Sunday, March 27, 2011

One workshop in the bag!

Delivering the first workshop
Just a quick one. Mary and I, ably assisted by Camilla, completed our first workshop yesterday for the Headteachers of the Kigabiro (where we live) and the Muhazi sectors (next one along to the north). Around 20 attended our interactive and participative workshop in true VSO style. The evaluations are good so we must be on the right lines. This will be the first of many for the sectors, another for 22 newly appointed Headteachers in April and several for around 70 newly qualified teachers in May. We do them together and we think we make a great team.

All about Leadership

I never thought I would be cold in Africa but what an inspiration

Rugezi Wetlands
Firstly, just to let you know that twice we’ve sought out swimming pools in hotels and twice it’s been too cold or too wet to swim. And this is Africa!

But, that’s an aside. For the second time we went to visit Joan, in the North, just south of the volcanoes. We stay in a guest house where hot water is delivered outside of your room in the morning, the food is great and the owner respects the work of volunteers and gives us a big discount.

We had planned to go to some wetland about half an hour’s drive away by 4 X 4 but the low cloud obscured everything more than a metre away. However, when the mist finally lifted, we went anyway, passing the tea plantations with the pickers selecting the leaves from the top just for our own Rwanda tea. Incidentally, this tea is one of the main ingredients of Yorkshire Tea. So, they don’t grow it in Yorkshire then!

Magnifying the Lake
After a short but bumpy ride, we ended up in a most beautiful spot, surrounded by hills, all of which were cultivated with a lake and wetlands ahead of us. We were immediately attracted the local children and for the first time encountered real poverty. They were cold, grubby, looked hungry and were wearing insufficient clothes for the inclement conditions but they were fascinated by our presence and, although they appeared to be a little shocked at first, they soon began to take a greater interest, looking at photographs of themselves on the digital cameras and seeing the lake grow in size through the binoculars.

Looking through the church door

We sat in the church for ages which had at least 100 holes in the roof and a mud floor. Over 180 people worshipped there every Sunday. After a ride in a huge canoe where we spied all manner of birds including Crested Crane, we were given as meal in the church prepared by the local women using the most basic of facilities. The whole day was really humbling and inspiring at the same time.

Joan’s friend who took us, in conjunction with the owner of the Guest House, are planning an Eco–Centre on that spot with accommodation which will give the local community work and perhaps a market. Their current one is miles away. At least 100 children cannot attend school at the bottom of the hill because they have no shoes or uniform. Hopefully all this will change as they are given the chance to take charge of their own destiny.

What an inspiring day which I will never forget!

Plans for the Eco-Centre

Church Kitchen

“To sheer or not to sheer”, that is the question.”

"Bald or Bald, Sir?"
 Throughout my working life, I generally have waited until the half term or term break to get a haircut unless there’s something important on which requires me to be shorn like a wedding or a funeral. Well, you know what I mean, it’s easy in the UK. You pay your money and out you come all clipped and better for it. Now, in Guyana, I had a horrible experience. See link below and scroll down the page when you get to it..

In a few seconds after having told the barber how to cut my hair, half of my silver locks were on the floor and my head almost bald. Mary was very unkind to me when she saw it and it took a long time to grow and I was determined that it wouldn’t happen again. I was scarred for life mentally!

Hence, I am neurotic about haircuts in foreign lands especially when we have no common language. There must be ten barbers in Rwamagana – it’s a night out for everyone, queuing, watching and seeing all the different styles. You can have bald, bald, bald or bald and that goes for men, boys and small girls too. Women, however, have a bit more choice in their beauty parlours!

So, I chose one, not that I need to be more beautiful. Three times I went there and three times it was closed. I’ve now seen it’s closed permanently. I think it must have been the shock of cutting different hair. I found a barber who seemed quite old fashioned and might have possessed a pair of scissors rather than the electric razor – the key to a potentially good haircut in my opinion. When the woman in the white coat saw me, she ran indoors to get her male counterpart who appeared to be sitting in a cupboard and they both cowered in a corner of the shop, obviously worrying about what might happen. Having showed them my passport photo to show them how I wanted it, they admitted they didn’t possess scissors (French speaking). So I left with my last hope in Rwamagana for a haircut having fizzled out. I tried to get one in the Mille Collines in Kigali but no luck.

Eventually, our good friend Joan who was having a similar hair neurosis told me that a cutter of white people’s hair might exist in the centre of Kigali. So, armed with Mary for protection, we braved the place with Mary sitting behind me watching over for any sign of a razor.

He was brilliant and spoke French so the instructions could be precise. It took an hour and Mary nearly fell asleep with the boredom and it was one of the best haircuts for a long time – 6,000rwf and worth every sou!

Now, if any of you have every seen the film Pretty Woman, there are similarities to my story. The hooker, Miss Vivian, goes into a posh dress shop in Hollywood and they refuse to serve her. Her wealthy gentleman friend later takes her to another shop where they spend thousands of dollars. The next day, dressed in her new finery, she goes into the original shop and says to them to their surprise “Big mistake, big, big mistake, huge!!!” and walks out. Well, I feel the same way about the Rwamagana barber as I walk passed. “Big, big mistake, Huge. You should have cut my hair. 6,000 francs, a small fortune. Huge!!!!”.

A Quiet “At Home”

Mary prepares rice sacks outside the house
The next week was hectic with many changes of plan, writing of extensive statistics, a visit from the VSO Programme Manager, planning for workshops as well as a visit to the Bicumbi Teacher Training College to visit our nearest VSO neighbour, Camilla, who is there teaching methodology and setting up a resource centre. She has done amazing work in such a short time.

We arranged to meet up with her in Rwamagana for a bit of TLC for all of us with leisurely meals, lots of chat, a haircut for me and toe nail painting for the girls. All of this was achieved except for the haircut. And that’s another story all on its own for you to read in the next post. On the Sunday, Camilla and Mary prepared rice sacks as visual aids – a wonderful invention for enhancing classroom display.

Camilla gets down to earth

A Visit to Kabarore

For many volunteers, including us, weekends are a time to catch up with the jobs but “What the Heck!” the jobs will still be there on Monday so we go travelling. So, a few weeks ago, we met up with Sarah and David, former experienced volunteers from the Gambia, with David doing a three month Education Management placement with Sarah as accompanying partner.

A Kabarore Feast
They live in Kabarore, North West of here near the Ugandan border and two hours away on two buses past the lake again. It was great to see how others were living, experience their village, swap ideas on cooking on a two ring stove as well as sharing “a drop” and a goat brochette in the local bar in the evening.

A Birthday to Remember

It only seems 5 minutes since the Big 50 and now the Big 60 has arrived and here we are in Rwanda celebrating it with Mary following up in four weeks. We took the day off and went to Lake Muhazi an hour away in a taxi-bus. As we arrived the clouds turned from white to the blackest of blacks and slowly by slowly the lake disappeared in the thick mists, the rain started to fall and before long it was torrential and small rivers appeared all around us and flowed rapidly into the shrouded lake.

But we were dry under a shelter sipping our Fantas, hoping for sunshine. We ordered a light lunch of sandwich and soup but after 90 minutes we discovered that they had no bread and that they’d sent someone out on a bus to the next town to buy some! Eventually it arrived – the birthday lunch. If only they had told us.

It can be difficult to get back, so we left early just as the mist was rising, the lake appeared and the beauty of the lake was restored. Well, it will still be there for another day.
Filet Cordon Bleu Rwamagana Style

In the evening we went to the tourist hotel (never seen any tourists there) in Rwamagana for the second birthday meal of “Filet Cordon Bleu” – steak stuffed with tinned pork luncheon meat and tinned plastic cheddar. Delicious!!!???? But, at last, we had a chance to taste real Gordon’s and genuine Scotch as an aperitif but Black Tower at £20 a bottle was beyond even our budget so we stuck with the Primus Beer.
The next day we were in Kigali for a VSO meeting with our VSO peers and we treated ourselves two nights in the Mille Collines Hotel of the film “Hotel Rwanda” fame – a taste of real luxury with delicious food and a price to match. We had arranged a meal that night in the Heaven Restaurant (we all joked “We were all going to Heaven”) and 27 VSOs turned up and Mary presented me with a large chocolate Birthday Cake. We had a wonderful time and the restaurant certainly lived up to its name with its veranda, open to the world, with gorgeous views over the night sky of Kigali.

Birthday Cake in Heaven

A few minor medical issues had to be sorted in the Polyclinique the next day but, in the afternoon, we were invited to a “Presentation of the Groom and Dowry Giving Ceremony” – like a civil ceremony 2 months before the wedding. It was certainly a spectacle not to be missed with beautiful dancers, Burundian drummers who danced and drummed with the enormous drums on their heads, colourful clothes, flowing drink and superb food.

So, all in all, it was a birthday to remember!!!!

Or maybe we'll make this the official one

Burundian drummers

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A day in the life of two Rwanda Education Volunteers

Sleep comes easy in Rwanda usually because of sheer exhaustion from the previous day, a comfortable bed and relative quiet but by 4am one can hear the sound of howling dogs. There aren’t so many dogs around, mainly pets but when they howl, they howl. One will start from one end of the town and it will cross from east to west with alarming speed and synchronised yelping only to be overtaken by the practising of the “call to prayer” singer at 4-30am who gets into full flow around 5am. The female mosquito buzzes frantically to penetrate the net but we're safe, the family of birds above the plywood ceiling just over our bed start to scratch and flap their wings in preparation for the day and the big birds land on the tin roof with a thunderous crash and bounce back and forth to ensure all are awake and when it rains it can vary from a gentle pitter patter to a sound likened tthe onset of Armegeddon. These are not disturbing sounds but just part of the background but the real advent of dawn comes from the sudden crow of the cockerel next door whose persistence is better than any alarm clock placed at the other end of the room. Rwamagana is awake and ready to move!!!!

Humans respond in the next half hour by filling jerry cans, washing, clearing throats, sweeping and praising the Lord through spiritual music on the radio designed to be heard at the other end of the town. There comes a time when the humble volunteer just has to rise and face the day. Will there be electricity and the possibility of a cup of tea and a hot bowl of water for a wash or will the candles be used? Fortunately, normally the former unless it’s raining. We’re lucky here.

It takes the best part of an hour and a quarter to get ready. Multiple all time scales by three and it’s about right. Check the emails, make the porridge or toast the bread in the frying pan, cut the pineapple and make the tinned chopped ham and pork sandwiches for lunch. On a good day we might listen to Radio 4 on the Internet with the UK 4am news. Even with all the planning we might only have 10 minutes for breakfast before going off for a 7-15 start. The walk is 20 minutes and with pleasant countryside on the edge of the town, maize fields, banana groves and the mounds of beans just starting to sprout. It makes a pleasant change from the drabness of a March English dawn. Sunflowers, nasturtiums and a variety of bush flowers are all over the place. Light comes up here at around six and lasts for twelve hours with real dark dotted by twinkling stars in a brilliant clear non polluted sky. Greetings of “Mwaramutse” “Amakuru?” “Ni Meza” to the adults all on the march with their loads on their heads, bicycles with hens upside down tied to the back and water jerry cans with their banana stoppers are exchanged repeatedly to all we see. “Good Mornings” to the children with their responses of “We are fine” are exchanged readily as half of them want to shake hands and then run off giggling at the meeting of the strange “Umuzungus”. In no time we spot our container truck and the day is ready to start.

Invariably, when we arrive, the office is locked or being cleaned so we sit on the wall outside until something happens, sometimes half an hour later but now we have a key so there’s no excuse. There are two types of day – an office day or a school day but we generally try to organise the latter because that’s what we are here for but much work can be done in the District Office writing reports of visits, planning and making appointments. Now the last is not so easy. This has to be done on the phone. I start in English and regularly lapse into French for comprehension purposes. What with accents clashing and talking to people whilst they are in buses or on the back of a moto, it’s not an easy task but we generally get there and an arrangement is made only to be cancelled often due to meetings, other work or who knows what.

Lunch is one hour but home is too far away in the heat of the midday sun so we either walk to a local shop which sells somosas (all shops sell them) and a Fanta or eat sandwiches behind closed doors in the office. It’s not really socially acceptable to eat in public. Visiting schools either involves a significant walk or a moto pillion ride. That’s why we have our trusty VSO helmets to keep us safe. Wearing a public helmet is not a good idea – one size fits all with no strap!!! You can get the idea of a school visit from the previous post so I’ll not dwell on it but it’s great and really makes us feel that we are making a difference and, most of all, appreciated.

From wherever we are, going home is the reverse of going to work with its “Mwirire” “Mwirire meza”, “Muraho!” and “Good mornings” from the kids. We have a mission in the schools to get them to say “Good afternoon /evening” at the right time and “I’m very well” rather than “fine” using our names. What joy when a child greeted us with “Good evening Stephen, Good evening, Mary”. That makes it all worth while. That’s much better than “Umuzungu”. We’re being accepted and the suspicions are dying!

We visit the market, the little shop where they speak French and all of this has become part of the daily routine. We feel part of the community but never fail to shock or amuse new people each day simply because of the colour of our skin and especially our age in such a young community. An old woman may hug us because there are not many of our age around, a pastor may try to persuade us to go to his church, some may ask us for money and for many we are just a source of pleasant, gentle amusement with no offense. If we’ve made someone laugh or smile and we’ve brightened their day, what’s the harm in that?

So we have about an hour before it gets dark. Two days a week a charming young lady cooks for us and on the other days does the household chores. We have to be honest that without this we would probably have been on the plane back home. Remember everything takes three times longer – washing in the yard in cold water, making sure everything is sterilized and water boiled and filter (we do this ourselves to be sure), cooking on a two ring stove when from time to time the electricity fails and so on. The evening routine is dominated by water – filling jerry cans, boiling, filtering, buckets for the loo because to date we only have running water in the middle of the night and it goes off just before getting up. But we have water unlike those who have to collect it from all over the place – kids from 4 upwards carrying cans to suit their strength. They are to be admired.

We’re not very adventurous in the cooking – brilliant potatoes make a wonderful corn beef hash, corned beef makes a passable Spaghetti Bolognese, omelettes are frequent and you can do amazing things with a tin of tuna. But with no fridge, cooking and shopping is a day to day business and require much planning. We’re ¾ veggie and meat is a treat because we’re not brave enough yet to face the butchers but I have been promised best fillet cut directly from the cow for £2 / kilo. My Mum used to scrub meat bought in the market in the 1950s. I can do the same. We treat ourselves to a bottle of beer every second day and this weekend bought our first tiny bottle of Ugandan Warangi Gin but that’s the slippery slope so it’s a real treat. Good though! A teacher bought us some red banana wine made in this town which we opened this weekend with a friend – very passable if you think Harvey’s Bristol Cream. Amazing what you can do with the humble banana. We’ll try the Pineapple wine next. Once or twice a week we go to a local bar and have a beer and a Goat Brochette (kebab). They’re sold everywhere and can be very tasty.

Electricity is generally stable but we have the candles ready and it rarely goes out for more than a few minutes. We pull down the mosquito net, pack the bags for the morning, watch a film or a half an hour of “Yes Minister” or similar on the laptop and into bed by 9-30pm and are generally asleep by “9-35pm.

So our daily life has its challenges but considerably more rewards, privileges and joys. It makes us feel alive, more alive than ever we were in Wallington and that’s not bad for one 60 year old and one following up in a week or two. We’d like to have used the bus pass on the Stella Express but I don’t think they’d have it!!!!

Keep watching this space!!!!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Seeing the wood for the trees

A typical welcome from primary children
Click on picture to start video

Whenever times get hard and they often do here, all we have to do is visit a school and see the children and the spirits are lifted. We have started working in a Groupe Scolaire School in Rwamagana. In order to meet the Millenium Goals and their own 2020 Vision Statement, the Rwanda Government have extended most primary schools to include three years of secondary. Some of these schools are as big as 2,500 children in a double shift and the teachers work with two lots of kids from 7am to 5pm.

Generally when we enter a school, it will create an enormous fuss but after a few visits things settle down. These children have rarely seen a white person in real life let alone be able to shake their hands and stroke their arms to see if they really have any skin. Multiply that by a thousand and you can imagine the commotion. Well, that's at breaktime but when we enter the classes, we nearly always have the same reception. They all stand and say "Welcome, our visitors, we are fine." Tell them to sit down and they reply "We are sitting down". Then there's the welcome song in English, French and Kinyarwanda. The smiles on the faces are infectious and the love of learning in such challenging circumstances can only be admired. English school children have a lot to learn about motivation and the thirst for knowledge.
All teaching is now done in English with only a few months notice. Most of the teachers are a few pages ahead of the children and it seems to be working. We have enormous admiration for the tenacity and bravery of a country which has taken its own future in its hands with some help from others and, through its children, has taken on board the need for developping the skills of its young people to create a better world for them in the future.

We are looking forward to a brand new office in a couple of months but in the meanwhile we are working in the back of a container truck. The few staff in the office are very busy and it's been difficult to arrange a meeting to organise a our work but finally it's happened and we are on the right track. We've planned a number of workshops including several for newly qualified teachers in different parts of the District, two days for newly appointed Headteachers from all over the District and a series of one day workshops for Heads in each of the sectors throughout the District. In addition we have started working with quite a few individual schools as well as doing orientation visits to find out more about the area.

In the last few days we have been compiling statistics about schools, numbers of students and teachers and have produced an 11 page spreadsheet. Still a lot more to be done on that but it will be a useful tool for the office and the Ministry.

In Guyana, we used to go to schools by bicycle, taxi, Ministry vehicle and more often than not boats. Here it's quite different. The schools in the town are generally walking distance but widespread so we seem to be constantly walking. That's fine in the morning but changing over to another school in the afternoon can be rather warm. The alternative is a moto - pillion on a motor cycle taxi. Relatively cheap but for the longer distances with hills and potholes rather hazardous and hard on the body. The longest we've done is an 80 minute return journey, weaving all over the place on a red road with grooves, potholes and other hazards such as children all over the place. We're working up to the 2 hour ones. As you can imagine we are feeling fitter and losing weight. The positive side is that the countryside is stunning with ever inch of its thousand hills cultivated and the welcome is unimagineable in most schools so it's really worth it.

Most of the schools are built in the same style with an enormous courtyard / field / garden / play area in the middle with classrooms all round the edges. Generally classes are in straight rows with a blackboard full length on one wall. Class sizes can be as much as 60 for the lower primary and sometimes that in later years but there is a considerable dropout in the years in between. We have not seen any poor behaviour but claases that listen to their teacher with respect and which cooperate whatever the standard of the lesson. About one third of the schools are private and fee paying, often parental coperatives.