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The End...

Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole in X-Factor bust-up shocker, Stacey from Essex crowned queen of the jungle, Widders dances her last dance, country comes to a frozen standstill, Argyle face winding-up order, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah...

These were the headlines that hit me smack in the face as I stepped foot back on British soil. The serious headlines were at best, depressing, and any related to television or ‘entertainment’ were frankly irritating and trivial. It dawned on me that nothing had really changed. Simon Cowell’s wallet grows fatter by the second, more D-list ‘celebrity’ nobodies cry, roll around in dirt, eat hideously large insects whilst we all sympathise at their intense ‘suffering’ all in the aid of preserving some level of fame (or infamy) and don’t get me started on Christmas! I’m no scrooge but if television and radio are to be believed it’s not Christmas without a certain level of excessive spending and eating. I was in a book shop the other day and was alarmed/bemused/enraged by the seemingly endless selection of autobiographies on offer. This Christmas we can read about the lives of the most intriguing characters of our various generations...Nelson Mandela, Keith Richards, Stephen Fry, Tony Blair, etc, etc...and, oh yes, I nearly forgot...Susan Boyle, Cheryl Cole and Bill Tarmey (aka Jack Duckworth!). Fascinating. So, this is England. Please excuse my moaning, whinging tone but I believe it’s called just returned from Africa syndrome!

As you may have guessed, I’m home, back in Torquay and back in the Western world. There are many reasons for me to feel extremely happy and relieved about this, though none of the examples given above contribute to this happiness! Please, don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to be home in many ways. Running water (hot and cold!), family and friends, cereal, people who understand how to queue, the ashes, a never-ending supply of biscuits, unpredictable weather reports (which usually lead to panic), the feeling of knowing that if there’s a power cut it will be met by bewildered gasps, pillows, carpeted floors, walking Jack, machine washed clothes, ant-proof doors, mint imperials, privacy and proper bedding!

I won’t bore you with too much emotional stuff as I’m sure if you bump into me I’ll tell you all about how I’m missing almost everything about Rwanda. To conclude this random collection of words, stories, observations, moans, contemplations, musings and nun-related shenanigans, I would like to sum up with a little description of the crucial moments which defined the year for me. So, in no particular order;

No.1 – Monday, 18th January 2010, 8.25am – Welcome to Save.

This was a fairly significant moment for me. In the late afternoon of the previous day I’d arrived at my school in Save for the first time and it was a bit of a whirlwind. I vividly remember catching a first look at my new home and after literally dumping my belongings in my new abode I was swiftly shuffled along to the Nun’s living quarters for a hot meal and prayers (beer optional). The next day I awoke and wandered nervously across to breakfast with the nuns and after we’d finished I made my way back to my new house. This was undoubtedly a defining moment for me. I sat on my new Rwandan bed and all I could do was sit there, still. The silence was intense, it suffocated me. I felt thoroughly lost and bewildered. Where was I? Who were these people? Why am I here? What do I do next? Why is there no water coming out of the taps? When will my stomach give way on me?!! I looked at the calendar, bad idea...roughly 300 days remained. This was it, the adventure started here. Fortunately it only took me about 10 minutes to get my head sorted and after giving myself a stern talking to I reminded myself this situation was thoroughly all my own doing. It had been my decision to come here and there was no backing out. I had a great deal of support of course in my preparations, but now for the most part I’d be faced with a host of individual challenges on a daily basis. As it happens it was these challenges which made the year. I’ll always remember this moment of complete uncertainty with immense fondness and as I sum up the experience it fills me with a great sense of achievement as I consider how I felt then and how I feel now.


No.2 – The reality of life after 1994 so plainly revealed

I always knew that by coming to live and work in Rwanda I would undoubtedly encounter painful remnants of the genocide. However, when it’s presented to you so clearly as it was one day at school it’s still immensely shocking. I’ve mentioned this story before but just to remind you, a student of mine handed me his CV and the first information presented to me about his life was the fact that in a family that once contained eight people, there are now just two. A father, three sons and two daughters - all victims of Rwanda’s period of violent madness. A mother and one young son left to somehow carry on living in a nation recovering from unprecedented levels of death and destruction. This remaining son is now nineteen and for the past year was a student of mine, trying to put the past behind him and forge a future in the new, peaceful and relatively secure Rwanda. Shortly before leaving the country I was invited to meet his mother who lives in Save and it was a humbling experience. She’s a warm, friendly lady who shortly after the genocide set up an organisation in the village for genocide victims. This isn’t a lone story either. Nationwide there are similar tales of great loss, trauma, sadness but also strength in adversity, courage and ultimately, hope.

No.3 – A leap into the unknown

I suppose this sums up my whole year really. I’m referring more specifically to the moment I dived headfirst off a bridge in Zimbabwe and plummeted 111 metres towards the Zambezi River! I’d never done a bungee jump before and if truth be told I’d never really ‘planned’ on ever doing one. This whole year was one of new experiences though and so perhaps doing the bungee jump perfectly symbolises 2010 for me. A giant leap into the unknown. Living in a new country (and continent!), meeting new people, ‘learning’ a new language, eating new food, encountering new problems, facing new tests, travelling to many new places and ultimately learning so many new things. There are many similarities between the bungee jump and my year in Rwanda. In both cases my brain took a battering as I weighed up the pros and cons. The decision to do it was a huge one. It posed a potential risk to my general wellbeing. The build up was long and stressful. It was expensive! I had no idea what to expect and I wasn’t quite sure how my mind or body would react to the experience. However, in both cases the outcome was far more positive than I could ever have predicted and now I’m in a position where I can look back and contemplate I’m able to smile and laugh about it and wonder why I was ever worried!


No.4 – An appointment with some relatives

This moment came quite recently, just days before I left Rwanda. As you probably well know, Rwanda is famous for two things – the two ‘g’s – genocide and gorillas. The first ‘g’ is clearly a real stigma on the country’s image and even though we’re sixteen years on from that it’s a still a word most closely associated with Rwanda. One day this will change but for now it’s something the nation has to live with. However, the second ‘g’ is far more positive and something all Rwandans can be proud of. The gorillas. They live in the forests of the Volcanoes National Park in the North West of the country and they’re crucial to the Rwandan economy. It’s an expensive attraction, $500 for non-residents, $250 for me with my working visa. Was it worth it? Well, the day begins very early as you meet your guides at ‘base camp’ and they put you into groups. Evan and I were lucky enough to grab a place in the Susa group, often the most sought after as it contains the greatest number of gorillas but they’re the furthest away which means you have to hike the longest distance to reach them. We were firmly in the mindset of the longer the hike the better. As I’ve reiterated many times throughout the year, Rwanda’s countryside is simply beautiful. I don’t know if my photos have done it justice but it truly is stunning and therefore any opportunity to spend as much time as possible engulfed in this little portion of heaven on earth is greatly received. The scene below is what we were met with at the start of the day, just as the early morning mist filled the many valleys before us. Below this is an image of two local boys who spend their lives up in the foothills of the volcanoes.

We trekked for around two hours, making our ascent and gradually leaving the early morning mist behind us. After hiking for around forty-five minutes, passing a number of traditional dwellings and wishing good morning to many local children who’d come to observe the daily foreign tourist spectacle, we reached the entrance to the forested area. It was at this point the trek turned ugly and the huge walking stick provided came into play. The ground was damp and treacherous due to the rainy season and after a short while we left the safety of the path behind us and went ‘off road’ making our way precariously into the deep bamboo undergrowth. The ascent wasn’t too bad but on the descent there were tourists slipping and sliding all over the place. It was like a scene from ‘It’s a knockout’ (or ‘Takeshi’s Castle’ for anyone too young to remember Stuart Hall’s classic bonanza of the bizarre and the ridiculous)!! My safari trip in Tanzania was incredible but this felt like the real deal. Scrambling and crawling through the dense scrub, experiencing Rwanda in its most natural state and at the end of this journey we’d spend one hour with one of the animal kingdom’s greatest wonders in their natural habitat.

The defining moment came for me though around two hours into the trek. We were walking in single file and I was at the front, just behind our guide. All of a sudden he paused, glanced to his right and then nonchalantly looked at me and nodded his head in that direction. It was a quite incredible moment. I approached the spot where the guide was standing and turned to where he was staring. I don’t think I’ve ever been so taken aback. About 10 metres away a huge silverback sat nestled in the bushes, minding his own business. He didn’t seem fazed at all that we’d disturbed his peace and quiet and merely carried on with what he was doing, which incidentally was keeping guard, whilst occasionally having a scratch. The hour that followed was pretty special. We saw three huge silverbacks, tiny babies and a number of other gorillas of varying sizes and ages, including a couple of frisky youngsters who spent most of the time play fighting and generally showing off to their audience! I’ll never forget that first glimpse of the silverback though, that single second of shock and amazement was worth the $250 alone.


No.5 – Thursday, 25 November 2010 – 8.20am

Ten months after arriving in Save this was the morning I left. I was waiting for the Headmistress to appear before we could set off in the school vehicle for Kigali and so I decided to take one last walk around the school grounds. I knew deep down that this would quite possibly be the last time I did this. I’d like to think one day I will return, even just for a visit but it’s difficult to know when this will be possible. So, I took a little stroll around the grounds and it was an eerie feeling. It was completely empty. The students had all returned home for their holidays and most of the teachers had gone too so it definitely felt like I’d come full circle as this was the situation which greeted me when I’d first arrived in Save months earlier. I felt sad. As we drove out of the village this sadness only increased and two hours later I was in Kigali and my short life in Save was over. It actually dawned on me some time later that this feeling of sadness was a very positive emotion. The fact I felt this way demonstrated to me that I’d really taken something from this year. It showed that I had enjoyed my time in Save and felt at home there. If I’d felt a huge sense of relief as I departed or been constantly dreaming of coming home it would’ve been a bad sign I feel. I felt content and personally vindicated in my decision to come to Rwanda.

The main 'road' into Save

So those are the moments which stood out for me from the past year. There are many others which were also particularly significant but those five were somehow the most symbolic. On that note I guess it’s time to say thanks for reading, if anyone out there still is! I enjoyed writing this blog immensely and I hope it gave you at the very least a small impression of just what life is like for a Plymouth Argyle supporter living in Rwanda! I’ve tried to be honest and to provide a real insight into my daily life and hopefully I’ve managed to demonstrate that although Rwanda does have an infamous past, its future is one of positivity and progress. Most people who return from Africa state how friendly the people were and how welcome they felt. I can’t disagree, this was my experience completely. From my minimal time(because in one year you barely touch the surface of what Africa has to offer) I encountered a continent that knows it has problems, knows it’s not perfect and knows the future is uncertain but despite all of this it’s a continent that won’t give up. For some people every day is a real fight yet somehow they always seem to face it with a smile on their face. I know I’ll never forget Save and Rwanda and this little East African nation will always tug at me and fill me with intrigue.

I feel the two quotes below sum up my year quite appropriately. The second perhaps is apt for this blog!

‘If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home. You are like a pebble thrown into water; you become wet on the surface, but are never part of the water’ – James Albert Michener
‘Nothing shortens a journey so pleasantly as an account of misfortunes at which the hearer is permitted to laugh.’ – Quentin Crisp


Tanzania is different from Rwanda. I won’t lie, after three weeks spent in Tanzania and Zanzibar I was fairly relieved to land back at Kigali airport and set foot on Rwandan soil once again. I guess it reflects how long I’ve been here now but it felt like I’d come home. Don’t get me wrong I had a fantastic time travelling, it’s just Tanzania and Zanzibar caught the tourist bug many years ago and are therefore pros in reaping the vast benefits this brings. They are well aware that every day bus, boat and planeloads of new visitors will enter the country, many with the capacity to spend a serious amount of money. Thus, walking anywhere became a general hassle and inconvenience and approximately every 10 metres you’re met with, ‘Rafiki, jambo, where are you from, what is your name, where are you going?’ And once the pleasantries are over its invariably followed by, ‘Do you need transport, do you want to do a tour of the caves, do you want to buy my wooden elephant, do you want this half-eaten banana I just scraped from the floor, etc, etc’. I absolutely understand people have to make money, but in Rwanda if you politely say no people generally stop bothering you. In Tanzania however it always seemed to require giving a firm refusal several times and this can often go one of two ways. Either the person will eventually leave you alone, or, as Mitesh and I found out you risk aggravating someone and then things get ugly.

This happened to us at the bus station in Dar-es-Salaam. We had just arrived there after an all night ferry from Zanzibar and were therefore tired and in no mood for any unrequested ‘help’. We knew which bus company we wanted to use but as we arrived at the bus station this guy swooped on us. He told us the company we wanted to use was full and therefore he’d take us to a company he knew we could get tickets. In Tanzania there are guys like this in all the tourist places. They don’t work for anyone in particular but make their money by receiving commission by bringing customers to different companies. He looked shady as it was and by this point we’d been in Tanzania for nearly three weeks and knew the drill. He’d take us somewhere, we’d pay over the odds for tickets and he’d bank a little profit. So we told him straight (but fairly politely) no thanks. The guy flipped. He started ranting and raving at us and everything that came out of his mouth was generally bizarre! In summary he claimed we thought we were Barack Obama, that he could hit us if he wanted, that we thought he was a monkey and that we were ‘stupid’. Interspersed between these nuggets of wisdom were many, many swear words and overall it was an unsavoury episode. We ended up on a bus and weren’t too sad to be leaving Dar-es-Salaam.

So that’s one bad example of the Tanzanian tourist trap. Fortunately this one minor episode didn’t cloud my judgement entirely as I was lucky enough to be on the end of a completely opposite experience a week or so earlier. I was in the middle of a safari trip and we’d stopped off in a small village. Our excursion for the morning was a guided walk around the community by Paolo, a local brick-maker and tour guide. The guy was a legend. The model of hospitality and a personality defined by warmth, humour and complete ease. His tour culminated at his own home and his wife had a fantastic meal of beans and corn waiting for us as we arrived. It was delicious and as we ate Paolo told us everything about his life and his family and it was as if we were old acquaintances catching up on the news. He’s also a terrific example of someone who was willing to really work to improve his circumstances. He told us about how he’d had no access to education as a child but a few years ago he decided to attend a local college and take an English course. He had to do this in the evenings as he worked at the local brick factory and still had to support his wife and six children. It paid off though as his level of English is very competent now and this has enabled him to work as a guide when he’s not making bricks and provides valuable extra income.

Here’s a photo of me with Paolo and two of his sons.

Tanzania was an intriguing trip overall. There were a few defining sights for me. I guess the first would have to be when we had just entered Serengeti National Park and were driving towards our campsite on the first night of safari. As we came along the road our guide casually slowed to a stop and pointed out a buffalo, freshly hunted and killed and now providing dinner for around fifteen hungry lions and their cubs. We were parked a mere few feet away and it was a special sight to behold. The tragedy of the natural world. Minutes earlier this poor buffalo had been going about its business and here it was now being devoured by lions and ogled at by a bunch of tourists armed with cameras, exclaiming what a wonderful and fascinating sight it was. I was one of the tourists and felt the same as everyone else. The crazy and extremely unnerving thing is that at the very time I was on my safari a poor chap on safari in Zimbabwe suffered the same fate as this buffalo as he took a shower in his campsite. My Mum told me that she was checking the internet at the time and read the headline, ‘Man killed by lions on safari’ and it caused her several moments of concern! It certainly makes you think though. Our campsite for the first two nights had no real protection from wild animals and the shower block was a good 200 metre walk from the tents. Our guides told us lions are more scared of us than we should be of them and that they’re no real threat. I trusted them so had no qualms about taking a lone stroll down to the showers. I wonder if this guy in Zimbabwe was given the same advice. Grim.

The lions tucking in

Another sight which caught my eye was that of some male members of the Maasai tribe in Tanzania. Actually, it was an accumulation of Maasai sightings which made me laugh as they were perfect representations of just how sometimes, however much we want to hold on to traditional beliefs and values, the modern world has this overwhelming and relentless power of imposing itself on us. Firstly, we were driving towards Ngorongora Crater National Park along a main road and as we passed a bar just by the side of the road I noticed a group of Maasai guys outside involved in a game of pool. I may well be wrong but I’m not sure this is part of Maasai culture! The second example came as we visited a Maasai village. We were treated to a traditional dance performance and all the women formed a circle. What caught my eye though was just behind the circle were several plastic bags. Again, it had never occurred to me that this ancient tribe would permit the use of such unnatural and distinctly modern materials. My favourite moment came though during the dance. As we looked on the Maasai played out what seemed like a traditional ritual of the women forming a large circle and at certain points three or four women would break from it and approach the men. The men were performing their customary jumping dance when suddenly a mobile phone started ringing. One chap pulled it from his belt, answered it and then casually walked across the circle and passed it to one of the women. ‘It’s for you’! She wasn’t on the phone long. I imagine she cut the conversation short with an explanation along the lines of ‘can’t talk now...got those tourists here again, gawking at us but don’t worry we’ll get them to dance in a minute, that’ll pass the time’. My final Maasai-related bewilderment came a little later in the trip on Zanzibar. We were relaxing at the beach and noticed quite a few Maasai guys strolling along chatting with tourists. They cut an unconventional image however as nearly all of them were sporting Kanye West style, huge, white sunglasses. We spoke to a couple of them and they told us they work as security guards at an upmarket resort for Italian tourists. Once again it was a little tough for my brain to comprehend. These guys are Maasai. They’re part of an ancient and highly traditional culture and society yet instead of following their forefathers and practicing the ancient art of cow-herding and hunting, they end up on a beach in Zanzibar making sure bronze Italian tourists can sunbathe in peace! Another example of just how the modern world somehow always manages to impose itself.

Maasai boys

One of my favourite moments of the trip came on a day trip in Zanzibar. We were staying in the village of Jambiani on the Eastern coast of the island and we met a local (barrel-shaped) guy in the street. After a lot of hard selling on his part and a little bit of negotiation on ours, we agreed to do a trip the next morning to swim with dolphins. Now, our trip organiser, Abdul, is quite possibly the most excited man I’ve ever met. He picked us up at 6.00am and after a short drive we hauled ourselves onto a small motorboat loaded with flippers, snorkels and the dreams of one Brit, one American, one Swiss German, two Hungarians and a Slovenian of swimming with actual dolphins. I won’t lie, I was a little dubious that Abdul could make this happen but he seemed certain and already fairly fidgety with excitement so I figured we may as well just go with it. We headed out to sea and as we made our way to the horizon Abdul was looking about with a real air of expectation. We were warm, the dolphins were close. Abdul told us to ready ourselves as the dolphins are quick and once they appear we need to maximise our chances of catching them. Then all of a sudden there was a fin and another and then a third and then a huge scream of ‘GO!!!’ from Abdul and before we knew it all we could see was Abdul’s rear end disappearing over the side of the boat. He’d gone, left us and after a huge splash, which almost overturned our vessel, emerged some moments later waving his arms and screaming ‘Come on!’ and then disappearing under the water once again. The whole episode reminded me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for some reason. It reminded me specifically of the moment Augustus Gloop discovers the river of chocolate and falls head first into it. Abdul was a similar shape and displayed the identical face to Augustus when he first spies the chocolate! Mitesh and I quickly strapped on our snorkels and flippers and dived in. We both experienced similar problems...our snorkels didn’t work, or rather, we weren’t operating them correctly and so both ended up drinking a substantial amount of seawater. Added to this was the fact we’d never swam with flippers before and so by the time we’d got our bearings and managed to avoid drowning, the dolphins were halfway to Madagascar! Fortunately we were scooped back onto the boat and we followed the dolphins for a while longer and were able to dive in two or three more times and having ditched the flippers and the snorkel whilst just using the goggles we were able to get a great view of the dolphins and managed to swim amongst them which was a fantastic experience. The huge intake of seawater came back to haunt Mitesh however and as our little boat pulled back into shore I looked back to find him leant over the side suffering from the effects of the water coupled with the rough seas! On the way back our vehicle broke down. Abdul was very apologetic and claimed it was an engine problem. I think the fuel dial sitting on empty was probably the reason but having delivered on his promise of swimming with the dolphins I didn’t want to be rude by pointing this out to him!

Mitesh and I in the Indian ocean

After Zanzibar we made our way to Moshi, a town in the central north of Tanzania. We had a couple of days to spare and our plan was to try and get a decent view of Kilimanjaro which towers over the town. So, we set off one morning and took a local bus to a nearby village and started walking. We walked for quite a while with the anticipation that eventually Kilimanjaro would emerge out of the clouds like a towering colossus. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way and after walking for a good two hours we resigned ourselves to the fact that the cloud cover was too dense and the only thing to do was wait and hope it cleared. So we waited...and we waited...and we waited. If anything the cloud became thicker. One of the great wonders of the world was right before us but it was totally invisible. We sat for about an hour and a few locals came out to peer at us and were most probably bemused as to why we had plonked ourselves down in this spot. Eventually a land rover drove past and the guy driving it was clearly a little confused as well. Eventually he drove past us again and offered to give us a ride back to Moshi. I think he thought we were lost and were just sat in anticipation that help would eventually arrive! So we jumped into his vehicle and he drove us back to Moshi. By this point we’d been searching for Kilimanjaro for most of the day. The good Samaritan who picked us up turned out to be a pretty interesting guy however. He was born in the UK but moved to Tanzania with his family when he was five. He therefore spoke perfect Swahili and had an East African accent which was a little surreal. He works on as an engineer on a water provision project in Tanzania and from what he was telling us it’s a great scheme, providing clean drinking water to local people for incredibly cheap prices. He also told us the cloud would clear on the way back and we’d probably get a glimpse of the top of Kilimanjaro. He was right. Ten minutes later in the distance we could see the snow-covered tip of the mountain poking out between the clouds. It had taken us a whole day of searching but our patience had paid off. This is the great thing about travelling as I’ve mentioned before, you see the most random places, meet the most random people and at the end of it all you have some pretty awesome memories.

So that was Tanzania and Zanzibar. They’re both great places and totally worth visiting but as I said before it was a nice feeling stepping foot back on Rwandan soil. There’s just something about this little country!

The safari group


There’s only one word to describe it....debacle! No, I’m not talking about the current state of Argyle or the fact I’ve been informed Paul Daniels is a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. It was the exam period once again at my school and this is the only word that comes into my head when attempting to portray a truthful and representative description of the process. I should be used to it by now seeing as I’ve had two previous experiences but on this occasion it came close to pushing me over the edge! I’ll explain how it works. During the exams students are assigned a room in which they’ll take all of their exams. Class groups are usually split in two to prevent cheating and each day, as teachers, we are assigned an exam room to supervise. At this point everything is hunky dory. Everyone knows where they should be, at what time and which classes they’re supervising. There’s a quick hymn and a prayer and we hand each student their answer papers, still no mishaps. Then comes the crucial moment...the question papers are distributed and this is the exact moment the whole procedure slips over the edge of the cliff into the deep ravine below...a place I like to call the ‘chasm of craziness’ or the ‘abyss of adversity’ OR the ‘gorge of gobbledygook’. Anyway, enough of that. There are two main reasons for the disaster. Number one is the secretary and number two is her typewriter. Each are equally responsible I fear. I genuinely believe if they worked as two separate entities we’d be fine, but when you bring the two together it’s a lethal combination. Much like Paul and Barry Chuckle or Tony Blair and a microphone. So, the question papers are handed out and for five or ten minutes there’s relative calm, but as the students peruse the questions you can visibly see the confusion building in their eyes. All it takes is one hand to go up and the rest follow and at that point the life of every teacher on exam duty that day is about to become a chaotic mess.

The reason for this chaos is the fact that every exam paper has a host of mistakes on it. Words missing, letters missing, numbers missing, questions missing, the odd decimal point in the wrong place, one too many zeros, a CO₂ instead of a H₂O, etc, etc. It doesn’t matter how clearly a teacher writes his or her exam paper it will undoubtedly end up wrong in some way. Now, the problem is, as teachers we’re assigned random classrooms so you don’t generally end up in a room where your exam subject is taking place. This means that when a student has a query about one of the questions you’re generally unable to answer it and are forced to seek assistance. Help is not always at hand however, or if it is the saviour is never in a rush to come to your rescue. I often think carrier pigeon would’ve been the most efficient way of sending a plea for help. I was in this predicament a couple of times. On one occasion I was the lone teacher in a room hosting a senior four chemistry exam and a senior two Swahili exam. You can imagine my face when students were seeking clarification about the questions. One of the Senior Two students raised her hand to ask a question and when she looked up and remembered I was the supervising teacher she just laughed and got back to work. I couldn’t help smirking myself. The funny thing is my knowledge of Swahili is probably on a par, if not better, than my understanding of chemistry! The only way to remedy the situation is for each teacher to travel from classroom to classroom correcting their own papers during the actual exam. The end result is a mass of classroom hopping teachers frantically running around the school screaming words like ‘long shore drift, carbon monoxide, the Battle of Waterloo, the thorax, Bill Gates, the Treaty of Versailles, soil erosion, if x is 17 what is y?’, and so on and so forth.

I tried to prepare myself for the madness and even endeavoured to avoid it. I typed all of my exam papers and handed them to the Head of Studies and emphasised all the secretary need do was photocopy them. Unfortunately, as I’ve found a few times this year when it comes to school logistics and procedures, common sense doesn’t always prevail. Instead of saving the secretary a fair amount of work by not having to retype my four exam papers, she did in fact have to retype them and not only that, she thought she’d make the lives of my students even more uncomfortable by producing exam papers riddled with errors. She spelt words wrong, missed out crucial words and what made me most frustrated was one whole question had been omitted completely. I had to spend a good hour visiting four different classrooms to sort the mess and to solve the mystery of the missing question eleven. It’s a fairly ridiculous scenario when students are trying to do an exam and you have to constantly interrupt the silence with entirely avoidable problems. Sometimes there’s just no point trying to help. As one volunteer advised me way back in the early part of the year...’stop making sense’!

Staying on the subjects of exams for a little longer, it really can be quite amusing at times when you make comparisons with the UK. For example, during one exam I was supervising, our room was visited by a huge flying insect, which looked like a bee. However, imagine your average bee back home and multiply it by five, that’s how gigantic this thing was. I’ll be honest, it freaked me out. I feel it potentially had the size, strength and will to overpower me and do some damage. I felt like a real wimp moving from one side of the class to the other in order to avoid this beast but it really was a menace. The students couldn’t care less, I guess they’re oblivious to most interruptions and noise due to the reasons mentioned above. One girl did have the same look in her eyes as I had and I think at one point we both realised this. Eventually it found its way out and the student and I shared a little relieved glance. Most classrooms are often visited by all manner of flying insects and it’s just something you have to get used to. This particular bee took it to another level though. In the same exam I experienced another of the classic moments associated with being a ‘Muzungu’ here. As I turned to look out of the window I suddenly realised that peering through a crack were a group of around eight small kids. I’m not sure how long they’d been there but they were mesmerized, clearly baffled by my presence. We stared at each other for a while and then I felt a bit mean so I cracked a little smile and gave them a wave. Half the group ran off petrified whilst the others continued to look baffled! They returned a couple of times just to check that their eyes hadn’t deceived them and I was in fact real. I guess I should count myself lucky as these little incidences were minor compared to what Kyle, another volunteer, had to put up with. Apparently during his exams it was common for chickens to wander in and out of the exam rooms and peck about under the desk, around the feet of the students, who once again, were generally oblivious! Ah, I’m going to miss this country!

Speaking of which I feel it may be a good time to mention the things I’ll miss about this country and the things I won’t miss. I’ll start with the latter. Some are self-explanatory but others require a little clarification.

Things I won’t miss about Rwanda 

1. The impossibility of simple requests –the answer to most questions being, ‘It is not possible’! This is often the case with anything relating to school. Sometimes you want to scream ‘but it is possible, you just can’t be bothered to exercise the slightest effort to make it possible!!!’

2. Phone number requests – people requesting my phone number and after giving it to them not hearing from them for months until one August night they call you randomly at 3.00am and greet you with the words ‘hello, this is Franҫois, I met you on the bus to Butare...in April!

3. A new species of insect every day – It’s been a bit of a phenomenon this year. Every day I seem to discover a new insect either in the yard or in my house. They come in all shapes and sizes and often I discover them as they’re crawling over me on the bus.

4. My sleeping bag – It has served me well this year but I feel it needs to be ceremoniously burned before I return to the UK!

5. Rice, pasta and tins of tomato paste – every day....every single day...

6. Collecting water – Although I’m sure I’ll look back on this with fond memories, there have been times when this has been a bit of a pain. Mainly because in walking back to my house with two full jerry cans my arms are unable to function for a good hour afterwards! It has taught me a valuable lesson about water management and conservation though.

7. Deafening radio on buses – I’ve mentioned this in previous updates but this has been a real pet hate this year. I’m trying to enjoy a bus journey by staring out of the window at the stunning scenery whilst listening to the marvels of Tom Jones and Boney M (!!) yet all I can hear is Kinyarwanda radio programmes which consist of some guy shouting and laughing heartily interspersed with hip hop music, religious sermons or if you’re really unlucky...Celine Dion.

8. Rice rocks and grit – I eat a lot of rice here but the first part of preparing a meal is sifting through the rice to remove a whole host of alien objects which include small rocks, twigs, grit and if you’re lucky, very small bugs. It’s an intricate task and I often feel like one of those monkeys picking the fleas out of the fur of another monkey!

9. Incredibly bad time-keeping – This country appears to be notorious for lacking watches and hence any meeting will not commence until at least two hours after the scheduled start time.

10. Towel theft – In attempting to keep the ants from entering the house I blocked both doors with towels. Unfortunately every time I leave my house for more than a day the towels are gone. I thought I’d cracked the problem by trapping the corner of the towel in the door but it turns out the towel thief is smarter than me and simply came along with a knife and cut the towel free!

11. Random opening and closing of shops – There is no logic to this.

12. Random public holidays – although very welcome, they’re an enigma. It’s impossible to plan anything as they’re announced the night before the actual holiday...on the radio...in Kinyarwanda.

13. Staring – Even after living in Save for ten months now I’m still stared at from the moment I leave my house! The staring isn’t subtle either; it doesn’t half make you paranoid!

14. Bluntness when it comes to weight – I think I mentioned the student who called me ‘fat’ when I returned for the third term, well, last week one of the nuns stopped to talk to me and after a minute or two exclaimed with a big grin on her face, ‘John, you’re big!’, whilst blowing her cheeks out as if to impersonate a sumo wrestler! I’m getting the running shoes on as soon as I get home. There’s nothing like a straight-talking nun to get you motivated!

15. Sister Immaculée – my headmistress – no need to elaborate. I don’t want to waste my time.

16. Ants – again, very little need to elaborate here. I’ve said all I have to say about the ants. They won, I lost and they’ll be here long after I leave.

17. Mosquitoes

18. Having a western-style toilet but no running water to fill it – grim, let me tell you.

19. Having to wear a head torch every time I visit the bathroom (even during the day)

20. MUZUNGU!! – No explanation required again really, but if I had a pound for every time I heard this word I’d be able to clear all third world debt and spend the rest of my days living on a luxury yacht whilst monkey butlers served me grapes. The term is often proceeded by one of the following: give me money, give me chocolate, give me sweets, I love you (often from men), where are you going, where have you come from, where do you live...I will visit you, good morning (usually in late afternoon/early evening) and my all time favourite, Muzungu, bonsoir! (when greeted by one of the nuns!).

And now, more importantly...

Things I WILL miss about Rwanda

1. My students – They’ve often made me smile, laugh, feel bewildered, frustrated, wholly inadequate and I have so admiration for all of them.

2. The stunning scenery – I’ve mentioned it many times but I never get tired of seeing the rolling green hills which are the home for so many people. I’ll never forget the moment we left Kigali for the first time way back in January and made a steep ascent out of the city. For me it felt like the Rwanda experience began at that exact moment as the full beauty of Rwanda revealed itself the higher we climbed.

3. The night sky – The moon and the stars are so bright here. There have been many times I’ve been walking back to my house along the dirt road and haven’t needed a torch as the moonlight has guided me.

4. Save, the village – There are times when Save feels like an imposing, alien place in which I’m a complete stranger. However, this feeling is regularly counteracted by interactions with local people which can make me feel part of the community. I’ll never forget this place and the fact it was my home for nearly a year.

5. Collecting rainwater – When you have to collect your water in jerry cans there’s no better feeling than a torrential downpour! As the heavens open it’s amazing how much water you can collect with a plastic bowl and a funnel. It’s a rewarding and therapeutic experience and the next time you have a cup of tea or cook up some pasta you have the warm, rewarding feeling of knowing you had to work for that water!

6. A blackboard and chalk – Although ending up a mess with chalk covering every item of clothing by the end of the day, there’s just something quite traditional and endearing about entering a classroom and conducting a lesson armed only with a piece of chalk, a blackboard and your brain.

7. Random questions – It’s always interesting to receive questions here, especially from students. The unpredictability is a constant challenge.

8. Tea – The tea served at school during morning break has been a lifesaver. Essentially a concoction of full fat milk and far too much sugar, it’s a welcome energy boost at a much needed time!

9. No fixed prices – I think it’ll be a shock to return home and to find most prices are fixed and there’s no room for manoeuvre. I’ve come to relish the challenge that greets you upon any transaction here in Rwanda. Things became a lot more interesting once I learnt the numbers in Kinyarwanda and locals realised I wasn’t just a naive tourist.

10. Amandazis and Chapattis – Two of my favourite foods here. An amandazi is basically a round ball of sweet dough and is incredibly cheap but filling. I cut them out of my diet a while back though upon hearing they’re called ‘fat cakes’ in South Africa! Chapattis are no less delicious and are the perfect accompaniment to a nice hot cup of icyayi.

11. Peace and tranquillity – Living in a small African village has been a peaceful and often relaxing experience. There’s no traffic apart from the bicycle taxis and often the silence is broken only by the chirp of a small bird or the chopping of wood by one of the workers from nearby homes.

12. Goats – I mentioned my love for goats in a previous update. Since then I’m even more determined to own a goat. Hilarious, absolutely hilarious.

13. Small victories – Living here can be so unpredictable. Every time you turn on a light or go to boil the kettle you’re never 100% sure if the electricity will be fully functioning. You can go to the local shop in the hope of buying some bread or some bananas and find they’re all out or even worse, the shop is closed! You can never guarantee anything here and therefore when you accomplish anything it can often feel like a significant success.

14. Music and dancing – Rwandans love to sing and they love to dance and I love hearing and seeing them do both. I’m less keen at participating...

15. My fellow WorldTeach volunteers – I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been placed with a group of fantastic other volunteers. It has made this year so much easier as we’ve been able to meet regularly and share our experiences.

16. Kinyarwanda – Although I wouldn’t say I know enough of the local language to really engage in any significant communication, it has been nice to learn some words to get by. It’s amazing how far you can get and how different situations can be by knowing just a few basic words and phrases. You can encounter a stony faced local who views you with suspicion but once you bring in some Kinyarwanda their face changes completely and it’s as if the ice encasing their persona melts completely.

17. The market – The market is always an experience...sometimes good, sometimes bad. But whatever happens you can always guarantee it’ll be interesting. Somehow I feel the shopping experience at Tesco or Sainsbury’s just won’t quite compare!

18. The air raid siren – Any significant point in the school day is marked by the sounding of the 1940s air raid siren. The start of the school day, the end of a period, break time, lunch time, etc, etc. It’s so loud I can hear it when I’m in my house and one day I was buying bread in a shop at the other end of the village and I could still hear the siren! It first sounds at 5.30am as the students have to wake for early morning prayers.

19. The school library – I’ve probably mentioned this before but our school library is pretty impressive. The English section has given me a constant supply of reading. Wuthering Heights definitely stands out as one of my favourite books in the library.

20. The banana gamble – Buying bananas here is a constant mystery. You never know quite what you’re going to find when you peel them. One day it can be a perfectly edible fruit, yet the next day under the peel you find a brown, squishy slime, barely fit for a banana custard. Invariably it’s the second scenario but this makes the jubilation of finding a decent banana even more gratifying.

21. Moto rides – A lot of the time travelling around towns and villages here in Rwanda is done by small motorbikes. They’re cheap, quick and good fun.

22. Writing my blog – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing this hotchpotch of words and stories. It has kept me busy for the whole year and the most important thing for me is that I have a fairly comprehensive account of everything of any interest which has happened to me this year.

23. Lizards – I have a lot of respect for these guys. They tend to keep themselves to themselves and never impose upon my space. Often I’ll see them just clinging to the wall going about their business of clearing the house of insects. They’re meticulous in their work and resolute, never shirking a challenge.

24. Being a Muzungu – I know I also included this in the things I won’t miss section but I feel in some ways I’ll miss this. Being a muzungu gives you certain powers. For example, you can plead ignorance in many situations and work it to your advantage. People are always very willing to help you if there’s a problem. You never feel lonely as you can’t leave your house without being waved at or greeted. It has its downsides but there are a few upsides too.

25. Being a teacher in Africa – This seems a good way to sum up, but the whole experience of being a teacher in Africa has been an endless crazy journey. The year has been a bit of a whirlwind and somehow I don’t imagine I’ll have another job in my life which quite resembles this.

So, another update done and another step closer to returning to the UK. I leave for Tanzania on Friday (29th Oct) for a couple of weeks of travelling and then return to Save in mid to late November to completely move out of my house. The goodbyes to my students and fellow teachers are pretty much done and so there ends a significant period of my life. I won’t lie, the past few days have been a little heart-wrenching but that’s life.

Until next time, whenever that may be, Mwirirwe!

As I descended the cobbled driveway on the back of the motorbike taxi and we drove adjacent to the sports pitch, it was an unusual but inspiring sight that Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham himself would’ve been proud of. There was a hive of activity as several small groups of students were engrossed in their own games. Some were clutching plastic bats, frantically running between two sets of plastic stumps whilst others screamed excitedly to their colleagues to fetch the ball and throw it as hard as they could. In another area of the pitch students stood facing each other, eighteen feet apart as they hurled a ball between themselves, taking care to follow the instructions they’d been given. Keep your head still, your eyes on the target, your arm straight and high in the air and release the ball once your arm is at full stretch. I was witnessing the early stages of cricket development in Rwanda. Guiding all of these young Rwandan students were five volunteer cricket coaches from the UK-based charity, ‘Cricket Without Boundaries’ (CWB).

They’re spending two weeks in the country to assist the Rwandan Cricket Association (RCA) with the development of the sport within a number of schools, mainly in the capital, Kigali. They’ve brought a large number of starter cricket sets to enable schools to continue playing and developing the game once they leave. They’ve also spent time coaching local teachers and school staff basic coaching skills to enable them to pass this onto students for many years to come. If the evidence I observed is anything to go by the game has a bright future here in Rwanda. Cricket promotion and education is not the charity’s only mission however. They combine their coaching sessions with HIV/Aids awareness instruction as like many developing countries Rwanda faces a significant problem with the spread of the disease. Educating young people here on how to prevent this is paramount to the country’s future. They teach the ABC rule. Abstain, Be faithful and wear a Condom.

The other main purpose of the CWB visit to Rwanda was to deliver the cricket kit collected from many different sources across the UK to various clubs here. As a result, bags and bags of kit very kindly donated by so many clubs and individuals throughout Torbay, South Devon and the South West as a whole has made its way several thousand miles south into East Africa. The kit will be distributed evenly between many clubs who are in desperate need of it as they’ve had to make do with sub-standard kit for a long time. The response in Torbay and South Devon from clubs and individuals was phenomenal and I was overwhelmed by the generosity of so many people and I would therefore like to express my sincerest thanks for this. My Dad did a great job drumming up so much interest for the cause. The kit will have a major impact as there really is terrific enthusiasm for the game but it was being constrained by a lack of resources. I’ve played a few games with the National University team in Butare and they have great potential but have struggled due to inadequate kit. The kit received will therefore be a major boost to their cricket development for many years to come.

I joined the CWB guys at Greenhills Secondary School in Kigali on Friday, 8th October. Greenhills is not your average Rwandan school. It educates students from the country’s wealthier families and so the facilities are impressive. There’s also a very international feel to the school as it educates the offspring of many of the country’s expat population. I have to say embarrassingly that I was somewhat shocked to find classes with a mix of different races. It’s a very rare occurrence here but in some classes at Greenhills there are Rwandan, Indian, Chinese, Korean, French and a host of other nationalities present. Even in the dining hall at lunchtime I was surprised. The teaching staff are equally as international. It’s very different to my school. However, most of the students had never even heard of the game of cricket let alone played it before and therefore it was a good place to launch the initiative. I was able to assist with some of the coaching, which was great fun as it was a first for me but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The CWB coaches have made regular visits to a number of schools in the Kigali area throughout their two weeks here and they told me the response has been fantastic. The kids they’ve coached have really embraced the sessions and the teachers have also shown a keen interest which is crucial as they’ll be responsible for continuing the sport once the CWB team have gone. In fact Greenhills has made a commitment to introduce cricket as one of the core sports in the sports curriculum which is very positive news. We were trying to arrange for the coaches to visit my school but unfortunately as we’ve just entered the exam period it was not encouraged by the powers that be. It’s a shame as I think the students here would’ve really enjoyed it.

I had a little shock towards the end of my visit to Greenhills. After one of the coaching sessions I requested a quick group photo of some of the students with a couple of the CWB coaches and the kit. I couldn’t take the photo however until we’d gained security clearance. I was a little puzzled but It turned out that one of the students, a tall, lean, talented batsman, in a bright green t-shirt, who we’d been coaching all morning was in fact the son of Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s President! This was a great anecdote to share with my own students the following Monday morning!

Unfortunately Rwanda is not immune from the same problems we cricket fans face in the UK. Halfway through the afternoon session we could see the dark, ominous clouds accumulating in the distance and sure enough ten minutes later as they hung over us we were clambering for shelter as the heavens opened and regrettably the cricket was washed out for rest of the day. The CWB coaches weren’t finished however as they took the students to an empty classroom to continue the HIV/Aids awareness education. This is highly commendable...if rain stops play at Cockington we’re usually straight down the pub for a pint of Tribute!

My sporting weekend was completed the following day as I and some other volunteers took a trip to Amahoro Stadium in Kigali to watch Rwanda (or the ‘Amavubi’, as they’re known, meaning wasps) face Benin in an African Cup of Nations qualifying match. Amahoro, incidentally, means ‘peace’ in Kinyarwanda. It’s a decent stadium and as it was a scorching hot day we paid 5000 francs (£5) for the most expensive seats in order to get some cover from the melting sun. This led me to my second presidential encounter of the weekend. About five minutes after kick-off people around us all rose and looked particularly excited by something. We thought it was because Rwanda were on the offensive but as we rose to have a look ourselves we soon realised it was due to the arrival of President Kagame. That explained the airport style security as we entered the stadium. He took his seat in the next block over from ours and was just metres away for the rest of the afternoon. I told my students this story too and I now think they believe I spend my weekends mingling with Rwanda’s elite. It was certainly no ordinary weekend. The match was entertaining enough, finishing 3-0 to Benin, but this flattered the visitors a little. The atmosphere in the stadium was pretty good with plenty of vuvuzelas present to maximise annoyance. Forgive me, but I’m a bit of a scrooge when it comes to any kind of gimmicky paraphernalia at a football match. I prefer the sounds of a crowd singing on the terraces to the manufactured noise of a small nonsensical instrument which sounds like a cow attempting to give birth! I’d say the stadium was roughly half full and therefore probably an attendance of around 15,000 people. It was a fun experience and I’m a little disappointed I won’t still be here to see the match against their neighbours Burundi in a few months time. That’ll be a spicy encounter.

Jo and Meghan before the game

The two teams coming out

Back in the classroom now, I had a pretty uncomfortable moment last week. It was a situation which challenged both my judgement and my nature. I was walking towards the classroom of my Senior Ones and as I reached the door Sister Francine (the dean of discipline) was emerging with a particularly stern look etched on her face. I walked in to discover a girl kneeling on the hard concrete step at the very front of the class. She cut a rather forlorn figure as she knelt there and I instantly felt sorry for her regardless of whatever misdemeanour she’d committed. There was no way I was going to conduct my lesson with her in this position at the front of my class so I told her she could retake her place at her desk. She flat ignored me. I hadn’t anticipated this so a little confused I decided to start the lesson. Another minute or so passed and I made a further attempt to get her to rejoin the other students but once again she barely acknowledged me, keeping her head bowed, eyes staring at the hard, remorseless floor. Another minute passed and all the while she’d been resolutely attempting to copy the notes I was giving. It was admirable but difficult to watch. Anyway, she suddenly broke down, bursting into tears, right there in front of the whole class. She’d been resolute for a good five minutes but clearly the shame, pain and overall unpleasantness of the punishment had become too much to bear. Enough was enough, so I went over again, knelt down beside her and in the most compassionate and comprehensible English possible explained that she could return to her desk. I tried to stress that it was no problem and that I knew the dean of discipline had ordered her to do this but as her teacher for the lesson it was my decision to permit her to sit back down. I reassured her that if Sister Francine had a problem with this I would explain and face the consequences. This still didn’t work. Her friend came over and I believe attempted to reassure her that I’d said it was ok but still she stayed put. Another couple of minutes passed and eventually she got up and returned to her desk, finally succumbing to . I’m not sure how I could’ve dealt with this situation any differently. It made me very uncomfortable due to the severity of the punishment yet I was unable to end it through my own actions. There was also a feeling of embarrassment on my part as it was played out in front of the whole class. This may sound highly judgemental but I’ve been a little perplexed a few times this year that Nuns are capable of dishing out such punishments. I understand they have to keep order and this is a different school culture to what I’m used to but they preach tolerance, forgiveness, love, respect for others, patience, etc, etc, yet they force a tiny, twelve-year old girl to kneel on a concrete step and reduce her to tears. It’s just not cricket in my view.

There are times here when you find out little pieces of information which completely distort your preconceived notions of certain circumstances. A prime example came a few weeks back. The English teacher, Desiré, had been absent for a week and so I asked another teacher where he was. They explained that he’d been given some time off as his wife had just given birth. Desiré’s from Bukavu, a city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just across the south-western border of Rwanda. He therefore spends term time here in Save and in the holidays returns home to the DRC to be with his family. There are many teachers at my school who have this same arrangement. A large portion just live in Save for work and then at weekends and during holidays they return to their families in various locations across Rwanda and a few in the Congo. Anyway, Desiré returned to school the following week and so I congratulated him on his good news. He thanked me but looked a little jaded. Now, he doesn’t look particularly advanced in years and so I naively and rather awkwardly enquired if this was his first child. Cue boisterous laughter from the other teachers in the vicinity of our conversation. The jaded look on Desiré’s face was explained as he answered my question. ‘No John...it’s my eighth’!!It was a clear demonstration of the different lives we all lead. Desiré had to leave his family behind in search of a regular income because, as I understand it, in the DRC workers including teachers, receive very irregular salaries and often people can go months without receiving what they’re owed. They have no choice but to seek employment elsewhere and spend months at a time away from their families, grafting so they can send enough money home to feed and clothe their loved ones. For many people this is the reality of being a teacher in Africa. The thing is...these are the lucky ones. For every one person earning a reliable salary there are ten more who can only dream of receiving any kind of wage on a regular basis.

Tuesday, 12th October was a particularly sad and significant day. It marked my final day of teaching here and I had to say my official goodbyes to my classes. They were difficult moments for me as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed so much of this experience and even though teaching was a challenge at times, I’ve always drawn tremendous satisfaction from the interaction with my students. I will miss it immensely, I’m certain of this. As I mentioned in my last update every class has been different, containing a vast array of diverse personalities and characters and therefore each of my four classes has provided me with a distinctive picture of life in Rwanda. The age of my students has ranged from 12-30. Some originate from the capital, Kigali, whilst others reside in the dry, arid and flat landscape of the East. I have students who come from the colder, mountainous north-west, in the shadow of the volcanoes and others who are closer to home, living in the southern province, in and around Butare and even further towards the far south-west in Cyangugu, a small town on the DRC border. Some students were not yet born when the devil kept his appointment with the country back in 1994 and thus for them the genocide is an event in history, something which is mentioned a lot but which holds less importance in their daily lives. For others however, 1994 still evokes horrific and vivid memories and the impact is a constant, daily blight on their existence. Some students have both parents, some have just one and many have none at all. Yet what’s significant about all of this is they share one common experience. They’re all members of G.S. St Bernadette de Save and they’re all exposed to an education that will one day, hopefully, if life’s kind to them, guide them towards a more prosperous future that will enable them to become key players in Rwanda’s rebuilding process. The government here have produced a strategy called ‘Vision 2020’ which outlines the core ambitions of the country’s development and several goals to be achieved by 2020. It would be nice to think that some of the students I’ve spent the past ten months teaching will play a part in this. Unfortunately poverty can understandably in some cases breed a lack of drive or determination and it can suck the confidence right out of a person. This, I feel, is one of the reasons Entrepreneurship was introduced here. To equip young people with ideas, motivation and a will to succeed. I’m impatient to discover what the future has in store for my students and also for Rwanda as a whole. If all goes to plan it appears the future could be bright. However, if the plans aren’t implemented correctly and certain priorities aren’t addressed, the future could be one of instability and prolonged stand still. Again, I’ll be intrigued to watch how this plays out.

So that concludes yet another update. I’m in Gisenyi this weekend for our ‘End of Service’ meeting. It’s basically a conclusion of the year and a chance for all the volunteers to have one final big get together as a whole group. Gisenyi is a town that sits on the banks of Lake Kivu in the north-west of the country, on the border with the DRC. In fact, It’s essentially connected to the Congolese town of Goma, which is a large base for the UN and aid workers from a whole host of organisations attempting to salvage some kind of order and stability in an area overwhelmed with corruption, violence and heartache. A few of us were tempted to make a quick trip across the border to check it out and to collect another interesting stamp in the passport but after some research it seems the visa cost would be somewhere in the region of $150, a little out of our budget!

Some of my Senior 5EKK students. I gave them the camera and let them take as many photos as they wanted

Teacher, forgive us...

As the end nears and I begin to contemplate my final week of teaching in Rwanda and thus prepare a highly awkward and blabbering goodbye speech to my students (which will no doubt be met with blank stares and silence!) I feel it may be a good time to provide you with a little evaluation of each of my four classes. We’ll start with the youngest and therefore the loudest.

Senior 1

What can I say about these little rascals?! Embarking upon their first year in a Rwandan secondary school, they’re full of the excitement, trepidation and naivety that greets any child when beginning life in a ‘grown-up’ school having left the safety and security of the primary years. Add to that the fact they’re now enrolled in a boarding school and therefore for months at a time their new guardians/mother figures are Catholic nuns and they’ll spend their days, evenings and weekends praying, washing floors, fetching water, praying, debating, playing sport and praying. To make matters worse, just days into this bewildering and daunting new experience, into their classroom walks a strange, tall, white teacher in a tie clutching a notepad and a small box of chalk who claims he’s here to teach them a brand new subject entitled ‘Entrepreneurship’. A recipe for disaster. I feel I’ve managed to avert an actual disaster but at times it has felt as if we’re all hurtling towards the rocks leaving nothing but an unsalvageable wreck! Senior 1 has proved to be an undulating teaching experience with bouts of immense triumph and total misery in equal measure. The age range of the class is fairly broad. There are a few students who fit the senior 1 image perfectly. Tiny, nervous-looking souls who peer at you with eyes that say ‘help, I don’t know where I am’! There’s a boy who fits this description perfectly and I’m not sure I’ve heard him speak all year. These students are in the 12-13 age group I imagine. After this it’s difficult to put an age to many members of the class. There are a couple who rival me in height and I generally think that a handful of the students may well be in the 16-17 age group. I only actually teach this class for two fifty minute periods each week so in general I don’t know nearly as much about them as my other classes but nevertheless I’m still fond of them, even though they’ve driven me to near insanity at times.

The main problem I’ve experienced with Senior 1 is maintaining their interest for any extended period (i.e. beyond five minutes!). Entrepreneurship clearly isn’t a strong priority for them and why should it be? They seem more interested in shooting paper at each other through the end of a pen, passing notes across the room, sleeping and having their own little discussions which I strongly doubt revolve around the benefits of savings or the legal obligations of a trader. According to the curriculum I have to teach them about commerce, banks, ‘supply and demand’, buying and selling goods (including the use of order forms, invoices, delivery notes, receipts, etc), trading and other such interesting topics. Don’t get me wrong, all of these will potentially be of use to them in the future, it’s just a mission endeavouring to convince them of this in the present. So, in short, teaching them entrepreneurship is in all honesty a nightmare! It got particularly bad a couple of weeks back as I attempted to explain the notes on the board and it dawned on me I was wasting my breath. So, in the next lesson I spent the entire fifty minute period writing the notes on the board whilst saying absolutely nothing. At the end I asked them if they understood the notes and if there were any questions. When two or three hands went up I exclaimed, ‘too bad, if you don’t want to listen to the explanations I give I won’t answer your questions’. They were silent for the first time in fifty minutes. One girl appealed to my good nature, ‘Teacher, forgive us’, she pleaded. I told them we’d see how the next lesson went. The following Monday I began the lesson, wrote a few notes on the board and as I stood there with my back to them writing on the blackboard it suddenly occurred to me...you could hear a pin drop! I couldn’t help smirking to myself but as I turned around and they sat there scribbling away in near silence it felt a little strange. They’d lost their character. I felt like I’d destroyed their spirit and it unnerved me. At the end I congratulated them on their much improved behaviour and rewarded them with a five minute Q+A session. This is generally the only time I ever get the whole class listening at the same time as I let them ask me anything they want. As a class they’re pretty good at this as they’re an inquisitive bunch. Their favourite topic is generally family and more specifically, Jack, the border collie. In summary, if I’m honest, I probably won’t miss teaching entrepreneurship to Senior 1 but I will most certainly miss them as people. They frequently make me laugh (often unintentionally) and their hearts are in the right place. When I described my ant and wasp problems to them they offered to come to my house at the weekend and battle the intruders on my behalf. That’s loyalty!

Senior 4 EKK (English, Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili)

The first of my two senior 4 classes, 4EKK, are linguists. Their core three subjects are languages (as stated above), supplemented by various other courses, including, needless to say , Entrepreneurship. Now, 4EKK have been an interesting class and it feels as if we’ve spent a year acclimatising to each other. I would equate our relationship to that of maybe the British public and ‘The One Show’. We were suspicious of each other at first. Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley were new faces on our screens and their regional accents were out of place for a primetime slot on BBC1. We weren’t sure of their motives, who are they, what do they want from us and why are their faces being beamed into our living rooms every evening?! However, in time the union has blossomed into one of general ease, calm and reassurance. 4EKK were a tough nut to crack. For the first two terms I stood before them never quite knowing if they understood anything I said or whether they cared. A huge portion of the class sat, expressionless, devoid of all familiarity with me, their teacher. A handful would offer me something; a question here, a smile there, but generally I struggled to extract a modicum of emotion from the vast majority. Apologies if this sounds weird and I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I felt as if I was a particularly out of touch father, trying his best to be trendy and ‘down with the kids’ but failing miserably! Everything I threw at them was met with blank faces, rolls of the eyes and colossal disinterest. In my head they were firmly adjudged to be my least favourite class and I came close at times to vaguely dreading our time together. It wasn’t meant to be like this I worried. We somehow muddled through two terms though and then at the start of term three the ice just seemed to melt, like the emergence of Spring, our relationship blossomed like a beautiful golden daffodil...well, not quite, but it vastly improved. I believe it was due to a number of factors but predominantly it came about due to a change in my outlook. In my mind I had come through the first two terms unscathed and in entering the third and final term I developed a more relaxed and composed persona in the classroom. The pressure of having to be a serious and dedicated Entrepreneurship teacher seemed to lift off my shoulders and I’ve spent more time just conversing with my students about anything and everything. If a thought comes into my head I generally just put it out there for them to respond and they seem to enjoy this. In one lesson we discussed why I’m not a fan of hip-hop music, in another we delved deep into politics and the legacy of colonialism and at one point two students became a little heated over whether Colonel Kaddafi of Libya is the figurehead of Africa or a terrorist! In one bizarre episode we discussed the possibility that most of Westlife are in fact deceased as a student was adamant they are. I informed him that all the members of Westlife were still alive and very much kicking when I left the UK back in December and unless there had been a tragic boy band-related disaster since I’d been away I believed it remained that way. He was sceptical though and went on to tell me that the members of ‘Blue’ were also no longer with us! Just this week we spent around forty minutes discussing cats and dogs and their role as family pets. I actually perhaps went a bit too far when we were got onto the subject of names. They know our dog back home is called Jack so they asked me if all dogs in the UK are assigned human names. I told them that we can call our pets anything we choose and went on to say that if I wanted to call my dog ‘Paul Kagame’ (the President of Rwanda) I could. Some sniggered, others said nothing, a few students gasped. There’s clearly a line and I’d just put one giant foot over it! I’m waiting for a knock at my door in the middle of the night and a request to explain my comments.

Senior 4EKK are also the class that like to test me. It doesn’t matter what I teach them, they always seem to have a question which is supposed to make me squirm and I believe they’re waiting for me to one day crack and fall before them , on my knees, a sobbing mess, and reveal all. They want me to come clean and admit that I’m most definitely not a qualified entrepreneurship teacher and that this has all been a sham! They’re like a team of detectives interrogating me, relentlessly probing me with questions designed to build the evidence to form a case that will uncover my facade and they’ve got their two best men on the case. Remy and Jean Damascene. Both are very likeable students, polite, interested, conscientious and very personable. However, both are skilled in the practice of vigorously testing the teacher. Jean Damascene has a very methodical approach to his cross-examining. He rises from his desk carefully, avoiding any unnecessary noise. He straightens himself, hands by his side and clears his throat. He exclaims, ‘Teacher’ and then BHAM!!!! There it is, a question which I have no hope of answering unless I’d spent three years studying advanced economics or my father had been Robert Peston. The class fall silent, I mumble something loosely related to the subject in question and then, with an air of finality, enquire, ‘Ok?’ and I’m usually greeted with blank faces and silence, and then we move on. But not before a girl in the front row jots something in her notebook...probably more evidence to be added to the ‘Our teacher is a fraud’ file. The other chief interrogator is Remy. He adopts a more light-hearted approach, I think it’s his way of lulling me into a relaxed state and a false sense of security. He too is an expert in his field. He rises from his chair with a grin on his face and unlike his partner he slouches and at times I often think he looks a bit like Detective Colombo as he raises his hand indicating he’s about to request an answer to a monumental conundrum. And then, he speaks the words which strike fear direct into my heart...’Teacher...I wonder...’. What follows is usually some kind of bizarre scenario he’s thought up in his head and he wants me to either endorse or reject the possibility of such a situation occurring. I like Remy a lot, he’s a really nice guy but sometimes I just want to shout, ‘Remy, for the love of God, please stop wondering!!!’ However, I feel if he did stop wondering it would make my life a lot easier yet somehow less interesting! In summary 4EKK are a great class to teach, even though we spent two-thirds of the year getting over our suspicions of each other. They’ve gone from being my least favourite class to quite possibly my most enjoyable class, and for this reason, I’ll miss them.

Senior 4 HEG (History, Economics and Geography)

The second of my senior 4 classes, 4HEG, are social scientists. Their three core subjects are History, Economics and Geography. Their ages range from around 16-23, which is very similar to 4EKK. My relationship with this class has practically been the exact opposite of that with 4EKK. For the first two or three months they were my favourite class but in this final term something seems to have changed. Maybe they’re sick of my terrible jokes, which are terrible to an English ear let alone a Rwandan trying to understand English! Maybe they’re a step ahead of 4EKK and they have conclusive evidence of my fraud status. Or maybe they’re just sick to death of Entrepreneurship. I’m really not sure what has happened but in the past few weeks I’ve found their lessons a little tough. They were a lot more open it seemed during the first two terms. They’re a bright bunch but the language barrier can be a problem. They have just one unit of English each week which doesn’t seem nearly enough considering their whole instruction is given in English. I feel many students throughout the school just copy the notes they’re given without in fact grasping what they actually mean, but as long as they can regurgitate them on their exam papers at the end of term their marks will be good. It’s a system which needs work as it prohibits independent thought and opinion and drastically restricts critical thinking.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to give you a bad impression of 4HEG. They’re a pleasant class to teach. Polite, well-mannered and extremely friendly. There’s a girl who sits in the front row who has a belching problem but it seems everyone has accepted it so I make no attempts to quell it! Another student has his heart set on being a famous hip-hop star and often wanders around school freestyle rapping to himself. He very generously gave me some of his music and although it wasn’t my cup of tea I’m certainly no expert in this field of music so my opinion is irrelevant. There’s another girl who very rarely displays any emotion and looks as if she would still be disappointed even if I walked into the classroom, presented her with a blank cheque, informed her Ben Fogle wanted her hand in marriage and that Beyoncé needed her to appear in her next music video. I often feel my greatest achievement here in Rwanda is getting this one girl to crack a smile. I know I shouldn’t have any favourites but there’s one student in this class who I’m particularly fond of. Arsene always gets top marks and understands almost everything I say. That of course is not a major factor though. It’s more to do with his unrelenting jovial demeanour. He never fails to have a smile on his face and he’s always quick to step in to salvage a potentially disastrous situation. He’s curious and forthcoming and I can see that if he pushes himself he has the potential to go far. In many ways it’s a privilege to teach at this school as so many of the students have enormous capabilities and it’s uplifting to believe they have the potential to play a significant role in Rwanda’s future. One of the major redeeming factors of 4HEG is their love of football and more specifically their keen interest in Argyle. They’re adept at displaying the correct emotions if I tell them Argyle have won or lost at the weekend and they seem to have abandoned the idea that I should possibly choose another team! Overall 4HEG have been a nice class to teach. I feel they’ve generally enjoyed my presence, rather than my teaching and I’m sure I’ll keep in touch with a few of them. One student even proposed to accompany me to the airport when I leave. It’s difficult to know what to make of this offer...do they want to be present in order to wish me a fond farewell...or do they want to see me onto the plane to make sure I’m actually leaving the country?!!

Senior 5 EKK (English, Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili)

The most senior of all my classes, 5EKK are also linguists. The ages of the students in this class range from 17 right up to 30, however the majority sit in the 19-23 bracket. It has been a rollercoaster journey with these guys. There are days I’m sad our lesson has ended and other days I find myself constantly glancing at my watch. Fortunately the good days far outweigh the bad. I often feel there’s a greater maturity about this class compared to the others and as such they intimidate me more! It’s a little daunting having to set homework and quizzes to students similar in age to yourself. I regularly think to myself that when I was the same age as many of these students I ‘d already finished my first degree and was studying for my Masters. Their situations are of course far different from mine however and I’ve no doubt many of these students will go onto university. This class includes my thirty year old student, Lambert. I’ve mentioned him before in my blog and I have a great deal of respect for him. It must be a tough experience at thirty living in a boarding school amongst students a generation younger than yourself, but it doesn’t seem to faze him. He’s got one thing on his mind...to get an education. It’s certainly working. His level of English is highly impressive and there are times he assists me when I’m trying to provide the definition of a word to the rest of the class but failing miserably. He wants to be a teacher and in my mind he’d be perfect.

My relationship with 5EKK is unconventional in many ways. As I think I mentioned before the boundaries between teacher and student have been vague at times. My level of discipline began with a degree of lenience and since then I’ve probably neglected all authority altogether. It has its benefits but on occasions can create aggravating situations. I enjoy our lessons though. We’ve had some engaging conversations over the course of the year and they were huge fans of the music lessons (before the injunction!). Quite a few of them commented on the talent of the Beatles which was very satisfying. The state of my shoes has been a running joke. Rwandans pride themselves on wearing immaculate, glistening shoes and anything less than this is positively shameful. The problem is during the rainy season the road to school is a mud bath and during the dry season it’s a dustbowl. Hence I very rarely appear in adequately clean shoes. In fact as I walk around the school grounds students will often just stare at my shoes in a state of shock and disbelief. It always baffled me why all the other teachers’ shoes were spotless but then one break time the answer revealed itself. The other teachers bring a shoeshine kit to work with them and spend every available moment scrubbing their shoes!

5EKK are the debating kings. It is widely accepted amongst students and teachers alike that there’s no contest if 5EKK are involved in a debate. I’ve witnessed them on three separate occasions and each time they’ve emerged triumphant. It doesn’t matter what they’re debating, they always win. Unfortunately this was to my detriment last week as I got into a debate over the day of their next test. I suggested Tuesday, they preferred Thursday so we debated the issue for a moment...to be fair Thursday is a more suitable day, it gives me the whole weekend to mark the papers...!! 5EKK also hold a special place in my heart as they were the class that posed for a photo proudly clutching an Argyle shirt, scarf and flag. The photo has very recently been published in the Argyle matchday magazine and therefore they have achieved relative fame/notoriety and successfully helped to prove that the Green Army is an international phenomenon! In summary 5EKK are perhaps my most interesting class due to the vast gulf in ages of the students. It’s difficult to know their situations outside of school and as I try not to pry too much and they’re not forthcoming with information it will remain a mystery for me long after I leave. I’m sure I’ll keep in touch with some of these students as they’ve been an enjoyable class to teach. It would also be nice to know the paths they take once they leave St Bernadette de Save.

In conclusion, I think it’s fair to say that each one of my four classes has its various merits and I feel very honoured to have been able to play a part in their education. I hope I’ve made a positive impact and managed to teach them something in between the various moments of confusion, absurdity, comedy, monotony, enlightenment and various other bizarre scenarios! There is definitely one thing I’m sure of though...I’ve learned a lot from them.

As it’s 10.30 at night here, I will close this update with ‘Ijoro ryiza’ (good night in Kinyarwanda)

Here's a photo of me teaching 4EKK

And another

And here's a photo of Save in the early morning

Life in a small Rwandan village is many things. It’s frustrating yet fascinating, monotonous yet inspiring, lacklustre yet vibrant, crushing yet energizing, isolated yet crowded and most of all it’s both unusual yet familiar. All of these conflicting adjectives can be applied during an average day here. One minute you’re being heckled by kids kicking a football around made out of old plastic bags wrapped in string and the next moment you’re sharing very basic pleasantries with a village elder who looks as if he has been witness to several centuries of Rwandan history! As I approach nine months into my time in Save and Rwanda my mind tends to wander uncontrollably. Sometimes I find myself looking way beyond Rwanda, into an unknown future elsewhere and other times I daydream about what the future has in store for Save and its residents and crucially, my students. I find myself yearning for so many things back home but at the same time I’m often struck with a realisation that when I depart this sleepy little village I feel like an inner part of me will remain. A phenomenal yet banal cliché I know, yet this is what I envisage. In a confusing scenario at times I can’t wait to leave yet I want time to pause as I fear a premature end to this whole experience and I’m weighed down with a sense of a mission incomplete. Lately my students have been asking me if I’m staying for another year and it was particularly uncomfortable informing them I’m unable to as the WorldTeach funding for this program here in Rwanda has actually been withdrawn which means the organisation is unable to send any teachers to Rwanda next year. There are many other reasons of course but this is the reasoning I give to my students. If we had the option to extend our work here for another year it would be a tough decision. The lure of home is very powerful but I feel it takes a long period of time to fully settle in a new and diverse location like this. The truly meaningful work often cannot begin until you’re fully accustomed to your surroundings and therefore I feel I’m leaving just as I genuinely begin to make significant steps.

Anyway, back to village life. An average day here for me is as follows. I wake up and get ready for school. Quick wash, cup of tea, check the ant defences (a recent development!) and a short stroll across to school which usually involves numerous exchanges of ‘mwaramutse’ (good morning) with various locals who range in age from tiny children clad in primary school uniforms to the elderly women wrapped in their brightly coloured shawls walking barefoot to the market. Some look surprised to see me, others have become familiar with my presence and many just stop and stare regardless, as if it’s part of their daily routine. As I enter the school there’s a couple of further greetings with the guy who’s in charge of the entrances (the gatekeeper I guess!) and the school gardener (who does a grand job). At lunchtime I often walk into the village centre to buy bananas or bread for lunch. There’s a regular little shop I visit to buy my bread (‘umugati’ in Kinyarwanda) and each day the lady who works in there and I have the same conversation. Recently however I’ve been attempting to teach her a little English which I think she enjoys. There’s the regular shouts of ‘Muzungu’, ‘Amafaranga’ (money in Kinyarwanda), ‘Give me money’, ‘Bonbons’, ‘Bonjour’, ‘Comment tu t’appelles?’ and various other expressions that I never want to hear again but which I know I’ll miss as soon as I step off the plane at Heathrow. The other day I was actually followed by a group of around ten children who basically threw all of the above phrases at me and the bravest of the group actually walked up behind me in order to touch me or rub my skin. This happens a lot. I was riding on the bus one day and a woman of about 50 sat next to me just started rubbing my arm. I’m not sure what she was expecting to discover but in the end we laughed about it and she stopped. It’s funny because even though I’m living and working in a completely alternative and unfamiliar society to what I’m used to it often feels like Groundhog Day. I may have mentioned this before but I have the same ‘conversations’ with the same people every day. This is no one’s fault but it certainly makes you realise just how important language is. Sometimes though facial expressions or actions can say a lot more than words ever can and a smile here or a friendly handshake there can break down so many barriers. I often think that being the only white, foreign person living in a village like Save is in some ways akin to being a famous person, minus the majority of the benefits! You’re instantly recognisable and consequently followed, stared at, poked, whispered about, sniggered at and everyone knows where you live, where you work, when you’re at home and when you’re not. As I said before, even though I’ve been here for a significant amount of time now none of these habits seem to relent. Yet once again this will be a part of the experience I’m sure I’ll come to miss, as strange as that may sound. The attention can get tiresome but it can also be equally as endearing. When I’m home I’ll blend back in to society, another face in the crowd. Yet here in Save when I walk along the road people smile, they say good morning, they may follow me but they’re interested. These are the little things in life which help to form a community. And that’s exactly what Save is, a community and I’m part of this community even if I am a little different!

In this past week I’ve was given a reminder of the reality of some of my students’ situations. In every one of my classes there were at least five students missing from my lessons. My initial thought was the school had been struck down with some kind of contagious virus but when I asked those present the reason for all the absentees they simply told me, money. The students had been sent home for non-payment of school fees and as I understand it they can’t return until they’re paid in full. They’re due at the beginning of term so I presume they’re awarded some degree of leniency but unfortunately there comes a time when bills must be settled. I actually asked my students how much exactly school fees cost and they told me it’s 38,000RWF (Rwandan Francs) each term. So that’s approximately £40 each term and £120 (114,000RWF) for the whole year. That includes accommodation, food, water and electricity. It certainly makes you think. The cost of one full term of education here in Rwanda is equivalent to what many of us would pay for a meal at a restaurant or for a new pair of jeans or the sum we may spend on a mobile phone contract each month. Yet for many families here this is a huge amount of money and they have great difficulty raising it. Sadly I’m sure out of all the students who have been sent home there will be a few who don’t return to school this year. I hope I’m wrong considering we’re so close to the end of term but it has happened at other points throughout the year.

On a lighter note, Wednesday, 15th September saw the much anticipated teachers vs. students football match. The build-up to this fixture had been fraught with threats thrown in many directions. There was fighting talk from the students and desperate after school training sessions involving the teachers. Finally, at 3.30pm on Wednesday the battle commenced. I was impressed that a half an hour before the game our captain, Jean Paul, brought a kit to my house. A bright yellow Sweden-esque kit was ours for the game, I was number 19. We were the underdogs, that’s for sure and I’d compared the match-up to Chelsea vs. Argyle to my students in one of our lessons. I was a little nervous as I’d anticipated the whole school turning out to watch. Eight hundred students baying for blood! In reality though only around two hundred lined the pitch. We warmed up before the game with some drills which involved various hops, skips and handclaps! I was assigned a central midfield role and this concerned me from the word go due to my general lack of fitness and the hot afternoon sun beating down on us. Just before kick-off we lined up in the centre-circle and waved to our spectators on each side of the pitch and as you can see from the photo below I wasn’t sure what was going on and thus am displaying a look of complete confusion! Ten minutes in I was already a mess, feeling the strain. In my defence though the altitude here in Rwanda is higher due to the mountainous landscape and this has an effect on general fitness. Nevertheless, I was not coping well. The game was passing me by and unfortunately we fell 2-0 behind early on. The students whooped every time I touched the ball but on most occasions it flew over my head or bobbled frustratingly past me and I spent the majority of my time running (well, jogging and then walking) aimlessly. However, I did manage to pull off a few impressive defensive headers and at one point I went on a mazy run into the opposition box but instead of pulling the trigger I passed to Donat, the Physics teacher. We pulled a goal back midway through the first half but were 3-1 down minutes later. A penalty kick in our favour brought it back to 3-2 and then right before half-time a goalmouth scramble made it 3-3. Somehow we were level at the break. I knew I couldn’t last another forty-five minutes so fifteen minutes into the second half I volunteered myself to be substituted. It had been a generally unimpressive performance from Stanlake and if there were any scouts watching I didn’t help my chances. In the end we lost 4-3 but I feel we earned at least some respect by avoiding the predicted whitewash. The greatest lesson from the afternoon for me personally was realising that as soon as I’m back home I need to get the running shoes on and resume the very pleasant jog s along the beautiful and enticing Torbay seafront.

Below is the teachers team photo – The full line-up being (from L-R), Elican (one of my Senior 5 students who stepped in as our goalkeeper), Me (I kind of standout...), Crescent, Jean Paul, Evariste, Arséne, Alphonse, Mukama (the referee), Vincent, Jerǒme, Théoneste and Donat. The dream team...

Here we are waving to our spectators...I was unaware of this procedure so look a little lost!

This rabble below were our opponents – the students. I have the misfortune of teaching some of these hooligans. No, only joking, they’re all nice guys really!

So in my last update I promised I’d tell you about the ants. They came back...oh how they came back. I didn’t realise it at the time but the reason for their re-emergence came a few Sundays ago. I was sat in my house and all of a sudden my ears pricked at a familiar yet long absent sound. There were spots of rain. I’ve never before been so awestruck and joyous by the sight and sound of rain. It had been practically a full four months since the last rainfall of any kind so this was a significant moment. On this occasion it was only a light shower but a few days later we had a torrential downpour and then a couple of nights after that we had a raging storm, thunder, lightning, fierce winds and deafening rain. Hallelujah I thought. My celebrations were premature however as lurking beneath the surface was an unforeseen and unanticipated menace. In the vicinity of my house and all over the football pitch and inside the school grounds I noticed the emergence of a new insect. I simply call it the super ant. It’s about five times the size of the species I had previously considered to be the biggest and within a day the village seemed to be overrun with them. Then one evening I’d just finished my dinner and went out into my yard to wash up and as I stepped outside something seemed amiss...the concrete floor appeared to be moving. When I looked more closely I realised it was covered with ants and then as I looked up to my left I was even more shocked...there were flying ants EVERYWHERE!! It was as if we’d been hit by a plague. I composed myself and stepped back inside, don’t panic I thought. Unfortunately it didn’t take long for them to make their way into the house under the doors and through any gaps in the windows, it was an invasion. I put a towel under each door and turned off the lights but they were still attracted by my laptop screen. In the end I decided there was nothing else to do but call it a night, get inside the safety of my mosquito net and wait for morning. It was 7.30pm! The next morning I found my yard covered with flying ants, some dead, some alive and inside the house many were lurking. It was an unwelcome development in my war against the ants. No matter what I throw at them they come back bigger, stronger and in far greater numbers. The next night brought the same and so at 7.00pm once again I retreated to my net, listened to my iPod and waited for the carnage to recede. I asked my students about the ant phenomenon and they told me it’s because of the change in seasons. The rain has messed up their equilibrium and brought them from their underground lairs. The advice handed to me by my students for dealing with the ants was both disconcerting and depressing ...’just get used to them teacher’, so I am. The situation has calmed down significantly since those first two nights and the door towel defences are holding up well. One minor mishap came last weekend though as I went away for an evening and when I returned to my house the next day the towel under the front door had been swiped, either carried off by an army of determined ants or a villager in need of a small white hand towel! In conclusion, I’ve decided the ants are invincible and not worth battling. There’s too many of them and only one of me. I’ve decided to announce a ceasefire and attempt cohabitation with my arch nemesis. I guess I should consider myself lucky. Ben Fogle once returned from an expedition with a parasite living inside him. He’d laugh in the face of a few ants.

I’ll conclude this update there as merely writing about the ants has made me a little nauseous! Next Sunday (3rd October) is an important day for our school. As far as I can tell it’s a day of festivities in celebration and appreciation of Sainte Bernadette. According to my students we’re treated to a ‘feast’ and parents are invited so it could well be a truly enlightening day for all parties! In general though, from a personal point of view, it promises to be another day of school-related embarrassment for myself. I’m sure I’ll be called upon to dance once again and this time the audience will be greater and the light far enhanced as it’s a daytime shindig. Ideal. Keep an eye out for my next update if you want to commiserate or revel in my next episode of public humiliation!

Once again, for the time being, Mwirirwe!

Here are some more photos from the football. Below we’re being congratulated by Sister Francine, the Dean of Discipline!

Spot the ball...

Let me take you back a month or two to the very end of the second term. It was Thursday, 22nd July and the evening before the students returned home for the holidays. However, for me personally it was the day I had to face two of my greatest fears in life...head on. I’d spent the day packing for Southern Africa and in the evening I was looking forward to the final assembly of the term in which teachers are treated to a variety of entertaining performances by the students. Just before leaving to walk over to the school I went out into my yard with my head torch on as the power was out, when all of a sudden there it was, sat there like a well-positioned nemesis. I was struck frozen, motionless with horror. I’d waited months for this moment and here it was. I’d been warned to prepare for this very situation but when it finally confronts you it’s ten times worse than you can ever imagine. Bear with me, I’m building the drama and suspense. There, clinging to the side of my washbowl was the biggest spider I’ve ever witnessed (that wasn’t confined to a glass box). It sent a chill right through my entire body. I stared at it for a moment and then grabbed my camera to record this momentous occasion. I took a snap (see at bottom of this update, but maybe avoid looking if you’re squeamish about spiders) and then deliberated on my next move. I decided the best solution (for me) was to kill it. I know, a cruel and cowardly act but it was so big I was fearful if I left it one night it may enter the house, wrap me in its web and drag me off somewhere. So I grabbed the nuclear insecticide and made sure I got a good shot. Within minutes it was rock solid and I tossed it over the wall. So that was fear number one faced. Fear number two came later in the evening. Dancing in public. The end of term assembly was a really enjoyable affair. It was held outside and we all sat in a square around a large bonfire. I was seated in prime position right next to the Headmistress who was clearly in a good mood as she acknowledged me! We were treated to songs, dancing, short plays, comedy, lectures on how to be good students, etc, etc. The night culminated with more traditional Rwandan dancing and of course the predictable happened. I was sat right in the front and so was inevitably chosen along with some other teachers and nuns to join in the dancing. Now, I’m not a great dancer, never have been, never will be and on the occasions I do dance it’s usually after some encouragement from our good friend alcohol! I think the only other times I’ve ever danced sober were when Argyle beat QPR to win the league back in 2004 and during a particularly stirring rendition of Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’, but we won’t go into that now...! Of course, on this occasion I was sober and so both in body and mind still a terrible dancer! Unfortunately I had eight hundred students watching my every move. It was a rather uncomfortable few minutes but I feel I may have earned some respect by at least giving it a go. After the holiday I discussed the dancing debacle with my students and the verdict was fairly unanimous...sniggering and then, at least you tried. One student rather generously even gave me two out of ten for my efforts. There’s still the big end of year assembly to come so I feel some practice may be in order before that date. Perhaps I can search for Save’s Bruce Forsythe equivalent...that would sort the terrible jokes at least...

This is actually quite a musically-based update. I was on the bus a few weeks back and I believe I may have discovered a completely new genre of music. I call it ‘Psychedelic Gospel’. As usual on the bus we were tuned into one of the many stations which play highly emotive gospel music. It was either this or tune into the other station which prefers (as I think I’ve mentioned before) obscene American gangster rap. So, we were listening to the gospel music but for some reason it sounded a little different to usual. The instruments were somewhat funkier and we were treated to a couple of lengthy organ solos which sounded a lot like the beginning to ‘In-a-gadda-ga-vida’ by Iron Butterfly or ‘Light my Fire’ by the Doors. It was pretty cool especially seeing (as some of you may know) I often believe I was born in the wrong decade. My favourite decade of music is by far the Psychedelic 60s. Give me the Kinks over Oasis, the Moody Blues over U2, The Beatles over the Killers or Jefferson Airplane over Radiohead any day of the week! So for me this journey was entertaining and for once I didn’t have to curse to myself under my breath that I couldn’t listen to my iPod because of the radio being too loud. I was happy to sit back and enjoy the trippy gospel tunes. If I had to attempt to summarise the sound I would invite you to imagine the following scenario – Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson and Dave Gilmour create a super group and are invited to perform a guest spot on Songs of Praise. That was the sound! Or, alternatively, Aled Jones is sent by the producers of Songs of Praise to conduct some research in San Francisco but falls in with the wrong crowd (a group of ageing hippies) and spends his time ‘expanding his mind’. He returns to the Songs of Praise studio with his fresh new ideas and a new direction for the programme...this was the result!

For my next music story let me take you back to my school. As I mentioned many months ago now in one of my early blog updates my plan was to do a few music lessons with my students to practice their listening skills. This was a ploy to carry out my evil mission to expand their musical minds beyond that of solely R+B and Hip-Hop to the magical world of The Beatles! Up until Monday, August 30th this had been highly successful. Here’s a list of the songs we’d covered up to that date, with a summary of the students enjoyment of them;

Yesterday – The Beatles – LOVED it, now requested at every opportunity.

In My Life – The Beatles – Enjoyed by all but no match for Yesterday.

We Can Work it Out – The Beatles – Successful again, a little unsure of the lyrics though.

Good Day Sunshine – The Beatles – Well liked once again, especially as the lyrics are very easy, too easy in fact.

When I’m Sixty-Four – The Beatles – I was left disappointed here. They disliked the song and the lyrics proved too difficult for many.

Hey Jude – The Beatles – In the same vain as Yesterday, absolutely loved by one and all!
Non-Beatles tunes

I’m a Believer – The Monkees – Female students enjoyed the lyrics. Everyone liked the song. Who wouldn’t?!

I’m Into Something Good – Herman’s Hermits – Again, enjoyed more by the female students due to lyrics but the tune was a hit.

Happy Together – The Turtles – One of my favourite songs of all time and I’m pleased to say it was also a hit with the students. Lyrics a little soppy for the guys but once again highly appreciated by the girls!

Unfortunately that is where the list ends and it’s not going to be extended at any time in the future. The reason for this – My Headmistress, Sister Immaculée. On the date I mentioned, she walked into my classroom mid-song and stood in the doorway. She said nothing but stared at me. I stopped the track and said good morning. She walked out without saying anything. There was silence, my students looked a little shocked and if I could sum up the atmosphere in a word it would be ‘Uh-oh’. I followed the Head outside and her first words were ‘What are you doing?’ I explained I was playing music as I feel it helps the students English by providing them with new vocabulary and tests their listening skills by exposing them to different accents. I had all the lyrics written on the board with a section for new vocabulary. She looked at me again, then smiled and in the most patronising manner possible, touched me on the hand and replied with an air of finality...’You teach Entrepreneurship, not English’. She walked off leaving me to ponder these words. I walked back into the classroom looking and feeling dejected. The students could sense it. I turned off my laptop and declared, ‘there will be no more music’. They said nothing as this was obviously expected but their faces displayed pure disappointment. I apologised and told them it obviously wasn’t my choice. I promised to speak to the Headmistress again to see if I could explain further my reasons for using music but after the lesson one student followed me and I was told there’s no point speaking to her, she dislikes music in the classroom and his exact words were, ‘She spent time in Rome and she’s shy’. I didn’t quite know what to make of this but decided to heed his advice and take it no further. So there ends the musical accompaniment to my lessons. Ironically the final song I was teaching to my students on that fateful Monday was ‘We Can Work It Out’ by the Beatles. I very much doubt that my Headmistress and I will ever work it out and in this case I doubt the words ‘While you see it your way, run the risk of knowing that our love will soon be gone’ can be suitably applied...

Crime is global – there’s no doubt about it. I’ve been the victim of two very different crimes in the past couple of weeks. I was in Butare ten days ago minding my own business when this guy bumped into me. Upon bumping into me he kind of pushed into me a little. I thought at the time it was a tad odd but didn’t give it a second thought until twenty minutes later when I went to make a text. Ah...there you go...phone’s gone. Excellent work my friend, I was oblivious the whole time, Fagan himself would’ve been proud. So, the petty crime in a small Rwandan town moved onto a fairly intricate international crime a few days later. Barclays fraud department called to break the news of some ‘irregular transactions’ as they put it. ‘Mr Stanlake, have you used your card in America recently?’ This seemed a little odd seeing as I’ve never once set foot in the land of the free. I explained this to the lady and it would appear I’ve been the victim of an ever increasing global offence. Someone in the US had a field day in a hardware store using my card details! The modern day Fagan I guess, picking our pockets in a suitably 21st century manner.

I had a few interesting moments with students this past week. As the year develops I’ve become more open with my conversations and they’ve responded in kind. Unfortunately on Thursday I entered the forbidden zone...religion. I teach a senior four class who have been a tough nut to crack at times. For the first two terms they seemed a little unsure of me and were often reluctant to chat freely. However, this term has been a totally different story, our lessons have been really enjoyable (when not discussing entrepreneurship!) and I’ve felt a greater connection to them. On Thursday though I fear I may have ruined this. We somehow got onto religion and it came out that I’m not a regular churchgoer. They prodded and poked me for answers and the more I talked the more I became a total blasphemer in their judgemental eyes! It didn’t matter that I’d been christened and I could recite the Lord’s Prayer, they wanted more from me, they wanted me to repent there and then! I explained that religion is certainly not as important to many people in the UK as it is to many in Rwanda but they looked disgusted. It certainly made me realise just how crucial a part religion plays in their lives. One girl who sits at the front and who I’d always felt generally liked me as a teacher looked positively broken, as if my revelations had suddenly made her want to re-evaluate her very existence. I felt fairly dejected myself, the classroom became engulfed in an unnerving, frozen silence. This was saved fairly ironically with a discussion about ambitions. One girl put her hand up and declared her ambition was to be a nun. Her friends sniggered and even she couldn’t resist a smile. Why the sniggering, I enquired, and a boy chimed in, ‘she can never be a nun...she likes boys too much!’ So that’s religion for you!

Other classroom highlights include;

A mix up relating to the health of David Cameron’s father. A student solemnly informed me our PM’s father is very ill. Unfortunately it took us about ten minutes to reach this understanding in the conversation as the student pronounced ‘Cameron’ as ‘Cameroon’. We went around the houses as I tried to decipher the story and mistakenly came to the conclusion that our PM had been involved in some kind of assassination attempt in West Africa!

I’m fat. According to one girl in my senior five class I returned to school after the holiday heavier than when I left. She declared this in front of the whole class. She raised her hand and declared ‘teacher, I have a question’. Go ahead I replied. ‘Teacher, you are....somehow fat after the holiday’. Hmm, well first of all that’s not a question and secondly we don’t really say that. That’s how I should’ve replied but I was a little taken aback so just kind of displayed an embarrassed grin and thanked her for her honesty. In fairness she’s probably correct. A diet of bread, pasta and rice is not really conducive to weight loss.

I’m too nice, far too nice to be a teacher. I set my classes a mini project which they started in class and were to finish as homework and hand to me on Tuesday. When Tuesday came and I asked for the work the first class sat and said nothing looking a little sheepish. In his role as class chief one student plucked up the courage to inform me that they’d been unable to finish it due to the several hours of no power the previous day. The other students nodded in a display of unanimous endorsement. In fairness we had been without electricity for most of that day (I should know my dinner consisted of a Yorkie bar!) and so I couldn’t argue, BUT, they’d had the whole weekend. I didn’t argue though, hand it to me tomorrow. I awarded the same leniency to my other classes. I’m a pushover, but hey, it makes life easier.

And so there concludes another random update. Join me again next time as I shall be discussing the mother of all ant invasions, just as I thought the mental torment had relented. I’d discuss it now but it’s still raw and it’s both too depressing and horrifying for me to attempt to put into words! To put an end to this update I shall provide a much overdue book update in case anyone had been missing this segment! Since my last book report I’ve read;

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
All things Wise and Wonderful – James Herriot (an absolute must for all animal lovers)
‘Tis – A Memoir – Frank McCourt
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

And so, once again, until next time, Mwirirwe!

Welcome back, it feels like months since I’ve written an update. It’s actually only been about six weeks but I’ve crammed so much in time has taken on a new dimension! As I mentioned in my last update we entered the school holidays and so myself and three other vols from our program (Evan, Zach and Hewsan) took the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of other great explorers (Livingstone, Stanley, Palin, Fogle, etc, etc) and embark upon a journey of self discovery in Southern Africa. Ok, slight exaggeration as I’m sure Livingstone never ate ‘Chicken Lickin’, browsed the duty free at Johannesburg airport or jumped off a bridge attached to a piece of elastic! (more on this later). I don’t want to bore you by providing a day by day or week by week account of what we did, saw, ate, who we ran from, what we shrieked at, etc, etc, so I’ll break it down into a couple of sections which I think and hope are relevant and hopefully provide an informative yet succinct overview of the journey.


I’ll begin with a quick rundown of the places we slept. It may sound a little irrelevant but in the space of three weeks I slept in a variety of shelters. The first night was spent at a backpackers in Pretoria, South Africa. There wasn’t anything particularly extraordinary about this place apart from maybe the security that surrounded it. We entered through a huge electric gate and the walls surrounding the property were topped with an electric fence. A sign on the wall also indicated the smallish suburban property was protected by ADT security...a 24 hour armed response unit. Welcome to South Africa I thought. It was also the first time for over a decade I’d slept on a bunk bed and in a flashback to my youth I found myself leaping like a salmon to claim the top bunk before the opportunity eluded me! However, the greatest feature of this accommodation was the pure comfort of the bed. Now, I haven’t revealed this before but I have in fact (embarrassingly) spent this whole year so far sleeping in my sleeping bag! My house had no bedding when I arrived and in my laziness I thought I would spend the first few days making use of the bag. Days quickly turned into weeks, weeks into months and in the end it seems months will turn into a full year. I would like to add that I’m not the only volunteer who has done this! Thus, being able to spend a night sleeping in ‘proper’ bedding was fairly luxurious.

Night two of the trip was also spent on a bunk and again I reverted to my ten year old alter ego and claimed the top. This time though we were in not just another city but another country entirely, Botswana, and its capital, Gaborone. It was a quick stopover en route to our desired location, the smaller town of Maun in northern Botswana. A little embarrassingly we arrived in Gaborone in the dark after an eight hour bus journey from Johannesburg and we left in the dark the following morning as we were taking a six o’clock bus to Maun. From the limited time spent in Gaborone it appears to be a fairly well developed capital city with decent amenities and relative wealth if the several expensive car dealerships are anything to go by. Our journey to Maun took ten hours and by hour eight I think we were all feeling it! Chicken appears to be the popular meat in Botswana as for most of the bus journey our fellow passengers tucked into a feast of fried chicken. There seemed to be an endless supply. It was an intriguing journey even though the landscape remained constant for the majority of the ten hours. A flat, dry, arid scene, covered with cows, goats and donkeys. Botswana is a huge country geographically yet is home to roughly just 1.5 million people. Therefore at times it felt as if we were in the middle of an uninhabited world. Every so often the bus would stop and a passenger would disembark and walk off into the distance, towards the horizon to an unknown place that was hard for our minds to imagine. There never seemed to be any homes in sight as far as the eye could see but all of these people were heading somewhere. It was also fascinating as they knew the exact spot for the bus to stop. Next to a small bush or tree or a pylon or even a particular raised piece of ground. To us, the untrained foreign eye, it appeared to be a perpetual reoccurring scene, yet for the locals every part of this landscape was distinctly recognisable and no matter how small the feature it was crucial for their compass.

In Maun the accommodation took on another new form. Evan and I were placed in a tent. There’s nothing particularly new or strange about a tent you would think and in fairness ours wasn’t a normal tent. It contained proper beds and even had electricity. The interesting thing was it was essentially located in the Okavango Delta. The Delta is a huge area in the north of Botswana made up of marshes and small islands which are home to a large population of animals (elephants, lions, zebras, impala, etc, etc). Our tent couldn’t have been closer to the Delta, the water was lapping up right outside our door! In fact, there was a worry at one point that we’d be keep awake all night by frogs who were croaking raucously when we first arrived. Fortunately they seemed to need their sleep too as they quietened down by about midnight.

A few days later I think we experienced the best accommodation of the whole trip, in terms of value, convenience, excitement, uniqueness and just general entertainment! After hopping across the border from Botswana into Zimbabwe and spending three nights in the town of Victoria Falls, North West Zimbabwe, we needed to get down to Bulawayo in order to make our way back into South Africa. Zach and Evan had explored a number of options but in the end it was decided there was only one...the train. Now this train is not your average train. It’s a bygone from the colonial period. Manufactured (in Birmingham) and assigned to duty in the early 1950s it really is a relic! In fact many of the features still display the letters ‘RR’, Rhodesian Railways. However, as you’d expect it oozed character and had charm in abundance. There was no electricity or water on board so it was darkness for most of the trip and the toilet was interesting. It was basically just a hole in the train floor and paying a visit was certainly a dangerous business. Right next to it was another door which was constantly swinging open to reveal the dark night outside and one navigational oversight would’ve meant certain death. I was a little nervous before travelling as Zimbabwean railways have a less than satisfactory reputation for safety and there have been reports of this train experiencing collisions with elephants on previous journeys! However, it’s a sleeper train and so for just $10 for a ‘first class’ cabin you receive a bed (bunks again), blankets and a pillow, your transport and crucially a trip back in time to a forgotten era. Not a bad deal....as long as you make it in one piece. Fortunately our journey passed off smoothly apart from a few random stops, maybe to allow passing elephants to cross the line safely. We departed Victoria Falls at 7.00pm and arrived in Bulawayo the next morning at about 10.00am. I think all four of us enjoyed a decent night’s sleep and would agree that accommodation wise it was the most engaging and enjoyable of all.

We actually spent three straight nights sleeping on wheels. We reached Bulawayo by train and after taking a few hours to look around the town we jumped on a bus bound for Pretoria. We were working to a schedule and so didn’t have time to hang around which was unfortunate as Bulawayo is a smart town and spending a few hours there made it hard to imagine Zimbabwe is in as much turmoil as is reported. We took a night bus from Bulawayo which was a little random as for five hours straight we were treated to a drama about the legendary 19th century Zulu king, Shaka. After three hours I was desperate to avert my eyes but somehow it just drew me in. I’m not sure if it was the horrifically bad acting or the inappropriate nudity! We also spent three hours at the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa processing visas and to top things off all four of us were ‘randomly’ selected along with a couple of other passengers to be searched by an intimidating South African police officer! Anyone who has seen the programme ‘Banged up Abroad’ will understand that it was a nervy moment for one and all, especially at 1.00am! On the whole it wasn’t an ideal night’s sleep. So the Saturday night was spent on a train, the Sunday on a bus and on the Monday Hewsan and I slept in a caravan. We split from Zach and Evan as they were off to Mozambique and we had unfinished business in South Africa. We stayed at a place in Bloemfontein, central South Africa, and they put us in a caravan in the garden. The next day we made the short two hour journey east across into Lesotho. This is where the accommodation once again took on a new form. We stayed in a traditional Sotho round hut, similar to the one in the photo below. For me personally Lesotho was the most spectacular in terms of scenery out of the four countries we visited. Hopefully the photos below will demonstrate why.

The accommodation hotchpotch was completed back in South Africa as I stayed on the ‘Wild Coast’ in the Eastern Cape with my friend Anne. She works for an NGO and resides at a really great backpackers in a small village (about five hours south of Durban) right by the Indian Ocean called Mdumbi. They’ve recently built a new dwelling and I was the first person to give it a test run. It’s called the A-Frame as this is exactly what it is...a wooden frame in the shape of an A! It doesn’t yet have a door but it’s extremely comfortable. A couple of nights during my five night stay there were livelier than others as the winds picked up to near gale force and I was very grateful for the warm bedding. I’m sure many, many more people will enjoy the A-Frame in years to come as it has a little veranda which looks out across the Indian Ocean. If you enjoy peace, tranquillity, miles and miles of stunning coastline and hours of quiet contemplation then this is the place for you (see photo below). My final night of the whole trip was back in Pretoria and on this occasion after reuniting with Zach and Evan for our return flight we slept in a shed. By this point though this seemed perfectly natural...

Dispelled myths

A myth is essentially a wrong belief. For example; carrots make you see in the dark, Victoria Beckham sings live, Argyle will be a premiership club in 5 years, etc, etc. Before I embarked upon this journey into Southern Africa I had a few of these wrong beliefs in my head. Fortunately three weeks later I’ve been enlightened and I now know differently. Allow me to explain. I may well expose my gross ignorance and naivety through this exercise but here goes...

Myth One – Rwandair – Tiny African airline and therefore bound to be inefficient, uncomfortable and generally shoddy.
Our return flights were with Rwandair (Rwanda’s commercial airline) and to be honest from the moment of booking the tickets right up until arriving at the airport for the departure flight I was concerned. Those who know me will know that I’m an abject worrier at the best of times but it was my belief it may have been a little risky taking the cheaper offer and supporting our local airline. In the back of my mind there was a degree of trepidation that all manner of things could go wrong. I imagined a small, cramped, rickety old plane that would most probably leave two hours late, our baggage would be lost and the in-flight meal would consist of a small piece of bread and cold, weak coffee and as for arriving at our destination that would be in the hands of the gods! Ok, so I may be exaggerating considerably here but in hindsight I feel an enormous sense of embarrassment as I adopted the views of a typical old colonial harbouring the belief that Africa is incapable of competing with services offered in the ‘West’. Rwandair stuck two giant fingers up at me though as I was provided with the most enjoyable flying experience I’ve ever had. We checked in without any problems and no queues whatsoever. The staff were extremely friendly (including security) and our plane left bang on time. The plane incidentally was very new and extremely comfortable with enough leg room to keep even John Cleese’s significantly taller, lankier, older brother (if he had one) from getting Deep Vein Thrombosis! The meal served was tasty and even better they were generous with the complimentary drinks. At one point I turned to my right and Evan was fast asleep having enjoyed a little too much of the complimentary red wine! We landed in Johannesburg on time and thirty minutes later we were all happily reunited with our baggage. Three weeks later we were back on the plane and it was déjà vu only this time they were even more generous with the drinks. If Rwandair is anything to go by then Rwanda really is developing and is a shining light for Africa.

Myth Two – South Africa – A crime-ridden society best avoided at all costs.

Here was my second mistake. Over the years I’ve read too much bad press about South Africa. My knowledge has always been fairly poor apart from the usual issues and so I’d developed a kind of mistrust for the country. I warned that this may expose some gross ignorance on my part and here is a perfect example. I entered South Africa with a fair amount of apprehension imagining the worst. In my head there would be muggers lurking on every corner waiting to pounce, every stop at traffic lights would cause another two minutes of panic and leaving the safety of the accommodation after dark would be foolish to the extreme. Once again I was wrong...very wrong. South Africa is a fantastic place, full of warm, welcoming people and in general it appears no different to any other nation. If you exercise caution and keep your wits about you it’s potentially no more dangerous than any European country. I have to admit I spent no time in Johannesburg (which may be crucial) but I had no problems in Durban, Pretoria, East London or Bloemfontein. From my very short experience of South Africa I would certainly recommend it as a country to visit as its diversity in terms of people, landscape, culture and places of interest is incomparable to anywhere else I’ve been.

Myth Three – South Africa – Weather

South Africa – it’s in Africa, so it’s bound to be hot in every part, all year round. Ignorance and stupidity in abundance once again from me! I was warned it’s currently winter in South Africa yet in my foolhardiness I assumed this meant the temperatures would be on a par with a mild British summer. I was therefore totally unprepared for what we experienced. The mornings and evenings were beyond chilly. In many ways it was a welcome change from the dry, stifling heat of Rwanda but at the time this was scant consolation. Fortunately most nights were spent sat round a large open fire, which for some odd reason always seemed to be located in the bar area...

Myth Four – South Africa – Beer

...which brings me nicely onto the subject of beer. Once again I was incorrect in a key assumption. I was confident that in South Africa we’d get to sample a couple of decent lagers. An apology to any Springboks reading this but the beer was at best disappointing. We tried three or four different types (all in the aid of research of course) and the verdict was the same each time...weak, watery, tasteless...excuse my vulgarity but many beer connoisseurs would probably compare it to cats urine! We found the same thing in Botswana and Zimbabwe. The trip was saved only by Lesotho where the local beer, Maluti aroused a slight tickling of the taste buds. We’d all been a little unsure up to now of the Rwandan beers we’ve sampled occasionally this year but in hindsight generally feel we’ve been spoilt in comparison to the offerings of Southern Africa. In fairness it may be due to both the size and strength of Rwandan beer. The bottles are large and the alcohol volume generous! We also believe a certain beer called Turbo King may well contain more than just alcohol and is best avoided. The fact it originates from DR Congo is the final nail in the coffin as far as Turbo King is concerned!

Myth Four – I’m scared of heights

I’ve never been one for heights. St Pauls Cathedral was tough, Gaudi’s Casa Mila wasn’t much better and even the death slide at Woodlands Adventure Park caused shakes, sweating palms and a very real appreciation of my own mortality! So imagine my surprise when I overheard Evan and Hewsan discussing the bungee jump at Victoria Falls and I was struck with these bizarre emotions of thrill and intrigue. Their minds were set on it. The following day they would set foot upon the bridge at Victoria Falls which forms the border crossing between Zimbabwe and Zambia, have a man attach a long piece of elastic to their legs, wave into a camera, stare out at the horizon and then after a rapid countdown hurl themselves off a small metal platform and plummet 111 metres vertically downwards, head first towards the flowing torrent of the Zambezi River. Madness I thought...but too good to miss! So I joined them. Hewsan was the first to go. He marched up, paid his money and launched himself into the abyss as if his life depended on it. It was a bold and somewhat impressive move. Act first, think later. Evan and I looked on and at this point were beginning to question our determination of the previous day. In the end though the courage returned and before we knew it we were being strapped up and waiting our turn. I say it was courage but it could well have been due to the harassment of the local hawkers on the bridge. It was either stay and say no we didn’t want to buy their wooden elephant over and over again, or, jump off the bridge. The bridge jump seemed like the more hassle free option. The moment actually passed very quickly. The worst part was just the hanging around on the platform and the chatter from the guys running it. At one point they asked me, as I stood clinging to the edge of the platform waiting to leap and in no state to talk, if I would say something profound into the camera. I thought for a moment and all that came out of my mouth was ‘Green Army’...which is actually quite profound to some of us out there! Anyway, below is the proof of my jump and would I do it again? Yes, I think I probably would. Although without wanting to put anyone off, the following day we were chatting to a girl at our backpackers who was sat with her leg in a bandage. It turns out she’d done the jump the same day as us but as the elastic reached its maximum extension on the first bounce her knee ligament snapped and she spent the next two minutes in absolute agony, suspended in mid air. The positive thing is the doctor who treated her said it was the first bungee-related injury he’d ever treated! Oh, on a side note much of my motivation for doing a bungee jump was based on a feeling of great family inadequacy as Becs, my sister, first jumped many years ago and since then has done a couple more I think so I have some catching up to do!

Myth Five – Pony trekking is exclusively associated with unmanliness...

Pony trekking...trekking on ponies. It doesn’t matter how you say it, it just doesn’t sound that ‘masculine’! So when Hewsan suggested this activity to me I was a little sceptical. I have an image to uphold after all. I often imagine myself as a Ross Kemp type character, braving it in all manner of risky situations, laughing in the face of fear, wrestling bears...bungee jumping, etc, etc. Ok so most of that is fairly (totally) inaccurate but even so...pony trekking?!! Still, Loren, a fellow volunteer had experienced the pony trekking in Lesotho a couple of years back and I believe cited it as one of his favourite activities in all Africa and I’m not one to question Loren so his endorsement was good enough for me. Hewsan and I therefore found ourselves in the small village of Malealea, high up in the hills of Lesotho and as I mentioned before it is stunning. We were kitted out with the necessary safety gear and assigned a pony. Hewsan remarked the helmet made me look like a typical Brit and all I needed was a fetching red coat, a bugle and a few hounds and the image would’ve been complete. I was given an older, calmer pony, perfect for a beginner our guide assured me. In fact, it was remarkable how well our ponies matched our individual personalities. Mine was a docile, laidback (lazy you might say), unassuming, uninterested and generally unenthusiastic chap whereas Hewsan’s pony (and he won’t mind me saying this!) was a feisty, boisterous, stubborn, independent-minded, almost arrogant beast! If Hewsan pulled the rein one way Rainbow (the pony!) would go the other. If Hewsan wanted to stop to take a photo Rainbow would wait until he was just about to click the button and then move. Mine however was content to amble across the terrain, stopping at regular intervals to graze or take some water refreshment and I was very content for him to do this. We seemed to have a mutual understanding. He’d get me to wherever was needed and I’d remain patient while he did his thing, all in good time, what’s the rush?! It was the perfect partnership. In regards to my fears about this activity not being ‘manly’ enough I had to rethink my attitude as we stood peering out across the vast mountainous terrain in all directions. It was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever visited and watching the local people travelling on their trusty, hard-working, loyal ponies was all the proof I needed to assure me that once again my ignorance and naivety had prevailed.

Fascinating people with fascinating lives (who make you feel totally inadequate!)

When you spend almost three weeks travelling in Africa and staying in backpackers there’s a high chance you’ll come across some pretty fascinating people whose lives seem infinitely more interesting than your own and who upon meeting you know immediately they’re far cooler than you can ever dream of being. This seemed to be the case in every backpackers we stayed. I’ll provide a few examples.

In Zimbabwe at a place called Shoestring Backpackers in Victoria Falls we met three such characters. The first were a couple of guys from the UK who in the true spirit of travelling had bought themselves an old vehicle (a Land Rover type thing) and were being guided by nothing but the open road. They’d been all over the place by the time we ran into them. They had stories in abundance and you couldn’t help being drawn in by their experiences. I guess it was just the complete freedom they seemed to possess which gripped me. Time was no impediment and it was just them and their vehicle taking on Africa. They laughed about how they’d had to use copious amounts of money, cigarettes and even sweets to bribe their way across the continent but it didn’t seem to worry them because that’s the unique thing about travelling...it’s all about the experience and the priceless knowledge gained.

In the same place we met a Dutch guy travelling on his own. I’d say he was probably in his mid to late 50s and in his retirement he’s decided to head out and have a look at what’s going on in the world. And when I say the world I mean THE world. He’s already travelled across Europe, through Asia and into Africa. It doesn’t sound too dissimilar from what many other people do but the fairly distinct aspect of this guy’s journey is he’s covering it all overland. He’s already been travelling for months now and doesn’t seem to intend to stop any time soon. He’s not interested in making his journey easier by taking the odd flight as in his eyes flying is completely unexciting, characterless and devoid of any adventure. Why fly when you can take a train through Malawi sat shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek with your fellow passengers on a hard wooden bench in sweltering heat for hours on end?!! It’s buses or trains all the way for him and for that I take my hat off to him!

During my time in Durban I met a French lady in the backpackers and she told me that she and her husband had taken a break from work and along with their daughter had spent the past eight months seeing the world. A brave move considering their daughter is only eight but I imagine she will have learnt so much from the experience that maybe she would never have learnt in the classroom. In Mdumbi, South Africa, I met a film maker from Holland. She’s spent the past couple of years in Africa making films and seems to spend her life moving around looking for a new issue to feature in her next project. Hearing all of these tales and descriptions of other people’s lives I couldn’t help feeling a little envious but in hindsight I realised that when I told them my reason for being in Africa they expressed just as much interest in my work as I did theirs and it dawned on me that I’m sometimes a little dismissive of my experiences and if I’m not careful this year will come to an abrupt end without me savouring everything about it. Anyway, psychology over!

That pretty well sums up the travels. It was an eye-opening and enlightening look at what Southern Africa has to offer. It was also an arduous and sometimes uncompromising journey and upon completion we worked out that over the course of the three weeks we’d spent just over ninety hours on bus or train! It was well worth it though and if I ever get the opportunity to end up back there at some point in my life I’ll jump at the chance. Each country we visited offered something unique and something worth sticking around for. I’ll finish by telling you about one of my favourite moments of the trip. We’d just stepped off a small minibus which had taken us from the town of Nata in Northern Botswana, to Kasane, another small town in North Eastern Botswana, right on the border with Zimbabwe. I’d spent the whole three hour journey wedged between Evan and this gigantic man. It was the last seat and on first glance there didn’t seem to be a seat at all but the conductor assured me it was there, if I looked hard enough. I edged timidly towards the back of the bus and the huge man stared back at me as if to say ‘don’t even think about it punk’! I displayed a look of helplessness and exclaimed, ‘don’t worry, I’m only small’. He still seemed both unsympathetic and unconvinced. I spent the whole journey perched on the very edge of the seat, taking up as little room as possible with my arms positioned so awkwardly I had to keep checking they were still attached to my body. The gigantic man to my right turned out to be a good sort and we chatted to him for most of the journey. He also revealed the reason for his size as Evan enquired about his hobbies and he replied ‘T.V. and beer’. He seemed quite proud that in one day he can allegedly consume forty-eight cans of beer. It’s ok though because he only drinks at weekends...just Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays...so that’s a mere 144 cans per week. Anyway, that’s not the actual story. My favourite moment came as we walked into the arrivals office for Zimbabwe border control. It was fairly disorganised and the staff gave us a look of ‘here we go’ when the four of us walked in. Evan, Zach and Hewsan’s visas were processed first and then it was my turn. Upon seeing my British passport the guy’s eyes lit up. There’s clearly nothing better than mocking a member of the old colonisers. He had great pleasure informing me my visa would cost $55, instead of the $30 paid by Americans. He actually said (with a wide grin on his face) ‘You’re going to have to part with a lot of your hard-earned cash my friend’. Then it came to the questioning and he asked me my profession. I replied ‘English teacher’ and his response was, ‘Read much Shakespeare?’ I replied ‘not really’ and quick as a flash he responded with ‘not a real English teacher then are you’! I thought about responding myself with something witty but when you’re about to enter Zimbabwe and the guy with power of admittance is clutching your passport (which confirms you’re a member of the nation that once controlled his land) and he has complete control over your next movement AND above him hangs a huge, imposing framed photo of his Excellency, Mr Robert Mugabe...it’s best to smile and comply! So I begrudgingly paid my money and kept quiet and thanked him for his help. Welcome to Zimbabwe, enjoy your stay...

So until next time when tales will once again return to Rwanda...Mwirirwe!

The World Cup stadium in Durban

Mdumbi, South Africa

A surfer in the Indian Ocean off Durban
In this update I’d like to mention some of the various characters who have helped to shape and mould this experience in their own unique way and most of whom are probably quite oblivious of their role! I’m embarrassed to say that most of the people I will mention are rather shamefully (on my part) nameless but this in no way diminishes their importance! I’ll begin with a guy who I mentioned in my very first update way back in January, Eric, the nuns’ cook. What can I say about Eric other than he’s a hero! I knew this from the beginning as he served me up some top notch cuisine in my very early days here in the distant past when I dined with the Nuns. If it hadn’t been for his fluffy three egg omelette or his perfectly cooked roast potatoes who knows if I’d have even made it through those first three weeks! Unfortunately I rarely run into Eric these days but on occasions I’ll see him when I’m collecting water and he always greets me with a very warm hello and a giant grin. Our conversation is very limited but this never seems to matter. He cemented himself in my characters of note one day a few months back now. I was leaving my house and about to stroll over to school when in the distance I caught a glimpse of Eric. He saw me and I was acknowledged with an animated and particularly expressive double-hand wave with both arms stretched high into the air which he prolonged for a good five seconds and it was accompanied by a huge smile. I knew from that moment that Eric was a good sort and I felt a little regretful I hadn’t responded in kind, feeling fearful my single hand wave had been insufficient! I guess his manner has constantly provided me with a reassurance that although this year may be tough at times and living here in a village alone would be a real challenge, there would always be people ready to help and even though there’s a gulf in culture and language this in no way prevents genuine friendliness and warmth and for me Eric is a symbol of that.

Second on the list is a trio. A few months back it would’ve been unlikely for me to consider any of these three guys in a positive light but I was soundly mistaken. When I first arrived here in Save the experience of leaving the village was a daunting task. I walk to the main road and from there I can pick up a small minibus into Butare or a larger minibus if I’m off to Kigali. You can also pick up a moto (small motorbike) or a taxi velo (a bicycle!). Now, my presence is obviously a bit of a novelty and as a result the problem I had to contend with in the initial month or so was receiving a substantial amount of attention (some good, some not so good) from the guys who hang around at the bus stop. A few of these guys are workers but most are loiterers, waiting to see what the day has in store for them. So when I come strolling along (without wanting to sound patronising) I expect I add a bit of variation to their day. I see the same guys there each time I catch a bus and I’m sure that’s where many of them pass the time as soon as the sun rises to the moment it recedes behind the rolling green hills which engulf the area. The problem is work here is scarce and many people are unable to rely on a daily income, they just work when they’re lucky enough to find someone who needs something doing and has the ability to pay for this, whatever it may be. The bus stop is therefore a meeting place. It brings people together and with it comes the opportunity to talk, to joke, to share problems, to pass on information from nearby villages, to watch as trucks hurtle past on their way to or from Burundi and buses carry yet another cargo of passengers (those who can afford it) on their way to the bright lights of Kigali. Fundamentally though (from my observations) it would appear that the bus stop is a place for people to feel a part of something. This location is a hive of activity and it reassures people that life is happening and there’s a community around them. Often when I’m stood waiting for a bus scores of men will pass on bikes carrying anything and everything from goats to bottles of beer and the women will do the same only carrying the goods on their heads, often with a baby strapped to their back. It provides a purpose and a connection and is to some extent a lifeline. The people who spend their days there know exactly who’s entering and who’s leaving Save on a daily basis. Knowledge is power as they say...

Anyway, back to the three guys. As I said, life at the bus stop was tough for the first few weeks. I was still acclimatising and attempting to familiarise myself with my surroundings. I was not yet used to the constant attention and the bus stop was always where this reached a crescendo. As soon as I came into view the heckling started. I had no idea if it was friendly or not and I have to admit I was rather defensive in my manner which probably didn’t help matters. I said very little but knew I was the subject of many conversations as I continuously heard the word ‘muzungu’ generally followed by laughter. I was stared at relentlessly and took to staring back. At the time I was naive and took myself a little too seriously I think. In hindsight some amplified friendliness on my part would’ve gone a long way to easing my apprehension. Anyway, the breakthrough came a few weeks in. It was a very minor event but I often think back and consider just how much it contributed to a real change in proceedings. I was buying a ticket to Kigali from one of the ticket sellers and we broke into a little conversation. It was very basic, hello, how are you and crucially, ‘witwande?’...’what is your name?’ in Kinyarwanda. This piece of information was basic in importance yet monumental in effect. Once he knew my name that was it, from that moment on he has always greeted me by name and with the traditional Rwandese/African handshake (basically extend arm back and then launch into the handshake with a kind of slap followed by the shake!). He has become my go-to man whenever I appear at the bus stop and he always makes sure I get on a bus. He actually told me his name but I didn’t catch it and I’m too embarrassed to ask him again now! Through him I was then introduced to two further guys who also both work for bus companies. One guy, Charles, speaks a little English and is always extremely affable and as helpful as it’s physically possible to be! There’s then one other guy who’s also a ticket seller. Unfortunately his name eludes me as well but in the same vein as the other two in the trio he always greets me and helps me if needs be. In fact, they’re so helpful that on a couple of occasions if a bus hasn’t appeared within five minutes they’ve actually flagged down passing cars and hitched me a free ride into Butare! However, their crucial role has been the connection they’ve created between myself and the rest of the guys who pass their time at the bus stop. I no longer fear the experience of catching a bus and my walk along the dirt track to the bus stop is a great deal more pleasant now as I’m often greeted (by name) by the taxi velo riders as they pass me. There is one further guy who works at the bus stop who I haven’t mentioned. I’m still a little unsure of him as he’s not always there but on the occasions he is he always seems to wearing a coat...but not just any coat, it’s a women’s coat. In fairness, it’s a decent item of clothing and fits him fairly well, I guess he has the figure for it, but it’s a little peculiar! One of my favourite memories of catching a bus was when this particular guy went chasing off down the road after one which had shot past us all. His long, beige, female coat was flapping in the wind as he waved his arms frantically at the driver. For a brief moment he assumed the appearance of an African Frank Spencer looking forlorn yet absolutely determined to succeed...and he did, I was sat on the bus and on route just a few seconds later and as I looked back the cross-dressing bus assistant was stood waving enthusiastically at me! Random, yet satisfying.

Another character of note is Venusti, the boy who comes to wash my clothes and floors. You may remember me talking about how my school had wanted him to live in my kitchen and I’d politely declined. Well, we agreed he would come every two weeks to wash clothes and floors and six months on he has proved an invaluable asset. He hasn’t once let me down and he works like a trooper! He played a key role in driving the ants from my kitchen and in a head to head conflict between him and ‘Vanish’ to find who can make your whites whitest my money would be on him all the way, he has a gift. He has been a lifesaver as there’s no way I could’ve coped with hand-washing my clothes all year. I tried it once and after spending about an hour scrubbing I hung up the clothes only to find just ten minutes later the washing line had snapped and my clothes were strewn across the yard dirtier than when I’d started. I know when I’m beaten and realised at that moment my mental stability would be better off if I enlisted some help with the household chores.

Other characters who deserve a mention:

Crescent – The Ugandan teacher who has been my main ally in the staffroom as like me his French is minimal as is his Kinyarwanda and therefore we’ve been able to share the confusion during most staff meetings. He’s also an Entrepreneurship teacher like me and crucially brought a Ugandan entrepreneurship textbook with him which has proved to be a bit of a bible for us at times!

Random primary school children – Often when I take the short walk to school I encounter the primary school children on their way to their school a little further along from mine. I told one of them my name one day a couple of months ago and this vital piece of information spread to the rest of the group in a matter of minutes so now as I walk along I’m often followed by a group of small children who chant my name. It’s a little disconcerting, but also quite charming.

The large pig – About halfway along the dirt road on the way to the bus stop there lives a pig...a large pig. He resides in a muddy puddle under a tree and never seems to move but always looks as happy as....well, a pig in mud...or Ben Fogle feeding the tigers at Longleat! I often find him snuffling around in the dirt when I walk past or sometimes he’ll just be lazing about in the sun. Either way he never seems to move and always makes me smile.

So there you have it, these are just some of the random characters who have had a part to play in my Rwanda experience.

One of my least favourite things to do here is getting a haircut. I’ve braved it three times now and on each occasion it has been with a different barber. The first time was in Butare and it went ok and wasn’t a complete disaster. The second time I decided to support the local community and went to a guy in the village. This was less of a success. For a start it was a spectacle that attracted a number of intrigued viewers and in no time at all word had obviously spread that the muzungu was having his hair cut. Secondly, when I enquired about the price the guy pointed towards a pricelist. It read, ‘Abantu – 200 RWF, Abazungu – 1,500 RWF’. Abantu is basically a local person and Abazungu is a foreign/white person. Although feeling a little discriminated by this pricelist I was also quite impressed they’d taken the trouble to produce it as I can’t imagine there are many muzungus popping in for a quick trim in Save! My hair was cut (or rather, shaved) by Ahmed, a very friendly chap who has decorated his little establishment with posters of Britney Spears and Manchester United players. He reassured me not to worry and then took the clippers to my head. He made some small talk with his limited English and everyone laughed as I endeavoured to respond in Kinyarwanda. The ‘cut’ took around forty minutes (ironically) and by the end I resembled Sesame Street’s Bert and Ahmed my friendly barber had offered me his sister! I went home and finished the cut myself and decided to explore my hair cutting options further. As a result, last Saturday I found myself in Kigali and decided to see if the nation’s capital could offer me an enhanced and safer experience. It didn’t. I tentatively rocked up at ‘King’s Salon’ (ironic again) and met a friendly man at the door. ‘How can I help’, he said. ‘I want a hair cut’, I said. ‘3000 francs’ he said. ‘1500’, I replied. ‘2500’, he responded. ‘2000’, I retorted. A few seconds later I was sat in the chair but clearly I’d been too resilient in my bargaining and had aggravated my new barber as the following few minutes felt like an assault. It was as if I’d been conscripted into the military and this was my first duty, having all my hair removed. His initial action was to take the razor and run it straight through my hair from the fringe to the back. His intentions were clear, there would be no mercy. He pushed my head to one side and then brusquely to the other. It continued like this and within what felt like seconds all my fears had been realised. It was too quick and I was paralysed by fear and shock but mainly a strong realisation that it was far too late. If I’d wanted to prevent this debacle ideally I should never have entered the establishment or more crucially delayed any haircut until my safe return to the UK. As I said though it was too late and so I just sat there and waited for the onslaught to end. The good news is I may not need another cut now for a few months (if not years!) and I guess I did get my money’s worth, even though I had to barter for it...

I’ll close with a particularly enjoyable story...for me anyway. Earlier this week I experienced another random moment and on this occasion it was an enormous, yet highly satisfying shock. I was invited by a couple of teachers to play football after school so I went out and a few guys arrived but then the English teacher turned up and I was forced to look at him, look away, rub my eyes, look back at him once more, look away again, etc, etc. I could not believe what I was seeing. He had turned up wearing a ten year old Argyle shirt! I honestly couldn’t believe it, how does it happen? How does a Plymouth Argyle shirt make its way several thousand miles south into another continent and then not only turn up in Rwanda, not only turn up in the Southern Province, not only turn up in the small village of Save, but the shirt turns up at my exact school on the back of a fellow teacher?!! He couldn’t remember how he’d come to acquire it and I think was a little baffled as to why I was so interested in it. I was bombarding him with random questions and probably making very little sense as I was still in a state of shock. I explained that they were my team and then asked if he’d mind a photo (for proof mainly!) and you can see the evidence at the bottom of this update. There is also a photo of the other male teachers who were playing football that day too. One thing I’ve found from personal experience is that Rwandan people often seem very keen to have their photo taken, it’ just that when it comes to the actual taking of the photo many seem reluctant to smile! Anyway, in summary, it’s nice to know that the presence of Plymouth Argyle is alive and well across the globe.

My second term of teaching here is now officially over. The exams passed by without incident and I marked my 200 papers within three days and handed the marks in this week. It’s scary to think I just have one term left now and the final term is fairly short, just eight weeks of actual teaching. It’s also scary to think how quickly this fourteen week term passed by. This weekend I’m flying down to Johannesburg (Rwandair were offering a cheap deal on return flights) and from there I’m hoping to travel into Botswana, Zimbabwe and then back into South Africa to spend some time on the Wild Coast just south of Durban. These are the plans anyway, I just hope they materialise! Therefore I may not be able to update my blog for 3-4 weeks so I apologise but hopefully I’ll have some interesting stories and photos to share next time.

So, until next time, whenever that may be... Mwirirwe!

I’d like to use this update to talk mainly about teaching. If there’s one thing I’ve firmly discovered from this whole experience it is that I’m not an instinctive teacher! For some people it seems to come naturally, they walk into a classroom and immediately their presence engulfs the room, it seizes the students and grips their interest and concentration for as long as it needs to. For me personally it has been a year of awkward moments, time filling and a general rollercoaster of fluctuating emotions! I wouldn’t say this has devalued the experience though, far from it. I came here wanting to experience a completely different culture, to test myself in an environment wholly distinct from what I’m accustomed to, to help in a small way with the development of English in Rwanda and to generally just give my sanity a rigorous working over to see how well it can cope! Six months in I would cautiously say that to date the sanity has held up relatively successfully. The problem is it always seems to be teetering precariously and all it takes is one event (often very minor i.e. an ant invasion) to send it tumbling into the deep ravine below and I have to scramble and climb my way back to safety.

There are a couple of volunteers on our program who have been struck by a life-defining lightning bolt during their time here so far. Teaching has entered their soul and they’re planning a career in the field of education. I have to say I haven’t received the same feelings but I can completely understand why they feel this way and I really admire them. I guess there’s a genuine sense of freedom that derives from teaching here. Armed with a piece of chalk, your mind and a blackboard, there are endless routes you can take and each period presents you with a blank canvass. There is something very liberating about it all. I think the difference for me is that I really enjoy the whole experience of being in the classroom, interacting with the students and expecting the unexpected, I just find it difficult at times teaching my ‘chosen’ subject. Entrepreneurship has been a real challenge right from the word go. There are several reasons for this. Predominantly my background isn’t really set in this field so as I’ve mentioned before on occasions I find myself to be knowledge deficient and unable to deviate significantly from the given curriculum. The curriculum itself is quite basic and is also brief so it requires some padding out, the resources are very limited and finally it has been difficult communicating to the students just why they are studying it and endeavouring to convince them that it’s important. In addition to all of this I’m teaching in English of course, which for many students is their third or fourth language. As a result, my favourite moments in the classroom have generally come from situations when Entrepreneurship hasn’t been part of the discussion! I’ve had some great chats with my students and I think this has helped them just as much as learning about business. The government wants these students to be exposed to English and especially native English speakers so my presence is hopefully a benefit to them.

For example, recently the discussions with my classes have encompassed a range of indiscriminate subjects. Quite randomly during one lesson a student raised his hand whilst I was teaching them about the importance of savings and asked me, ‘Teacher, in England do you have those animals which are called the mole?!’ I guess my reply should’ve been ‘And what the Dickens does this have to do with savings?!’, but I never like to ignore a question (however irrelevant it is!) so I explained we do have moles in the UK and we then spent about ten minutes discussing not only the nuisance value of a mole but also their appealing features, mainly their appearance and it was decided by consensus that a mole is quite a charming and endearing little animal! Somehow I then got onto the topic of ‘toad in the hole’ and explained this very traditional English delicacy to the class...I think it was because we were talking about holes...created by moles...

In another class I found myself explaining the whole football history of England and Germany. I’d mentioned that it was a grudge match as we had a lot of football history together. I then proceeded to educate them about 1966 (in far too much detail but they can now explain who Geoff Hurst, Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore are if asked!). I also described the penalty heartaches of 1990 and 1996 and also the 5-1 demolition from a few years back. When I finished this lecture I discovered that seventy-five percent of the class were either asleep or doing actual schoolwork! A couple of weeks back I spent almost an entire fifty minute period discussing the life of Jack, my family’s border collie! We somehow got onto the subject of pets and I mentioned Jack and my students bombarded me with questions. Where does he sleep? How old is he? How much did we pay for him? Does he eat rice? Does he drink tea? Where does he go to the toilet? Why didn’t I bring him to Rwanda with me? Etc, etc. They found it hilarious that he has his own bed and even more ridiculous that he gets a walk three times a day. I thought it best not to tell them that he also has expert medical care, receives Christmas presents and that I often talk to him through Skype!

I also had a quite bizarre conversation with another of my classes last week. I witnessed something whilst walking from my house to their classroom which I had to share with someone as I was physically shocked and their ears were the first available. I had just left my house and was walking alongside the football pitch when all of a sudden I heard some very loud and high-pitched squealing. It sounded a bit like Joe Pasquale laughing. Anyway, the strange noise soon revealed itself as a cat came bounding out of a nearby bush. I recognised the cat as being the Nun’s pet (named simply, Pussy) who was often kicked (literally, poor thing) out of the room when I dined with them back at the very start of the year. Was the cat making the loud squealing noise? No...but the rat in its mouth was! Yes, that’s right, Pussy had just bagged himself some lunch and judging by the size of the rat probably dinner and next day’s breakfast too! I’m not a huge fan of rats generally and can’t say I’ve seen all that many in my life, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for this poor, forlorn chap. Pussy ran towards the Nun’s HQ and just as he was about to disappear around the corner out of view he stopped and turned and looked at me as if to say, ‘what are you looking at? I need to eat as well you know’! He was then gone with the rat. This episode disturbed me a little and so I recalled the whole event to my students. Their reactions were mixed. Some laughed, others grimaced, some looked unmoved as if this was a regular occurrence, but on the whole most of the class just displayed a look of bewilderment aimed directly at me. There are many occasions upon which they look at me in this manner and I think they wonder just what I’m doing and saying and if maybe I’m losing it! Still, it led us onto an enlightening discussion about the diet of a cat in Rwanda and also the different noises made by animals. I actually told the story of the cat and the rat to two of my classes and the reactions from both classes were very similar.

If I had to provide an analogy of my experience of teaching I would say that at times I feel like a father who has several highly strung teenage children! I’m desperately trying to be ‘trendy’ but the more I try the more out of touch I am and the more embarrassing I become to my ‘children’! If I crack a joke it’s usually met with sniggers or an uncomfortable cough or complete silence from my students and there’s one girl in particular who usually just rolls her eyes! In fact this girl rolls her eyes at a lot of things I do. One day she asked me why I didn’t like Hip Hop music and I told her that I didn’t mind some of it but generally it isn’t my cup of tea (I had to explain what this meant). I told her that music is a matter of individual choice and everyone has differing opinions. She rolled her eyes. I told her that at the weekend I had met her Uncle (who’s Head teacher of a local school) and he’d given me a lift into town. She rolled her eyes. I told her the cat and rat story. She rolled her eyes. One day I even just walked in and said good morning and I’m sure I caught a quick roll of the eyes from her then too!

I experienced another awkward moment in class earlier this week, one of the numerous I have to face on a almost daily basis! One student, who is a really nice guy and I know I shouldn’t say it but is one of my favourite students (and on a random side note looks a bit like Dizzee Rascal!) asked me a question I was hoping I would never have to attempt to answer. He asked me where I pray, both here in Rwanda and when I’m back in the UK. I ummed and erred for a few seconds and then had to admit that I wasn’t really one for communal prayer. I tried to redeem myself by saying I had been Christened but then ruined it by admitting that I only ever really enter a church for weddings or funerals. I was effectively carrying a very large imaginary spade and digging a sizeable hole for myself! Religion is a way of life for a large percentage of Rwandans and it forms a core part of their everyday life. For example, I believe my students rise at 5.30am each morning for prayers and a prayer is conducted in the classroom both before their first lesson of the day and the first lesson after lunch and then on various other interludes during the course of the day. The Catholic Church has an extensive presence in Rwanda and this is even more noticeable in the Southern Province where I‘m based as this is where the first Catholic missionaries settled at the end of the 19th century. In fact, I think I’m right in saying that the first Catholic school in the whole of Rwanda was founded here in Save back in 1905. So, as you can imagine my answer to the question was received with an array of different facial expressions but in the end I managed to emerge relatively unscathed. In fact I needn’t worry as one of my students in another class wrote on their test paper, ‘Mr Stanlake Edward – I wish you good holidays, God will be with you forever’. It seems therefore that I’m in good hands...now, if he could only get rid of the ants...

Speaking of ants, I won the battle for the kitchen but they’ve moved into fresh territory so I’m currently fighting on a new front. Fortunately at present (touch wood) they’re sticking to the yard and the small ones seem to be content maintaining a safe distance from my house. My new problem however is the large (gargantuan) species which seem to possess no fear and why should they, they’re huge! They only tend to emerge at nightfall but then have no boundaries and travel wherever they like, sometimes in packs. A couple of the braver (kamikaze) ones have crossed the Vim cleaning powder defence I’ve laid across the threshold of my back door but they were no match for a shoe! I salute their bravery but I have a policy of taking no prisoners. There were further skirmishes in the bathroom and at one point I thought I may be required to bring out the nuclear weapon once again (the kettle) but so far I’ve refrained. The wasps have gone quiet as I blocked the hole they were accessing the bathroom door through but my new fear is that they’ve moved and set up base in my back door which would most certainly be a serious concern but at present these are only unconfirmed fears. It really is wearisome though and I have to admit I won’t miss these moments when I’m back home.

To finish I’ll return to school once more. I’ve had mixed feedback from the powers that be in the last week. Firstly, I had a surprise visit to one of my lessons from the Head of Studies. He was conducting an assessment of my teaching and he couldn’t have picked a better lesson (from my point of view) as he came on the day all my classes were performing group presentations. Consequently I spent the whole lesson lurking at the back of the classroom listening, observing and occasionally muttering the words, ‘speak up’, ‘be quiet’, ‘stop belching’, ‘very interesting’, ‘well done’, etc, etc. After the lesson, during the break, he summoned me into his office for a critique of my lesson. I was concerned as he generally has a very serious manner and rarely smiles (I was also slightly anxious as he’d interrupted my tea-drinking!). However, there was nothing to worry about as he rated me ‘excellent’ for everything...not bad for essentially doing very little and my students were the key as they behaved impeccably! So maybe I am cut out for this teaching game...or maybe he’d heard about my insect concerns and wanted to keep from pushing me over the edge! My second report from school was less pleasing. I actually received an official letter of discipline from my Headmistress! It was all very formal and requested an explanation as to why I had been absent from school on Monday, 28th June. I had in fact been quite unwell that day and spent most of it in bed. On the day I had sent a text message to my Head of Studies to tell him I wouldn’t be able to teach and to explain why. A few days later he saw me and said this was fine but next time I should text the Headmistress instead but on this occasion he would show her the text I’d sent him. Episode over, or so I thought. A few days later I had to go and ask the Headmistress a question and it was then she handed me the letter. I was a little shocked and tried to explain the whole episode but she has a habit of not really listening and just exclaimed several times (quite forcibly) ‘NO, you must write to me’. I apologised and told her I was unaware this was the procedure but in future I would follow it (which seemed fair enough as no one has ever explained this to me!). She said very little. I have to admit, a little reluctantly, that I’m not a huge fan of her. In the course of my time here she hasn’t once asked me how I am and if everything is ok. On the rare occasions she does communicate with me it’s generally just to bark orders. I’ve always been very respectful and polite to her but my patience is wearing a bit thin! I’ve met very many warm and friendly people here in Rwanda but she is absolutely not one of them. I feel I’d like to remind her that although I appreciate I’m a teacher at her school and therefore have a serious job to do and high standards to keep, I am also a volunteer living and working in a country vastly different to my own and therefore life isn’t always easy. Anyway, that’s my rant over, I feel a little uncomfortable vilifying a nun but she really hasn’t endeared herself to me.

So that completes another update. I have actually now finished teaching for this term and the next two weeks will be spent invigilating and marking exams. Two terms of teaching are now complete, just one to go and on December 1st I fly back home...time really is flying.

Below are a couple of photos of me brainwashing my students (with some looking happier than others!).