The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Sunday, March 6, 2011

High Altitude Commuting

Le Pays des Mille Collines (the land of a thousand hills) is really a tad ungenerous as a description of Rwanda. We live at an altitude of 1660 metres which, if my tribal memory serves me well, is at least 300 metres above Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. It is, therefore, with deep regret that I wish to inform my fellow Scots and the entire British tourism industry that oor biggest Ben is just a wee hillock to Rwandans.
Negotiating a moto

The roads tend to follow the hillcrests with most settlements stretched out alongside overlooking the deep green valleys below. I travel along these roads, dirt and occasionally bitumen, as pillion on a motorbike taxi (a moto) on days that I visit schools. Everywhere beneath me are smallholdings of bananas, interspersed with eucalypts and grevilleas. No problem then being reminded of my antipodean homeland! Aussies have fairly and squarely left their mark on the country although not a single student so far has heard of a kangaroo despite my energetic bounding around the classrooms. (Mind you, since they don't know what sandwiches and pizzas are either, maybe this isn't so surprising).
The Rwandan landscape

In this heavily deforested and overcrowded nation someone had the bright idea in the 20th century of filling the countryside with fast growing Aussie species. Only now do people realise how much water they draw up and many are being chopped down especially those close to roadsides where, from time to time, large sweet smelling sawn logs often lie in dangerous proximity to passing traffic. Another enlightened western scheme of the past is found wanting in the present. Hmm, maybe a few cane toads or myna birds could help eliminate those pesky Rwandan banana flies!

There aren't many vehicles on the roads and most danger comes from the endless throng of walkers stepping carelessly in front of the moto. Many stare and shout 'muzungu' as I pass but if I wave or manage an 'amakuru' (how are you) through my lifted visor, faces light up and waves are returned with the obligatory 'ni mesa' (it's fine). Schools are often situated in the oddest and most awkward of places on steep, rocky terrain and as we approach the motodriver has to slow right down as we bob and weave over rutted, eroded pathways. Two recent volunteers have already fallen off the backs of skidding motos approaching schools, fortunately only with minor scratches. Apparently it gets worse in the wet season. If this was a western country every school would have a lawyer's office situated close by.

There are 69 schools in my District of Ngoma, six of which are private and which I have included in my visits. In private schools (fees are about $35 equivalent per term) all subjects are taught in English except Kinyarwanda and French. In the public schools the government has just reversed its decision of 2009 to have all lessons in English and, as of late February, Grades 1, 2 and 3 are being taught in Kinyarwanda with English introduced as a language subject only. The switch to English medium occurs in Grade 4. Many would say this is a sensible decision. Imagine arriving at school as a 5 year old and having all your teachers talk to you in a foreign language. There are many parallels with the teaching of English in remote Indigenous schools in Australia and the debate there over English medium instruction versus some form of two-way or bilingual education.
New school building down a rocky escarpment

Although I am in schools to help the Head Teachers, I usually observe a few lessons. This is a revealing experience. The classes of around 40 are not as large as I expected, due to dropouts and absenteeism, and the children are very well behaved. Most of the private schools are Catholic (one is Seventh Day Adventist) and as I walk in - this freaked me out the first time - the little children say "Good morning Father". Cripes! I have, of course, adapted by responding with a beatific smile and a benedictory wave. May my dearly beloved father (the real one!) not turn in his Protestant grave!

The lessons are well enough prepared but heavy on technical language and very repetitive. If the children know the answer to a question they jump up and click their fingers in a strange forward pointing motion shouting 'teacher' which is out of keeping with their normal, reserved behaviour. If the answer is correct - usually a single word response - the class applauds rhythmically. The theme of the lesson is written on the board for the pupils to copy or chant.
Looking into a valley
A geography lesson, on the weather, to 10 year olds endlessly repeated the phrase: "weather is a condition of atmosphere at place in given time". Taught mostly by staff educated in French they struggle with English pronunciation. The children chanted "waytho ees" in imitation. The concept of the phoneme was presented to an English class whose comprehension barely extended to 'what's your name'. "The phoneme is the smallest unit of speech sound that is used to make one word different from another word". So now you know.

A second of time is "the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom" and a metre "the length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second". I just pinched those two from a Guardian Weekly article. But you get the picture. This is hardly a communicative methodology destined to enthuse a new generation of English speakers.

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