Saturday, 10 October 2009

Conked out up the mountain

September 7th

Up early, a cold shower, and ready for action by just after six. Just as at the other Presbyteries, the Catholics at Kanyanza have reliable water and their solar panels are so efficient that the power lasts all night. By morning my phone and computer are fully charged up and ready to go. I can’t guarantee that even in Gitarama town these days! The water at Kanyanza tastes and smells so full of iron that I’m sure if you held a magnet to it, the water would be attracted. It is almost certainly coming down through ancient iron pipes from a spring somewhere up in the hills behind us, and is probably being stored in an ageing iron tank. The Kanyanza schools were built in 1939; the enormous church in 1945 and the Presbytery and all its outbuildings must date from the same period. All the priests, and myself as guest, are living in a modern building but the plumbing probably all connects to the original source. The old part of the Presbytery is built in a shallow “U” shape round an enclosed garden, but its accommodation needs a complete makeover. That is all planned but at the present time there is no money available to repair and renovate. So all the old rooms – and there must be well over a dozen – except the dining room are being used as offices or stores or are empty.

I decide to go to early morning Mass and have a look inside the church. It is like a small cathedral – high, solidly built of brick, but colourful with murals and flags, and blue and white decoration round the arches and lintels everywhere. The proportions are about right, and the acoustics fair. There are air holes for ventilation high up on the walls, and at this early hour the raucous shrieks of passing birds occasionally drown out the service.

What nobody has warned me is that today is a “red letter day”; it’s one of the festivals to do with Mary, and so their service lasts nearly an hour. By the time we eventually get away I’m starving! In fact I’m beginning to feel faint and wobbly and I’m wondering if I’m going down with something. I haven’t slept well; one of those nights where I sleep deeply till around 2 or 3 in the morning and then never get completely back off.

My chauffeur, Louis, arrives early and I have the usual fun and games trying to ring today’s schools to confirm that it’s OK to visit them. I’m having a slightly less strenuous day today; school B is going to be a challenge but school K is right next to where I’m staying so my jolting around on motos will be minimised.

B is going to be a gruelling school to visit. Last year it came bottom in the District “league table” of results, and its performance was appalling. I’m expecting to find poor teaching, demotivated teachers and an atmosphere of lassitude, and If this turns out to be the case then it’s my job to bang the table and warn them to get things happening or else…..

The road to B is one of the most difficult to any of my schools. It’s definitely not a road to venture in poor weather. It needs a local driver who knows the way and knows how to tackle the very steep, bumpy bits and the narrow log bridges. Fortunately for me Louis is just the man, but the price we negotiated for his services includes a hefty allowance in case his bike gets damaged during the journey. B sits on the top of a ridiculously steep hill, towards the top of the main Ndiza mountain range. We leave Nyabikenke and climb and climb until we’re winding up the side of truly alpine valleys, all gurgling streams and grassy, wooded slopes. It’s absolutely ravishingly beautiful if you can ignore the desperate poverty and grinding hardship of actually trying to eke out a living from farming here. Every available patch of land is being cultivated, and despite the steepness of the slopes there still seem to be hordes of people hacking away with hoes at every corner. As we climb we pass a steady stream of villagers coming off the mountain, barefoot, with enormous bowls and sacks of goods on their heads. Today is Nyabikenke market, and in the afternoon they will face a climb of well over a thousand feet back home over these muddy, stony, slippery and at times ridiculously steep tracks. You have to be fit and hardy to live here.

Just when I think we must have reached the school, Louis points upwards and I see it looming above us, for all the world like one of those Cathar fortresses in the south of France. It takes a long time, even on the steep road, to corkscrew our way round and round until we reach the level of the buildings.

Ha! The buildings are new – all brick walls and blue metal roofs. No excuse for poor results on account of the buildings, then……..

M, the head teacher, comes out to meet me. And what I find in the next hour genuinely shakes me. There are six classes at B, but someone has started to rebuild the school to give it nine classrooms and a head’s office. When I say “started”, I mean just that. In 2006 they tore down a couple of the worst old rooms (and judging by what remains, the worst must have been amazingly bad), and started to build a modern, model school just like Kibingo or Kibyimba. But then something happened and the building just stopped. Tom suggests there must have been a dispute between the builder and the District, or the funding provider simply ran out of money. Because not a single one of the new classrooms is finished, or even usable in our eyes. Yes, they have the blue metal roofs, but in every case the inverted “V” shaped piece of metal which forms the apex of the roof hasn’t been attached. So every room has a long slot, a foot or so wide, open to the sky, and through which rain pours in torrents during heavy downpours. Straight onto the pupils and their desks and equipment below. So in rainy weather all lessons have to be abandoned and pupils have to take shelter in the corners of the rooms.

But there is not a single door or window in all the new rooms. The windows are just voids, without even sills. And because the school is on a prominent hilltop it is always windy, and when it rains the wind swirls the rain in and out of the rooms through the window holes. There’s absolutely nowhere for the children to take shelter in these rooms; it must be like washing them with a hosepipe during tropical downpours. So when the headteacher tells me that many pupils don’t come to school on days when it looks like raining, I can absolutely sympathise with them.

The older rooms are appalling – potholed earth floors, and so many holes in the tiled roofs that if you look upwards from the centre of the room the pattern of black roof and blue sky beyond it looks like a chessboard. In these rooms the window sills have been removed, nut the remnants of the windows are still there, hanging precariously down from rotting lintels. In a few cases there are panes of glass hanging from their top putty and acutely dangerous if any rampaging children should crash into them.

There’s almost no playground and certainly no garden, because pretty well the entire site is either covered in unfinished new buildings, or is still under undemolished old ones.

At one end of the site the mountainside has been chopped out to give a level plinth for the new rooms; this has left a solid cliff face of earth about three metres high. Despite the best efforts of the staff this is an irresistible magnet for the little ones to try to climb, and there have been injuries where pupils have fallen down from near the top of it. It needs a retaining wall.

The toilets at B are exemplary – 10 “plastic “portaloo” types for the girls and similar for the boys. But there is no water on site, and so hygiene is problematic.

Two of the new classrooms are jammed floor to ceiling with furniture – dozens of desks. These are to furnish some of the other new rooms which do not even have roofs yet, and whose walls are only about six feet high before being abandoned. The rooms of furniture are also open to the rain, windowless and door less, and so the new furniture is gradually getting ruined even before it can be used.

The problem for B is that in order to start building the new rooms they had to demolish some of the older ones. And despite the rooms being unfinished the school is having to use them. In one room one entire section of blue roof has disappeared, and where the floor is not level there is a puddle of water, several inches deep, which has to be negotiated to enter or leave the class.
In my entire teaching career I have never seen such a disgraceful built environment. In England the health and safety executive would close the place immediately and prosecute the District and the government. To say I’m shocked is an understatement. To start banging the table about bad results is just unreasonable. I marvel that anybody stays to teach here for more than a couple of days. There’s no accommodation for staff near the school; most of them live in Nyabikenke and have to walk up the mountain every morning and down it every night.

I notice that the children are very noisy and that there’s a conspicuous absence of teachers. M, the head, explains – three teachers have taken the day off to go to Gitarama to sort out their salaries with Claudine at the Office. They haven’t been paid for August or September. Now can you imagine living and working in these conditions for more than two months without pay, and sticking at the job? And two more have gone to Ndago school where Soraya is doing a training today. All very well, but that has left the school with five classes (yr 5 is a small year and is being operated as a half class; today it is coming in the afternoon only) and only one teacher. This person is a yr 1 and 2 teacher, so year 6, with the formal concours exam about to descend on them, are left to their own devices.

There is no store room for books and papers; in M’s office there are cupboard at crazy angles resting on stones to give a semblance of level-ness. I think her office is a former classroom from the very oldest part of the school; if that is the case then the room would have been about half the size necessary for fifty children to sit and be able to write.

As you can imagine, at this point in the day I realise that any thought of chasing school B about its exam results is pointless. I promise the head I will do my best to get both Claude and the Mayor out to see the state of the place, and ask my VSO successor to come next year and watch the teaching here. I’m sure there’s some sort of dispute over the contract rather than lack of funds to finish the buildings, and everybody has forgotten the school. But the children, the staff, and the results are suffering and things must not be allowed to go on like this indefinitely.

Just at this point I come over so wobbly that I feel faint and have to sit down. I’m sweating, and my joints are aching. I have a headache and feel faintly nauseous and have to make a dash straight from the head’s office to the nearest loo (the first time I have ever had to use the loo in a Rwandan primary school). Every time I stand up I feel as though I’m going to keel over.

I manage to finish the admin inspection, and we ring my driver to tell him to come back straight away. While we’re waiting I manage to observe the one teacher left at the school take a yr 1 English class, and she does a reasonable lesson.

I leave school B feeling like death warmed up and hoping I’ll stay conscious enough to hang on to the moto and not get thrown off during the mountain descent back to Kanyanza. Despite feeling wretched I’m cursing myself because for some stupid reason I forgot to bring my camera with me on the one day when I really needed it to get evidence for the District of the appalling state of affairs at B.

I arrived at school B thinking I would find appalling teaching despite an acceptable environment. I’ve left after finding at least one reasonable lesson despite an appalling environment.

Back at the Presbytery I crawl onto the bed and crash out. I drink water with rehydration salts. I ring my afternoon school and cancel; I think I’m going down with malaria and I’ll need to get back to Gitarama and get myself tested. For three hours I’m barely conscious; there are choirs singing and drumming in the church just next to my room and the noise is soothing.

Father Marcellin comes in to see me and find out what’s wrong. When I tell him he insists that I go up to the local “poste de santé” at Kiyumba where they can do malaria tests on the spot. We jolt off on his moto up to the administrative centre on the top of the ridge. All around us there’s a thunderstorm coming; the sky is black and at any moment there will be a deluge. The storm has already reached the Nyaborongo river so it’s only about ten or so miles away. The arrival of a sick muzungu among all the women bringing their babies for jabs and older men and women coughing and retching causes quite a stir. The young woman doctor is thorough and efficient; we speak in French. The young man who does the test and analyses it speaks good English. Both are intrigued by what I’m doing way up here in the wilds and the half hour it takes to analyse my blood sample passes very quickly.

The test comes out negative. I don’t have malaria but I certainly have some sort of infection. I definitely have a fever. The consensus seems to be that I’m not eating enough, especially at mid-day, and I’m trying to do too much in a hot climate and at altitude. If I rest, things will settle down. I’m given strong paracetamol to deal with headaches.

Back at the Presbytery we’re just home before the rain arrives. Marthe, the head at Kanyanza “B”, has heard that I’m ill and comes to see me at the end of the school afternoon. We get marooned under the awning of the Presbytery for well over an hour, so we talk. She’s a lovely, intelligent, friendly person and I like her a lot.

Eventually the storm subsides, Mathe can leave to go home, and I start to feel better as the sultry afternoon heat cools from the rain. By the time we eat in the evening my wobbliness has gone, though I still have a temperature. I manage to eat plenty at the Presbytery.

On the ride up to the poste de santé I manage to lose my water bottle as we jolt over bumps in the road. I ask the priests if they have a spare. They don’t have a plastic bottle, but I spend the rest of my time at Kanyanza drinking water from an empty Mass wine bottle – I’m swigging away at regular intervals from a bottle with a picture of the Virgin Mary and “Sancta” something or other on the label! Honestly, I kid you not. If I invented something like that for a story, you would say I was getting too far fetched. But it’s exactly what happened!

The evening is enlivened by a mouse that keeps running under the door into my room, gets half way across the floor before it realises that the room is occupied and the light is on, and then turns tail and dashes back out again.

I’m in bed well before nine and intend to sleep right through to about seven tomorrow. Let’s see if some rest will settle me down enough to carry on working up here.

Best thing about today – talking to Marthe
Worst thing – just about everything else. Why do I choose to get sick at just about the most inaccessible place in the entire district?

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