Monday, 16 November 2009

Cold Tuesday

October 28th

Today the weather is really cold. There’s a strong wind blowing; the sky is overcast and it looks as if it will rain this morning. Just what I don’t need today. I’m at the office well before seven; the internet modem has been locked in my office overnight, and I’m able to post a blog, check emails and update my virus checker before most of the other staff arrive.

I’ve organised Joseph to be here by seven o’clock, and by ten past we’ve negotiated a fare and we’re on our way. I’m going to enjoy this morning – it may be the last time I’m able to dash around this beautiful countryside by moto and visit schools.

The aim of the exercise is to go to four schools and get their details for placing teacher training students in the spring term. I have a letter from the mayor, so they can’t refuse me, and what we’re really doing is negotiating the number of students they can take and reassuring the schools that the college will look after matters of discipline and assessment of the trainees.

First we’re off to Gikomero in the Nyarusange hills. It’s a long time since I’ve been down the lane to Gikomero and things have changed. There’s a new mobile phone mast where previously you only saw fields of bananas, and at the school they are building no fewer than four new classrooms for January’s tronc commun entry. I’m really pleased with the quality of construction; all the new rooms are of fired brick and the standard will be much higher than in any of Gikomero’s existing rooms.

I begin to discover that instead of having the same number of tronc commun students as started last year, there’s going to be a massive expansion in numbers in 2010. People seem to have caught on to the fact that secondary education is now free and theoretically available for all, and they’re keen to take up their places. In the seven schools that I visit yesterday and today the numbers of pupils will rise from about 750 in 2009 to 1250 in 2010, and there’s every prospect that 2011 will see around 2000 starting. So there will need to be an even bigger building programme next year, because not a single school in the District has enough spare rooms to accommodate the likely 2011 entry.

I don’t stay long at Gikomero; getting the information I need only takes 5 minutes and the rest of the time is explaining to the head teachers how the system will work and answering their questions.

As we return along the lane to the main road there is a constant procession of pupils in uniform walking away from the school. These are the year six contingents from both Gikomero Catholic and Protestant schools on their way to Nyarusange to start their concours exams. Not every school is used as an exam centre (unlike in England), and pupils often have to walk long distances in all weathers for the privilege of sitting their exams, three days in a row.

We chug back down the side of Mount Mushubati towards Gitarama, and pass Muhazi school. Muhazi has a posh new signboard outside it with a slogan reading “Education, Science, Progress” or something similar. All the school now have these signs; I can’t tell you how much easier it has made things since this time last year (when finding a school was a matter of hit and miss). All the signs have similar three-word slogans on them, and invariably they are in English.

At Mushubati we turn left towards Ngororero and stop at Mata school. Here I have to wait for a while, surrounded by hordes of curious year six pupils. Mata is one of the exam centres, and I have arrived at about half past eight, just as they are trying to get the maths exam under way. It’s really one of the worst days I could possibly have chosen to visit schools, but the College deadline means I have no alternative. Mugabo, the head, is away (I think he might be in the Congo), so I have to wait for Claudine , the “adoint” to arrive. Meanwhile there are teachers from Mata and other schools curious to know why I’ve come today of all days, and pupils not just from Mata but from Kivomo, Muhazi, Murama, Rutaka and other schools. All the younger pupils in years 1-5 have the day off in order not to disturb the year six in their exam.

The exams are organised like a military operation and the security is amazing. There are (armed) police, (armed) local guards and later in the morning at Nyabisindu even armed soldiers to ensure the exam isn’t disrupted. The exam papers arrive in sealed packs just like in England, and there are elaborate systems for checking the packs are resealed and not tampered with after the exam is finished.

Eventually I’m able to grab Claudine for five minutes and hastily run through my teacher placement stuff, and then there’s mutual relief as the muzungu leaves and they can get on with their exam.

Back on the moto to Gitarama and out towards Kigali, now. The weather still isn’t any warmer, but the cloud is breaking up and it’s clear that we won’t have rain for a while. Joseph takes a wrong turning on the way to Kivumu school and I have to correct him. The lane to Kivumu has changed since February; a big area has been levelled prior to building and ther bulldozer is still chewing up the fragile soil as we pass. I’ve got no idea what they’re going to build, but the levelled area is almost the size of a football pitch so it can’t be for dwelling houses. To clear such a big area in such a hilly country means an awful lot of earth moving, and increases the risk of soil erosion all around the edges of the cleared plot. At Kivumu the exam is in full swing, with security guards and police patrolling the grounds. They are highly suspicious of my arrival but are hesitant to challenge a muzungu outright. But I feel awkward and I wish it could have been any day but today to visit the school. Fortunately I’ve arranged with Jacqueline in advance that I will be arriving, and she comes out to meet me and tells the guards who and what I am.

In the staffroom there’s Imelda from Gatenzi school; there are literally several hundred children all in the middle of the maths paper and using most of the classrooms in Kivumu. Doing my business with Jacqueline only takes ten minutes or so, but in the process I have a look at the maths exam paper. Section “A” is reasonable, and the average English year 6 pupil could do most of it. But I think section “B” is ridiculously difficult. Pupils have to answer five out of about eight questions. Some involve algebra, some involve trigonometry. One involves constructing a pie chart from given data; another involves constructing, accurately, a geometric shape from givens. One is a logic type question like you find in puzzle books.

What I find interesting is that from my English background the pie chart, the trig and the logic questions are the ones I would go for. The Rwandan teachers say that for them, the pie chart and logic are the hardest and they would go for the algebra every time. It highlights the differences in how we teach in our two countries – for resource-strapped Rwanda the intellectual abstractions of algebra are easier to teach and more familiar than doing things like pie charts which require pupils to have instruments like compasses and protractors. (And the state doesn’t supply instruments; that’s up to the individual pupils. So if you come from the poorest families you have to rely on your algebra rather than your geometry)!

Finally we go back to Gitarama and I chill with Soraya in the office for an hour until the maths exam ends at twelve. I have one final school to do, Nyabisindu, which is walking distance from the office. I breeze down there to see Jeanne just as the pupils are leaving and the teachers are packing up the papers to send off. (They go to the District Office first until all the exams are finished, then they are taken to Kabgayi where there will be a special marking centre set up next week for all our District papers). You can barely move in Jeanne’s office for security men (three) and exam papers, and I make a dramatic entry by almost tripping over somebody’s automatic rifle…..

Jeanne is in chatty mood and together with the secteur secretary we chew the fat for a while as well as getting my information together.

Now, finally, I have all the data that the College of Education needs. I grab a moto to the town centre and meet up with Soraya for lunch. Another lovely mélange from “Tranquillité”, but pity about the gristly meat… I ring Moira and arrange for her to come round straight away to the flat and pick up the papers; the college has to get this information onto their computers and sorted out by the end of this afternoon. Now that’s what I call a down to the wire deadline!

When Moira comes round we talk about some of the problems we’re going to face in these placements. Only two existing teachers out of around twenty who are teaching in the tronc commun sections have more than one year’s experience as a teacher. Only two of them have qualifications at A1 or A0 level (i.e. have qualifications beyond ending secondary school). Some of them, as I know from my observations, have major challenges in teaching pupils themselves, let alone being confident enough and competent enough to supervise trainees. While the College thinks it can place lots of trainees with the schools because there will be the new intake of pupils in January, we realise that none of the teachers for these new classes have yet been appointed, that almost all of them will have no qualification beyond A2, and that absolutely none of them will have any teaching experience. How can we possibly put students in with them? – it would be the blind leading the blind. In fact, it could be even worse, because some of Moira’s trainees are primary school teachers with a few years experience who are doing the formal teacher training course to upgrade their skill levels and salaries by moving up from primary to secondary level. They will know far more about how to teach than the people we’re asking to mentor them….

The bottom line is that things are going to be extremely hand-to-mouth for the college, the schools and the students for the next few years until the system settles down. It’s a good feeling to know that you’re absolutely in the vanguard of setting up a system which will run for the foreseeable future. You don’t often get this sort of opportunity in England!

Soon after Moira leaves, Tom comes in early, and he’s no sooner in the door when Delphine comes round. She’s beginning to get to grips with Excel but she needs a lot more practise in analysing spreadsheets and making presentations from them. There’s a job she has in mind to apply for which will need these skills, so I’m doing her a favour by giving her the chance to improve her skills because my laptop is the only computer she has access to. She desperately needs to be faster on a keyboard, but I can’t criticise her too much because my laptop has an English keyboard whereas most machines in Rwanda have French keyboards, and others have Arabic or even Spanish boards. (If you thought that every computer in the world used the qwerty keyboard then you’re in for a big surprise if you come here….). After an hour or so, though, she’s able to do sum, average, sorting, applying some sophisticated filters and presenting a variety of graphs and charts including putting them into power point. She learns quickly but forgets between sessions unless she can have lots of practise.

At the end of the afternoon I walk her as far as the big stadium and meet April. April the Australian Audiologist is working much of her time at La Misericorde, which is Muhanga’s one and only special school. To my intense shame it is one of the schools I haven’t managed to visit, though I have had it earmarked for ages in case other visits fell through. The physical facilities are grim. The school operates in the basement of the stadium itself, so the ceiling slopes where the tiers of seats rise above it. If there is a match or other sporting event during the school day, the school has to shut because of the noise. The windows are slatted and birds are able to fly in and out so the walls, floor, desks, posters and eventually the teachers and pupils are all coated with droppings. (The walls look as if they have been spray painted in that mottled effect which was popular in the 1970s in public buildings, but in reality it is plain bricks plastered with bird poo). The teaching space is open plan; there are no facilities at all beyond blackboards and desks. (But at least all the pupils have proper desks which is more than I can say for all the mainstream schools).

This part of the school is for the hearing impaired pupils. A few metres away is the section for mentally handicapped pupils. The classrooms are little more than wood and corrugated iron sheds, and there are two rondavels of the kind usually found in bars. In rainy weather pupils have to huddle wherever they can, out of the rain, and wait until the storm passes before they can continue learning. In yet another area are the dormitories for pupils, very basic affairs. The facilities and equipment levels for these pupils are heartbreaking, and yet I know that some very good work is being done with them. Rinske has been doing some training with the teachers, and the place is unbelievably lucky to have April with her advanced skills to help them organise themselves. I feel so guilty that I haven’t been here before and put pressure on Claude and the District to upgrade the facilities at La Misericorde. The whole place runs on an absolute shoestring, and whereas in England it is acknowledged that special education needs higher levels of equipment and funding than mainstream, I get the feeling that here in Rwanda the special schools get even less. Part of the problem is that there isn’t really a nationwide system of special schools, so the ones that do exist have no voice and are marginalised. They don’t tend to produce exam results, so they don’t count in the statistics.

Back at the flat Tom and I cook up a really wonderful curry. I’m using one of my vegetable soups as a base, and we add pineapple, raisins, bananas and chorizo sausage. We’re eating well at the moment, but at the same time it seems as if one of another of us volunteers in Gitarama is always down with a tummy bug of one sort or another.

Christi is on the mend, thank goodness, and will be back at work very soon.

After tea I watch yet another video – this time it’s called “Evan Almighty” and is a re-take on the Noah’s flood story. Not the best film I’ve ever watched, but it passes the evening away.

Best things about today – just about everything. It’s been a good, successful, busy day.

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