Back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, I bought a lot of ibitenge cloth and had shirts and pants made up for my in-country wardrobe. I rocked the look (lots of “Obama New Style” safari-style shirts), and when I came back to the United States and went off to graduate school, I brought some of these along. Mostly I got a lot of compliments for my outfits, but some students at my school felt that this was offensive. They had a dirty name for it– cultural appropriation. I wasn’t super familiar with this term, but the gist seemed to be the adoption of a specific part of one culture by another cultural group. I didn’t even know how to respond to this critique; this was a new concept, and I was admittedly pretty ignorant about the issue. I wasn’t in a position at the time to speak up for myself, but I feel like I am now prepared to reply with some clarity.
For readers unfamiliar with the Peace Corps, here’s how it works: Governments ask the United States to provide them with volunteers to help in tackling country-specific issues. Assuming the request can be honored, Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) arrive in their countries of service for, you guessed it– training. And Peace Corps doesn’t skimp. Training sessions cover language, culture, and history of the country; technical training; medical concerns; safety and security; and any other programmatic concerns that are necessary to assist in successful service. This training transpires over ten weeks or so, within a training community in which volunteers are traditionally placed with host families. These placements help educate PCTs about how to speak, cook, and keep house the way their host families do, and are instrumental in helping to prepare PCTs for their next two years in their communities. At the end of Pre-Service Training volunteers are sworn in as official Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and are dispersed all over their country to begin their work.
That may have been a bit overly-simplistic, but my point is that Peace Corps training is pretty involved, and they never really shut up about it: three months into service there’s a supplemental In-Service Training; a year in, there’s Mid-Service Conference. Peace Corps wants us to be the most effective volunteers that we can be, and the education we receive from training helps to prepare us for the challenges which lay in store. But the rest of the time we’re learning too. A major component of successful Peace Corps service is community integration– it’s hard to serve in a community if you’re not a part of the community. Peace Corps works hard to equip up with the skills we’ll need to integrate, but it’s something we continue to build upon throughout our entire service.
Maybe this means eating ubugali with your neighbors, tearing off chunks of the starchy cassava-bread with your [right] hand. It could mean attending community events, or honoring a holiday you’ve never heard of; greeting someone and telling a joke in the local language, or spending time with the mamas selling tomatoes at the open-air market. It could be anything and everything; you’ll know if you’re doing it right. It might even take the form of [shock and horror!] wearing clothes made from ibitenge.
So. I’m visiting my host mom and she gives me a gift: a new shirt! But– oh, it’s made from one of those cloths you can buy at the markets or in town. Do I thank her for the gift and then never wear it, knowing to do so would be utterly offensive? Do I thank her for thinking of me but decline her present, taking the time to explain to her that Americans can’t wear clothing from cultures outside of our own? That last one sounds heinously paternalistic: “Oh, Mom. Don’t you know? That’s offensive to… [you]?” Umm… but it was her gift. If you read my blog while I was a volunteer, you’ve read this story before; you know that I gladly accepted the shirt and rocked it throughout training, as well as my service. I still have it, and I treasure that shirt (it’s a gift from my mom). I don’t think I need to feel guilty about it.
Everyone who has told me that this is appropriative has so far been American. No Rwandan has ever voiced contention, and generally I get a lot of compliments when I wear the shirts (and especially so when I wear matching pants). One of my students wrote “nice shirt” at the bottom of one of his exams, where students usually write little messages for their teacher, such as “nice day” or “thank you” or “God bless you”. Why is this is offensive to Americans?
My shirts aren’t the only Rwandan thing that draw ire– I’ve had a number of people tell me that they think it’s offensive when I use my Kinyarwanda name, Ntwari. It means “hero”. In the states I don’t really use it, apart from listing it as my nickname on facebook. In Rwanda… that’s another story. My host mom was a social butterfly: she had many friends, and she liked to talk to them about her new muzungu son whom she was so excited to have. Pretty much everyone knew about me, whether because my mom and I had gone to visit them, or because of word of mouth. When I returned to Nyanza a few months ago, all of our neighbors still remembered me, and I was immediately barraged by choruses of “Ntwari! Ntwari!” It’s the name most teachers at my school call me, and it’s the name my family generally uses for me. I don’t really see a reason to abandon a name that so many people use, when the only people who seem to have an issue with it are on the other side of the world.
Peace Corps names, as I have come to understand, are kind of a rite of passage during training. Most(?) but not all PCVs will get one at some point in their service, and in Rwanda a lot of us had them. Many of us still refer to each other by those names, and on facebook, many of us have them on display. That’s also the name that many of our host-country national friends will use for us when they write. Ultimately, names can be a way of integrating– “you’re Ntwari too? no way!” And afterward it’s become kind of a part of you; that’s what I answered to while I was abroad. What’s in a name? More than you might think.
The list can probably go on. I rubbed off on Rwanda, and Rwanda rubbed off on me. Peace Corps’ third goal is to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. I suppose I could carry around stacks of photos, but I’m not the same Allister I was when I left for my service. “Readjustment” is a formidable challenge for RPCVs and some of us go in kicking and screaming. I’m not going to just default back to who I was before I left– I’m a different person now, and Rwanda shall forever be a part of me. I’m not mocking Rwandan culture (far from it), but missing it. I wish that didn’t have to threaten anyone.
I think there’s a major difference between integration and appropriation, and I hope that someday that will be acknowledged. It’s hard leaving the place you called home and returning to a place that you know no longer is. And it’s frustrating that most of the people who complain have not really traveled– there’s no substitute for such experience. Without context, I get that people who haven’t really been out of the country might not understand what it’s like to live in a foreign land for years. And even people who travel to foreign countries for casual vacations may not fully grasp it. I can understand that confusion.
Peace Corps isn’t just another way to be a “voluntourist”. It’s not a vacation or something you can do part-time. It’s a serious commitment (the toughest job you’ll ever love), and it changes you. When my friend Sarah came to visit me in Rwanda I had difficulty speaking to her in English; Kinyarwanda had become that engrained. Similarly, our lives during Peace Corps service are just that– our lives– and we don’t just leave that part of ourselves at the customs desk when we return.
In Rwanda, you’re not allowed to eat in public. I’m told that this edict isn’t really about food, but avoiding divisiveness; those who have should not flaunt their prosperity in front of those who “have not”. For this reason, Rwanda does not permit “street food” in the traditional sense. nowhere will you see carts brimming with sausages, deep-fried vegetables, salads, or other dishes– and this is a shame.
What we have instead are “hawkers”, who will run up to matatus and try to sell their snacks to the passengers inside in the scant few moments the bus is idling. You can get things like goat-meat brochettes, boiled eggs, or roasted corn; and if you do, you’re welcome to eat up while within the confines of the bus, but not on the street once you disembark.
Many of the general stores I frequent will have an eating area: simple chairs and maybe a table, off in a corner, and generally protected from prying eyes with hanging sheets or another kind of partitioning. Eating is practically taboo. It’s something almost shameful, which people hide away.
Because street food is not a thing in Rwanda, it was all the more exciting to see on the streets of Kenya. When our matatu made a brief lunch stop an hour or so from the border, Sarah and I climbed out to see what our options might be (especially hungry since we had forgone food on the trip in order to ensure we’d have the money for our visas) and right outside of the bus was a small street-eatery. A man stood behind a grill, a display case next to him filled with fried things. Sarah and I bought some deep-fried potatoes, and she also got a few donut-hole-type treats. We still boarded the bus and sat back down before eating, but the fact that we were able to get such foods was exciting for me.
Our friend Jane took us to various nearby villages for sightseeing or errands, and we’d stop at some of the local joints. The food was always delicious, and always cheap. One time we got chapati and beans in a high-ceilinged, ramshackle one-room restaurant that evoked a certain California gold-rush feel. We’d tear tiny strips of the warm, flaky flatbread and scoop up the sweet beans, washing it all down with chai tea. Another time we ordered cabbage and chapati from a man who everyone referred to simply as “boss”. This meal was cooked with perfection, and we almost wanted to get second helpings. Keep in mind that these meals cost us less than two American dollars to feed the three of us.
I wish that Rwanda had restaurants that served such simple, delicious fare. A small restaurant serving chapati and a cheap bowl of beans or cabbage would probably be very well received in the land of a thousand hills– after all, people eat all of these things. If a restaurant opened up charging 300-400 RwF for a meal, I think it would do a lot of business. Most places in town charge at least 700 RwF just for a plate of chips. We can do better than that.
Sarah and I enjoyed warm showers at the hostel, then headed down the busy Nairobi street in search of a matatu to take us to Machakos, where we would meet up with one of her friends and head back to their village.
People were very aggressive with their “where are you going?!” demands, but were quite friendly once we told them, and they’d subsequently point us in the right direction. We stopped at a pastry storefront and got a few breakfasty items, then found the matatu we were looking for. The hostel had told us to pay 150 shillings each, the bus staff asked for 400. Sarah negotiated down to about 200 or 250, but when we went to get in, the driver refused this lower price, saying that the other guy didn’t know– we probably got muzungu price, but who knows.
The bus took a long time to fill (and thus, head to Machakos) so Sarah broke out her breakfast pastry… and somehow, we had ended up with an extra. Closer inspection suggested we may have ended up with three extras! Weird. We aren’t sure if we paid for them or not, but we certainly didn’t ask for them. It was a pleasant mystery.
The bus left the stop and careened down the busy streets, parting pedestrians just in the nick of time as it headed out of the city. Sarah and I were amazed at how no one got hit, but magically survived. There were a few close calls, though. We enjoyed watching the scenery for a while, and listening to the music on the radio… until the radio failed.
Okay, I guess the matatu itself is what failed. They got it to the side of the highway, and attempted to restart it. No dice. A few people climbed out to make room for lifting up the front passenger’s seat to reach the engine, but it was still tricky, so they had everyone get out while they tinkered. Periodically, they’d close things somewhat back up, the driver would get back in the seat and try the starter, but there were many false-attempts like this which got our hopes up.
The sun beat down on us, so Sarah and I took refuge in the shade of a huge luxury bus, next to some of the other passengers from our matatu. A mom and her little baby were there, the baby bundled up in the wool winter clothing that so many of the babies in East Africa seem to wear. The baby didn’t complain once while we waited– it’s amazing how self-centered American babies are, always whining and crying.
Eventually the bus was fixed! We all boarded, and continued on the path– about forty-five minutes to an hour later, we had reached the Machakos area. It would have been a lot quicker but it seemed that something akin to a Machakos state fair was taking place, so the streets were choked with buses and cars and people making balloon art to sell to said cars. It was nuts!
We got off the bus and tried to make sense of Sarah’s friend’s instructions– she had mentioned in a text that she’d be near a tall tree so I steered us in the direction of the tallest one I could fine. There was a muzungu coming toward us, waving– was this her? It was! We all grabbed some beet/ passion fruit juice blends in town, then found a matatu to take us back to her village. The adventure continued!
Sarah had initially wanted to fly from Rwanda to Kenya, but I talked her into taking a bus. Shortly after she agreed, I started worrying that maybe something would happen, and that I would be personally responsible for anything which might happen to her. I imagined elaborate disaster scenarios in which I would have to protect her from harm, and while I didn’t *expect* trouble, I worried how I would come to terms with it should it find us.
Our tickets were pretty cheap– about forty bucks each. We boarded our bus around 5:30 pm and were really excited once we saw the inside of the vehicle– it had quilted plush walls and ceilings, as well as shiny red metal panels in the ceiling, and golden colored tassels hanging down. It was an opulent matatu that in another life could have fit in at the Moulin Rouge, or perhaps a maharaja’s palace!
Unlike many matatus, this one chose to keep the aisle in between seats totally empty– and there were very few stops, period. Sarah kept remarking how interesting the dearth of stops was, as she imagined people might have need of a bathroom (when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go). However, like many matatus, this one drove a little wilder than passengers of American buses might expect. Luckily I’m used to African transit.
A family sat in the seats in front of us, and they had a small toddler who would periodically wander back to our row to shake our hands or high-five us, fascinated by our white skin. He never said a word, but smiled a lot and waved from his seat while his mom held him. He was super cute.
The bus ride was fairly uneventful at first, but that all changed once we reached the Rwandan/Ugandan border. Everyone disembarked from the bus and went to the exit desk, where we filled out paperwork and got an exit stamp in our passports. Sarah went to use the bathroom and I tried to get back on the bus– but I was stopped by the driver, who asked if I had gotten my visa at the Ugandan side. Wait, what?
When we booked our tickets with the bus company, we specifically asked about visa fees. Did we need to get a visa in Uganda? No, they told us– we would drive through Uganda without stopping. Great. We went to the ForEx bureau and exchanged our amafaranga for Kenyan shillings, since we didn’t need Ugandan money.
Unfortunately, this had not been accurate. When we got to the immigration desk and handed the agent our papers, he asked for 130,000 Ugandan shillings– could we pay in USD, electronically, or in Kenyan shillings? Nope. The man told us to go outside and find one of the money changers in no-man’s-land. Would they rip us off? No, the man said: they’ve been doing this for years. We complied, even though it sure felt like we were being scammed. We paid our fee (even though we weren’t even staying in Uganda), got back on the bus, and continued on our journey– now worrying that what little money we still had would not be enough to pay for our Kenyan visas.
We decided not to buy food until we could figure this out, and hoped we’d make a stop right by a bank with an ATM so I could replenish our funds. We worried we’d otherwise get to the border and have to collect our things and get off the bus in order to find one. Sarah considered that we might have to ask the driver to make a special stop for us in order to avoid this fate, but we decided to wait and see.
Occasionally we’d hit a speed bump at a speed the bump was meant to reduce, and Sarah and I would fly up a little into the air, as we were seated just over the rear wheel. We were later informed that these bumps– particularly where there were three to five of them all at once– were installed by communities in the wake of an accident where someone was hit. Obviously the solution is to make fast-moving vehicles bounce up and become even less controllable. Logic takes a backseat to reactionism, i guess.
We slept a little. When I woke up it was early morning and we were going over a small bridge over a river. The Ugandan greenery was beautiful, and I remember thinking that this must either be a camera’s dream or a camera’s nightmare– everything was so lush! Cranes and storks abounded, and the landscape was a vision. The bus was quiet.
When we got to Kenya’s border, miraculously there was a bank right there. I got money from the ATM, then Sarah and I got our exit papers processed on the Uganda side. We navigated through no-man’s-land and got to the immigration office, filled out the paperwork, and waited in the long line. Just as we got to the window for international visa holders, someone came to sit at that desk and processed us swiftly. Sarah then went to exchange the Ugandan money I had procured for Kenyan shillings, and got a snack. We boarded our bus again in the strangely suddenly oppressive heat– it was like the mere act of crossing the border made the world hot.
We stopped for lunch an hour or two later and got some street food– deep fried potatoes. Sarah also got a little donut-hole like thing. A former RPF soldier (who declared himself to have been a rebel) talked to us, warning us about the dangers of Nairobi: “If you wear a ring, they will cut your finger off to get it. If you wear an earring, they may tear it from your ear. If you wear a necklace, they can rip it from your neck.” We were warned.
The man also informed us that Sarah was the most beautiful muzungu girl he had ever seen. Back on the bus, he asked if I wanted to trade her– in exchange he’d get me a Rwandan girl as a bride. I told him that Sarah was not mine to be traded. “Neither is mine,” he countered. Touche.
The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful, but LOOOOOONG. We had been told by the bus company that the trip would be 24 hours, but it ended up closer to 30. We left at 5PM day one and arrived at 11:30 PM day two. The final hours were dark and every time we saw distant lights, we thought that surely this must be Nairobi. Nope. But eventually we got there, got our bags and disembarked from our majestic matatu. We went in search of accommodations for the night, not wanting to be out on the road with all of our belongings this late in Nairobi (which some call “Nairobbery”. We found a hostel about a half-block away, booked a room, and went to sleep.
Our parents emailed us asking us if we were sure it was safe, and urging vigilance if we still decided we were going to go. Naturally, this had not cancelled our plans, but we were definitely going in with our eyes open…
I should probably mention that my family has been watching the world cup! It’s been kind of a big deal, and Sarah was into it so we all would gather around the TV and watch the games (though not always the one that was on at like midnight our time).
At the start I didn’t know like anything about football, so I just watched, and people would constantly ask me who my favorite teams were. Um… so, my rule of thumb was that if an African team was playing, I rooted for them. If not, I’d root for South America. If neither continent was represented, I just didn’t care.
Sadly, it seemed that perhaps too many people in Nyanza were watching the game. Our neighbor kids would come over to see the matches with us, but in general I think most of the bars/restaurants/hotels in the area were showing the game, and most people who had a television were likely watching at their homes. This appeared to be too much for Nyanza to handle, and the power would frequently cut in and out while we watched.
One night when the power went down at a particularly exciting moment in a game, Romeo took over announcing and made up his own plays and situations, punctuating this with excited screams of “GOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!” He was hilarious and entertained us all until the power resumed.
It’s been kind of interesting following along with the world cup.
My friend Sarah came to visit me! (You probably already knew that, from my photo-announcement a week or two ago). Sarah and I have been friends since high school, but have sort of known each other since middle school. We don’t see each other a whole lot, but we have stayed good friends and when we do get together it’s always a blast, and we have the most exciting [mis]adventures! This visit was no exception.
Papa and I went to Kigali to pick her up from the airport, and while I had thought this was overkill and that I might have been perfectly capable of this task on my own, once I arrived at the airport and learned that they were remodeling and had changed everything around, it was nice to have the extra eyes. We found her without trouble and then Papa’s friend drove us to the bus stop, where we headed back to Nyanza.
Romeo had been bouncing around the house all day, *so* excited that another muzungu was coming– and a girl, no less! When we entered the house, he tried to play it cool, but he couldn’t hide his big grin. Willy and Elysees were pleased to meet her as well, and the family got to know her a bit over dinner as we ate traditional Rwandan food. Sarah eats meat, so Papa was thrilled to get the chance to share ubugali with her. She was the life of the party!
And Sarah continued to be the life of the party for the whole visit. She charmed everyone– the family, our neighbors, people in town. I taught her a handful of Kinyarwanda phrases and words and she used them perfectly to convince the town that she was conversationally fluent. We bought crocodile-bread (I’ve wanted to do that since I got here), went out for drinks at a local hotel, visited the market, saw my school, and played with a lot of the neighbor kids.
Sarah had brought some fancy colored pencils and a sketchbook, and she let Romeo and Esteri practice drawing. She also drew a beautiful picture of me and Romeo standing together in front of some banana trees. I’m going to frame that and treasure it forever.
We went out for coffee one morning, and each of us drank three cups (which is how much we were each served, in our pitchers). We didn’t feel the effects at first, but eventually my heart was fluttering around. This lasted throughout the day, and that night we didn’t sleep very much– our bodies were still gripped by the caffeine.
Sarah and I went to my ibitenge seller (who happens to be loosely related to Papa), and we bought some cloth. Willy then helped us explain to my umudozi (tailor) what we wanted… I could easily convey my desires, but sadly am not familiar with female clothing vocabulary. Willy was a big help, and we placed a bunch of orders to be picked up the following week.
We took Willy to the King’s palace museum and got to check out both the replica of the original king’s palace, as well as the one built by the Belgians. It was pretty neat, even though I had been there before. The tour guide was really informative and was able to answer all of our questions. We loved hearing that the cement curb on the king’s beer taster’s house’s porch was removed because he’d get drunk and trip over it; and we were astonished to learn that the small crawl-space with stairs leading down the four feet into it in the garage was for changing oil: why is this not a thing now? We signed their guestbook at the end and then headed back home.
Sarah loves dancing, so I helped her get plugged in with the local cultural dance practice that takes place right by our house at the OlympAfrica building each week. The German volunteer Maelle had mentioned it to me, and Sarah had a blast!
Sarah made some friends in the class– two professional Rwandan dancers. They invited us to come see a performance at the King’s palace, and we decided to go. It turned out that this was not merely a performance, this was a performance at a big, fancy wedding. Sarah and I were in grubby street clothes and not dressed appropriately and so we were a bit uncomfortable. Sarah was less so, but since I have to live in this community for another two years, I was more stressed by the situation. We elected to hide in the shadows and not actually sit with the wedding party, but someone of importance spotted us and insisted that we move under the wedding tent with everyone else.
On the plus side, the dancing was really sharp and fun to watch. We also got to see some of the king’s dancing cattle perform at the wedding– one of which had horns curiously facing straight ahead somewhat sinisterly, which I wouldn’t have pegged for being super good for being in a group of people. We stayed until the dancing had concluded and then snuck out.
One night we cooked some food for the family. Sarah made a lentil curry dish from a powder she had brought, and I made something vaguely resembling vegetarian brochettes: urusenda peppers, hollowed out, stuffed with cheese, onions, and garlic, and skewered together; roasted over the charcoal stove. They were SPICY. Mysteriously spicy. Not like normal urusenda peppers. Papa refused to try them, Romeo was terrified, and one of Papa’s friends tried one and then ran from the house, returning an hour later and then finishing his skewer. Willy ditched the peppers but ate the spicy filling. Sarah ate one stuffed pepper. I ended up eating three skewers. I’m not sure my family will be clamoring for me to cook them any more dishes any time soon. Hopefully I can make an asian-style curry or something at some point and they’ll forgive my misstep.
Papa taught Sarah to zouk dance with him, and the power went out right as they started so I lit their dancing with my torch. As soon as they had finished, the power came right back on. I tried my best to get some pictures of them but I don’t think they came out. It was really cute though.
It was really great having Sarah visit. Romeo came out of his shell more, opening up with more English and spending more time with us than off with his friends. Papa and Willy thought Sarah was the bee’s knees, and Sarah had a good time getting to know Nyanza a bit and seeing the world she’s been hearing about for the past few years. She was my first visitor in Rwanda, and I’m glad she could come and spend some time with us.
(If anyone else should like to visit, let me know and we can set something up!)
Romeo really likes sugar. No- that needs more effect: Romeo *really* likes sugar. At home, he’ll periodically pop into the living room, open the china cabinet (which also houses condiment seasonings and spices) and snatch a handful of his precious sugar from its bowl. If the bowl should be empty- and whose fault is that, Romeo?- he will check the tin in the cabinet next to the tv, where the backup supply lives.
If the backup supply has been finished off- again, looking at you, Little Brother- there’s frequently a new, unopened plastic bag of it from the market, sitting in wait by the emptied tin. Romeo tears into this bag with his teeth, then helps himself to a handful or two before refilling the containers.
You can always tell if Romeo has been snacking because there’s sugar *everywhere*. On the table, the couch cushions, and all over the floor. When Élysées sweeps the floor thoroughly on the weekends, there’s like a cup of sugar that has to get thrown away. Romeo is a jittery sugar-fiend. Or just sloppy, I don’t know. Why can’t both be true?
I avoid sugar pretty much like the plague. I never add it to anything, and I avoid eating things that contain it in high doses. Romeo won’t even think about drinking tea without the stuff! I’m kind of shocked by how much sugar he eats… but I guess children do tend to like their sweets. I’m going to see if I can help him cut back.
I’m sitting next to Romeo on the couch, but I can barely see him. We’re experiencing yet another power outage– the eighth that Nyanza has experienced [that I’m aware of] in the last week. The house is a cavernous darkness, and Romeo is nothing more than a silhouette that occasionally produces a tiny voice.
We’ve pulled the window curtain that would normally hang down behind our couch slightly askew, inviting in the fleeting glow of daylight, fading even as we speak. Why can’t the power go out while we’re sleeping– or even more conveniently, in the morning when the sun is first arriving? Kneeling on the couch cushions, Romeo and I peer out through the window, waiting for Papa’s silhouette to come through the gate. We can still sort of see.
The darkness has put Romeo in a talkative mood. He’s excited that this Sunday, my friend Sarah will be coming to visit us (and I am too!) He wants to know all the details, so he asks me in Kinyarwanda:
“Is she a child?” No.
“How old is she?” Twenty-eight? Twenty-nine? One of those, I’m pretty sure.
“And you are twenty-eight?” He has a good memory.
“I am nine.” I smile, but he can’t see it. Nine? Oh, you are so old, Romeo! I tease. You are an old man.
“No!” He insists, laughing a small ‘heh’. Oh yes. You are very old. Soon you will be older than me. He ‘heh’s again, and returns his gaze to the window.
“Is she your girlfriend?” No.
“Is she married?” No. (Not unless something has changed very recently and she didn’t tell me).
“Will she stay with us here at the house?” Yes.
I go on to tell Romeo that she and I will be cooking a meal– an American staple? Something else exotic?– for the family one of the nights, and he is pleased. He’s been waiting to see me cook for a while. I remind him that I cooked a Thai curry one of the last times I visited the family in 2012 and he totally freaked out because I *cooked* the pineapple! He sadly doesn’t remember.
A few minutes pass silently as our eyes adjust to the darkness filling up the outside world– it now appears that all of Rwanda is nothing but silhouettes and a fading pinkish-orange sunset. We’ve been losing power a lot, lately. It has plagued my students in the computer lab, has caused innumerable losses to the local cybercafe, interfered with people recharging their cellphones, and generally made village life into a much more difficult undertaking. Outages have usually lasted for four hours or longer.
Romeo sees Papa’s silhouette a split second after I do, and we bounce up and down on the couch like overexcited puppies. Papa enters the house and becomes even harder to see. We have a conversation together in the blackness, maybe looking at where each others’ faces are– does it matter at this point? He too is annoyed by the power failure, and expresses a wish that we’d get notice before the power was cut. I comment that this is a pretty new development and ask if he knows what is up? No, but in DRC the power situation was worse where he stayed for the wedding. It’s important to keep things in perspective. I told a few teachers at my school, “at least we have power to lose.” Kagogo only had power sometimes, maybe, if the school’s generator was working.
Papa suggests we take a rest (what else are we going to do in the dark?) I wake up an hour or two later, and flick the light switch to see if the power is back. Nope. I creep quietly out of my room and Papa returns from outside. Apparently, Nyanza’s power is back on– it’s now just ours which is off. Apparently we are out of credits, so Papa heads into town to rectify this trouble.
An hour passes and Papa returns triumphantly. The credits reset, and power returns! So why is the living room still dark? Papa fools around with the fluorescent lightbulb, but it refuses to turn on. Of course. Of course. We naturally have a burned out lightbulb, too. Not wanting to head back to town for his third time today, Papa calls a friend who will be visiting later, and arranges for them to bring the bulb. In the meantime, the power-strip is choked with devices lapping at the source, coming back to life finally. My bedroom door is left open so that the light from my room can kind of/sort of bathe the living room in light. It’s certainly better than nothing. Finally our visitor arrives and removes the old bulb, replacing it with the new. The room floods with brilliant light, maybe five times greater than what we’re used to in there. Everyone cheers!
Yesterday the teacher whom I inherited my English Communication Skills classes from told me that the students want me to teach them grammar– apparently, they were not interested in the mapping activity we’ve been doing this week. It hurt a little that rather than coming to me they came to her– but I really haven’t been here long so I understood. Okay, that’s how they feel. “You should teach grammar next week.” She told me.
Okay, firstly, I have lessons planned for next week. My lessons are slowly building up to a big grand finale for the term, and I’m not really thinking of changing them at the moment. All week it’s been pulling teeth in my classes to get students to participate– or lowering my standards, getting certain members of them to lift their heads off their desks. For the third time in the class. There’s no excuse for the disrespect students have been exhibiting this week; last week they were doing just fine. I don’t feel like rewarding them with exactly what they want makes sense when they won’t behave or do what is expected of them. Maybe as a reward if they do their work and participate?
Secondly, Headmaster specifically told me not to teach English. I’m not an English teacher; the Advanced-level students don’t take English because they have been funneled into the science and math combinations. It’s a sort of meritocracy– the government decides what the students will study for their advanced level combination, but the decision is made based on their grades. Thusly, many of the students here are not particularly good at English. Many seem unable to speak the most basic of sentences. So while teaching English makes sense on paper, that’s not what my course is about. Elements of English can flow into my teaching, but I’m teaching a wholly distinct course, meant to complement and build upon their English competency. In cases like these, it’s tough. I’ll do my best to educate my students, but Headmaster’s position is clear (as is the Ministry of Education’s). It’s up to me to help my students communicate using English.
It was kind of frustrating to get [perceived?] criticisms from this teacher, and to be told what to teach and how to do it. The previous teacher was teaching English as there is a readily available curriculum for a subject– of course my classes won’t resemble hers. I have experience teaching this class the proper way, and I would have hoped she’d respect that. Still, I know she means well.
Partly I think this goes back to the paradox of how “America is the best country”– people can make opinions without knowing the facts, then cling to them like gospel. A particularly good example: it would be a whole lot easier for someone to believe my fellow teachers’ frequent criticisms of rote memorization, if they didn’t all repeat basically a verbatim script. Clearly, they were trained that rote memorization is bad– through rote memorization? Irony abounds.
When people suggest I teach the way other Rwandan teachers do, it bothers me. Not because I think I’m better or even because I think the Rwanda way is inferior; merely because that’s not why I am here. If they want another Rwandan teacher, they can hire one. I’m a native English-speaking teacher– my strengths should be appreciated, not squandered. I’m actually in high demand– spoiler alert: several other schools are interested in my services (alas, I am spoken for), so it would be nice to feel wanted.
And that brings me to unhappier news. While walking home, I stopped to talk to a mom with two little kids in town, maybe three minutes away from my school. While we were in conversation, a man came up to me flashing a 500 franc note. I didn’t have my wallet with me today so I knew it wasn’t mine… did he need change? He started to yell in my face, gesturing mysteriously with the note. He was clearly agitated, and I picked out the gist of his rant through the few words he spoke that I could understand: “You’re not wanted here! You’re not wanted here! You’re not wanted here!” Wow. I turned to the mother for support and he pushed me back and then spat an improbable amount of phlegmy saliva into my face. I was stunned, disgusted, and I’m pretty sure a little in shock.
He continued to rant, but after he spat, a lot of nearby people came to help intervene. No one actually spoke to him, but their presence moved him away twenty feet where he continued to scream at me, rage in his eyes. As I wiped off my face, several people told me not to worry– “he was foolish.” This is a common euphemism for “umusazi” or “crazy person”, but can also be used to just mean foolish. I asked the crowd if he was actually crazy or just did something they deemed to be foolish, but no one answered. I went home a little on edge, but I’m currently feeling better. It’s nice to be back with my family, where I am wanted.
Last night (or this morning?) at 3-something, I was woken up by a mysterious phone call. I didn’t have this person in my phone, so I decided to mute the phone and go back to bed. They tried calling three times! Why? Who is this person and why if they can call can’t they text? Why did they call in the middle of the night?
People are just fascinated by my white skin. Romeo’s friend sits as close as humanly possible– practically on top of me– and leans against me, running his finger down my arm. Teenagers will come up to me when they see me on the road and after shaking my hand, rub my arms as if they expect the meat to fall off the bone; perhaps I am just burnt. Sometimes, I am– after I get a slight sunburn if I have even the slightest bit of peeling skin, people stop me to ask what has happened. As far as I can tell, people have never encountered sunburns before. I explain it as a natural thing, and show how I am slowly acquiring new freckles. Those also are new to my village, but some people know about melanin, and think it’s nice that slowly I am getting tiny dots of darker skin. Rumor has it I’m looking more like my papa– I’ll take it.
Hey, My name is Pacis I recently followed you on twitter, Nyanza is my birthplace and the one you call papa was my teacher in second grade, he spoke a very good English and was nicknamed Best. I am now based in Iowa, Please can you follow me back? Through your stories I recreate a brand image of my home in my brain.
Wow! That’s awesome. I’ll tell him hello for you. Yup, happy to follow you! Glad you found me. That’s awesome.
Romeo, Estheri, and Estheri’s brother Alsene had lunch with me, and Estheri marveled at how much urusenda I heaped on my food. I would show off every big pepper chunk as it ended up on my spoon, and the kids were pretty impressed.
Wanting to be brave like me, Romeo apparently spooned some onto the kids’ plate when I wasn’t looking. And maybe when the other kids weren’t looking, either. Estheri was gulping down water and Alsene was breathing strange. “You don’t like urusenda?” I asked them. “Buhoro, buhoro.”
Yesterday I taught my first ICT class, and oh my goodness was it a surreal experience. I taught essentially the same lesson as the teacher I’m replacing because he taught one section on Monday and otherwise they’ll all be at different places in the curriculum.
My assignment asked the students to make a folder on the desktop of their rickety, ailing Windows XP computers. They would call this folder “popcorn”, and within it make a second folder, “hot butter”. Then a Microsoft Word document would be made, containing the students’ names, the date, and the text “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog”, then saved as “salt”. I gave them twenty minutes. Simple, right?
Wrong! Most of the students had folders and a document, but even though all the instructions were written on the board, they misnamed things and many had skipped a step or two. That was expected– this happened for the Rwandan teacher on Monday when I observed his class.
Next I had the students try again, this time with different folder and document names, and a new text. Now they needed to have a document named “cherry” with their names, date, and the text “I like bananas, I know that mangos are sweet”. Cherry would go inside a folder called “whipped cream” which would go inside “ice cream sundae”.
By the end, almost all of the students had succeeded, which was honestly amazing because of the condition of the computers. The shrill “Windows is having a problem” sound emanated from the machines, raising the question of why Microsoft would include such a feature– all it does is remind you every two seconds that you made a terrible mistake when you purchased their buggy virus-bait of a computer. Some of these were warnings that drives were failing, others inexplicable. Some students’ machines wouldn’t let them type (though the keyboard was functional), others had zoom for their document set to 10% which made it look like they weren’t really typing. One student claimed his computer didn’t have Microsoft Word. I found it right where my instructions told him it would be.
And then there were the games. I caught one student playing strip checkers (complete with a topless lady on the screen) when he was supposed to be working. I am not 100% sure, but I think if you played that in America you’d probably be suspended. I asked him to show me his work since he was done. Everything was incorrect. One minute into the second assignment, I caught him playing another game. I asked him if he was done and so I gave him a chance to show me. He’d done nothing. He’d done nothing ten minutes later, too. On one of the machines I saw someone had installed Grand Theft Auto 3. The computer lab is definitely going to require a lot of work. I want to whip that place into shape as soon as possible because lessons are going to be extremely difficult when the students have to fight with their machines.
Pretty much every day I hear how “America is the best country.” This kind of talk always makes me kind of uncomfortable, but I am willing to hear people out and invite them to offer some support to this statement. For the most part, they regurgitate things they have heard that are baseless in fact, and it’s sad to crush people’s hopes and dreams by telling them how things really are. These discussions have– at times– yielded meaningful conversations, leaving the questioner better educated, but it’s really hard to be constantly bombarded with this attitude, which borders on a yearning kind of jingoism.
“America is the best country because it is the largest.” I pull up a map and show that this isn’t true.
“America is the best country because everyone is very rich.” I explain that rich is a matter of perspective, and that few people I know in America would consider themselves to be rich. I further point out that students tend to have substantial, crushing debt– and finish up by explaining how slums and homelessness are far too common in the United States.
“America is the best country because no one is homeless.” No. See above.
“America is the best country because there is no crime.” I have to explain that we actually have the highest number of incarcerated citizens per capita.
“America is the best country because there is no corruption.” Ha!
“America is the best country because the government will give you free money when you finish school until you find a job.” Really? Where do I sign up for this?
The list goes on and on. It’s amazing how many people feel that America really is the best country. How many people here are motivated to help make Rwanda the country of their dreams?
Students are the future, but they do not perform as well as I’d like. They don’t perform as well as the other teachers would like, either, but I see their transcripts through American eyes, used to the idea that 50% is a failing grade. For the sake of argument, I’ll explain this to other teachers, and they laugh– the idea that a student could earn close to 100% is a pipe dream. One teacher told me that if a student should receive this grade, they had cheated for sure. The bar has clearly been set low, but the students are still missing it. I’m given lots of excuses: assignments are too hard, the class is not examinable on the national examinations so the students don’t care, the class is Senior 6 and they will graduate even if they fail this course, there is not enough time. It’s the last one that really irks me.
Not enough time? Then how come I see them playing football after school? If students are unable to do their work and are failing classes because they “don’t have enough time”, how do they magically have time for football? Their parents are spending a lot of money to send their children to school, and the students put in the minimum amount of effort– and sadly the system allows them to continue to be passed through to the next grade. Maybe students shouldn’t be allowed to play football if their grades are poor– would students try harder then? Teachers I have spoken to laugh dismissively at the idea. They don’t have faith that the students would put forth any additional effort– and maybe they’re right– but they also feel that students must be able to play sports. I would argue that students should also be able to pass their classes, but I digress.
“America is the best country” tends to be said with longing; everyone wants the wonders and riches they have heard America contains. But few seem willing to work for them– a lot of students dream of going to America and becoming rich. “How will you get there?” I ask. “By finding a sponsor who will pay for a ticket.” I see… “And once you’re there, how will you get rich?” The students invariably answer, “By working hard.” When I suggest that students simply work hard at school and achieve so they can get a good job, they just laugh. Many students don’t take school seriously, and by extension, the schools don’t always take them seriously. Yet the teachers are involved and actively trying to teach them.
Achievement and professionalism are judged to a large extent by appearances in Rwanda. You need to look “smart” and be “serious” in order to succeed. Sometimes it seems as if the appearance is more important than the reality. Writing with a black pen is “not serious.” It’s sort of a “we use blue pens, so a black pen is not good” mentality. Pencils are similarly considered to be inferior because they can be erased– I don’t think people understand that’s supposed to be their selling point. Regardless of what I write, unless it’s written in standard blue it will not be taken seriously. I have tried to explain that in America it is the content which matters; that understanding the information is the crucial part. Irrelevant. It’s a paradox; American schools are best, but we don’t want to emulate them. If I want to be successful here, I have to conform to Rwanda’s traditions.
I think this is indicative of a larger problem in Rwanda, namely that a lot of people don’t think outside the box. Whether a belief is true or false, it tends to be omnipresent within the country. Shopping in town, you wouldn’t know that entrepreneurism is taught in the schools– each type of store has virtually the same inventory as its competitors, and often for the same prices. Most restaurants outside of the bigger cities serve roughly the same food for roughly the same price, as well. I guess you can’t argue with success, and if it’s not broken, why fix it? People even dress similarly– men tend to wear “smart” suits, and women frequently boast ibitenge couture. In the schools, students wear uniforms and generally keep their hair at the same lengths. Individuality is not prized here; at least not in the way it is in America.
The Rwandan government strongly encourages people to be innovators; hardly a day goes by that I don’t see a tweet from one government office or another, encouraging students to start new businesses or otherwise work toward Rwanda’s better future– I find it difficult to understand the student apathy. Schools have rapidly changed and evolved in the past few years, and students have more opportunities than ever before to express themselves and dream big. The country is poised to transition to a knowledge-based economy, but students seem to eschew the opportunities their education can provide– listlessly drifting through the grades until they finish. That’s not true for all students, and I certainly hope it won’t be true for mine. I want to help inspire my students to take command of their futures– which I hope will be rooted in Rwanda.
The takeaway here is that America is the best country. Everything about it is good and everyone wants to live there. Yet somehow American ideas don’t– can’t– work in Rwanda. Things in Rwanda have to be done exactly how they have always been done, until they are officially changed. That’s a gross exaggeration, but talking to people [particularly in the villages] this is how it sounds a lot of the time. The United States is a promised land; literally mythic at this point. No one will ever reach this America, but they will dream. They say the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but I want my students to understand that the grass is really greener where they water it.
My school’s computer lab is somewhere in between a dream and a forgotten memory. Compared to my old scool, it’s unbelievable. Our school is certainly blessed to have so many computers; even considering that only about half of them are working, students can use them at a ratio of 3:1! At Ecole Secondaire Kagogo classes of 60 were expected to use 2 working computers- Rwandan schools have come a long way.
The lab is large, and has desks with bench seating for each of the machines. It’s more spacious than a standard classroom, and is kept very tidy. Blue gingham covers wrap up each computer, monitor, and keyboard anytime they are not in use. The head teacher for ICT does his best to keep the computers maintained- now that I’m here I will be helping with that.
It’s going to be a big job. The head teacher struggles due to infrastructural limitations: the power fails periodically without warning. Many of the monitors are close to the end of their usefulness, and while there was a discussion about upgrading the lab to using Windows 7 the other day, I’m now told the computers can’t support that. It’s possible, these are obviously ancient machines, yet they’re still working, many of them that I have seen, much better than you’d expect. I was informed that there are no more software updates available for the computers, but today I ran Windows update and found a few. I was halfway done with the download when the electricity cut out. It’s frustrating to have to address the issues while praying the electricity stays on. Usually it’s a brief outage- sometimes just a few seconds, but it definitely slows our work.
Another tragic issue: when I first got a tour of campus from my headmaster, he showed me that we had wireless Internet, but explained how we needed to get the router repaired. Apparently the router was connected to our setup under a window that had recently cracked- now when it rained, it got wet. Luckily it’s been replaced since then, but today when the network wasn’t letting me connect to the Internet I went and checked the new router and it was kind of wet, too. Water dribbled out of an Ethernet port. Hmm. I am going to recommend we repair the window post-haste, or make it some sort of raincoat.
The computers are choked with viruses, but the teachers believe students need to know how to use USB, so they’re willing to allow the continued infections. In my opinion, if you own a USB disk, you probably know how to use it. But it’s their decision and hopefully we can cut down on viruses by using software. We can hope.
I’ve been finding a lot of games on the computers; crude freeware ones like a billiard flash game and a few puzzles. Is this where our school’s Internet access is being spent? I hope not. I would love to get Amazon Trail- or better yet, Africa Trail to install for people to use. Edutainment is better than mindless entertainment.
Slowly we can make the computer lab into a really great resource. We have a good head start, and people are motivated- but we also have a lot of formidable challenges. I hope by the end of my time here I hope we have something we can be really proud of.
The heap of clothing on my floor had become a menace. It was only two outfits and a jacket, but in the early morning light it always looked like a lot more. Doing laundry here is an involved task, and though I try my best to keep up with it, somehow it always manages to sneak up on me. Apparently today would be a laundry day– let me tell you about it.
I pick up the dirty clothes and schlep them out to the shower room in our backyard, which is also where we do our laundry. We are fortunate to have running water at the moment, so I fill a shallow basin and our umukozi Elysees breaks off a small bar of laundry soap from our eight-inch strip– (did you know it came in bar form?). I immerse everything under the water and swish it around for twenty minutes; whether this will coax some of the dirt out from hiding is anyone’s guess. This is only the beginning.
The water is dumped onto the floor of the shower room and it flows down a drain, gurgling. I wring out each piece of clothing separately until my hands hurt. Then I attack each garment with the soap. I vigorously scour the clothing, then turn them inside out and do it again. All this takes another forty minutes or so, and afterward I refill the basin with water, and let everything soak for another half an hour or so.
I mix everything around and then again dump out the water. I rinse and repeat– another thirty minutes gone. When Papa is here, he has me add liquid fabric softener, but since he is in Kigali I decide to skip this step– I’m not fancy. Once more I wring out the clothes, then take them all to our front yard, where I carefully lay them out on top of our hedges so they can dry in the sun. Total time: roughly two and a half hours.
Nine hours of basking in the heat somehow doesn’t dry my laundry– everything is still damp. I stay close to the house for the rest of the day, nervous about the dark clouds that I feel might be threatening to rain. Sure enough, I see a flash of lightning while I’m talking to some village kids a minute from my house. I race home, but Elysees has already rescued my clothing. We hang them up over the backs of the chairs. Will they be dry in the morning? We’ll have to wait and see.
All of the teachers at my school seem dedicated, but there’s one who stands out who I can tell really wants to see our students succeed. He’s been quick to offer suggestions about new projects he thinks our school should be undertaking, and wasted no time in trying to get me on board. I love how inspired he is, but at the same time I feel bad that I don’t always see eye to eye with him. His heart is totally in the right place, but he needs some guidance and support. I’ve already committed to conduct some teacher trainings and I think that for him it’ll become more of a mentorship.
The first day I spent with the teachers he came over to me and immediately launched into an explanation of why our school needs a debate club to help the students practice their English skills. We discussed the possibility of folding this into the English Communication Skills club that my headmaster asked me to run. I’m also supposed to organize an ICT club or practice session once a week, so having this teacher assisting with extracurricular activities might help prevent me from spreading myself too thin. I think this could be a good opportunity to work with him and help him become the teacher he wants to be.
He had strong opinions about which classes I should teach, declaring that it would be best for me to work with the Senior 6– those who, assuming they pass this year, will graduate and move on with their lives. His reasoning is that our school tends to have students who perform well enough that they are contenders for government scholars to study at foreign universities. He told me that many of the students make it to the interview stage but are not competitive because the interviews are conducted in English; in his mind I should be teaching them to give them a better chance at grabbing this golden ring. Personally I like my headmaster’s idea better: teaching Senior 4’s this year, then moving with them throughout my time here. This way one set of students would get extensive practice with English Communication Skills, and this feels more sustainable to me than giving students who may not have been applying themselves a crash-course on the off-chance they might win a scholarship. That’s a lot of investment to benefit the few students who achieve sufficiently to make it to the interview.
This teacher and I had a nice conversation about teaching methodology a couple of days ago, and he outlined some activities he would like to use in his classrooms. He is knowledgeable about education and has clearly put a lot of thought into his lesson plans, yet he struggles. Embarrassed because he is not as familiar with science as our students, he showed me a textbook which teaches English through chemistry and biology examples– he loves the idea, but feels unequipped for the execution. I confided that I was in the same boat: science is not my forte. Then he showed me some stories in a different textbook, requesting I use them in my lessons. They were the kinds of stories you’d see in first or second grade back in the United States. I understand that he is trying not to make his lessons too difficult, but I’m willing to bet that my students will be capable of more. I diplomatically told him that I had some of my own lessons already planned out and that I would be happy to discuss them with him sometime. He was very interested.
I am so excited to have such dedicated teachers at my school. I hope that over the next two years we will be able to help each other and hone our teaching craft so that we can best educate our students.
Headmaster is having me teach for one week as a trial run. Assuming everything goes well, he will meet with district officials next week and hand them my bulky application file, accompanied by a personal letter from himself. He tells me that if the district approves me they will write a letter on my behalf to the Ministry of Education, and we hope that my visa will be resolved within the next couple of weeks.
Yesterday I taught a class for Senior 5 MCB: students in this “combination” studies math, chemistry, and biology. I recycled my introductory lesson from Kagogo, having my students individually write a list of questions they’d like to ask me about myself, California, the United States, or the Peace Corps. Next I had them get into groups and share their questions, selecting the best ones, and finally I let the students ask away.
The questions were less naive than what I got at my old school. Even though these students don’t spend much time studying English on its own- my class is their scant 100 minutes a week in which to really practice their skills- the questioners were eloquent and asked insightful, meaningful questions. I was impressed, and more so by a girl who asked really specific questions concerning the mission of the Peace Corps and later inquired about my experience teaching and what I’d be bringing to the school in terms of education. She’s going to go far.
I’m told I’ll get a full schedule sometime later today, and will post it when I do. I’m going to be teaching Communication Skills three classes per week and ICT another 3. I’m happy with that. This is going to be a great two years!
You’ve always been there for me. It was you who hooked me up with SIM cards when I first returned to Rwanda, and I greet you every day when I walk through town. You smile and say good morning and life is good. Occasionally we’ll even have conversations or I’ll ask you for directions, and when I need my airtime fix I always try to come to you.
But lately, some of you have felt the need to converse with me more than that. I’m dressed nice, my fancy boots clip-clopping on the stone ground as I head to work, and one or more of you greet me, extending your hand. I shake, and you lock on like a vice, asking me a series of questions that you have begun to repeat every day. “Where are you going?” Let’s see, I told you I am going to be teaching at Ecole des Sciences Louis de Monfort, and this is the same time I’m always passing this way, so… I guess I’m going to race motorcycles today? Can’t you tell by the way I am dressed? Maybe I need to be more blunt, but when I come out and say “I need to get to school”, you launch into a series of questions about town, try to teach me simple Kinyarwanda words that I not only know but speak to you all the time, or try to sell me more airtime. I get that you need to sell airtime in order to make money, and that some of you have families you need to support. I can appreciate being assertive in your pursuit of a sale, but does it really have to be when I am on my way to work, after I tell you that’s where I am going? Is your work that much more important than mine? I have all the time in the world after school, but when it’s about to start any minute, that’s really not the best time to try to hold my attention.
Admittedly, I’m not teaching yet. It’s not like the world will end if I get to school at 7:15 instead of promptly at seven. I don’t have any classes waiting on me and the other teachers float in and out of the teachers’ room where I am spending my time, so I wouldn’t really be especially missed for that tiny window of the day, but it still matters to me. I like to be professional and punctual; dependable. I want my headmaster (and my colleagues, and students) to know that if I say I will be somewhere at a specific time, I will be there, and not wandering in on the “African time” that so many people here keep. This is important to me, so please, can you hold off until the school day has ended? Once I start to teach this will be even more important so I want to clear this up now. I’m happy to talk, but school needs to come first.
A recent article by Adam Ihucha announced that half of the university graduates in the EAC are unprepared for the job market. Reading it, I was curious– was this actually news? It focused on results from a contemporary study, but felt like a rehash of common knowledge; perhaps the news was that half of graduates are prepared. I would have estimated that figure to be lower.
The study in question was conducted by the Inter-University Council for East Africa and the East African Business Council to “establish employers’ perceptions of graduates” and it shows that less than half of EAC university graduates hold basic workplace proficiencies. “University students are graduating without attaining basic and technical skills required in the job market, denying the five [EAC] economies the quality human capital they need to grow.” It is emphasized that less than half of graduates from EAC universities are rated as competent, which one would imagine should be a source of shame for everyone involved.
For several years of my undergraduate career I explored the idea of studying at university within the EAC. My advisors, teachers, and other college administrators all told me the same thing: a degree from such a school would not mean the same thing to employers as would a degree from an American institution. At the time I felt they were being racist, but now I concede they’re probably right. The EAC clings to the established degrees of the “Western” world, yet fails to provide an education on par with those expectations. That inability might be doing the worst damage to its credibility.
Rwanda only transitioned to English as a language of instruction in 2009, and when I started teaching at a rural secondary school in January of 2011, my students in Senior 4, 5, and 6 were already at a serious disadvantage. They had been taught in Kinyarwanda in primary school, and then French for their ordinal level, which they were now instructed to forget; they should think, speak, and work only in English. That was a major additional hurdle during an already challenging time in their lives. It took extra work to extract answers from students; they were so nervous about saying the wrong thing, yet in French they could have expressed themselves easily. Likewise, many teachers– even in 2011– were not fluent in English, and many were not teaching English, in defiance of policy. I can’t really hold this against them. By teaching in languages they were more comfortable in, it surely made it easier to convey lessons to students at the present– yet it also retarded the students’ mastery of this new language of instruction. Whether this did more damage or good, only the students can ever know.
When I assigned a two-page paper, my students would wine and revolt. “No, teacher, that is much!” a chorus would exclaim, not in unison. I didn’t waver. The “two pages” were small, graph-paper sheets from the students’ copybooks; with their scribbly cursive writing, their two-page assignment would comprise maybe forty short lines of text. This was nothing extraordinary to ask of secondary school students, yet when the papers were handed in, invariably 20% of the class had “forgotten” to do the assignment (curious, as it was a boarding school and the class spent hours in the classroom after their dinners, working on homework together), and the students who turned it in all had something in common– the same response. Maybe they weren’t verbatim (though some of them were) but it was apparent. Sometimes girls wrote about their experience as a boy, or vice versa. It was amateur, and I would give no credit for such infractions.
“No, I did not copy! No, I did not cheat!” They would cry, terrified to lose marks. Sometimes I would find the same nonsense word in twenty papers, and when I asked what it meant, not one in the twenty could explain it. They would try their tricks, but I was not fooled nor swayed. “Teacher forgive us!” They would plead, almost chanting. Even students who had done their assignment honestly would support their fellow students, asking me to give out second chances. The other teachers at my school suggested that this behavior stemmed from the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi: if [some] genocidaires could confess to their wrongdoing and be released from prison, why can’t the students be forgiven for cheating? I had an answer for this hypothetical– because they would do it again and again and each time they would beg and plead for just one more chance. They weren’t sorry. They would do this until someone stopped them.
Personally I am unconvinced that this is a hold-out from the genocide. I do see a parallel, but I have spoken to educators from other EAC countries, who each report similar behavior– students cheat all over the world. The difference is that in America, usually once a student has been caught, they give up and move on with their lives. In the EAC, the stakes might be too high to simply concede. University is seen as the ticket to a better life, even if you have to cheat to get there. Even if you’re not ready. Even if you can’t write a simple paper or read a Standard Two-level story. Ihucha includes a powerful quote from think tanks Uwezo and Twaweza East Africa, “employers told us that graduates lack self-confidence at work, they can’t translate the knowledge they got in universities into work and they normally wait to be told what to do.” This is not hard to believe.
The article makes no mention of the parameters of the study; the “job market” referred to is within the EAC. But wouldn’t including the global job market into the study better hit the point home? EAC universities are struggling, failing to produce quality graduates– and the world knows it. A degree from a university within the EAC might be indicative of a graduate’s skill, or it might be a joke. How can these institutions resolve this and be taken seriously? I humbly offer the following suggestions:
Institute entrance examinations: secondary school students must pass their national examination in order to graduate, yet a passing grade is far too low. Either the criteria for passing needs to be substantially modified, or universities need to be expected to conduct their own entrance examinations, to further assess whether their applicants are truly prepared. This would be useful in separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and each university could establish its own standards.
Enforce greater entrance requirements: similar to the above suggestion, students should be expected to achieve if they are going to be attending university. For this reason, universities should not admit students who consistently under-perform. Grades and national examination scores should both be taken into consideration, and performance below 70% should not be accepted.
Focus on the quality of applicants rather than quantity: universities should be willing to accept far fewer students than they are traditionally accustomed– the above standards should not be sacrificed just to maintain the student population. Smaller class sizes (if that is the result) will only benefit the students who are accepted.
Institute exit examinations: any student who wishes to graduate from university must pass an exit examination (in addition to completing their final project, thesis, or dissertation) with a score greater than the minimum selected by their institution.
Students in the EAC have so much potential. I have met a lot of brilliant minds and know that not every student is floundering in the universities. Yet many are trying too hard, too late to make it– you can’t fool around in secondary school and then expect to be ready for university, when you only graduated with a 50% score. In America, you would repeat the grade, made to redeem your failing scores. Getting half of the marks is too often seen as a reason to celebrate in the EAC– my colleagues and I have seen this far too often. For much of the world, this is failing. It means for every point earned by the student, another is lost. Would an employer want someone working for them who would excel on one project, only to botch the next? Or produce only have the desired volume of product? The EAC needs qualified graduates, but giving them degrees they have not earned is not, and can not be the solution. It will do no good to meet the Millennium Development Goals on paper but not in reality. Things need to change. It is up to schools at all levels [but primarily secondary schools and universities] to demand better performances from their students, and it is up to the students to rise to this task.
A couple days ago I got the chance to share with Romeo “The Lego Movie”. His English isn’t that great, so he often gets bored twenty minutes into a movie and walks off, but he had never seen anything like this before and so he watched, transfixed, through the end.
He laughed a lot, and was excited by much of the building sequences. Yet Legos were a foreign concept to him. “Who are these yellow people and why do I care?” His eyes seemed to ask me when he’d glance in my direction. But even without the context- without understanding Lego people, Lego bricks, or any of the in-jokes present in the movie, he still ended up having a great time. I decided if he liked it that much, it was time to introduce him to some Legos of his own.
Before I left for Rwanda, I purchased two complete sets of Mixels- one for Romeo and one for Isimbi. I went into my room and produced a single pack (Vulk) and handed it to him, explaining it was a gift. Once he opened the bag and removed the instructions and pieces, I explained in Kinyarwanda that he needed to follow the steps to build the end-product.
Romeo was a fairly swift learner, though the concept if studs and tubes seemed to be kind of difficult for him. Our friend and umukozi (part maid, part chef) helped him and together they constructed the Mixel! Wow, a new toy!
But… then Romeo did something unexpected. He carefully disassembled the kit and put it back into its package piece by piece. He then asked me to put it away in my room.
I was trying to figure out if he liked it or not when that night, he asked for it back, and rebuilt it while we watched the news. Then he again took it apart and sealed it back up. Yesterday, he set up a workstation on a table and reassembled it once or twice more while the adults were watching a movie. He likes it, he just thinks of it as a puzzle, instead of a toy. That’s an interesting perspective I am unfamiliar with. But Romeo has never had an action figure or Lego kit before.
I’m going to slowly stretch out giving him the other Mixels, and eventually he will be able to build the Max! I just wish that I could give him a bucket of bricks, or a tub of random pieces to play with, to let his imagination run wild. Romeo briefly attempted to build something new from his Mixel’s pieces but there aren’t enough to really get into it.
I think Lego bricks could be really inspiring for Rwandan kids. So much of their classroom learning is rote memorization, and critical thinking is severely lacking in the country. Many argue that this contributed to the deadly effect of the genocide against the Tutsi- when the radio told people to kill their neighbors, they didn’t question it, they simply obeyed.
Legos come with instructions, but the beauty is that you don’t have to follow them. You’re free to make whatever you’d like, and to swap pieces and just have fun with it. It’s a creative outlet and a means for self-expression. Sadly, they aren’t available here. And even if they were, a single small kit would be the majority of a villager’s monthly income.
I think that bringing Legos to Rwanda and running a camp or club or some such thing would be really exciting. I’m not sure where the Legos would come from, or when exactly I would do this, but it’s a thought that’s going to bum around in my mind. How cool to combine two of my interests and passions into a project that would promote peace, creativity, and artistic expression.