Friday, February 3, 2012

School Adjustments

Today, I learned from a text message at 5am that there was a staff meeting at 9am. Since it is Friday, a teaching day, I was confused but apparently meetings are never held after school or on weekends so this would just have to cut into classtime. The meeting, per usual, started closer to 9:40 and all of the teachers were present by 10. Senior 4 students (9th graders) begin school next week because their grades have just come out from their Senior 3 national exams. Schools in Rwanda take on a specialization after S3 which they call a concentration, and you qualify for different concentrations based on your test scores, for example if you do poorly in English, you cannot go on to any concentration based on English. All the concentrations have 3 main classes so my school has two concentration options "MEG - Math Economics and Geography" and "MEC - Math Economics and Computer science" the hours of your supplementary classes are determined by your concentration as well, so these kids will get 2 hours a week of English but 4 hours a week of Entrepreneurship. Its actually a good system as these are then the majors that many students follow through University. Anyways, my school is just getting s4 for the first time and didn't even know which concentrations we would offer until this week, so we need a staff meeting to decide who was teaching what and then to make a new teaching schedule. After a 5 hour meeting, YES FIVE, in a language that i do not understand when you speak it that quickly I thought we were finally done when the English teacher came over to translate and told me that we needed to make a new schedule and would start another meeting in 2 hours after everyone went to the market. In 5 hours the only thing they decided was that we needed another meeting, i mean honestly thats insane. I didn't get any news hours from the switch and would be perfectly happy with my schedule staying the same if possible and also I was not ready for another 5 hour meeting especially because I can barely advocate for myself anyway. Last time we did I timetable I sat there dumbfounded. The other English teacher told me i didn't have to come to the meeting, he would make sure I got Fridays off. Obviously I was skeptical but honestly I didn't care what my day off is if it meant I didn't have to come. To be on the safe side I came back to the teacher's lounge shortly before the second meeting (which all the teachers werent at anyways) and dropped off a big bag of hershey kisses for everyone, "Treats from America! Take some home to your kids too!" and reminded everyone that I want Fridays off. I might be becoming a Rwandan after all! And Thanks Aunt Jeannie your care package just helped me with my first ever bribe!!!

National Heroes Day

Today is National Heroes Day in Rwanda which, as far as I can tell is a day to commemorate National Heroes. It sounds simple, but of course its not. The subtext of the day is that although heroes come from all kinds of situations the majority of today’s celebration is genocide related. In typical Rwandan fashion there also seems to be a hierarchy of heroes, and I’ve been told there are three levels. Since all of this conversation was carried out in Kinyarwanda, the only thing I am certain of is that you must be deceased to obtain the highest level of hero; presumably dying in your act of heroism but don’t quote me on it. Of the several definitions I’ve gotten about what we are supposed to be celebrating today the ones that come up most frequently are:
1.    The actions of those heroes who refused to participate or tried to stop the genocide and the soldiers of the liberation army
2.     All people who have ever done something heroic, but also 1994 you know? (this typical Rwandan “you know” always leads back to 1994).
The one story though, that also keeps being repeated, that I was initial under the impression was the whole reason for this holiday is about some school children in Nyange. Several years after the genocide ended but violence was still rampant, especially in the Lake Kivu region where this school was located, genocidaires arrived at a secondary school and asked a group of S5 and S6 students (11th and 12th grade) to separate into ethnic groups. This was not uncommon in that part of the country at the time and every one knew what would happen next if they complied. So, they didn’t. Sadly, that simply means they all died together, but it was an incredible act of solidarity that marked a turning point in the country and from what I understand led to several “copy cat” incidents around the region. This is the main sacrifice remembered today, and it’s a worthy one, but I can’t help but think of the rendition of it I read in a book on the country. In Philip Gourevitch’s book he thinks about it this way:
            “ Rwandans have no need – no room in their corpse-crowded imaginations – for more martyrs. None of us does. But mightn’t we all take some courage from the example of those brave Hutu girls who could’ve chosen to live, but chose instead to call themselves Rwandans?”
Today is a day, in my mind, about Rwanda trying to cling to the notion that not everyone is guilty. And truthfully, they are not, they cannot be, but the mood is not the celebratory somber one of Veteran’s day (the American holiday they keep comparing this to) because everyone was in this war, and only some are heroes. But there are fanta and speeches and I’ve been told there would be dancing but so far have seen none of it. Maybe the holiday is different outside of a campus of pre-teens but since my life is a campus of prĂȘ-teens this is how I experience it.
            As far as the celebrating goes, I had been told in advance that the holiday was marked 1. By farming 2. By dancing 3. By speeches. Since I had no idea which on it was I was unsure how to dress and decided finally on jeans and a nice top. When I went to the staff room I was told the teachers were not coming in today they had a party at the government office – which clearly I was not invited to – no surprise and the only staff on campus were the disciplinarians to make sure the students went to their ceremony later. When I tried to go to the student ceremony I was told I should not because I am not Rwandan and not a student. Aka I was not invited to either. Finally, I got all “I came to this country to be included” defiant and walked over to the student ceremony anyways , naturally it was a lot boring speeches and I set the alarm on my phone so it would go off and I could pretend it was a phonecall and left. Now I’m sitting in my house writing this wondering exactly what is happening. It sounds like the students have returned from their ceremony so I might go play with them in a bit. Wouldn’t everything be so much easier if the other teachers simply told me what they expected from me?? I operate in this other realm where no one checks my lesson plans, or tells me things, and I don’t have to go to ceremonies. I guess its good and bad. Happy Heroes day. Whatever that means. 


I taught terms describing the family today, as a vehicle to teach possessive adjectives. I knew it was a risky subject in Rwanda, but also that I had to broach it eventually. It’s in the curriculum and it was part of a greater assignment I’m teaching on describing yourself. Many volunteers had taught it model school without any problems and I knew if I handled it tactfully the whole thing would go smoothly. Instead of having the children give their own examples, which I knew could be problematic, I decided to use my family for the entirety of the lesson. I drew out a family tree on the board in the beginning of class and labeled everyone on it; adding a few details like age and occupation to facilitate better sentences. We did exercises where they learned vocab regarding family relationships and used possessives to write sentences like “Michele’s grandmother’s name is Mary and she is retired.” There was a whole fake family for them to work off of, there were pictures to describe and details and I thought I had covered every angle to avoid the one thing you are always avoiding in Rwanda. At one point they wrote their own sentences using possessives during which I got roughly 40 variations of, “My [relative]’s name is…” Which turned out fine, except that I was writing the answers on the board and not only could I not spell any of the names, but I couldn’t say them either. This just led to general hilarity culminating in the moment when I misspelled the Rwandan president’s name. My system broke down around the end, when we were writing sentences like, “there are four uncles,” and one of my best students asked a question that seemed to silence everyone. “They are all alive? So many in your family? It is not that way in Rwanda.” This must have been building for a while and for a second I honestly had no idea what to say. All the people in my chart weren’t alive, but they had probably never seen this type of family tree before and wouldn’t have known that you count everyone, that you could go back as far as you liked making a chart like this. And even the deceased had occupations and ages listed, I was for whatever reasons of my own, acting like they were alive. I hadn’t included any indication of who was deceased, it didn’t seem necessary, although I had been painfully aware of these facts as I assembled my graphic. I took a deep breath and came back to the moment, I needed to answer, and on my second day I felt like this answer meant something for my time here.
“ No,” I finally said, “ they are not all alive, but in a chart like this you count everyone. Americans like to trace their histories back much farther than this.” I could see this wasn’t quite enough, my large family tree had clearly upset this girl, (although it did appear my tact had been enough for everyone else in the room).  Remember here that the oldest student  I teach is 14 and the oldest student in the school is 17 and that’s a lone female whose study was interrupted. These children were born in the after of Rwanda’s history, I am not calling back to mind Post Traumatic Stress – like memories for them. And although the tragedy didn’t simply end one day in 1994 they are all still too young to remember the worst of that. This is a different pain, of knowing that it is not this way things are everywhere, that I had been trying to avoid. She was still looking at me, so I took my chalk and shading in the triangles and circles of the deceased adding years underneath. This had an effect, the classic Rwandan, “eh baba we (oh goodness)” went through the room as they noticed the similarity in three of the dates. The girl’s face softened, almost as if to acknowledge that people outside of Rwanda know hardship too, that I wasn’t so foreign after all. “Life is hard all over,” I said “Death is universal.” It was the perfect thing to say, I was so proud of myself, until a few students said they were sorry and I replied, “Nta Kibazo (no worries)” and they broke into laughter as they do every time I speak Kinyarwanda. But maybe that was better, we were all laughing, and we were connecting, and the rest of the family lesson went off without a hitch.   

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

First Rwandan Staff Meeting

So we had our first staff meeting to determine the school schedule for the year this Tuesday.  Meaning that we were told to be in the staffroom at 9am to hold a meeting with the express purpose of making a schedule, what actually happened was that we had a meeting starting at 10am in which lots of things were said but when it ended at 2pm no schedule was made. Typical. When I arrived at the staffroom at 9am and sat outside with a book there were still students mopping the room so I knew we were running on “Rwandan time.” Despite knowing the meetings start notoriously late in this country – and I’ve been told most of Africa – as an American and an exceptionally punctual one I still can’t bring myself to show up anything other than on time. I was especially amused when 2 of the other teachers arrived at 9:20 saw me sitting there and commented, “you have arrived early.” I felt like telling them that, no in fact they were late, but I knew this would get me nowhere.
            Before the meeting started my headmaster called me into his office to inform me that I don’t actually have any teaching hours ( I will write  a whole post after this to explain the complicated mess that led to that particular situation). This naturally led me to ask if I even had to come to the staff meeting because I knew it was going to be pretty miserable – this kind of humor doesn’t translate in Rwanda and my headmaster said simply, “of course.”
            The meeting stretched on for 4 hours in which we covered how the new national payment system would work, the new courses being offered by the school, and some technical adjustments from the ministry. Then we covered the hours and subjects each teacher was being assigned. At which time they announced to the room that I was running the ICT, English and Modern Dance clubs to which everyone obviously broke into hysterical laughter. No one spoke a word of English in the entire meeting, no one slowed down, and no translated for me. Honestly, most of it didn’t concern me but it was still annoying.
            The last hour of the meeting was spent, I kid you not, deciding exactly what the teachers would eat for lunch in the staffroom on a daily basis. This was broken down by every day of the week exactly what they would eat and thus how much they would owe per month. Because Rwandans love to hear themselves talk every person in the room had to weigh in twice on the crucial issues of how many times a week we would eat ibitoche (boiled green bananas). This part of the conversation I could actually follow but never voiced my opinion on because they were still speaking quite quickly.
            When the meeting finally ended without a timetable being scheduled (I assume they are doing it right now without me actually – but no matter I have no teaching hours) the bursor finally decided to translate the whole meeting for me. When he finally got to the last part about the lunches and told me how much I would owe I politely informed him that I would not be eating teacher lunches because I have my own food and honestly (I didn’t say this) I am sick of Rwandan food. He was very upset by this because that meant the teachers would each have to pay more but I had understood the talk before enough to realize he was telling me to pay more than the other teachers would and thus I was being made to cover someone elses costs somehow. It wouldn’t have done me any good to confront him so instead I decided I simply would eat my own food. Everything here just gets so epically complicated. Finally I went back into my house and took a nap, the whole experience was truly exhausting.

**This actually occurred a few weeks ago now, but its still interesting


You know that paranoid feeling you get sometimes that everyone’s watching you? Or talking about you? That inflated self importance that most teenage girls suffer from at one point or another, causing them to over analyze their every move? We often refer to it as delusions of grandeur, because for the most part that is what it is: delusional. No body is interested in what they’re doing. My life is different, the delusions are real. When I leave my site, or return, the whole village knows, People can predict my shopping habits in the marker, the shopkeepers know I will buy petrol every other day. The rumors about me have already begun. They are as follows:
-The muzungu is married to an American soldier and he will visit eventually so don’t mess with her (Pl I started this one myself but it was necessary)
- The muzungu works for the US government and knows Barak Obama (I keep trying to squash this one)
- The muzungu only likes children (not true but I can see how my actions would have led to this assumption – they’re just easier)
-The muzungu is the new teacher at Ngara, she speaks Kinyarwanda, her name is Michele (finally the truth!)
At first and  sometimes still the constant attention is overwhelming, it makes you not want to do anything for fear of how it will be interpreted and people latch on to the strangest things. Me buying two basins nearly sent the village into a frenxy for example. But once you get used to it the attention is also oddly freeing. They are going to talk about me anyway. They are going to lie and make up their own explanations and so why try to be secretive? And the most entertaining thing that’s happened to the village in months. So I dance with children in the street and blow bubbles, I run in shorts, I pantamime the Kinyarwanda words I don’t know.
Let them talk.
All the attention still has its downsides, however, I tend to silence a rom just by entering.  You can watch it happen as people slowly see me. One by one, the conversations die off. Especially in my village where people know I speal some Kinyarwanda. I am left, all eyes on me, to make the first move. Usually a simple greeting sets everyone back at ease but  at times conversation doesn’t resume until I leave. I also feel uncomfortable attending meetings and celebrations. Aside from the fact that these are often long awkward boring affairs, I often become the centerpiece. I a seated on stafe, or asked to speak, or you can physically feel the distraction I am causing as people crane their necks to look at me or strain equally hard to stop themselves. I don’t mind the attention as much as I feel bad for distracting from the event. Aslo, many times, I simply get angry that people can tfocus on the task at hand  or that I am asked to give impromptu speeches in a language I don’t know well, which people only laugh at anyways.
And so my popularity becomes both a burden and a blessing (this must be what Paris Hilton feels like). Everyone knows who I am, where I work, where I live. I walk into the market and someone has already put 100rwf of peppers, onions, tomatoes and mangoes in a bag for me. The shops near my house stock the things I buy. Everything I do is interesting, and as result, it looses all its interest. I am freed from the worry of what people will think of me by realizing that they honestly don’t know what to think. But, downside, I am stuck with the awkward speeches, and front row seats

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Student Work Load

Today I was staring at the chalkboard in the our teachers lounge  which displays all the teachers hours for the day and decided to count how many courses my students take in a semester, and realized it was a lot. Instead of the American system of high school where I remember taking 6 classes a semester in an 8 hour day with 2 periods off. My students instead go 8 classes a day with a 15 minute break in the morning for tea and an hour and a half break for lunch. And the classes  are  broken into hours per week instead of a daily rotation. For example  I see each of my s2 classes five hours a week but the way that works our I see S2C three hours in one day, but none of them in a row. In the course of a week my students take  14 different subjects, fourteen! Honestly its insane. Here’s the breakdown:

Political Educatuion
Computer Science
General paper – this is a catch all class that reminds me a lot of “freshman skills”

All of their main courses they take 5 hours a day like English but some of the other classes they have 1, 2 or 3 hours a week. Religion is one  I question exactly what they are teaching because there is not an official religion of Rwanda but I have not seen a ciriculum yet. Also note, these kids are learning 4 languages and taking all their other courses in a language that is not their mother tongue. (They take all their classes in English in an effort to increase English skills more quickly). I was talking with some of the other teachers and asking them how the students handle so many different subjects – especially considering that I know that only about 70% of students pass their final exams on the first try. And yes, they have a final in all of these classes which they must pass to move on to the next grade, but national exams only in 5 or 6 every three years.  I was shocked when the response form the other teachers was, :”they are smarter than American students.” Mhmmm yea ok guys. I responded by informing them that to “pass” a test in American you usually need around 70% whereas in Rwanda 50% is passing. I guess I’ll have to see as the school year progresses but I have a feeling all these classes are too much for people to be successful in all of them. 


Spiders and I are locked in a constant battle for control of my home. There are large ones, small ones, daddy long legs, and creepy ones that have only 7 legs and look like skinny scorpions. They build webs on every surface of my home, crawl into my shower, and scuttle across my floor. The area of my house where I have my toilet and shower don’t have a ceiling they just have a roof made of beams and dirt  underneath the currogated metal. Needless to say, it is a breeding ground for spiders. Everyday I kill them and everyday more sneak in. My walls, which were already a pretty dirty white are quickly becoming a map of spider losses in our never ending battle. Honestly, I never minded spiders much in the states, they don’t really freak me out like some people, its just the principle of the thing. Spiders, like Rwandans, are going to learn that I do not like uninvited visitors in my home.  Plus, the webs are just ridiculous. I comeback after being gone for a weekend and it looks like a haunted house. I’ve sprayed at least 2 whole cans of toxic pesticides in my house and to no avail. It looks like I’m going to have to let the lizards in…

I picture this ending not unlike that song, “there was an old woman who swallowed a fly…”