Continuing Professional Development

This time, there were seven of us making the journey to Rwanda for a two week training trip. We were able to take 17 suitcases with us, filled with children’s clothes, educational toys, games, hand tools, pens, crayons, books, and even an electric hand drill!

What really stuck me this time, is how much has changed in this beautiful country and also in the two amazing schools! This time too, there was a lot of rain – but it meant that the countryside was amazingly green and being pineapple season – well we ate rather a lot of fruit.

As usual, we planned to visit both Nyabihu School for the Deaf and Umutara Deaf School, both of these were the schools that I ended up working closely with during my 18 month VSO volunteering in 2014/15 and have continued to work closely with since. Yes – I first went to Rwanda nearly 6 years ago.

Opening the suitcases was like a real Christmas Day!

Our ‘team’ of seven, consisted of Teacher’s of the Deaf, an Educational Audiologist, a Speech and Language Therapist, a Maths teacher and a Classroom Assistant, who is also an experience school Governor. Between us, we had lots of skills and experience. We were offering sessions on:- Early Intervention; Assessment and Monitoring; Alternative Methods of Maths teaching; Speech and Language and Music: Hearing Screening: Safeguarding: How the Ear works; Interpreting an Audiogram.

The teachers here are not able to access any ‘Professional Development’, as there is no-one in country yet with those skills in Deaf Education. So they were eager to take part in our sessions and asked lots of questions and fully engaged with us. We now know most of the teachers well, – there were a few new ones – so there is already trust between us.

Certificates of Attendance were given out at the final ceremony. They LOVE a certificate!

A week before we planned the visit, three Congolese Teachers of the deaf – two of them deaf adults themselves, asked if they could join us for the training! They live just over the border from Rwanda, so it was not a long journey for them. How can you say NO? One of them, Rev Kamonyo, was the man who rescued Elevanie (Umutara founder with her husband Dominique) from the Genocide after her family had been murdered and had taken her into his own home in the Congo and brought her up. That is why she now has a passion to help the deaf. An inspirational deaf man, who has three schools in the Congo – not the easiest place to work! Translation was interesting! Their sign language translator spoke very good French, but his English was not so hot. So we had presentations in English, then French translation and then into Sign Language. everyone mucked in to help. It was really fun!

Both schools have made amazing progress in the building department, due almost totally to UK funding! The teachers at Nyabihu couldn’t contain their praise for the difference the new school site has made to themselves and the children. The children are now much healthier – the bedrooms aren’t damp but are airier and have mosquito nets. The washing facilities are so much better, the water is cleaner with hand washing stations outside the toilet block. There is space for them to play, to relax in, or to get away from each other if they want to. They reported that before, they would be taking sick children to the health centre weekly. Now they have taken three children in the whole term! Everyone is much happier. And so are the staff.

The vocational work at both schools is developing too. It was so good to see Frank – the little boy of 12 whom I met in January 2014, now an apprentice tailor, sewing shirts, trousers, dresses and bags. I had to buy one of course! The vocational students at Umutara, tailors, hairdressers and construction workers, now have internships after their two year courses. One builder noted that the deaf brick layers were much better workers than hearing ones. They didn’t stop to talk all the time, but got on with their work!

Frank, now 18, working at his sewing machine. What a great role model for the younger ones at school. Without Umutara Deaf School, he would be a labourer in a village, with no language, no education and no prospects. Now he has a trade, a language, a supportive and fun peer group and a future to look forward to.

Rwanda is so beautiful. I continue to hope that the Government will soon realise that it is their economic interest to support the schools who are bringing a future to the deaf children, by at least paying the teacher’s salaries and providing food for the children. These two items are the most expensive bills the schools face, and it is an ongoing burden trying to find enough financial support to keep going. Anything we can do to help them is so appreciated.

The view on the way home from our last day in Nyabihu. A Rainbow – hope for the future.

we are now raising money for both schools through the small UK Charity, DeafReach. http://www.deafreach.org

Please contact us if you would like more information.

Isobel Blakeley. November 2019

Unsung heroes

During my travels in Rwanda and now in Uganda, I have met many wonderful modest and passionate people who in difficult conditions, are determined to do something for those marginalised by society through no fault of their own.

Noelene is undoubtedly one of the most amazing. Born into a very poor family in Uganda with a physical disablilty which means that she walks on her hands and knees, she never attended school and so is illiterate and never had the opportunity to learn English. At the age of 19, she started caring for her first disabled child at her little village hut. Now, not yet 40, she is caring for 48 children with a variety of disabilities at her home. Thirteen of the children are deaf, and everyone uses sign language!

Noelene on the left in blue with some of her children.

Disabled children are often abandoned or mistreated here. Her youngest child was brought to her by local police at the age of 3 days – having been found abandoned. The Police knew that she would take care for the child, who is now over one and in the foreground with pretty beads in her hair. Many of her children also have lower limb abnormalities like she does, and a lot of the living goes on at floor level.

Three years ago, Noelene took one of her little ones who was ill, to the local hospital and met a volunteer doctor from the Charity Wellspring. (www.wellspring-outreach.org). She went to visit Noelene at her home and was astounded to find her caring for such a large group of disabled children. She decided to do something. So she bought a piece of land and has built Noelene a new house to live in with her family. They moved in last October.

Some of the children with Noelene and Rod Clark, one of our DeafReach Trustees

The most impressive thing about Noelene, is that she didn’t hang about waiting for someone to help her in her disability. She decided to help others like herself. She knew how they felt, she knew what they needed. The feeling of love, acceptance and warmth at this home was palpable.

It was International Women’s Day this week. Noelene is an amazing woman that will never get international recognition, but in one small corner of Uganda, she has changed the lives of a group of rejected and unwanted children.

Isobel Blakeley. March 2019

Progress at Umutara!

Can you see me – I’m on the left at the back!! And where is the other white ‘Wally’? Teresa is under the W!

It felt like going home – seeing my little house, Fic the dog (who had forgotten me!) and the staff and children that are now at least a foot taller!

‘We are now an ‘international school’ said Dominique. Out of the 125 children of the site, 10 are refugees from the Congo, Burundi and Tanzania.

Here is the wonderful teacher Betty – who is deaf herself, with three of the Congolese refugees. They arrived with no sign language and are in the first class.

Do you see the shelves behind Betty? It might not mean much to a casual observer, but I they were not there the last time I was at the school. The shelves have construction and play materials on them, (thank you friends in England) and the school have seen it as a priority to spend precious money on building them. When I first came to this school, 5 years ago, the walls were bear and the only teaching materials they had were a blackboard and chalk!

These children are in the ‘Pre-school’ class. This is a class of new children who are new to the school. They learn sign language, and now they play and learn to share. Before, they had to sit on a chair and copy from the blackboard! They often used to be rather ‘naughty’!!!

Another major change is that the school now run two small workshops in two towns, one quite close and the other half way back to Kigali. They have some of the older deaf youth, who are learning vocational skills. In this case, tailoring and hairdressing. VSO, the charity that I was funded through when I first came, have provided the equipment for these. They are now breaking even with their sales and services, with the pupils taking 50% of the profits for themselves.

The ‘Deaf Centre’ in Kayonza, where local Deaf adults can learn sign language and the youth make products to sell.

The great enemy – time- means that I have to stop here. My colleagues, Teresa Quail, Rod Clark and I are off to Kigali soon, for more meetings and the next stage of our adventure.

Isobel Blakeley 1st March

Back Again!

If you remember, I left Rwanda in July 2015 after my VSO placement finished. That’s quite a long time ago – but in some ways it’s amazing what changes have happened in that time, not just to me – a little older and more ‘mature’, – but to the schools in Nyabihu and Nyagatare.

I have been able to return several times, with friends who have become involved in the plight of these deaf children here, as well as invite some of the ‘main-players’ at the two schools to visit England to see what happens to deaf children here. So I have continued to be very involved with the dear friends that I made during my placement, emailing and WhatsApping most weeks about something or other! What a small world we now live in!

Here are some of the children that I met yesterday, wearing lovely new clothes from England!

During this time, with the support of many other people and their friends and families, quite a lot of money has been raised in the nearly four years since I left. Also second hand clothes, construction toys, computers, footballs, football kits, a sewing machine, material, and many other items have been send out.


Money has been donated for specific items too, like mosquito nets, teacher’s salaries, child sponsorship, and funds set up specifically for the construction of a new school and another for teacher training.

The New school at Nyabihu

The New school at Nyabihu is the most obvious change that has happened in that time. and it has been so exciting for me to come here again, and see the building that Louis dreamed about creating all those years ago, actually be built!

Here is the new school sign on the main road to Gisenyi. Teresa, my travelling companion is looking at the sign, and lots of the locals were looking at her! You turn down the street, and there it is. The New School!


I have traveled here with a small group of Trustees from our new charity DeafReach. We are here for just under two weeks, and not only are visiting Nyabihu, but also Umutara in the North East later this week . Then will be off to Uganda to have a look at two projects that our Charity is involved with there.

More information later in the week!

Isobel Blakeley 25th February 2019 – Musanze, Rwanda!

The VSO slogan – Change your job. Change the world you live in.

This is VSO’s latest advertising slogan.  I would like to add – ‘In ways you never imagined’! 

Readers of my Blog will remember that in February 2015 a Deaf Sports Day was organised at the National Stadium in Kigali.  Just for one day – 8 groups of deaf teenagers met together for the first time ever to compete in football and athletics competitions. This came about as a direct result of my working with two Deaf Centers in Rwanda – where I was supposed to be trying to improve classroom practice not introduce sporting competitions!

But some of the leaders of the schools I visited told me that they never met with each other, that although the students loved sport, especially football, they had poor equipment and little opportunity to play with other teams.  Their pupils didn’t travel, – it costs money!- and didn’t really know of deaf pupils who lived in other parts of their country.  So we devised a modest plan to meet together in Kigali for Sports, and persuaded Chance for Childhood and VSO to fund the day.

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Sophie Christiansen presenting medals at the first Rwandan Children’s Deaf Sports Day in February 2015

Sophie Christiansen, the British Paralympic Equestrian Gold medallist was able to attend the day and present the trophies– which was fantastic.

I had high hopes that some group somewhere in the world would be so excited by this opportunity that they would continue to fund some Deaf Sporting activity – but not all of your dreams come to fruition and I had to admit that maybe this was one of them. So I was really excited when Dominique started to send me some photos last week!

The Leaders of the deaf schools involved in that first Sports Day were so impressed with the difference that meeting together to play sports gave to their students that they have set up their own group NDSCO – National Deaf Sports Committee Organisation – which meets every two months or so to discuss how they can continue to meet together to play sports.

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About to score?

On May 17th nine groups of deaf teenagers and young people met in Kigali to play volleyball and basketball.  Each Centre funds its own costs, travel and food being the bulk of this. So for Dominique, coming the farthest, – a four hour drive from Umutara, – this is quite a commitment.

In June, there will be a football and athletics day.

The two schools I was most involved with when I was there, met in the final of the Under 18 Volleyball competition, and Nyabihu won by the small margin of 25 to 21. Sounds like a close game!!

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Nyabihu were the winners of the Under 18 basketball competition

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Umutara came second!

From one of the photos, I recognised Dallia, one of the girls from Umutara.  She stood out as being talented in sports and dancing when I was there and I was glad to see her included in the Volleyball team – which was mostly boys.

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Dallia – one of the girls from Umutara.

She was not the only girl there either and in the next competition in June, there will be some athletic events specifically for girls.

What has so impressed me is that the Rwandans have organised this themselves.  They knew they probably would not get any funding to do this, and that if they wanted it to happen, they had to do it themselves.  These groups don’t have anything in the way of spare cash, and so it is a real commitment to find the funds and energy to attend.  The Umpires were given free on the day, from the Rwandan National Paralympic group – Thank you Celestine! The Secretary of the Ministry of Sports also attended for part of the day.

Dominique reckoned it cost him £50 to get the students to Kigali for the day, driving them himself in his own vehicle.  Four hours there, and four hours back! A long day!

I have heard some say that people in many poorer countries just wait for aid to be donated before they will do anything, and in some cases that may be true.  But not here!  They have, working together, found a modest way to achieve their goal without external funding – which is what has pleased me so much.

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The competitors ‘listening’ to the speeches at the end of the day. Sign language interpreters were translating into Rwandan Sign Language.

Being involved in Sport enriches our personal lives in countless ways.  The list is almost endless!  Dominique identified three additional strategic advantages too:-

  1. Networking between deaf schools, (school leaders and students)
  2. Annual competitions
  3. Plans for the future – maybe participating in international Deaf Games.

I never thought that one of the results of my little foray into Rwandan deaf education would have this outcome – but I am very glad it has!

Isobel

May 2017

Remember Patrick?

Do you remember Patrick – the 15 year old teenage boy who was the subject of a short BBC 4 documentary about 2 years ago?  He lived in rural Uganda, was born deaf and had no communication system other than gesture and pointing? Do you remember how shy he was, making no eye contact with strangers, and with a look of terrified isolation in his eyes?

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This is the picture that I took of him 2 years ago.  He would not look up at all.

Remember how his father managed to persuade his shy son to go to a local signing class that was being set up? I am sure I was not the only one who had to choke back tears, at the smile which spread across his beautiful face when it dawned on him that the specific gestures other people were making represented things in his daily life – that he could understand something of what others were trying to express and that he could do it himself.

 

We see these snippets about people’s lives on the TV which touch us deeply, and then, inevitably, our lives move on.

Remember that I met him?

On my trip to Patongo in northern Uganda in January 2015, I had the good fortune to meet Richy, a Ugandan working on a short contract with the UNAD (Ugandan National Association of the Deaf) who was setting up signing classes in remote Uganda and had been instrumental in setting up the BBC meeting with Patrick.  I only met him briefly, but was impressed with his commitment to the deaf in Uganda, and he kindly took me to meet Patrick.  I will never forget that day – the journey, the poverty.  Richy and I have stayed in contact – what a wonderful thing the internet is!! His contract finished and he is now working for another aid organisation, but occasionally goes back to see how Patrick is getting on – so moved was he by the boy’s situation.

Patrick, now 17, is still living in the same place, but there have been subtle changes in his life.  He now signs well and has friends of his own age.  His friends can sign to him too. He loves to play football and is the goalkeeper for the local team.  He now smiles and can look strangers in the eye. When Richy went to visit him this week, he couldn’t find him – he wasn’t at home sitting alone in the hut.  He was playing football with his friends!

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Partick with Richy standing in front of his own little hut.

His parents are learning to sign, though the progress is slow.  But he has built a little house for himself with the help of his parents.  I remember seeing some bricks that he had been making when I went, – those were his first attempts at construction!

I contacted Richy recently, and I asked him how Patrick was getting on.  He told me that he was going to buy Patrick some piglets!  8!  He told me that Patrick is really good with animals and he wanted to help him to get a start in life so that he could begin to be independent and be able to earn a living.  Patrick is never going to be an academic! – it is too later for that.  But he is a bright young man, who has an empathy with animals, and is quite capable of breading them.  Now he is not afraid of the outside world and has friends in the area, he has a chance of leading a fairly normal life – for that part of rural Uganda. If we can help him achieve that – that is a realistic goal.

I know many of you were touched by his story. I wonder if anyone out there would like to help?  A good pigsty for the pigs would cost about £1000 in materials, and a goat about £35 to buy. He probably has enough pigs!

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The piglets!

If anyone is interested in helping with this one off project, then message me and I will tell you where to send the money.

There are some kind and generous people out there in our world. They don’t hit the headlines, like the many grasping, cheating people we read of in our newspapers.  They are people like Richy, who work hard in difficult conditions and who care for the underprivileged. They don’t have much themselves, but give what they can.  I am proud to have met some of them in my recent travels to Africa.  They warm my heart – some of which is still in Africa!

Isobel

August 2016

Return to Rwanda

It’s now seven months since I left Rwanda, and I have just returned from a three week ‘holiday’ back to see how things have moved on since my time there, and of course, to see all the people I have learned to love in the last two years.

February seemed a good time to go – still grey, cold and wet in England, and the start of the new academic year in sunny Rwanda.  I arrived courtesy of Turkish Airline, which was great by the way, at 1am, and took a taxi to my old house in Kigali where I was warmly welcomed by Emmanuel, the night guard.  Sleep followed in my friend Yvonne’s old room.  The next morning, I woke to the sound of bird song and I remembered one of the reasons why I loved Rwanda so much, but I also remembered one of the reasons why living here was difficult, as there was no water in the taps!!

Dominique had been in Kigali for a meeting so stayed to drive me to Umutara and Louis made the journey from Musanze to Kigali just to welcome me back.  I was very touched.  We had a fanta together and chatted for an hour or so, then Dominique and I headed for Umutara.

I kept wondering about my feelings, how did I feel about being back, travelling the roads that I had driven down so often in my little car?  In many ways, it felt as though I had never been away. The beauty of the countryside filled me with warmth; the welcome of the children, even ones I didn’t know, made my heart leap with emotion; the joy of sharing in other people’s lives is such a privilege. On some days though, I remembered how hard it was being here, the loneliness, the dust, the discomfort, the poor internet connection that meant you couldn’t contact people at home, or send an email. I knew that I had made the right decision for myself in coming back last July.

My three weeks ‘holiday’, which was the original plan, had somehow turned into more of a continuation of the work that I had left!  I found that the first three days were spent in helping Dominique re write a report for VSO, and one whole day was spent trying to attach pictures to the report and send it to Kigali!  Oh, for faster internet!!

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The new Vocational Centre, funded by ‘A Better World’. Not quite finished, – you can see the woodwork construction area on the right, where the room is not yet on. This building will house a shop, hairdressers, sewing room, and computer suite. (Computers provided by friends from the UK) This building is by a major ‘road’ to the local Council offices, so seen by a lot of local people.

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Bottom bunk catch up! Children who haven’t seen each other for three months enjoying some time together in the girls dorm.

And there were changes everywhere; better road surfaces, new buildings, more traffic in Kigali. Rwanda had not stood still in the 6 months I had been away. And at Umutara, there were new buildings too. A Better World, a Canadian charity, www.abwcanada.ca have funded the building of a vocational centre, which is under construction at the moment. It will house a shop, a furniture workshop, a sewing room, a computer room (with the laptop computers I have brought out all donated from people in England) and a hairdressing ‘salon’.  You have to admire Dominique, – he has vision and doesn’t stand still.  His main problem though is still finding funds for the running costs of the school:- teachers’ salaries and covering food costs being to two highest costs.  This term there are 85 children, 8 new P1 pupils. Seven are deaf, and there is one little girl, Sonia, who isn’t deaf, but has Downs Syndrome and doesn’t talk. Maybe sign language can help her.

I spent a few hours with Constance, the P1 teacher and her class. I was so thrilled to see her using the play materials brought out by my friends over a year ago, to help the children develop their pre-school skills and settle into a school routine.  These children are aged between 5 and 12, and have never been to school. They all come from very poor backgrounds and the families cannot contribute to their fees.  Constance has written their names on the desks, and we spent some time teaching them their sign names.  Can you imagine being 12 and not knowing your name or have any sign that differentiates you from someone else?

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The teacher helping Rebecca to get her fingers into the ‘R’ shape, so that she can learn her new sign name.

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Cracked it! She knows her sign name.

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Day two. Learning to sign ‘Good Morning’.

It was lovely to spend time with Dominique and his family. His youngest child is now 18 months old and walking. She screamed at me every time I got near – well, I do look VERY white! It was lovely to see her signing!  She is hearing, but living in a school for the Deaf, she has picked it up – Oh to be able to run a pre-school group for Deaf children here!  Another of Dominique’s dreams.

Then came a visit to Nyabihu.  The bus journey brought back many memories, and again I was stunned by the beauty of this country.

It was such a joy to meet up with Louis, the staff and children at the Centre.  A lot has changed at Nyabihu, thanks to the involvement of Chance for Childhood.  There are now 130 children at the school and more teachers and support staff.  This term they welcomed 30 new pupils into P1.  The main thing that hasn’t changed though is the accommodation – BUT, at last things are moving in the right direction towards the building of the new Centre.

The paper work for land registration has been approved – and we have found an English architect, with experience of building in Uganda. I happened to be in Rwanda at the same time as him, and we met up to look at the initial plans. SO exciting! Now, the Rwandan contractors have to be chosen.

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Louis standing in the middle of the piece of land for the new Centre, which is now twice the size of the original plot.

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Stephen, the architect, with Innocent from C4C and Pacifique, a local Construction Engineer, discussing the plans for the new school. Exciting!

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Playing games with some of the 130 children that now use this playground. The only play area on the present site.

Louis also entered a competition for funding for ICT projects to help children out of poverty – and won £14,000! He was able to enter the competition because he showed the work he has been doing with deaf pupils with the few second hand computers that my lovely friends in England had sent out for the school.  He is now able to buy 8 more new laptop computers, employ an ICT teacher, build computer desks, repair the older computers and have money left for further ICT projects. He too, is a man with vision and energy!

My visit also coincided with that of one of the Trustees of www.signhealth.org.uk, and we were able to meet with various groups in Rwanda interested in supporting deaf and deaf blind people. It was again very exciting to see people meeting together and talking about developing a ‘Whole Country Strategy’ for the support of these very vulnerable groups.  This is something that couldn’t have happened two years ago, but now, because of the work of VSO, and other groups, the disjointed, individualistic work that was happening in the country, is beginning to mould into an understanding that a whole country policy is possible.  I can see now that I have been very privileged to have been in Rwanda at an important stage in this developmental process. One fear of development work, is that when you go away, things revert to how they were before – I don’t think that will happen here. The Rwandans have caught the vision, though we have yet to convince the Government that investment in the specialist education of these groups is needed!  I remain optimistic that this will come – eventually!

Another lovely co-incidence was that I was in Rwanda at the same time that my German friend Marian arranged her ‘Christmas Meal’ for all of the Nyabihu children!  The whole school made the 3 mile journey to a local restaurant, and were treated to a wonderful traditional Rwandan spread. We took the little ones in cars, – several journeys, – and the older ones walked.  It was a great occasion!

My one luxury of this trip, was an overnight stay at Inzu Lodge – one of my favourite places in Rwanda on the shores of Lake Kivu.  I stayed with Marian in one of the tents, and we had a short twilight trip out on the lake to one of the traditional fishing boats. Magical!

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Lighting up to attract the fish on a traditional fishing boat on Lake Kivu

The three weeks passed quickly, and I have only been able to tell you about a fraction of the feelings, people and events that made up this unforgettable time. I know that I will be back again – maybe for the opening of the first building phase of the new Centre at Nyabihu!

Isobel

February 2016

‘Parting is such sweet sorrow’

Of course, I am not leaving my newly found lover – like Romeo having to leave Juliet, but nevertheless, the phrase is apt.

Leaving a place that has been home for 18 months and people whom I have grown to love, is sorrowful in itself.  But it is sweet in that my memories and feelings towards the place and the people are so strong.  They have changed me too, probably in ways I am not yet aware of, though others may be.

The mists of dawn from the bus on my last drive from Umutara to Kigali.

The mists of dawn from the bus on my last drive from Umutara to Kigali.

As I sat on the bus, leaving Umutara at 6 am, for my last trip from there to Kigali, (car is sold) I was struck by the symbolism of a new day dawning.  The hills were draped in mist, so I could not see them clearly, like the future that now stretches before me – but the sun symbolised the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I don’t quite know where it will take me, but it will be different, and profoundly so, since my experiences here have marked me for the rest of my life.

The dawning of a new day.

The dawning of a new day, from the bus.

Apart from the Rwandans, I have met many others who have impressed me greatly, and whom I now count as important in my life – people who have given up a lot to come here to make a difference. Claire and Catrin, Gnisha and Kate, Tina and Val, Jane and Steve, Henny and Anirban, Shirley and Ado, Terry and Yvonne, Olwyn and Christiane, Peris and Fabienne, Jan and…. and…. and…. – I cant name them all.  I hope that I will be able to remain in contact with them over the coming years.

Drum transportation!

Drum transportation!

I decided that I should give a parting gift to my two schools, Umutara and Nyabihu.  It didn’t take me long to decide what to buy – an African drum.  For deaf children you say?  Well, some of them can hear it and the others can feel it.  African drumming and dance are a very important part of the culture here, and the children in both schools love to dance.  But when you are struggling to find enough money to feed 100 children there is no money for luxuries, like a drum.  Nybaihu have one, but it is small and very worn.

Getting it to the schools, since I had sold my car, was interesting – I had to buy two tickets for the bus, one for me and one for the drum!  But with an extra 10p tip here and there, I had plenty of help.

I bought the drums through another Rwandan I have met and have the hugest respect for – Pacifique. At 23, he has achieved more in his short life than most of us do in a life time.  His family, left devastated by the Genocide 21 years ago, and a childhood of abject poverty, has transformed this young man into an able artist and African Dance and Drumming teacher. With seemingly endless energy, he is now supporting 60 Street children to go to school with his art and the children’s performances.  His Centre is growing in strength and fame in Kigali and beyond. (For more information see http://www.niyoculturalcentre.org/)

One of the older boys playing on the drum at Nyabihu.  To his right are Louis and Speciose. She is the newly appointed Head Teacher at the Centre.  This appointment will help Louis to manage the growing facility.  She is  theyn ow hove.

One of the older boys playing on the drum at Nyabihu. To the right are Louis and Speciose. She is the newly appointed Head Teacher at the Centre. This appointment will help Louis to manage the growing facility. She is young and very enthusiastic, and working hard to learn Rwandan Sign Language.

It was a good choice!  With the help of Eric in Nyabihu and Omar in Umutara, I managed to get the drums to the schools in secret, and their appearance was a complete surprise.  Everyone had to have a go, even the guard at Umutara. It was such fun!  When life is a struggle – fun is so important.

Angelique enjoying the drum with Dominique and Elevanie at Umutara

Angelique enjoying the drum with Dominique and Elevanie at Umutara

One of my leaving ‘presents’ from Umutara was a drama that I will remember for ever.  The main theme was that if people work together, they can achieve so much more than if they work in isolation.  The children were brilliant!  Such fantastically expressive actors.  I wish you could have seen it!

Umutara Drama group - with me in the background.

Umutara Drama group – with me in the background.

Apart from the people, what will I miss here?  The amazingly beautiful and varied countryside, the birds, the freedom to have ideas and try them out without red tape, the kindness, the fruit and vegetables – at amazingly cheap prices, the chips, the relaxed pace of life, the importance of family, the lack of plastic bags (banned in Rwanda!), the bag chair in a restaurant (a chair to put your bag on – off of the floor), the tooth picks on every table, riding on a moto.

What will I not miss? The lack of privacy, being stared at incessantly especially in the villages, being squashed and hot on the bus, poor internet connection, unreliable water and electricity supplies, the lack of seasons, waiting over an hour for your food, poor punctuality.

Dominique, Elevanie, Omar, Louis and his son Eric have all insisted that they come to see me off at the airport on Friday.   I am very touched as for all of them this means money to get to Kigali, and a whole day out of their busy lives. For them, as well as me, it will be a sweet and sorrowful parting.

I hope to return, maybe next year, to see them all.  But in the meantime, the internet will have to do.  I will continue to work to help Nyabihu collect money for their new buildings, and search for more permanent funding for Umutara.  That should keep me busy in my retirement!

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Nyabihu Staff and children. Two of the teachers and some of the older children are not in this picture as they were still at school.  I am at the back. 

My new life will dawn at 6.30 am, Terminal 4, Heathrow Airport on Saturday.  After a recovery sleep, my first purchase is going to be – a mobile!

Umutara staff and children.  Can you find me?

Umutara staff and children. Can you find me?

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Beautiful Rwanda.

Isobel

July 2015

And now – Joy!

Breakfast with honoured guests, including the Reformed Baptist Bishop and the wife of the Governor of the Northern Province of Rwanda

Breakfast with honoured guests, including the Reformed Baptist Bishop and the wife of the Governor of the Northern Province of Rwanda

Celebration - African style. Singing, dancing - full of life and energy.

Celebration – African style. Singing, dancing – full of life and energy.

The Grooms party being welcomed by the Brides family and Guests.

The Grooms party being welcomed by the Brides family and Guests.

The Brides party waiting to set off from the house.  Constance in red, is being 'given away' by her nephew - Kevin, aged 10.  It should have been her brother, but all of the men in her family were killed in the Genocide.

The Brides party waiting to set off from the house. Constance in red, is being ‘given away’ by her nephew – Kevin, aged 10. It should have been her brother, but all of the men in her family were killed in the Genocide.

She accepts him!

She accepts him!

There was a lot of helping each other to eat and drink!

There was a lot of helping each other to eat and drink!

The children from the school dance.

The children from the school dance.

Outside of the Church

Outside of the Church

Cake cutting at dusk

Cake cutting at dusk

Receiving presents

Receiving presents

Me dancing with Omar in front of over 300 people!  I'm wearing the African outfit that Dominique and Elevanie bought me for my Birthday last year.  Dancing is not really my thing - but how can you refuse when you are an honoured guest.  And I enjoyed it!

Me dancing with Omar in front of over 300 people! I’m wearing the African outfit that Dominique and Elevanie bought me for my Birthday last year. Dancing is not really my thing – but how can you refuse when you are an honoured guest. And I enjoyed it!

My first Rwandan wedding – and what an occasion it was.

Constance, the sister of Elevanie who runs the school in Umutara with her husband Dominique, got married last weekend.  The Dowry Ceremony was held at the school, on the football pitch just outside my house.  Two enormous marquees were erected – in pitch black in the middle of the night – I heard them!

All of the honoured guests – me included – were invited to breakfast at Elevanie’s house at 9 oclock – and so the day started. The Dowry ceremony was due to start at 10, and actually started pretty well on time considering this is Africa.  About 300 people arrived, as Constance was marrying Fidel, who lives in a nearby village.  Everyone here knows everyone else or is related to them somehow, so the invite list is very long.  And you cannot leave anyone out! Oh – and around 100 children from the school of course!

There was Fanta and food and dancing and singing and cows and speeches, and more Fanta and more dancing and singing and more speeches.  I couldn’t understand the Kinyarwanda of course, but it was very entertaining anyway. One of the teachers was the DJ, two were giving out Fanta, two were singing and the others were making sure the children were where they should be and behaving – not that I thought for a moment any of them wouldn’t. This was a special occasion for them too.

The Dowry ceremony finished about 1pm and the Church service was due to start at 2 – so I went for a lie down in my house, and also to wait for my friend Catrin – another VSO volunteer who was coming in the afternoon.

We walked down to the Church at about 2.30 with everyone else – about 500 m away.  The family are Reformed Baptist, so it was a lively affair!  More singing, more dancing, a sermon – short – then everyone went out of the Church into the two marquees erected outside.  These were the same two marquees which had been moved during the break!

More Fanta, more food, more dancing, cake cutting, present giving.  Only the older children from school were here as it was now dark, (after 6 pm) and it would have been hard to keep track of the little ones with so many people about. At about 8pm, everyone started to leave.  There would be further celebrations at the house of the new couple, but that was for close family only.  So I walked back to the school – in pitch darkness!  I hadn’t brought my torch with me – and Frank held my hand all the way back to make sure that I didn’t fall over.  He’s 15!! – SO kind.

At the beginning of the day, I had my camera with me, and Omar (Deputy Head) asked if he could borrow it. I offered to be the photographer for the day – but he said No – as I was one of the honoured guests.  So he and Frank – the 15yr old deaf boy – used my camera for the day and took over 300 photos! I spent the evening looking at them all.  On Sunday morning, Frank came over, and I showed him how to edit the photos, cropping etc.  He is such a bright boy!  I only had to show him once and he was off!!

So the photos you see here were taking by Omar and Frank.

A joyous day to remember for ever.

Isobel

June 2015

Life can be very hard sometimes

Occasionally, something happens that is really hard to deal with.  It’s nobody’s fault, but you feel unutterably sad and helpless.

Let me tell you a story of two young deaf people in Rwanda.  I have changed the names, but everything else is true.

Daniel was born into a poor family in rural Rwanda.  He did well at school but became deaf at the age of 19 after contracting meningitis.  His parents thought he would die; he pulled through but was left with a profound hearing loss in both ears.  He learnt to sign and managed to get a job in a School teaching young deaf children.  He is not a qualified teacher, and was earning £30 a month. He is 26.

Grace also became deaf through meningitis, but she was only 7 at the time.  Her family too, are rural farmers, and she is the eldest child of 5.  Her parents sent her to the deaf school, although they could only pay part of the fees.  She is intelligent, and doing really well academically, considering her disability.  She is now 19.

Generally, the stigma of disability, especially in rural areas, is very strong.  You are regarded as some sort of curse on your family, maybe a punishment for some past sin, and the belief is that you are worthless and no-one will want you or love you.

Yes. Two young people, emotionally vulnerable, naive, lonely, living in close proximity, – inevitable attraction.  During the long holiday, Daniel went to visit Grace in her village.   He told her he loved her and was overjoyed to find that she loved him too.  Remember that feeling?  The first time you realise that the person you have secretly loved for maybe months feels the same way about you?  Overwhelming, unstoppable, uncontrollable.  They slept together – only once – realising they shouldn’t have but couldn’t help themselves.  An old story – one that has happened many times before and will happen again.

Unfortunately, once was all it needed; she was pregnant.

The families were not pleased.  The couple declared their love for each other and that they wanted to be together, but Grace’s father would not have it. Daniel could not provide for his daughter and he was very angry.  Grace would stay at home, and the new baby would be brought up as the last in their family.  Inevitably, Daniel lost his job at the school too, so now had no income at all.  He went back to live with his mother.

Then came the news that she was expecting twins, in August.  At this, Grace’s father changed his mind.  The thought of supporting one child on the end of his family would have been a hard financial burden to bear, but not two. Daniel would have to provide for them all.

So they found two small rooms to rent in an alleyway on the edge of town.  Four other families also rent rooms in the alley, and they all share one tap and one toilet.  A few weeks ago, I went to visit them there and it reminded me of Dickensian London slums in an Oliver Twist movie – without the cold rain! Small, cramped, stark. Daniel is doing key cutting to try to make a bit of money.  They like it there because it is near to his mother, who wants to help them with the babies. They offered us tea and bread – entertaining visitors together in their new little home.  They looked happy.

Then I didn’t see them for a few weeks.  I had visitors, then flew to France to visit my new grandchild – a 5 week old bonny lass. When I came back, the contrast couldn’t have been more vivid.

Daniel and his mother had gone to a funeral in one of the villages, and Grace was alone in the house.  She went into labour.  She tried to get help, but all of the neighbours were out.  She needed to get to the main road, up a steep hill, but when she tried, she started to bleed heavily.  Back in the house, she had no phone connection. She was alone.  How much she knew about what was going to happen, I don’t know. She must have been frightened, shocked, overwhelmed by what was happening to her body.  When Daniel returned, he found her sitting on the mattress in a pool of blood with two tiny babies. She had known to cut the cords, and used the only sharp thing she could find – a razor blade. One of the babies, a boy, was already dead, and the other, a little girl, not far off.  He got them to hospital, and the little one fought, but only survived 4 more days.

How unutterably sad. We have all wept many tears.

What a journey into adulthood these two vulnerable young people have had.

We all know childbirth is a risky business. Twins born two months premature would struggle to survive in the UK. But the stark difference between the experience of my family and this family couldn’t have been brought home more forcibly to me.  Parental expectations, anti and post natal education, access to medical interventions – the difference is vast.

How they will cope with this, I don’t know.  They are determined to stay together and Daniel is helping her with the cooking and managing their little home until she recovers physically.  Some good friends have paid for the funerals and the hospital expenses, as they have no money.

I will be returning permanently to the UK in four weeks.  I have been here for 18 months of my 2 year placement, but decided at Christmas that I would go home early.  I will return to my safe, secure, responsible country, where people have basic rights to health care, education, and housing and the disabled are respected – at least on the surface. But part of me will always be here – with the deaf children, men and women whom I have met, and those who care for them – lovely, vulnerable, patient, gentle people, whom it has been a privilege to share part of my life with.

Isobel

June 2015