Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Rwanda - the final reckoning

OK, its three months since I left Rwanda and I’ve had time to adjust to life back in the “real world”. Christmas and New Year have been and gone; I’ve seen most of the relatives; I’ve even met up with a group of past and continuing volunteers.

Here in England we’ve had the coldest winter for years; I managed to arrive at Gatwick airport just as the bad weather started and it certainly made an abrupt transition to have to cast aside sandals and short-sleeved shirts for thermal undies and many layers of clothes!

I’ve got myself a job, and been approached for another one only to have to turn it down. I’m working part time for our local museum in Bridport as “community engagement officer”. My role is to co-ordinate the rota of volunteers who man the museum during its opening season; to write press releases and generally extend the reach of the museum; to help find funding to enable us to stay open and remove admission fees for 2010. For the first time in 40 years I have left the world of education. I’m discovering a whole new world in which not only do I not have the long school holidays, but the holidays are to be my busiest work periods.

I’ve put on at least a stone in weight due to Teresa’s cooking; my belt has gone out at least one notch since Gitarama I’m back on my bike and rediscovering my cycling muscles. (The Bridport hills seem to have got steeper and longer during my absence).

I’ve already done around ten talks and slideshows to various groups about my time as a VSO to audiences ranging from Womens Institutes to schools to our Town Twinning association and church groups. I have bookings to do talks as far into the future as September, and there will be more to come.

In my final blog from Africa I promised to write a summing up entry, and I’ve rightly been taken to task for dawdling over the job. OK, I apologise for the delay, and here comes the collected wisdom(?) of Brucey Baby

What did I learn, what did I achieve and was it all worth the effort?

Firstly, my experience in Africa has affected me profoundly. It has enormously deepened my understanding of poverty, under development, and the problems faced by countries like Rwanda. It has taken me way beyond the stereotypes of helpless, lethargic Africans as passive recipients of aid. It has shown me that Rwanda truly is “a country in a hurry”, with some educated, energetic and visionary people. In particular it has taught me that just as there is no single cause of underdevelopment, so there is no single (or simple) solution. It’s like trying to untangle a ball of knotted string. You cannot, even with all the goodwill and best intentions in the world, try to resolve Rwanda’s problems by focusing on any one aspect of life such as education.

To give you an example – you try to persuade children to complete their primary education. But you soon discover the reason why children don’t finish to the end of year 6 is because they have to leave school to work and earn money. Or there are family members who are ill and need nursing. Thus you can’t solve an education issue without doing something about agriculture and food security, or about creating local employment in the non-agricultural sector, or about public health. This is very demoralising. No single person has the time or resources to intervene in all the areas of education, health and job creation, and because you can’t tackle all of these you tend to feel helpless. What’s the point…… You eventually learn that you have to plug on with those things you can influence, hoping that you are creating the conditions for fast progress when some other agency addresses those areas you can’t reach.

And your fumbling, well-intentioned efforts to help can produce unfortunate side effects. I channelled money from my local community in Dorset to install or repair water tanks in schools. All well and good, and nobody could possibly object to providing clean water as a worthwhile project. But I now discover that the fact that the schools have water on hand, while the villages themselves often do not, is a cause of friction. The schools are usually reluctant to share their water with the villages because there isn’t enough for everyone, and the villagers are resentful of the school having water while they themselves have to walk long distances to find polluted water from streams or springs. So my altruistic attempts to solve one problem have inadvertently led to another. So you have to sit back and take stock. Do you abandon the school projects because you can’t afford something which embraces the local community as well? Answer - no; you do what you can in the schools and let the Rwandans sort out the other issues.

A second thought on my experience is that it has made me into an enthusiastic “ambassador” for the country. Most people in my little corner of England have absolutely no idea what Rwanda is like. The opportunity to speak to various groups and show lots of good quality photos is going down a storm. For me, I’m re-living my time in Africa. I’m able to raise awareness and dispel many myths. People are interested; they ask penetrating questions; they are desperate to get beyond the image of Africa as a place of disasters and emergencies and learn about what it’s like to live there. Its empowering to be able to tell them about the good things as well as all the problems.

One question I am always asked is “Would you like to go back?”, to which the answer is always “Yes, definitely, but in a couple of years’ time and for a short placement”. I would be intrigued to go back to Muhanga district and see just how much and how fast things have changed, especially in the countryside.

People are still amazingly generous, and even though I have finished my stint at Gitarama, I have sent £1000 out to Ken, my replacement, for him to continue getting water into schools. And money is still coming in.

A third thought is that I have made an entire new set of friends as a result of my experience. When I applied to do VSO I imagined that the majority of volunteers would be men, and recently retired like me. It came as quite a shock to discover that most volunteers were young women in their twenties. (Not that I’m complaining!). I never cease to be surprised at just how international the volunteer community is; how knowledgeable so many volunteers are on such an enormous range of topics, and just how lovely they are as people. The friendliness and energy and enterprise of other volunteers becomes infectious, and it gets you through the difficult times.

What did I achieve in two years as a volunteer? Did I “make a difference”, as I hoped? I had too many schools to be able to make a difference in them, though I did have a lot of influence in those I managed to get to. My input was mainly to give new ideas – of teaching techniques, of ways to timetable, for example. I shared good practise between schools. I acted as advocate for schools suffering intolerable problems with buildings (Bikombe) or staffing (Ruli, Buramba, N). I praised whatever I found was good.

Some of our ideas do seem to have been taken up. There are classrooms with wall posters drawn on old rice sacks which make cheap alternatives for expensive western wall charts. Schools are using the action songs we taught them, albeit often to different tunes. Some schools have taken on board the idea of making learning active, so children are getting up and moving about instead of always being sat passively in the classroom. Some teachers are beginning to feel free to use their own initiative to very how they teach; to experiment and not feel crushed or humiliated if the experiment fails; to be more imaginative.

One of my more useful roles was to act as a conduit to enable schools to vent their frustrations over buildings, late payment of wages, lack of resources and the like, to the District office. Country schools feel abandoned; the difficulties of transport mean they aren’t visited for years at a time, and they feel that nobody in the District cares about them. To have a westerner visit them, blow a fuse at the state of the place and promise to take it up with the Director of education next morning made them feel that someone was listening to them; someone was on their side.

Am I leaving behind something which is sustainable? Sadly, no. VSO aims that placements should create sustainability so that after a few years international volunteers are no longer needed in the post. But what I found was that I was doing things precisely because there was nobody else to do them. The entire education, youth service, sport and culture for 100,000 people in an area the size of Dorset was being run by three full time people with one part time secretary. These people were competent and effective, but the job was just too much for them to do properly. I can’t see the need for a volunteer diminishing in the foreseeable future unless the Rwandan authorities increase staffing levels in the District offices. The trend is the other way – to increase workloads on those people already employed.

I like to think that the education service in Muhanga is better organised and runs more smoothly as a result of my efforts, and my main success was at the level of the District Office. In terms of my work with statistics I have changed the way things are run. Information is accurate and readily accessible, and planning and policies are much more school friendly.

In terms of physical legacy, my main achievement is the water tanks. Three complete cisterns. Replacements or repairs to five others. £10,000 of aid into eight schools, benefiting well over 8000 children and their teachers. The lifespan of the tanks is 20-30 years; the cost per pupil per year is about 6p.

Some achievements are less tangible. The people I worked with, without exception, found it comforting to think that people in the developed world were interested in them and concerned enough to want to help them. I think there’s a deep sense of abandonment in Rwanda originating in the unfortunate way they were left to their own devices during the Genocide of 1994. The outside world either didn’t intervene, or, as in the case of the French, intervened disastrously. To have westerners living among them, working with them, sharing their everyday hardships and in every way identifying with them was enormously appreciated.

Was it all worth the effort? – Yes, definitely. I was very lucky in my placement, but the majority of VSO colleagues thrived, and a large proportion extended their contracts.

I think a good placement is like a chair. It needs four legs to be effective. These legs are:
• A secure and viable place to live
• A sense that there is a real job for you to do
• A local boss who is supportive, gives you room to manoeuvre and values you
• Friends and colleagues to interact with.
If any one of these “legs” is weak, the placement becomes like a three-legged chair: it is possible but not very effective. If two or more of the legs are weak the placement is unviable, like a two-legged chair.

If you are thinking about volunteering, my advice would be definitely to go or it. You will certainly be put well outside your comfort zone, but you won’t be put in real danger. You will certainly suffer from discomforts, bugs, ailments and the like, but not such as to put your health and wellbeing at serious risk. There will be boring “what am I doing wasting my time here?” days, but they will be outweighed by the highs you get when everything comes together. You will make a lot of new friends. You will do things you never imagined you could. You’ll learn a lot about yourself.

And the rest of the world, when you return back home, will appear in a very different perspective.

So take the plunge and volunteer. I’m sure you won’t regret it!