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

Monday, May 30, 2011

Quality Education for All?

I have just returned from a three-day conference in Kigali on the theme 'Quality Education in Rwanda'. There are major difficulties associated with the transformation in education which is taking place in this country. Teachers are woefully underpaid and, because of the move to 9 years basic education for all, the government has introduced double shifting into the teaching day. There are simply not enough classrooms or teachers to lump everyone together so teachers do two half-day shifts to be able to cover all the students of up to 60 in a class. The long day, poor salary and large class sizes also make for low motivation among many staff. The pupils, on the other hand, have a relatively short day which parents often take advantage of, using them as workers in the fields. There are possible ethical questions about child labour but who can blame the parents for seeing idle children as a resource. There are, after all, no libraries or study centres that these children can attend before or after school. There is no reading culture here and precious few books especially graded readers suitable for early learners of English.
Attentive participants
Most teachers have been educated in French and now have to teach in English. In addition they are supposed to start using what is called a 'child-centred curriculum' which basically means children more actively participating in their learning. This modern, western approach to learning conflicts with the traditional chalk and talk method which is still very much the norm here. It is not uncommon to observe classes where children will not say a single word during a lesson which may be totally conducted in heavily accented, faltering and grammatically incorrect English. At the conference one VSO teacher, who is a fluent Irish speaker, made the audience feel bewildered by giving a brilliant demonstration in incomprehensible Gaelic of what it must feel like for large numbers of Rwandan students to sit in classrooms and be subjected to a daily round of uncontextualised blather in a foreign language.
A keen student voices his concerns
But where to begin to solve the problem? There is no doubt that the teachers are planting bad habits into the students especially where big words are transplanted from the French pronunciation directly into English. And how, if the teachers are struggling with English themselves, can they be expected to teach effectively using pair and group work activities associated with this new methodology? Yet this kind of learning is essential if Rwanda is to produce a populace which is more confident in the active listening and speaking idiom. Currently this is not happening in schools, with what passes for dialogue usually a form of stilted, rote learning with little flexibility of question and response. "Good morning", "How are you", " I am fine thank you, and you", as the only sequence, belongs with Dick and Jane and the structured Alexander books of a bygone era - firmly in the recycling bin. Language learning develops best with adaptability of thought that gradually allows the student to imagine different ways of communicating. It's wonderful for confidence too, which is half the battle in speaking a language - when you can say "Hello", "How's it going", "What about you", "Not bad", "Okay", "See you later", instead of only the prescribed rote. This growing confidence, too, helps liberate you from the fear of making mistakes, which is inevitable in language learning, but which paralyses so many.
The current reality versus hopes for the future
Methodology teachers employed by VSO are helping to train interested Rwandan teachers especially in the use and development of visual aids (often rice sacks are the source material for writing on). Such aids are essential elements in communicative teaching methods but they only work if accompanied by the knowledge and training of how to use them effectively. Most educational volunteers come from a primary or secondary teaching background in the UK or North America but very few have qualifications in the teaching of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) which is a vastly different way of approaching language teaching. As one UK teacher said to me during the conference -'being able to teach TS Eliot isn't much good here.'
Part of crowd at Amahoro Stadium for big screen telecast of Champions League final
VSO Rwanda is in expansion. Indeed it is the only country in Africa where numbers of volunteers are growing. It is the precious baby of many western governments especially the US and the UK. The British Conservative Party is even sending a large delegation of MPs and party members to visit our schools for two weeks in July. I doubt I'll bump into any of them but if I do, I will emphasise, as I did at the conference, the importance of recruiting suitably qualified EFL teachers, over a defined period, to improve English teaching ability and enhance better teaching practice. It would be nice, too, if salaries of Rwandans were increased from 25,000 francs ($42) minimum a month for entry level primary teachers but the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) bureaucrat at the conference said it wasn't going to happen as they couldn't afford it. Others said that it was simply a matter of priorities as Rwanda has the lowest teaching salaries of any East African country. However, a lot of money is being spent on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative as it is seen as part of Rwanda's goal to be the hub of the African IT industry in the 2020 vision but is much criticised because laptops are being sent to some so-called Child Friendly Schools - a UNICEF definition - which don't even have electricity.
Dangerous electric cables on short cut to Bert's house where I was staying during the conference
I believe in a one laptop per headteacher policy for my district of Ngoma (which is lucky in having better electricity and internet access than some other districts) so that they can all start to use email and USB memory sticks to store all the training information that I give them in action and strategic plans, evaluation procedures and many other common sense ideas. I am not confident that hard copies won't simply find their way into cupboards to be forgotten after I am gone. At least with electronic versions there is a permanency and the simple facility of making adjustments - dates, costs etc - when necessary on a termly or annual basis. I am also pushing for training in the use of any future laptops, which the heads have been promised, otherwise they too will gather dust like many of the textbooks which sit on school store room shelves because the teachers are afraid to use them.
Much to my delight I managed a game with the Kigali Kougars on Sunday morning on a pretty fine artificial pitch. Cairns Rovers  (my old team) eat your heart out
Regarding the reading problem, I pushed at the conference - and with delegates of USAID and UNICEF who have strong links with EFL publishers like Longman, Heinneman and Macmillan - for the importance of simple, child friendly reading materials of which there is a complete dearth. Cultural appropriateness can be a problem with some of these graded readers but only by flooding the schools with such books can a reading ethos start to develop. Little children stop me in the street begging for books to read and don't understand why I don't have boxes of them in my house! Stella's young adult students also crave reading material. She has taken to lending out my old Guardian Weeklies for want of an alternative but the articles are usually too difficult for them.

Initiating a push for more EFL trained teachers, good graded readers and establishing the use of email, simple spreadsheets and folders for all 69 head teachers after my sector wide training sessions would at least be a small, tangible contribution to the development of this small but crowded country.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Question of Faith

When I got into work on Monday morning I was approached by my best Rwandan office friend, Guido, and asked what I had done at the weekend. He usually asks me that question and I always regale him with the exciting things that I may have got up to including incomprehensible trips into the adjacent valley in search of birds and the ultimate source of the Nile. This time his question was different and it was the one that I had been dreading: "did you pray yesterday" he inquired, with what I thought was a bit of cheek in his gap-toothed smile? At last! I should have been expecting it and he'd obviously been plucking up courage to ask. After all, he, like countless other Rwandans, spends large parts of his Sunday in church and I had been repeatedly told at group training sessions that my religion would be a subject of much interest to locals - not far behind my marital status and age! By the way, I have taken to being 25 again when children ask as I can't be bothered getting on my cultural high horse and explaining that age is usually not the second question to put to grey-haired western visitors. Or maybe I'm just suffering from a sexagenarian hang up!
Anglican Church opposite my work. Stella teaches here twice a week
Leaving me time to concoct a response Guido suddenly disappeared saying there was an Anglican pastor outside that he was going to fetch. My heathenism was going to be put on office show for all to witness! If the question had been 'what is your religion?' it would have been easily countered. I was brought up a Protestant. Matter closed. We have a volunteer friend who lives further into the boondock bible belt and she has decided to share her ideal of Humanism with anyone who asks. But in this case it was impossible. The question could not be dodged; did you pray yesterday does not permit use of the metaphorical hedge trimmers.
Camus was a good goalie but I think JPS was better at table football

A non-work buddy was sitting next to me in the office. I have been helping him to apply for a teaching job where I know he would excel. He was smirking wondering how I was going to respond and I'll tell you why. Recently I wore my Philosophy Football T-shirt to a big Premier League game at St Joseph's bar. Sartre and the number 10 are written on the back. (Somehow I see Jean Paul more as an outside left than in the inside left position!) This friend suddenly shouted out - as a theatrical player was writhing on the ground pole-axed by a puff of wind - that JPS was an existentialist and then asked me aloud, in front of the expectant barroom, if it was true that such people did not believe in God. You can imagine how the room reacted. It's not the kind of thing you say to a group of people who can't comprehend the idea of atheism! The choice was stark. Get into a deep theological and philosophical discussion with a muzungu in a variety of languages or continue to bait Wayne Rooney on the TV screen. It was a no brainer - I had to rush back home and fetch my copy of Richard Dawkins in order to sustain my argument. Hence his smirk now.
Catholic Church but as you can see they all really look the same
By this time Guido had returned and true to his word there was another gentleman at his shoulder. I was hoping the whole issue would have blown over and we could get back to a fresh round of 'mwaramutsis' but it was not to be. Guido turned to the pastor and said 'I was just asking Denis if he prayed yesterday'. There wasn't even a beating about the bush with a rephrasing of the question to give me a chance to waffle. And no, tempted though I may have been, I wasn't going to give a cheeky or pretentious answer such as, ' yes, I was down in the valley worshipping the majesty of nature's fecundity'.
Evangelical Restoration Church behind our house

"Well, did you?" said the eager cleric suddenly right in front of my desk. "No", was all I could muster. "Why don't you pray", he pressed on,
furthering my discomfort? I was now trapped so I performed that old Jesuit trick and answered a question with a question. This is a complicated subject, I pre-ambled with a smile, but I could easily ask you, 'why do you pray?' Match drawn, 1-1. As Jean Paul himself nearly said: 'everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite point of view.' Both teams recognised that the office on an early Monday morning was not the best place to carry out a theological debate and it was agreed to re-schedule a discussion on the topic for a later date. We shall see.
Wise words from JPS

My mischievous friend leaned across after they'd gone and said that there are plenty of Rwandans whose faith was shattered because of the genocide and no longer attend church especially of the Catholic persuasion given their complicity in many of the atrocities. However, life is hard and comfort still much needed and this has led to a phenomenal growth of new evangelical and Pentecostal churches. The rapture coming from two of them close to our house has already been mentioned in a previous post you may recall. Increasing numbers of Rwandans are even establishing their own churches although others look askance at what they see as individuals seizing on religion as a business opportunity. And naturally the American evangelicals, with typical, entrepreneurial zest, are forging into this growing field of ecstatic soul redemption. Dawkins' vision of a god-free world is quite a way off.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Unable last week to join a billion other people in goggling at the wedding of an English couple (Prince William and his missus) we have never met, we decided instead that it was a good opportunity to experience umuganda. This is a form of community service initiated as a nation building exercise in 2006, which is supposed to be compulsory for all Rwandans between the ages of 18 and 60, and takes place between 8 and 11 o'clock on the last Saturday of each month. It normally involves activities like weeding, hoeing or cutting but can also entail road building, house construction for the needy or tree planting. Our friend Theophile arranged to meet us near the genocide memorial in downtown Kibungo. Where are your tools he asked as we arrived fashionably late at the work site, a large field next to the memorial?
The umuganda field and participants
The group's task was to cut the grass by hand. Unfortunately I'm not in the habit of carrying long, sharp implements around with me and probably subconsciously believed there would be some spare tools kicking about just as there are at tree planting back in Oz. However, people out-numbered machetes by a wide margin and there was a large number of folk milling around with nothing to do. Two women sat under a tree and checked their appearance. Some older men rested against an embankment and asked what we were doing there. Who could blame the umuganders for not bring their own machetes which might easily disappear into the mix never to be seen again! All this looked promising for my dicky back but I wasn't going to get away with it that easily and was soon offered a machete by someone wanting a break. My action was now under scrutiny. It is de rigueur to put your hand behind your back while carrying out the wide-arc swinging movement. Rule one is to make sure that there is no one standing close by especially when gross amateurs are around. It occurred to me that a few lovely Rwandan cows would make a better job of the field than us but was told by the umuganda coordinator, who turned up in his motor scooter, that it would be disrespectful to the dead in the fenced off graveyard.
Jacket spoiled this guy's action

Rwandan political jurisdictions are divided into provinces, districts, sectors, cells and the umudugudu (or 'village'). The coordinator visits each nearby village on umuganda day to see how things are getting on but the umudugudu leader is responsible for the register of attendance and to make sure that everyone is turning up. Work stopped shortly after 9.30 for a lecture from the leader about what he considered was a poor turnout and asked if this meant that Rwandans didn't love their country. The rebuke was met with total silence from the crowd and was then followed by speeches from other community leaders about ways of correcting recent bad behaviour. For example in the umudugudu during genocide memorial week a stepmother had locked her 8-year-old stepson in the house for four days without food or water. Other stories included a bar that was selling banana beer 24 hours a day when it was only allowed to sell it from 2 to 10 pm. This behaviour had to stop. We actually passed the culprit bar returning from a walk in the valley the next day and wondered how hard it would be for the police to come round and close the place if there was such a problem.
Some umuganders resting

One cool guy with a grass stalk in his mouth was made to stand up and recant because during memorial week he didn't want to go to a ceremony in town but preferred to stay put. One of the leaders accused him of not respecting authority to which he responded that he was being persecuted. The umudugudu leader then recounted an episode where a thief had broken into a house to discover that the owner was inside. There was a fight in which the house owner was able to subdue the thief and call the police.
Umudugudu leader addressing the crowd
As a result of all these incidents the umudugudu council had decided to institute a system of night guards to supervise village behaviour and its security. Each household would pay 500 francs per month (less than a 1$US) for the salary of up to 15 guards to patrol the village.
Police chief speaks

I asked Theo why there were so few female umuganders and he said I should ask the meeting so I plucked up courage and did so in my best Kinyarwanda. The leader smiled and said that he would take it on notice and make sure that there were more women next time should I decide to come back. I immediately regretted asking the question as the women were probably flat out at home preparing the men's lunches!
Theo and Lucien, the umuganda coordinator

The leader also stated that non-attendees would be reported and fined 500 francs (maybe less than a dollar but nearly a day's pay for some people). Feeling even more guilty I thought a 'ni menshi' was in order. ('It's too much' is one of the first things that volunteers are taught in Kinyarwanda in order to learn how to bargain and it has a kind of joke status). There was a laugh but the leader stated there needed to be a stiff fine so that recalcitrants would see the error of their ways and learn to do their civic duty.
Stella showing her silky cutting skills

I couldn't help but feel overall that the grass cutting exercise was a bit of tokenism but that the meeting afterwards appeared to serve a useful purpose in managing wrongdoing. I did, however, feel uncomfortable at the social control aspect of dealing with the guy who didn't want to do what he was told which was reminiscent of scenes in societies much less democratic than Rwanda.