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Monday, January 30, 2012


Life continues as usual in Gihara. There are a ton of new students at St. Dominique which means a whole new batch of kids who need to be taught to call me “teacher” instead of “muzungu.” I spend most of my time at school. We’re rewriting the schedule of classes again at an indeterminate time this week, but until then I plan to keep teaching and running my English club. Soon we’ll be converting one of the old classrooms into a library and the dean has said I’ll be in charge of organizing the books. I’m extremely excited to start. I have big plans for an adapted library of congress system.

We’re in the short dry season now, so everything is dry heat and red dust. Fetching water has become tricky because parched honeybees gather in angry clusters around the water spigot. Sometimes when I get home from school I spend a few minutes lying on the cement floor of my kitchen to cool off.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this year and last year (besides the feeling of normalcy) is having another American with me at site. Meredith and I don’t see each other that often but even our brief and infrequent interactions make a difference. I don’t feel isolated anymore, which is both good and bad. It’s nice not to feel as alone as I did, but I now have appear sane not just to the villagers, but to another American. It’s a challenge.

In some ways I think my presence has had greater impact on her than hers has had on me. Everyone in Gihara knows who I am and they expect Meredith to be the same or similar. I imagine this had made some things easier - Meredith probably spends less time explaining why she has her own moto helmet and doesn’t give handouts - but it also means that people compare her to me. She’s already had to explain why she doesn’t speak as much Kinyarwanda as I do (I’ve been here a year) and that she is my colleague, not my younger sister (you’d think that would be a no-brainer since she’s tall, thin and Korean-American, but I guess not). I feel bad for denying her the clean slate I had when I arrived, but then again her situation is more typical within Peace Corps than mine was. Not many volunteers get to break in new sites.

This year will be all about finding a balance. A balance between projects outside of site and at site. A balance between social time and time alone. Between work and integration. Between worrying about the impact I’m having and allowing myself to relax. I’ll let you know how things play out.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Roll Call

It’s the beginning of a new year. I forgot how chaotic the first week of school is, probably because last year I didn’t even know that I was dealing with chaos. Last year I knew I was supposed to teach two sections of S2, so on the first day of school I strode into an S2 classroom and taught an improvised English lesson for two hours. Later I found out that those were not my hours, nor my students. The schedule of classes hadn’t been written yet. I’d taught a random assortment of senior-level students, some of whom apparently still remember that first lesson.

But this year I knew better. I showed up on the first day of school with a book to read and nothing else. Teachers are supposed to arrive at 7am, but by 7:15 I was still the only one there. At 7:30 a few students arrived and started playing basketball. At 8am the other teachers began trickling in.

Beginning around 9am, we convened in the staff room and had a two-and-a-half-hour meeting to discuss the problem of starting classes late every year.

I spent the rest of that day and most of the next mobilizing students to clean out the classrooms and the teachers’ room which were littered with old homework assignments, candy wrappers, broken pens and other school-related debris. On Wednesday we met with the dean of studies and wrote the schedule of classes collectively - no small feat, since nobody wanted to teach on Fridays or after lunch. When we finally finished, I asked if anyone thought we’d be able to start the following day. Everyone including the dean agreed that we couldn’t start until Monday because attendance wouldn’t be high enough until then.

The next day, I slept in later than I intended. I woke up to a phone call from the dean telling me to come into school. “You’re teaching today,” he said. I told him I didn’t think we were starting until Monday. He chuckled and hung up on me.

When I got to school, the students were mopping out the classrooms for a second time. With nothing else to do, I spent the day getting to know the new secondary school teachers. Most of my friends from last year have been transferred to other schools, but the new teachers seem like a good group. One in particular, a chemistry teacher, has been extremely helpful to me already. He’s taken over Theotine’s job of translating for me during staff meetings.

I started teaching yesterday. We had another staff meeting in the morning but fortunately I wasn’t scheduled to teach until around 11am so I got a chance to introduce myself to both of my English classes. They’re an incredible group, even more enthusiastic than my students last year. I find myself wondering how many of them I’ll really get to know before I leave. Right now there are about 60 students in each section, nearly twice the amount I had at the end of last year - a conspicuous reminder of the staggering dropout rate.

At yesterday’s staff meeting, a district official urged the teachers to “work together as a team” to keep our students in school. He didn’t elaborate. He couldn’t, really - students drop out for a multiplicity of reasons, everything from unplanned pregnancies to sick parents to financial problems. I figure if I can keep just one student in school who might have dropped out otherwise, it‘s a success. I wonder if the other teachers feel the same way.

New year, new faces, new challenges. But this time, I’m at least a little bit better prepared. Last year, my mantra was “don’t panic.” This year, it’s “bring it on”!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Umwaka Mushya Muhire

Well, happy 2012 all! I'm Musanze for our mid-service conference this week; I jump into teaching an all-new batch of S2 students next week. The past few weeks have flown by. I was invited to attend the swearing-in ceremony for the new education group, so I spent a day in Kigali getting to know the freshman class of volunteers. They're a great group, in some ways much better prepared for life at site than I was when I swore in. They spent pre-service training living with host families instead of in houses with other volunteers so they have already experienced epic amounts of stomach sickness, bug bites and minor infections. That and their Kinyarwanda is alarmingly good.

I spent Christmas in Buhanda visiting a new volunteer at his site along with a few of his neighbors. We collaborated on one of the best Christmas dinners I've ever had - steak tacos with homemade flour tortillas. It only took us ten collaborative hours to bring Mexican food to Rwanda!

After such a long break between terms, it's hard to believe that I'll be teaching again in less than a week. But I'm excited to start. Last year, I started the term with no schedule, no curriculum, no experience, no idea what I was doing - and survived. Who knows what's possible this year?