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!

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)!