Friday, October 22, 2010

Fanta Orange

School is over. I have proctored for the last exams and turned in my final grades. Teachers are deliberating grades to prepare for second chance exam sittings and students are planning and preparing their end of the year parties. These student parties are very impressive. I’ve been waking up to large amounts of my girls in my yard – the morning rooster paired with the sound of an axe cutting up cooking firewood outside my door. They are cooking at my house because I live with the manager (Jacques) and the dean of discipline (Jacky) and we have the space and the utensils to make large meals. So recently I’ve been opening my wooden shutter to curious smiling students who otherwise haven’t had the gall to visit me in my foreign lair. With sleep in my eyes scratching my head I bid them good morning and accept that I’ll be ‘on display’ for the day. When there isn’t electricity and your room is a cement box (though, beautiful one) an open shutter is your only source of light – and the perfect height for a teenager to spot pictures from America posted on the wall. Though it can be taxing, having some hang out time with my students is a really is a good way to end the year. I’ve enjoyed sitting with them by the fire and testing their English (lord help them…) and using Kinyarwanda (which I mostly avoided with my students during the school-year) amidst screams of delight.
I’m amazed at what these students can do with a roll of toilet paper (more often used for streamers than its common American use...), some old paper folded or cut into chains and tree branches in regards to decorations for their parties. The most recent one I went to students greeted the teachers at the door and lead them to a seat at a table decorated with a bouquet of fake flowers (which I recognized as Jacky’s). The blackboard was covered in drawings and well wishes in Kinyarwanda, English and non-English (one sentence proclaimed ‘Jesus is Camming!’). Some girls wore umushanana – a thin colorful skirt and cloth draped over one shoulder with a tank top underneath. The activities included traditional dancing, some choir songs and many many many speeches. There is also the food and Fanta.

The Fanta… I would like to find out when and how it began, but the type of Fanta you choose can speak volumes about your personal life. As Rwandans will mischievously tell you – Orange Fanta is for virgins, and your thirst quenching decision can lead to snickers from all around. This particular time I didn’t get to choose – one of my students, a boy from my younger classes, got to my seat, nervously handed me orange and quickly moved on. I felt slightly bad for him having to hand his female teacher an assumptive Fanta. I chuckled to myself and sipped away until a male guest – a guy from the district office visiting for the day leaned over:

“You know the significance of that Orange Fanta… don’t you…?” He asked smiling at me, sipping his Fanta Citron.

“Yes… yes… I know.” I sighed.

“Well, also… it’s not good to drink those if you know in your heart that….” He trailed off and looked at the orange filled bottle on the table.

“Umm... What?” I said, looking at him with raised eyebrows, daring him to continue his sentence. The guest leaned back into his seat and looked into his hands and I just shook my head. Oh Rwanda.

It’s bittersweet to know that I have only a handful of these ‘special moments’ as end of the year parties dwindle; a few more mornings waking to the smell of fire smoke, a few possible Orange Fantas, and a couple more times admiring my students beautiful singing voices as they fill every crevice of a toilet paper decorate classroom.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

World Map

An article I wrote for the Peace Corps Rwanda Magazine...


“It will be a huge map!” I told my students as I stood in front of the blank cafeteria wall splattered with bean juice. “I mean, really big – and YOU are going to draw it!” They couldn’t have been less enthused. I explained to blank stares and raised eyebrows as they shuffled through the instruction manual. The geography teacher, who is assisting me in this initiative, explained in greater detail, but still few lights went on. It wasn’t until we put the pencil to the wall that they really got it, and from there it took off.
I am currently in the end stages of the World Map Project with my students at ES Rugabano secondary school in the Karongi District. This project was started by RPCV Barbara Jo White in 1989 and now her maps can be found all over the world. It is basically a student centered project that uses the grid method to create a large scale map of the world. The grid method – think hundreds of tiny squares with a guide that tells you what shapes go into each one – makes any non-artist the creator of professional looking works.
Though it started slow, this has been one of my favorite projects of my Peace Corps service. I have loved watching and assisting my students’ problem solving abilities to create their own world map. After getting the approval from the director and money for supplies from the manager the rest was pretty easy. The slowest part was getting the grid on the wall; drawing 60 straight horizontal and vertical lines can be tedious. The drawing of the map with pencils went the fastest, but the best part has been the painting. I can’t explain the amazement in my students’ eyes as they followed my instructions and watched blue and yellow mix to green. They begged me and the geography teacher helping me for more days to work. Now we are averaging a color a day, 3 days a week and we can see the finish line.
One thing I cherish most about this project is watching their minds open. One student excitedly came up to me with his ready-made stencils (hand cut from paper) suggesting we use them for more detailed areas like the sun in the Rwandan flag , the words above the map and even the compass at the bottom. Another showed me his notebook with a tiny version of the map, explaining the grid process can be shrunk down too. I marvel at the groups that gather in front of the half-finished map, pointing out countries and arguing about the size of Russia. I would recommend this project to all PCVs and suggest that you let the students be in charge of their own learning and discoveries by acting as a facilitator rather than a teacher. With a few bumps, they will get it – and it’s a great thing to watch. Twagirayesu Verier, aka DJ Lencho Ficho, said, “Our map helps us to know everywhere we didn’t see before – only to know a place and capital of ALL countries.” And that’s good enough for me.

  • Paint (black, white, red, yellow, blue)
  • Brushes (I found that hair dye brushes for men are small enough for detailed painting – we also used sticks with frayed ends. Be creative.)
  • Plastic bottles (cut in half for mixing and carrying around)
  • Large ruler
  • String
  • Atlas
  • Newspaper (to cover floor and working spaces)
  • Petrol (to mix with paint to make it smoother and for cleaning up)
  • Radio (music to make the environment more relaxed)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Journey through the hills...

“Ibihumbi bitandatu…” He said, a light smile playing on the corner of his mouth.
“Iki?!?” I yelled back, “Uri umusazi!!”
I stood in the dying light of Kibuye trying to find a moto to take me back to my site and was running into too many people trying to rip me off. People stood around watching the “umuzungu” who knew Kinyarwanda bargain with a stubborn moto driver. He was asking for 6,000 Rwandan Francs (about 12 American Dollars) for a trip I knew to be 3,000. I was getting impatient and had called him crazy, getting some laughs out of the small group of onlookers. Using them in my bargaining scheme I turned and asked if I was right about the price. Some of them nodded and laughed and the moto driver looked down at his hands. I tried one last time, using the limits of my language skills, telling him he wanted the “umuzungu” price, not the Rwandan price. I told him that if he had a good heart he would help me out, and with that I began to walk away. Sure enough, 15 steps later while an eruption of discussion burst from the small group behind me, I heard the moto start up and come toward me.
“Umva,” he told me, “I can take you for 4,000, only because the night is coming.”
I sighed and agreed, knowing that by the time he would return from my village it would be close to dark.
On the back of the moto with my bag on my back and bread stuffed into my jacket (we don’t get bread in my village so I’m always smuggling some back for my housemates) we began the journey through the hills. The sun was beginning to set and a light rain had just fallen, causing everything to shine in the dying light. The street was misty with steam and people lined the side of the road, returning home from fields and offices. As we powered up a hill I admired the beauty of this quiet country. Hills of green tuck into each other and banana trees with large leaves are surrounded by endless rows of corn.
We reach the top of the hill and I feel the breath catch in my chest. The road that stretches before me – with Lake Kivu in the background – is eerily empty. The light misting of rain had created steam, rising in twisting pillars, from the cooling road. Though the hill wasn’t very high, my stomached jumped like I was approaching the drop in a rollercoaster. The playful tricks of light and steam before me resembled a procession of ethereal people making their trek home. As we drove through the unearthly parade the pillars separated and disappeared behind us. With all sounds muffled by my heavy duty Peace Corps issued racing helmet the journey through the crowd of mist was quiet and peaceful. We turned onto the bumpy dirt road leading to my village and left the strange spectacle behind.
Life in Rugabano has become very comfortable. The second semester of three has just begun and my students are starting to realize they can never know what to expect in my lessons. The teachers are becoming very involved in their club, adorably bringing notebooks and questions to each session and the primary students I walk by everyday to go to class are calling me by my local name – Uwineza, instead of “Muzungu”. I’m visiting people in my community and watching my students play in sporting events. I’m throwing Frisbees with some new fanatics after school and starting projects to improve the school grounds in collaboration with some teachers. My biggest problems these days seem to be things like doing my laundry. This is mostly because I share a compound with 3 others and water is in tight supply (also I’m a lazy American who can’t properly do laundry by hand..). Viatelle, our garden planter and water retriever, has stopped working for us with our encouragement after reviewing his poor grades this past semester. With his teenager’s interest in studies and the extra duties around our house, we thought it was best for him to fully focus on school. Viatelle leaving means more difficulties getting water; something that can be resolved, but makes little daily tasks that much harder.
Being recognized as a teacher in the community instead of an outsider is a welcome sentiment. I feel the ease I felt in Mauritania seeping back. My life now seems normal and relaxed. I find myself appreciating the daily happenings more often. One day I was walking home from the market with Jacky and a little pint sized girl about 4 years old came and gave me a hug. I asked her where she was going and she burst into a 4-year-olds recount of how she lost her front tooth (apparently a stubborn hill in the market). Jacky laughed and joked with her, asking if she was going to sell them as we walked along the pathway home. She ran back to her mother and grabbed her skirts, glancing back and smiling occasionally. After buying some things in town we found the little one again at the top of our hill. In her hand she carried two white flowers she had picked. Jacky asked if she would give one to us and she turned toward us, smiling bright and holding out her offering in her small hand. The image of that little girl, in a torn and dirty dress offering up a flower as beautiful as her missing-tooth smile, will stick with me forever.
So it goes. Taking note along the way of little hands offering flowers and wandering ghosts on a misty road. My journey through the hills continues.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Red Pens and Paper Scraps

My desk continues to fill with papers pulled from notebooks. The teachers continue to brush chalk off their hands. My lesson planning book continues to fill. My students continue to entertain me with their learning. I now have four English clubs, three for students and one for teachers. Starting the club for students I was amazed when 300 students signed up. I was further surprised when the teachers asked for not just one but two days of English. The demand here is overwhelming – in the good sense. The result is that I find myself in a stuffy room as the evening approaches conducting groups of 100 teens. Though it sounds like it would be crazy, it is actually very organized. These students are so interested in learning they hang onto every word. They take my silly games so seriously I have to laugh. For one club I had a puzzle game. The students had to fill in the blanks of the sentences I wrote on the board, then take the first letter of each word in the blank, unscramble them and make a word from the category I gave (Food, Country, Number, Animal….). I made the prize for the winners a pack of 6 shortbread cookies, not even enough for a whole team to have one cookie each. By the end of the game most students were no longer sitting in chairs, rather jumping up and down with excitement. The cookies were all but forgotten and the pride of winning took over. The final showdown between two teams brought passersby to the dirty school windows, wondering what the commotion was about.

In my teacher’s club I told a story about Mauritania and showed some pictures from my computer. I told them about Sayid, and the time he became so sick with parasites and malnutrition. They loved learning about another country – and to see that some places have different, but still difficult problems. Sayid suffered because he didn’t get enough meat and vegetables (and that mouthful of dirty sand he ate… oh Sayid…). Here that really isn’t a problem. Rather than a rolling desert, there is rolling green. Most of the farmers here are subsistence farmers, meaning they grow just enough to feed their families. We also talked about traditional healing, and they were interested to hear about what rituals happened in Mauritania. They told me that in Rwanda traditional healers give you herbs and creams more than prayers and string (like Sayid’s traditional healer gave him).

In one of my clubs I plan to start a correspondence with a school in America. Students are working on writing a letter, it’s not a simple process for them. After the first draft, and lots of giggling at the questions and English mistakes, I had to talk to them about the taboo of asking for money. I can’t even count how many students said “Dear American students. I am poor and I have no means. Can you send me money for my family and for my education? Thank you.” I had to stress that the letters were going to 13 year olds. They asked me “But teacher… isn’t everyone rich in America??” Sighhh… Oh American image. Oh American ideology. Your expanse so vast people can see your golden arches from Rwanda….

Some letters made me stop and think. Like this one from Viateur:
**Note, I’ve corrected some English to make it more readable, but left many mistakes, as I think I would change the meaning by changing the English.
Dear American,
The first word – Hello.
I am Seventeen years old. I have one parent.
I am happy because I have a teacher from America.
I am happy to meet with you. I wish I was able to meet you because I love America’s people.
I wish you to be my best friend because I here in Rwanda. I live alone and haven’t friend.
My parent died in genocide. I’m studying in 3rd form Rugabano Secondary School. I wish you to be my advice-man and you will be my parent. I pray my God to help me to see correspondence from man from America.
I like music because it helps me forget the long ago, which lives in my life.
Let me tell you:
I like American language English and my language, Kinyarwanda.
I love my American teacher because she advises me well.
Ok. May God is protect you.
See you,
It’s your friend from Rwanda,
He joined the club after the first had already passed – the club in which we worked on our letters. He approached me in the teacher’s lounge and asked permission to be in the club. When I told him “of course” he handed me this letter. I was surprised he had taken the initiative to write it on his own. Though there are small grammar mistakes, it’s clear he put a lot of time into his work. I can also guess that he wasn’t really aware these letters would go to young students – so perhaps my dad wants to have a 17 year old penpal – be an advice-man and parent from overseas?? Haha.

In a breath, I continue to love this work. Everyday is filled with moments of laughter, frustration and excitement. And every once in a while, you come across things that touch your soul.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


The students looked down at their feet looking guilty, fidgeting and shuffling.  Jacqueline looks at them angrily and rattles off in Kinyarwanda as the rain falls onto the tin roof of the tiny office.  School has started and just as I suspected, teenagers are exactly the same across the world.  Minutes earlier as Jacqueline and I sat in the office organizing student reports and registering last minute slackers, we heard a commotion outside.  The cheering and angry yells shifted our gazes out the window where a large group of students in their blue and green uniforms stood packed together.  Jacquie shook her head and muttered, “Abanyeshuri…Nzabakubita.”  She already knew they were up to no good.  These abanyeshuri were about to get an abanye-whoopin’.  I watched with interest as she grabbed the office ‘student stick’ from the corner and marched outside.  The student stick is what I like to refer to as a teacher’s disciplinary and threatening tool.  Teachers usually carry some sort of student stick with them as they roam school grounds.  They don’t beat the teens with the sticks; the most I’ve seen is a little tap, so student sticks are primarily used for intimidation.  As I watched Jacquie tromp up the hill waving the stick around, I could see why.  The scene was quite comical, actually – students rushed into classrooms and formed tighter groups as she yelled, swirling the stick in the air.  Jacquie, who is sweet, quick to laugh, quicker to sing and enjoys small thrills in life like sneaking up on a baby cow and grabbing the tail, can bring a student to tears with her lectures.  Outside she stood in front of a group of 80 students firmly addressing them until, reluctantly, a few students stepped forward.  She turned and talked to a small boy I hadn’t noticed standing in the doorway of a classroom, rubbing his eyes.
They all came around to the office and as she asked questions, they answered softly.  When they glanced upward I could tell from their eyes they knew they had done something wrong.  Bits and pieces of the conversation poured into my brain and from what I understood there was some kind of fight, or at least one student hitting another.  Jacquie furiously wrote a letter, signed it and stamped it with the school seal.  I saw that a couple of students were to leave the school grounds for the weekend and return on Monday with their parents.  This was quite the punishment for these boarding school kids as the weekend is a time to relax from a hard week of classes, clubs and extra curricular activities.  As the students left, Jacquie explained the situation to me in detail.  Apparently the older students were initiating the new students by grouping around them and embarrassing them with little bops to the head as they stood there helpless.  “These poor new students,” Jacquie said. “They are so nervous being away from home and the big kids want to show who is boss.”  I tell her that this sounds like exactly something that would happen in high schools in the states and we both sighed at the psyches of young teens.  Later that day as we were walking up to our house a group of kids ran across the hill in front of us.  They all jumped over a small dip in the ground, except for one small guy who didn’t notice the dip.  My eyes went wide as his head disappeared and I saw his feet flip over his head.  He sat in the grass for a second and looked around, confused as to what just happened.  All around him students erupted in laughter.  The boy stood up, brushed himself off and slunk away, head down and hands in pockets.  Jacquie stood tall and told everyone to stop – the kid was just a new student trying to get by, embarrassed to his core about what just happened.  “Be nice!”  She said to the laughers, “Go see if he’s OK!!”
As she continued up the hill, back turned to the students, she giggled and admitted it was pretty funny.  I had been, on the other hand, stifling my laughter since that little guy’s feet flew over his head.
In a crazy connection teens unite in their awkward and angst-y mannerisms across the continents.  From the USA to Mauritania to Rwanda, adolescence and the consciousness that accompanies it stands true.  What am I going to do with my 500?  Better follow suite and grab my student stick.