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.