Monday, 26 October 2009

A week in the doldrums

October 17th – 24th

A quiet week and not enough to justify writing a blog each day. Besides, there’s relatively little to describe that I haven’t already said. So just one long entry to cover the whole week!

In some ways it has been a frustrating week. My intention was to go out to schools and arrange the placements for the teacher training college, so that by now (Sunday 25th) I’d have everything done. But, as usual, things don’t work out as I plan them.

On Sunday night one of our Vice Mayors, the more experienced one and the one who is the absolute lynch pin of the whole District administration, was killed in a car crash. The accident was right on the outskirts of Gitarama, at Munyinya, and when I went to Kigali on Monday morning the wrecked car was still lying at the roadside where it had come to rest. The car had been struck by a lorry with such force that one entire side of the car had been ripped away. I think the lorry must have been trying to overtake something and just not been able to see the Vice Mayor’s car coming; either that or the driver was asleep at the wheel, or perhaps fiddling with his mobile phone.

Also along the roadside on the way to Kigali are a burnt out lorry, and yet another car collision near Rugabagoba. The road is so twisty, and so hilly, and the lorries are so overloaded that it becomes a death trap. The wonder is that there aren’t many more fatal accidents.

The result of the Vice Mayor’s death at the Office on Monday morning was one of complete shock. Meetings were cancelled, and almost all business stopped. Crucially for me, the mayor had not signed the letter requesting schools to co-operate with me in arranging teacher placements ,and without the letter I didn’t want to risk going out to schools and being refused by them – that would mean that if the schools were forced to take students at a later date they would feel they had lost face, and Rwanda doesn’t work in that way. There’ll be a few more days left, so I’m going to have to play a waiting game.

So I’m faced on Monday morning with nothing to do. Well, as VSOs we’re nothing if not flexible, so I put plan “B” into operation. So I’m into Kigali on the bus with my Tanzanian visa application in my hand. Once at the Embassy I discover that you can’t pay for the visa with Rwandan francs, not even at the Kigali embassy. So it’s another trip to a forex to change francs into dollars, and finally the embassy accepts my application and tells me to come back tomorrow afternoon to collect the document. By now the guards at the embassy gate all recognise me; I don’t have to sign in and they just give me a badge and send me through. While Soraya and I are both at the VSO office in Kigali, who should breeze in but Épi, so we’re able to touch base with each other.

Épi tells me that Jeannot is coming up trumps with finding me a huge amount of Congolese music I asked him to dig out from various sources. Some of it is very rare and copies are like gold dust. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to getting a flash with all this music on; it’ll be a fabulous advance Christmas present when it materialises!

Two more jobs get done today; one is to write my termly summary report for VSO on what I’ve done since I returned from England in August. The reporting period is officially to the end of October, but there’s no chance of any more school visits so I might as well get it done sooner rather than later. By the same token I also manage to complete my termly summary of visits for Claude.

Also this week I manage to write my VSO personal reference. This is a curious document; it’s a reference which we can use when applying for jobs back in the UK or wherever we come from. VSO ask us to write the reference ourselves, to a prescribed formula. Then we have to get our local managers (Claude) to read it and approve it. Next we take it to our programme manager (Charlotte) for her to approve and countersign, and finally we have our reference. By the end of Tuesday I have my reference written and printed off and its waiting for Claude to read.

Claude is hard to find this week; it’s the JERS (Joint Education Review and Strategy) meeting in Kigali, and all the district directors are there. It is the crucial planning meeting for the whole country in which any changes to the education service for the coming year hammered out. As I write (Sunday) I have managed to get some of the documents from Claude and I’m poring over them to see if there are any more major surprises coming to us next year. Hopefully there will be a couple of years of consolidation.

One thing Claude does ask me to do is an annual report for the District on all my visits. The format he wants is going to make it so long that I don’t think anyone will bother to read it. So as of Sunday I have done the boring lists that he’s asked for, and when I finish this blog entry I will make my usual summary of “things that we’re doing well”; “things that are causing problems”, and my generalised comments on the quality of teaching. I think it’s so important to stress the positives and all the progress that is being made here; it would be all too easy to write a report which was simply a long litany of failures, an even longer list of resources the schools are lacking, and conclusion implying that without astronomical levels of investment nothing would change. That wouldn’t help anybody. The report takes me, on and off, the whole of the rest of the week. But not because I’m working on it all the time; there’s something about the report which bores me and I can’t get any enthusiasm to work on it. I find I’m constantly distracted by whatever else is around me.

By the end of Tuesday I have my Tanzanian visa and I’m all on course to go to Dar next weekend. I can’t wait! I’m rapidly getting caught up on all the end-of-placement reports I have to write; the only one missing is the VSO final placement report. I think there’s a template we have to use for that; but when I try to find out at the programme office neither Charlotte nor Ruth are there, so I come away empty handed. What I’m doing this week, in effect, is switching the things I had planned to do on the first week after returning from Zanzibar with the things I had originally planned to do for this week. There are some things like getting police clearance (The Rwandan form of our English CRB document), and getting my Rwandan working visa terminated on the day after I leave the country, I which I can’t do until after I return from Tanzania because they might involved having to hand in my passport.

There is one amusing interlude in the VSO office. Jean-Claude is planning leaders for sessions for the second round of in-country training for Septembers’ new arrival volunteers. Last year I did it with Steve. Jean-Claude is rather taken aback when I explain that Steve has finished his service and gone, and that three of the most experienced volunteers of all – me, Épi and Soraya – are not available because we’ll be in Zanzibar. We spend a few minutes thinking of who else could do the job (but who haven’t already been commandeered to do other sessions).

We’ve also had a request from VSO to offer to help with the big Rwandan teacher training programme in English in December. The powers that be have decided that December will be a training month. It means that none of the teachers will have much of a holiday this year (unless at the last minute they delay the start of next year’s spring term). I assume that if we take part as VSOs we’ll get paid for our input, too. But it’s a very bad time to be asking volunteers to give up four or five weeks to work on Mineduc-led projects. There is a big group of volunteers, myself included, who will be ending our service and returning home. Then there’s another big group who have already booked flights home for Christmas, or booked holidays in neighbouring countries. There will probably be very few volunteers left in the country for the whole of December who could take part. It’s the curse of Rwandan last-minute planning once again. If they had given us a heads-up on this, say, in September, then many of us could have changed our plans to accommodate the system.

During this week the ongoing saga of trying to get the District to pay my rent to Tom comes to a head. For months (literally) we’re been pushed from person to person with every excuse imaginable for not getting paid. This person needs to sign the document but he’s not here. He’s on holiday; she’s away at a conference etc. Or this person can’t sign until it has been cleared by somebody else. Then they want a copy of my contract attached to the invoice, to prove that I really do exist. (They’ve already got at least two copies of my contract somewhere in the files). Then the copy of the contract needs countersigning, and stamping, by all and sundry. Soraya is having the same problem in getting her rent paid (the district has to pay YWCA because her house is owned by YWCA), and her rent hasn’t been paid for the whole year. It’s a crazy system. The death of the vice mayor brings everything to a halt once again. In fact on Tuesday the entire District Office is closed so that everyone can go to the funeral. As I go into Kigali on the bus, we get caught up in an enormous slow column of cars on the edge of Gitarama; it is dozens and dozens of vehicles taking half the town to the funeral service at St André’s church.
So from Monday to Thursday I’m either in Kigali or finding things to do to keep me occupied. But on Friday everything changes. Claude has returned from JERS and is in the office. He gives me some of the JERS briefing documents. I give him my VSO reference to read through. We establish that my rent cheque is ready and signed, but that Tom has to collect it in person. Tom is away down in Butare for two days with Janine on FHI business, so he’ll have to wait until Monday. Soraya’s cheque is also being written. Things are looking up.

From Claude I manage to get the complete “saisie” of the English tests all teachers did last month. The he drops a real bombshell – there’s a big meeting of every head teacher in the District in three hours’ time, and he wants me to do a presentation on what the tests show! Talk about panic stations. I set to and in three hours have done about half the full analysis, but I can talk about results by gender, age, qualification and type of school. It’s the most extreme time pressure I’ve ever had since starting to work in Rwanda.

I already know enough about the system to realise that a ten o’clock meeting means a ten-thirty start, so I drift down to the meeting at about twenty-five past. The meeting has already started – for once things are punctual here. Head teachers are drifting in and out all the time, so my late arrival doesn’t ruffle any feathers. We’re being courted by Fina Bank, one of the five or so new banks which have opened offices in Gitarama. They are talking about either free banking or certainly reduced rate bank charges for schools and NGOs, and even mention the possibility of subsidised computers to schools. It’s a pretty good spiel and everyone’s listening carefully.

At the end of the meeting another bank, KCB, comes in to make a similar bid for our business. But I don’t think they have thought things through; they tend to be the bank which loans big sums to businesses. They talk about loans of up to 2 billion francs; for some of my schools that’s as much money as they’ll see in a decade or more, and it leaves them cold.

The issue with banking is that most schools bank with “Banque Populaire” because it’s the only bank which has branches out in the villages. If you’re stuck up in Rongi or Kiyumba it doesn’t matter how much enticement Finabank or KCB offer; if you can’t get access to the bank easily you can’t use it. So almost all the rural schools are stuck with “Banque Populaire”, notorious for long queues and for levying charges on every form of transaction.

The meeting runs on and on until nearly four in the afternoon, by which time we’ve all gone past hunger and our backsides are almost welded to the uncomfortable wooden benches. I have Gervais from Kirwa translating for me; Charles from Nsanga is translating for Soraya. (Gervais and I can chat in French faster than the other two’s English if I want to follow up on some of the points being discussed).

We have a long session about ructions between the new Groupe Scolaire heads and their “adjoints”. This has been a crisis in waiting ever since last January. The Groupes Scolaires are the primary schools – some thirty in all – which have been allowed to open secondary sections to give “nine years’ basic education”. In every case a young, English speaking graduate has been installed, often with no previous teaching or managerial experience whatsoever, over very experienced primary headteachers. The former primary heads have been relegated to deputy heads, but were never given any specific job description. It’s a classic recipe for insecurity and conflict. The hew heads are insecure because they don’t know the area and don’t know enough about how the system works. The old heads suddenly feel discarded and without any role. The new heads try to take on all the administration and this leaves the old heads even more marginalised. Apparently things have come to a head in several schools, one of which is my friend J’s school at N.

We have a long discussion about the role of the “adjoint”; as Claude sees things there are three possibilities. One is to relegate the adjoints to ordinary classroom teachers. Just imagine it – you’ve run a school for ten or fifteen years, in some cases taking it to within the top ten performing schools in the district, and then suddenly you’re dismissed and relegated to ordinary teacher. A second possibility is to transfer these teachers to be heads of other primary schools to fill vacancies as people retire. We already know that there are some six or seven headteachers leaving at the end of the year, whether for retirement, promotion or dismissal for poor results. Claude’s third alternative is to create a more clearly defined role within the schools for the adjoints. That, to me, is the obvious solution. If I can find the energy I’ll write him some ideas comparing how our English system of heads and deputies works. But here the system is further complicated because all schools have a “responsable” who is an ordinary class teacher, usually with some seniority, who is the delegated person to deal with problems whenever the head is not around. Part of the whole problem at the moment is about the sharing of responsibilities between the “adjoint” and the “responsable”.

It shows how far I’ve come in two years in Rwanda that I’m able to follow all the issues that are being raised in the meeting, and I’ve got enough background knowledge of the schools this term to be able to envisage the actual characters that are causing friction with each other!

Another big issue at the meeting is over “placements”. This is the allocation of teachers to schools, and is renegotiated every year in September/October. Some teachers want to move to another school closer to their home. Many teachers want to get out of the profession and move on to something better paid. There’s always a steady trickle of teachers being arrested for various offences, or who die in office. (Death here of people in their thirties and forties is not unusual, and it is an accepted hazard of daily life). In addition there are satellite schools which are growing an extra class every year and who need teachers to cover these new classes. I find I’m ahead of the game on the new classes – Gervais gapes at me as I list all the schools in this situation before the rest of the heads can put their bids to Claude. Nyanza will start a year 4. Jandari “B” will start a second year. Mpinga will reach year 5. (Interestingly, there are fewer satellite schools this year than in any of the previous two years. Perhaps the rate of population growth really is beginning to slow down).

So there’s twenty minutes of bartering (with about 150 people in the room) while schools jockey and vie with each other to say how stressed their staff is and why they should be given an extra teacher. I’m really impressed with Claude; he seems to know everybody’s name and always either refers to them by name or by their school. And his chairmanship skills are extremely good. It’s a real treat just to sit back and watch him in action.

This year the government has decreed that no teacher will work more than 30 hours’ contact time (leaving 10 hours for preparation, marking and admin). The 30 – 10 split has always been the case officially, but when we had all the ructions at the start of the year with schools adjusting to new systems, some teachers found themselves on 34, 36 or even in a few cases 38 hours of contact a week. That’s ridiculously excessive (“pénible” is the French word that describes it beautifully). For those readers who are not teachers, an English school will normally expect around 25 hours contact time a week as maximum. Rwandan teachers are genuinely overworked and underpaid.

We then have to use a formula which is the number of classes x40/30 to work out how many teachers each school needs. There’s no concept of part time teaching here, especially in the primary schools, and it’s almost unheard of for a teacher to spend part of the week in one school and the rest of the week in another. So when everyone has done their calculation it has to be rounded up to the next whole number. A lot of schools discover that they are entitled to extra teachers, and Claude and Valérian have a shaky moment when they realise there’s going to be a big impact on the budget. There’s a lot of very rapid talk in Kinyarwanda which neither Gervais nor Charles translate for us because they’re so preoccupied in listening and assessing the implications for their schools.

Finally I get my slot, as thunder rumbles all around us and the power could go off at any second. I’ve done a quick powerpoint and take them through it. The men have scored much higher than the women in the English test. The very young and very old (55+) teachers have scored higher marks than the others. Teachers with degrees have done a lot better than those who have only finished secondary school. Those who are actually teaching English have done much better than those who aren’t (though in the lower primary sections there are many teachers with appallingly low scores). Two teachers manage to score 0/40 and it must take a particular brand of cussedness to score nothing on forty multiple choice questions – you have a 1 in 4 chance of being right every time!

At the end of the meeting we adjourn back to the office. Alphonse from Mushishiro needs me to write a reference in support of his attempts to join the “world gateway” school networking site. That done there’s just time for a quick check of email and then home. I’m being lazy this week and taking a moto home. At RwF200 (24p) I’ve decided that I can afford it and my old bones justify it…..

Tom comes back from Butare with a French stick and we decide to make sausage and cheese pizzas. That done, it’s Friday night and we’re both jaded and tired from work. We’ve both had enormously long days today. Tom in particular is wrung out – Christi’s ill with malaria and possibly typhoid at the same time, and has been in a local clinic on a drip to keep her fluid levels up. So Tom has been chasing around like a mad thing trying to do his work and hers. Fortunately he has Janine who is so competent now that she’s becoming indispensible to the FHI effort. Anyway, back to Friday evening. We decide to go out for a drink at “Orion”; eventually April and Helen come to join us and we chat till late.

Every night this week I’ve been catching up on videos from Piet’s external hard drive. A varied menu, from Dr Strangelove in black and white, to “V for vendetta” partly in English and partly in German, to “Die Falscher” entirely in German and “Flandres” entirely in French, and finally “Enigma” in good old English. After I’ve seen each film I’m erasing it to make space for more music or photos before I come home.

So, as you can see, not an idle week, but certainly not the week I had envisaged last Sunday! Never mind; in seven days’ time I shall be in Dar es Salaam and on my way to Zanzibar. Oh yes……… !

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