Monday, 5 October 2009

Jandari – the smallest of them all

September 28th

Up and off early this morning. The weather is bright and fresh again, but I already know that it won’t stay like this. The days are following a pattern; by late morning the sky clouds over and by early afternoon you can sense whether you’re in for a storm or not. The rains are a bit worrying at the moment. We’re not getting nearly as much rain as we should; when it rains the amount of rain isn’t as heavy or as prolonged as it was last year. And there are many days when we don’t get any rain at all here in Gitarama. That’s bad news for the farmers, and bad news for everybody because it means the reservoirs supplying Gitarama won’t fill up and the taps will run dry again soon. Hey ho, global warming here we come. If it goes on like this for a few years I suppose we’ll end up eating camel brochettes rather than goat!

Today I’m going up the “Great North Road” in all its rutted and stony glory, to do two more schools in Kabacuzi. We arrive promptly at Rutongo and Béathe, the head, comes out to greet me. Rutongo is lucky in that it has a huge piece of ground, spread along the side and bottom of a valley rather than the hilltop position of so many Rwandan schools. It’s a big school, with 1080 pupils. The buildings are all mud brick and with two exceptions are pretty awful. The usual pattern – windows on only one side, windows too small, uneven earth floors and roofs that undulate like the waves on Lake Kivu and where you can see pinpoints of sky through countless places where the tiles don’t cover the “roseaux”. Two rooms are better, with patches of concrete on their floors and windows on both sides. If they could only afford to mend the floors and paint the interiors white they’d be as good as any modern brick structure. But the capitation grant won’t stretch to luxuries like paint or cement. Other rooms are in a mixture of fired brick and mud brick with mud brick cement (see photos, below, in a separate post). The rain washes the mud cement out from between the bricks and weakens the whole structure. It’s a lot cheaper than using fired bricks all the time, or using proper cement, but it comes at the cost of constant maintenance to renew the mud mortar and/or plaster the walls with mud. Where the schools can’t afford to do this the walls become weaker and weaker until they risk collapsing.

There is a big plot of ground some way detached from the school where they have a coffee plantation. The trees are in flower and it looks as if they’ll get a good crop this year. (Apparently the rigours of the dry season are good for coffee because it puts the trees under stress and makes them all flower at the same time and bear fruit at the same time).

Rutongo not only has flower borders outside the rooms, but some decorative work with flat stones instead of the usual scuffed earth paths. But being in a valley bottom comes at a price – the risk of flooding. Flooding not from the river; there’s no risk of that, but from the sheer volume of rainwater washing in thin sheets down the hillsides. When the soil is as dry and compacted as it is now, at the end of the dry season, and the rain falls so heavily, the soil can’t absorb it. The rain water simply flows off down the hillside, carrying everything with it, and doesn’t penetrate the soil. This gives you the worst of all worlds – soils depleted of water, soil erosion and gulleying on a grand scale, rivers choked with soil and other debris, and damage and misery to buildings and their occupants in the line of flow.

Rutongo has its classrooms in two parallel tiers down the sloping side of the valley, and just above the lower tier they’ve had to dig an interceptor trench to catch all these sheets of excess rainwater. And it’s some trench – about three feet deep and four feet across. If you filled it with water it would make a moat! There are little wooden board bridges crossing it at regular intervals, but I bet it becomes a death trap during the rains because the edges of the trench will be impossibly slippery, not to mention all the mud being trampled onto the wooden bridges.

I watch two lessons at Rutongo including a very good science one on types of plants. The teacher – who has had no idea that I would be coming and no time to do any special preparation – comes armed with all sorts of plants and we cover them in the class (year 5). We have a tomato plant, bits of cassava and banana, coffee, Rwandan aubergine as well as Eucalyptus and some other trees I don’t recognise. The teacher copes well with some difficult technical vocabulary and her pronunciation is perfectly adequate. Good for her, and when I tell her all this at the “pearls of wisdom” session her colleagues give her a round of applause. It’s nice to find someone well prepared, energetic, with a good rapport with the class and who so evidently seems to enjoy her work.

By now it’s well into lunchtime and I’m off to Jandari “B”, my second school. Jandari is a satellite school of Rutongo, to relieve the pressure of numbers. It only started in January, and has just the one class with almost a hundred pupils in two shifts. There is one teacher – Priscille – and a second teacher comes up from Rutongo every so often to give Priscille a break and let her do her admin (such as it is). I arrive just as the youngsters are arriving for the afternoon session. Jandari is about a mile or so from Rutongo but very much up in the hills. It’s about half way from the valley bottom up to the ridge line. Some pupils come from the far side of the mountain range; this means leaving home at 6.30a.m. to be at school for 7.30. If they’re on the afternoon shift they only just get home before its dark. And they’re only seven years old.

While we’re waiting for school to start at 1p.m., we have pupils from Rutongo’s morning shift passing us on their way home, also over the mountain. They all want to stop and chat, and the older girls are very interested in Joseph. (Poor Joseph; he’s married, and eventually I have to come and rescue him).

Eventually it’s time for school and Jandari’s children line up in the playground under the baking hot sun. I’ve long since retreated to a patch of shade. Some of these children are seriously poor; they’ve come down the mountain barefoot. One boy has a shirt that’s come from a much older brother; it hangs below his knees. Others have been bought shorts many sizes too big for them (they’ll eventually grow into them), but at the moment they’re so cinched and bunched at the waist that the waistband looks like pleated curtains. Some children seem stunted, with heads and hands out of proportion to the rest of their bodies. Some are a lot older than the norm; I know from her census return that Priscille has several pupils of ten or older in her year one.

We go into the room and everybody stands for five minutes of prayers. There are no desks; pupils sit and work on benches. There are no exercise books; their slates are scattered round the room. And even by Rwandan standards the edges of the slates are spectacularly scuffed and weathered. The school consists of one single classroom. There is a catholic “succursale” (chapel of ease), a “salle de paroisse” (church hall) and one other building divided into two parts. We’re using the bigger part. Quite what’s going to happen next year when the school will have two classes is anyone’s guess, and in my report I’m going to have to point out that what we have here is a desperately temporary expedient and the District will need to build a proper school. You can’t go on for more than one more year borrowing the parish store room or catechary. Whether there’s room on the site for six classrooms plus maternelle is anybody’s guess; I suspect that up in the trees they’ll simply clear a new patch and start building. I do hope the District or an NGO pays for the buildings; we really must start getting away from new rooms being made of mud brick in the old-fashioned style; too dark; too small; completely unsuitable in this day and age. These tinies are Rwanda’s only hope for the future and they deserve better.

(Rutongo, and this area in general, has a problem with lack of parental support for schools. Parents say, quite understandably, that they need their children to help take stuff to market, to harvest fruit or plant out rice, to mind younger brothers and sisters, to go and find work in the mines to bring in enough money to keep the family fed. In their eyes school is the luxury which you can afford when everything else is going well. OK, but that approach isn’t going to lift these children out of poverty and won’t do them any good in the long term. Rutongo has a problem with a long “tail” of girls with poor exam results; the school says this is due to chronic bad attendance. Classes shrink dramatically on the two local market days each week, and I can vouch for this because on the day of my visit there were classes with 35 in the register but only 25 bodies in the room).

But back to Jandari. Priscille is lovely. She’s got the measure of the children and they worship her. I’m sitting right up at the front, and even the prospect of a white man can’t distract them from her when she gets teaching. We’re doing simple plurals (chalk/chalks, pen/pens) and the pupils follow and mimic her every word. Priscille has tons of energy and enthusiasm and the lesson flies by. At the end of it she and I do a double act for a few minutes. The children are adding the usual extra syllables onto their plurals and I want to try to correct them before the habit gets too ingrained. We have “slaties”, “bookies” “pennies” and try as I might I cannot get them to say the plurals (slates, books, pens) correctly. Every time I think we’ve broken the habit we go back to the top of the list of words, and the old pronunciation resurfaces straight away. I know what’s going to happen – when I return home to England I’m going to lapse into Kinyarwanda English without realising it. When you listen to this pronunciation around you all the time, it becomes normal and you forget what it should sound like…..

We have a bit of a problem at Jandari with pupils arriving late; there should be around 45 for the start of the afternoon but there are barely 30 for the line-up and prayers, and little bodies creep in through the open door for a good twenty minutes. Priscille keeps them standing against the back wall until there’s a convenient break in proceedings so that they get the message that being late means an uncomfortable standing session of half an hour or so.

Priscille is absolutely the right person for the post at Jandari. She’s an experienced infant teacher and her manner is perfect for the job.

With just one teacher and one room I’m hardly going to do a full scale inspection at Jandari. All her paperwork is down at Rutongo and I’ve already seen her registers and meetings books. So I watch one lesson and call it a day. Poor Joseph is starving; there’s no bar up here and he’s only too keen to get home. I’m not feeling hungry at all; that will come later.

He drops me at the Office to collect my computer, and I discover that the mark scheme has come in for the teacher English tests we did last Friday. I do an hour or so to get the feel of the answers, and find that while I might think I’ve done a couple of hundred, in reality I’ve barely done one hundred. This is going to be a long slog.

By now I’m tired, sleazy and hungry so I head off home. I eat out, and by the time I get back I honestly can’t be bothered to write up the two schools; I half watch a video and I’m practically falling asleep at the table before I heave myself off to bed with a massive bottle of water to drink during the night.

Best thing about today – everything. Yet another good, useful, interesting, fulfilling day.

1 comment:

kindredspirit said...

Bruce, have just read your blog entry for Sept 19 (posted 29/9) tiled Lets talk About the Blog. Whatever you do, dont give up on your amazing account of your Rwanda experiences. I've been reading it since I left Butare last year. Whoever is complaining can't be right in the head. Ignore them. Keep it up!