Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The path not taken...

We had a tremendous thunder storm last night and it rained for hours and hours until morning. The rainy season has really begun! The storms here bring violent winds, brilliant flashes of lightning that go on and on, and the loudest, heaviest drum rolls of thunder I've ever heard anywhere. When the storms come at night I can't sleep, so I turn on the BBC world service and turn up the volume to hear it above the pounding rain.

It rained again this afternoon, leaving the paths too muddy to walk home. There's a wonderful track that starts just outside our office with enormous old eucalyptus trees, and as I walk down I breathe deeply enjoying their wonderful scent. The path dips down into the valley and then quickly turns up towards the area of town where I live, called Taba. It's a pleasant residential suburb with wide, unpaved roads and houses varying from modest to outrageous, inhabited by university professors, international NGO staff, and wealthier business owners. The photos above show the path, the one with the figure in the distance is taken near the office, the other one further down the track. Occasionally there are vervet monkeys playing in the pine trees on the right.

Monday, September 19, 2005

My friends in Kigali, Jean Pierre and Beata.
I forgot to add previously, that if you click on any of the photos, you'll get a larger version of it.
Land of smiles!

A typical week: no internet access at the office, and sporadic access at home. I had a pleasant weekend in Kigali (10th & 11th September), staying with friends Jean Pierre and Beata (see photo!), enjoying the rare luxury of a massage and pedicure, a superb Sunday barbeque lunch with a Japanese friend, and a visit to Jean Pierre’s uncle Stany. Somewhere along the way I picked up some nasty microbes which woke me at 4 am on Tuesday, propelling me into the bathroom and leading to a couple of days off work. I’ve now lost count how many times I’ve come down with food poisoning! I do seem to be somewhat more susceptible than others, but lest you think this only happens to lily-livered foreigners, I assure you that both Rwandan and other African friends suffer their fair share of stomach problems. In a society where few homes have running water, washing ones hands is not an automatic practice. The power cuts add to the problem, with poor refrigeration in restaurants leading to contaminated food.

But let me tell you about some of the good things in Rwanda! Just for a start, we have the most perfect climate in the world! If you don’t believe me, then take a look at the www.bbcworldservice.com website world weather. You’ll see that the temperature here is generally a pleasant 24 degrees centigrade, occasionally a few degrees higher or lower, dropping to a comfortable 15 degrees at night. Most days are sunny, cool in the shade, warm in the sun. Kigali is hotter than Butare, although it’s still possible to walk around in the middle of the day without becoming totally exhausted. The country is blessed with a rainy season that extends more or less from September to late May, allowing for two growing seasons, and even a third one on the flat valley floors, or the ‘marais’. Although there is malnutrition due to poverty and lack of nutritional knowledge, the type of famine threatening other countries in Africa is rare here (check www.fews.net for further details). Green is the predominant colour across the country, with the intensively cultivated hillsides only turning brown in patches during the short dry season. Avocados, a luxury for many of you, drip off the trees and people even feed them to their cats!

Maybe it’s all the sunshine and greenery that helps many keep a smile on their face. As I gaze out the car window on my way to work or during the drive from Butare up to Kigali, I often notice the smiles and laughter of people chatting together as they walk along the side of the road. Young children can often be seen dancing to some tune inside their heads, or running and shouting at each other while chasing a home-made football on their way home from school in the late afternoons. Other children, too many of them, are tending the family cow, fetching water, carrying firewood…

The rainy season is getting off to a late start, and we’ve had only three good rain showers since late August. But that’s been enough to jolt my garden into action and it’s now springing back to life. During the dry season the flowers disappear and the grass stops growing, but now flowers are appearing again, and I’ve planted the vegetable beds with tomatoes, spinach, aubergine, beetroot, green peppers, leeks, spring onions, and much more!

A delightful story from last week: the local Gacaca court takes place in Butare every Wednesday afternoon, but last week it began in the morning and lasted all day. When a Dutch friend called his usual taxi driver to get a ride to work (his wife had gone off to Kigali in the family car), the driver told him he couldn’t drive because of Gacaca (all business closes down during the time when the court is in session), however my friend could take the taxi for the day and drive himself!! So he did! And when I visited in the evening, the taxi was sitting in the driveway, waiting for the taxi driver to come and reclaim it.

And now I’d better get back to answering a few e-mails. It’s been wonderful hearing from you, and I always enjoy news from afar!

House for rent!

My house on the Big Island is finally ready for occupation again. If you know of anyone interested, please ask them to contact Debbie Laga at Day-Lum in Hilo. Mahalo!

(The photo below is my Hawaii house – as I said, I’m still learning how to post things properly on the blog!!)

Friday, September 09, 2005

Ange and David at work in our office. Posted by Picasa

What am I doing here?

I have enjoyed receiving all the messages and comments – thank you! I’m writing during what’s left of my lunch hour at the office, although the internet is down at the moment. With luck I’ll be able to post this tonight from home.

A few friends have asked about my work, so I’ll take a stab at describing what our project is all about. My title is ‘Education Adviser’ and I direct a small team (numbers vary from four to twelve, depending what stage of the project we’re on) working to provide support to primary schools. The purpose of the project is to increase primary school enrolment by encouraging collaboration between the schools, families, and communities. More specifically, we work with twelve primary schools in this province (right now we’re in Butare province, but the provinces are about to be reorganized, so that could change!) and we support government policy on Parent Teacher Associations to help the schools develop their PTAs.

Work progresses slowly. I arrived in May 2004 and my first four staff members (the researchers) were hired the following month. We then spent several months doing background training in education issues and writing our log frame (‘logical framework’ – a planning tool used by many development projects). This phase was rather like leading an exclusive seminar group at university and was highly enjoyable! Once we had a good idea of how we intended to run the project, or at least the first phase, we hired eight research assistants. We then spent several more months training: human rights, gender, HIV/AIDS, participatory rural appraisal (PRA), and research skills for social analysis. The research skills was a course I took at the University of East Anglia in 2003, which I adapted for my team. Interspersed with the training we carried out stakeholder analysis meetings with community members in the four districts where we work – we work with three schools in each of the four districts. The districts will also undergo re-organisation, so it’ll be interesting to see how that affects our work!

We finally began our first phase of research – collecting baseline data for the project in April this year. Apart from desk research, i.e. literature review and hunting for relevant materials on the internet, we carried out a survey using a questionnaire administered in person by members of the research team, individual interviews with a range of stakeholders (parents, teachers, local business owners, pupils, children who had dropped out of school or who had never attended school), and several focus group discussions. The research ended last month – August – and now team members are busy analysing a mountain of data.

Where does this lead us? We will soon have a very good idea about what is happening in practice in the schools, how well (or not) PTAs are functioning, why children are dropping out of school, parental attitudes towards education and towards involvement in their children’s education, and more! The information will then help us, together with community members, develop appropriate models for how PTAs should function in their communities. Then we get to work on assisting schools and communities to turn their PTAs into effective instruments to improve school management, increase enrolment, and increase retention rates (drop out rates are exceptionally high). This all sounds quite straightforward, but needs to be put in a context where the majority of parents are illiterate, schools do not have electricity or running water (let alone computers!), there are no telephones, and most head teachers don’t even have an office to themselves.

Time for me to get back to work. I’m posting a photograph of two of my research team – there are five of us sharing a small office. We have one laptop, mainly used by me, and then share three desktop computers in another room with the two other projects (community development and child survival).

Monday, September 05, 2005

I don't go anywhere without my mobile phone! Posted by Picasa
My first post, my first 'blog'. I've decided that this is the best way to keep in touch with friends and family. I've proved hopeless at keeping up with e-mail messages: my in-box contains a hundred or so unanswered letters. If you haven't heard from me for a while, you're not alone! The last letter I sent out to all my friends was well over a year ago. A few reasons for this: lack of time. Yes, like most people I know, I'm too busy having a life! Lack of electricity: Rwanda has been suffering severe power shortages for the past couple of years. We get lots of promises from Electrogaz but not much improvement. Actually, to be honest, the situation now is a lot better than it was at this time last year, when we might get one hour of power in 24 hours. We get more now, but it's totally unpredicatable, and often as not at night, i.e. from around 11 pm to 5 am. I'll write more about the power situation and how it affects lives in later posts. One more reason: the slow internet connection, and frequent disruptions to the phone connection. Back in March, for example, the laptop I'm using got zapped by a rogue bolt of lightning that fried the internal modem and speakers. No more internet. No more music! And yes, I was using one of those phone line surge protectors!

So I'm writing this to keep in touch with friends and family members, and for myself! I love writing, and have taken numerous writing workshops over the years. However I need more incentive to sit down and write, and I'm planning for this blog to give me that incentive. Your feedback is welcome and will encourage me (I hope!) to write more. I want to tell you something about everyday life in Rwanda (albeit, from my priviledged position as an expat worker), and will post as many photographs as I can.

That's it for the moment. Now I'm keen to see if I can get this posted and figure out how this blogging stuff actually works. Bear with me!!