Search This Blog

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?