Turn-around time?

I am absolutely fuming having just had a budget review at staff meeting at work (a primary school) where we have NO MONEY for exercise books

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a statement by a teacher in Africa – it’s a standard complaint that there are not enough books, chalk or red pens for teachers to do their work. However, this statement appeared on Twitter by a teacher in Britain.

If this had been a statement by a school in Africa, there would no doubt be a huge rush in Britain to collect money, books and pens and rush them over to the school in question without a clear understanding of what was really required. At least this has been my experience to date. So, it was natural that when reading this tweet about a school in Britain, I immediately wondered why a school in Africa hadn’t thought to do some fundraising and send assistance accordingly.

Simply, we are products of our experiences and breaking out of the mould can be quite a challenge. African countries and institutions have become so dependent on handouts that the idea of helping themselves is an alien one even though some in those countries are far more well-off than those in the countries trying to help. It often astounds me that we turn to help others without looking after our own first. There is some logic in the flight travel advice: once you have put your own mask on, then help others.

Handouts don’t work. There’s more wisdom in ‘teach a man to fish and you feed him for life, than give him a fish and feed him for a day’. Similarly, teach a child to read and think and they can work things out for themselves rather than tell them what to think. This can be quite scary for parents but how refreshing when a youngster comes up with an innovative idea.

It’s being bold to break the mould that leads to development and improvements. This was recently reinforced when I was researching about Jaap van Deventer who commanded the forces in East Africa in 1917/18. During the Anglo-Boer War he was with a commander, General Koos de la Rey who changed the style of Boer fighting by simply moving the trenches/hideouts from the top of a hill to the open ground at the base. He used it a few times including at the battle of Magersfontein. Yet, the South Africans fell foul of the Germans doing the same at Salaita Hill in February 1916. Similarly, I’m regularly stunned by reading accounts of basic training in the SA army where men are broken down to all think and behave the same, yet within a few years are expected to be independent thinkers and rise to officer rank where some initiative is required. Some manage it, many don’t – why?

How people get to break the mould they’ve been trained in is one of my fascinations but I don’t think I’ll ever really find out how/why this happens. For now, I’ll just revel in the moments when others do break the mould and do something suprising. Perhaps a school in Africa will start fundraising for schools in Britain … I’ve learnt to never say never.

Things we take for granted

A recent trip to Rwanda again brought to light how we take things for granted.

Rwanda, as I’ve said before is a place too good to be true and long may it last. There are problems as with any country and still scars from the genocide 23 years ago with people still needing to be reintegrated into communities as they are released from prison etc. Where are the Nelson Mandela’s of the world practising forgiveness when you need them most? I can’t help but think too, of the importance of handshakes in building relations. In Africa, we have a three-hold shake symbolising solidarity (although others exist too), but a Muslim friend recently explained to me that the shaking of hands – ie the passing of hands against each other briefly folding fingers around is in effect a way of offering forgiveness for past misdemeanours – purposeful or not. What a lovely thought and another friend – Christian – shared with me his thoughts: simply writing For-I-give.

In Rwanda, I’m hesitant to say I’m involved in the aid industry, but truth be told, I am. I cringe knowing what I know about most aid agencies and hope the work I do is true to my principles and beliefs. I was horrified to hear a friend tell me he’s applying for two jobs – both with aid agencies – one British, one Australian – as they are offering double his Rwandan salary for similar work he is currently doing for a semi-state company. How can any country develop self-sustainability when market prices are so inflated? In addition, there is talk of putting a tax on second-hand clothing – a staple supply. The reason? To protect or encourage the local clothing industry. Surely the answer is to find ways to reduce the cost of locally made items and basic materials such as kitengi (cloth)?

Whilst all of this was happening/being spoken about in Kigali, a short drive away in one of the neighbouring rural areas of the capital, the schools don’t have electricity, the pupils are crammed 5 to a desk which should take 3, the teachers young and mostly enthusiastic, are unable to teach their subject English as they can barely speak it themselves. These classrooms are better equipped and built than many I saw in Tanzania, but are still a huge way off from what we take from granted in Britain, South Africa and elsewhere. The staffroom consists of a concrete floor and everyone sitting around huge big tables with chunky wooden chairs. No clock on the wall – a standard basic in every classroom or training room in England.

A flashing light caught my attention – a teacher was taking photos on his phone. Further investigation revealed that of the 9 or so teachers in the school who do double shifts of teaching (7.20am-11.30am; 1pm-5pm), 3 have smart phones. Rwanda is a classic case of the technological divide. So much can be done online and throughout Kigali Wi-Fi is generally present, however, not all are able to access it. This is not only the case in Rwanda, the same can be found in Tanzania, Malawi and many other African counries.

Not too far out of town, one gets the ‘untarmac’ roads letting you know you’re in the countryside. It’s quite surprising how close to town these areas really are. Managing these in ‘normal’ times is one thing, but I shudder thinking how people do so in the downpours we had whilst I was there. Even those travelling on tarmac found it treacherous. One can’t take the sun for granted on a daily basis, even in March, but at least the sun does shine more frequently in Africa than in Britain.