Combatting a Rote Legacy

You know it’s a rough day to be a teacher when you have to reprimand a nun for lying to you about doing an assignment. In front of a class. With other nuns. Who also lied about leaving their assignment at home and promised to bring it after lunch… or finish it on their lap during group discussions. Which makes you crazy because you definitely talked about this exact thing in the last class. But there you are, going all dark-eyed at a middle-aged lady in a starched wimple.

At the end of a difficult class, I looked out at my audience. After eight hours of talking over 47 second-year English students and the eleven a.m. hurricane, and metaphorically dragging all of them through a reading that they didn’t do despite a week of no school, I was spent. I had already cut the lesson in half, a lesson that in its planning stages felt a little stretched for content and overly simple. Why was I doing this? I was I pushing them so hard, when it was clear that the vast majority weren’t connecting or caring? I don’t want to admit it to myself, but the feeling of failure was starting to overwhelm at the end of this particular lesson. For jobs like this, no one hands you a guide to “How to Make Your Students See the Value of Every Task That You Give Them (That You Are Certain Has Value, But Then Again, You Are An Outsider From America).” I would trade all the hot water in my house, along with my Honda Civic, which I miss more than words can express, for that little guide.

Teachers all know this: you will encounter classes that seem impervious to your efforts. You can even spend the class pulling students through a lesson about critical thinking and education as something to claim, not receive. You can harp on and on about challenging yourself and taking responsibility for your actions, just to go postal on a nun who clearly didn’t get the memo.

So far, I haven’t had any Freedom Writer moments at this university. My homework assignments have not been turned in with handwritten notes about how reading Adrienne Rich’s “Claiming an Education” changed his/her life. Somehow, my recent lecture about Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains, complete with interactive exercises that brilliantly incorporated the homework text and required extensive amounts of meaningful student interaction (do I get my A now?) were not met with applause or tears of joy, as I expected. Most days, it’s not so different from teaching slightly spoiled international students in the States. No one wants to do homework, vocabulary assignments become copy-paste exercises, reading is that irritating drudgery, and classes, each a week long, are hours to pass as painlessly as possible.

Teaching, at my current post, is very hard, and I realized today for the first time why. It’s not hard for the reasons that I call the usual suspects: overcrowded classrooms, no materials, and linguistic and cultural barriers (though the usual suspects are alive and well here). It’s hard because of how much I have to teach. My current students are non-traditional, back in the classroom after years away, though they are mostly primary and secondary school teachers themselves. They are accustomed to rote learning: they copy down every word I write or present, their listening skills suspended as they scribble each word—even those that I explicitly tell them not to write. Copying is a comfort: they feel confident in this; after all, it is the system that they use their classes. All of these words, many that they do not understand and will not remember, are dutifully write on the paper. My directions to discuss questions are met with scribbles (as they copy down the questions) and then silence.

These are not Rwanda’s top students; those who scored the highest on secondary school exams received places at the University of Rwanda. My students are at a private institution where they must pay tuition; they attend classes in the evenings, on the weekends, and during holidays. For many, they need the diploma to move further in their careers in secondary and primary education. As with education in so many environments, it is the paper with its university crest and all-important stamp, not the educational content itself, that is the goal, or so it often appears. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t experience education as something transformative, something that buried rote learning in favor of individualized self-improvement, with critical thinking and application as its foundation.

To get there, and away from rote, They need practice in the basics of university functionality: reading and annotating texts, looking for meaning, critical analysis, even the basics of holding a group discussion. I used to take for granted that these skills are inherent to college students—perhaps among the brightest they come automatically, or perhaps I’ve become so entrenched in what I know that I expect it of others without remembering that their experiences are vastly different from my own. Here, I don’t facilitate. Here, I teach basics. I teach and I attempt to model and then I explain again (in other words) and sometimes I ask for a student to translate and I feel frustrated when it takes all of that for the students to understand.

Yes, a good part is the problem of low language skills. But today, I shifted the blame to rote. I’ve worked with rote veterans before, but enough moments in class have taught me that Rwandan rote is a hyper-breed, slammed hard into these older learners. But I forget that they have this background, and I start to question myself. Am I such a bad teacher that they don’t get it the first time I lay it out for them? Why are we still having these problems with discussion groups? Why does everyone write the exact same answer, copied from each other, even when it doesn’t fit the question? I sometimes stare across their heads, wondering if I am, in fact, crazy.

You cannot focus on content until there is an agreed-upon method for delivery, receptive and productive skills being key here. Students must understand the basics of what you ask them to do- you cannot do a task unless you understand the directions. Often, it seems, the tasks that feel basic to me, such as writing a sentence that uses a vocabulary word without copying a sample from the dictionary, requires extensive explanation. An assignment to choose a text and create an activity for the class is met with confusion. “You want us to summarize it?” I remind them to look at my over-the-top assignment sheet, which does not have the word “summarize” anywhere to be found. This is the legacy of rote learning: they find it difficult to understand an assignment that does not ask them to do what they have been taught is an assignment, or looks for creativity. The Rote World has no use for creativity as it rewards those who can parrot back information (not knowledge, not understanding) the most accurately. When I asked them to read—just read—two articles for the evening’s homework, it took three exchanges with the Head Student to explain that no, I really did just want them to read and think, with no requirement automated output.

Now, I see that the problem isn’t that my students didn’t *care* about Adrienne Rich. They are so conditioned to respond to classrooms, assignments, and teachers in an automatic way that they struggle, almost against their nature, to stretch themselves to see the content I try to deliver. And maybe realizing that I would have to spend so much time and energy on instilling basics, not digging deep into critical content as my teaching style often dictates, broke my heart a little bit. But maybe, if I keep up this campaign of pushing them out of their comfort zone, asking them to give their opinion and their reaction—and not just copy a summary from a neighbor—they will begin to see the transformative power that education can offer. Maybe they will be able to find their own voices, to apply their values and experiences and look for commonality. Maybe I need to keep pushing, keep explaining, keep demonstrating, and keep reaching out and learning from them myself, so at some point, they can learn from me. So maybe I need to remember my tagline and breathe a little: this is a familiar exercise in humility.


Image found here.

Plates & Bottles

Rwanda is reforming me. No more burgers or quesadillas- I’m on the 95% vegan, 100% Nutella diet. One of the best parts of travel is the adventure of eating: always, always an adventure in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not all goats kebabs and dried insects, but it’s still a daily adventure. Here are a few plates and bottles… my food journey in the land of a thousand hills.

Rwandan Buffet

Rwanda isn’t a wealthy country. It’s not even a middle-class nation, though there seems to be a rising middle class emerging as investments in the country grow and high-rises pop up in Kigali. Beyond that, though, the grip of tradition is still strong. If you are Rwandan, and you are eating outside of the home, it’s probably at a buffet. This plate comes to you courtesy of the canteen at the university up the road from me, the University of Rwanda’s College of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine (which sometimes gives me homesick pangs for Davis).

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The canteen is similar to the buffets, where patrons pile their fixed-price plate high with potatoes, stewed vegetables, and soups that serve as a softening sauce for everything else. Today, it’s chips (a staple), stewed cassava, a vegetable sauce of spinach, onions, and carrots, a small hunk of beef-something (meatball? Offal? Not sure), and delicious brown beans swimming pleasantly in a thin tomato sauce-soup. On the side- a deathly hot pepper, which I only rubbed on the food to impart heat. An actual bite of it would have surely resulted in death.

La Paliotte Pizza & Sandies

Pizza, and Italian food in general, is big here. It makes perfect sense: some of the best pizza ingredients are easy to come by. Vibrant tomatoes, leafy spinach, onions… throw in some fresh basil and fresh pasta and you’re halfway to lasagna. Pizzas tend to be unique: this particular one, from a resto-bakery called La Paliotte, had cooked cucumbers, and, as you can tell from the photo, cheese broiled on top.

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There’s just one type of Rwandan cheese, made from cow-milk and a little bit similar to Gouda. It’s a little spongy when cold and crispy when cooked. But it’s not too common, and I’ve only eaten it in restaurants. It makes an appearance again in this La Paliotte egg and cheese sandie: served up fresh baguette with a reddish mayo (not sure). and that bring us to the other 5% of my non-vegan lifestyle: Rwandan eggs, also known as small packages of heaven. The yolks are a vibrant orange, like a setting sun: almost red, similar to how Bill Buford describes Italian market eggs: “they came from grain-fed, half-wild, not just free-ranging but virtually proprietary chickens that produced a yolk more red than yellow” (from Buford’s fabulous book, Heat, 2006, p. 183). Il rosso– Rwanda’s got it.

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Home Cooking: Passion Fruit Pancakes

I don’t have a working oven- just the one burner on the stovetop. Most of what I eat is vegetable- and starch-based: soups, pastas, a lot of egg on toast. Pancakes are a new favorite. These were made with passion fruit, those gray seeds coated in sweet, orange-yellow viscous juice.

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Tonight, it’s sweet fruit pancakes with a perfectly ripe avocado and mini bananas. I see these babies much more often than their larger cousins: they are sweet and satisfying, the perfect size.

A Few Brews

Rwandans have a beer culture- although traditional beer here is made from bananas (sorry, Andrea), and I haven’t yet tried it. There’s a bit of a beer war between its two biggest beer companies: Primus and Mutzig. Primus is winning: the ubiquitous lapis blue is everywhere- bar owners get a free paintjob if it’s Primus blue with a large logo.

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It’s a light Pilsner that’s not remarkable, but very drinkable and a good partner to buffet. Better than Bud, and goes great with goat. How often do you get to say that?

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During one stay in Kigali, I dared to exit the Primus club for a darker variety. At home, I’m not crazy about dark beers, but they are a nice change of pace, with Maui Brewing Company’s Coconut Porter my absolute first love. The hostel worker who sold it to me was impressed- “you like dark beer?” Sadly, though , the Virunga Mist, named for the mountains that surround my home in Musanze, had little of the crisp dark bite you desire from a porter- it was sweet, almost syrupy, with an almost artificial aftertaste. Back to Primus!

However, it’s not beer but tea that draws each night to the close. Highland Rwandan tea, with sugar and milk, hot and comforting after a day of teaching, training, or tramping across hard-scrabble volcanic rock.

Muryohe rwe // bon appetit!

Adventures in Ditches

Dear Developed World,

It’s Rwanda, sending your weekly reminder to look around, wherever you are, and be thankful for the little things. Drinkable tap water. Clothes washers and dryers. Your cars and well-paved roads. Street lights. Covered drainage ditches.

About those last two.

Last night, on the way home from strange lasagna and peanut sauce chicken at the Muhabura, a gorilla trekker hotel whose glory days are long past, my body, darkness, and an open drainage ditch collided in the horrific equation that has been my nightmare for some time now. Very few roads in Musanze have street lights- most of the light after 6pm, when the sun goes down and the region plunges into darkness, comes from shop lights and car headlamps. A few streetlights, maybe three, dot the road from my house to town, a 35-minute walk. Along the road are pockets of civilization, the Rwandan version of strip malls with small rows of shops and petrol stations, and a few houses that bravely face the road and absorb the noise of cars and motos and children chasing each other- an opera of humanity that begins every morning at 6am. Between these pockets, however, the road goes pitch dark at night, lit only as Rovers and motorcyclists, subdued from their usual daytime frenzy by the darkness, pass. So. That’s Factor One.

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My commute to work; note the lightless poles

Factor Two: Drainage. Rwanda is a developing nation, and doesn’t exactly have the drainage and sewer system of the first world. Under a town like Musanze, which consists of a small, concentrated urban area with a few paved roads and a lot of rock-dirt ones, I doubt there’s much of a piping system to bring clean water and adequately deal with waste. And when it rains here, it dumps. Nearly every day around three, the thunder clouds boom and the sprinkle begins. People tuck themselves under porches and into houses and shops- there’s no point of trying to do anything. The motos, usually a fearsome pack that roam the main road, disappear, hidden under roofs and canopies. Everything stops as the sky break open and buckets of water come down. I’ve never seen rain like this in California: a monsoon that will take on the most elaborate rain gear and win. To keep the roads from washing away, wide, open drainage ditches line the paved streets, allowing the water to run directly into the ditch and away from the houses and shops. The swell of water takes whatever is on the street as well- fortunately, Rwanda tends to be a very clean country, and littering is frowned upon. I once witnessed a young man throw a plastic Fanta bottle from the window of a moving bus and receive a tongue lashing from an older woman for his trouble.

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Brick-lined ditch at the far right

Now, combine those two factors. Dark street, open pit. Add me, three other Americans, a clear night in which we decided to walk from a dinner spot to a friend’s house to end the evening around the fire. A dark patch on the road, with no light to speak of. And watch what happens.

According to my dinner-mates, I just disappeared without a sound. One minute I was walking down the side of the road, and the next moment I wasn’t there. The drainage ditches that line Musanze roads are brick-lined and deep, probably five feet from the road to the bottom of the ditch in some places. I remember my thoughts before I walked straight into it- I had watched a Rwandan man, walking quickly, pass us on the right. I watched his trajectory and though, ok, we must still be a few feet away from the edge of the ditch. Sight and distance estimation have never been my strong suits; nearsighted with glasses means that I still often step wrong off of steps, assuming the ground is closer or further than it really is. My friends from Fulbright gleefully remember the time I fell down a flight of stairs in Prague and winged a full mug of coffee at a wall, which we later scrubbed off to make sure we got our apartment deposit returned. For this entry in my journal of inept locomotion, I watched the man skirt the edge of the ditch, but didn’t manage to do so myself. I went straight into it, stepping cleanly and the ground giving way. I smashed my right side against the brick side, landing on my knee, and whacking my hand on something hard during the fall.

My kind compatriots pulled me out and assessed the damage. All that was going through my head was, God, I do not want to go to a Rwandan hospital. Not a hospital. It took six weeks to get my insurance to ship my malaria pills- what will happen if I have something broken and actually have to go to the hospital? My baby finger on my right hand was bent off in the wrong direction. My brain, in some strange state of shock, processed this and I popped it back into joint, barely realizing what I was doing. “Oh, look,” I almost slurred, feeling far away from my body in the throws of this mild shock, “it went back in.”

I was fortunate. If you are doing to step off a dark Rwandan street and land in a drainage ditch, please follow my lead and do as I did. First, choose a drainage ditch with almost no water, and thankfully, no human waste and/or funky smelling decomposing matter. Second, fall gracefully. Don’t try to catch yourself or half step from the street; you could risk grater injuries instead of cleanly dropping into a dark hole. Third, make sure you complete your descent into said dark hole while accompanied by three outdoorsy types, including a trained EMT. Fourth and finally, make sure that prior to coming to Africa, you obsessively packed medical supplies despite the debate in your head between “I’m going to live in the bush” and “oh, you don’t need Neosporin; you can get it there if nothing happens.”

I survived this evil mathematical equation of dark street + drainage ditch with a few cuts and bruises. My finger is purple and the size of a small eggplant, but I’m spending Sunday icing it to ease the effects of dislocation. My knee has a lovely gash, worthy of my elementary-school bike accident days, and my entire right leg is very sore, making me hobble around like an old man with no cane. But I emerged from the dark, muddy pit with one miracle, one that people working in a country like Rwanda will appreciate: I didn’t rip my pants. Sure, knees can heal, but finding another pair of pants that one can wear to work and around town? Finding that would be the real adventure.

No more swan dives into pits for me. Next time, the headlamp is coming along.

Love, peace, and ice packs from Musanze.

Nyabugogo: Navigating the Sweat and Dust

Ah, bus stations, for second class citizens of travel who cannot afford luxurious private transport (aka “cars”) or airline tickets. Do I love thee? Absolutely not.

I’ve been to enough countries to know that bus stations aren’t so different from North America to Europe to Africa. Uncomfortable waiting areas, cranky attendants who pretend not to hear you as you hurl money in their face and dash toward your departing coach, strange smells left over from drunk/high/slightly filthy humans who have barfed/peed/sweated onto the floor/walls/plastic seats. Bus stations are the redheaded step child of urban planning: every city needs one, but architects don’t seem to give them much love. After all, who has risen to international acclaim by designing one of these glorified shanties? Pretty sure that isn’t how Frank Lloyd Wright began his career trajectory: Atlanta bus station, Falling Water. Kielce, my home for year in Poland, wins the award for the most awesomely awful bus station known to mankind. It’s like the authorities chose the design via a elementary-aged art contest… which was summarily won by a paranoid LSD tripper who thought the little green men would make Kielce, the West Virginia of Poland, their first destination when coming to destroy us all. Buildings of the Cold War: underrated for their creativity.


Don’t give up; you’re in Kielce!

In Africa, bus stations tend to look different. Mostly because there isn’t a station, at least not in the two African countries where I have gotten on coaches or longer-haul buses (not the city variety). In Namibia and now Rwanda, the case is similar. The bus station is called a “taxi rank” or “taxi center” or “coach center” or “coach rank” or “taxi stand” or “coach stand” or, possibly, “bus stand.” And it’s typically a large cacophonous parking lot, like a traffic jam and a mall and an outdoor market and an auction house all slammed together and sprinkled with dust. So. Much. Dust.

photo 3  One of the Virunga Express buses… where your seat is truly your seat

Rwanda has earned a reputation as one of the most well-behaved African nations, thanks in part to a (mostly) benevolent authoritarian regime that has clearly embraced order. Throughout the nation, even in the wide avenues of crowded city centers, streets are clean. People don’t litter. The gutters aren’t full of plastic bags (since they are illegal) or used bottles (since most bottles are glass and returnable for a deposit – then are washed and reused). Street vendors are outlawed, and I rarely get hassled to spend money outside of the market area. People are, as a whole, fairly respectful of your space and attention. Even crime is low and pickpocketing uncommon. I don’t ever feel unsafe here. Sure, I stick out in my town like a giant white sore thumb, but I don’t feel as though I’m a target for violence or theft, and most other visitors to Rwanda will back me up on that one.

But the bus stations? Something of a different story. It’s intense. There are no other words for it. In Kigali, the main area is called Nyabugogo Bus Park, and moving through it feels like something running the gauntlet at freshman football tryouts. When you enter the arena, as it should be called, you are immediately surrounded by one or more (Kigali: three to four) gentlemen who would like to usher you toward their bus service. They often don’t ask where you are going but offer suggestions. One day, I’m just going to pick the one that sounds the best. Kampala? Gisenyi? Victoria Falls? Bing! YES! Take me to Victoria Falls! See you in a week, Kigali! Unfortunately, that’s not an option. Plus, I’m always going to Musanze from Kigali, and that tends to confuse them. Often they repeat the name like maybe I said it wrong, as if to question why I would go to… Musanze? Yup. Musanze.

You can choose to ignore them and just go buy your ticket from one of the ticket areas, each belonging to a different company. You buy your ticket from a counter and then you have the fun task of figuring out which bus is yours sometimes they are very clearly labeled with painted signs (which often have the name and number of the artist on the back of them, in case you too wanted a wood sign that says “Musanze-Rubavu!” in rasta rainbow calligraphy) but often it is a game of getting on a bus, asking a friendly face, hoping you understand the answer, and continuing your game of bus roulette. I have taken to just getting on a bus, flagging down the guy in a moderately-official looking shirt, handing him the cash, and waiting for your ticket to come back. Works every time- I’ve always gotten the correct change back. It might be chaos, but it’s still honest chaos.

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Citrus fruits + baby who clearly wanted a bag of his own

Then you wait. Well, if you are me, you wait and you sweat profusely. Something about these buses- windows jammed open, surrounded by a hundred smoke-belching vehicles, idling and waiting their turn to get out of the mechanical zoo/arena, makes me perspire as if I’m doing something more physically demanding than sitting on my butt and waiting for a bus driver to take me home. As you sit there, stewing in your sweat and gently peppered by the dust coming in through the open windows (but heaven help you if you close them), vendors come by. A fun selection of vendors, some more persistent than others. Women with babies strapped to their backs, with bags of limes and other ambiguous citrus fruits.

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Others with boxes on their heads, filled with bottles of juice, water, and that strange malted beverage for people who like the yeastiness of beer but can’t be bothered to drink it. Sometimes the bottles are properly sealed; other times, if you look closely, you will see that they’ve been refilled and screwed shut. BYO Water- best way to avoid a ride on the diarrhea express. There’s other sellers: SD cards for cameras, chewing gum, plastic bracelets and necklaces clearly manufactured in China, magazines. Those are my favorites. The magazine/newspaper sellers look at me and try to pick my nationality, reaching into the open windows to show me The Economist, Time, Le Monde. If I shake my head at one, they understand that they have chosen the wrong nationality and thus the wrong news outlet, and try again with another magazine.

There are also beggars, a sad sight that isn’t all that common in Rwanda. According to A Thousand Hills, a recent book by Stephen Kinzer that slants strongly pro-Kagame, Kinzer indicates that one change made in recent years was that police “ran off” any undesirables from central city areas. That’s why you don’t see street children, beggars, or vagrants: they get picked up by the police to be detained or sent back to where their home regions. The bus arena is one place, and really one of the only places in Rwanda, where you don’t see police officers toting AK-47s. Rwanda is a developing nation, and the bus arena reminds you of this: there is still poverty, malady, and deformity- a legacy of war and strife. In the States, I’ve never encountered a person who suffered from polio. We have access to vaccinations to make sure that diseases like polio, measles, and even the various hepatitis strains stay out of our population. Here? You see the effects of polio. Men with shriveled arms, blind women, children unable to walk. Some from disease, some from the horror of the genocide and the following waves of violence.

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When it is time to leave, the driver starts the engine. In America, this means that people scurry like mice away from the sides of the rumbling vehicle. Here? Not so much. There’s not enough room in the bus arena. People barely flinch as the bus lurches forward, miraculously pulling into the dusty thoroughfare. People are still centimeters- centimeters– from my window. The bus moves, and they more alongside it. The bus comes within inches of the buildings- I could stretch out my hand and touch it with my elbow still bent- it creeps up on the bumper of other buses so it seems that they are touching. You have to hand it to Rwandan bus drivers. They have some crazy driving skills. Sometimes it takes ten minutes to get out of the bus arena, gingerly moving forward, accommodating oncoming vehicles, dodging vendors and children and other clueless travelers like me. Yet, somehow, I haven’t seen a collision here. I haven’t seen a scrapped bus or even a dented finger. Though, in this era, it would probably be whisked from sight. Drive on, bus men of Rwanda. My sticky, sweaty life is in your hands.

Peace and love, from Musanze… yes, Musanze.

Friday at 4:47

Right now, INES is vibrating- literally. Somewhere, outside of the office where I sit with a loaner laptop plugged into the wall and slowly downloading TED Talks for the night’s class, singers and dancers raise their voices loud and thump- even louder- against the floor. A veritable gospel concert, a cacophony of voices and sounds and clapping, somewhere else in the campus. My class will no doubt be the most boring thing around here tonight- I walked past a room, usually a classroom with chairs and blackboard, where three Rwandans in full tae kwon do attire screamed and ran kicking patterns across the cement floor. All of a sudden, the music stops.



INES, the university where I work and briefly described earlier, is an unusual school, unlike any university where I’ve worked or attended classes before- and I’ve taught or gone to class at universities in three countries. I would best describe this school, the Institute of Applied Sciences (they are phasing out their French name, which gives us the “INES” acronym, but I will not offend French speakers the world over by attempting to pronounce it) as much closer to a professional development school than a traditional university- and that’s not to denigrate it, but to recognize the difference between it and traditional Western campuses.

I’m currently teaching for the night/weekend program, hence the insane schedule that I described in an earlier post. It feels as though I’m teaching workshops- one day events focused on a skill. The university uses a modular system, which appears to enjoy popularity in Rwanda, but would probably only be seen at for-profit institutions back in the States. The modular system means that students take one class at a time. For day students, this means an entire week focused on one class, with 6+ teaching hours a day. The class lasts a week and then… poof, done. The weekend program has a similar schedule, but spaces its marathon days over a few weekends. Instead of allowing for time between classes, teachers pack all the material into a few consecutive days.

The universities follow this practice for one main reason: money. Well, really, the lack of it. Most professors teach at more than one school, a practice I noted in Poland when universities rely on adjunct instructors. It’s not so different for professors in the United States where adjuncts have long overtaken full time, tenure-trackers. On the modular system, a professor will come to the area for a week, stay at the university hostel, teach their course, and then move on to the next place- the veritable gypsy proff.

This schedule means that I must shift my normal language teaching practices. My fellow language teachers will note that 8 hours of class in one sitting rarely has the same language acquisition results as those same 8 hours spread over a week, when students have time to process and practice. It means less homework, less time for preparing presentations, and far less for reading and absorbing information. After tonight, my class will be more than half over, and as a teacher, I feel a twinge of regret or even guilt that I was able to impart so little.

But, like most of my new life, it is an exercise in doing what I can with what I have. It was a challenging week- my laptop crashed (hence the loaner) with all of my class plans and the roster and gradesheet that I had fashioned from my 52+ student class (I’m still not sure how many people are supposed to be shoehorned into there). But I’m back tonight, throwing out plans of essays in favor of making my students talk as much as possible- which might actually be more torturous to them.

The choir is back, singing and stomping out a chorus, far better to listen to than the Catholic school choir I was raised on. I’ve got my photocopies ready- it was a tiny victory for me, locating the place on campus where I could get them made, involving a lot of very dramatic miming and making Xerox machine noises to get my point across. Back to work again.

Three Questions & Thirteen Hours

I’ve heard these three questions, typically the first three that I’m asked, about a dozen times now at INES-Ruhengeri, my institution for this year through the English Language Fellows program. Let’s clear up a few things first.

  1. Musanze, this city/district, isn’t large. Everyone seems to know each other, and there are some ex-pats, but it’s not Kigali with its rainbow of human diversity.
  2. INES-Ruhengeri is a private Catholic university. All (at least every single one I have seen/met) of the administrators are male, and many are ranked members in the Catholic Church. The university president- the Rector- is a priest. Even in my department, English and French Education, fields typically dominated by women (or at least with women well-represented), there is one female faculty member out of eight.

So, the three questions? This afternoon, I was in the middle of my marathon teaching weekend (more about that in a moment), and one of the other faculty members, a professor who is also a well-ranked administrator, came into my class as I was going through the groups, explaining an assignment. He had informed his class, something with management, that an American instructor was teaching at the university for the year. They wanted to meet me, oddity that I am, and I agreed. In front of the class, he introduced me briefly and gave the students, non-traditional weekenders, a moment to ask me questions. And all three, in that perfect order that I have now experienced so many times, came forth.

  1. Are your married?
  2. How old are you?
  3. What religion are you?

It’s kind of remarkable, right? Just think about the massive cultural gap here. Those three questions are literally, and I don’t tend to use that word often, the exact topics that you do not ask in America. And, please remember, that I was just introduced as a college professor to a university classroom full of business students. I don’t take offense at it, though I tire of answering it, but it’s one of those moments that, as a traveller, you come across and just shake your head. A very, very different place.

I’ve come to the conclusion that being (somewhat) young and female and unmarried, at least in this corner of Rwanda, is unusual. I know several other women around my age; they have husbands and children. If I respond that I’m single, which I’ve stopped doing (deflect, deflect), they want to know if I’m at least engaged. Apparently, one older woman on a mutatu bus told me, wearing a ring (any ring) denotes that you are married. I wear two- I guess that makes me a reverse polygamist.

On Friday, my first day of teaching, my students asked the same questions. Marital status, religion, age. I tried to explain that in American culture (or, really, in English-speaking culture in general), these are personal questions that we don’t ask in a professional or academic context. It was at that moment that I really started to grasp the level of my students’ listening comprehension. After my little PC-diatribe, they looked back at me like a pack of deer in the headlights. “Teacher,” they told me, “Your pronunciation is so bad.” I laughed.


The calm before the storm: My classroom

I believe in extreme honesty, and there’s no other way to say it: my first thirteen (and a half) hours of teaching were rough. Like first-day-of-teaching-ever rough. Teaching is not an easy job to begin with, and I will happily blacken the eye of anyone who says otherwise. You get to spend hours preparing your lessons, more hours presenting them (while being on constant vigilance to keep the class focused, motivated, learning, remembering, processing, and even a little entertained), then go home to grading, student emails, and administrative paper pushing. That’s my American cycle. Here, there are similarities. And, of course, differences.

  1. My teaching schedule was confirmed Monday, five days ago. I started teaching on Friday.
  2. I was told I would have up to 20 First Year English students. Seven showed up. Twenty minutes into the class, I was given another 45 students, First Year Biotechnology majors. All students present speak a little English, from what I can gather any thing from a Beginning level to Low-Advanced. That makes 52. In a small, echoing, cement-floored classroom.
  3. BYO Paper & BYO Materials
  4. Here’s the kicker: this class is part of the weekend program. It runs for 35 hours total. Which means… 4.5 hours on Friday (5:00-9:45pm) and 8 on Saturday (8:15-4:00pm) for two and a half weeks. That’s 13.5 hours in a 24 hour period. Or at least I think it is. I counted it this morning while stumbling back to school after what seemed like 17 minutes at home to sleep.

All of this experience is an exercise in modifying/gently lowering/decimating one’s expectations. In these two days of class, I have alternately attempted to 1) follow the curriculum (a very brief, skeletal document that required I teach everything from greetings to the paragraph to essays to media studies) and 2) laugh and consider chucking the document out the window and just show Muppet videos. To meet all of the curriculum objectives seems impossible, unless I am willing to give my blood, sweat, and tears (and possibly help them cheat on the final exam). To give an idea of where the class, for the most part, is at, we learned brainstorming and outlining today. I attempted to coerce them to take that material and write three paragraphs, but was handed several papers with bulleted outlines recopied for me. I broke my cardinal rule and resorted to asking a student to translate into Kinyarwanda: it turns out that “essay” is the same word, just with French inflection. That was not the only moment where they struggled to understand my directions, even with me using my most patient, slow, low-level English vocabulary. They haven’t had teachers with American or British accents, and like many Rwandans, are far more accustomed to English spoken with a French accent- hence my “bad” pronunciation. It was hard.

I say that these days were rough not because the class was low-level, but because I felt incompetent, as though nothing I could do or say to them could be understood. I was back to the beginning  of my career, struggling to cope, without my years of experience and my creativity and all of my teacherly assets.

I realized as I walked home, exhausted beyond belief with feet and throat aching from standing and screeching for hours, that I’ve officially slunk out of the honeymoon stage and slid into the “becoming very frustrated and cranky with differences” stage. Culture shock, for those of you who haven’t lived outside of your home country for more than a month, is not a load of soft science ballyhoo. It’s a measurable cycle that has plagued me (like every other human, whether they can/will admit it or not) on every adventure I’ve had. The graphic below is courtesy of Northeastern University, and you can read a little more about the stages of dreaded CS here.

Cultural Curve

Strangely, every time I’ve experienced culture shock, I haven’t immediately identified it as such. My frustration in the classroom- I blamed that on not being prepared enough, not trying hard enough, not being competent enough. But it’s not any of those things: it’s attempting to adjust to a different place and struggling to fit in and function. You body and mind need time, grace, and understanding to change lifelong habits and routines to fit into a new place.

It gets better- I know it gets better. Even at the end of the lesson, a student named Claude came up to me. He wanted to know if I could help him find a scholarship for studying in America. It felt like a return to my territory, moving back into a place of familiarity, knowing that I was able to help this person, even after 13 hours of what felt like dragging 52 young Rwandans behind me, the essay our unreachable goal. We chatted, I told him I would email him websites, and he shook my hand happily. I began my walk home, the afternoon rain halted for twenty minutes, enough time for me to be back under my own roof.


And the sun sets behind the volcanos, and life goes on… and I’m better prepared for my next teaching marathon. All thirteen hours of it.

Love and peace from Musanze.