Saturday, 28 July 2007

Update from the Rwanda project

For the past two weeks 43 of us have been in Rwanda, working on 20 different projects across the country.

Yesterday we completed my project at the orphanage. We have restored 4 classrooms and built a new one. We have installed electricity, running water and water collection tanks. The genocide survivors now have new cooking and washing facilities. We have built benches, furniture and a climbing frame.

82 children aged 2 to 8 attend school here every day, over half are orphans. When we arrived the only teaching aids were hand drawn posters and the pencils were sharpened with a bare razor blade. I went shopping with one of the teachers. They now have footballs, skipping ropes, pens, sharpeners, calculators, protractors, and each child has their own note book. Thank you to everyone back home who sponsored this equipment.

I also visited a secondary school. It is holiday time yet in one of the classrooms a crowd of 20 pupils had gathered. They were teaching each other physics for their equivalent of GCSEs. Despite extreme poverty there is a huge willingness to learn in this country.

We should not assume that just because a country is behind us economically that they are backward. One seven year old showed me her school work. Her mathematics is way ahead of that being studied by my own seven year son old in the UK - and he is meant to be on our "gifted and talented" program!

Small things can make a huge difference here. Teaching aids are very limited. The school "library" consists of two shelves of ancient books and the headmaster teaches chemistry by showing the pupils his one test-tube and flask, he can not demonstrate an experiment let alone allow them the chance to practice one. We showed the primary teachers how to make alphabet building blocks and let the children use them to form words, they were delighted. We showed these to the government minister - the idea will now be copied.

In Rwanda we have found a deep sense of community - on the last Saturday of every month every person helps in a community clean up so the streets are exceptionally clean. Plastic bags are banned, and everything is re-used. The prison needs no guards as if people "escape" they know they will be returned by their neighbours. Given the terrible history of this country I expected to feel a bit unsafe - yet actually we have all commented that we feel very safe.

Kigali, the capital city has a growing population as people are drawn in from rural area. The mayor describes her biggest issues as Urban Planning, Sanitation and Infrastructure - almost identical to the biggest issues that we deal with on my local council in a growth area back at home.

There are enormous problems here but there is also an overwhelming desire to find solutions.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007


From here in Rwanda we are hearing stories of the terrible floods back at home and I've just seen the weather forecasts for the UK.

On our orphanage building project we also have a water problem. It is the dry season and it hasn't rained since early June. Three days ago the local water standpipe ran out and now we are having to bring in water from a well 2km away - remember this is in the capital city. Making cement and concrete is very challenging. Two of our volunteers went to collect water from the well this afternoon and were immediately surrounded by a large crowd - they had never seen white people doing everyday work like this.

The project is going very well. After an 11 hour day today we have now nearly completed the restoration of the old classrooms and the roof is going on the new one. Yesterday I helped the children to put hand prints along the wall of their school. These children have never held a paint brush. We had great fun - though washing 80 pairs of hands in an inch of water was a skill! Today David Cameron came to join us, worked hard and then added his hand print.

We have been making letter building blocks for the children. When I showed these to the teachers they were delighted. With so few teaching aids really simple things like this will make a difference. Some of the original genocide orphans came back on their day off work today and helped - there is a very strong feeling of voluntary and community work in this country.

At dinner last night we had a debrief from each of the 20 projects that are going on with our group. Everything from GPs working in isolated rural villages and lawyers helping to rebuild the legal system to cricket and football training to microfinance to IT and marketing classes. I feel very honoured to be here.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

guest blog from Rwanda

I have asked Peter Wilding to "guest blog" tonight....
Back from the project, the team is exhausted and dirty and looking forward to a curry tonight. These forty volunteers are doing 20 big schemes and are learning so much of the how to's as well as the what for's of this biggest political social action exercise. Me, apart from carpentry, painting and digging on site and seeing how the whole thing is developing the other wonders of being here is that I've lectured the Ministry of justice on English law and helped to teach the fledgling cricket enthusiasts here the marvels of the great game. Next week, the orphanage will be opened, the Ministry will know what's what about contractual drafting (happy days!) and we'll be opening up a new cricket academy. Best two weeks ever, with some lovely, committed and fun people. Ciao.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Learning from Rwanda

I believe I have learnt more about the realities of living in an emerging country in the past 3 days than I did in 14 years working on emerging market projects as a banker in the City of London.

Yesterday we ran out of paint at our pre-school project so I went with Eugene to get some. Buying a pot of paint took 1 1/2 hours.. then you have to go to another shop to buy a brush and another for white spirit or parafin. These sort of logistics challenges are faced every day - even in the capital city of a country like Rwanda where actually the economy is improving.

On a more practical level I have been taught plastering skills African style by some of our local workers and Kudogo, one of the orphans still living at Girubuntu, has spent the past 3 days glued to my MP colleagues who are teaching him carpentry.

The children have finished their exams - yes even the 5 year olds - and have had a couple of days off. We will all be working really hard over the weekend to get the classrooms ready for them on Monday morning.

p.s. I've been trying to upload some pictures but there is no Broadband here and the pc keeps crashing. Nicola, who came here to teach music, as found herself teaching excel and word every day to 40 pupils in their late teens and twenties. The class shares two ancient computers. She made them some cardboard keyboards last night - they are over the moon! What a different world.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Update after day 3

Our project in Rwanda is now moving incredibly quickly. A bit of background information. The Girubuntu project was initially set up in 1994 to provide an orphanage for survivors of the genocide. Some of the orignal survivors still live at the site, others come back during university breaks, others have moved on. Also on the site is the pre-school, currently for 80 children most of whom are orphans themselves.

Yesterday I met the children. At the pre-schools I have helped in the UK a lot of time is spent in play. We believe that children will learn a lot about themselves, the world, and how to interact with others through playing. In the UK children have lots of time for academic study later. However here in Rwanda I have been told that 50% of children never even finish primary school, therefore the teachers try to really teach these tiny pre-schoolers as much as academic work as possible even at such a young age. They are also being taught English and French - even though outside school they speak "Kinynaranwda".

The state of the "classrooms" was really sad with crumbling walls and leaking roofs. Working alongside local people we are completely refurbishing the existing classrooms and building a new one to allow the school to grow. We start at 7am each morning. I have been plastering, helping to put in new electrics and planning decorations which I hope will be fantastic.

It is an incredibly interesting country and with 20 different projects going on at the same time the conversation over dinner each evening is non-stop. Some of us are working with the country's top lawyers, some are working with street children and there is everything in between. What an opportunity to see a country through so many different peoples' eyes.

Monday, 16 July 2007

First impressions from Rwanda

We arrived in Kigali this morning. The countryside is incredibly beautiful from the air, a mosaic of terraced hills. I sat beside a Californian on the plane joining a safari to find chimpanzees and gorillas. First impressions are of a very tidy, well organised city. Helpful, friendly welcoming people.

After a quick briefing and a bite to eat we all disappear off towards our projects only a couple of hours behind the others. The project at the Girubuntu orphanage is so inspiring. In a tiny group of decaying classrooms 80 2 ½ to 6 year olds come for lessons each morning. I meet the teachers and the other volunteers. Together we discuss how to brighten up the old rooms whilst concrete is being mixed for the new classroom. We set about pulling out rusty nails and plastering. I am told the children are really excited about this project. Tomorrow I will meet them.

Half way there?

We arrived in Nairobi last night - luggage everywhere (though sadly not Kitty's bag), queues for everything. The landing lights have not been working in Mombassa for 2 days so a group of fiesty Brits on Safari are camping in the Departure lounge. Three hours after landing we are packed of towards a hotel but when we get there find its fully booked. Eventually at midnight we find some beds.

We understand that the team in Kigali decided to go to the local church yesterday. The service lasted 4 hours and was very moving. I guess we can cope with a few delays at the airport!

Sunday, 15 July 2007

update from Heathrow

OK so we are off... leaving soon... we will get stuck in Nairobi tonight, so I don't know when I'll write again. People open up when in thrown together like this. I have met lots of interesting passengers and heard their stories. Mark who came to the UK as a refugee from Burundi 9 years ago and is returning to visit his brother, Ruth the African banker who has just been seeing her son graduate from Kent university - last month her daughter graduated in the US. Clearly a bright family.

Buzz (yes really) works for Save the Children in Nairobi. He spoke about how important it is in relief work to have good information. He suggested we try to find out how the rural economy works in Rwanda - peel back the layers and really understand how people live. I haven't even left the UK and am learning already.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Out to Africa

Today I was meant to be leaving with a group of MPs, councillors, and conservative party supporters for our voluntary service project in Rwanda.

OK so one of the first things we have learnt is that getting there isn't that easy. The flight to Nairobi was cancelled. 8 of the party were put on another flight, 5 have gone home for the night and 3 of us are sitting in a Heathrow hotel with 300 other passengers waiting for a new plane at 6am tomorrow. Everyone is pretty frustrated.

I'm here with Nicola, a flautist, who will be running a music program in a school. In her bag are 30 recorders and recorder books. Kitty will be in Butare where she will be working on a VSO project with young people. Her backpack is stuffed full of condoms and educational leaflets.

The problem is that though we will get to Nairobi, we will undoubtedly miss the connecting flight to Kigali tomorrow and the few flights are always very booked up. Nicola has been on the phone to Kenya airlines at least 15 times today ... everyone is trying hard but working in areas with difficult communication links is challenging.

All packed up and ready to go

Tonight I will be flying out to Rwanda with a group of Conservative supporters for two weeks of VSO supported work. I will be helping to build a pre-school in an orphanage.

Clearing the desk before going away is always busy - but its been a very busy week.

We have found a potential partner to save our Country Park from closure. My Council colleagues will vote on it this week.

We have recruited a new senior officer to help keep put the council on a solid footing. We asked each of the candidates to give us a presentation on local government funding. There are huge uncertainties about the future, they all predicted that money will be tighter for all councils - what will this mean for local people and their services?

I'm off to a country where funding is really tight. Over the past week I have carried a sponsor form with me to raise money for the equipment at the orphanage. Everyone has given so generously. Thank you. I will be taking much needed funds with me and hope to be able to keep you up to date here.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Why be a local councillor?

"Why on earth do I do this?" were my thoughts last week when the latest cabinet agenda arrived in my pigeon hole. A 354 page long document covering everything from food hygiene to balanced budgets to how people might ever find a home. That's a lot of reading.

The council cabinet is a mixed bunch; Ray and Nick are farmers but David is a university lecturer, Mark helps run one of the local hospitals and Sue is so much more than a retired nurse, Simon does all this whilst still running his business and Daphne was a hard working councillor when I was still at teenage discos.

We had the meeting today. The agenda is laced with decisions that aren't really decisions at all but things we have to do to comply with the latest government directives. A lot of paperwork and thought about how the decisions in Westminster affect us on the ground. Every one of those Westmister downloads costs money here too.

In between those there are real decisions, things to debate to listen to. We listened and learnt. Total time spent in council offices 7 hours.

Tonight I went to two local parish council meetings. From road safety to affordable housing, from flytipping and grass cutting to the white paper on planning issues and putting the roof back on the community hall, these are local issues but important issues to the people who live here.

Tomorrow I will return to council offices for another session looking forward to the year ahead. I've just finished page turning the budget documents in preparation. I'm glad I've had all those years in banking.

This Thursday and Friday I will be attending interviews for a new senior council officer - many of the existing staff are coming up for retirement at the same time. We need to get the right person to get the job done.

Not every local councillor can give the same time to their role - but that is respected. It's more important that the councillors are a mixture of different people with different interests, and we all bring those interests. So like many local councillors I give my time this week willingly.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Taking to the Skies

Today must have been the first day for weeks that it didn't rain here. We joined many hundreds of others for a wonderful day out at the Duxford Air Show.

A few thoughts -

The flight of 8 spitfires brought memories flooding back to my older neighbours in the crowd. The fact that these planes are still in the skies today is largely due to the hoards of volunteers who give hours of their time to our museums.

My children were terrified by the sound of just one F15 bomber flashing past. The US Airforce captain over the tannoy told us of the thousands of sorties these planes have flown in Iraq. Children in year 4 and above are taught about the blitz have acted out being evacuees from that war - but few children are being taught about the wars British troops are fighting in today.

There were sideshows, history, aero-dynamics and wingwalkers. It was a great day out (see the big smile) but going to an event like this is incredibly expensive. The ticket prices came in at £99 for a family of six (deep intake of breath at the kiosk). This museum though could not survive without these revenue busting spectaculars and it was a day that my family will remember.

Many museums have become more accessible since the introduction of free entry and I would like to see every child have access to the education they provide - but museums can't stand still. At what point does it become more than an educational day out and become an entertainment? If museums want to offer something a bit more of the latter from time to time then they need the option to be able to charge for it.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Planning for Rwanda

I'm getting my things together for the trip that I will be making to Rwanda in a couple of weeks. I will be joining a group of Conservative MPs, Councillors, Candidates and party members for a fortnight of VSO supported projects. The aim is for us to learn about what it is like at the frontline in one of Africa's most troubled countries and to understand the need for sustainable aid.

I feel hugely honoured to be included on this trip - and in case you wanted to know we are all paying our own way from our own purses. A different sort of summer holiday.

I've chaired a community pre-school here for 3 years and will be helping to build a pre-school attached to an orphanage in Kigali. I will be taking with me photos of what works and doesn't work in pre-school buildings in the UK, I've start to collect some toys, books and games to put in my luggage. I feel like a pin cushion from all the jabs.

This weekend I was given a list of equipment that the pre-school needs urgently. Everything from tables and chairs to cups and pencils. If you would like to help sponsor any of the equipment we need please do email me.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Story of a Selection

I spent today at the Parliamentary selection for Gillingham and Rainham. Over the past few weeks its been a pleasure to meet some wonderful people in Medway and see how they are working together for their towns.

As one of the finalists I can say that this selection was incredibly fair, good humoured and well run. I was asked many times what I thought about local candidates. In my view, the best candidate for a seat remains a local candidate but only if they are also an excellent candidate. It is also possible by hard work and integrating into a local community to become local - after all that is what most of us outside politics do when we move house!

Outside the meeting room we heard the laughs and cheers during Rehman Chishti's questions. He has great empathy with, and confidence from, local people.

Reh stood in the last general election as a Labour candidate against Francis Maude, chairman of the Conservative Party. He has since joined the Conservative Party. He stood under the Tory flag and won in this years local elections. He is an excellent local candidate and was today chosen to stand for Gillingham and Rainham, a key target seat, and his home from birth. He will stand and he will win.