older girls to use. They would need to run a pipe down from the taps to the toilet block, about a hundred yards, and install piping and a shower head etc in the cubicle. The total cost of everything would be about RwF200,000 (about £220). I immediately tell them to get me a detailed estimate and that one of the VSOs will pay for the work. I know that Moira has some money from her Irish community and is asking me to look out for a suitable scheme. This is just what she needs. I take a lot of pictures to make a power point for her and to send back to Bray to show her sponsors. And if the Irish don’t want to fund this project, then I will. Muheta is yet another little school where there seems to be a spirit of get-up-and-go, and it will be my pleasure to help somewhere so isolated. By the end of the morning Alfred has rung the local “technician” (plumber) and gives me a written quotation for the work. So I tell him to go ahead with it.

As we leave Muheta all the children want to come up and say goodbye, and especially the year 6 class. We bump down the mountainside, stopping every now and then for me to take photos. Joseph is enjoying himself this week; he’s never been to most of the places he’s taking me to and he’s discovering parts of his district he didn’t know existed.

Some of the hillsides have huge gashes in them; you can see some of these in one of the photos. I can’t work out whether these are natural erosion gulleys from a long time ago, or whether they’re caused by mining. If they are from mining, it is most probably in search of Coltan. Coltan is prized everywhere at the moment and is an irresistible source of extra cash for anyone lucky enough to find an outcrop. The deposit tends to occur in long, thin seams like tin veins in Cornwall. What usually results is a vertical scar running up the mountainside with bright orangey-yellow rock exposed. The exposed earth gulleys immediately in the rains, and the land never recovers. But coltan mining is very recent (the stuff is used in mobile phones), and these features look to old to be coltan. Oh well, another unsolved mystery.

We cross the main earth road up the valley at Gasovu village, and run a few yards up the next hill to the primary school. The head is also away at the meeting, but the reception I get here is very different from that at Muheta.

It turns out to be difficult to find lessons to observe; there is a lot of Kinyarwanda being taught on a Friday afternoon, and a Maths and Social Sciences teacher is away. That doesn’t leave me with a lot of choices. In one lesson the teacher sets the pupils some exercises and then spends twenty minutes telling me how he is hungry and underpaid and that there are no resources at the school. A second lesson is much better. But the debrief with all the staff goes badly. For the first time ever since I arrived here I get the feeling that I’m not only not welcome, but that they’re dismissing me. They don’t accept the advice I’m trying to give them. They go on and on about what they haven’t got. One teacher in particular is dominating. When he says, in so many words, that it’s all right for me to come up the valley on an expensive moto and tell them what to do, but they can’t do it because they’re underpaid etc I lose my cool and tell him to back off. It occurs to me that they must think I’m some fat cat expat being paid a huge sum to come and impose on them. I explain that I’m a volunteer. But they don’t seem to be listening.

Their issues about pay and resources are valid, of course, but they also apply to all other primary schools, most of which are accepting them as givens and doing their best in the circumstances.

Outside it has started raining and it’s time to leave. Some of these teachers can hardly contain their glee when they point out that I’m going to get soaked on my way back home, and when I catch my foot against a stone and nearly stumble on the patch up to where Joseph is waiting with the bike, they break out in jeers. I think they feel they’ve “seen off the muzungu” and his fancy ideas.

It’s a shame. It leaves a slightly sour taste at the end of another very heavy week of visits, and I feel sorry for the pupils in the school. Their buildings are reasonable; the school has a lot going for it including solar panels on the office roof. It achieves respectable results but there is still plenty of room for improvement especially in languages. I don’t know if I’ve just caught them on a bad day, or whether one particular teacher with an axe to grind has been able to dominate the afternoon.

You can’t imagine a bigger contrast between today’s two schools. Gasovu’s results are far better than those at Muheta, but, by golly, I know which school I’d rather teach in!

OK, so it’s starting to rain. There’s no doubt, now, that the rains have at last arrived. There is thunder and lightning, and after a mile or so we seek shelter in a cluster of houses by a log bridge across a stream. Now remember that this is the earth road to Nyabinoni that Soraya and I spent seven hours navigating last autumn, and the same road where Becky and I had to turn back a few months ago. The very last thing I want is to be stuck here on a Friday night, and especially not after the reception I’ve just got at Gasovu.

Fortunately the rain stops after half an hour, and I tell Joseph to get moving. He’s reluctant, because when we look northwards towards Nyabinoni and beyond, the sky is jet black and you can see the most torrential rain falling. There’s still lightning in the distance. Joseph doesn’t want to get caught out in the open in that lot, and I don’t blame him. But I tell him that we’re still a long way up the valley and when we reach the main road we’ve got the mountains to cross. We need to get moving. If the rain comes we’ll be stuck here for hours, and by then it will be dark.

The problem with Joseph is that while he’s a safe driver and I have complete confidence in him, he’s also very slow. We averaging something not much better than jogging speed, and the road twists and turns so much that here we’re actually heading towards the storm, and a few seconds later we’re outrunning it. He keeps looking over his shoulder and muttering, but I can see that the storm is very slow moving and that if we can only make the main road we should be able to outrun it all the way home to Gitarama. It’s nerve wracking for both of us. I realise I should have taken pictures of the sky, but at the time I didn’t want to waste a second and just needed to get the hell out of the valley road and head for home!

We inch past the villages – Kirwa, Rugendabari, and eventually come to the main road junction just below Nsanga. We’re both tense, because what we can’t see is what the weather is like on the Gitarama side of the mountains – if the storm is already in Gitarama we’re going to get swamped. But, again, there are places to shelter at Mushishiro and Mata and Mushubati, so every four or five miles we can hole up if necessary. We both heave a sigh of relief as we come over the second summit cutting near Rutaka and see, if not blue sky, then at least high, thin clouds ahead of us. Behind us the sky is like something out of an artist’s impression of Noah’s Flood. The rain seems to have definitely passed Kibanda and is probably at Gasovu or Kirwa. But we’ve managed to outrun it.

I pay Joseph and send him on his way. He’s done us well this week. Back at the flat I set to and cook, using whatever remains in the fridge. I also start making Moira a power point about Muheta’s water supply proposal while I’ve got an omelette cooking in the frying pan. Not one of my better ideas. I look up after a minute and the kitchen’s full of smoke and I’ve come within a hair’s breadth of setting the flat on fire!

It’s been another busy week. I’m now up to 96 formal visits to 67 different schools, and I’ve already done more visits this term than in any of the other five since I arrived.

Best thing today – everything about Muheta.
Worst thing today – some of the things about Gasovu (but not everything – one lesson was good).

No comments: