Archive for September, 2010

Thumbs up beneath the starlit African sky
September 30, 2010

Yesterday was given over to further classroom visits at Nyamateke School. However on this occasion I had timetabled gaps between observations in order to record my findings as I went along.

I’d previously been reluctant to take my laptop into school, given the bumpy moto ride, but it has been  very time-consuming typing up my notes during the evening so I wrapped it in my waterproof, stuck it in my rucksack and risked it.  

When I unpacked it in the head’s office it caused quite a stir. Andrew, the admin officer, in particular got very excited and kept leaving his desk to peer over my shoulder, desperate to have a go.

He brought out the school’s single, rather forlorn looking, HP with a missing key, to compare notes and rather poignantly reminded me that they were hoping to buy a small generator soon, finances allowing.    

Wellars, the head, had been called to yet another meeting at the District Office in Nyakarambi. Heads seem to spend more time out of school than in it but before he left we had confirmed which lessons I would be watching.

I duly arrived for a P3 English lesson after morning break to find 40 odd children sitting in the classroom without a teacher. There is no such thing as supply cover out here and if a teacher is absent they are either watched over  (baby sitting not teaching) by a teacher who has non-contact time or, more often than not, they are left to their own devices.

It amazing how well-behaved the children are in these circumstances. They all remain at their desks and wait patiently until someone turns up to take them. As I entered the classroom they greeted me in the usual way by standing up and chanting, “Good morning visitor!”  I thanked them and asked them to sit down, following which they gazed up at me with expectant eyes.

I could have left them but my conscience wouldn’t allow it, so I embarked upon an off the cuff 40 minutes of trying to communicate with them in English. Pleasingly some of them had remembered my name, Phillipi, from last week.

Things started off with a tendency for them to parrot, in unison, everything I said which was a bit unnerving but  not at all surprising as this is the predominant method of curriculum delivery they are used to.

I muddled through, supplementing my English with the odd bit of French, Kinyarwanda  and plenty of mime (much to their amusement). I taught them how to use thumbs up and thumbs down in answer to simple questions about things they liked or disliked and by the end of the lesson there were quite a few smiles and I think we had all enjoyed the experience.     

After a year in Nyakarambi, Dorothy leaves on Saturday. It has become clear, in the short time that I have been here, that she has integrated really well and become a well liked and respected member of the community.

Last night Awunic, a headmistress, and Eric, a secondary school teacher, who both live close by, hosted a farewell meal for Dorothy to which the new volunteers were invited. It was quite an atmospheric occasion as we sat around illuminated by a single kerosene lamp and flickering candlelight.

No sooner had we arrived than soft drinks were served. There seems to be a never-ending thirst for Fanta this, that or the other.  Daniel, the moto driver, is obviously wise to this and turned up with his own Mutzig!

Awunic had gone to a lot of trouble and served a typical home-made melanje of meat in sauce, rice, vegetables and chips. The customary prayer of thanks was said before we ate.

The climax of the evening was a presentation to Dorothy of a traditional Rwandan costume and head-dress all of which had been made to measure. There was great excitement a she tried it on.

As is considered polite in Rwanda we, the departing guests, were escorted some distance along the route towards our homes where we finally exchanged protracted farewells, lots of  hand shakes, thumb pressing and hugging  beneath a stunningly beautiful starlit African sky.

It was thumbs up all round for another interesting day and a very pleasant evening!

Chicken & Chips at ‘KMC’
September 29, 2010

Yesterday was Abdel Illah’s birthday so the Kirehe district volunteers rallied round and took him for a celebratory meal at our favourite Nyakarambi watering hole, KMC.  

KMC, as opposed to KFC, stands for the Kirehe Modern Centre. It is owned and run by Msafiri, a beaming Tanzanian with a very good command of English, who is always pleased to see us. The bar area is in a rear courtyard with white plastic patio furniture and it has mains electricity. This is quite an attraction as the price of a Primus or Mutzig includes the opportunity to recharge mobiles and laptops at no extra cost.    

There is also a spacious function room where Msafiri has installed a large screen, with a satellite feed, on which he shows all the top European football games for a fee of 3000RWF per head. I haven’t paid to watch a match yet but every time there is a big cheer I pop my head around the door and ask what the score is. Last night he was showing Partizan Belgrade v Arsenal who seem to be the most popular UK team here in Rwanda. It was 1-1 when we left. 

Msafiri is a bit of a football buff and follows the Gunners himself. He was quick to tell me, at our first meeting, that he was a top level amateur player when he lived in Tanzania, set for a life changing move to PSV Eindhoven in Holland. Unfortunately before the transfer was complete he suffered a career ending knee injury.    

He subsequently moved into the hotel business and for a while held a fairly senior position at the 5* Kigali Serena Hotel, part of the Kenya based chain.

Since opening the KMC he has gained the contract for providing buffet lunches for important business meetings held at the District Office and also holds the local franchise for distributing Inyange mineral water and soft drinks.

He promised to pull the stops out for Abdel’s birthday meal and there was even a red and white gingham table cloth laid out for the occasion. Whilst it wasn’t quite the fatted calf scenario he produced a couple of deep fried chickens, so fresh that they had last been seen flapping and squalking as they were carried across the road from the local market yesterday afternoon.

They were served with a bucket full of chips (I have to say better than those from Upton chippy) and salad. The chicken was a bit scrawny, as you might expect, but quite tasty. The legs were nothing like a drumstick, being much longer than anything I’d seen before, obviously built for running away!  

All in all at 6000RWF a head, including two large bottles of Primus, I reckon that the finger licking KMC experience was a lot better than a bargain bucket from KFC !

Ubumwe, Umurimo, Gukunda Igihugu
September 27, 2010

I’m not quite sure why I bother shining my shoes and dressing smartly for school visits. By the time I climb down from Daniel’s moto I’m covered from head to toe in a layer of red dust. In addition today, at lunch time,the wind got up, whistling across Nyamateke’s exposed hill-top location throwing up a sand blizzard.

Following a 7.30am arrival today I had a full schedule of lesson observations ahead of me, nine in all. I admit I was losing the will to live by the time I left the last class at 3.40pm.  Three out of nine were okay!

The teachers are tremendously handicapped by large class sizes, 53 pupils in one P5 English lesson I observed, lack of teaching resources and the requirement to teach in English.

In one rather good maths lesson I watched, about finding the area of polygons, the teacher had borrowed a pair of blackboard compasses from a neighbouring school, in order to construct a hexagon, because Nyamateke don’t have any.

My feedback to teachers was dominated by a desire from them to know if their English was okay. I have tried to give them as much encouragement as possible with regard to this despite the fact that there is commonly an r/l confusion in Rwandan English so, for instance, when a child does something well you often hear, “a crap for him /her!  

There is also a tendency to put an ‘i’ sound ending on words. In one English lesson today, about prepositions, I couldn’t help but smile as the teacher told the children, “ The chalks(i) are in(i) the box(i).”   

I really admire their efforts though. Can you imagine what it would be like for teachers and pupils in the UK if overnight schools were required to switch to French?   

A social studies lesson for P6 pupils (aged 12+) also proved quite informative. I learned that the Rwandan national anthem is called Rwanda Nziza (Rwanda Flag) and the horizontal coloured bands on the flag represent peace (blue), wealth (yellow), and agriculture (green). A golden sun with 24 rays is also present in the top right and corner, symbolising new hope.

The Rwandan national motto is Ubumwe (Unity), Umurimo (Work), Gukunda Igihugu (Patriotism).

Inanasi, the Madonna & the Gecko!
September 26, 2010

I have returned from the not so bright lights of Kigali to Nyakarambi – well and truly back in the sticks!

Having taken full advantage of the hot shower in the Isimbi, I treated myself to one of their cheese slice omelettes for breakfast and a pot of coffee.

Storks were circling over head and the Sunday morning city was just beginning to buzz as Mark and I set off to do battle with the competing bus operators.

International Express won out this time as they were due to leave at 10.00 am, which they did –promptly. The return was much more comfortable than Friday’s outward bound journey and a window seat ensured some ventilation and an ever-changing view of the Rwandan countryside and its people.

Some were toiling on the land, including those wading through the paddy-fields on the road to Kibungo, whilst others tended cattle and goats or sought shelter from the warm morning sunshine beneath trees or in the shade of the clay built homes.

We passed numerous family groups dressed in their Sunday best clutching Bibles as they made their way home from morning church.

After arriving at our home around 1.00pm we opened the door to our small covered front terrace to let some air and light into the living area. Lunch was a chunk of the Rwandan Gouda I’d bought in Nakumatt, which was very pleasant actually, accompanied by a slice of fresh pineapple that Claude had procured from the market on Friday.

The pineapples (inanasi) are succulent here whilst the omnipresent bananas (imineke) are also very good and form an essential part of my balanced diet. It is quite easy to do your  five a day here but then again it’s also very tempting to opt for ifiriti  when eating out!

As I settled down in front of the computer to prepare some work for next week I noticed that our resident gecko had taken up his favourite position clinging to the wall above the Madonna of the sacred heart (I think!) who gazes rather unnervingly down  upon our dining table!

Hotel Des Mille Collines & ‘Mancini City’!
September 25, 2010

Officially, Umuganda finishes at 11.00am on the last Saturday of each month but it seems like a lot of businesses don’t think it’s worth opening for the afternoon only. Unfortunately I drew a blank at both Volcanoes Safaris and Primate Safaris, so will have to try again next time I’m in Kigali.

Volcanoes Safaris travel agency is based at the Hotel Des Mille Collines which has gained international recognition as the subject of the Hollywood blockbuster Hotel Rwanda. However the movie was actually filmed on location in Uganda!

The hotel is a Kigali institution and following recent refurbishment it is now very firmly in the up-market establishment category. I popped in to give it the once over and as I’d had no breakfast ordered a croque monsieur and a flask of coffee.

The croque was in fact a ham toastie topped with a Kraft cheese slice (or similar) but it came with frites and salad which filled a whole. Given that Rwanda is a coffee producing nation the standard café fare is often disappointing but today it was okay.

The hotel is only a five-minute hike up hill from Nakumatt, very close to the city centre and although a typical ‘70s looking box like design it is set in pleasant grounds and has a large pool. I sat in the pool side bar surrounded by Americans, French, Belgians and Brits and have to say I only saw four black guests and they were in mixed groups!

On the way back I browsed in a couple of craft shops that had bothered to open and picked up a largish carved wooden giraffe to add to my African collection. Hopefully  it won’t look too tacky when I get it home!

I arrived back at the Isimbi to find Mancini City v Chelsea was being shown live in the bar. Just what the doctored ordered. I settled down with a bottle of Mutzig and my packet of cashew nuts and watched the game with a handful of locals.

Carlos Tevez won the game with a well taken goal to seal Chelsea’s first defeat of the season. I have a passing interest in Roberto Mancini, the City manager, through an Italian friend, Renata, who Chris happens to be visiting in Jesi this weekend.

Renata went to school with Mancini in Jesi and his parents still live there. She summed him up as being a good footballer but very conceited and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Her final comment was confirmed when I saw, this afternoon, that he now has David Platt sitting on the City bench as one of his backroom staff.

All Nottingham Forest fans will know that Platty was single-handedly responsible for a rapid decline, from which we still haven’t quite recovered, by squandering a reasonably healthy transfer budget on ageing Italians who never cut the mustard in English Championship. 

He’s also ‘fondly’ remembered for adopting a brand of football that was total anathema to Forest purists!

Forest v Swansea is under way as I’m posting this and surely we must pick up three points today!

23.30: Just back from the Indian meal, at Zaaffrans, to find Forest muted the Swans with a convincing 3-1 win and Glaws took the sting out of Wasps with a 22-20 victory – a double whammy!

September 25, 2010

Today is Umuganda (Public Cleaning) Day!

On the last Saturday of every month between 08.00 and midday the whole country embarks on communal work for the public good. This can be anything from street cleaning, road repairs, land clearance, planting trees to building homes for genocide survivors.

There is a countrywide ban on road traffic during this period – hence this morning Kigali is unusually free from the sound of buzzing motos and chugging mini busses.

Although visitors to Rwanda are not expected to take part, residents (which as a VSO volunteer I am, at least in the short-term) are expected to make themselves available for work. Technically, if I were to be out and about on the streets this morning I could be asked to show my ID card, which has to be carried at all times, and challenged as to why I’m not taking part in Umuganda.   

Although I will probably get involved next time around, back in Nyakarambi, this morning I’m adopting a self-imposed curfew in my hotel room, catching up with the blog and preparing myself for next week’s school visits.  

It was bliss, this morning, to be able to shave and shower in hot water for the first time in two weeks, although due to the lack of anything as sophisticated as a shower curtain the latter was taken crouched in the bath so as to avoid flooding the bathroom.

Back in Nyakarambi the availability of mains water in the house, which is a cold supply only, continues to be unpredictable due to ongoing construction work nearby. Claude keeps us supplied with a large jerry-can of water, which he fetches from a communal water point,  and which we have on standby. Most mornings it’s a matter of standing in the shower tray and waking myself up by pouring jugs of cold water over my head!   

Later today I’m hoping to book myself a guided tour to the Volcanoes National Park to see the mountain gorillas in a few weeks time.     

I’m desperate for a coffee and something to eat, no breakfast included here, and I’ve just heard a couple of vehicles rumbling by so I’m heading off to the Cafe Bourbon. It’s fast approaching 11.00 am and hopefully I won’t get rounded up for duty on the way!

The *Stella Express* to Nakumatt!
September 25, 2010

I have timetabled visits to both my schools twice per week; Nyamateke (Mon/Weds) & Nyabitare (Tues/Thurs). I intend to use Friday as an admin day to write-up reports and plan for the week ahead. This can be done either at the Nyakarambi District Office , where we have one VSO designated desk between three of us plus intermittent access to mains electricity and unreliable wireless internet, or at home.

The latter is the more comfortable option, but we have told to show our faces in the office from time to time so that our ‘boss’ Telesphore, the district education officer, knows we are round and about and putting the hours in.    

Occasional Fridays can also be used to travel into Kigali to carry out any necessary business at the VSO office which unfortunately doesn’t operate at weekends. This can prove quite difficult for volunteers who are placed in the furthest extremities of the country.

Dorothy is having her ‘leaving do’ at Zaaffrans, an Indian restaurant in Kigali, this Saturday evening. The Kirehe district ‘new recruits’ have all been invited, so having accepted I decided to make a weekend of it.

I secured a pre-booked ticket for the Stella Express bus service, ‘scheduled’ departure from Nyakarambi at 10.00 am. As I walked up into town I became aware that after just two weeks my face is becoming an accepted part of the local scene.

Groups of youngsters, rather than standing and staring, now call out, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ and ask, ‘Where are you going?’  When I reached the town centre a couple of local businessmen we have come to know, Nasim and Innocent, hailed me, ‘Phillip!’, stepped from their doorways and shook me by the hand.

I’m known as Phillip here as, apparently, Phil is a difficult concept. The whole meeting and greeting process is a very important part of Rwandan street culture and I quite enjoy it.

The Stella Express was running 30 minutes late (not too bad). I was travelling with John and we managed to draw quite a crowd of onlookers as we awaiting its arrival.  A young lad went out of his way to be helpful, scrutinising our tickets before scuttling  into the ‘ticket office’ to ensure that our bus was indeed due and that it was on its way.  

Two and a half hours wedged in like sardines, sitting on top of the wheel arch, knees tucked under my chin and cradling a rucksack and laptop was not the greatest travel experience I’ve ever had but that’s how it is here and it did only cost 2000 RWF (£2.00)!

We scrambled out at Chez Lando, a short walk from the VSO office and arrived during the lunch break, so it took and hour or so of hanging around to complete our business. We had come in search of copies of our contracts which are held in the office but needed in Nyakarambi to secure a green card, which is proving a bit of a mission!  I also needed to submit a claim for my recent moto expenses.

Next stop was the Traveller Cafe a down town balconied establishment perched above the street, across from the Kigali Tower (under construction), where it is enjoyable to sit and watch the world go by. We treated our selves to omletti fromage n’ifiriti  washed down with a much-needed Primus iconje (chilled).

Omlettes can be a welcome change from the routine melanje and goat kebabs. This one was served as expected i.e. an omelette topped with cheese and a side order of chips but back in Nyakarambi it is an all together different experience. The chips actually come inside the omelette mixed with a selection of vegetables from the daily melanje and a few chunks of goat meat as a chewy bonus!   

After checking in at the Isimbi Hotel , a fairly central, clean basic room with a mosquito net and shower (21,000 RWF per night) I set off in search of the BCR Bank. Having negotiated the armed guards, there are soldiers in camouflaged uniforms and Rwanda Police (literally boys in blue) toting guns on ever street corner, I managed to cash my first VSO pay cheque.      

Having resolved my cash flow problem I set off post-haste for the air-conditioned Union Trade Centre shopping mall and the prestigious Nakamatt, ‘You need it, we’ve got it’, 24 hr store. It belongs to a Kenyan chain and is the best stocked retail outlet in Rwanda. Urban legend has it that ex-pats wept for joy when it opened!

I was sparing with my new-found wealth but indulged myself in a few treats to keep me going until my next visit. A tube of Colgate toothpaste, a Rwandan Gouda cheese, a large packet of cashew nuts, and a jar of peanut butter and large bottle of water came to 7,870 RWF.

I was sorely tempted but balked at breaking the bank for the taste of Marmite at 6200 RWF for a 125g jar!

Fanta Coca at Nyabitare and Nyamateke!
September 23, 2010

The early morning scramble, through les pays des mille collines, on the back of Daniel’s moto and the return journey in the glow of the late afternoon sun are becoming far less of a white knuckle experience and more of an enjoyable start and finish to the working day.

Over every hill and around every bend is an unfolding vista of sun dappled banana plantations, clay brick villages, grazing Ankole cattle, tethered goats, kites circling over head and of course the people, head loading bananas, sugar cane, sweet potatoes and huge jerry cans of water.      

Daniel has been Dorothy’s driver of choice for the last twelve months, renowned as ‘safe and reliable’, but she has now kindly passed him on to me. We hardly got off to a flyer though as he was an hour late for my first solo jaunt to school on Tuesday, due to a misunderstanding over time, easily done here due to the unusual method of telling the time. The time is counted in hours after 6 o’clock (sunrise or sunset). To be fair Daniel has been spot on ever since.     

However my lateness didn’t seem to worry the head or staff at Nyabitare School. They probably didn’t even notice because most things operate on  African time here which is very elastic (although I should be setting a good example!)  No sooner had I dismounted and introduced myself than the first Fanta Coca of the day appeared.

I’m not a big lover of fizzy drinks but the locals can’t get enough of them. All soft drinks regardless of brand are referred to as Fanta plus the flavour, so it’s Fanta orange, Fanta citron, Fanta coca etc. At every break time the teachers come to the staff room to take their pick and get their sugar fix. 

Flora, the head at Nyabitare is lacking in confidence with her English and prefers French. However as English is now supposedly the language of curriculum delivery in school we have been told to speak English wherever possible and supplement it with French and Kinyrwanda as needed! Luckily the English teacher was freed up for most of the day to act as an interpreter so things went pretty smoothly.

There are 1,415 primary school pupils at Nyabitare attending on a double shift system, either 07.20 -11.40 or 12.40-17.00. P6 the oldest pupils do both shifts in preparation for their end of year tests which are coming up shortly. Because some children start school later than others and they also operate a redoublement system some P6 children can be as old as fifteen.

Today was my first visit to Nyamateke School which sits atop a mighty hill. In fact both schools are high up and enjoy the most spectacular views. Wellars, the Headteacher, who I had already met at the district office last week, greeted me like a long-lost friend. 

Nyamateke School has 1,126 pupils double shifting and runs a similar daily timetable as Nyabitare. It is a growing school, as so many are, and a number of new classrooms being built.

Most classrooms are of clay brick or breeze block construction with open windows, shuttered but no glass, a concrete floor and a corrugated roof . There is usually a wall mounted blackboard at each end of the room and a series of all in one bench/desks that each three or four children.

Neither of the schools have electricity or running water and trips to the out house toilets with their concrete foot prints hovering above a fly ridden pit, are best avoided if at all possible.

The staff at both schools have been very welcoming and are delighted to have a volunteer linked to their schools. They are keen to develop as teachers but most off all they want help with their English which for many is proving a huge barrier to improvement. 

It has been hugely challenging for staff and pupils who had to change overnight from a French based education system just over 18 month ago. French was a second language form most anyway and many struggled with it but it was much more widely known than English.

When school closes for lunch the morning pupils all leave and those staff who live near enough to walk home do so. Today Wellars kindly took me to lunch, a 10-15 minute walk down the hill to a little clay built ‘box’  in the village which serves as a ‘bar’. We both had Fanta Coca and a small packet of sweet biscuits.

During our conversation he bemoaned the fact that he had been provided with a laptop but without access to electricity at school or home he has been unable to use it. He is hoping to buy a small generator for school and hopes it will arrive before I leave so that I can give him a few lessons.

He also told me that although education is greatly valued and a major government priority teachers are very poorly paid. Because there are so many the government can’t afford to provide the type of increase required to bring them in line with the armed forces for example!

A newly appointed teacher gets a starting salary of 29,000 RWF per month (£29.00)!     


Après tu Claude!
September 20, 2010

Rwanda, being only 120km south of the equator, the daylight hours remain more or less constant throughout the year.

First light is about 5.30 am and it gets dark around 6.00 pm. Thereafter it is very difficult to see what you are doing. Even with electricity, and there has been at least one power cut every evening since we arrived, the light is pretty feeble.

The notional working hours for education volunteers are 7.00 am to 4.00/4.30 pm. Add on to that travel time by moto-taxi, which in my case is at least 40 minutes each way, and the days are quite long.  

Given these circumstances it is common practice for VSO volunteers out here to hire a domestique to do the basic domestic chores. It also provides work opportunities for people who may not normally have any.

With the assistance of Awunic, a successful local headteacher and highly respected member of the community, Mark and I have taken on the services of a young man called Claude.

Claude is very pleasant and most willing to please. The deal is that he will shop at the market (and hopefully get good prices not muzungu prices), clean the house, fetch water, do our laundry (by hand in cold water) and cook for us using our VSO issue kerosene stove. We haven’t sampled his cooking yet but I think umuceli n’imboga (rice and vegetables) is his signature dish.

All of this for just 1000 RWF (£1.00 sterling) per day for a five-day week. That is the going rate and although it sounds as if we may be exploiting him, the VSO allowance is only 170,000 RWF (£170.00 per month) although that is far more than most people around here could dream of.

Claude is bright-eyed and speaks some English but it is difficult always to know whether he has fully understood instructions, as the Rwandans have a tendency to smile and say, “Yes,” when they don’t have a clue what you are talking about!

He told me he is 25 years old and having finished school his previous work had largely been helping on the family plot, cultivating beans and peas. Given what my two daughters, of around the same age, are doing with their lives back in England it does rather highlight the huge difference in expectations and life opportunities between the developed and developing world.    

It is early days but I hope it works out for Claude and for us.

Nyarubuye Genocide Memorial
September 20, 2010

Outside of the capital, Kigali, Rwanda is split along geographical lines into four provinces. Each province is divided into districts which are then further sub divided into sectors.

I am living and working in Kirehe District which is in the Eastern Province.  The two schools that I will be supporting are in Nyarubuye Sector.

Nyarubuye Sector has a genocide memorial centre about forty minutes by moto-taxi from Nyakarambi. Yesterday afternoon Dorothy arranged a visit for the four new VSO volunteers plus a near neighbour, Kyle from New York State, who is placed at a nearby secondary school through the World Teach programme.     

There was another bone shaking cross-country scramble, in convoy, during which the moto carrying John developed  throttle problems grinding to a halt on one of the steep ascents and causing him to slip off the back, the first of us to bite the dust.  Fortunately it was just a matter of hurt pride.  

The Nyarubuye memorial is centred on a large red brick church and what was an adjoining convent. 51,000 genocide victims have been laid to rest in a mass graves nearby. Bodies continue to be recovered and buried, even now, 16 years on.

Although they were only 20 km or so from the safety of the Tanzanian border, rather than fleeing the country, a large number of Tutsis from this region had sought refuge in the church and the convent in the belief that it would afford them sanctuary.

Unfortunately this was not the case and 5000 of them were massacred in a single day. Our guide described in some detail the barbaric way in which victims were defiled and slaughtered. The convent now houses piles of clothes belonging to the victims, implements with which they were tortured and slaughtered and cases full of broken skulls and bones – lest anyone should forget or attempt refute what happened.

Mounted on the front of the church is a statue of Christ with arms outstretched. One of his hands is missing. There is a belief by some that it fell away because the hand of God was unable to prevent such apalling acts of genocide.