Friday, 2 October 2009

When happiness is listening to the toilet cistern…..

September 22nd

Absolutely brilliant day today. I wake up at half past four to the gurgling of water and blearily remember that the cistern is filling – our water’s come back on. It’s so loud that I wonder if I’ve accidentally left a tap turned on, and whether the entire flat is filling up with water. I get up to spend a penny, flush the loo, and spend five minutes just listening to the sound of water moving through the pipes. How sad is that? Of course, there’s no tap running. It’s the couple of hours during the night when there’s no music playing outside, no lorries passing, and no people shouting to each other. So even water running through pipes sounds loud. Then I’m up before my alarm to check that Electrogaz haven’t shut the water off again. But, no, I can hear the guard filling up a bucket outside. So I have the luxury of a proper cold shower. Before coming to Rwanda a cold shower was the badge of hardship. Now it has become a luxury. What a difference a couple of years in Rwanda makes!

At the weekend I bought what I thought was a packet of porridge oats (I’ve been oatless for a week or so), only to discover that what’s in the packet is porridge flour. It’s very difficult to cook without sticking to the pan, and needs constant stirring. It would probably also give superglue a run for its money as an adhesive, judging from the amount of scrubbing it takes to get it off the pan!

Anyway, up to the office early and I print out a sheaf of inspection reports for Claude. He’s not there; he and a whole posse of officials are off to Nyabinoni for the week. And he’s taking the internet modem with him.

The weather is bright and sunny; lovely blue sky and not a hint of a cloud. Now that the rainy season is upon us I am not planning much in advance; I have to take each day as it comes and go out to schools if the weather looks suitable. Today is as suitable as it’ll ever get. So I start phoning two schools in Kabacuzi. The MTN network is intermittent, as usual at this time of the morning, and by the time I’ve got positive conformation from both schools that it’s OK to visit them, and got a text through to Joseph to come round straight away with the moto, it’s well after half past eight. Half the morning has gone and there are clouds starting to appear in the sky.

Never mind, I’ve done all the preparation I need for these two schools; if the weather closes in on us I can always abandon the second one.

The ride up to Kabacuzi is gorgeous. The air is warm but not hot. There’s a breeze, but not too much. The visibility is clear. Best of all, the weekend’s rain has laid all the dust without making our road sticky. The “Great North Road” is all too familiar now, and I laugh at how I used to think that schools like Cyeza and Sholi seemed a long way out. Now they feel like suburbs of Gitarama.

We roll down the big hill into the middle of Cyeza secteur, over the stream and curve right and left past Cyeza school and on until eventually we pass Sholi’s hill and descend down another enormous long, gentle hill into a hidden valley. This is where I think the “back of beyond” starts. The valley gets narrower; the stream twisting and its bed full of gravel and boulders. Gangs of men and some women are hauling big rocks on their heads up to the road where they’ll be loaded onto lorries and used for building; quite probably as foundations for all the new classrooms we’re making. There’s the smell of meat roasting from the villages; everywhere women pause in the fields, lean on their hoes, and either wave at us or look enviously at the moto and its riders. Other women are doing washing in the streams, and the river banks are bright with sheets and towels drying on the grass. Goats skitter out of our path as far as their hobbles will let them. Every other person around here seems to own a bicycle; invariably they are the old Chinese sit up and beg type with no gears, and must be a real trial to ride up the hills. And at every big bend in the road there’s some sort of bar with half a dozen men sitting around doing nothing in particular and waiting for something to happen.

We pass Sholi market and Rutongo market; groups of surprised children shout a surprised “yaweh muzungu”; which sounds vaguely Hebrew but loosely translated seems to be the Kinyarwanda for “OMG, look everyone, there’s a muzungu”. Joseph drives slower and slower; it’s almost as if there comes a point where he gets nervous at being so far from home and slows down so that we don’t have to go too far…. He’s a very safe driver, and can understand some French, so he’s my ideal chauffeur. But I need to plan an extra fifteen to thirty minutes of travelling time on these long runs.

My first school today is Butare, a primary and tronc commun out in the middle of nowhere. The existing school is on two sites, but there is so little space that new classrooms for the tronc commun in 2010 and 2011 are being built on a third site. All the sites are close to each other, but it’s not really on to have a school so dispersed. They’re planning to dispose of the oldest buildings and one site eventually. Odette the head, and Bonaventure, the former head and now “directeur adjoint”, are lovely people and put themselves at my disposal all morning. Their paperwork is fine except for an unfinished strategic plan. In a sense they are so busy with the day to day business of overseeing work on new classrooms for January that thinking strategically over five years is having to go onto the back burner for a while.

The school has almost no recreation area at all, just a rocky outcrop of schist and gravel in the middle of an “L” shape of buildings. And, most unusually for Rwanda, it hasn’t even got room for a garden. They’ve just managed to jam in one of the “concentric circle” artificial gardens to use as an instructional device with the pupils.

I watch a tronc commun Physics lesson all about Pascal’s Law and hydraulic rams. The class have copied some lovely diagrams, but it’s all theoretical and it makes you want to cry to see them doing this quite advanced stuff with no labs and no opportunity to experiment. They’re not even using the new textbooks because they’re in French (something I tell them to start doing in the final debrief). So the lesson consists of copying from the board; text, diagrams and summary. The pupils seem to be able to memorise the ideas at the end of the lesson, even with books closed, but I hope they also really understand it, which is different from memorising it.

After that I see two English lessons; in year 4 where the pupils are drawing pictures to contain vocabulary dictated by the teacher (“we have a mountain behind a house, with two trees to the left and right. Three sheep are in front of the house, and two birds are sitting in one tree and on the roof of the house” etc). It’s a lovely way of doing vocabulary and prepositions of place, but just as I get excited I check in someone’s book and find they’ve done exactly the same thing a week ago, and the teacher is repeating the lesson for my benefit. Nggggggh!

Finally I see a cracking good yr 3 English lesson, also on prepositions of place. The teacher has got her act well together and I can tell this is new material she’s covering because a proportion of pupils still haven’t understood the difference between “in” and “on” and “under” at the end of the lesson. While I’m looking through some of their books I notice a problem which I thought was particular to one or two schools but I now think is very widespread. Pupils in Muhanga seem unable to distinguish between the letters “m” and “n”. They use them interchangeably, and at the same time their script handwriting is rather florid so both letters tend to get given an extra arch. One sentence is about animals and birds and many pupils write “hem” instead of hen. Looking in more detail, there’s the same confusion with “a” and “o”, which look identical in many books. So a goat becomes a “goot”. And finally the loopy script which everyone uses here tends to make “e” and “l” similar and only easily distinguishable when the two letters are adjacent to each other. As a secondary teacher I’ve never been this close to issues to do with letter formation and handwriting, and I find it fascinating.

I like Butare, there’s a feeling of purposefulness and despite some pretty awful buildings (which will disappear when the tronc commun building programme is finished) I think the school’s doing a good job. Its Languages results last year were very strong and I gave the school a certificate of excellence. I always like it when one of the small up-country schools scoops a reward for academic prowess.

By now it’s going up for one o’clock; Joseph’s found a bar and had something to eat. The sky is getting clouded over, but the clouds are high and we decide to go on to Ngoma, my next school. We plod round more twists and turns of spurs, right down in the bottom of the valley. Despite the cloud, it’s getting hot and sticky and there are the occasional violent swirls of wind which suggest a storm is brewing somewhere close. Oh well; we’re so far out in the country here that it will take us nearly an hour and a half to reach Gitarama, so we might as well carry on and risk getting wet. Joseph is very timid about actually coming onto the school sites, so I tell him that if it pours he’s to come and shelter in the staffroom (with the rest of us). And at Ngoma that would mean many of the staff because just about every classroom has holes in the woof where you can see the sky. The buildings are awful. It’s the standard set-up with church, parish room (used by the school when needed) and classrooms, all sharing the same site so that there’s absolutely no distinction between church land and school land. There’s a small volleyball court, but the net has been lent to another school so it’s out of use at the moment. There’s no other level patch of ground, and the two stretches of official school yard are trampled down to bare rock. The site is huge and extends a long way out from the buildings. There’s no water on site; fortunately the river is about a quarter of a mile away and never dries up completely. Ngoma is strong on hygiene and there are buckets of water, soap and towels outside every room. The rooms are mud brick, with the standard small windows on one side only. The roofs undulate along each of two blocks. The floors are invariable bare earth. I’ve seen worse, but not a lot worse. At least everyone has got proper desks to work on, but the children are jammed in very tightly, especially in the younger classes.

The head teacher is away at another meeting, but the “responsable” is expecting me and is utterly charming. The school has managed to acquire a solar panel from somewhere and a trio of batteries, and all the staff have left their mobile phones to charge in the office. (Good; means they can’t be using them in the classrooms). Despite being one of the very few primary schools this far out to have electricity, Ngoma doesn’t have a single piece of electric wiring, or light bulb, in the entire place, let alone a computer (yet). We go on walkabout and I’m shown the beautiful gardens which have survived the drought, and one disused room full of sawn planks from a couple of their trees which they’ve felled. “Hey”, I say to them, “you could earn some money and sell this wood to Butare. Butare’s desperate for more furniture for their new rooms”. “Not a chance”, he answers, “we’re saving it for when we decide to replace ours”. Oh well, it’s just like England: there is co-operation between neighbouring schools but they don’t share everything!

Three more lessons observed and “pearls of wisdom” for everyone. I’m feeling really pleased with myself because today I’ve managed to do two full inspections, of two schools I’ve never visited before, and which are a long way out of town. But this is about as far as I can come and do two proper visits in a day. By the time we get back to Gitarama the sky is looking seriously threatening and it’s practically dark. I’m feeling ridiculously tired and flop into “Nectar” to buy a mĂ©lange; I can’t stand the thought of having to fight through the market at night time and then spend an hour cooking.

When I get home I’ve got every intention of writing up both schools. If tomorrow’s weather is good I’ll try to find two more to visit. But, as so often happens in Rwanda, it doesn’t work out like that. By half past eight I’m beyond anything and on my way to bed. I think that either I’ve let myself become badly dehydrated, or else I might be going down with something.

Never mind, after all the disasters of the weekend it has been a great day. I’ve enjoyed everything about it.

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