No longer a moto-taxi novice!

No longer a moto-taxi novice!
No longer a moto-taxi novice! It can be exhausting but it's great fun!

Monday, 28 November 2011

Showing the VSO flag in Nyakarambi.

My home-made rice sack banner.

Last week Mark and I, representing VSO, had to take part in a new event for KIrehe District which was interesting but also frustrating at times.  The Joint Action Development Forum is a council of members of the many international organisations, local charities and co-operatives which meets every month or so.  The general aim as I understand it is to try to make sure each organisation is working collaboratively and not just doing its own thing and also that each one is accountable for what it is doing.  The committee decided to put on an Accountability Day where all organisations would set up an exhibition to tell the public what they are doing.  Eventually this became two Open Days and the dates were set for last week.  Mark and I duly turned up on the first morning, first at 9.00 to find that the marquees were still being erected.  At 10.00 we decided to grab a space and try to get started.  The first challenge was the lack of walls dividing the areas of the marquee.  We saw that people were attaching lengths of cloth between the poles to divide up the area.

Awunick and Mark building our tent
Fortunately our friend, Awunick, a head teacher, was soon on the scene to help us and she expertly scrounged lengths of cloth and showed us how to wrap them round the poles and tie them with strips of cloth and the odd bent pin.

We then set to putting up our displays - rice sack posters with various workshop objectives, materials and activities we had used and some classroom activity posters.  Fastening rice sacks to cloth walls with duct tape is quite a challenge, especially as the wind sprang up and blew everything around.  Eventually we were satisfied with the walls but there was still no sign of the expected tables and chairs.  At that point we learned that each organisation was supposed to bring its own furniture!! After several conversations and phone calls which ranged from the pleading to the irate we spotted a man heading for us with a huge table balanced on his head, followed by some boys carrying chairs in the same way.  By about 11.00 we were ready to go but the exhibition field was still a hive of activity as the various organisations continued to work at their stands.

Members of the public were also drifting in and many children were enjoying the unexpected diversion.  Seeing me taking photos of the VSO stand, of course they wanted to have their picture taken too.  They are usually quite delighted to see the picture on the small camera screen and some of the expressions on their faces - giggling, surprise, amazement- are even better than those in the photo!

This girl with the baby on her back came back to get her brother into the picture

As each stand was ready we noticed that they were setting up their speaker systems and beginning to play music in the usual Rwandan way - that is so loud the sound is painfully distorted and the speakers sound as if they are about to blow up!  That was ok at first until we realised that there was no overall control of the noise and about half of the stands were soon competing to be the loudest.  The "Compassion" stand opposite us which is a Christian organisation committed to eradicating child poverty had the loudest speakers, banks of TV monitors, flashy folding display units and a gospel choir plus t-shirts and free caps to give away too. God's voice certainly echoed loudly round our ears hour after hour and compassion was the last thing we felt.  Mark and I are often horrified by the amour of money spent/wasted on material objects by some of these charities promoting their work, driving round in posh 4x4 cars.  It was virtually impossible to hold a normal conversation anywhere on the field and we had to shout at our visitors to be understood!

At the other extreme there were several small low key stands showing the work of co-operatives, for example a group of women displaying their craft work and their honey,

some small farmers showing their banana wine and others showing off the new "improved" bananas which are being grown near here.  They are the green ones which are used as a vegetable and the latest ones are about a foot long!  Recently you can also find large yellow bananas rather like the ones we have in the UK, but usually the sweet bananas are tiny, only about finger length.

Another interesting stand was a goat pen in which a couple of special goats was on display.  In Rwanda goats are raised by virtually everyone for meat, but these goats were for milking - a real revolution here.  Traditionally the people believe that a child given goat's milk will grow up to be stubborn and difficult and so there is not much demand for it.  I recently saw a documentary with a section showing a goat being milked and the Rwandans were in hysterics at the sight!  They find it difficult to believe that in the UK we breed goats primarily for the milk and cheese and don't eat them!

Partners in Health, a big US health NGO had the biggest stand, including a stage which featured in turn rap/ hip-hop singers dancing about, a gyrating dancing girl, actors playing out a moral tale about sugar daddies and contraception, followed by demonstrations of putting on a condom or femidom using realistic latex models - they are very up-front about protected sex here in the battle against HIV/AIDS and in attempting to lower the rate of teenage pregnancies.

By the way, I learned the other week that one way to make a really bouncy football is to wrap up an inflated condom in layers of old plastic bags all tied up with string - it's an improvement on the traditional balls made entirely of banana leaves and string. You have to admire their resourcefulness!

By about one o clock the rain started to come down heavily and we discovered that we had a depression in our tent which was filling up with water.  Fortunately the rain didn't last long and the sun soon dried up the wet.

As it was market day in Nyakarambi the people started to drift in after their shopping and selling and the place got very crowded and even noisier as the speakers boomed over the voices of the visitors.  Our stand was popular firstly for the slide show I put on showing general photos of school visits and some of training sessions - the crowd of three or four deep peering at the little screen of my mac.  When the computer battery died we set up a game of Connect 4, which was equally popular and we had children playing that constantly over the two days.

I should mention the electricity supply, which would make your hair stand on end.  During the first morning the electrician ran two wires right around the site from tent to tent, draping them over the metal poles.  He then came back and cut into the live wires to splice on a spur for our light bulb, leaving bare wires in the air above our heads.  Later he came back and spliced in a second bulb for outside the tent, leaving more bare wires dangling.  I guess we could have had a connection for the computer, as others had ones for their amplifiers and TV displays, but I'm glad we didn't having seen how the wiring was done!

Towards the end of the afternoon the event was officially opened by cutting a ribbon and the field filled up as more and more people came from the market or from work.  As darkness fell at 6.00 Mark and I emptied our table and went off leaving the displays in place, knowing that there would be security guards on duty all night.

The next morning the tent was pretty wet after rain in the night, but the wet rice sacks were still ok and most of the duct tape had held well.  It was a sunny morning and things soon dried up well.  The noise soon started up again and continued all day.  By then we had noticed that the official banner had the dates for three days and I was quite depressed at the thought of another long day in the din.  Mark and I each took an hour or so to go home and rest away from the noise and when I came back I learned that in fact the event would be finished the next morning, which made me feel better immediately!

We had a constant stream of visitors attracted in by the crowds of children gathered around the slide show or the Connect 4 game.  In the afternoon the mayor did a quick tour round (about 30 seconds with us!) and we even managed to get the District Education Officer to leave his computer screen and come for a look at our displays- I think he was very pleased with what he saw.  Another head teacher friend, Damien came to help us on the second day and Awunick was also around quite a lot too.

At the end of the day we packed up our table displays and left the walls with the posters.  The next morning turned out to be cold and wet and when Mark went to take down the display he found that two posters had disappeared.  They were the much admired examples of posters on rice sacks produced by a firm in Uganda called Mango Tree.  They employ artists to make rice sack posters, teaching resources and toys using local materials.  As well as the rice sacks they do lovely toy cars made from small plastic jerrycans and four bottle tops.

I think I've mentioned before the general absence of children's toys here - but here is one clever use of an old jerry can, which this boy seems to be really enjoying as a pull-along toy.  They use the same thing to make a kind of toboggan to slide down a dirt hill or even down a tarmac road in some places.

An empty stage and loud music has the same attraction for children everywhere!
Last week was also national tree planting week, so on the two last Saturdays for "umuganda" (community service) we were planting tiny seedlings of acacia trees all around the park area in front of the District Office.  The government here is concerned at the depletion of woodland as trees are cut for firewood or charcoal making and also for construction of houses, so there is a big campaign to plant trees everywhere as often as possible and severe penalties for felling trees without permission.  Last Umuganda we were out in a forest trimming trees to help them grow better and every scrap of twig or branch was collected by the women and children to take for firewood. 

For last month's "umuganda" we were out in a forest trimming trees to help them grow better and every scrap of twig or branch was collected by the women and children to take for firewood.

At the end of the work there was the usual meeting which is used for giving out notices, answering questions and we had the District Mayor to speak to us.  Eventually a man and a woman stepped forward and it was explained to us that the man was accusing his neighbour of beating her children and her husband.  The woman would have none of that, but many people from her village corroborated the man's evidence and her guilt was agreed.  The mayor asked them to reconcile their differences and the man duly apologised for having brought the accusation to the meeting.  Once again the woman was determined not to co-operate still insisting she was not to blame,  It seems that she is terrorising the village and doesn't confine her beating to her own family!  In the end the Mayor had to tell her that she is forbidden to hit anyone in her village and that if she does she will be arrested.  It was very interesting to see this kind of public airing of, grievances and how they are settled by the Rwandans.  The concept of reconciliation is very strong here and in schools there are "Unity and Reconciliation" clubs to try to make sure that the tensions which caused the genocide will never happen again.

Forest meeting after tree trimming "umuganda" to give notices of local interest

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Kazo Nursery School and Co-operative, Kibungo

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to visit a church and nursery school near Kibungo, about an hour from Nyakarambi by bus and moto taxi.  I had appealed to friends in Harrogate to help a local science teacher, Valens with his co-operative project and St Paul's Church came up with a donation thanks to the efforts of my friends Aileen and Erica.  The donation had been transferred to my bank account by Richard and I was able to take the cash to Kibungo in order to make a presentation to the co-operative on behalf of St Paul's.  Valens had told me about his project but what I had learned from him did not really prepare me for the morning's activities.  Valens met me in Kibungo and took me off with him on two moto taxis to the very far side of town, to a small village, where the church and school are located.  The church is the usual brick built walls with iron roof and bumpy stone floor, standing near the dusty road through the village.  A few parents were waiting for our arrival and the sound of children singing was coming from the church.  Valens explained that the Pastor of the church, Alphonse allowed them to run the nursery school in the church during the week and allowed the co-operative to use the kitchen and the church itself for their activities. 

We all assembled in the church just after nine o' clock, nursery children on one side, parents on the other and Valens made a welcome speech in English with a few phrases translated into KInyarwanda. 

Alphonse said a prayer and then I made a brief speech greeting them on behalf of St Paul's and presented the donation to Valens and Alphonse.  There were big smiles and applause from the parents and then the morning's activities began.

First of all one of the young parents showed us how he was teaching adults to read and write, using a blackboard which had been made on the wall of the church. The young mothers one by one proudly showed how they could read and write the letters of the alphabet, vowels and then consonants, using the blackboard.

Adult Literacy class for villagers from the church

 Teaching reading in schools in Rwanda is a whole area needing development as the techniques they use are very dated and long-winded.  Briefly they teach the letters one by one, beginning with the vowels (about one letter a week in P1).  Children have to say words like "abana" (children) but are only shown the letters they have learned already that is "a.a.a".  No letters can be shown until they have been taught and practised thoroughly.  This means that most children cannot learn to read or write their own name until months or even years after they start school!!  USAID and VSO are collaborating on a five year project starting soon to address methodology in literacy and numeracy and one of the biggest hurdles will be in getting the reading and writing programme reformed.  There is no culture of reading for pleasure in Rwanda - schools and colleges are where reading is done, purely for knowledge or information.  Even newspapers and magazines in Kinyarwanda can only be found in the big cities, certainly not in little Nyakarambi!  You rarely see anyone Rwandan reading a book and there is no print material in classrooms other than the rarely used text books.  One of the project aims is to develop a new reading scheme with graded readers written by locals, helped by writers' workshops, in the hope of making reading a pleasurable activity not just a task to be done.  It is no surprise to learn that the illiteracy rate is very high in Rwanda and children have no model of story reading to follow.  So the adult literacy class at this little church is an excellent initiative, helping those people aspire to a better life.

 Next the school children showed off their singing and newly learned English speaking skills, directed by the volunteer teachers, including the Pastor's wife, Betty. There were well over the 30 children Valens had told me, but they were all turned out in their best clothes and well-behaved. Their ages were about 18 months to 6 years plus a few babies crawling about or on their mother's back. 

We all went into the garden in front of the church to play a game in the already warm sunshine. 

 The game consisted of some chanting while one child walked around carrying a rolled up piece of cloth.  The aim was to place the cloth behind one of the children seated in the circle, then run off pursued by the recipient to see who could get back first to the empty place.  They all enjoyed themselves very much.
Meanwhile inside the church some of the women had been getting ready to demonstrate their tie-dye skills.  In the kitchen water was boiled on the wood fire and chemicals were mixed in plastic bowls.  At the same time other women were carefully folding two lengths of cloth and tying string around to create different patterns.  The hot water was added to the chemicals with much bubbling as it was stirred and the tied up cloths were dipped, one in purple and one in green dye. 

In no time at all the cloths were untied and the amazing patterns revealed.  The cloths were laid out in the sun on the grass to dry, while other women showed how the dried cloths would be ironed with a hot coals flat iron.

Valens explained that each cloth cost about 4,000RWF to make and could be sold, with great demand, on the little market near the church for 5,000RWF (about £5).  The process was quick, with many hands making light work and they are very happy with that level of profit as the cloths sell very quickly.

Spreading the newly dyed cloths in the sun to dry.

Next it was on to paint making - back to the smoky kitchen where more water was being boiled.  To my surprise Valens explained that one of the ingredients, whose scientific name I have forgotten comes from cassava flour, which everyone grows and eats almost every day.  It's a root vegetable, which they dry in the sunshine and then can eat boiled or grind into flour.  It is a very dry vegetable, which we find quite difficult to enjoy, even with a lot of sauce on it, but Africans seem to like it. 

The flour was used to make a big bowl of what is basically white sauce (or flour paste, like we used to make before glue sticks came along).  Another big drum held whiting (kaolin) which had been mixed with cold water and one of the men poured the paste into this and then two of them mixed it up thoroughly using their hands.  Next a few capfuls of blue pigment were added and the white sauce was transformed into paint.  All that was then needed was a few capfuls of PVA glue to make it water resistant and later some ammonia would be added, presumably to resist fungus and bacteria.  In no time at all the large drum was ready to be decanted into containers to go to market. 

Adding the pigment and stirring by hand

Adding PVA to make the paint water-resistant

Just across from the church a block of shops has been painted with their product and it looks just as good as the commercial versions.

Valens, who is only 22 years old and has three years experience as a science teacher had taught the villagers to carry out these processes and they are now able to do it independently - it is really amazing that he has created an effective co-operative in less than two years and has given these people a way to pay for their basic needs and especially to fund the nursery for their children.  Pastor Alphonse is clearly very active in the co-operative and in the nursery school (he and Betty have three girls and two boys of their own) and gives Valens his full support and encouragement.  As well as cloth dyeing and paint making, Valens has taught them to make soap and is planning to develop cement making from locally dug materials.

After the demonstrations we went back into the church, where the children sang some more song, more speeches were made and prayers were said for their benefactors.  The parents were so pleased they gave me some presents to take away - a small souvenir drum with the words "We love John" carved on the side, a traditional wooden milk container and a banana leaf picture showing a ceremonial basket being presented in front of some traditional huts with the words "Mwabaye intwari" - "you were heroes" - which must be addressed to the people of St Paul's Church, Harrogate.  The people at Kazo were so delighted to have that gift all the way from England to help them develop their craft activities and support their nursery school and the smiles and thanks were warm and sincere. 

Gifts from the Church Cooperative
 It would be wonderful if my experience and the photos you can see here were to encourage further links between these two churches and Harrogate.  I certainly intend to visit them again after my Christmas break in the UK to enjoy the warmth of their friendship and hospitality.  As Valens and I chatted over milky African tea (ichayi) and bread and honey I couldn't help feeling great admiration for how much this young man (only 22 years old!) had achieved for the people of this church.  What's more he has a science club at his school where pupils are also making soap and paint for the school community.  It's no wonder that he recently went to Kigali to be presented with a notebook computer as runner-up prize in the national best science teacher of the year competition!  There's no doubt he will go far in future!