Monday, February 21, 2011

Like Water Falling on Rock: A summary

My days as a Peace Corps Volunteer came to a sudden end late January when I was sent home to get my health in check. I have spent hours reflecting upon my positive experience serving in Rwanda and how to conclude my blog for my readers. My pondering returned again and again to a conversation I had with my Grandmother before I left. I was telling her of my successes and frustrations when she summarized it with an old expression from her mother:

“It’s like water falling on rock. Eventually it makes a dent.”

This is exactly how I feel about the work of a Peace Corps volunteer. It is slow, frustrating and sometimes your results are not visible. Most volunteers don’t even get into the swing of service until one year has passed. Since I was un/fortunate enough to change sites mid service, I was able to step back and see the positive effects of my service as a high school English teacher. As many Africans say, slowly by slowly, buhoro buhoro, things take their course. Examples of the successes of PCVs in Rwanda are in English, health education, the promotion of customer service and a strong work ethic and the cross-cultural exchange between the USA and Rwanda. I like to think my market food choices and hygiene habits were observed and mimicked by some Rwandans. The strides my students made in English after just one year were enough to send me home happy and proud.

Just as a Peace Corps Volunteer slowly works towards sustainable development, so does life in a post-conflict country slowly wear on an individual. I would like to share a very grim personal story that affected my mental state and service in Rwanda.  This is a heavy story, one I debated publishing but it made as big of an impression on me as my personal relationships and success stories. I have kept my writings positive up to now but this I have to share.

One late afternoon I arrived at my secondary school for my daily teacher English classes. I arrived as school was finishing and to my surprise, all the students were gathered on the basketball court instead of playing, bathing, washing clothes or studying. The teachers were also congregated on the playground under the hot sun, pointing and whispering.

“What was happening?” I asked fellow teachers, openly concerned.

It turns out that three students were caught in a sex scandal in which one jealous boy locked another boy and girl in a classroom at night. This would be a big no-no at any boarding school but in our small rural community, this was outrageous. The students had been sent home as punishment but upon their return, one staff member felt they had not been adequately punished and he decided to make an example of them.

This staff member rounded up the three students on a grassy hill that the other 500+ students were gathered around. The teachers, including myself, stood at a distance on higher ground where we could view the action. The staff member verbally humiliated these students, particularly the female and asked the crowd of students if they thought the culprits had been sufficiently punished. Following mixed responses, the man called up four or so of our youngest students to where the three were standing. He had the three students lie down on their stomachs and repeatedly beat them with a bamboo stick until it was frayed. The young students had the task of counting the number of beatings the students received.

At this point, all the teachers were cheering and jeering at the three students’ cries. One of the male students who were being beaten jumped up to runaway and our staff member threw him to the ground and kicked him over and over. I sensed that many students were uncomfortable and as for myself, I held my objecting stomach and turned away. My heart raced, I was nauseous and had tears in my eyes. My throat closed in a tight, protesting rage. A good friend turned to me and said, “I know this is not how you do things in America. But this is what we do.” The beatings finally came to an end and I cancelled class and ran home. Everyone was happy to have class cancelled; there was too much to talk about.

I was thrown and shaken by this corporal punishment for three reasons. First of all, this was my school and students were being beaten despite the fact that the government “looked down” upon corporal punishment. Second of all, the colleague orchestrating the violence was one of my closest, favorite colleagues at the school. He was someone I trusted. Thirdly, I saw this as a cycle of violence much bigger than anything a mere volunteer could tackle. The perpetrator must have seen violence himself so when he was in a position of power was able to control people in such a way. Those three students, I realized, would think to use violence when they themselves finally rose in the Rwandan hierarchy and could humiliate those beneath them just as they had been humiliated.* This was tragic and confusing for me to process. Through discussions at school, I was relieved to know that some colleagues disapproved of the public beating. Still, I was left with the sad truth that my English teaching was secondary to many of the other struggles in this country. 

I have dozens of stories along this same line. And like water falling on rock, these episodes of violence caused a depression in my psyche that wore me down. Such psychological struggles in development work are expected but I encourage those abroad or at home dealing with violence or residual aggression to seek help and support and to develop coping mechanisms.

Despite this event, I loved my Peace Corps experience. There were so many positive experiences to overshadow this event. The best part of Peace Corps? The people I met. Would I recommend it?


*I would like to mention that the female student struggled and eventually left the school. 

Ndi mu rugo... muri Amerika.

I want to post some videos and short stories of memorable moments in my Peace Corps service in Rwanda. Hopefully it will be a good way of summarizing my sixteen months in East Africa. I have seen been medically separated from Peace Corps so I write you from the comforts of Grand Lake, Colorado.

One day while catching a rickety old bus to my site, a small girl of around 2 years joined me in the hot vehicle and began to nap. She was pretty cute so I tolerated her sleeping behind my back while I leaned forward to accommodate her. After about an hour of waiting, the bus left for Kirambo. And about 20 minutes after this, someone finally looked over at this girl and realized she belongs to no one in the bus. Screeeeech. Reverse. Let’s return this little girl to wherever she came from.
I have dozens of hilarious memories that include Tressa. Some are not blog appropriate but others, like the time she shook the hand of a woman who had just wiped her baby’s butt with her hand, are perfect. Another time, we walked into my village center together and Tressa exclaimed, “Oh no I forgot to put on deodorant.” With a sigh, I replied, “So did the rest of the population.” One of our last days together, some Rwandans on our bus looked at us and said, “you are so two friends.” Why yes, we are.
I remember one hot, emotionally-low day in Kigali I was riding a bus to the Peace Corps office. My apologies for bumping into people as I boarded turned into small Kinyarwanda chit chat and a man immediately asked if I was a Peace Corps volunteer. I was so surprised and flattered that he had heard of us. He spoke of all the good things we are doing and commended us for learning Kinyarwanda. As I got off the bus, several people shook my hand in appreciation. It was incredibly touching.

I love the story of the man that came to my house right after I moved in trying to sell a turtle. He presented a small piece of paper with French writing and a price of 1,000,000 RWF. This equates to $2000. My neighbor Alice and I just laughed and no transaction was made.

scars on Parliament
drying corn and potatoes

Oh the kids at my old site! They would go through my trash and wear labels and strings from packaging all over their bodies. They would use my outhouse and steal my light bulbs. They would give dance performances to visitors. After I taught them tic-tac-toe, they would start games on their own outside my door to lure me outside. In the last few months, they started screaming, “sit down!” outside my house when I didn’t respond to “good morning!”
The battle of the l’s and r’s. The funny examples of how Rwandans switch the letters are endless. Recent ones include “Lude Boy by Rihanna”, R Wayne (as in Lil’ Wayne) and the names Groliose and Leopord to mean Gloriose and Leopold. I called that student Leopard for 2/3 of the school year.  
I have stories and opinions about Peace Corps bureaucracy that would make you chuckle. My favorite? When Peace Corps took three of us to the wrong dentist and neither Peace Corps nor the dentist realized it until after we'd all had a teeth creaning and the dentist came running after us. All in all, Peace Corps administration has its obstacles like any organization and I will always highly recommend Peace Corps. 
I have nice memories of animals in the bedroom. There were your standard spiders, huge caterpillars, fleas and mice. Once, I awoke to an odd sound above me. As I looked up, two fighting geckos fell onto my forehead. I couldn’t help but squeal. Another time at site, I noticed lots of neighborhood kids running around outside. I heard what sounded like a kid trying to open my window. I jumped up, threw back the curtains and tumbled backwards in surprise at the huge male baboon hanging from my window irons.
And last of all, the cultural differences. In an English class, I taught my colleagues the recipe for tomato soup. “Sounds good,” they all assured me, “but we cannot make this.”
“Because you are men?”
“No. You cannot put milk in soup.”

Monday, January 31, 2011

"Let's who talk talking"- Student

This is a collection of funny things my students said or wrote. This is not meant to be offensive, just funny. My students were hard working, serious students! Enjoy. 

“Dear Miss or Mrs.”
Thank you for remembering me. It is very nice to think of me. In this night you came in my body very well after I was not sleeping but I put on my clothes. First all I great you with gladness and wishing you the best of luck. But as for you I think that you are no love me because you break up me.
The fact is that I love you.
He has wanted to be married with his girl friend then that baby girl break up him.
Long ago, God created two beloved creatures. Adam and Even.
“I told you every one must be to use manure in order to maximizing many fings”
My most prized possession is the underwear that I am wearing because it has a picture of my favorite superstar (R. Kelly, by the way)
Johnson, were there any casualties?
Yes Jack, I saw them, while I was washing dishes. 
Were there any casualties?
Yes, I am casualty about ear.
did you respect his responsible? 
She is the clever girl and she is my adimirable lady very seriously.
I tell her my name then I ask love for her but she was the prettiest girl and I loke how she roughs, how she moves and how she looks sexy.
I admire a girl who called marie. My friend/morning how are you, me am ok. I want to tell you some informations about preparing exams.
A person I greatly admire is a oldman who is called Arnold Schwarlineger. This action is not simply to undertake by every person because other famous like drunki, smok, love a lot of girls but Arnold is opposite. Always, Arnold is busy and is volunteer.
I’m going to the market to selfish.
Do you ugly with him?
Do you ugly with me?
I ugly wish your solution.
I am ugly because my cow died.
My witness is my nicest shoe.
I am inspiring the rabit in the forest.
He talked to me about the importance of cleaning my items, such as avoiding some disease like syphilis which helps transmiting easily HIV/AIDS when you have sexed with someone who were just infected. Oh Betty, I like praying and singing, I wonder if you would like it!
Disadvantage of being a journalist: when the make incollect information, they get punitions and they lack energy to advatise.
“our objective is doing drugs” - from a skit
“Good morning my boyfriend, Eric. Good morning my boyfriend John.” From a skit
Teacher: How was your break?
Student: Terrible.
Teacher: Why?
Student: Because I missed your phone number and I wanted to greet you everymorning but could not. 
“I am sex worker in the school.” (this one worried me...)
Teacher: Did you learn any news words during break?
Innocent: cantertable.
“What is the meaning of ‘I am so hood’?”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Do the likelilest and God will do the lest."

Behind the glamour and nice architecture of my new school, the Kitabi College of Conservation and Environmental Management, I am discovering my new site is quite rural and impoverished, more so than my previous site.

The villagers of Kitabi are very unaccustomed to seeing an American, especially a young girl. I have a feeling the name-calling will continue for a while, especially since I caught children telling others that I’m going to eat them. I noticed that these children seem more poor and unwashed than other areas I have seen. Their clothes are tattered and dirty. The market in town was so small and shabby that they didn’t know to give me the “Muzungu price”, which I would have gladly given. The market contained little more than onions, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, potatoes, mangos and bananas. Another thing I’ve interpreted as a sign of poverty is that the town is often out of phone credit.

This afternoon, herds of children were running around my house so I suspiciously asked my domestic worker what they were up to. It turns out they were collecting the swarms of large, green grasshoppers that are all over the place. My domestic, who showed me how to dismember one, insists that they are delicious when fried in oil and salt. Instances like this led me to ask a new colleague of mine why this region is so poor.

It turns out that this district, which is called Nyamagabe, is notoriously poor and undereducated. This has several causes. First of all, the soil is poor and the climate is cold. In addition to these conditions, the hills are very steep and the valleys very narrow. This makes subsistence agriculture very challenging. Because of the many steep hills, it is hard to both build schools and obtain good attendance.  A final cause, my colleague whispered, was that this region is made up largely of the ethnicity that was ostracized by the previous administration. Now that the genocide and ethnic tensions are largely in the past, large amounts of funding have been poured into the district’s health care and education system so it is now performing better.

I’ll be starting my English teaching this January so I will be sure to share some stories then. In the meantime, please enjoy this picture of my neighbors: 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

This is why I'm here...

New site in the south 

It was day one at my new site, the Kitabi College of Conservation and Environmental Management. I woke up to silence, light and a feeling of change. Outside my house are rolling hills of forest and tea. Here in Kitabi we are up high where it is cold and the clouds are constantly changing their mind.  I spent time with new colleagues then organized my new room and walked the campus but by afternoon, I had a familiar, unpleasant feeling. It was a feeling of disappointment and emptiness, inevitable after any big expectation is checked by reality. What am I doing here? Will it be too much? Too little? How do I take care of myself while helping Rwanda? Is this site too different from my last one? These are common questions I ask myself but today I decided they were intolerable and restrictive.

I was not in the mood to hole up in my house so I ventured outside and off campus for a little walk.  To my left was a heavy storm cloud and to my right was forest where just this morning I had seen a baboon. I continued straight and decided to buy some airtime for my phone. This led me from boutique to boutique, with lots of confused-looking Rwandans wondering who this Kinyarwanda-speaking foreigner was. I made it to one house that promised to have airtime when the kids started shouting to get the camera because the white person was there. “Appareil appareil!” they shouted.

As I got to the house and paid, it started pouring. This Rwandan woman, Mama Yvette, ushered me into her house where I sat with eight other children. The children passed around a broken Polaroid and “took” pictures of me all afternoon.

The rain kept me for a while, enough time to make some friends, eat some bananas, see the bath of a two month old and exchange some English-Kinyarwanda lessons. It was chilly and damp and the electricity was intermittent; still, there was a beautiful energy in the room. One girl was knitting a scarf using to sticks as needles. Two of the boys turned out to be some of the most talented dancers I have ever seen… although their song “ipusi ipusi” (cat cat) was not so great. One of the boys, Zidane, was smitten. He had dirty clothes, gap teeth and a shy spirit like mine. He started a chorus of “will she stay the night? Will she stay the night?” that continued until the rain slowed and I left. His pleas, “ararara, ararara?” turned in to a song and I was sorry to disappoint.  

I was accompanied home and have carried a smile ever since. For me, this experience exemplifies Peace Corps. Just walking out of your house and using your language and cultural skills to spend the afternoon with a village family is unique to Peace Corps. I couldn’t have done this before Peace Corps and for this skill, I am grateful. 

Colleagues from my old school

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Goodbye Kirambo...

Sorghum replaced the corn and now beans have taken the place of the sorghum. From my yellow house in the valley, I’ve watched the fields shift from purple, to red to lime green. In the middle of this rainy, bean season, I find myself saying an emotional goodbye to the North and preparing for next year’s adventure in southern Rwanda.

I had my final market day yesterday, which I took in slowly as I meandered the aisles and greeted everyone. We laughed, touched and chatted and I promised to return to visit. I commissioned my last project at the tailor while her child screamed and covered his eyes at the sight of me. I took photos of my kids and exchanged numbers with everyone (because everyone in Rwanda has a cell phone!).

I have loved my final moto rides, which cleared my head and fed my heart. The scenery in the North is so breathtaking. I will miss the hustle and bustle of Base, the town where I catch motos and am offered rides on bicycles, motorcycles and cars by smiling men that call me Umurerwa or Kayitesi.

I have taken the chance to say goodbye to my favorite villagers, like the shop keepers, Mama Shafik and her new baby, my dear old Mama Devotha and of course, my bestie Christine. She is my lifeline, my number one. We share walks, tea, meals, conversations, music and laughs. And recently we shared bacon and French toast. I will miss these friends. I will also miss my morning wake-up call from the mosque. And those children that drive me crazy… I will miss their echoes of “Good morning Penina!” that reverberate across the valley.

It has now been 13 months since I left for Peace Corps and this means over 11 months at site. I recently left site for a while and coming back helped me see just what those 11 months mean. Those months of exposure to a Peace Corps Volunteer have left my village open, accepting and loving. Upon my return, I was greeted with “where’ve you been?” and “we missed you!” and “our muzungu!” Absent was the judgment and hurt I was expecting. Cultural exchange is a huge goal of Peace Corps and it is happening… in fact it is working! I have settled into a comfortable pattern of life in which I have accepted many Rwandan traditions and norms but kept some of my own. My village seems to have accepted this too.

Someone recently challenged me to find things that I love in Rwanda. Can you tell by this blog post that there are many?


Final market day in my site

Some Peace Corps Volunteers acting like turkeys on Thanksgiving. Look at our feast!

*Rwandans often say "just" to mean yes. It drives us English teachers crazy.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen, Justin Bieber has arrived in Rwanda: "That small kid is very interesting."

But this blog is not about Justin Bieber. The runner up title was "1 in 200,000"

The Peace Corps starts a program in a country when the country requests its presence. They decide which sectors they would like help in: agro-forestry, small enterprise development, health, etc. Over 200,000 volunteers have served or are serving in the Peace Corps. We are currently in around 70 countries. Rwanda asked the Peace Corps to return to Rwanda in 2008 and they’ve set the goal of having 250 volunteers teaching tens of thousands of students by around 2014. When you put it in perspective, you can see what we are actually accomplishing. Oh the ground, things seem to move a little slower. Currently, PC Rwanda only has education and health sectors. I am an education volunteer and as our school year comes to a close, I’d like to tell you more about Peace Corps, my school, students and classes.

Last week I met with a Peace Corps staff who was doing site development in my district. We had a motivating discussion about what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer and why PCVs are so exceptional. I’m eleven months in and often lose site of my purpose and goals. The PCV is a teacher not only in the classroom or at their job: the PCV is also a teacher in the community. Just publicly washing my hands before I eat, other villagers can say, “look! She is washing her hands. I think I will too!” They can observe us in the market, making healthy food choices with the same options they have. Also, as volunteers greet villagers on their daily walks, community members learn that foreigners, or Americans in general, do not need to be treated differently than others. They are not above anyone.

This is an important distinction to fight in Rwanda. The Peace Corps staff member and I discussed the divisive social hierarchy that exists in Rwanda. It is something I discovered only after I moved to my site. In Rwanda, there are many social divisions. Many education volunteers see the artificially imposed distinction between “villagers” and “the educated.” School and government officials, raised and educated in larger towns, often move to rural settings for work. For many of us, these are our colleagues. On the weekends, they return to the larger towns like Kigali and Musanze. This creates a harmful distinction that I am fighting. I have had colleagues tell me, “You should never visit your neighbors” because they are bad, uneducated people. Nonetheless, I continue to visit and greet my rural villagers and friends. When people see me at the tailor, greeting a poor neighbor while talking with a successful female colleague, they see the possibility of breaking these barriers. In a culture where judgment and division are prevalent, it is important to show friendship and acceptance.

The other part of my job is teaching in the classroom. Rwanda offers 9 years of free, basic education. Twelve are available- if you can pay or get a scholarship. I teach at a private, boarding school where parents or guardians work very hard to pay school fees for students. Our school fees are around $140/year. Students come from all over the country to my school to specialize in math, sciences or business. We have a staff of around 30 from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and America (that would be me). We also have our own cows, which is a huge source of pride.

I teach 250 students in 10th grade economics, 10th grade English and 11th grade English. Class sizes are large, around 50, so the bare classrooms are crowded. My resources are chalk, a chalkboard, pens and a small library. I make do. I feel fortunate to have natural lighting, desks and one chalkboard giant chalkboard, though I do not have my own classroom. In the Rwandan system, students stay in one classroom while teachers rotate. It has its advantages and disadvantages.

We are now halfway through our third and final term. This many months in, it’s exciting to see the progress my students have made. The first two terms, I focused on speaking and listening exercises in my English classes. We’ve done activities like skits, telephone, Circle Talk, group work, dictations and tongue twisters. Their achievements are remarkable but I know I am not the one to thank. It is their hard work and motivation to learn English as well as the effort all the other teachers have made to learn English and use it in the classroom. We are now focusing on grammar and writing, which some classes love. They are hungry for definitions, rules and new words.

My economics class is my favorite class and it is where I have seen the most improvement in my teaching and my students’ performance. To see so many boys and girls participating is very gratifying. Last term, I noticed a marked improvement in their English and decided it was because I use a content-based TEFL approach to teaching them. Through verbal review, lots of exercises and having students read my notes on the board, their English has gotten much better. I decided to apply this content-based methodology to my English classes. As an example, we’re now studying Sustainable Development in my 11th grade class and through this I will teach outlining and composition writing.

My teaching style is more casual than my students are used to but I believe it creates a very safe classroom environment where students aren’t afraid to talk, make noise and make mistakes. My first week teaching economics, one student said, “Teacher, this is not how you teach in Rwanda” to which I replied, “I know.” And they’ve gotten used to it. If class finishes early, I open it up for a Q&A session on English vocabulary. My favorite questions? “What is the meaning of ‘I am so hood’” and “cantertable?” I am not sure.

Rwanda runs on polychromic or “African” time and for many volunteers, this means school starts minutes, hours, even days late. My school is particularly serious and this isn’t as much of a problem. Still, our students have many responsibilities including cleaning the classrooms and fetching water so sometimes class is disrupted. One week, I kept walking into classrooms of only boys because the girls were having mandatory pregnancy tests at the clinic. Discipline is very serious at my school but not something I want to discuss on my blog. Afternoons are difficult, either because of the heat or the rain. Staff meetings are becoming regular. Our morning tea has enough sugar to kill a diabetic. Our library has a dozen English dictionaries. We are one of the few schools to hold our own genocide commemoration week. We have no hand washing facilities (yet). We have a working computer lab. Our girls volleyball team is one of the best in the country. All in all, things are pretty impressive at my school. This past year has been quite a positive experience, despite my own personal struggles.