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Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Thread in the Loom of Life

My grandfather, Elden Hughes, was an exceptional man. He died on December 4, 2011 in his home in Joshua Tree, California. He was 80 years old. On Monday morning, December 5, I read in an email from my parents that he had died. Then I read his obituary in the LA Times. He was rather famous for his conservation work with the Sierra Club, so it was more of a feature article than an obituary. It was a beautiful article but it didn’t comfort me much.

Normally I wouldn’t write about the passing of a relative anywhere on the internet, much less on a blog dedicated to my Peace Corps experiences. But like I said, my grandfather was exceptional. He was always the perfect grandfather, old and wise and grandiose and unchanging. He sort of reminded me of a big old oak tree. He liked to tell stories and was excellent at it. He had many stories but he tended to tell the same ones, especially ones about Native American basket weavers. While I always enjoyed hearing his stories they were mostly about people I’d never known and places I’d never been to and consequently I’m not sure how often I really listened.

Then I joined the Peace Corps and he started writing me letters. Elden was a prodigious letter-writer. I suppose you don’t get as far as he did in life without being a prodigious letter-writer. I gave him and a number of other relatives my mailing address because I thought they might want to send me Christmas and birthday cards. Elden immediately sat down and wrote the first in what was to be a series of nearly 60 letters I’d receive throughout my first year of service.

When I arrived in Rwanda, Letter #1 was already waiting for me. I think I was the first volunteer in my training class to get any mail from home.

Through letters, I got to know Elden and he got to know me. He wrote to me about all kinds of things, about Native American basket weavers but also about my father and uncles as little boys, about books he’d read, about geological work he did in Mexico. He told me about raising pigs to put himself through college. He told me about graduate school at Vanderbilt, how it starts raining so suddenly in that part of the country and how he always seemed to get caught in the rain without an umbrella. He told me about his work with the Sierra Club and how he sometimes received death threats for his efforts. He also sent me pictures of himself. They’re mostly recent ones of him with his many pets, but there was one photo of him shaking hands with President Clinton.

Every time I went to the post office in Gitarama there were at least three letters from him waiting for me. They were printed on nice stationery with his personal letterhead. I responded via email because it was the only way I could keep up with him.

In one email I told him I was running out of ideas for things to do with my English club. He told me that if my students wanted to write to him, he’d be happy to respond. Twelve ended up writing letters, eleven of which got sent. They asked him lots of difficult open-ended questions, like “How can I succeed in life?” and “How can I come to America?” He not only responded to each one individually, but his answers were helpful and sensitive and written in English they could easily understand. Since a large part of my job in the Peace Corps is to communicate complex ideas with rudimentary English, I knew this was no simple task.

Elden told me on several occasions that I ought to read Moby Dick. He told me in high school that I ought to read Moby Dick. He told me again in college that I ought to read Moby Dick. I never did. When I came to Rwanda, I brought a copy with me and told him I planned to read it. “If you don’t get through the whole book,” he said, “there’s one chapter in particular that you need to read. It’s called The Mat Maker. Queequeg is weaving a mat, beating down the threads. It’s the perfect metaphor for life. You have the long threads of the warp. Those are the things in life you can’t change. Then you have the shuttle passing through the long threads. That’s free will. And then - WHACK. Chance!”

I made it a little more than halfway through Moby Dick before giving up on it, but I did read the chapter called The Mat Maker. When I opened my email on December 5 and saw that Elden had died, for a good twenty minutes the only thing I could think was: WHACK. Chance!

I’m lucky in that I haven’t experienced a whole lot of loss in my life. I’ve lost a few relatives whom I loved very much, but Elden’s passing is the first time I’ve lost not just a loved one but a friend. His letters a consistent source advice, encouragement, even companionship, and I relied on them during my first year of service. I realize now how lucky I was to get to know him that way and how much more difficult things would have been if I didn’t have his letters to look forward to.

My grandfather Elden did a lot of incredible things in his life. There are many, many people who know what he did for the Mojave Desert. There are only a few who know what he did for me. If I’ve made any contribution to the advancement of Rwanda, I owe it at least in part to his love and support.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Last Days: GLOW Pt. 2

The last days of camp kind of blur together in my mind because I woke up on Thursday with horrible stomach cramps that refused to go away. I slept through part of a career panel featuring a female police officer and a local nurse. I also slept through an SGBV (Sex and Gender Based Violence) seminar led by some local health workers. Thursday night we had an all-camp talent show. I was present for the first half, so I got to see some awesome dancing and singing. There were also a few girls who did standup in Kinyarwanda. Apparently I missed a pretty awesome fashion show featuring clothes the girls made and a spirited Macarena performance by the camp facilitators.

Oh, and I almost forgot - at the behest of some of the facilitators, I did a solo acoustic performance of Beyonce’s “Halo.” I’m pretty sure it was a hit.

Friday morning the sector officials returned to the camp to make a closing speech and each of the girls were given certificates of completion. Everyone said they were sad to leave the camp. A few girls even cried. When I asked one of the girls from school about the crying, she said, “It’s because everyone is so nice here. It’s so much easier to make friends here than at school.” I realized then that camp had been a safe place for me, too. Normally my status as “muzungu” means I’m treated differently, but at camp I was just a mentor and a friend. It was an incredible feeling. I felt like a human being.

I left Bugesera that day feeling worn out but fulfilled. Not only was GLOW an incredible success, but I found that the messages of the camp - female empowerment, healthful living, reconciliation - resonated as much with me as they did with the campers, and I returned to site on Saturday feeling stronger, more confident, and more at peace with myself and my neighbors. Everyone has been telling me how well I look since my return. I guess that’s the GLOW glow.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Why Nothing Good Comes Easy: GLOW Pt. 1

Last week was GLOW week in Bugesera. My body is bug-bitten, stomach-sick, achy and exhausted, but in heart and spirit I’m in better condition than ever. Not only was our camp an incredible success for the campers, it was an equally incredible experience for the volunteers who organized it. In fact, it was undoubtedly the best week of my Peace Corps service thus far.

Of course, “incredible success” doesn’t mean “flawless,” hence the exhaustion, stomach sickness and bug bites. But I’ll get to that.

I mentioned Camp GLOW in my last blog post but I never got a chance to describe exactly what GLOW is or how the camps are organized. GLOW, or Girls Lead Our World, is a Peace Corps initiative that started in Romania in 1995. The idea is to bring young women together in a camp setting to foster a sense of empowerment and discuss pertinent topics like sex, health and self-esteem. The GLOW initiative is new to Rwanda. There have been trial programs in Kigali and Gitarama but this year was the first year to see multiple regional camps happen simultaneously.

I participated in a regional camp in Bugesera, a district immediately east of Kigali. Our campers and facilitators came from six different schools in the Kigali-Bugesera area. We had guidelines Peace Corps and funding from PEPFAR, but it was up to us volunteers to actually make the camp happen. Four volunteers served as camp administrators. They secured a location for the camp, acquired materials, drew up a schedule, wrote lessons, planned activities and coordinated the staff that did the cooking and cleaning. I was one of six volunteer facilitators who recruited campers, taught lessons and supervised activities. We also had Rwandan co-facilitators and junior facilitators who we recruited from local schools.

During the camp we divided our days between small-group lessons and large-group activities. There were six groups, each named after a different famous female. I was the facilitator for the Michelle Obama group. There was also a Wangari Maathai group, a Mother Theresa group, an Oprah group, etc. Each morning, the small groups met in different classrooms for lessons on various topics. The theme of our GLOW Camp was HIV awareness so a lot of our lessons had to do with HIV prevention, but we also had lessons on things like decision-making, goal-setting, love and relationships. In the afternoons and evenings the girls convened to do sports and other activities. Sometimes we had multiple activities happening simultaneously, allowing the girls to pick what they wanted to do.

Though things went smoothly for the most part, it was definitely an adventure. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning:

The camp started on a Monday, making Sunday orientation day for the facilitators. I left my site at 6am because I had no idea where I was going or how long it would take. I knew only that I had to be at a school called G.S. Rango in Bugesera by 11am. It was a hot, dusty trip on bad roads in an overstuffed minibus. When I finally arrived at the school we only had time for a quick lunch before jumping into an orientation meeting that lasted hours. After dinner, we continued the meeting. I was so exhausted at the end of it I could have passed out in my chair.

The school had been infested with bedbugs during the year so the headmaster and his wife had provided us with new mattresses to sleep on. When we got to the dormitories I collapsed onto a bed and, assuming I was safe, slept a sound, dreamless sleep.

Two hours later I awoke to a sharp itching. Assuming I was imagining things, I tried to ignore it. When the itching persisted, I turned on my flashlight to investigate. To my horror, the mattress in the bunk above me was crawling with bedbugs as big as ticks. I rolled onto my stomach, inadvertently coming face-to-face with some that had fallen onto my sleeping bag. I squished one with my thumb. It left a long, bloody streak. On the other side of the room, a couple of people were frantically disentangling themselves from infested sheets. We rushed our mattresses outside, brushed them off, and spent the rest of the night on the floor of the supply room on the other side of campus.

Fun fact: bedbugs can live in wooden bed frames as well as mattresses, and they can lay their eggs in sheets, clothing and sleeping bags. In most cases, washing with cold water will not kill them.

Before the start of camp I had volunteered help round up campers coming through Nyabugogo, Kigali’s main bus station. So it was early the next morning, I had to take a minibus back to Kigali. I went with Mike, an administrator, and Grace, a junior facilitator. We left well before breakfast. As we hurtled back down the bumpy, dusty road, I silently cursed myself for ever volunteering to make such an awful trip twice and for forgetting to bring a personal supply of instant coffee with me.

For those of you who have never been to Rwanda, Nyabugogo deserves an explanation. I described it as Kigali’s main bus station. It is also by far the most chaotic place in the entire city. There are dozens upon dozens of minibuses, charter buses and taxis, some labeled and some not. These create an indecipherable maze of vehicles through which hundreds of travelers and street vendors are constantly streaming. The maze is bordered by shops and the offices of various ticket agencies. There are about ten agencies, at least two of which sell tickets to Bugesera.

Some of our campers knew to come find us in front of the Kigali Safaris ticket agency, but some had no idea where to go. To help them out, we’d made posters that read “Camp GLOW” in colorful block letters. We were supposed to collect seventeen girls and leave for Bugesera by 10am. By 9:30 we only had eight of them, so I decided to take a lap around the outer edge of the bus station with my sign. I tend to get harassed in Nyabugogo just for being a lone white women, so you can imagine what happened when I decided to walk around by myself with a big, colorful poster. By the time I made it back to the ticket agency I’d accumulated a crowd of hecklers and the poster was almost torn in half.

We had only sixteen girls by 10am and, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t stall our driver. We ended up finding the last girl and leaving with her at 10:45. By that point I was actually grateful to be getting back on a bus. I had become so famous throughout Nyabugogo that people were trying to get me to sell my Camp GLOW poster.

When we arrived back in Bugesera I discovered that the school’s custodial staff had washed all of our bedbug-infested clothing and sheets. They had also washed our pillows and sleeping bags, including the ones stuffed with down feathers. The staff was convinced that our things would dry. I was convinced I’d just lost a $200 sleeping bag to someone else’s good intentions. Fortunately I had no time to be angry. We jumped right into lessons that day, and I met the eight young women who would be my family for the week: Vestine, Jacqueline, Djamila, Ancille, Angelique, Martine, and my co-facilitator, Lucy.

I slept that night wrapped in someone else’s spare sheet with a damp towel for a pillow. We had all relocated to supply room, leaving us without mosquito nets to sleep under. It wasn’t ideal, but have to say I much prefer mosquitoes, katydids, dampness and cold to the predation of bedbugs. Few things are worse than rampant bedbugs.


Tuesday morning was a cold, misty morning, but I decided to take an outdoor bucket bath anyway. We were expecting some sector officials to come and speak and I wanted to look presentable.

That day the schedule was packed with activities and some rather technical lessons on HIV and the immune system. We had allotted about an hour for the sector officials and assumed it would be plenty. This was a typical American mistake. In the United States people of high standing are more punctual than average. In Rwanda, the more important you are, the later you can afford to be. The later you can afford to be, the later you are, and everyone is expected to wait for you.

Naturally, the sector officials were late. To our credit, we waited for an hour and a half before assuming they weren’t coming and proceeding with the day’s lessons. Everything seemed to be going fine until around 2pm when some visiting Peace Corps staff approached a volunteer. They told her that the school’s headmaster was extremely upset. He thought we hadn’t waited because we didn’t want to hear from the sector officials, and he was so ashamed of us he couldn’t bear to approach us about it himself. We immediately contacted the sector and reiterated that we wanted them to come and that we’d rearrange our schedule as necessary.

At 3:30 we put our afternoon activities on hold to have the “official opening” of Camp GLOW by the sector. It was what I’d call a exemplary cross-cultural experience.

Misunderstandings aside, everything worked out. The executive secretary gave a very nice speech and our schedule didn’t get too far off track. We got through all of our lessons and most of a team-building ropes course. That evening I paired up with another volunteer and taught a beginning salsa class, which turned out to be a big hit. All in all a successful day.


Wednesday was condom demonstration day. This was a big hurdle for me. I had never done a condom demonstration before in my life and I was nervous. It wasn’t just that I worried about maintaining a straight face, though I admit that was part of it. I also wasn’t sure what to expect from the campers and I had reasons to fear the worst.

Condom usage in Rwanda is an unnavigable area of controversy. On the one hand, there’s a huge push on the part of the government to combat HIV transmission. On the other hand, the possession of condoms is frowned upon, especially for young girls. In extreme cases I’ve heard of students getting expelled for having condoms in their book bags. Some of our initial GLOW Camp lessons discussed condoms as a means of preventing HIV but I still had no idea how the girls would react to the sight of an actual condom. I ran through all the possibilities in my head - giggling fits, horror, stunned silence, a mass exodus from the classroom - before I went in to teach that day. Nothing could have prepared me for what actually happened.

We began the lesson with an activity. The girls were each given a sheet of paper. The sheets said things like “check the expiration date of the condom,” “pinch the tip of the condom to keep air from getting trapped,” “roll the condom down to the base of the penis,” etc. The girls had to arrange the sheets in chronological order. When they got it right, we taped all the sheets to the wall. I explained that at Camp GLOW we do not encourage girls to have sex, especially since abstinence is the only way to be 100% safe from diseases like HIV. I explained that we want there to be safe, healthy options for girls who choose to have sex, which is why we talk about condom usage. Then I took out a condom and a banana and ran through each of the steps.

Not only did the girls listen attentively and respectfully, but when I gave them the option, every single one of them took a condom and practiced the steps themselves. No one seemed uncomfortable. To my amazement, two of the girls told me afterwards that it was their first time to ever see a condom. One girl told me that she’d seen a condom demonstration before but that it hadn’t been as effective. She said that even though she wants to abstain from sex until marriage, she’s glad to know how to use a condom because she can teach others. Hearing that was probably the single most fulfilling moment I’ve experienced as a Peace Corps volunteer.

That night we had a dance party in the main hall. While the girls boogied down, we built a bonfire outside and set up a table with marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers shipped specially from America for making s’mores. The s’mores were a huge hit. We tried to limit the girls to one apiece but a few kept sneaking back inside to grab more marshmallows.

As we stood around the fire eating, a few girls started singing softly. Others slowly joined in, and soon the entire group had erupted into a beautiful three-part harmony. Their voices were powerful yet sweet, building to crescendo that broke like a wave over my heart. I’ve heard a lot of choral singing in my life but I’ve never heard anything quite so beautiful as that one spontaneous song.

In Rwanda it’s considered indecorous to cry in public, even on happy occasions. I turned around and hid my face in another volunteer’s shirt so the girls wouldn’t see my tears.

I’ll share the last two days of camp with you later. I think I’ve given you all enough to read for now.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Today something incredible happened in Gihara, but to describe it I have to explain umuganda. To be honest, I’m surprised umuganda hasn’t come up earlier. My Kinyarwanda-English dictionary defines umuganda as simply “community work,” but Umuganda (capital U) is a practice that exemplifies Rwandan development rhetoric in action like nothing else I’ve seen. On the last Saturday of every month, shops and local businesses close down all over the country and everyone turns out en masse for community service. People do whatever needs to be done, from clearing roads and sweeping out gutters to weeding gardens and repainting buildings. Their compensation? The knowledge that they’re making their country more beautiful. It isn’t bottom-up development in the purest sense, but it is a policy that seems to have fostered a national culture of volunteerism that I find inspiring.

Though no one in Gihara really expects me to, I do my best to participate in umuganda. It’s sort of like working out or doing chores. I always feel better when I’ve done it, but I don’t really look forward to it and it never seems to get easier. People always think it’s hilarious that the muzungu wants to join in. It doesn’t help that I’m not particularly adept at doing “basic” tasks like cutting weeds with a machete. Last umuganda I got a blister on my hand from wielding a hoe with too much enthusiasm, effectively confirming everyone’s suspicions that I’m too delicate to do any real work. So you can imagine my consternation when I went out walking this morning on a day that was decidedly not the last Saturday of the month and got asked by every other person I met, for the first time, “Where are you going? Aren’t you doing umuganda?” After the tenth or eleventh person to question me I had to go back to the town center to investigate.

As it turned out, today was declared an extra day of umuganda for a special community project: the planting of dozens of trees all over the sector. All of my neighbors came out with hoes and shovels and ministry people distributed saplings from the back of a pickup truck. Then they went from one end of Gihara to the other together, alternately digging holes and planting. Soon I was swept up in the crowd. Someone handed me a sapling and a shovel. I’ve never volunteered to plant trees before in my life, but I think I’m going to start as soon as I get back to the States. It was exhilarating and surprisingly addictive, especially in a place as starved for shade as Gihara.

When all the trees were planted we convened at my school for a big celebration that included live music and traditional dancing and, of course, a lot of speeches by local officials. It was a hot, sticky, breezeless day and I was tired and covered in dirt but nonetheless, I was happy to be there. They say people join Peace Corps to change the world, but it felt good just to do my part alongside everyone else. I think that’s what bottom-up development probably feels like: everyone gets to plant a tree.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Happy Anniversary!

One year in Rwanda. I don’t know about you all, but I can barely believe it. I know a lot has happened - I’ve learned 1000+ Kinyarwanda words, the names and faces of 100+ students, and more than a dozen different ways to spice rice and beans - but it doesn’t seem like enough to have filled a whole year. Or maybe it’s that there are only two seasons instead of four to mark the passage of time. It’s late October, but it feels like June in California. I got sunburned walking home from school today.

To celebrate the anniversary of our arrival, I spent the weekend at my friend Brittany’s site near Kibuye. Four of us collaborated on the most amazing dinner I’ve had in at least a year: a green salad with raisins, crumbled gouda and homemade vinaigrette; wood oven-baked lasagna with garden spinach, tomato-garlic sauce and homemade paneer; and baked apples stuffed with raisins in a cinnamon-vanilla glaze. It couldn’t have happened without collaboration. The raisins came from an Indian mini-mart in Kigali, the gouda and apples from Gitarama, the cinnamon and vanilla from Zanzibar, the vinaigrette spices in a care package from America, the lettuce and spinach from a convent garden near Brittany’s house. International borders were personally crossed for the baked apples alone. I have to admit, sometimes I miss the convenience of American supermarkets.

I also miss baking. Fortunately for us, Brittany’s neighbor has a wood oven for making bread. I don’t think lasagna would have been possible in a Peace Corps-style convection oven.*

School will be out for the holidays until January. Most volunteers are going home for awhile, but I’m glad to be staying. There’s a new volunteer who will be installed just up the road from me in mid-December and she’ll want someone to spend Christmas with. I’m also looking forward to being a facilitator at the Kigali region’s GLOW Camp,** a girls’ leadership camp organized by Peace Corps volunteers. I’ll be staying in Bugesera for a week in November to help set up and supervise a camp of 48 girls from around the Kigali-Bugesera area. It should be awesome. We have a ton of great activities planned and we’ve scheduled guest speakers on topics ranging from career planning to health issues like AIDS. I recruited seven girls from my school to participate in the camp and they couldn’t be more excited.

All in all, I couldn’t be happier with where I am in my service. I have things to look forward to and accomplishments to look back on. I have a sense of what’s possible and enough time to put new projects in motion. I even had a weird moment the other night where I thought I might want to stay in Rwanda indefinitely. I speak the language well enough. I have friends here. I could have locally grown pineapple every day forever.

But then I thought…nah. I love Rwanda, but it isn’t home. And more importantly, two years is long enough to go without Chipotle braised chicken burritos.

*A “Peace Corps oven” consists of two pots, one larger than the other with water in the bottom. By placing the smaller pot inside the larger pot and heating both over charcoal, it’s possible to bake a variety of things in small batches.
** GLOW stands for Girls Lead Our World. It’s a Peace Corps initiative originating in Romania in 1995. The purpose of GLOW is to encourage adolescent girls to become active citizens by building confidence and developing skills such as goal-setting, health and life-planning.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Almost One Whole Year!

I can't believe it's been so long. About this time last year I was packing my bags and getting ready to leave Seattle. Have I changed since then? Has Gihara changed? Have I made a difference? It's hard to know. No one calls me "muzungu" anymore, but otherwise it seems as if I've accomplished very little. Then again, sometimes the most meaningful accomplishments are also the most subtle.

I don't know how many of you remember my post about the woman who always asked me for shoes. Lots of people ask me for things, but most people at least have the courtesy to say hello first. She never did. I assumed she never would. But yesterday I passed her in the road and she smiled and greeted me warmly.

It was the first time I'd seen her smile. She has an incredible smile.

Teacher classes never did happen this year. The teachers couldn't seem to agree on a good meeting time. No one wants to stay late during the week and no one wants to come in on weekends. I offered to teach English classes during the break, but no one wanted to come in then either. It made me think of the flowers I planted in front of my rooms. There were four separate plants, one of which I was sure would last because it seemed to be the best-protected. Last week someone stepped on it. It just goes to show, you never know which projects will come to fruition and which will fail to take off.

I'm actually kind of relieved that teacher classes aren't happening. Now I have time for more interesting projects. Next year maybe I'll turn the school's "book room" into a real library. Who knows. Lots of things are possible in a year.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Another Average Day

Today I woke up at 5:15. I spent half an hour watching the sky lighten through my window. The dawn breaks twice here. Once over the horizon, once over the roof of the convent. You have to see it to really understand.

We’ve been doing a lot of group work in my English classes. I like it because the students can talk and I can circulate. Today while I was circulating I felt something tug at my hair. I turned around and found one of my students crouching on top of her desk with her arm outstretched. She was trying to touch my hair without me noticing. When I turned and saw her she gave me a look of utter mortification and almost fell off her desk. The class burst out laughing. I guess this is one unforeseen problem with letting my hair grow out.

I went for a walk after teaching and found a little boy sitting by the road in nothing but a dirty tee shirt. He couldn’t have been older than four. He had a small scythe and was playing with the sharp end, a sadly common sight. I wanted to intervene without scaring him so I crouched down a few feet away from him and whispered, “Hey, kid!” He looked up at me and grinned. “Muzuuunguuu,” he cooed. I was about to tell him I had a name and that it wasn’t muzungu but before I could say anything he dropped the scythe, ran over, and wound both arms around my neck. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Muzuuuuunguuuu,” he said, and started nuzzling my face. Children are often curious about me but the nuzzling definitely wasn’t something I’d encountered before. I tried to stand up. He went with me, dangling off my neck. I told him I had to go. He wrapped his legs around my waist. He didn’t let me go until his mother came and told him to leave me alone. I asked her if he had some kind of problem. “He likes muzungus,” she said.

Once a small child ran at me with a stick. I think he intended to defend his house. He was valiant in his attack, though he cried in terror the whole time. So that’s one possible response, and then there’s the boy with the scythe who nuzzled me. I’ll never understand the kids here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Chance Meeting

Besides losing the sense of novelty, I’ve thought of another reason why it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep up my blog. I’m also losing sight of what’s relatable.

For the first several months at site I was an American in Rwanda and I could write as an American in Rwanda. Now, after nearly a year spent as a fish out of water, I can’t help but see things through a lens that isn’t exactly American nor exactly Rwandan. The things that shock me, interest me, aggravate me or gratify me increasingly seem like mine alone. This is a problem I thought I shared only with other Peace Corps volunteers and the select few expats who live in cultural isolation like we do.

But then I met Faith.

Last Monday I had just gotten home from school when I heard knock at my door. I answered it with a scowl because I was in the middle of lesson planning and I suspected it was someone asking for food or money. Instead, there was Faith. She was tall and model-slim in distressed jeans and a tee shirt, with bangles on her arms and her short black hair in a faux hawk. She was definitely African but she was like no one I’d ever seen in Rwanda, not even in Kigali. In perfect British English she said, “I heard you have a guitar here. Thought you might let us borrow it, if it‘s not too much trouble.”

I was so taken aback by her perfect English, her accent and directness it didn’t even occur to me to ask who she was. I said, “Yeah, you can borrow it, but it’s travel-size.”

“Oh, you mean one of those tiny ones?” She mimed a ukulele.

“No, it’s…here, let me show you.” I went into the other room and produced my travel guitar, a blue, meter-long fret board with strings. “It’s little!” Faith said, in that perfect British accent. “Yeah,” I said, “but the frets are full-size so you should have no trouble playing it.”

“I’m Faith, by the way,” she said.

That was the beginning of a three-hour conversation that ran the gamut of things from living abroad to cooking to cycling to music to the differences between American and Rwandan culture. Faith, as it turned out, was the niece of Sister Mediatrice, the nun who manages the health center at Gihara. She had been living in London for something like fifteen years but she’d decided it was time to come back home so she was in Rwanda looking for work. “But I don’t think I’ll find anything,” she said. “I’m an artist, you see, and there’s not much of an art world in Rwanda .” She said she mostly did digital photography and ceramics. She comes from an artistic family, to the extent that her brother and sister recorded some of the music for the soundtrack of Hotel Rwanda. Over the course of her life she has lived in Rwanda, Kenya, France and England in roughly that order. She’s a believer in freedom and nonconformity. She’s nonreligious even though her father is a priest and her aunt is a nun. She’s the most eclectic person I think I’ve ever met, and from the moment I first saw her I had a sense I could tell her anything and she’d understand.

It took me awhile to figure out why Faith and I related so strongly. We barely knew each other. We were almost ten years apart in age and came from drastically different backgrounds. But she, like me, is a person out of place. She told me it had been hard coming home because people here treat her like a foreigner. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I’ll be talking to them in fluent Kinyarwanda and they’re staring at me like I’m a zoo animal. I mean, this is where I come from!” I sympathized. If there’s one thing I relate to, it’s being stared at like a zoo animal.

There was more to it than that, though. Faith was the first non-American I’ve met here to whom I could reveal myself completely. In fact, talking to her made me realize what a wall I’d built up around myself. I try not to lie to my Rwandan friends and neighbors outright, but I do act as if I'm a certain kind of person in order to integrate more easily. You could say I play a character. In Gihara I'm soft-spoken, serious, religious, feminine. With Faith, I didn’t have to be any of those things. We laughed about how she had to dig her skirts out of the back of her closet when she came back to Rwanda because people wouldn't like her ripped-up jeans. We talked about going to Amsterdam. We talked about beer. It was wonderful.

We ended up exchanging contact information. She said if I’m ever in London I’m welcome to stay with her. "Mi casa su casa," she said.

Other than meeting Faith, it’s been an unremarkable couple of weeks. I was supposed to finally teach my first English class for teachers last week but so far all we’ve done is agree on a time, a day and a meeting place. Our dean of studies keeps putting pressure on me to teach on weekends even though I’ve told him several times that I’ll be out of site for the English for legal professionals education project and regional meetings at least twice a month on Saturdays, and no one wants classes on Sundays. My students have finally learned how to write coherent paragraphs with introduction and conclusion sentences but I’ve realized too late that their speaking and listening skills sorely need work and I’m not sure what to do about that in the remaining four weeks of the school year. No one seems to know whether final exams are cumulative for the whole year this term. I’ve been feeling a little harried and a little restless lately, but only a little.

The other night I made banana pancakes for dinner and ate them on my porch with Josias. I realized that however stressed I am about my role as a volunteer, I still love it here. That’s got to count for something.

Friday, August 26, 2011

So I haven't been blogging much lately...

…and I feel like I owe everyone an explanation. When I first came to Rwanda, it was easy to blog about my experiences because everything was new and weird and exciting. But as things become more and more mundane, it’s easy to forget what I’ve already explained or what needs explaining. For example, this morning I had the following conversation in Kinyarwanda with one of my neighbors:

Me: Good morning!
Neighbor: Good morning, Grace. (My neighbors call me Grace if they can’t pronounce “Gelsey.”) Jesus has risen.
Me: He reigns over us all.
Neighbor: What is the news of your family?
Me: Well, my parents were in Rwanda two weeks ago.
Neighbor: Oh yes, I saw them. You must be very happy.
Me: Yes, it was very good to see them.
Neighbor: You have gotten very fat.
Me: Thank you.
Neighbor: God bless you.
Me: Have a nice day.

Now that I have that out in writing I can see at least three things that probably don’t seem normal to anyone back home. I have several conversations exactly like that every day and it never occurred to me to talk about it. So I encourage all of you, please, to email or comment if you have any unanswered questions about Rwanda or my experiences. I probably have answers, it just hasn’t occurred to me to share them.

Ababyeyi mu Rwanda Part 2

I’ll pick up where I left off in Butare. We got in late on a Wednesday, checked into a hotel and spent Thursday exploring the town. Butare is one of my favorite places in Rwanda and I highly recommend it as a travel destination to anyone visiting this country. It’s home to a university, a national museum, a large outdoor market, several western-style restaurants and a big local crafts store, among other things. It also has Nzozi Nziza, the ice cream shop that made all my dreams come true back in November (probably why it’s called “sweet dreams”). The best part is the whole town is arranged in an uncannily logical order with the museum at one end, the restaurants and market in the middle and Nzozi Nziza at the other end near the university. We started at the museum and made our way to Nzozi Nziza, hitting pretty much everything of importance except the outdoor market. All in all a successful day.

Our plan for the following day was Nyungwe Forest, a national park located about two and a half hours south of Butare by charter bus. Since Nyungwe is one of only three major ecotourism destinations in Rwanda I assumed that buses stopped there, but it turned out that the nearest stop to Nyungwe was Cyangugu. I had no idea where Cyangugu was but I assumed that it must be fairly close to Nyungwe. If we couldn’t figure out where to get off the bus we could just go to Cyangugu double back without losing too much hiking time, or so I thought. The clerk at Sotra Tours corroborated this notion.

In actuality I was very, very wrong about the proximity of Cyangugu to Nyungwe, but I’ll get to that.

The ride into Nyungwe Forest was an experience unto itself. Passing out of Butare town, we meandered through smaller villages until we came to the edge of the park where the scenery changed perceptibly from farmland to rainforest. Even barreling down a paved road we could hear a cacophony of insects and birds, and at one point we saw a small black monkey creeping through the underbrush. Trees rose up on either side, appearing to fight their way out of a tangle of exotic-looking grasses and vines. For what seemed like hours we continued down the paved road with the forest whizzing by. I saw a sign for a lookout point and wondered aloud if we should get off the bus, but my dad said he thought there would be a more obvious place to stop. So we waited.

And we passed out of the park into the tea fields of Karama.

At first I think we all kept hoping to see an entrance sign, but after about forty-five minutes of tea fields it was obvious we were no longer in Nyungwe. I suggested that we get off at the nearest bus stop, but that happened to be a tiny, sketchy-looking town somewhere between Karama and Karembe so instead we opted to go all the way to the end of the line.

Cyangugu turned out to be almost two hours outside of Nyungwe. It’s so far southwest it shares borders with both Burundi and the DRC. A very friendly Sotra Tours employee helped us find a bus back into Nyungwe, but when we finally got into the park it was too late hike even the shortest trail and make it back in time to catch the last bus to Butare. My parents were extremely positive about the whole thing. They took a bunch of pictures of the park entrance and walked around the periphery a bit. My dad told me later that our impromptu trip to Cyangugu was one of the more interesting parts of their visit. I’m sure he meant it, but I still feel blessed to have such tolerant parents.

The next day we went to the market. The market at Butare doesn’t look like much from the outside, but once you get inside it’s an enormous and paradoxically claustrophobic maze of vendors and merchandise. Narrow passageways divide racks upon racks of everything from radios to pineapples to donated shoes. I expected my parents to be overwhelmed but neither of them seemed at all ill at ease, even with people pointing and staring. At one point my dad noticed a young man wearing a hearing aid and struck up a conversation with him in sign language. We even got a good deal on a couple of bolts of igitenge cloth.

That afternoon, after a quick and violent rainstorm that lasted exactly the right amount of time for us to have lunch, we caught a bus back to Kigali. Our original plan was to go straight from Butare all the way up into Gisenyi but after our nine-hour round-trip adventure to Cyangugu and back we decided to take a breather in Kigali first. It was an evening well-spent; I introduced my parents to Shokola* and we spent most of dinner arguing whether the winged animals landing in the trees overhead were birds or large bats. (For the record, they turned out to be bats.)
The last stop on our trip was Gisenyi. If Butare is my favorite town in Rwanda, Gisenyi is a close second. Like Butare, Gisenyi is a sprawling college town with a lively downtown and a quiet periphery. One advantage it has over Butare is that it’s situated right on the eastern bank of Lake Kivu. An actual sandy beach runs all along Gisenyi’s eastern edge and continues into the DRC. Rumor has it you can stand in Gisenyi and touch Goma without any consequences, but we didn’t try it.

There are lots of unique tourist attractions in Gisenyi, all of which we completely ignored. Instead we spent two days walking up and down the beach, exploring the outdoor market and eating brochettes at the Bikini Tam Tam. It was heaven.

I ended up going back to Kigali with my parents before heading out to Kibuye for the AIDS conference. They saw me off at the bus station and met a few other of the other volunteers. It was hard to say goodbye, but it felt good to part ways on a high note. They said they want to come back to Rwanda, time and resources permitting. The best part of the trip? Visiting my site and meeting the people there, according to my dad. If that isn’t a point for Goal 3 of the Peace Corps, I don’t know what is.

Love you, Mom and Dad.

*Shokola is an Arabian Nights-themed restaurant in downtown Kigali, close to the Hotel Milles Collines.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ababyeyi mu Rwanda Part 1

It seems that the longer I go without updating my blog the harder it is to do so. My mom and dad have been stateside for almost a week. The seminar in Kibuye was a success in many respects and we did discuss specific ideas for HIV/AIDS-related projects. So far, returning to site hasn’t been nearly as difficult as I expected. I’m happier than ever to be back in my little village and starting school again. But before I get too sidetracked, a lot of people have been asking about my parents’ visit, so here’s the promised rundown.

I should preface this by saying that in Rwanda, things almost never go according to schedule. I made an itinerary for my parents so they could plan a travel budget but I didn’t count on actually sticking to it for their entire visit. My most detailed plans were for the first night, and they only included hotel reservations and prearranged transportation. Louise helped me find a driver to pick them up at the airport and since he was a friend of hers he agreed to drive them for free. I was optimistic that in the very least I’d get them safely from the airport to their hotel without any major snags,

The night of my parents’ arrival, as Louise and I stood in the middle of the Gihara market waiting for our driver to show up, I felt somewhat less optimistic. Our original driver, Noah, was in Gitarama because I’d mananged to give him the wrong date. He’d supposedly found an available taxi at the last minute but we had no idea who the driver was or when he was coming, only that he had Louise’s number and he’d call us when he got to Gihara. My parents’ flight was scheduled to land at 7 pm. They had no way to contact me and I had no way to contact them. For the first hour of waiting I was too excited to be worried, but by 7:10 both Louise and I were still stranded in Gihara and Louise was talking about beating Noah with a stick.

We did eventually get to the airport, but only after taking moto taxis to the main road, locating the driver’s parked car and offering him partial advanced payment so he could buy gas. I had visions of my mom and dad looking bewildered and forlorn on a bench outside the airport with all their luggage, but it turned out that their flight had been delayed an hour. So our timing was perfect. Yet another of life’s reminders that everything works out if you just kwihangane.*

That night in Kigali my dad and I decided to grab some late-night dinner at White Horse. We were the only customers. We sat on the patio because the wait staff had converted the inside of the restaurant into a dance club complete with smoke and lights. When we came in one of the waiters ran up to us and yelled, “Welcome!” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

From Kigali, we took a taxi into Gihara where we were greeted with open arms. The nuns prepared a room and insisted we join them for lunch, dinner, and breakfast the next day. All in all it was a nicer setup than some of the hotels we stayed in. My dad said he wanted to repay the nuns for their hospitality and asked them if there was anything he could help them with, perhaps something that needed fixing. Sister Donatile said he could take a look at their electric stove. “We can’t figure out how to plug it in,” she said. No wonder. The power cable had no plug, just a bundle of frayed wires where a plug had once been. My dad said he’d see what he could do.

He spent the rest of the trip casually scouting for electronics stores. We never did find a plug, but I have to say I admire him for trying. Love you, Dad.

Our second day in Gihara, I took my parents to visit my headmaster and his family and then for a walk up past my school. Initially I had planned on making a loop back to the town center but on a whim I decided to lead them into Kagina (sp?), a neighboring village that’s known locally for its pottery. We ended up running into the village chief who gave us a full tour not only of the pottery collective, but of a local school as well. By the time we were done touring the village we had acquired a crowd of a few dozen children. Here's just a few of them following me and the chief:

That night we took a charter bus from my site to Butare. While we were waiting for the bus a crazy man played a song for us on a hand-fashioned instrument made from discarded bottles and what looked like fishing line, but otherwise it was an uneventful evening.

From Butare the plan was to take a charter bus into Nyungwe Forest for a day hike. We never did make it into Nyungwe, but we did end up having an adventure that took us most of the way to the border of Burundi. But I’ll save that story for my next post. It’s a story that deserves to be told in chapters.

*Kwihangane means “to bear with it” or to have patience.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hey, I'm Back!

As I’m writing this I’m sitting on a balcony at the Centre St. Bethania in Kibuye looking out at a rather grey and foggy Lake Kivu. Peace Corps is hosting a seminar here on HIV/AIDS for education volunteers and their Rwandan colleagues, the purpose of which is to support HIV/AIDS initiatives in secondary schools. So far we’ve had sessions on communication and behavior change and HIV/AIDS epidemiology. I’m hoping we’ll discuss specific project ideas at some point but even if we don’t it will have been an informative few days, not to mention how nice it is to see everyone again.

I just had an amazing week traveling around the country with my mom and dad. We had a great time together and I now have a renewed appreciation for my site and Rwanda generally. More details to follow when I have time to write a longer post!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Kuruhuka Nziza

Hi all! I meant to update my blog over Independence Day weekend but somehow I didn’t get around to it. I’ve been busy catching up on grading and writing exams. I’ve also been compiling the results from the English language needs assessments which I finally managed to distribute to all of the teachers. I only got them back from the primary school teachers, but it’s just as well. I’m pretty tight with the secondary school teachers and it would be a little awkward trying to teach my friends. Teacher classes are all set to start next term and while I’m still apprehensive I’m also excited. I feel as if I’m pushing the final piece of my primary assignment into place.

For those of you who asked, Independence Day weekend was great. I had all kinds of plans to be productive over the holiday but instead I relaxed and took some time to reconnect with my site. That Saturday I spent two hours tossing an avocado back and forth with some kids, and I can honestly say it was the most meditative and wonderful two hours I’ve had all month.

I also bought sugarcane at the market for the first time ever, which turned out be quite an experience. In Rwanda, it’s considered impolite not to conceal food you’ve purchased unless you plan on sharing. The problem with sugarcane is that it’s only sold in eight-foot sticks, making discretion impossible. Sharing was also impossible because I was in the middle of a marketplace full of people and had I decided to share I would have ended up without any for myself. So I did the only thing I could do. After making my purchase, I marched briskly and defiantly through the town square, pretending I couldn’t hear the horde of children chasing after me and screaming for “agasheke.” I think my village enjoyed the spectacle.

Next week is exam week. I love my students but I have to admit, I am very much looking forward to the end of the term.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Crashing the Party

Long time, no blog! Sorry, all.

It’s been an uneventful couple of weeks with the exception of last weekend. Last weekend I went to the Kwita Izina in Musanze, the annual naming ceremony for Rwanda’s baby gorillas. Some other volunteers were going so I decided to go too, not realizing that it’s such a huge event. Turns out it’s one of Rwanda’s biggest tourist draws besides the gorillas themselves. There are performances by all kinds of Rwandan pop stars, speeches by important officials, traditional dances, actors in gorillas suits to stand in for the gorilla babies, and sometimes President Kagame comes and makes a speech. I panicked a little upon arrival because I didn’t have a ticket or an ID or really anything at all to legitimate my presence there, but I got seated in the VIP section anyway. There are all kinds of things wrong with that, but don’t look a gift horse in the mouth I guess?

In any case, the ceremony was awesome. This year the president didn’t show up due to “unavoidable circumstances” but Jack Hanna made an appearance, plus the music and dancing was amazing. The traditional dancers alone made the trip worthwhile. Each region of Rwanda has its own traditional dance and in the north the dances are particularly energetic with a lot of jumping and stamping. The dancers wore bells on their ankles to augment the percussion. It was so beautiful. The musical performances were also a lot of fun. There was a Ugandan singer, Chameleon, who pulled one of the PCVs up on stage with him. He got kicked offstage shortly after that, but it was an exciting few minutes.

After the ceremony there was a reception with complementary beverages and finger-food which was an experience in itself. It was sort like a mosh pit except we weren’t fighting to get to the front row at a concert, we were fighting over mozzarella balls and glasses of chilled white wine. Then security personnel intervened and the crowd was filtered out of the courtyard into the street, leaving in its wake a courtyard strewn with beer bottles and crumpled napkins and other such carnage. It’s hard to believe they’ve been doing this every year for almost a decade now.

Now I’m back to teaching and tutoring and putting off the start date for teachers’ classes until I can get a curriculum together. I’ll probably be at site for the fourth of July, so keep me in your thoughts while you’re barbequing or bonfiring or doing whatever.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Yep, Still Love My Job

I love my students so much it almost hurts.

Yesterday in class we played charades with different adverbs and they got so into it they didn’t want to stop. I had to instate a “no-touching” policy after a particularly spirited depiction of the word “violently” but otherwise it went incredibly well. They’re nothing if not performers.

My second class of the day has a ten-minute break halfway through, one of the very few opportunities they get to go out and enjoy some fresh air and sunshine, but yesterday most of my class stayed inside with me. They like to ask me about English words they’ve heard in songs. Sometimes it’s a minefield (how do I, as a middle school teacher, explain what Shaggy supposedly wasn’t doing?) but yesterday, mercifully, they wanted to know about “Baby” by Justin Bieber. I sang part of it and endeared myself to them forever. Say what you will about the Biebs, he is king in Rwandan middle schools. Even the boys like him here.

Yesterday was also English club day, a thing which normally leaves me completely drained and ready for a day off. Between this term and last term, English club membership went from overwhelming (seventy-five students) to underwhelming (about fifteen students) because I lost the classroom we initially met in to the understandably more-popular dance club. On top of that, all the S3 students somehow have an extra hour of class this term, so I’ve been struggling to retain my S3 members. I was beginning to the think the club might be a lost cause, but yesterday we started a project that might keep the club going into next year: letter writing. They’re so excited about writing letters to the U.S. it’s almost scary. If it goes well, I might try to set up correspondence with a middle school classroom in the States. If any teachers are reading this and interested, please shoot me an email!

Otherwise things are progressing nicely. English classes for teachers might actually happen, though I’m not sure how soon. I’ve been trying to call a staff meeting to discuss meeting times and distribute English pre-assessments, but it’s proven more difficult to do so than I’d expected. I don’t have the power to call staff meetings by myself and my headmaster keeps telling me we’ll have the meeting “tomorrow,” by which he doesn’t so much mean “tomorrow” as “not today.” The classes probably won’t be a reality until sometime next term, but that’s fine with me. I’d rather spend the rest of this term focusing on my students who, if not my raison d’etre, are certainly my raison d’etre ici.

I’ve also begun tutoring Yvette and it’s worked out even better than I hoped. She comes to my house every Thursday morning with an academic article or a book in hand and we go over all the difficult vocabulary. Then she asks me questions about grammar and pronunciation. I’ve been making up exercises on the fly but I’m accumulating a nice catalogue of lesson plans I might be able to use with the teachers at my school. Not only that, but I now have one more friend I get to see reliably often.

So, setbacks and non-meetings and non-members aside, I love my job. Through it all, my students are a reason to get up and face the world every morning. They say “thank you, Teacher,” Greek-chorus style at the end of class. Every time I want to tell them that I should be thanking them, not the other way around.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sorry, do I know you?

It’s been a strange couple of weeks. Uncanny things keep happening, small things, none completely without explanation but bewildering nonetheless. I feel as if Gihara is trying to send me a sign, though of what I have no idea.

Take, for example, the bull.

I was walking home from school in the late afternoon when I saw it. It was standing in the clearing in front of the church, so still I almost thought it was a vision. It was a beautiful animal, huge and golden-brown with enormous pale horns that curved inward at the ends like a giant coronet. I’ve seen bulls here before, usually being herded through the countryside or in stalls behind houses. But this bull was somehow so much more powerful, so much more majestic. Perhaps it was the absence of an owner or the fact that it was dangerously out of place, standing as it was in the middle of town. I stared at it, and for a moment I understood why bulls are sacred creatures here, why traditional Rwandan dance mimics this animal, the shape of its horns. It was standing at a fair distance but even so I could see its eyelid flicker and I swore for a second that something passed between us, some kind of silent communication.

Then it turned and charged.

I have no way of knowing if I was charging at me or just in my direction. It might not have even seen me; I was far enough away. Anything could have startled it. There were people on bicycles, motorcycle taxis going by, children playing on the steps in front of the church. Whatever the reason, it rushed at me. And I froze. It wasn’t so much fear as surprise that stopped me from moving. For an absurd half-second I thought maybe I should wait for it to catch up with me, as if it was running after me to tell me something. Then the threat of the horns registered and I took off in a perpendicular direction, bounding to safety behind the garden wall of the convent. The bull tore past me, scattering a group of children who ran screaming into the bushes. In it’s wake, a harried-looking pair of farmers dashed down the street. I guess it was their bull.

I texted a fellow Peace Corps volunteer about the incident. He texted back, “Peace Corps for the stories, right?” I guess so.


I’ve yet to organize classes for the teachers at my school but I have taken on an additional student. Her name is Yvette, a masters student from Kigali. Meeting her was almost as uncanny as the incident with the bull. I was out walking on the main road from town one Saturday evening when she drove up in a Range Rover, itself an unsettling sight in the middle of rural Rwanda. She pulled over alongside me, almost blocking my path, and addressed me through a rolled-down window. She said she’d been hoping to run into me. She claimed I had personally promised to tutor her in English, but that she hadn’t been able to find me. I asked her to remind me of her name. “I’m Yvette,” she said.

I knew for a fact I’d never met this woman before. Warily, I asked her how she knew me. She said I knew her brother. “Is he a student?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, “a student at university.” Not one of mine then. I didn’t know what to think. Later I’d find out that she’d mistaken me for another muzungu, but at the time I decided it couldn’t hurt to tell her I was a teacher in Gihara and that she could come find me whenever she wanted. Most people who ask me for help with English aren’t serious about following up.

As it turns out, she was quite serious. The following Tuesday as I was leaving school, the prefet asked me to meet him in his office. He said there were two men waiting for me there. Ominous and unexpected. They turned out to be Yvette’s brother and one of his friends. They had come to speak for Yvette; she couldn’t meet me herself because she had class that day. They spoke no English, so we had an awkward conversation half in French, half in Kinyarwanda. They explained that Yvette was quite serious about receiving English tutoring but that she had limited time to study. They asked if I could meet her the following day. Wednesdays are the busiest day of my week. I explained that I was available on Thursdays only, in the morning. I said that my first responsibility was to my school and my students and that I knew Yvette would understand. They thanked me and left.

The following day, the prefet interrupted my class to tell me that I had visitors again. He said it was a woman and her brother, one of the men from yesterday. Irritated, I apologized to him on their behalf and told him that I had another hour left of class. He said he’d relay the message. Fifteen minutes later, my phone started buzzing. I guessed correctly that Yvette had tracked down my phone number. Seething a little, I ignored it. Then the headmaster came in. He said he wanted to observe me. I was explaining in Kinyarwanda that we were doing a review, not a real lesson, when my phone started buzzing again. For the rest of the hour, I struggled to concentrate on teaching while my headmaster leafed through my lesson notebook and my phone buzzed at odd intervals.

Due to the various interruptions, my class ran ten minutes over. My headmaster commented in red ink on my lesson, “It’s good to finish on time.”

So it was that when I finally met Yvette face-to-face, I was prepared to draw a hard line. I told her I would tutor her if she was willing to make the trip to Gihara but only once a week, and only if she brought materials to study. She tried to bargain for more time, but at length she accepted. We start next week. Somehow, I feel like this is the boost I need, this little bit of extra work. It will give me some much-needed practice teaching adult ESL, and I’ll get a chance to look at materials from a Rwandan university. Yvette is a student of development studies. I’m actually quite excited.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I’ve been told I’m overdue for a blog. I guess I am going on three weeks now, not to mention my last post was about something that happened over a month ago. I apologize for not writing. The internet has been more unreliable than usual lately, but that’s not the whole reason. To be honest, I’ve been in a slump.

It’s not that things are going badly here. My students alone make everything worth it. They are so bright and so full of candor and enthusiasm, and since last term they’ve miraculously learned how to write in complete sentences, follow verbal directions and ask interesting questions. I don’t feel justified taking the credit for their progress as I barely have five months’ worth of teaching experience. If I’ve had an impact it’s because my students have worked extremely hard to understand and meet my expectations. I love them, and they frequently tell me they love me too, though I know it’s probably half sincere and half a shrewd attempt to boost flagging grades.

It’s not my site, either. Over the last four months my site has metamorphosed from a strange and sometimes terrifying place into a safe haven. People call me by my first name and no one asks me for handouts anymore. People don’t even try to overcharge me in the market these days. Children follow me around, not because they think I’ll give them money or biscuits but because they want play with me. If I’m sick or tired or otherwise not at my best, there’s no place I want to escape to. I want to be here. It’s home.

So, as it’s not my site or my students, I guess the thing that’s been frustrating me these past weeks is…me.

More specifically, it’s my own unrealistic expectations. On some level I believed that the mid-service training at Kibuye would miraculously imbue me with all kinds of new technical knowledge and that I’d return to site with complete plans for multiple secondary projects. Alas, such is not the case. I have some ideas for projects but I’ve yet to determine which ones are feasible in my community. I also foolishly promised my headmaster that I’d set up an English club for the teachers at my school this term, but with over forty teachers of vastly different proficiency levels, I have no idea how I’m going to organize it.

But who knows what I can do. Six months ago I couldn’t light a charcoal stove to save my life and my Kinyarwanda was limited to “good morning” and the numbers one through eight.

Anyway, until I figure out how I’m going to achieve the impossible, I hope to find little things to make me feel productive. Yesterday while I was out walking I met some coffee farmers on their way to work. I ended up helping them pick coffee berries for upwards of two hours. I’m sure they thought I was crazy, but they seemed happy enough to accept the free labor. I now have an open invitation to visit them whenever I want, provided I can figure out where they live.

I guess whatever ends up happening this term, I can at least say I’ve harvested coffee in Africa.

*Did you miss me?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Murakaza Neza, Welcome Home

Happy belated Easter, everyone! I’m back in my village, and I have to say it feels a lot like I’ve come home. It’s strange how much I missed my two little rooms, the garden, all my neighbors. I assumed no one would miss me that much but when the nurses at the health center saw I was back they all stopped what they were doing and came out to give me hugs and kisses. My friend Claudine gave me a bear hug and a huge kiss on the cheek when she saw me, an unusual display of affection even for her. I haven’t felt so welcome in Gihara since I first arrived in January.

Last post I promised to talk about visiting people. I said there was a whole elaborate ritual to it but in reality I guess it isn’t much different from visiting people in U.S. except that it’s done more often. The other major difference is that visitors never bring gifts. Instead the host is always expected to provide something, either food or drink, regardless of how informal or unexpected the visit is. I try to avoid visiting people at mealtimes because if they don’t have food it stresses them out and if they do have food they always insist that I eat too much of it. I also try to avoid visiting poorer families, especially families of students, because I don’t like to take their food and I don’t like being used as a status symbol or as a means of provoking jealousy in people’s neighbors (sounds strange, but it happens). However, on a couple of occasions I’ve received such forceful invitations I’ve had to break this rule.

One example stands out in my mind. At St. Dominique where I teach there is a student named Pacifique, a deceptively soft-spoken, incredibly bold little girl of nine or ten. She decided early on that she wanted to befriend me so she figured out where I lived and started showing up on my doorstep after school a couple times a week. Initially I greeted her and went about my business but she would linger on my porch, sometimes for an hour or more, so eventually I told her that I don’t receive students at my house. She said, “Then you will visit my family.” I said maybe. She nodded and went on her way and I thought that was the end of it.

It wasn’t.

The following weekend I was in the middle of cooking dinner when Pacifique showed up on my doorstep again. I asked her if she’d come to visit me. She said, “I’ve come to accompany you.” I asked her where she intended to accompany me. “To my family’s house,” she said. I was floored. What determination! I told her I couldn’t go with her because it was close to dark and I was in the middle of cooking. She said, “Then you will visit tomorrow.” I said, “Yes, I promise, I will visit tomorrow after mass. Now go before it gets dark.” She nodded triumphantly and ran off.

The next morning it was pouring rain and I was relieved. I had no idea how to find Pacifique’s house and while by Rwandan standards that was an insufficient excuse not to visit, the rain certainly was, or so I thought. I was sitting in mass thinking this over and trying to decide whether to feel guilty for evading her invitation when I noticed a small child sitting one row over and behind me, clutching an umbrella at least as tall as he was. He caught my eye because he was a miniature replica of Pacifique, but even more adorable. The resemblance was so striking I thought he was a hallucination. I blinked and he was still there. When he saw me looking at him he blinked back me and smiled.

I turned around and whispered, “Are you Pacifique’s brother?”

He nodded emphatically.

I said, “You are a Catholic? I thought your family was Pentecostal.” He whispered back, “We are Pentecostal.” I asked him, sincerely puzzled, “Then what are you doing in a Catholic mass?”

He said, “I’ve come to accompany you.”

This time there was no escaping. I wasn’t about to disappoint two adorable children in one weekend. Once the mass was over the rain had let up so off we went, over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house, quiet literally. Even though it wasn’t that far in kilometers his family lived off the beaten path on the side of a steep hill, so we spent close to an hour slipping and sliding in the mud and picking our way through bean fields to get there.

It was a good-sized house with several rooms and a tin roof, but the walls and floor were mud and there were few windows so the interior was disconcertingly dark. Smoke wafted out of a room near the entryway that housed an indoor cooking fire. I was led through the house to a sitting room that was somewhat more finished-looking with a low table and chairs and a cement floor. I sat down and waited while Pacifique’s brothers, her mother, her grandmother and a bunch of children from the surrounding area filed into the room to stare at me. When I visit colleagues I’m very rarely put on display but with students’ families this almost always happens, which is partly why I avoid such visits.

We sat in silence for a minute. Then the grandmother began asking me questions about myself in rapid, mumbled Kinyarwanda. I told her several times to speak slower and she repeated herself several times at exactly the same pace until I gave up understanding and started asking her questions instead. I tried to discern which of the children in the room were hers and which were Pacifique’s siblings. She indicated a toddler that I think she said she’d adopted because I asked her if he was her child and she said, “No, I’m too old, I can’t nurse anymore!” Then she removed one of her sagging bosoms from her shirt and flapped it in my direction to make sure I understood. I had no idea how to respond to that so I went back to sitting in silence while a couple of the smaller children tried to climb up into my lap to tug on my hair.

Pacifique emerged from another room carrying a huge thermos and five plastic mugs. She set the thermos on the table and her mother opened it and filled each of the mugs with what I imagine was supposed to be drinking yogurt, though it looked and smelled more like cold, chunky sour milk. In medical sessions I’d learned not to drink uncooked dairy because it can carry tuberculosis and other nasty viruses, but to refuse food or drink is probably the rudest thing a guest can do. I tried to come up with excuses while Pacifique filled my mug literally to the brim. Then Pacifique’s mother began offering a prayer. It struck me that this milk was probably the only thing the family had to eat that day, making refusal even more infeasible. The prayer ended too quickly. Pacifique’s mother was urging me to drink. I didn’t know what to do. Should I lie and say muzungus can’t drink yogurt milk? Should I make a run for it and hope that Pacifique wouldn’t try to come find me again? Should I just refuse and risk insulting the whole family? Should I drink it and risk catching some horrible illness?

My dieus ex machina arrived in the form of a phone call from America. David, if you’re reading this, thank you so much for calling me. You may have saved me from death by sour milk.

I picked up, told David to hold, and explained rapidly in Kinyarwanda that I was very sorry but I had to go right away because my friend in America was spending lots of money to call me and I had to take the call. They said, “You’re going?” I said, “Yes, but I will come back another day!” They said, “No problem, let us accompany you!” I’d forgotten that in Rwanda good hosts always accompany departing guests. I tried to tell them that it wasn’t necessary to accompany me since I had to take a phone call but they’d hear none of it. I left the house with the entire family in tow, plus several additional children. They followed me, the grandmother and the mother and Pacifique and her brothers and the children, for almost half a mile while I talked on the phone. Then, at what seemed to me to be a completely arbitrary point, all of them about-faced and went back home.

Elements of this experience repeat themselves whenever I visit a new family. I frequently find myself surrounded by staring children, force-fed huge quantities unidentifiable food and interviewed about everything from my parents’ professions to what people eat in America. Northing quite competes with Pacifique and her family, though. She still shows up on my doorstep from time to time, though it’s been awhile since she’s asked me to visit.

Her brother is a different story. I saw him at school today and the first thing he said to me was, “Uzasura ryari?”*

*When will you visit?
** All the dialogue in this post was actually in Kinyarwanda, but I thought it was too cumbersome to have a bunch of footnoted translations so I paraphrased in English.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spring Break!

I’m writing this from the Centre St. Bethania in Kibuye and it’s so beautiful here it’s almost too much to take in. The hotel is right on the eastern bank of Lake Kivu. From where I’m sitting I can see a gorgeous stretch of sparkling blue-green water (a rare sight in a landlocked African country) and on the opposite bank, the eastern border of DRC. In between there’s a smattering of little dark green islands. The temperature has been perfect for swimming these last two days but the staff have forbidden us from going in the water due to schistomaosis. Stupid water-borne parasites.

I’m in Kibuye for a week-long in-service training session. So far it’s been incredibly beneficial, despite how aggravating it is to sit inside for hours in such a beautiful place. We spent the entire first day sharing our individual successes and challenges at our sites. It’s incredible what a range of experiences we’ve had in our villages, especially considering what a small country Rwanda is. That said, we seem to have a lot of the same concerns and objectives and it’s been wonderful having the opportunity to share ideas. I apologize for how vague all of this is but were I to try and describe all the disparate things we’ve been discussing I’d go on for volumes, so all I can really say is it’s been good.

Anyway, after my last post a few people asked me in emails what it’s like visiting people. In fact, there’s a whole elaborate ritual to being a visitor in someone’s house. I promise to write a post about it before the week is out. Right now the beach is calling J

Saturday, April 2, 2011

My Average Day

Someone recently asked me in a email what my “typical day” looks like here. I haven’t blogged about my day-to-day routines much because I don’t find them interesting, but now that I think about it I imagine the mundane aspects of Peace Corps service are probably very useful to prospective Peace Corps volunteers, so in the spirit of utility I will give you all a detailed description of my average day during the school year. No hard feelings if it puts you to sleep.

My day begins at 5:30. I wake up early because I like to go running in the mornings but if I do it after my neighbors are awake people gawk at me and children run after me. This still happens occasionally, but the difference between 5:30 and 6 is the difference between one or two children tailing me and a group of ten surrounding me and making it difficult to run. If I’m on schedule I usually get home at around 6 or 6:15 which means people at the health center next door see me in shorts from time to time but they’ve gotten used to it so they don‘t hassle me much. Once I’ve stretched and scraped the mud off my legs I fill up a bucket with cold water from the rain tankard next door and use it to take a shower. Most mornings I try to eat breakfast, usually just tea and bread or oatmeal if I have it. Then I read for a little while before heading to school.

Weekdays I’m at school by 7:30 whether I’m teaching or not. I teach two sets of two-hour classes in the morning, three days a week. I go home around 11am to cook lunch, which takes about two hours on an imbabura. If I can borrow hot coals from a neighbor I heat up whatever I cooked the night before and use the extra time to take a power nap. Then I go back to school. On Tuesdays I teach another class in the afternoon and on Wednesdays I stay after school to supervise my English club, but most afternoons I just sit in the teacher‘s lounge and grade papers. I’m only permitted to teach fifteen hours a week because the Peace Corps wants me to have time for secondary projects, but since I’m only in month three of my service I have no idea what those projects should be. Eventually I’ll be giving English seminars for teachers and doing whatever else my director thinks I should be doing but right now I’m enjoying the extra free time.

I spend my evenings walking around and visiting people, which is actually a fairly important part of my job. Peace Corps stresses “integration” into our host communities, both because its important for us to have friends at site and because one of the major goals of Peace Corps service is cultural exchange. If I don’t have someone specific to visit I walk around until someone either stops me to talk to me or invites me into their house. I’ve learned a lot of Kinyarwanda this way, and I’ve also gotten to know my village pretty well.

I head home by 5:30 at the latest because I have to be inside my gate before dark. I don’t know how it is in big cities but in the villages women do not go out alone at night, both because it’s unsafe and because to do so is to risk one’s reputation. This used to bother me because the nights here are cool and clear and great for walking in, but lately I’ve learned to enjoy my nights in. I have a night guard named Josias who shows up at my house around 6pm so I usually talk with him for a little while or play guitar on my front porch (Josias loves it when I play guitar) and then I go inside and write lessons or read until I’m tired enough to sleep. If I need a reprieve from solitude I’ll have dinner with Louise, which is great because it means I don’t have to cook.

My Sundays are a little more interesting. On Sundays I wake up before 5am to play soccer with some of the young men in my village. My headmaster invited me to play with them once about a month ago and I’ve shown up every week since because if I don’t people ask me why I wasn’t there. It’s daunting because I’m the only female and I’m also terrible at soccer but the guys I play with are really encouraging and a lot of them aren’t that good either so I usually have a good time. We play until 8 or 8:30. Then I go home, shower, make breakfast, and go to mass. Yes, I go to church. It’s actually not that unusual for nonreligious PCVs to attend church because it’s a way of integrating, and it’s also an opportunity to be out in public without people staring at you or trying to poke your skin or pull your hair.

So there you have it, my typical day in Rwanda. A lot of this doesn’t apply right now because I’m in between trimesters so I don’t have a job, but certain things (the waking up at 5:30, for example) are still accurate. If anyone has any further questions, please let me know - like I said, to me this is all mind-numbingly boring but that may not be the case for everyone back home, I don’t know. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Names for Baby

I apologize for my delay in putting up another blog post. The internet has been cutting out badly these last two weeks and I’ve also been a little busier than usual. It’s finals week next week so besides writing an final exam I’ve had to finish grading my student’s quizzes and papers from last week, a total of ninety-five quizzes and one hundred and ninety homework assignments (probably less than the average TA has to deal with, but I‘ve never TA‘ed a class so I wouldn‘t know). I have an Excel spreadsheet of all my students’ grades and I decided to copy it out by hand because I wanted them to know their grades before the final and I don’t have a way to print things. Judging by my students’ reaction, this must not be common practice amongst the teachers at my school. At the end of my last lesson I took out the spreadsheet and said that I had their grades recorded there and before I could say anything else my normally well-behaved students had jumped up and swarmed me, pushing and shoving each other for a look at the paper. I told them to form a line and they obeyed for about five minutes but as soon as one student stepped forward, five others came with him and soon I was surrounded again. I finally resorted to drawing a line on the floor with chalk and instructing my students to step over it one at a time to look at the spreadsheet. Fortunately only a few of them wanted to dispute their grades or I would have had chaos again.

I never got a chance to talk about the naming ceremony I mentioned in my last post. It’s a really interesting tradition. In Rwanda, a child isn’t given a name until eight days after it’s born. On its eighth day, everyone in the family gathers together. All the children in the family (and sometimes the adults as well) come forward one at a time to suggest names which are recorded in a list. Then the mother or father chooses one name from the list. Once the name is announced, there is a brief period of drinking, dancing and jubilation, and then everyone goes home.

I expected my friend’s niece’s naming ceremony to be a casual gathering because I was invited at the last minute, but when I arrived at her house I found the entire extended family there, dressed in their Sunday finest. It felt a little like crashing someone’s Easter brunch. I sat down next to someone who I guess was a friend of the mother and attempted conversation while drinks were distributed. We waited for what must have been three hours. Finally, someone stood up and made a brief speech, and the mother emerged with the baby. A hush fell over the room as all the children there, most of them dressed to the nines, lined up single file to whisper names to the mother. Each of them gave at least two names, one Kinyarwanda, one French. Some of them gave as many as four names. Then each of the adults in the room stood up in turn and suggested names. Then the mother gave her suggestion. When the list was complete, we waited for what may have been another hour for the father to give his final decision.

We talked in hushed voices as if speaking loudly would break the father’s concentration and prolong the ceremony. Finally, the name was announced. I never heard what it was because someone immediately burst into song, and pretty soon everyone was singing and half the room had jumped up and started dancing. I tried to stay sitting but someone pushed me off the couch into the middle of the floor so I danced, singing along with everyone to the best of my ability. At some point I realized that while it wasn’t my family and I didn’t even know the names of half the people there, I felt completely at home. It was a similar to the feeling I had at my headmaster’s wedding. People wanted to make me a part of things.

Next week I will be proctoring twelve different exams, I think because a few of the other teachers won’t be in town. I’m tired from grading and a little disheartened because many of my students are not going to pass my class without some kind of miracle on the final. But then I remember things like that naming ceremony and I realize there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Also, I saw a baby goat sneeze yesterday. How can I not love it here?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Goin' to the Chapel

My headmaster got married yesterday. It was the first Rwandan wedding I’ve attended and it was awesome. It was an indescribable experience but I’m going to try and describe it anyway so bear with me. This is going to be a very long blog post.

I’ve been anticipating this wedding since my second week at site when my headmaster hand-delivered my invitation but I wasn’t anxious about it until last Tuesday. That’s because last Tuesday the teachers had a meeting to pool money for a wedding gift and they decided unanimously that I should be the one to present it at the reception. This meant I would have to make a speech. A wedding speech. In Kinyarwanda.

Fortunately I have a friend at site, a nurse named Louise, who infallibly comes to my rescue in such situations. When I told her my predicament she sat down and immediately wrote something out and told me to memorize it. She explained all the words I didn’t know and had me read through it several times until she was satisfied with my pronunciation. For the moment, I was in the clear.

But then there was the problem of what to wear. My skirts and dresses from home are too short by Rwandan standards. There was the dress I wore for swearing-in, but it’s made from igitenge material which generally isn’t worn at weddings. I asked my neighbor Claudine for help and she had me try on different combinations of things until she found a acceptable skirt and blouse. I was all set, or so I thought.

The night before the wedding Louise came to check up on me. She had me recite my speech again and when I was done she asked me what I planned to wear. I showed her the skirt-and-blouse ensemble. She said, “Who told you to wear that?” I told her Claudine had helped me pick it out. She said, “Claudine doesn’t know anything. You need Rwandan wedding clothes.”

I said, “What are Rwandan wedding clothes?”

Next thing I knew I was being dragged by the hand to the local tailor. Together with Louise she found me a traditional Rwandan wedding outfit, a silk camisole and a beautiful blue wrap with a matching shawl that I wore draped over my shoulder like a toga. It had to be fitted and washed but finally, by 10pm the night before the wedding, I had something to wear.

Sometime around midnight that night my headmaster called me and told me to be dressed and at his house by 6:30 a.m. He said he wanted me to go with him and his family to the dowry ceremony. I said I hadn’t realized I was invited to the dowry ceremony. He said, “Of course you‘re invited. You’re my best man.” I said I thought Vincent was his best man. He said, “Well then you’re my best woman.”

Eight hours later I was jammed into the back of an old pickup truck between my headmaster’s mother and another woman who I think might have been his aunt. It was a long and arduous trip to the bride’s family’s house not because of the actual distance but because we couldn’t get there via the main road, which meant driving down a series of extremely bumpy and narrow dirt paths. We clattered along for what felt like hours over boulders and up hills and through ravines. It would have been kind of fun if I hadn’t had to pee the entire time. When we finally arrived I was so happy to be done traveling I didn’t mind that we had to wait another hour or so for the bride to be ready.

The dowry ceremony was beautiful. It was also very long. It mostly consisted of a very theatrical back-and-forth between the father of the bride and the father of the groom. The agreed-upon dowry was a pair of cattle but instead of offering the cattle straight away the father of the groom offered up a series of small gifts, including a water jug and a pair of hoes. The father of the bride accepted the gifts but every time he asked for something bigger until finally the cattle were presented. Then the bride emerged. She took her place next to the groom while speeches were made and drinks were distributed. Then she and the groom drank traditional sorghum beer from a huge gourd. When the ceremony was over, a twenty-person choir entered and gave an exuberant performance that included dancing and drum-beating and hand-clapping. Then everyone piled into cars and went back to Gihara for the actual wedding.

The religious ceremony was unremarkable. In fact very few people attended because the majority of the guests were in the community center across the street preparing for the reception. The bride wore a veil and a white dress and was attended by bridesmaids like in an American wedding but her father didn’t give her away at the alter since that had already been accomplished at the dowry ceremony. Instead she and the groom each read a series of very long vows, and then the priest made a very long speech, and then a choir performed a few songs, and then she and the groom read more vows. Finally, the priest pronounced them husband and wife and they embraced (without kissing because Rwandans do not kiss in public) and it was time for the reception.

The reception was also very long and laden with ceremony but it was a lot more relaxed and fun than anything that had happened previously. People lit sparklers while the bride and groom made their entrance and food was distributed (one piece of bread and a bite of roasted pork per guest, but it was better than nothing since none of us had eaten all day). Someone shook up a bottle of champagne and sprayed it all over the newlyweds. Then the cake was cut and distributed (a small sliver for each guest, but that was as expected since there were probably two or three hundred people there). The bride and groom fed each other cake and champagne and the bride’s uncle told some jokes. Then it was time to give gifts.

I was first up and I was shaking like a leaf. They handed me a microphone and I think most of the congregation expected me to speak in English so the room went dead quiet when I opened with, “Murakokze mwe mumpaye ijamo. Nshimiye n’abajiye kuntega amatwi kandi murambabarira kuko ntazi ikinyarwanda neza, ariko ndageregeza…”

The crowd went wild when I finished. I got slapped on the back by two or three teachers and a member of the bride’s family (who was quiet drunk due to the lack of food and overabundance of beer) came over and told me we were leaving Gihara together then and there because she was going to take me home with her as her adopted daughter. Success.

After the gift-giving was over, the dancers came out and took the floor. Rwanda is famous for intore, a traditional style of performative dance, but until yesterday I’d only ever seen it in YouTube videos. It involves a lot of stamping and graceful twisting the dancers accompany themselves with singing and clapping. Video cannot capture the intricacy and energy of such a performance. It was especially incredible to see because many of the dancers were my students. They performed in sets - first all the very young girls performed, then very young boys, then the teenage girls, then the teenage boys, then boys and girls together. Then the dancers started pulling members of the wedding party onto the floor. One of my students ran over and tried to take my hand. I told her I didn’t know how to dance intore. She said, “Try!” and I said, “No!” and the tug-of-war continued until I was in the middle of the floor with the rest of the wedding party. All eyes that weren’t on the bride and groom were on me. I was horrified for a moment but then I decided to give into not knowing and just dance. I have no idea how well or badly I performed but when the dance was over I was again slapped on the back and congratulated and told I was a real umunyarwandakaze and that multiple families wanted to take me in as one of their own.

As I was leaving my headmaster found me and took one of my hands in both of his and thanked me for coming and his new wife, Christine, embraced me and kissed both my cheeks. I have been to close to twenty weddings in my life, some for relatives and close friends, but never have I felt such an intimate part of things as I did at my headmaster’s wedding yesterday.

Now I’m off to a naming ceremony. My colleague’s sister had a baby girl last week and most of the community is gathering to choose a name for her. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Still Loving My Job

After I wrote that last post I got emails from a couple people reminding me of the obvious. It doesn’t take a college degree to notice the wealth disparities between “developed” and “developing” countries, especially in a place like Rwanda where the international aid presence is huge. Even if it weren’t for international aid, exposure to tourists and western media would be enough to indicate the enormous differences between life in the “developed” world and here. I guess the reason I find it puzzling because I’m subject to it, if that makes any sense. It’s still weird to me that people yell after me for “amafaranga” (money) when I pass them on the street regardless of the fact that I’m dressed like an average Rwandan.

I also found out that in poorer and more rural areas it’s not just white foreigners who get harangued, it’s anyone who obviously has a regular job. I have a friend who works at the health center here, a nurse, who told me that she can’t wait to move to Kigali because she’s tired of random people asking her for money. She said it’s particularly difficult because she can’t afford to give handouts since she’s already paying her brothers’ school fees. And I thought I was so special.

In other news, I finally launched an English club this afternoon. I almost thought it wasn’t going to happen because I had no idea what room we were supposed to meet in and the teacher I was supposed to be collaborating with was nowhere to be found, but then a group of students from S3 (ninth grade) found me an empty classroom. By the time my colleague showed up I had written all the lyrics to “Yesterday” on the chalkboard and I was teaching the students the second verse. I had initially hoped to spend most of the two-hour meeting answering questions and planning the curriculum for the club collaboratively with the students but when I asked them what they wanted to do in their club they said, “We want to learn English.” I said yes, but what specifically in English? “To speak it,” they said. Well, alright then.

Confusions aside, the club meeting significantly improved my week. I’d been in kind of a bad mood ever since I finished grading midterms because a lot of them received failing grades despite my best efforts to test only on grammar and vocabulary I’d explained several times. At first I blamed myself but then I noticed that the few students who did well were also the few students who consistently turned in homework. I think I’m going to have to give a lecture on study habits sometime in the next couple of weeks.

I also want to do a lot more activities with songs, both in my classes and in my English club. The problem is finding songs that use simple vocabulary, are easy to sing, are inoffensive and are suitable for students between ages fourteen and seventeen. I have a few but they’re all Beatles songs. If anyone has any suggestions please comment or email me!