Five Go Wild In Akagera!
October 24, 2010

Once upon a time in Rwanda, five VSO volunteers, Abdel Illah, Cathy, Louise, Mark & Phil, had a spiffing idea. They thought it would be a great jape to hire a four-wheel drive vehicle and spend a day on safari in nearby Akagera National Park.

They were assisted with their plans by a local friend, Msafiri, who arranged for a large Toyoto Land Cruiser to pick them up at six o’clock on Saturday morning from Cathy and Louise’s house in Kibungo.

It meant an early start for the five intrepid volunteers but they were all so excited they could hardly sleep, especially Abdel and Mark who spent the night on sofa cushions in the living room. Everyone was ready and raring to go when Innocent, their driver for the day, arrived.

Cathy and Louise had prepared and packed a special Rwandan Safari picnic, fresh baguettes filled with cheese or honey, juicy red tomatoes, sweet ripe bananas, scrumptious green apples, chocolate and coconut biscuits, and bottles of water for everyone.

There were concerns about the weather because on Friday afternoon it had rained none stop for over four hours. Everyone wrapped up well and packed their waterproofs but by the time they reached the northern, Nyungwe, park gate the early morning mist had cleared and layers of warm clothing were being peeled off and replaced by safari hats and sunglasses.

Safaris aren’t cheap and the five travellers had been saving up their VSO pocket-money for the eagerly awaited wild day out at Akagera. Once the tickets had been paid for, their guide, James, showed them a large map of the national park and pointed out the route they would be taking as they drove south towards the Akagera Safari Lodge exit.

He also told them lots of interesting information about the park which covers 1,085 square kilometres and takes its name from the Akagera River that runs along its eastern boundary and forms the border with the country next door, Tanzania.

The four-wheeled drive had a special pop up roof which meant they were all able to stand up and look out for animals as they bumped their way along the narrow dirt tracks.

Mark, a keen ornithologist, had brought his binoculars and was soon displaying his expertise, excitedly identifying many brightly coloured birds from a checklist of 550 species! There were lilac breasted rollers, woodland kingfishers, hornbills, fluorescent blue starlings, tawny eagles and fish eagles perched up high, the grotesque marabou stork and the noisy bare-faced go-away bird, with its distinctive call, to name but a few.

James was a very friendly and knowledgeable guide, answering many questions from inquisitive Mark as well as helping Cathy with her homework by patiently spelling out the names of all the animals in Kinyarwanda so that she could write them in her exercise book.

Louise had come with her own I Spy Safari Animals  hit-list  in anticipation of ticking off those she  spotted. By the end of day there were big ticks for giraffes (her favourite), zebra, water buffalo, hippos, baboons, vervet monkeys and many different kinds of antelope including impala, topi, oribi and water buck.

She was rather disappointed that the elephants were hiding away (although there was the consolation of seeing some big piles of elephant pooh) and that the last remaining pair of lions in the park, who have not been seen for some time, had once again failed to put in an appearance.

Abdel Illah contributed his usual range of insightful observations displaying his Gallic charm as he happily munched his way through a box of biscuits. Phil contented himself by taking many photographs with his long lens camera. He was particularly happy when he got a shot of an adult and young hippo wallowing in the lake, mouths yawning wide open.

The zebra proved very popular with everyone and prompted a great debate as to whether they were white with black stripes or black with white stripes! Zebra were also the winner of the ongoing quest to find the fastest animal of the day.

There was an exciting moment when James shouted out, ‘Look!’ and Innocent braked hard as a black mamba snake slithered across the track, in front of us, and away into the grass. James told everyone that if they were bitten by this highly poisonous green snake (with a black mouth) they would be dead in fifteen minutes!

It had begun to rain by now and that seemed to be as good a point as any at which to end the safari. As the light began to fade Innocent headed back to Kibungo, dropping off the five weary and ravenous volunteers at St Joseph’s tea shoppe, where they were soon tucking into omelette, brochettes, salad and crinkle cut chips served with salt, vinegar and tomato sauce. And of course there were lashings of Mützig and Primus. A perfect end to a perfect day!

MTN Dongle!
September 9, 2010

I have arrived safely in  Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills. I’m currently based in Kicukiro, a suburb of the capital city Kigali. It is about 12km from the city centre which is  30-40 minutes by mini bus taxi or matutu as they are known.

I have managed to buy a dongle which will allow me to access the internet via the national MTN mobile network. It means I won’t be dependent on using internet cafes for checking emails or posting on the outofafrica2010 blog.  

There are 19 VSO volunteers staying at the Hostel Amani where we are receiving quite intensive but enjoyable in country training.

I have been keeping a hand written daily log and hope to make a more detailed posting before next wednesday when I set off for my placement in the Kirehe district, 2-3 hours south-east of Kigali.  

Ijore ryiza namwe !

UN Inquiry into Rwandan genocide revenge claims…..
August 31, 2010

An article in yesterday’s Times, under the heading Peace threat over genocide revenge report, claims that leaks from a soon to be published UN Inquiry may call, recently re-elected, President Paul Kagame’s Tutsi led government to account for its actions in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 genocide.   

Kagame declared winner of the Rwandan presidential election, held earlier this month, with 93% of the vote, has recently come under increased scrutiny from the international community.

Human rights groups and observers have been critical of political repression during a campaign from which critical opposition parties were barred.     

A press release by the White House Security Council, whilst acknowledging the progress made by Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, raised concerns over a number of disturbing events including the arrest of journalists, the suspension of certain newspapers, the banning of two opposition parties from taking part in the election and the expulsion of a human rights researcher.

There were also acts of violence, including the murder of an opposition official, in which the government steadfastly denies any in involvement.    

Kagame seized power in the wake of the 1994 ethnic genocide in which 800,000 Rwandans (mainly Tutsis and moderate Hutus) were slaughtered at the behest of the former Hutu dominated government.

The international community’s belated and guilty response to the atrocities has been to provide Kagame’s Tutsi led government with unprecedented levels of aid. 

Kagame has also received high-profile commendation, from leading figures such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bill Gates, for the way he has unified the country and masterminded its recovery.  

He responded to mounting criticism from western observers, following the recent elections, in an article for the Financial Times, published under the heading Rwanda’s democracy is still the model for Africa.

In it he claims that whilst few would doubt Rwanda’s rapid social and economic progress they fail to acknowledge the success of its political evolution.

The thrust of his argument for maintaining such an authoritarian grip on the country is that competitive democracy can only be possible following a sustained period of social cohesion.

He wrote that, although the healing and reconciliation process has made great progress, no country with Rwanda’s recent history can be expected to move from genocide to confrontational politics within such a short space of time.   

He further claims it was pluralistic politics spawning newly formed parties with a common extremist ideology that succeeded in mobilising the population to commit mass murder.  

However, when the findings of the UN inquiry are officially released, next month, it is likely they will lead to a rewriting of the current widely accepted historical account of the Rwandan genocide, which may in turn negatively impact on further foreign support for Kagame’s regime.

The report apparently carries detailed information of reprisals carried out by the Rwandan army, whilst under Kagame’s watch, as they pursued Hutu refugees into neighbouring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).    

The revelations may lead to calls for Tutsi leaders, for so long portrayed as the heroes and victims of the genocide, to be prosecuted for their actions.

The Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo has already communicated with the UN Secretary General and is quoted as denouncing the report as ‘incredibly irresponsible’ and ‘fatally flawed’.

Should the report be published, Rwanda is already threatening to withdraw from UN peacekeeping forces.

Whilst the truth is paramount and needs to be known, it is essential that this report provides an impartial, fair and accurate account of events, and is delivered in such a way that it does not threaten to destabilise the current levels of social cohesion within Rwanda or derail its remarkable recovery.  

If it does my VSO stint might turn out to be shorter than anticipated!

Simbyumva, subiramo, vuga buhora buhora!
August 27, 2010

September 4th, a week on Saturday, I will be leaving the Shire again and flying out to Kigali to join the VSO fellowship in Rwanda.

There will be twelve new volunteers embarking on this adventurous mission that hopefully won’t prove as perilous as the journey across Middle Earth to the Cracks of Doom made by Frodo Baggins and his mates!

Mind you our 15 hour flight from Heathrow is with Ethiopian Airlines and via Addis Ababa so you never know.

I’m, what is called, a STV (short-term volunteer) as my placement is only for 13 weeks, whereas my colleagues are all LTVs (long-term volunteers) having committed to at least 12 months and in most cases two years. In some ways I feel quite light weight by comparison!

With the departure date becoming increasingly imminent I’ve been tackling the outstanding items on a pretty lengthy to do list.

I’ve now, at last, completed the pre-departure Kinyarwanda Language course and whilst being pretty pleased, not to say surprised, with my score of 44½/50 in the final assessment exercise, it is all still a bit of mystery!

Based on the units I’ve covered, theoretically, I should now be able to meet and greet, pass on a little bit of personal information about myself, order some food and drink, barter for a few things at the local market, and catch a motorbike taxi!

It’s highly likely that the words and phrases I will be making the most use of will be:

Simbyumva, subiramo, vuga buhoro buhoro  (I don’t understand, repeat that, speak slowly) 

Uvuga icyongereza? (Do you speak English?)  

Ndashaka hamburger, ifiriti na (inzoga) Mutzig! (I’d like a hamburger, fries and a Premium beer!)  

I’ve invested in a Kinyarwanda, French, English dictionary, purchased through Amazon which I’m sure will prove invaluable over the coming months. There will also be further language sessions as part of the week-long in country training we will all receive in Kigali before dispersing to our various placements across the country.

As my accommodation will be without mains electricity, I’ve also taken delivery of wind up torch, a solar-powered reading light and power monkey explorer which should keep my mobile and Ipod charged up in between visits to the VSO area office, which thankfully does have electricity.  

The power monkey has taken up residence on the bedroom window ledge but seems to be taking for ever to get fully charged, although it has been a very dull week weather wise.

As a charity, VSO needs to attract financial support in order to cover the cost of recruiting, training and sending volunteers abroad. It currently costs £18,000 per twelve month placement.

In this regard they are very dependent on various community groups who promote the organisation’s charitable work and also raise funds to support the placement of volunteers.  

I have been linked with the VSO Worcestershire Supporters Group who have committed to making a donation of between £1250 and £2000 a year to sponsor a local Worcestershire volunteer. This year it happens to be me and I went to meet some of this group for the first time, on Tuesday evening.

The membership is largely made up of returned volunteers who were very welcoming and at this time close to departure, when I’m feeling a little apprehensive, they were able to offer encouragement and sound practical advice which was much appreciated.

I will try to keep them up to date with how things are going in Rwanda via email and my blog and hope to meet up with them again when I return home in December.   

In the mean time if you would like to support VSO’s work by making a small donation please visit my just giving page: www.justgiving.com/Phil-Aldridge

Grey Days & Away Days…..
August 8, 2010

It’s been another hectic week……..

Having returned to a miserably overcast Birmingham Airport, late Monday afternoon, from blue skies and 40 degrees  in Spain, thoughts immediately turned to our next jaunt, motoring in France, next week.

We booked tonight’s ferry crossing from Portsmouth just over a week ago so rather a last-minute decision. We don’t have a fixed destination in mind but thought we would head, in leisurely style, towards the châteaux and vineyards of the Loire Valley, an area we last visited way back in 1982!

Hopefully, along the way, there will be plenty of opportunities  for me to gain much-needed practice in my spoken French – pre Rwanda.

Having checked out a few hotels on-line, all of which looked rather over priced, we have decided where possible to camp. Having recently spent four weeks under canvas in Zambia I think I can just about manage another week on the Thermarest mattress shoe-horned into my mummy style sleeping bag.  

Thinking our camping days were well and truly behind us we got rid of our old frame tent and cooking equipment during a loft clearance exercise a few years ago. We have therefore invested in a lightweight, erected in seconds, affair – we’ll see! We are taking just the single gas burner, a small kettle for an early morning cuppa and a box of cornflakes but apart from that we intend to eat out.      

Having given Tuesday over to selecting and buying a tent, Wednesday was ear marked for  getting to grips with the  beginners’ Kinyarwanda course, which to be honest is proving easier said than done.

Half an hour in and I received an emergency phone call from VSO. Apparently the Rwandan authorities require my CRB clearance to be updated before they can issue a work permit. With time of the essence and my passport, which I will be using next week, required as evidence I had no alternative but to present myself in person at Putney HQ.

Thursday, at 6.30, I joined the early morning commuters from Pershore station, bound for Paddington. By 9.30 I had negotiated the District Line down to East Putney and presented myself at the VSO office. Within thirty minutes I had completed the paperwork, the accompanying documentary evidence  had been scrutinised and I was on my way again.

Having made my way,via the Central Line, to Chancery Lane I collapsed inside Café Nero, with a much-needed black Americano and  a (low-calorie) sticky toffee muffin, for breakfast.

This was my pre-appointed place of rendezvous with Gem who has recently taken up an appointment, as features writer, in the Old Holborn office of Love It magazine. We managed to grab 40 minutes or so together and she seems very happy with her new job which seems to be going fine. You can check out what she’s up to every Tuesday, copies available from all reputable newsagents and stationers!

Friday was another day of Test cricket, this time at Edgbaston. I hadn’t realised when I booked the ticket, months ago, that Pakistan would prove such light weight opponents this year and that I would be spending the day under gloomy Birmingham skies watching the play against the grey backdrop of a building site.

A 30 million pound redevelopment of the pavilion end is mid completion. It will be great when it’s finished (right) but it remains a mystery to me how the ECB could justify scheduling a Test Match at this venue, under these circumstances, given that there are a number of other grounds perfectly willing and able to stage the game.

The ball seamed and swung and, with Pakistan all out for a paltry 72, by mid afternoon the game was, to all intents and purposes, over. Given the advantageous bowling condition and the fragile state of the Pakistani batting it’s quite difficult to judge just how good the England bowlers are but it was good to see Stuart Broad amongst the wickets again.

Yesterday, Saturday, was the first day of the 2010-11 football season for all of those teams outside the Premier League! Forest were away at Burnley, who were relegated from the top-tier last year and are favourites to bounce straight back up again.

I decided to make the journey north to Turf Moor as there won’t be too many opportunities for me to watch the Tricky Trees before Christmas. With the aid of the trusty sat nav I was there in two and a half hours, motorway all the way.

It was a bit of a nostalgic trip for me. Back in 1966-7 Forest finished runners-up in the old 1st Division and as young 13-year-old fan I tried to get to as many games as possible. Visits to away grounds were quite a rarity in those days and Burnley was one of the first that I managed to get to.

I remember  it vividly. A friend’s uncle arrived mid afternoon in his old Morris Minor and offered to take us to the Easter Tuesday evening match. Of course we jumped at the chance. The old car wasn’t much of a speedster, especially with five of us in it, but we made the kick off.

I can remember the glistening cobbled streets around the ground which was tucked in amongst rows of terraced houses. It was real flat cap and whippet territory and the accents on the terraces were as thick as Lancashire Hot Pot!

Forest won that night with two goals from the legendary Zigger Zagger , Zigger Zagger, Joe Baker!  We could have done with him up front yesterday. He would have buried at least one of the three chances Nathan Tyson managed to lash into the crowd. The 1-0 defeat, was hard to take but the performance suggested we will be there or there about again at the business end of the season.     

That’s  just about it for this week. I’ve mowed the lawns, packed the car and the sun is even shining for the first time this week. La belle France beckons!

PS.

Bonne Anniversaire Gem!  I hope you are enjoying Lille and Reims with Nicci and Rache and enjoying a celebratory bottle of fizzy (or two)!

VSO Rwanda: Provisional flights & the Presidential Election!
July 28, 2010

I have received an email with provisional flight details for my VSO stint in Rwanda.

All things being well, I will be flying out of Heathrow at 06.50 on Thursday 2nd September and arriving at Kigali Airport (right) following a transfer in Brussels, at 18.50 the same day.

My return flight out of Kigali is scheduled for 20.45 on Saturday 4th December, touching down 10.00 on Sunday 5th.

So I should be back home in plenty of time for the build up to Christmas!

I had my first rabies shot yesterday, following on from yellow fever on Monday and swine flu last Friday. The nurse said my immune system won’t know what’s hit it! There are still two more rabies and a Hep B to go before I leave a months from now.

The international spotlight is turning towards Rwanda once again with elections due on 9th August.

Last weekend the Telegraph Magazine (24th July) carried an in-depth interview article with President Paul Kagame which concluded with the unanswered question is he, “a benevolent dictator, the strong hand needed to pull Rwanda forward into a better future, or is he an incurable despot?”  

In the autumn of 1994 Rwanda experienced the fastest genocide in history. Over a 100 day period Hutu fanatics slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

At that time the international community stood by staring in disbelief but failing to react until it was too late. In the 16 years since, western aid has enabled the country to make an equally staggering recovery and Rwanda is now considered to be a model for all developing African nations.

Rwanda is now considered to be the safest and cleanest country in Africa. It has experienced one of the highest rates of economic growth. Corruption levels are said to be low and it is the only country in the world with a majority of women in parliament.

The death penalty has been abolished, there is a national health system and 95% of children are in school. There is an aim for every pupil to have their own laptop by 2012!

The infrastructure is developing at an amazing pace with skyscraper buildings rising in the capital city, a good network of major roads, widespread internet availability and a national law banning plastic bags, on environmental grounds.

Amazingly this has been achieved in a nation where communities of survivors from the genocide live side by side with the killers.

Kagame is a Tutsi from the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) whilst 85% of the population are Hutu. He has simply addressed the problem of ethnic hatred and ethnic politics by making them illegal.

The Hutu – Tutsi divide and indeed the very words are no longer acceptable. The government mantra is, “We are all Rwandans now.”      

Politicians or citizens engaging in divisionism, as it is now called, face lengthy imprisonment or worse.

Some Hutu critics of Kagame, who maintain divisonism is merely a strategy to allow a Tutsi minority ruling elite to maintain control of a Hutu majority population, have been forced into exile, mysteriously disappeared or become the victims of unsolved assassinations.

Human Rights Watch are critical of Kagame’s authoritarian style of government claiming that denial of the Hutu political voice will only suppress tensions in the short-term and could be bottling up a resentment that may  manifest itself in another future genocide.

Rwanda still remains heavily dependent on the services of humanitarian NGOs (non governmental organisations) and financial aid from the international community. Whilst Kagame accepts this with a degree of gratitude there appears to be an underlying tone of resentment.

This is borne out of the west’s lack of intervention at the time of the genocide and an assertion that only five percent of agencies involved, “are doing it altruistically.”  Kagame however appears to be a very astute operator and uses the guilt of the western world to his country’s advantage.

Whilst his fiercest critics brand him a war criminal and liken him to Hitler, he has at the same time received huge international acclaim for his achievements and enjoys the support of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and the Chief Executives of Google and Starbucks.

Beneath the surface the political situation may be more fragile than it seems and it will be very interesting to keep an eye on the forthcoming elections. However I suspect and hope that they will go off peacefully.

You can be assured that VSO will also be watching the situation very closely and I have every confidence that if there is any hint of political instability, surrounding the elections, that may compromise the safety of its volunteers I will not be boarding that flight in September and those already in place will be evacuated post-haste.

Watch this space………..

SKWID 3 – Next steps towards Rwanda…
July 20, 2010

The last day and a half, at Harborne Hall, have focussed on: negotiation skills, conflict resolution, monitoring evaluation and review, co-operative facilitation and personal self-evaluation.     

I arrived home this p.m. exhausted, with my head buzzing and a to do list as long as my arm. The VSO delivered training is now completed and it’s down to self preparation from here on in. The main knowledge/skills development priorities for me will be to continue my French refresher course, which to be honest  has slipped off the agenda recently, and to make use of VSO’s online course in basic Kinyarwanda.

The SKWID training has served to reinforce my belief that I have the requisite knowledge and skills to make an effective education manager, within the Rwandan context, but I am still concerned that I might be hindered by my inability to communicate effectively with people who have varying degrees of English, whilst my French is limited and my Kinyarwanda currently non-existent!

The other issues I need to address are more practical things like, making sure any outstanding medical requirements are met and resolving the perennial packing problem. I’m awaiting my flight details but the weight allowance is likely to be quite restricted. I also need to ascertain whether I can get my crash helmet (which I picked up today) as well as a laptop and camera equipment in my hand luggage!      

The SKWID group bonded really well which made the training activities much more enjoyable and far less daunting than they might otherwise have been. It’s always interesting to meet and get to know new people and it never fails to surprise me how quickly complete strangers open up and relax in each other’s company.

As we socialized over a few well-earned drinks each evening  it felt strange to think that in two months time we will be scattered throughout the developing world,  getting to grips with our various VSO placements, in such varied places as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and of course Rwanda!  

I was the only short-term volunteer there this weekend. Everyone else has committed to at least twelve months with a number away on full two-year placements. I wish them all the very best and hope that their time overseas will provide provide rewarding, life changing experiences.  

All things being equal I fly out on September 4th, which all of a sudden seems so much closer now! I believe that there are ten volunteers who will be heading for placements in Rwanda on that date and I guess right now we will all be feeling similar degrees of excitement,  anticipation and apprehension!

SKWID 2: Octopussy sunk by Bulletproof Bomb!
July 18, 2010

Tomorrow morning each of  us, in turn, has to lead a practical activity involving five of our fellow volunteers. This is to demonstrate our facilitation skills. We will receive feedback on our performance from the participating  group members and one of the  course leaders who will be observing – so a bit like Ofsted for VSO volunteers then!  

The activities we have chosen for the facilitation exercise are meant to lend themselves for adaptation and use within a VSO context overseas. My activity is called  the Atomic Bomb Shelter!  which is intended as a discussion tool for information gathering about local cultural norms and perceptions or an analysis of people’s rights and capabilities.

If you are reading this you might want to have a go!

When the three-minute warning of a nuclear attack is sounded, ten community members make their way towards the atomic bomb shelter. Unfortunately there is only room for six  people. A decision has to be made about which four get left outside.

The ten contenders are: a police officer with a gun, a 16-year-old girl with learning disabilities, a 19-year-old homosexual Olympic athlete, a 35-year-old male biochemist in a wheelchair, a 50-year-old black female pastor, a 21-year-old female jazz singer, a peasant woman pregnant for the first time, a 70-year-old philosopher grandfather, a Chinese communist man specialising in medical sciences and a 40-year-old retired commercial sex worker.

Easy decisions then? As I’m sure you have guessed, there is no right answer but it’s all about the process and picking up people’s  prejudices and stereotyping

When today’s programme came to an end, at 8.00pm, most of us  beat a hasty path to the local pub, The Bell, for some liquid refreshment and the sunday evening quiz. We entered two teams and, with the SKWID theme in mind, named them Calamari and Octopussy. As you might imagine the VSO rivalry was intense. I was in the Octopussy team and we were going well until the last round which consisted of ten one-point questions.

If you got all of these correct an extra five points were awarded, making a possible 15, but get any single question wrong and it resulted in a big fat zero for the round. We were on a roll and going for the kill but blew ourselves out of the water with a Wacky Races question!

Who drove the Bulletproof Bomb?  

We went for broke and  gambled everything on Dick Dastardly only to find it was……………………..?  

This naive tactical error enabled the non risk taking Calamari team to beat us by 2 points and gain the bragging rights.

Anyway it’s time for bed now and another full day of training to look forward to tomorrow!

Oh yes we were, of course, undone by the Anthill Mob!

SKWID
July 18, 2010

I’m posting from the VSO training centre, Harborne Hall, near Birmingham. I arrived yesterday lunchtime and spent four hours on health and security issues when working in the developing world –  everything from road safety and precautions against mugging through to protection  against rabies, malaria, yellow fever and of course HIV Aids.      

Yesterday evening  we embarked on the SKWID course (9.00pm finish!). This is nothing to do with Paul the octopus but Skills and Knowledge for Working In Development!

The programme is very interactive with lots of  games, role play and small group problem solving exercises. The delivery has been very pacey and is set to continue in this manner through to Tuesday lunchtime when we are released! The instructors are all returned volunteers who are able to personalise the VSO script with their various  experiences in the field, which is very useful.       

There are 18 course members, with a 12/6 female – male split, from a range of backgrounds but predominantly education and health. I have met a volunteer who will be going out to Rwanda at the same time as me but she will be about 50km from my placement and is staying for a year. Her role will be as a teacher advisor, hopefully impacting on curriculum delivery, whereas mine will be to build management capacity. However there is enough common ground for us to be able to share ideas.

We’ve just had sunday lunch – quiche and chips – and the afternoon session is beckoning. We go through to 8.00pm this evening and then hopefully we’ll be let out for good behaviour to visit The Bell  for Quiz Night!. Last time I was here for training, back in February, our  VSO team won the gallon of beer prize which rather upset the regulars!      

Ok, time to reconvene and hone my  skills for developing participation techniques in decision-making and action planning!

Do you remember? Yes, I remember it well!
July 16, 2010

Today was the last day of the school year at Naunton Park Primary School, (seen here back in the early days!)

Back in December I left after nearly eleven years there as headteacher. When I had moved on from my previous schools, six in total with two as headteacher, I had always followed my own golden rule. It was simple, always look forward and never go back!  Forget the difficulties and the dark days and take the good times and the sunshine with you, in your memories and in your heart.

Leaving Naunton Park was a little different. I wasn’t moving to another school but retiring from the trials and tribulations of the English education system and about to embark upon voluntary work overseas, in Africa.

This had captured the imagination of the children, indeed the whole school community, and they were extremely generous in supporting my first project, four weeks on the Book Bus in Zambia. I owed it to the kids to visit them on my return and promised I would do so.

It did feel rather strange when, six months later, I returned as a visitor to the school where once I’d been head. I was given a wonderful reception and they showed a genuine interest in my presentation, engrossed by the images of the schools and children I had worked with in Zambia.

Many of them were keen to know what I was doing next and I outlined my forthcoming plans for working in Rwanda as an educational adviser with VSO.

As I pulled out of the school car park, and headed out of Cheltenham that day, I thought to myself that this really was the last time and I would never be going back. But never say never!  A week or so later I received a kind email from my successor inviting me to return today, the last day of term, for the Y6 leavers’ play.

He went on to explain that Y6 would really like me to be there and that since I had visited last some of the girls had organised a cake stall, after school one day, to raise money for VSO. They had taken over £70.00. I was amazed and I am extremely grateful to them. Thank you!

I had known most of these children from when they had first started school as 4 or 5 year olds. They were now eleven and about to leave Naunton Park for the exciting new challenges that lay ahead at secondary school. This was their big day and the time had come for moving on up and moving on out. The leavers’ play was to be their swan song, performed in front of their parents and the rest of the school and yet they wanted me there as well. I was very touched.  

These same children had put on a memorable final assembly for me on my last day as headteacher and here they were again, having some how  found the time from within the hectic summer schedule of SATs, a  residential visit, school sports, cycling proficiency, visits to their new secondary schools  etc. about to mount another spectacular performance.      

It was called, ‘Do You Remember?’ a humorous musical play, affectionately recalling some of those things  from primary school that live in the memory forever: the first day, learning to tell the time, the egg and spoon race, and of course being sent to see the head!      

As I watched and listened from the back of the hall, every word as clear as a bell by the way, I thought how proud I was of everything that had been achieved at Naunton Park School over the last ten years, epitomised by these enthusiastic and talented children on the stage in front of me, and how privileged I was to have been invited back one more time.

After the performance it was really nice to catch up, over coffee, with so many parents and staff before stepping out on to the playground for one last time and being inundated by Y6 leavers wanting me to sign their autograph books and school shirts! I felt quite a celebrity.

I wish them all the very best at secondary school and in their future lives, and hope that like me they will always carry a little bit of Naunton Park in their hearts.

And to everyone left at Naunton Park, School’s out for Summer – enjoy it!

This really was the last time and I won’t be back again, but I’ve got those good times and sunshiny days firmly in my head. Yes, I remember it well! 

Take care and all the very best to you all.