Archive for October, 2010

Well the conference has officially ended and a good time was had by all. I don’t know that it achieved all that it set out to achieve but I certainly found it very informative and I think most appreciated the opportunity to network with an interesting group of people.

On Friday about  10 of us went to nearby Akagera National Park. It wasn’t as spectacular as Murchison Falls – apparently we were very lucky to see lions -a Ugandan girl next to me on the bus says she has been to many national parks but has never seen a lion in Uganda – but there were plenty of zebras and the elephants were much closer.  A big bull elephant was walking down the road directly towards our parked car, apparently doing his duty of defending the nearby females from potential agressors. After we reversed away from him a couple of times he left us alone.

On the way back one of our two hire cars broke an exhaust pipe. We stopped a small village to mend it with barb wire, and again were greeted by a group of children.

Jyotiman (Nepal) with boy

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found myself thinking I can’t believe I’m here and this is all happening. Friday night 12 of us went out to a fantastic restaurant (actually we had the entire restaurant to ourselves) owned by a guy from Nepal. I have no idea what my meal was called, but it included cashews, cottage cheese and grapes (on a bed of sliced tomatoes). In contrast to much of our past experience in Kigali, service as polished as you could ever wish to find anywhere.  With such a large group and such variety in the menu there was also a fair amount of sampling one another’s orders and some community ordered nan and rice (the menu included local food and western food as well as Indian food – though sometimes the spelling was a little odd – humburger). The bill came to 7000 rwandian francs each – around $12. After the meal we walked about 200 metres to find a place to catch a taxi – from in front of Hotel des Mille Collines (the hotel that the movie Hotel Rwanda was based on – though the actual movie was apparently filmed in South Africa )

On Saturday morning a group of us headed off to get some cash from the ATM (the hotel doesn’t take visa, it needed to be paid in cash), and visit the local market.The ATM didn’t work because it had run out of money, and the staff were busy hand counting he money to refill it.  Opposite the ATM it seemed that a cement floor of a building was being poured. By poured, I mean men and women climbed up a ladder carrying buckets of cement, unloaded and went back for another one.

Next stop was the market with the usual market assortment of everything from live chickens to plastic buckets. I was intrigued to find that the clothes are made on site using treadle sewing machines ie no power) and ironed using  the old style iron that gets its heat from the hot coals inside.

Back to the ATM – now working but limited to maximum withdrawals of $50 at a time, dispensing only the smallest demonination note – equivalent to $1.50. It would have been a horrendously large bundle of bills to carry around, so it was a trip into the main centre of Kigali and a bigger bank with 3 ATM’s – except that they didn’t work either. They were supposed to be fixed in twenty minutes time, but when the bank closed at around 5pm they still didn’t work – each one had an “out of order message” in spanish(????!!!!) It was starting to look as though I was going to have to hang around until Monday to withdraw money, but eventually we found a bank that worked.

Mobile phone recharging station at the bus depot

The bus trip back to Kampara was relatively uneventful – the TV worked,  and every person was allocated a numbered seat, although the windows leaked when it rained (fortunately not often) and rest stops consisted of roadside stops beside the road in the middle of nowhere alongside clumps of strategic bushes. Being already conspicous as the only white person on board I didn’t feel like drawing attention to myself further by joining those dashing for the bushes.

Once in Kampala I was picked up from the bus station by my local contact and host, Herman, and driven to his house, where it turns out that there is another volunteer my age – a retired nurse from UK. The house is spacious and comfortable, we share a large bedroom with a generously sized ensuite with a $400 fancy shower fitting and no hot water. Apparently the landlord won’t agree to fix it. If you ever feel the need to learn to take things as they come then may I suggest that a trip to Africa might do the trick!

What do you know – my Rwandian visa finally arrived!

I have relocated to a lower standard hotel room. It took them a couple of days to figure out that I was right when I said I wasn’t entitled to one of the block booked OLE rooms and was already booked independently.  It’s much the same as the other one, just slightly smaller. I still have a cupboard – now free standing instead of built in, a chest of drawers, but no computer desk. However I now have 9 coathangers instead of 2 and the fancy plumbed-in plug in the wash basin closes properly (unlike the previous room), making it easier to do some hand washing. There is no bathroom door – just the hinges where it used to be.

Continental breakfast seems to be invariably a thin omlette – sometimes cold by the time it arrives, bread toasted on one side, if at all, margarine spooned onto a dish, plus a small serving of fresh paw-paw, pineapple and a banana. Jam doesn’t seem to exist. There is tea and coffee, though sometimes they forget to put out the tea-bags, sometimes they forget the milk, and fetching them – or anything else that might be needed – typically takes about three to five minutes. Sometimes the milk is in a thermos flask and tastes like reconstituted milk, sometimes it is just a bowl of powdered milk alongside the sugar bowl. Although breakfast is included with the room, staff get agitated if you walk off without signing their book and giving your room number. Morning and afternoon tea, lunch and dinner are all included as part of the conference, the main meals typically consisting of a tasty mix of savoury rice, pasta, salads and a chunky meat casserole – presented in a serve-yourself style.

I’m giving the rest-rooms beside the restaurant section a big miss since the only ladies’ toilet doesn’t have a toilet seat. The whole hotel is a bizarre mix of quality fittings in some places and inadequate basics in others.

We’ve just finished the third day of the conference. Although there are officially 45 of us, in practice there are about 25 who seem to be attending all day, the others are locals involved in teaching and presumably have other commitments for most of the time. The core block of attendees come all corners of the globe – Ghana, Mexico, India, Uruguay, Nepal, Afghanistan, and USA are all represented, but by far the majority group is Rwandan.  They are very pleased that soon Kigali will have their first public library. Kofi, the guy from Ghana tells some of us that in his earlier days he would teach classes of 120. I forget how many students at the school, but 7000 rings a bell. The two guys from Nepal are fun. Jyoti used to work for the United Nations but now runs a private school near Kathmandu. I now have an open invitation to volunteer there for anything up to 3 months – no pay but free board an accomodation. Rabi, the other attendee from Nepal is a charismatic 35yo who despairs of the difficulty of improving in education in his homeland. He says that the teachers there are appointed via bribes, and once in the system stay there for life regardless of competence. In some areas they have XO computers ready to distribute to schools but government officials won’t let them distribute them. Tony is a retired 70’ish american

Tony (USA)

who is a total computer geek and technology wiz, frequently found in front of a little XO computer (the little green $100 laptops that are being distributed around the world), or rummaging around in a box of wires and fittings, who has apparently done a lot of work with OLE at Rishi valley in India. I’m the only crazy who came via the OLE internet website – the rest are all either OLE employees or connected with OLE in some way.  It’s an interesting and fun group.

Conference format is theoretically one person presenting their particular project, followed by a question session, and then discussion groups. In practice the question sessions usually go over time and the discussion groups don’t happen, and I know there are some here who prefer it that way. Regardless of country, many problems with education seem to be universal – difficulty controlling the quality of the teachers, resistence by strong teacher unions making changes difficult to implement, difficulty introducing computer technology effectively into the classroom, and in making the transition from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide at the side’ style of teaching.

Today included a visit to a primary school and to high school. The primary school class was 8yo children, supposedly having great fun using Teacher Mates – gameboy style educational computer games.

Teacher Mate

Students with Pablo (Uruguay)Uruguay already has one laptop per child - 400,000 of them!

As a demo of TeacherMate it was rather a flop, but the kids loved playing with our digital cameras.


High school teacher

At the secondary school the students were using the XO computers for a world geography session. Again, not really a dazzling demo of effective computer use, but very interesting seeing the class and talking to some of the teachers. All lessons are held in English – the quality of the english depends of the teacher’s english, which in most cases is such that you frequently need to rephrase a couple of times before you  are understood. There didn’t seem to be many textbooks.

Classes in Rwanda have 45 students, and students attend either the morning session or the afternoon session. Teachers start work at 7:20am and finish at 5:00 pm.  They earn $100 a month, which after tax (after the initial untaxed threshold tax is 20%) is just enough for basic living costs.  Rwanda is distributing 100,000 XO computers, one per child (ie 2 per class seat), and the detail of their plans for training staff, installing and maintaining the equipment, and developing a suitable curriculum is impressive. One of the biggest benefits of the computers is the ability to easily provide textbooks, reading materials and learning activities.  Apparently Microsoft heard that Rwanda was about to distribute computers with a non MS operating system and donated 600 computers, which by the sound of it are unlikely to find their way into the schools. Why confuse things with two different operating systems when they already have enough computers for every student?

Rabi (Nepal) and student copying waterbuffalo

( All the photos above except the last two were unposed candid photos – they are remarkably photogenic people).

We had lunch at the highschool with the school staff. Sometimes you get unexpected answers to simple questions, and my question about whether there were many cows in the region was one of those questions. I’d been puzzling over the fact that I hadn’t seen many cows, yet the countryside looks as though it would be a prime area for dairy cattle. The answer…..there are cattle, but not many, because in the genocide it wasn’t just the people who were killed, but all the animals were killed and property destroyed as well. They were still trying to rebuild the herd numbers. “We, ourselves, still can’t understand how it happened. We still feel the pain, and those who have family members who committed the crimes still feel the shame.” He went on to say (his english was excellent) that 100,000 people were tried for crimes after the war. At first they were tried by the conventional trial system, but the process was taking so long that they realised they would have to develop a new trial system to make sure that everyone was properly tried, which they did. The new system was a combination of the legal system they started using  the combined with their original tribal justice system that was part of their heritage. He was very proud of the fact that people accepted that they had to put the past behind them to move on. He said again that they were still bewildered by what had happened, and added with feeling “…but this I do know. It would never have happened if we hadn’t been colonised.”

Dinner is ready