Early childhood memories are hard to erase. It is in the early formative years that the brain is at its best; to grasp and retain information. It lasts for a lifetime.
To support this claim, psycholinguists have coined what they term as the 'critical age' in second language acquisition. They portend that beyond the age of 14 (the critical age) it becomes increasingly difficult to acquire a second language.
Some of the fondest memories spring from the time one comes into contact with the school environment. The relationships that are built between fellow students and teachers are an addition to the recipe of a long lasting memory. The relationship between pupils/students and their teachers undeniably take centre stage down the memory lane.
In the different countries where I attained primary and secondary education, the expression 'spare the rod and spoil the child' had great significance in teacher-student relationships. Some teachers always chose the former; never to spare the rod! But there are also fond memories; the English language teacher who spoke the language 'through the nose', the science/biology teacher and the lessons on reproduction, who can ever forget this!
The memory of the Literature in English teacher still lingers. The two hour lesson always seemed too long for him. So he would roll off the lesson with a reminder about how it is important to come to class early, then he would move on to sit us properly in rows. He would stress the need to clear the classroom of cobwebs! With 45 minutes 'killed', we would then feast on Wole Soyika's play: The Lion and The Jewel, enjoying the linguistic aptness of Lakunle, the school teacher as he seeks to wrestle Sidi; the Jewel from Baroka, the lion of Ilujinle.
Outside the classroom, teachers were a respected lot. They were considered the fountain of knowledge. Many students aspired to be like them. The teachers' quarter was always a sacred place to visit. They lived in decent houses. In the secondary school that I attended, junior teachers were built a castle while their senior counterparts lived in three bedroom units. They were a happy lot; many have not changed jobs to-date.
In the University town of Butare where I worked, university lecturers occupy the upscale residential area in the town, in university houses. Many have become so comfortable that they have 'forgotten' to build their own.
Nostalgia aside, the issue of teacher's welfare remains a scar on society. While their students have grown and graduated into responsible citizens with lucrative careers, their teachers have remained with one sad tell, told to anyone who has time to hear. Poor pay, poor pay.
With over 60,000 teachers (both primary and secondary) a slight increase in salaries not only puts pressure on the national budget but has little (if any) impact on the welfare of the beneficiaries. This has called for a new thinking on how to address the problem.
The starting up of Mwalimu SACCO, the teachers' savings and credit cooperative, has infused a new lease of life in the teaching profession. With a working capital of Rwf1 billion from the government, the scheme has registered tremendous success within only three years of its existence. Teachers who have acquired low interest loans testify a complete turnaround in their fortunes.
The Rwanda Development Bank (BRD) has noted this progress by extending a loan facility of Rwf1.5 billion to boost Umwalimu SACCO's financial capacity to fund a housing programme for its members. And as if this is not enough, the Ministry of Education is planning to construct teachers' houses in each of the country's 416 sectors for teachers under the 12-Year Basic Education Programme.
This should be good news for teachers. But it is just a drop in the ocean. The first step towards improving the welfare of teachers is for the teachers themselves to think differently. That government will not solve all their problems, that salary alone will not support them. Instead of lamenting, they should borrow a leaf from their counterparts who have embraced Mwalimu SACCO, and eventually broke free from the shackles of poverty.
Parents, the private sector and non-government organisations should join in the crusade to improve teachers' welfare. What is needed is collective efforts to solve a community problem, not rhetoric.