Easter

I began the second term with renewed determination to be a fun, original teacher equipped with exciting teaching aids. During the second week of school, propelled by fresh motivation, I presented my S1 students with a self-authored paragraph about my family’s customary celebration of Easter. What a great idea, I thought to myself, a creative, interesting, and (dare I say?) witty introduction to our unit on Holiday activities!

On Sunday afternoon, I meticulously copied my anecdotal text onto a rice sack with a Sharpie, and brought it to school with a roll of masking tape to stick it to the chalkboard. My first, unlucky victims are always the students of S1A; their class serves as the testing ground for my yet untaught lessons. On Tuesday mornings, I inexpertly pilot new methods and concepts with them to the benefit of S1B and S1C, who enjoy the modifications that my awkward transitions and confusing explanations in S1A subsequently engender throughout the week.

All kinds of unpredictable problems, both practical and intellectual, arise during the act of teaching that I can’t (or simply don’t) conceive of prior. On the morning of my Easter text’s debut, I rushed to school at 7:20, clutching an unwieldy assortment of materials. I’d cut out pieces of paper to cover several words of the text in the hopes of beginning my lesson with a listening activity in which students would guess the words I’d concealed. I arrived just a few minutes before class, and after scrambling for several minutes to tape the right sized pieces of paper over the correct words on my one square foot of desk space, I gave up, threw away the stupidly unlabeled scraps, and marched out of the teacher’s room with the rice sack’s fraying edges furiously trailing behind me.

I strode into S1A and taped my neatly scripted Easter passage to the wall with feigned confidence, filled with preemptive dread as the difficulty of the challenge I’d posed myself began to dawn on me. Since my planned introduction had quite literally fallen to pieces, I improvised something else: “Students! I want you to clap each time you hear a present tense verb while I am reading!” They stared at me, blankly. I repeated myself as simply as possible: “You will clap when you hear present tense.” Not even the slightest flicker of understanding rippled among them. Still, I forged ahead with dogged determination: I began reading painfully slowly and attempted to cue them with significant looks and emphatic enunciation. Even so, only a few students clapped, doubtfully, 5 slow seconds late in response to my exaggerated pauses rather than the text itself. Once we finally reached the end, I didn’t bother urging them to try again and do a better job. Instead, I looked at my students in mild exasperation tempered by the realization that even this seemingly simple exercise was unsuited to their skill level, too foreign to them as a quick, introductory warm-up.

We quickly abandoned present tense clapping, and began re-reading the passage in order to, well, actually understand what was going on. With every passing syllable haltingly uttered by the brave students who’d volunteered to read and the terrified students I’d forced to contribute, I became increasingly aware of how strangely we celebrate Easter, objectively speaking. I scribbled relevant, essential vocabulary on the board in a column flanking the rice sack: basket, hide, find, look for, candy, chocolate, bunny. When the Easter bunny made his appearance mid-text, I produced a chocolate colored stuffed rabbit from my bag, as well as a handful of cotton balls. My students gazed at me in wide-eyed wonder, and before I knew it I was gesticulating wildly, miming my parents’ filling an imaginary basket with ‘delicious things’ (my less than adequate translation of treats into Kinyarwanda). I found myself loping across the classroom pretending to hide the basket under a desk, then scattering cotton balls from my imaginary bed to the imaginary basket with the exaggerated stealth of an imaginary parent.

How insane I must have seemed, waving the bunny in the air, moving his little paw towards his tail to convey that he had supposedly plucked the trail of cotton balls from his own behind. In the captivated, both concerned and bemused stares of my S1A students I saw mirrored the pathetic, desperate frenzy of my supplementary acting. And yet, their puzzled little faces only fueled my fire as I abandoned my pre-written, English text and launched into an animated, almost supplicatory explanation of my parents’ well-intentioned deceit in Kinyarwanda, an increasingly urgent, last-ditch effort to make sense of my strange behavior and props.

By the end of our forty minutes, the floor of our classroom was littered with bits of cotton, and I’d only glimpsed a few signs of amused understanding in my students’ eyes, only elicited a few soft smatterings of hesitant, uncomprehending laughter at my crazy theatrics rather than their meaning. Exhausted and unconvinced that I’d managed to explain the Easter bunny and convey the comical absurdity of this tradition rather the comical absurdity of my strange lesson, I feebly concluded by asking them to share their own holiday traditions. Their answers rendered the nonsensical phenomenon of the Easter bunny, and the phenomenon of my outrageous explanation, even more ridiculous: “On Christmas, I eat meat.” “On Easter, I cook fish and rice.” And so on.

I decided to consider S1A’s reception a partial failure. Sure, some students had grasped and chuckled over the oddity of the whole thing, but what remained seared in my memory were the glances of lingering confusion, the moments of awkward silence in what should have been funny moments. They looked at me in dubious silence as I laughed at my own story, alone, a spectacle as bizarre as the tale I’d tried to tell. Afterwards, when I slumped back into my chair in the staffroom with a heavy sigh, I gloomily contemplated the prospect of repeating this impossible lesson in two other sections of S1. I peered at the sagging rice sack contemptuously, its plastic strings hanging limp and sad, and asked myself who had decided to celebrate Easter this way in the first place.

Fortunately, I didn’t entirely lose hope.

By the time the passage reached S1C, I’d become a skilled actress and elucidator of all things Easter. On Thursday, I unfurled my rice-sack with practiced confidence and slapped vocabulary words onto the board in a perfected order. There was no present tense clapping to speak of; I immediately chose one student to begin our recitation, and instead of waiting until my handful of student lectors had finally made it to the end of the passage to explain what the hell was going on, I carefully led them through it sentence by sentence, from one moment of Easter to the next. I whipped out the bunny and the cotton balls at the least confusing and most thrilling times, building suspense as I gradually set the scene in the calm, deliberate manner of a seasoned podcast host who reels you in with rhetorical questions and pointed transitional phrases, who speaks with a steady voice devoid of panicked urgency because they believe in their plan.

In what will likely be one of my greatest victories as a volunteer, the climax of my story, the ‘punch-line’ of my passage, was well – no, more than well – received. When we reached the sentence in which I declare that I knew my parents were lying to me about the Easter bunny, “because a bunny can’t buy candy or chocolate at the store,” S1C burst into uproarious laughter. When I revealed to them the fabricated source of the cotton ball trail, rolling my eyes in mock disapproval of the Easter bunny’s indecency, I wasn’t met with the nervous laughter of a skeptical audience I’d only half-reached, but with the full-throated bellow and sparkling eyes of a genuinely delighted, fully-comprehending crowd. This time, when I finished, I exited in triumph, the tendrils of my rice sack waving like proud (though weary) flags.

Advertisements

Home Sweet Staff Room

School’s been in session for almost a month, and the first of our three terms will end in just a few weeks. I haven’t accomplished much as a teacher in this short time, but I’ve been experiencing what I longed for and predicted, optimistically, when the walk to school still wracked my nerves on my first week: a gradual getting used to and an increasing sense of ease.

I teach 12 periods a week, 6 periods with S1 students (they’re between 12-17 years old, in the rough equivalent of 6th grade), and 6 periods with S2. My colleagues teach around 35 hours a week, so I often feel guilty lounging in the staff room or showing up late to school while they teach 8 different lessons a day, back to back. Then again, my job is supposed to encompass much more than teaching alone, and truthfully it has. I chat at length with teachers about random topics, answer random questions about literature, grammar, physics and computers (don’t know what I’d do without Wikipedia and Google), and chat with students while they’re lingering outside their classrooms during free periods. It’s tacitly understood that it’s my prerogative and responsibility to seek out opportunities to support teachers and converse with students as often as I can. I’ve been wandering into classrooms where teachers are absent to meet students of different grade levels and help them practice English by initiating discussions or answering their questions.

At first, leaving the teachers’ room and crossing the threshold of my classrooms took a good bit of courage, especially during the first week, when 50 to 60 students were packed into a single room before they were divided into smaller sections. Despite the moment of anxiety that precedes my getting up out of my chair in the teachers’ room and taking a step towards my classroom, I’ve noticed that my perception of the students is far different now than it was in October, when I first came to visit. They don’t intimidate me because I give them the benefit of the doubt. I assume the best about their giggles and whispers, shy smiles and stares. When their manners and expressions were completely foreign to me, and I was only too familiar with my own insecurity and dread as a relatively clueless English teacher, I could cast a sinister light on just about anything they said or did in my regard. I sincerely believe that the innocence, goodwill, and kindness I perceive in my students now is accurate, at least far more accurate than anything my pessimistic imagination previously produced. They’ve proven as much with their attention and work, their earnest questions and participation in class. Most days, when I stride into my classroom, I feel that the energy is good, that my students have been waiting to listen. They (generously?) chuckle at my bad jokes, and I feel their silent gazes of anticipation; I see them crack smiles of benevolent amusement as I speak Kinyarwanda in class, to translate English, explain directions, and show them that it’s okay to be vulnerable (and incorrect) in a new language.

Some days I still long to remain in the safety of the staff room, rather than venture outside and stand in front young crowds as they laugh, ask questions, and inevitably broach semi-inappropriate topics: are you married? Do you drink beer? What’s that tattoo? But every day, they also manage to defeat my suspiciousness and unease. Sometimes it’s the comical, endearing height difference among our students, some four feet tall, others past six feet and twenty-five years old, disarms me. It’s the earnestness of students who want to practice English with me, and the over-the-top showmanship of others who either want to flirt or entertain themselves as I try to respond to their amusingly personal questions. It’s the fact that they approach me about meeting after school to practice English, to study novels, to learn grammar, and have debates. At the end of the day, I can walk upstream among students, down the steep path towards the teacher’s room, riddled with ill-fitted bricks, without feeling self-conscious or out of place among them.

I’ve grown a tougher skin, and I’ve learned to improvise based on the way my students respond to me on a given day. I’ve come to terms with the fact that my lessons are actually supposed to be more free than those of my colleagues, since what I really have to offer is my conversational fluency, the ability to help them practice speaking and listening. I found this kind of fluidity disconcerting at first, but I’m beginning to consider myself lucky…I can choose to have fun with my students, and essentially think of productive but creative ways to elicit English from them. During the first week of school, I went to class with the vague intention of teaching something about articles and testing their knowledge of verb tenses, but we wound up practicing the verb ‘to try’. Little by little, almost all of the students became eager to share something about themselves with this verb. First, the present: “I try…”, then the past, “I tried…”, then the future, “I will try…” Previously silent students began to speak up and raise their hands, their eyes brightened with interest and I finally began to receive non-generic answers that really came from their own, personal experiences.

I’m one of two female teachers at my school; my headmaster, our dean of discipline, and 16 other teachers are all men, most of them relatively young. I’ve found it surprisingly easy to befriend them and fit into their dynamic. Each day, I understand more and more the way the other teachers interact, their brand of goofy, slapstick humor. They come to me, more and more, for advice and for help, and include me in their banter. I’ve claimed a seat of my own, between two other teachers I get along with particularly well. One I collaborate with because we’re both S1 English teachers, the other is a funny and warm Geography teacher. We have our own table, and at this point it feels like my territory as much as theirs. They patiently translate the banter of our colleagues and the announcements of our headmaster, we talk about how hungry we are, make fun of the mountains of food they serve themselves, and laugh about stupid things. I’ve symbolically taken ownership of a cardboard box to store the few grammar books and papers I’ve accumulated thus far, following the example of other teachers in anticipation of the work I’ll give and do…everyone else’s boxes are already overflowing after years of use.

I savor the little things that gradually bring me into their fold as we experience them together: the four basins of beans and maize bread that we all share at lunchtime, the fact that I can sit back, comfortably and serene, when I watch them converse animatedly without understanding, yet without feeling awkwardly out of place either. It’s the way one teacher greets me in Swahili every morning just to mess with me, because I never understand what he’s saying, the way another tells me about his morning jogs, and the handful of times they’ve said they feel lucky to have me and that I’m welcome. It’s how they chat with our students and care for them, in their own way. It’s the compassion they have for students who struggle in different ways – those who are poor, who live far away, who are refugees – the care with which they respond to students who misbehave, and the rules to which they make sure students adhere. It’s the combination of hard work and untimely, nonchalant flexibility that simultaneously characterizes their attitude towards school, somehow. It’s the way they all share a single mug for water, and the fact that the key to the one latrine for teachers is missing half of the time. All in all, it’s the slow embrace of this school, which feels more and more like home.

I’ve found in these teachers, among others, unlikely friends. But friends they really are. Spending so many hours together I’ve come to know them much more quickly than I expected. They’ve stared at my tattoo and tentatively touched its scabs, seen pictures of my family, and watched me trace the trajectory of my flight from Virginia to Rwanda four months ago. I’ve learned the names of their kids and learned what makes them laugh, which ones like to stay quiet, when and why. We’ve pored over sonnets and I finally convinced them that my hair IS naturally this color, texture, and length. We’ve discussed why I’m not married, and made fun of the ‘old’ 30 year old bachelors among us. I’ve asked a million questions, and so have they. I shuffle in and out of classrooms just like they do, because for some reason they’ve chosen to trust me with their students, despite my inexperience, my comparative youth, and my unfamiliarity with it all. They have some kind of mellow faith in me that gives me calming determination, as well as the equally calming assurance that little by little, I’ll know what I’m doing and do it (relatively) well.

Belated musings, yet still true…

*I wrote this post mid-December, and due to lack of wifi I’m posting it a month late*

Here I am, sitting on a twin mattress in one of my two spare bedrooms. This is my third day at my site: we swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers on December 12th, and moved all over Rwanda on the morning of the 13th to settle into our new homes.

Before actually witnessing the process by which the Peace Corps transfers us and all of our possessions throughout Rwanda, I had trouble imagining how we could possibly fit all our stuff into cars, store it, and re-distribute it. But somehow it was done; the morning of the 10th, we gathered at the Peace Corps hub in Rwamagana with all of our belongings, and spent a grueling few hours filling three enormous moving trucks with suitcases, mattresses, buckets, basins, water filters, brooms, boxes, and storage trunks. Once in Kigali, we unloaded everything into a room at the hotel. We had been waiting a long time for this trip to Kigali, our treasured opportunity to buy things for our homes, to eat at restaurants, stay out late (past our 6:30 curfew from before), explore. Before arriving, we were somewhat disgruntled once we learned that only a few hours on our first day and an afternoon on our second day were allotted to us for household shopping. How could we possibly buy EVERYTHING we would need for our houses, lug them around Kigali, within a day and a half? We made lists, came up with strategies and itineraries to ensure that every one of our desires would be satisfied. As one of my friends in the States pointed out, this constituted quite a change for me, since I spent months contemplating what to pack for the Peace Corps…

As always, things turned out okay, and my stress-induced fears were for the most part unfounded. Apparently, you don’t need all that much to get by in your entire house. Apparently, it’s possible to run through a couple stores, grab some things off shelves, and call it a day, without extensive pre-meditation. Apparently, it’s also possible to fit the content of two people’s households into the bed of a regular-sized pick-up truck…you just need a tarp and a rope to make sure it doesn’t fall off.

As soon as I found myself alone, finally, standing in my living room surrounded by stuff, I didn’t know where to begin.

The first few days of solo-living have been lovely, and not quite so daunting or lonely as I imagined. My greatest fear before moving here was that I’d feel alienated and uncomfortable outside my doors. To be fair, my first few ventures to the shops near my house (and still, today), were nerve wracking and awkward for me: a host of stares and comments. When I leave the house, I remind myself that none of the attention is malicious, just a natural reaction to a bizarre appearance in this village. In any case, each day I make myself go outside and visit the shops, to desensitize everyone (including me) to the event. The more time passes, the more comfortable I become, the more familiar faces I spot (with great relief), and cling to for reassurance and for the semblance of belonging. The first time I ventured out, I wound up tagging along with a teacher who lives in the same compound as I do. I met some shop-keepers, introduced myself to some people we met along the way. Just yesterday, I ventured out yet again with a small shopping list. When I pulled it out of my pocket at the first store I stopped into, the shopkeeper there plucked it out of my hands, pulled out a pen, and as soon as I was done buying what I needed from her, took me around to various other shops, checking each item off one by one. Every time I go out, I wind up bathed in sweat for some reason or another: because I feel a thousand eyes on me, because I’m nervous to walk past a cluster of guys, because I’m overwhelmed and I don’t know exactly how to interpret what’s going on around me.

Each new outing results in an unexpected but welcome encounter, a short conversation or greeting that makes me feel a little more at home. This has proven particularly true when I venture up into the hills for a ‘hike,’ because there’s just enough solitude to create meetings that are more personal, less daunting and flustering on my end. On my second afternoon, I wound up hiking up a hill with an older man. We struck up a conversation for a good thirty minutes. I’ve found that people are astounded and incredibly pleased when they discover I can communicate in Kinyarwanda. I think it’s the last thing they expect, and it’s a testament to the nature of my presence: a legitimate, two-year commitment rather than a stint of several months. Only someone who is serious about living and working here would try as hard as we have to learn a language spoken exclusively in this country.

I always feel reluctant to share general observations, because I know how quickly perceptions can change, and how erroneous or misleading first impressions can be. But something I’ve noticed time and time again, especially as I meet new people in my village, is how quickly a genuinely warm greeting on my part transforms a seemingly sullen expression. I’ve watched so many serious, distantly curious faces break into enormous smiles. I think there must be a difference between these kinds of meetings here and the ones I have in the States, because otherwise these transformations in expression wouldn’t strike me nearly as much as they do. Maybe, I initiate and respond to in greetings differently here: I’m not anything special in the States, but here I feel obligated to represent my country and my background well, to demonstrate my desire to live here fully, so I exude a kind of open good-will that I simply don’t back in the States. Then again, maybe people here are exceptionally pleased that I’m making an effort to reach them.

It’s both endearing and frustrating that some people make little effort to conceal their surprise when they see me. At first, I thought it seemed disrespectful to stare at someone different from you, and essentially call them out for it. A few mitigating factors: first of all, I have the fortune of being singled out as a white person, someone they assume is wealthy and comes from a desirous background or country. It’s not usually a derogatory term, or a negatively loaded word (so I’ve been told, at least). In order to overcome my discomfort, I remind myself constantly that I would likely do the same if I had lived all my life in a place where people look very similar, and come from more or less the same place. And maybe, when people here stare and ask questions, they’re just being honest in ways that our culture in America is not, in an attempt to be more polite or politically correct. Yes, it’s uncomfortable when people stare at me. But I’ve come to embrace those moments as opportunities to walk up to someone and be frank, to explain who I am and what I’m doing. In the end, we walk away closer and better informed; in a polite context where someone averts their gaze even though you excite their curiosity or fascination, these interactions don’t take place. In fact, I’ve begun to find it a relief: there’s no need to pretend that it’s normal for someone like me to be here, and it’s impossible to avoid the elephant in the village. The intensity of my presence now may actually be a good thing in the long run, because it spawns the numerous, intense encounters that render my coming and going, like any inhabitant, justified and valid. In the States, it was much more possible to skip to the part where you pretend to belong, where you pretend you’re comfortable or you understand where you are, even though you don’t. Here, it couldn’t be more obvious that I’m clueless, and I don’t mind it in the end. There’s something humbling and freeing about this full surrender, this throwing up of your arms, smiling broadly, and acknowledging time and time again that you’re out of place, until this honesty places you there over time. Even when kids ask me for money (it’s happened a few times here), it’s kind of a relief to explain that that’s not what I’m here to give. Otherwise, it would remain an unspoken, unaddressed undercurrent.

There just don’t seem to be too many frills or fronts here. People visit one another without warning or explicit invitation, and there’s something very intimate about seeing someone’s house, learning who they live with, sharing their food. There’s something intimate about buying toilet paper from the wife of a teacher at your school, or hiking past the home of a future student, buying charcoal from someone who carries it to your house for you (on her head, no less). There’s something intimate about owing this very woman 50 cents, because I only had 950 RWF instead of 1000. There’s something honest and unaffected and direct about the way life goes on. My community is small enough, but people close together enough, that your comings and goings can’t seem to go unobserved, that the various facets of your life unfold in front of everyone. I’ve started running into people who know my name before I introduce myself, and I’ve run into neighboring teachers buying potatoes and helping neighbors fill jerry cans with water. I’ve run into a neighbor who took me to pull carrots, cabbage, eggplant, and spinach from the ground in the valley, donning rubber boots, walking to church with stiff white shirt a big rosary around his neck. The same little flocks of children see me hike by, and there’s something intimate about their catching me in these vulnerable moments, wandering up a hill to places I don’t know, surrounded by people I don’t know. There’s something intimate too about the plainly obvious fact that my wanderings have no concrete purpose other than to learn and explore. It’s just intimate to be automatically vulnerable here, all of the time…

Model School: Week 2

(Written 12/03/17)

My second week of Model School left a more humbling mark than the first…

At first, I was tempted to believe that my students were silent and obedient in class because I had somehow managed to nail the teacher look, voice, and stance right away, because I’d somehow managed to do most things right- if not to my own credit, then out of sheer luck. Another week in the classroom reminded me that the relationship between students and teachers is much more fragile and dynamic than the first few days of any class let on, especially in my present context.

During Model School, our students gradually got used to us. At first, I held exceptional sway over my students as a brand new, oddly dressed, American accent bearing teacher. The more the luster of my newness faded, the more concerted efforts I found myself making to capture the attention of my students. Once the placating effect of my unusual presence wore off, I was reminded, with lightning-strike suddenness and clarity, of the summer I spent teaching in San Francisco, of how baffled, confused, and frustrated my classes occasionally left me. I’ve been struck by the same, monumental yet obvious revelation here in Rwanda: that no matter how well prepared, well-meaning, or consistent you are, students are people whose minds you can’t read and whose inexplicable actions you can’t control. You can’t access their minds or rule their psychological workings.

Based on my brief and limited experience, teaching successfully has meant finding the tricky balance between catering to your students and refusing to do so, paying close attention to their behavior but choosing not to take it personally most of the time. Students seem unwittingly capable of perceiving the weaknesses, fears, and vulnerabilities of their teachers, maybe because they have it easy as audience members rather than performers. They notice when you depend on them to answer a little too desperately; when your enthusiasm lags, even just a little, theirs is soon to follow. When you show up worn down and more prepared for battle than for class, they sense this attitude and mirror it, too.

Learning to work with students rather than against them seems like a fast-paced version of learning to work with rather than against people in general. Upon first meeting  someone, it’s easy to form judgments quickly and simply, of both positive and negative extremes. It takes time to revise false impressions, or grasp that they are true only some of the time. Even though teachers only spend a few hours with students in an academic environment, students are always humans too, not just receptacles of knowledge who express their complexity only outside of class. Perhaps in any context, but especially in the classroom, this complexity throws a daunting wrench into the act of teaching, which is predicated on some kind of predictability. We want our students to grasp complicated concepts but remain simple as they do so.

Just as with any individual, adult or otherwise, teachers seem to thrive when they choose see the best in their students even after they’ve been forced to confront the terrifying reality of their variability, even after they’ve accepted their multidimensionality within a one-dimensional, learning environment. When teachers see beauty and possibility in this depth and breadth, even if some of it is dark, pesky, obnoxious, and uncooperative, students seem much more willing to extend them the same courtesy. They seem more willing to respect you and meet you halfway when you show them you aren’t afraid of their full scope, when you choose to remember their strengths even as you reprimand them for wearing sunglasses in class, when they can rely on you not to oversimplify who they are out of personal convenience, or because you’ve taken personal offense at something they’ve said or done.

I was a student very recently, but I’m still just speculating. I was only one kind of student, and can only guess what my students are thinking and feeling (often unconsciously) as our lessons unfold. I can only say with somewhat greater certainty that teaching requires unflagging resilience and self-imposed optimism. A teacher who sinks after the slightest difficulty or mistake risks drowning themselves and antagonizing their students in the mire of their bitter, outwardly directed discontent. Perhaps, one plausible solution is to minimize your ego as a teacher, so that you don’t undermine yourself and push students away in a single fit of wounded pride.

As a teacher, you reap what you sow in many more ways than the content of your lessons alone. For those of us who tend to dwell on failure and veer towards pessimism in its wake, teaching constitutes a challenging but valuable opportunity to battle both tendencies under duress, not only as a means of self-preservation before students who catch you every move. If not for their own sake, teachers have to vanquish these demons for the students whom they’ll affect, even if their misbehavior or disinterest brings these demons on. You have to approach each day as a beautiful new beginning brimming with possibility to avoid dragging the relics of a less than stellar class from one day to the next. A teacher’s attitude seems to fill a room, seep into her students, and shape the course of the day. Since negative expectations seem capable of destroying the energy of a class, it’s incumbent upon you to act more optimistic than you feel, or choose to have positive expectations regardless of your misgivings.

Many people live this way, maybe without much effort. But for me, to approach each lesson and student with unwavering faith in their underlying goodness requires self-discipline and pre-meditated effort. Teaching, even briefly, has reminded me that it’s important and possible to be this way towards all circumstances and human beings, especially when they disappoint you or drive you crazy. Turns out teaching is good practice for living in harmony with regular adults, who are a little less innocent but equally worthy of receiving the benefit or your self-disciplined, optimistic doubt.

Model School: Week 1

I haven’t savored a Friday as much as I savored November 24th, the last day of our first week teaching, in a very long time. As part of our training, and in order to obtain our TEFL certification, Peace Corps Trainees in Rwanda teach at what we call “Model School,” a two-week program that any primary and secondary school students in the vicinity are welcome to attend for free during their school break. They receive English classes with native speakers at no cost (as well as a notebook and a pen), and we’re able to practice teaching in a Rwandan classroom with Rwandan students. Volunteers form groups of three or four, and share five, 40-minute periods between 8:00 and 11:40 am. The first two days are reserved for informal games and activities while students and volunteers find their bearings; on Wednesday, we began teaching our own, academic lessons. My group of three dedicates one period a day to ‘fun’ (this is, after all, a kind of summer camp, so we figured that students deserve some non-academic relief), and we take turns teaching two periods a day instead of one.

At first, I had the valiant intention of learning all of my students’ names over the course of two weeks. On Monday morning, however, I struggled to remember a single one because I’d never heard most of them before: added to the difficulty of putting names to faces was the difficulty of learning the names themselves. A few familiar ones stuck – Frank, Bruce, Richard, Queen – but for the most part, I gingerly abandoned this goal. On Wednesday, we gave students paper to make name tents for their desks, but by Thursday three quarters of the name-tents were gone. We’d forgotten to explain their purpose and importance, and we’d also forgotten that we lack readily available paper with which to make new ones…I’ve since embraced the awkward necessity of referring to a student I’ve called on as ‘our friend’ or ‘your fellow student.’ Our class (Secondary 2, the rough equivalent of 7th grade) fluctuates between 10 and 33 students throughout the morning (many students arrive late). We have students between the ages of 13 and 16. When 11:40 am strikes, intense relief washes over me, and I drag myself to the market like I’ve survived a shipwrecked. Many primary school volunteers have between 70 and 100 students; I can only imagine how they feel at the end of our daily four hours, because for me, noon feels like 5 pm.

On Monday morning, I initiated a few American-style get-to-know-you activities, curious but wary of posing Rwandan students questions I’ve only ever posed American kids. When one student struggled to tell us her birthday, we quickly encouraged her to share a different fact. In Rwanda, many families don’t celebrate birthdays, which come and go without fanfare. They either don’t consider birthdays particularly important or simply lack the money to spend on elaborate festivities. Even my language teacher forgets it’s her birthday until Facebook sends her a notification. The next day, we asked students to name something they like with similar apprehension: is it insensitive to ask Rwandan students about their hobbies? After all, most students don’t have the plethora of entertainment options we’re accustomed to hearing about in the States. Besides, I reasoned, they probably spend a lot of time helping their parents or commuting to and from school. On this front, I was mistaken; I received a variety of enthusiastic replies: they love to sing, dance hip-hop, eat meat, play football, write songs, and play volleyball. Even so, my suspicion proved somewhat founded on Wednesday, when many students arrived late after helping their parents prepare for market day. My oversensitivity in one sense is constantly matched by insensitivity in another: who am I to assume that children without iPads can’t have as assortment of hobbies? Then again, wasn’t it thoughtful on my part not to ask about their favorite foods, since most people eat the same exact few things, since there are no fridges or pantries to reach into for an assortment of snacks, since many of the likes and dislikes that set students apart in America may not help students distinguish themselves here?

The Peace Corps encounters the same problem every time they organize Model School: many students show up for one day just to swipe a free notebook and a pen. Some students keep coming back and claim they haven’t received supplies in order to accumulate extras. If we’ve seen a student before and they’re in our class without supplies, we’re supposed to turn down their requests and even turn them away until they return with their originally issued notebooks in hand. But it’s difficult to be stern and remain unmoved when a quiet and attentive student looks at you during a lesson and gestures for a pen to take notes on a piece of paper borrowed from a friend, when these supplies are easy for us, and much more difficult for them, to obtain, when it seems wonderfully miraculous that these students choose to sit in bare classrooms during their school break in the first place.

My students have been disciplined and respectful: they listen, participate, answer questions, and follow directions with nothing but a few extra English classes, a notebook, and a pen to gain. Even when they misbehave, they do so in a subtle, almost conscientious manner: at worst, I notice a soft hum as I speak, an unusual buzz among the wooden desks, an unnecessary turning of heads or rustling of papers.One day, just before I warned my students to quiet down, I realized the commotion was due to an attempt to circulate one pen among several students so they could all copy down notes. In fact, our students tend to speak quietly, so much so that one of our five, cardinal rules invites them to speak loudly in class. This is particularly true among our female students, who are also less likely to participate. We’ve been urged to emphasize and implement ‘gender balance’ in our classrooms by asking for female volunteers or simply calling on girls even when they don’t raise their hands. Despite the generally quiet tenor of our students’ voices, when we ask a question that many students feel confident enough to answer, a forest of skinny little arms suddenly shoots into the air. A few particularly eager students snap their fingers and beg to be chosen by pleading, “teacher, please!” When I instruct students to work on exercises individually, most of my students urgently seek my correction and approval. Their eyes follow me as I move from one student to the next, and they watch with anticipation as I check their work. I’d like to think that my students treat me this way because I’ve done a remarkable job proving myself to them. In truth, I think my students already respected my title and role, before we ever met: I’ll I’ve had to do is preserve the validity of their preexisting deference by doing a decent job.

Many students seem unfamiliar with the bridge between school and play that pervades many American schools. They enjoy competitive activities, but we often have to nudge them to let loose by modeling the enthusiasm and reckless abandon that games are supposed to elicit. When we introduced them to charades, students tentatively raised their hands instead of calling out their guesses. They waited to be called on as their eyes darted uncertainly between me and their performing teammates. I encouraged them to shout without asking for permission, but by the end of the period, they’d only learned to guess freely at a polite, mezzo-piano volume, and they had only just begun venturing into the world of goofy acting that charades opens wide.

We make do with very little in our classrooms. They’re all bare, with big rectangular blackboards at the front and back of each room. The other two sides are lined by windows, many of which are cracked and broken; classrooms are filled with rows of plain wooden desks whose benches (cozily) seat about three students each. So far, I’ve planned and delivered four lessons using chalk, a chalkboard, and a few pieces of paper. In some respects, I’ve found the absence of fancy teaching equipment refreshing. Instead of fumbling with powerpoint slides and speakers, or stumbling around the classroom with my arms full of markers, handouts, folders, and whiteboards, I write a couple of things on the board, ask a pointed question, and begin to teach. My lessons have a more stream-lined purpose, and I rely much more heavily on the clarity of my explanations, the quality of my rhetoric, the confidence of my (commanding?) presence at the front of the room, and on my creative improvisation as a chalk-bearing, extemporaneous speaker. In the States, I felt paradoxically stifled by an overwhelming number of ways to communicate new information. I fretted about using all of the resources available to me to please and stimulate my students with colorful surprises.

One difficulty I have encountered is the inexplicable lack of notebooks and pens among students who should have received them on their first day: interrogative pronouns must be even less interesting without the option of jotting down exercises and notes. But even without school supplies, my students show up. Still, they remember what I taught the previous day, and answer every dry question I pose. They seem devoted and willing, and I don’t feel as pressured as I did in the States to engage them with a good time. I sense that this isn’t what they expect, or even what they want from an academic class. I’ve had American teachers apologize for boring content, or preface ‘fun’ activities with a vaguely insecure announcement about how fun this aspect of the class will be. The students in my class don’t seem to feel entitled to an entertaining show, and I consequently don’t feel obligated to become a super-human, super-fun, yet legitimately instructive figure to meet their expectations, dissipate their boredom, and render less than thrilling content supremely exciting. The seriousness of my students, their willingness to learn in simple settings in very simple ways enable me to focus unapologetically on the essence of teaching – the transmission of knowledge – unencumbered by other concerns of (ultimately) secondary importance. I teach creatively within reason, and focus on teaching content effectively before wracking my brain for ways to make it more interesting than it really is.

I suppose what I’m alluding to is the lack of entitlement I perceive among my students, especially where their personal attention is concerned. They sit still for 2 hours, and when I announce that it’s time for their twenty-minute, 10 am break, they usually don’t spring out of their seats and rush out of the classroom in a somewhat inconsiderate burst of impatient energy. They’re probably hungry, but none of them bring food; sometimes, they’re probably bored (despite my best efforts), but none of them act like they have a right to flaunt this feeling and influence the mood of the class. There’s no customer service complex among my students: no sense that they expect me to pique their interest before gracing me with their attention, that they expect me to satisfy wants and needs beyond the deliverance of my expertise. I don’t need a million Aces up my sleeve because my students don’t seem to believe that it’s my job to persuade them to learn through entertaining tricks.

When I first walked into my classroom, I was afraid to confront a different kind of student I wouldn’t understand, one who has experienced a childhood and school system very different from the ones I’ve known. But after a week, we make warm eye contact, chuckle, and work together. They work in groups and pairs just like my American students did, they encourage each other, snicker at each other’s mistakes, and correct one other like all kids do; they pass notes and give me blank stares if I haven’t spoken slowly enough, or if they just don’t know the answer.

One day, we ushered them outside to play red light green light. This game evolved into the loud, dirt-raising race I’d known as a child myself: whenever the leader of the game whipped around to catch moving players, those accused laughed and shouted ‘you’re lying!’ with the same, unconstrained conviction of suburban, American kids. I don’t notice that these are Rwandan students, and they don’t intimidate me as such. They’re just good kids who are willing to listen, try, and learn for its own sake; kids who aren’t as entitled as many of the American students I’ve encountered, but enjoy red light green light to the same, amusing extent.

Euphoria of a mellower kind

Now that I feel relatively comfortable here, I fail to notice what used to strike me and consider formerly unusual happenings unworthy of note. I’ve somehow neglected to tell anyone that Rwandan mothers use pieces of fabric to strap babies onto their backs, that although their fat little cheeks press against tense edges of cloth and their bottoms sink down into what seems like a highly uncomfortable position, these little bundles don’t utter a sound. I’ve forgotten to mention that a squealing pig fell out of a packed truck right outside the Peace Corps hub, that neighboring cows and deafening rainstorms interrupt our training sessions on a regular basis. I look past the goats that scamper past me on market days and rarely heed my weather app’s faulty predictions of intense rain or shine. I avoid the all-you-can-eat buffet for 2000 RWF because spending $2.50 on lunch seems absurdly expensive when a make-shift avocado and tomato salad costs approximately 3 cents. I just accept that people walk in droves along the shoulder of the road as motos, bikes, buses, and trucks pass alarmingly close. After almost two months in Rwanda, I’ve begun to feel more amazed by what now seems ordinary than by the extraordinary itself.

In some respects, adapting to Rwanda after many weeks of exposure is a blessing. When clusters of wandering children appear before me, my heartrate doesn’t increase. When I hurry home as darkness falls, I no longer imagine myself the victim of an impending crime. Mopping my room on Sunday or Saturday mornings is more of a pleasant, meditative task than a frustrating inconvenience: I move every box, shoe, and suitcase into the hallway at a deliberate, leisurely pace. It doesn’t bother me that my feet perpetually bear traces of Rwandan mud, and the poor lighting that prevents me from noticing as much when I shower doesn’t bother me either. I don’t feel disgusting when I decide to save time and wash my hands ‘next time,’ after a truly gross ordeal that merits the effort. I look forward to my morning bread and tea instead of dreaming about state of the art oatmeal and Aeropress coffee. These days, my collection of neutral pants and shirts seems more drab than understated; I’ve begun to crave the bright colors that surround me for their own sake, not because they may help me blend in. I love the dullness of my host mom’s big knife because none of my clumsy maneuvers are capable of slicing me open.

There’s beauty in finally grasping a new way of life, at least its bare bones. It’s comforting to fall into a rhythm, to find that your days are predictable in many respects, that the people you live with understand your patterns as you understand theirs through observation and repetition alone. It seems we can’t help getting used to things as hard as we can, bending any environment to our will, mastering the oddities of a new context until it becomes unremarkable. When we arrived, we dreamed of feeling at home: we dreamed of eating dinner with our host families without feeling awkward, of wielding laundry bar soap like experts instead of watching it slip and slide out of our hands into the mud, of stepping outside our compounds without apprehension. We’ve braved a sea of extraordinary circumstances with the heroic intention of finding them ordinary one day.

Two months later, the confident assurance we longed for is not as glamorous as it seemed from afar. Now that I’ve made it to the promised land of the accustomed and un-phased, of daily habits and routines, I miss the audacity of my overwhelmed yet determined former self, who felt euphoric for conquering the smallest of obstacles, and struggled towards a future in which no such obstacles would be left, who savored every shred of goodness she earned and discovered. It’s so easy to feel joy when there are so many little battles to be fought and won.

When I move to my permanent site, I’ll experience another surge of adrenaline inducing, uncertain discomfort as settle into a new community, entirely alone. But after I emerge ecstatically unscathed, the same glow of euphoric survival will dim and fade too, and when it does, what will follow? Maybe, what follows is the more subtle, but even more crucial effort to see through the eyes of the person you were when you expected little and rejoiced at the slightest success. Maybe, what follows is a greater, more difficult responsibility: choosing to live like a newcomer in a strange place, who does not feel entitled to any of its beauty or promise.

Instead of marveling at what I took for granted in the States, I marvel at the things I’ve already begun to take for granted here: the abundance of stars in the sky, the harmony of my host family’s household, the beauty of an hour to myself, the delighted smiles of strangers when they realize I can get by in their language, a rare slice of carrot cake on a birthday, a sunny afternoon that leaves my laundry warm and dry, the delicious, minty taste of Pepto-Bismol tablets and their incredibly rapid effect.

Yesterday, I bought myself an electric kettle for my future home. I used it for the first time this morning to boil water for my bucket bath. When I poured the first cup of lukewarm water onto myself this morning, and I didn’t lose my breath or gasp, endless possibilities suddenly arose in my mind: boiling water for tea and coffee, boiling water to wash my moldy water bottle, my towel, even myself, every single day, when I want, how I want! To be free and boil water any time of day, for any purpose under the sun! So, there is hope yet; even as complacency settles over me and my eyes glaze over, a tea kettle still jostles me awake; the slightest breach in a well-established pattern draws attention away from the mind-numbing habit and routine, towards the daunting appeal of the potential and the unknown.

This, in the Peace Corps, is what clear-cut euphoria has been: delving into absolute uncertainty and emerging, time and time again, with something you didn’t think you’d have or know before. But there’s another kind; less thrilling maybe, more mellow, but also more profound: the conscious, affectionate realization that what you have before you is something you fought for, a gift, a discovery you made: my host mother and my teacher, chatting about me in Kinyarwanda, outside in the dark, as green bananas boil on the stove. I’m not particularly eager to leave Rwamagana because I love my host family, and frankly I’m intimidated by everything that lies ahead. When I admit to myself that I could use a new beginning, since life here has become so easy, I also force myself to remember that I did not expect to be standing next to these two women I love and trust. I remind myself that it doesn’t take another disorienting move to recall, with euphoria of a mellower kind, that this warm, reassuring gathering was unpredictable, unwarranted, and still amazing to behold.

Kinyarwanda

Kinyarwanda is not a polite language by American standards. It lacks the wealth of polite phrases and sentence constructions that English contains: may I, could I, can I, would you mind, should I, please. Each of these phrases suits a slightly different kind of interaction and indirectly conveys anything from obsequiousness to passive aggression. No such possibilities exist in Kinyarwanda: the politeness of any request depends solely on a speaker’s context and tone. This absence of polite signposts makes us uncomfortable: we hesitate before posing our requests in what feels like a patronizingly commanding way: I want two avocados, I want water to wash my clothes, give me change. We find ourselves the objects of such commands with even greater discomfort: ‘take food,’ our host mothers say at dinner time, ‘look up this song,’ our host siblings ask afterwards, ‘give an example,’ our Kinyarwanda teachers demand in class.

This difference between English and Kinyarwanda becomes particularly apparent when Rwandans speak to us in English. In translation, their decidedly un-polite way of speaking seems condescending. My friend Sydney did everything in her power not to betray irritation when her 14-year-old host brother approached her one Saturday evening and declared: “Tomorrow you will go to church.” Church is a multi-hour affair that many volunteers avoid in their precious, very scarce free time. She knew – as we all do, by now – that this curt imperative was not not meant as it sounded: he was likely trying to find out if she intended to go with them. Sydney responded masterfully, with firm, inscrutable tact: “Can I pray in my room in English instead?” Her host brother laughed in response; the next morning, she avoided their lengthy church service with no further questions, comments, or commands.

We have to remind ourselves that the way we’re spoken to, especially in English, is not as rude or insensitive as it sounds to our American ears. It’s just incisively direct: a no-fluff distillation of essential information to be communicated or obtained. I catch myself avoiding what I perceive as Kinyarwanda’s inherent impoliteness by prefacing everything I ask for with: “can I?” I probably sound ridiculous at the market, when I ask if I’m able to buy 5 tomatoes, or at home, when I ask if I’m able to have more water. I’m beginning to tire of this clunky extra word that makes my sentences longer but adds little to the actual content of my words. On most days, anyone can tell from my expression that I’m attempting to bargain with good-will or respect my host mother’s generosity. On other days, anyone can tell that my patience is running short, regardless of all the ‘can I’s’ I produce to persuade them otherwise, or just deceive myself. Sometimes when I speak, Rwandans scan my face as they wait for me to spit it out, to cut the unnecessary helping verbs and say what my expression has already revealed in part.

From the moment I met her, my Kinyarwanda teacher’s gaze has penetrated the layers of polite language that conceal the inconvenient or unnerving truths I’ve only half-convinced myself to share. She looks me in the eye and asks a striking – though never intrusively probing – question that cuts to the heart of the matter, however big or small. At this point, I know better than to skirt around my thoughts or explain myself euphemistically. I simply tell her how it is and I think she does the same; both of us respect the topical boundaries the other sets as we speak, honestly, about one thing or another. My counterpart in Nyagahanga is similarly sparing and reliable in her words. I always knew what she wanted and considered best, and never worried that she was saying one thing but thinking another against her better judgment just to indulge me. She makes her thoughts and wishes known kindly, and I trust her because they match her gestures and demeanor.

Kinyarwanda’s lack of a concretely polite lexicon has led me to speak with Rwandans much more sincerely than I speak with most Americans in the States. There’s no forest of may I, could I, should I, do you mind, please, can I to sift through, fret over, and misinterpret. This begets a kind of clarity that lends itself to genuine interaction: there’s no veil to lift, no pretense to uncover, and less artificiality to overcome with time. There are fewer ways to prolong small-talk and extend superficial conversation, fewer means of saying one thing but meaning another. I’m sure my limited knowledge of Kinyarwanda (3 verb tenses, a small vocabulary) has contributed to the remarkably direct quality of my communication here in Rwanda; even so, I can’t help thinking that this language reflects an honest culture in which it’s better to stay quiet than fill a room with pleasantries of little substance, better to state what you want than confuse your interlocutors with potentially misleading phrases.

Mama Wanjye

At first, my host mom and I could hardly communicate with one other. Whenever we ate dinner just the two of us, she was very quiet. She looked down into her plate and crossed her legs demurely, she on one couch and I on the other. I pathetically battled the silence between us by showering her with desperately effusive thank you’s for her care. She didn’t look me in the eye very often; it took me several weeks to realize that she didn’t avert her gaze with apprehensive reticence, but to give me privacy in my confusion. She respected my embarrassing disorientation by kindly looking away, and giving me unspoken permission to find relief in solitude far from searching eyes.

Before we could converse, I assumed she had few dimensions. I judged her superficially, within the wrong cultural framework from a misguided, misinformed perspective. I forgot that our lack of sophisticated interaction didn’t mean she lacked a sophisticated interior, or the capacity to handle our unusual living situation with incredible tact. Time and time again, she’s proven me wrong for underestimating the depth of her perceptiveness and care just because she waited to approach me, and waited for me to discover her patience on my own instead of waving it in my face or attempting to explain herself to me. In retrospect, saving parts of herself for when I can understand them has always been part of her plan: she did not withhold herself from me as much as I projected my ignorance onto her identity and demeanor.

I didn’t know it at first, but she has always watched me carefully, noticed how I like to live without rendering me a spectacle or an object of interrogation. One morning, I ate an orange after breakfast because I was still hungry; I left the peel on my plate without thinking. The next morning, there was an orange next to my usual serving of bananas and bread. She has quietly let me live and lived a little more quietly herself to better understand me before exposing the extent of her playful, thoughtful, and passionate self. What I initially perceived as distant reserve was her wise, responsive approach to my presence in her home. She molded herself to me gradually and conscientiously, and she’s let me mold myself to her just as slowly.

I used to think she sat at home all day to cook and clean at the melancholy, languid pace of unwilling exertion. I assumed she was missing the stories and qualities I didn’t think or know how to uncover, that she was only capable of thinking and feeling what my cursory understanding of Rwanda and Kinyarwanda allowed me to imagine at the time.

The woman I once imagined mopping floors from dawn to dusk has a myriad of friends whom she visits nearly every day. The woman I once assumed was unfree has a freer spirit than most people I know. When I first saw her headscarf, I assumed she obeyed culture and religion rather than her own, strong will. In reality, she cares little about religion (she used to be Catholic, now she is Muslim) because they share the same God. She knows how to drive, she loves to dance, hum, and sing songs she learned in primary school in Tanzania, where she grew up; before getting married, she was a nurse. She loves talking to her sisters on the phone, like I do. More than anything her freedom manifests itself in the freedom she gives me. I have a key to the compound so I can leave to go running in the morning, and she doesn’t question the strange thumps that come from my room when I do squat jumps on my yoga mat. She doesn’t judge me for spending Sunday mornings writing in my room, for using lots of water to wash an absurd amount of clothes. She embraces me without imposition because she does not impose on herself, either.

She would have remained a flat mystery to me without the intimacy of our cohabitation, and the gift of an increasingly shared language. She is a whole, multi-faceted person, whom I initially reduced to the small, unassuming quality of her physical presence. She goes about her tasks deliberately and softly, she moves through the house slowly; I’ve never seen her work or move with haste. I finally understand the generosity at the root of her slow gestures: her measured steps and careful movements leave room and time to meet everyone’s needs, to fall in step behind me if I’m shuffling to the door on my way to school. She fills her days with tasks she chooses to complete rather than with obligations she rushes to finish.

She’s curious about America without denigrating her life in Rwanda or openly longing for the things she doesn’t have. If anything, she’s amused and awed by the way Americans live: the way men in America cook and take care of the kids while women go to work, the way my own mom washes dishes in the sink. It’s expensive, she says ruefully, with a cheery twinkle in her eye. Whenever these topics arise, usually she winds up laughing, as if making ends meet is important, but only to a certain extent when you have what you need to live nonetheless: basins to wash dishes, jerry cans of water, a trusty if not speedy, charcoal stove. I didn’t realize how well we were capable of understanding each other, how much I’d be able to confide in her through facial expressions, gestures, and a handful of words strewn together in the present tense.

She’s quiet in the mornings and she doesn’t like big groups of people; she looks solemn and forlorn when I catch her wandering near the market, a waif-like figure whose tentative steps in no way reflect the dynamic woman she becomes at home, who crosses her bony arms, looks down at her children, and curbs the slightest hint of ill behavior with a meaningful look. She mysteriously orchestrates everything, serenely and effortlessly; she slips in and out of rooms, opens and shuts cupboards, rinses and stores dishes in a seamless process I’ve only glimpsed in bits and pieces. The smoothness of her movements contrast starkly with the comparative jerkiness of mine; I catch myself jabbing keys into my lock, semi-sprinting to the latrine in the morning so as not to be late for my run, swinging the door open and shut, sighing heavily about trivial minutes lost. Sometimes, I have to eat individual beans one at a time so I don’t always finish eating first.

Often, the moments we connect the most are not those in which I sweat over a carefully constructed question about her family in Tanzania, her past, her religion, about whether she likes cabbage, whether she’s tired or likes her kids’ school. It’s usually those moments when I string together a silly story about my day, whose punch line constitutes a dramatic re-enactment rather than a sophisticated turn of phrase. She laughs and laughs when I tell her about the bicycles and motorcycles that aim for us in the streets, the trucks that beep at me when I’m running. She bends over and slaps the couch with mirth when I show her what it’s like to be cramped inside a car, American style, commuting on the highway.

One night, the electricity cut off right before we sat down to eat. I took out my Peace Corps issued lantern, and we used it to fill our plates, travel back to the living room, and take bites somewhat less blindly. We hunched over the coffee table (a misnomer in this case, since I’m the only reason coffee has ever crossed her threshold) and chuckled as we tentatively poked at our shadowy potatoes. She laughed and laughed when I appeared from my room with my bulky, high-tech lantern, and chirped “Murakoze Peace Corps!” to mask the awkwardness I feel when it becomes apparent that I have so much stuff capable of making our lives significantly easier. I don’t know, in these moments, if the plastic blue lantern, complete with a solar panel and USB charging port, means anything to her, or if she’s indifferent.

The light of the lantern grew dimmer and dimmer, just as I had expected; the catch of the rechargeable lantern is that its bright light fades after 15 minutes of use. We doubled over with laughter again as I explained this flaw in broken Kinyarwanda. We hurriedly finished eating as the last rays of light faded away, and I wondered out loud what my host brothers would do when they got home. Eat outside by moonlight?! My host mom shrugged; thirty minutes later, I walked into the living room and my host brothers were reclining as they normally do on two separate couches, illuminated by the elegant light of a slender candle at the center of the coffee table where a long shadow flickered back and forth, quietly eating dinner. I felt like a fool for assuming that my clunky lantern had no precedent or alternative, for assuming that she didn’t have her own, better way.

I have to think that when my Mama’s eyes brim with warmth, they contain some kind of unconditional love for me, a strange American girl she’s welcomed into her home. I wear the same expression in her regard to my own surprise: I suppose you can know someone and come to love them just by existing together with a receptive, open mind. I still wonder if she is keeping parts of herself from me: maybe, she knows from experience that the content of our relationship has its limits, even if the authenticity of our affection for each other does not.

 

Nyagahanga

I’ll officially be teaching English at a secondary school of about 470 students in Nyagahanga, a remote little village in Northeast Rwanda. I am not replacing a volunteer; I’ll be the first Peace Corps volunteer to serve in my village aside from a couple of Peace Corps Response Volunteers who left several months ago after living in my village for five months. Unlike ‘regular’ Peace Corps volunteers, Response volunteers only serve for a year. They receive little training prior to their service because they already have Peace Corps experience or similarly acquired skills.

The Peace Corps revealed our sites through a Harry Potter adapted ceremony: our names were called by a staff member, we came forward one by one, sat on a wooden stool, put on a hat, and waited for our regions and schools to be announced. Our nervous anticipation was only partially satisfied by these results: they meant little to us out of context, just new names whose combinations of syllables most of us misremembered at first. All we really grasped in the moment was the inevitability of our incumbent separation, and (for some) the exciting certainty of being somewhere very different from our training town: following the announcement of our respective sites, we pinned our names on a map of Rwanda in accordance with the approximate location of our new homes. As more and more colorful pins dotted the map, some friends rejoiced at their proximity while others mourned the lengthy commute between their sites.

We visited our sites from October 21st to 27th, after a two day conference during which we met our future headmasters and counterparts (Rwandan English teachers whom the Peace Corps considers our closest colleagues and collaborators at our respective schools). On the morning of the 21st, I threw an assortment of semi-presentable outfits, my mosquito net, drinking water, malaria pills, pillow, and damp towel after a poorly timed laundry session into my hiking backpack before meeting my counterpart and headmaster at 7:45 am to travel to Nyagahanga together: an hour and half by bus from Rwamagana to Kabarore, and 40 minutes by moto from Kabarore to Nyagahanga. The night before leaving, I exhibited every sign and symptom of delusionally unacknowledged anxiety about the trip ahead: I ran around my room dropping things, cursed the wet clothes that would have to stagnate in my room for a week, bitterly yearned for a sink, and felt viscerally hostile towards the Peace Corps for doling out crucial information at the very last second at an exasperatingly gradual pace, and for constantly expecting us to walk into the near-unknown with a positive, flexible attitude.

At first, my counterpart, her 10-month-old baby, my headmaster and I piled into a Twege bus, where people sit crammed shoulder to shoulder. I struggled not to injure the passengers next to me with my enormous, eggplant colored backpack, my face plastered to the top zipper while I balanced its unwieldy length on my lap. The bus frequently stopped and started along the road, and people climbed over one another to enter, exit, and shift seats. Thanks to my counterpart’s intervention (and to my great relief), we abandoned the Twege after half an hour and boarded an Express bus, a less crowded, slightly more spacious and more direct option.

At the Kabarore bus station, we were greeted by my counterpart’s husband (a moto driver), who ushered me towards another driver. Peace Corps issues very sturdy, large, and dazzlingly shiny white helmets about twice the size and weight of the helmets Rwandan moto drivers carry; they’re oval-shaped versions of the helmets Star Wars storm troopers have. I struggled to swing my giant pack onto my back without strangling myself on my purse, and fumbled with the giant helmet as it engulfed my head and the closed visor fogged up due to my laborious efforts. All the while, a long row of moto drivers chuckled at my obvious inexperience. The forty-minute moto ride to my village winds up, down, and around a series of hills. I held onto the handles at the back of the moto and tensed every muscle in my body to prevent my swaying backpack from propelling me off during steep climbs, and craned my neck to survey the stretches of road ahead for particularly treacherous bumps. I hope my moto driver wasn’t alarmed by the unnatural proximity of our heads as I leaned towards his center of gravity for dear life, thanked my past self for leaving various unnecessary items behind, and swore to myself that I’d pack as lightly as possible in the future. I decided along the way that arriving with an emergency glass jar of Nescafe to avoid caffeine withdrawal may not be worth rolling off a moto, incurring physical injury, and (worst of all) causing a scene for reasons beyond my strange, Western appearance. In the meantime, a few feet ahead of me on the back of her husband’s moto, my counterpart cradled her baby with relaxed nonchalance: nothing but balance and physics tethered them to the moto seat.

By the time we arrived, I was exhausted, aching from the effort of pulling my enormous backpack towards me for the duration of the ride. I stayed in my counterpart’s compound; finding out that I’d have my own room filled me with senseless joy, gratitude, and optimism. Privacy is a priceless gift in daunting new circumstances, especially as an object of attention and fascination. Based on my experiences thus far, Rwandans are truly remarkable in their hospitality. Even though Americans tend to have much more, they often either share far less or share with a keen, underlying awareness of the gains or losses they incur because of their visitors through skillfully conducted mental calculations. In Rwanda, guests are generously provided for without reserve, without a second thought, as if they are part of the family. Never in my experience as a guest here have I had even the slightest impression that caring for me constitutes a burden, even if it’s the case. My counterpart noticed what I liked to eat: she bought me bananas, papaya, avocado, even though she hardly took any herself. She constantly encouraged me to take seconds, welcomed me into her home at all hours of the day and night, all in the midst of doing laundry, mopping, feeding her baby, preparing for school, and helping me navigate our school and town. I followed her around like a duckling, relied on her for everything, and she responded with nothing but patience, generosity, and kindness.

Nyagahanga is situated on the edge of a hill. It slightly overlooks a valley in which farmers grow rice, beans, cabbage, green beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains, bananas, and papaya, and also cultivate fish in little rectangular ponds. Two ‘main’ dirt roads intersect where my village stands; they curve up and around a series of hills whose flanks are carved by fields and dotted with banana trees. Farmers weave among them on little paths that snake through trees, shrubs, crops, and houses, carrying machetes and balancing impressive piles of leafy vegetables on their heads. Nestled in this valley, the air is clean and brisk both early and late in the day. In the evenings and mornings, mysterious insects make soft chirping sounds (I think they live in the valley), and birds fly in unison alongside the hills. The afternoon sun puts the sculpted summits of the hills in sharp relief: from the bottom, you can see individual branches, leaves, and shrubs in shockingly bright detail. According to my headmaster, only tourists hike for pleasure; most locals scale the hills for work.

Running in my less populated, rural village is generally more peaceful than running in Rwamagana because far less people, bikes, motos, and cars crowd the streets, but it also feels more inappropriate. When I jog past a handful of farmers at 5:45 in the morning, it’s blatantly obvious that anyone who exerts physical energy in their leisure time has the means to avoid physical exertion for a living. Even so, the people I encountered were quietly observant and responded kindly to my unusual, early morning presence. Since the main roads I run on quickly traverse many little hills, I can look back from where I’ve come and see the road curve around all the slopes I’ve left behind, and take in all the ground I’ve covered.

However remote, even in my village and its surroundings there is always someone nearby: bending over a plot of land, standing behind a banana tree, pulling weeds, sweeping, riding a bicycle, or simply walking down the road. When I don’t see a person for a whole minute, I feel oddly alone. People live and work so close together that it’s hard to tell whose land belongs to who, and discern which paths are communal and which paths lead to someone’s front door. Every bit of land serves a purpose: goats graze on the edges of the sports field by the church, corn stalks surround my counterpart’s latrine, green beans grow on the side of the road.

Just as in Rwamagana, there are many young children wandering around Nyagahanga. The same striking contrast exists between those in school uniforms and those with dusty limbs and faces, with torn and faded clothes. The poverty of some families jarringly exists right alongside the relative wealth of people like the teachers at my school. On any given morning during my stay, I’d simultaneously encounter a man in an unwrinkled button-down shirt and a farmer in tattered clothes within the same 5-foot radius. They occupy the same small space, but lead very different lives. Unlike in the States, an insurmountable, self-conscious barrier does not seem to keep them at arm’s length. One evening, my counterpart stopped to joke around with some children playing ball in rags, and gave them a few cents. On our way to school one morning, she briefly conversed with a farmer about his crops: she in shiny flats and red lipstick, he with a dusty hoe in hand. Their interaction lacked the tense awkwardness (and physical distance) born from an acute awareness of difference in means or social status; it was natural, reciprocal, and close. While some people cross town clutching cell phones and others cross town with bananas on their heads, both parties seem utterly unbothered and unaware of their strange juxtaposition and its implications. It’s likely imprudent and inaccurate to generalize about Rwandan culture based on these experiences alone, but in my village and in Rwamagana, this kind of unflustered coexistence constitutes a significant difference between Rwanda and the States.

My counterpart took me on a walk to familiarize me with the village, show me our school and my house. The school consists of several rectangular buildings that each contain about four classrooms, a staff room, a cafeteria, and a little field. My house overlooks the school; I share a little hill with a couple (both nurses at the health center nearby) and their baby. I’m lucky: my house has three bedrooms, running water, electricity, a real toilet, a shower head of questionable reliability, and a kitchen sink. Apparently, Peace Corps volunteers stationed in remote areas tend to receive ‘nicer’ houses because it’s more difficult to find homes that meet Peace Corps’ housing standards.

My counterpart laughed as she led me to the ‘downtown’: a strip of little shops about a block long that line a particularly rocky tract of dirt road on the other side of a wobbly wooden bridge that crosses over a red, muddy stream where the two main roads intersect. This remains the most intimidating aspect of my village; the cluster of stores, bars, and moto drivers awaiting customers fills me with dread because I know that all eyes will turn towards me when I pass by. During my visit, I attempted to confidently meet some people’s gazes at reasonably timed intervals to mask my discomfort and act, if not feel, like I was at home. Braving these one-on-many, impersonal encounters in my village has confirmed my suspicion that Rwandans intimidate me when I can’t approach or speak with them individually. Since the overwhelming anonymity of their collective attention feels judgmental and unfriendly, regardless of its actual nature, sometimes I erroneously ascribe these characteristics to the individuals in the crowd rather than the strange circumstance we share. Through individual greetings, eye contact, and exchanges, Rwandans are transformed in my perception and also change their behavior towards me: their expressions soften and any air of guarded reserve melts away. I met many people whose initial aloofness gave way to kind warmth: my neighbors, the physics teacher at a nearby boarding school, the women whom I run by in the morning, my counterpart’s younger sisters. The doubts and misgivings on both sides prove to be unfounded.

My school is a welcoming, laid back, and well-meaning place. My counterpart and I are two of 18 teachers, 16 of which are relatively young men. We lesson plan, eat, grade papers, and talk in the staff room. Many of the teachers approached me to welcome me, express their enthusiasm to improve their own English through conversation, and ask me questions about America. They are respectful, witty, and good-humored, and seem to genuinely care about their students’ progress and well-being. When they teach class, my future colleagues don what look like white lab coats, as is customary in many Rwandan schools. They just use chalk, a chalkboard, and build motivating suspense in class by encouraging their students to correct one another, write answers on the board, and answer their questions correctly. Students want to learn, and they want to win; they urgently ask for their teacher’s attention by snapping their fingers and calling ‘teacher, teacher!’. When I spoke with the teachers about how they handle poor behavior, they emphasized the importance of managing their classes with careful, psychological tact rather than the physical violence that some teachers throughout the country still resort to, despite it’s illegality.

I observed a few lessons, and lurked about the staff room for the two days I attended school, and finally mustered up the courage to approach the curious students lingering outside the door. Turns out their nervous laughter, whispers, and stares were innocuous, too, only derisive and intimidating from a distant, insecure vantage point. We spoke in English and Kinyarwanda; they cheered when I told them about the Rwandan foods I like, and told me they want to learn English, to practice, to start a debate club. I reminded them that I don’t have a husband (she’s too young! my counterpart insisted at the school assembly after I introduced myself in Kinyarwanda to the student body. This was one of the first questions asked by the students after my introduction, along with my age). We decided (I think), that if I can speak enough Kinyarwanda to converse with them after a month, their progress over the course of two years will be even more remarkable, even if all we do is chat about how much we like bananas, avocado, and fried potatoes. My plan, moving forward, is to keep giving my new neighbors, students, and colleagues the benefit of the doubt, and remember that things are far different – and far better – close up than they are from afar.

Mundane, ridiculous, contradictory, normal?

For the few first days at my host family’s house, I didn’t know what to do with myself. There was nowhere for me to sit or ‘hang out’ other than the living room, which is dark and bare. The evenings are pleasantly cool and breezy, but there’s nowhere to sit outside either. I bought a plastic rug to sit on in my room, and finally decided to occupy the narrow concrete ledge along the perimeter of our house. When my mom cooks, I often crouch next to the imbabura, lean against the brick wall of our compound’s enclosure, or just stand around. I do a lot of crouching: over the laundry, the latrine, the dirty dishes. At first, I wondered why there weren’t any chairs or raised surfaces to spare our trembling quads and aching backs, but then I realized that my host mom bends over as seamlessly as a folding chair, like an experienced ballerina. She alternates between squatting and standing with just as much graceful ease.

Remaining clean here has been challenging because most Rwandans rarely wash their hands. In order to ‘wash’ my hands with some regularity (I’ve given up on using soap), I poked holes in the cap of a water bottle and finally settled for sprinkling my hands with water when it’s worth the effort (after a particularly dirty endeavor). Using the bathroom in an efficient and relatively sanitary manner has been equally complicated and difficult to master. Since my family doesn’t use toilet paper and there’s no light in the latrine, I have an awkward but successful system: I wear my toilet paper around my neck like a necklace (courtesy of my yoga mat’s carrying strap) to avoid setting it on the latrine floor, put on a headlamp, and set my handwashing water bottle outside. I look like a strangely equipped ghost buster, or just your stereotypical gear-heavy America; I make sure no one is around before surreptitiously donning my bathroom equipment and entering the latrine, headlamp ablaze and toilet paper swinging from my neck while the usual handful of cockroaches scurry along the walls or dart alarmingly close to the pit itself. How do Rwandans use latrines without light? Imperfectly, is the answer: let’s just say that aiming has proven to be challenging for amateur volunteers and veteran latrine-goers alike. In other words, I use the flushing toilet at the Peace Corps hub as often as I can. In fact, this is a cherished daily ritual we all practice: there’s always a long line for the indoor bathroom at the end of the day as we make our parting visit to the flushing toilet in the hopes of minimizing our latrine usage over the next twelve hours.

I’ve abandoned many sanitary standards and habits because attempting to preserve them all is exhausting, unsustainable, and eventually feels like a waste of time. I feel vaguely ill after eating market tomatoes rinsed with unfiltered water, but I’ll probably do it again; sometimes rebellious laziness trumps precaution, regardless of known and previously experienced consequences. Sometimes, my family makes passion fruit juice: my host brother rolls up his sleeves, guts a dozen passion fruits, and mixes them with water and sugar in a dull red plastic basin (the same one my mom uses to wash dishes, mop, and do laundry) with his bare hands. My host mom pours this hazy, light pink concoction straight from the basin into a glass pitcher; I was taken aback the first time she proceeded to pour me a tall glass. I drank the whole thing apprehensively, wondering which germs and parasites were swirling inside my cup. I’ve never seen my host brother wash his hands; I did see him take apart a chicken carcass that morning. The next time the same juice appeared, I gulped it down in defeat.

The first time my host mom helped me mop my room, she took the basin filled with my dirty laundry water, grabbed a dark brown towel encrusted with hair and gravel, and went to work: she splashed my floor with water, bent over 180 degrees, slapped the cloth onto the floor, and began methodically swishing it back and forth with her hands. Alarmed and puzzled by her method, I attempted to mop for myself a week later. When I feebly insisted on using clean water with soap rather than the muddy water she was offering me a second time, she sighed ruefully and pointed at my cloudy, perpetually mud-colored floor as if to say that I was waging a fruitless battle against the elements. She smiled, shook her head, and indulged me nonetheless. I’ve come to understand her perspective; since everything dirties very quickly, there’s little point in striving for sparkling floors. Even so, I’ll clean as if it’s not a lost cause until it really feels like one for me, too. I’ve since then bought my own rag, and I’ll concede that keeping the rag clean in order to keep my room slightly less dirty is much more of a headache than I realized.

Anything involving water is complicated and difficult in my household. I have a 7-liter water filter, but I use the unfiltered supply in my jerry can to bathe, mop, wash my clothes, and replenish my water filter. Refilling my jerry can is no small task: the large jerry cans my family has delivered are heavy and unwieldy; I’m amazed at my tiny host mom’s accuracy and strength when she heaves up a large container and pours water from her jug into mine. She let me try it once because I do ‘sport’ so I must be strong, and by the time I was done my arms were shaking and there was a large puddle on the floor. Maybe this is why Rwandans rarely drink plain water, and tend towards to tea, milk, or juice…and maybe this is why my host mom reuses dirty water to clean. However resourceful, this behavior baffles me: appearing clean seems more important than cleanliness itself.

I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have access to such an incredible variety of ingredients and cuisines in the U.S. I miss autumn for a similar reason; here, I occupy a seemingly endless summer rendered interesting by rain, sun, or chilly wind at different times of day. As much as I miss an abundance of culinary options and the thrill of changing seasons, I’m beginning to think that Rwanda’s relative stasis and even our daily consumption of the same 8 foods in vaguely creative recombinations have their own set of benefits. There’s something pacifying and reassuring about neither seeking nor expecting external change, and simply accepting a narrower spectrum of physical options. It means you aren’t always thinking about what to do next, what to make next, what you want next, or what you’ll feel next. This (sometimes monotonous) predictability has given my mind the freedom to pause and consider things beyond immediate physical stimulation.

By 7 am, the days here are in full swing. Even on the weekends, waking up at 7 feels like waking up at 11: you practically feel the buzz of people coming and going outside, and realize with a little twinge of guilt that you’re a little bit behind. Since there are few cars here, human wakefulness and movement are especially palpable; people crowd the roads and dirt paths, the sound of their footsteps and murmurs fill the air. Unlike road traffic, this kind of early morning bustle is too close and individual to ignore. On Sundays, we’re supposed to spend all morning with our families. The hours admittedly drag by incredibly slowly; when you wake up at 6 but have nowhere to be, 10 am feels like 2 pm. We have a love-hate relationship with Sundays: beautifully free after 6 straight days of class, but despairingly long after 6 straight days of structured purpose surrounded by people with whom you can share latrine stories and dream about peanut butter.

There are dozens of tiny children in this town, some with little backpacks and school uniforms, some with torn, dirty clothes; they wander the streets alone or in little packs. It’s the children who don’t know any better and shout “umuzungo!” (“white person!”) when we walk or run by them; they stare, wave, run with us, touch us, embrace us, or ask for money. Their cries, hugs, smiles, and handshakes are endearingly open, especially compared to the guarded reserve of many adults, but it’s unnerving to find yourself surrounded by children who eye you and cling to you like a fascinating apparition rather than a human being. It’s the children who don’t allow us to pretend we are invisible, and blow our illusory cover by descending on us in droves. Their attention is not derogatory or malicious, but their blatant exposure of our fragile position still feels like a hostile gesture. Even if it’s not their intention, these kids emphasize a significant source of insecurity and fear: that our difference will render us outsiders above all else.

I took many things for granted in the States: chairs, ceiling fans, kitchen islands, more than a few changes of clothes, toilet paper, cutting boards, privacy, mobility, options, the privilege of appearing normal, walking the streets unnoticed and undisturbed. Even so, my carefully selected pants, shirts, and shoes are no more capable of braving this climate that the flip flops that cost $1.50 at the market, and only detract from the anonymity I long for on the streets. While I shuffle around in waterproof pants, Chacos, and very intentional layers, Rwandans manage to step through mud, lithely pass from rainstorms to sunshine wearing nice, normal things. I’ve been marveling at the needs I create for myself in the States just because I can meet them if I want. At the end of the day, what I want most is a solitary, uneventful walk under a darkening sky.

Rwanda is its own bundle of contradictions. Women don’t show their shoulders or knees and frequently occupy more traditional roles; they don’t venture out too late to avoid being mistaken for prostitutes; I’m told that many female volunteers must constantly explain why they aren’t married, find accompaniment home after dark (after 6:30 pm), and rebuff aggressive advances. Men pay dowries to the families of their fiancées. During language class one day, we ventured out into my neighborhood to practice speaking with some locals. Our teacher led us to the first group of people we encountered: a crowd of young, male moto drivers who were standing around waiting for customers. Our interactions were decent overall, but we found ourselves taking small steps backwards to avoid their uncomfortable proximity; when one middle-aged man started stroking my hair (a source of great interest and conversation), I didn’t know if it was acceptable for me to betray my annoyance and wave his hand away. When I spoke with a currently serving volunteer, she gave me the advice I was hoping to receive: in some circumstances, it’s more important to stand by your boundaries than hold back for fear of behaving in a culturally unusual manner.

On the same day, I came across a women’s organization along a rural dirt road. A few weeks ago, the senator who came to speak at the umuganda I attended (a nation-wide morning of community service on the last Saturday of every month) was a woman. During my first and only classroom observation thus far, one of the most outspoken and articulate students was a girl, as was the student facilitator of the class debate. I’ve met several female shop-keepers, and my language teacher lives apart from her husband and daughter to work for the Peace Corps in our town. A few days ago, she wrote a paragraph for us to translate into Kinyarwanda that tells the story of a woman whose husband cooks and takes care of the kids while she is off at work. The story ends like this: “the children like their father more than their mother.”

At the end of the day, the nonsensical, superfluous, and ridiculous pervade daily life in Rwanda as much as they pervade daily life in the States. In the States it comes in the form of infinite Kroger shelves, strangely timed traffic lights, apple-slicers, and the four sets of dinner plates you never use because they’re always at the bottom of the stack. Here, driving or biking on one side of the street or the other seems more like a personal decision than a rule. Pedestrians are responsible for dodging traffic at their own risk, and bikers unpredictably zig-zag across the road as if they enjoy aiming for us only to veer out of the way at the very last second. People who appear well-groomed and un-dusty smell strongly like sweat. No one is ever in a rush, people walk slowly and treat time flexibly; they don’t explain what they’re doing or where they’re going. One day, I came home and my host mom’s friend was sleeping on the grass in the yard; another day my host father’s colleague crouched under one of our small papaya trees for several hours (I didn’t bother trying to find out why). My host dad himself comes and goes at inexplicable times; one night, I woke up at 3 am to his friend’s banging on the door to wake him up. Apparently, they had to leave for Kigali with a shipment of tomatoes. There’s a room I’ve never been in whose door is always shut; no one has explained what it’s for even when I’ve explicitly asked. I only found out a week ago that my host father has two older sons who are doing something who knows where.

Sometimes, these mysteries generate frustrating confusion, but they’ve also taught me to dwell a little longer on the present, to accept what happens next with a bit more patience and flexibility. Today, I’m enjoying my Sunday afternoon at Hotel Dereva, my slightly over-priced but marvelously real cup of coffee, and my weak but trusty wifi connection. I’m able to sit here for a few hours contentedly, without worrying about my first Language Progress Interview on Wednesday, fretting about my site placement, or wondering if I’ll have to walk home in the rain…