Putting the *Psycho* in Psycholinguistics

Please take a moment to imagine me, standing in front of 96 Rwandan students, paused next to a PowerPoint slide as the students scrawled down notes. They are trying to spell “tranformational-generative” correctly, and I am plotting how best to end Noam Chomsky. Shall I go all Harry Potter and send a bewitched opal necklace to his office at MIT? Or perhaps lock him in a room with a never-ending loop of Eugene Levy from Ferris Bueller rattling down the Chomsky-Schützenberger hierarchy? Would that be adequate punishment for blessing the world with linguistic genius and cognitive advancements that put him on par with Albert Einstein in scientific importance, all which I must now shred, boil, puree, and force feed to middle-aged English teachers who really just need to spend more time with their speaking and reading comprehension skills? Before I can decide on how I would send Chomsky to join the choir eternal, a student puts up a hand to ask a question about a term on a slide about fifteen slides back, at the very beginning of the presentation. I sigh, take a deep breath, and attempt to mime diachronic vs. synchronic subfields of psycholinguistics.

Yes, psycholinguistics.

Psycholinguistics, for those who went through years of higher education but never chanced upon this darling of a field, is, simply put, the intersection of psychology and language. More strongly put, it is “the use of language and speech as a window to the nature and structure of the human mind” (Scovel, 2004, p. 4). Got that, right? Essentially, it’s linguistics meets cognitive science. You need a good grasp on grammar and anatomy to understand some of the most basic tenants of the field.

Two weeks ago, I had this same group. 96 students. Nearly all my age or older. All but one are primary or secondary school teachers, mostly teachers of English using a diploma for employment and studying for a B.A. in English and French Education to advance themselves. It’s 7:45pm, and they had already endured another class, Sociolinguistics, from 8:00am-4:00pm (with a lunch break), earlier in the day. They started my class at 5:00pm, and we will end at 9:30pm. Tomorrow, rinse and repeat. That leaves almost no time for homework, if the students are expected to do normal human activities such as sleep (please), shower (PLEASE), eat, or use the toilet.

Clearly, this intensive concept was devised by an economist. I can envision the particular economist who engineered this schedule of death. He sat and counted the hours in a day (24), subtracted the ones for sleeping, showering, eating, and pooping (let’s be generous… 7), and emerged with 17. He chuckled to himself as he looked at a typical academic calendar, with classes spread across 16 weeks. “Can’t they do the math?” perhaps he thought to himself. How silly that students would need hours in between classes! What a waste of time! Why, this way, teachers could complete an entire class in a week or two… reducing the number of lecturers needed.

I rail against this schedule, but I do understand the rational for it: Rwandan universities don’t have enough lecturers, so schedules are packed into intensive course weeks. A teacher does a class or two then goes off to teach at another school. Reality runs institutions, I have learned.

That said, I was actually excited to teach this subject. I have a great appreciation, even affection, for psycholinguistics. In my own graduate program, the more I learned about human patterns of language acquisition, or how something as basic as a “slip of the tongue” can provide information about the production processes in our brains that convert thought to motor speech, the more fascinated I was. The brain, in the words of Emily Dickinson, whose poem begins the overview reader I am using for the course, “is wider than the sky.” It’s amazing. Once upon a time I wanted to continue grad school to study psycholinguistics. And now, I have been assigned to teach it.

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Far more useful subject for study

When I was given the class at the last minute, I went into a brief, joyful nerd-trance, basking in a glowing pool of light with Chomsky, wild-haired Steven Pinker, and Helen Keller’s patient goddess of a teacher, Sullivan Macy, all smiling down upon me. Then, the moment broke and reality dawned. I had to teach cognitive science to students who struggled with the language used by Langston Hughes and ee cummings. It’s not that the students are stupid. They aren’t. They are intelligent, and they can do quite amazing things. But, imagine this: you learned some Spanish in high school if you grew up in California. You use Spanish, but most of your daily interactions don’t require much “deeper” language than the vocabulary and grammar needed for newspaper-reading, day-to-day conversation, and perhaps some telenovelas. You have passable Spanish. Now. Read this!

The issue here is a multi-faceted. 1). Students are expected to act like good little sponges and absorb everything I tell them tonight, then add tomorrow’s lecture, and the followings evenings for two weeks of night classes. Their brains are so advanced (evil little economist-schedule-maker supposes) that they do not even need time to absorb or process information: “the brain is wider than the sky!” he triumphantly throws the quote back in my face. 2). Let’s be straight. Do teachers-in-training in an undergraduate degree program being offered in a second (or third) language need psycholinguistics? Maybe a brief introduction to the theories of language acquisition or critical period for L2 learning, perhaps. But 56 hours of instruction? What’s a teacher to do, when her hallowed institutional structure requires she teach a class that native speakers often SparkNote their way through? Well, in this case, after progressing through 1/100,000,000 of the material the curriculum stipulated she cover, she gave up. She stormed her way home, slept well, and made her way back to school in the morning to convince her Head of Department that if these students would be made to suffer through Psycholinguistics, at least schedule the class for January when it could be completed on weekends with ample time in between lectures for reading and attempting to understand the complex material. She/I laid out the case, and he agreed.

Count yourself lucky, Noam. You’ve got a few more weeks.

Scovel, T. (2004). Psycholinguistics. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.


Teacher Training Just Isn’t Sexy

Bono with a baby. Beyonce with a baby. Beyonce looks far more natural than Bono, who appears a bit tenuous in his baby-holding, as if the little bugger isn’t wearing a diaper and Bono realizes that with every moment he continues to hold the baby, the game of Russian Roulette: Poop Edition grows more serious. This photo, despite this, is clearly an important moment. Two superstars. Holding babies. In Africa. How rapturous.

The photo is juxtaposed against the title of an excellent article, “Stop Trying to Save the World,” published in The New Republic. You can read Michael Hobbes’ article here, or enjoy my few sentence summary. International development, he opines, has a myriad of issues (a very lengthy topic for which I would recommend Rieff’s A Bed for the Night, Barnett’s Humanitarianism in Question, Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, or anything critical of big-aid-lover Jeffery Sachs – but please don’t just read one Huff Po article and think you “got it”) whether they are governmental aid giving or nonprofits, especially when one solution is applied ad hoc across the development world. I don’t agree with everything Hobbes writes, especially after I’ve spent a few months in the “field” (sometimes literally, a field, with goats), but he makes a good point about “randomistas” – those who come up with the next big thing, the thing that is going to change development and rattle the game. His purpose isn’t to denigrate those who have done compassionate, humbling work that has improved the lives of many, but, in his poetic words, “to shit on the paradigm of the Big Idea.” He hits the audience with the most important, salient point part way through of the article: “Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied.” Solutions to problems are rarely “big ideas” but day-to-day, boring, and localized. The take home point? Let the environment guide the project. Invest in the simple. To this I would add my two cents: trains others to innovate.

Though I don’t officially work in development (no white SUV and accompanying driver has showed up at my gate, but my fingers are still crossed), my population of university students are unique: nontraditional weekend students, all but one of whom are already primary and secondary school teachers in positions where they are required to have a teaching diploma, not a bachelor’s degree, for their work. And the teachers are my university work in rural areas, many braving several hours of travel to Musanze for their university studies. Teaching this group is never an easy task, but through working with them, I am subtly broadening my influence as an instructor: I teach them, and they teach the next generation of Rwandans, students in crowded classrooms with a dearth of materials. I try to keep my course activities rooted in methods that can be replicated with lower-level learners, even when classes like Psycholinguistics and Chomskian Theory Dream Land test my ability to remain student-centered.

In my non-development position, I have come to the same conclusion as Hobbes: we love big ideas, the ones that innovate and excite. Merry-go-round water pumps. Canvas shoes on little feet. Often, here, the problem isn’t generosity: but sometimes, the type of generosity needed is the generosity to invest in people within the nation, to train others, to find out what communities need and work with them to meet those needs, passing on the responsibility.

Spend a few weeks in a developing nation, and you will see this. The leftovers of charity, often given in good will and with bright hopes for the future. My university is an example: they received an entire language lab through donation, with fourteen reasonably up-to-date Dell computers and monitors. But the lab sits, unused. The university is unable to afford internet for the computers, and they have no one to staff the lab to make sure the machinery doesn’t walk away on its own. It makes for a gorgeous photo opportunity to donate such a motherload of motherboards (I’m sorry, couldn’t help it), but without working with the institution, securing ongoing donation for internet bills, and envisioning a staff schedule that would be realistic? Not as sexy. It’s not as easy to find donors for day-to-day operations. Where would the name go, after all? You can’t slap an NGO sticker on an internet connection.

A week ago, I finished a series of training workshops held in three locations. In the final workshop, the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and I broke down the material to its most basic level. An activity, such as drawing a nine-patch grid on a paper to be used for pre-reading or warm-up exercises. With that simple graphic, you could watch the teachers’ brains whirl with the possibilities for adapting it to other subjects and grade levels. A basic tool, their understanding of context, and a heap of their own innovation: boom. It’s very simple, to train a group of teachers in communicative techniques. But it’s effective.

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So, with all this, my point. Invest in people. Sure, donate the water pump. But make sure you sit down with community members, train a few mechanics in how to repair it, and check in with the area in a few years. Kids with laptops? That would be amazing. But make sure first you train the teachers in the basics of internet use. Train teachers in basic techniques for material creation and you no longer need a library of books: you only need a weblink and an innovative brain.

Training people, who can in turn train other people? That’s sustainability, isn’t it? And damn, that’s sexy.

Bearing Witness

There is no morning that you wake up and tell yourself, “yes, today feels like a good day to visit a genocide memorial.”

I’ve been in Rwanda for nearly two months, and you might note that I haven’t written much about the genocide, except a few asides or references to the nation’s past, with the inhumanity of 1994 twenty years ago. There are a few reasons for this (at least this is what I tell myself). The primary one is that I’ve always hated the way the West views or presents Africa, especially in the media. Starving children with distended bellies and flies in their eyes, cruel dictators who massacre opponents and bulldoze townships, camo-clad guerillas firing AK-47s into the sky. Not that these images aren’t true; there’s South Sudan’s cycles of war and famine, Robert Mugagbe’s seeming unending reign of terror, Somalia’s pirates. But there’s so much more to this continent than those things. And Rwanda is much more than the genocide- it’s a place of beauty, of some tranquility, of quirks and kindness and goat kebabs.

But there’s a greater reason why I haven’t written about the genocide, and kept my posts on food or volcanoes or the banality of my daily life as they are something easy to write, something bright and cheerful and simple.

I remember a similar period of life, a moment during my first visit to Poland in 2008 before walking beneath that famous sign at Auschwitz, the one that reads Arbeit macht frei. I asked myself if I really wanted to do this—to witness the remnants of atrocity instead of only encounter it through a book, as I (and most Westerns well insulated from mass tragedy) had in the past. Maybe if I had been by myself that day in Oświęcim, I would have turned and wandered back to the sleepy city center melting under a ferocious August sun to find ice cream and air conditioning and read instead of walking through it. I was reading Kapuscinski then, his book Imperium that chronicled his meanderings through the crumbling U.S.S.R. during which he documented Soviet atrocities against humanity, nature, and happiness. I would take that approach to horror any day of the week; life and humanity has always been easiest for me to fathom from ink on a page. But I didn’t. I went in, passed through the gates, and went back in time.

Today, the truth is, I didn’t want to confront this fresh genocide. This genocide is far from the one raged against Jews, Poles, gypsies, gays, and others labeled untermensch (“sub-human”) in Central Europe, with most of its victims long buried and their families separated from its tragedy by the calming blanket of passed time. Here, in this new place, time has only begun to heal gashed wounds: twenty years is not so long. I remember 1994. I remember standing outside at school assembly, a fourth grader at Catholic parochial school in my plaid jumper and ripped navy tights, listening to the monthly student awards be called out by the school principal. I got one, one time, for citizenship. It was late in the schoolyear—April—which essentially meant that the teacher was now going down the list to manufacture the Student-of-the-Month as a student wasn’t to be repeated. It’s hazy, but I remember April of 1994. Student-of-the-Month for Citizenship, Jump Rope for Heart, the ebbing close of the school year and the coming fun of Day on the Green and still another summer before the angst of adolescent set in. My dull world was so far from what occurred in Rwanda, the events that stretched across three months, willful ignored by the powerful despite heads shaking at Auschwitz and whispers of “never again.”

Kinzer writes of a moment experienced by outsiders, the one reached by people who spend enough time in Rwanda to reach it, “when its story overwhelms the intellect and the conscious mind. Floods of grief and pain sharpened immeasurably by the realization that an outsider’s emotions can never fathom the agony that enveloped and still envelops most Rwandans, becomes a torrent that drowns thought and reason.” I knew that like many, I would encounter this moment for myself when I was confronted with stark evidence of the genocide itself: like many, my moment would come at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

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The Kigali Memorial Centre, constructed with assistance from UK-based Aegis Trust, sits on the edge of a hill, with a sweeping view of the road and the patchwork of green fields below. On a bright Saturday, I hiked up the road with another American, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant who worked in Kigali. We hadn’t eaten lunch, so we ducked into the memorial center’s café and proceeded to spend two hours avoiding moving from our seats. Rwanda is not a country known for its Western-style service, but our lengthy lunch was calculated: neither of us wanted to take the step towards confronting the event that was an undercurrent in the conversations and interactions of our everyday lives. The word “genocide” isn’t often spoken. In fact, when a group of students chose it as a topic in my communication class, I was shocked. I’d been in Rwanda for more than a month and you just didn’t hear the word mentioned. The impact is obvious, but unstated. Someone will tell you that they don’t have parents, that they lost their sister, that they lived with strangers for a while. They will tell you that they spent time in Congo, that their schooling was interrupted, that they were in the military. But the words of “genocide” or even those volatile markers, Hutu and Tutsi, are almost never mentioned, the “ethnic” labels most silent of all. But the genocide is painfully present, even if it remains unspoken.

We walked down from the café to the main entrance to the memorial, a blindingly white building surrounded by blooms and tile walkways, almost Mediterranean, with birds calling and the wind whistling in the palm fronds. The first stop on the audio tour, narrated by a somber Brit, was down another flight of steps to the mass graves. The graves don’t strike you as such as you see them: my friend and I looked at our map, then back at the wide concrete expanses before putting the two together. They hardly betray what lies beneath: nearly 250,000 dead, many from Kigali, but others moved from the places around the nation to the memorial as a final resting place. One, closest to the gardens dedicated to peace and healing, has a window to show what lies beneath the thick slab: nothing grotesque, but an opening with shapes draped in burial clothes edged with white ruffles and appliqued with a wide white cross. In my mind, I felt unable to even do the math. 250,000 people. An estimated one-quarter from the genocide’s toll. That’s not a number one can even imagine. I could feel the itch in my throat and the beginning of a headache, a throbbing between my eyes. We moved on.

Beside the graves on the secondary level is a long black wall, reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. But this wall had only a few plaques of inscribed names. The narrator notes the reason that many bodies went unidentified: when your entire family has been murdered, cut down and sent to the next life, there is no one left to identify you. Even your existence, your name, your likes and dislikes, your hopes for the future—everything that makes you who you are, wiped clean. You are nameless, unknown, settled into the graves with the others.

Inside the white building, we began a walk through the history that led to the genocide itself. That history is another post for another day, but the bulleted facts are clear. 1. Rwandan society has long been stratified between these groups, the cattle-owning Tutsi and land-working Hutu, with the wandering Twa often forgotten. 2. There is no evidence of violence between the two groups who lived in a very closed, highly controlled society with a strict administration echoed in today’s well-organized environment. 3. The Germans, and later the Belgians, exacerbated the perceived differences between the two groups, identifying them as “ethnic” markers and, according to later Hamish theory, deciding that the Tutsi were more similar to white people, thus the “elite” who would rule the country, despite being only 15% of the population. 4. Hutu were oppressed, their children often barred from attending school, and generally marginalized as an aspect of this popular technique in colonization: divide and conquer. 5. A shift toward “Hutu Power” and decolonization resulted in the first outbreaks of violence in the 1950s, what the memorial terms a “precursor” genocide. Tutsi were massacred and many fled, establishing the Rwandan diaspora in Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, and beyond. 6. Persecution of the Tutsi continued into the eighties and the RPF, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, formed abroad to fight for the refugees’ right of return to the nation. History marched on, with a build-up of cached weapons and racist vitriol spewing from politicians and media elite. The message was clear: the Tutsi were to be eradicated. In 1994, following the assassination of then President Habyarimana touched off the 1994 genocide: 100 days of carefully calculated massacres that resulted in thousands dead. Most experts put the number between 800,000 and more than a million. The world turned its back on Rwanda, with France even aiding and supporting the genocidaire government.

The memorial’s historical section winds around in a circular path, each chapter arresting your attention as walkway curves and you cannot see what lies ahead. This careful coordination of architecture and story keep you focused on the moment, each section moving you closer to the horror of April 1994. It wisely avoids gratuitous and disrespectful images, the disaster porn common in media representations of the event, and instead focuses the viewer on the cold facts of the case. This section of the museum is on the lower level, partially submerged into the hill, with the only outside light streaming in through two stained glass windows constructed by an artist whose own father survived the Holocaust.

I made it through the data, reading every board and listening to the audio tour, all of this information stacking up against the many books I’ve read on the topic. Three rooms remained before we were to move upstairs to see the presentations of genocide in history: Armenia, Namibia, Poland, Cambodia, Bosnia. The first room opened to me with nooks cut into the walls, and hundred of photographs clipped on wires: images of the victims, donated by their family members. My headache was growing worse, pulsing in my eyes. The collection was diverse, from somber school photos and identification images, common in developing countries where people don’t have easy access to cameras (especially in the early 90s), to wedding shots and goofy child pictures. Women with braids, natural poofs, veils. Men with beards, smiles, serious eyes, bellbottoms. Children- so, so many children.

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I sat for a few moments, studying these pictures, my eyes constantly moving between the black and white and sepia-toned images, stained and discolored in twenty years. Then I moved to the next room, a silent, dark round with glass cases laid out against the walls. And here, in the words of Kinzer, is where I experienced that moment, the pain in my head becoming tears streaming down my face, holding my hand clapped tight over my mouth and nose so that my sobs couldn’t be heard. In the glass cases were remains, bones gently laid out. What had been hidden under the concrete slabs outside was laid in the dim light, a warning and evidence all in one. For those who will say this didn’t happen, that the concrete graves are nothing but expanses of earth, this will silence them.

I knelt in front of a case for a while, looking down at the small skulls and the personal effects placed around them: ubiquitous plastic rosaries, like those worn by my university students. Identity cards disintegrating with age and preserved plastic bags, names and ethnic identification (“Tutsi” in scrawled cursive) still visible among blood stains. Children’s shoes, dirty and worn. All of this was too much to bear, too fresh and too close. I just wanted to leave, to get back into the yellow sunshine.

In places where tragedy has occurred, tragedy on a grand scale, these places must exist. And we must visit them. We must pay homage to this country’s history, and honor the memory of these people who were murdered. Of course, it is far easier to skip these museums and monuments constructed in honor of tragedy, to ostensibly convince yourself that you wish to view the country as it is today, to avoid the personal struggle that occurs when confronted with this manner of evil.

And I was able to leave the memorial. I was able to walk outside, back into the lush beauty of this corner of the city, back toward a meal and a place to sleep for the evening. I could breathe in the air, clean and smelling a little of the dirt from the plots below, alive. We walked back down the hills, weaving through throngs of people, vendors with passion fruits and fresh-caught fish. Alive. All alive. Survivors. Witnesses.

Every one of us alive today, who has the ability to read about this genocide, or the ears to hear about it, becomes a witness to this crime. Globalization and the reporting of the press has made us this: consumers of content and history means that we know of this event and the others that came before it: the extermination of peoples and their cultures- the Armenians, the Herero, the Jews, the Bosnians. All of us—six billion and counting—have a responsibility as witnesses to continue these stories in the hopes that they will not occur again.

From one witness to another, peace and love – this time from Kigali.


Stopped on a Red Road

Little children crowded around me touching my hands and chattering. I took off the helmet, one of those worthless shells with a clasp that will probably rip open the moment you need it for cranial protection. I handed it to one of the children as the motocycle driver took off his own helmet and shoved into my hands. Only a minute ago, we had been speeding down a red road in the east of Rwanda, not far from Akagera National Park and the Tanzanian border, following another moto with my American friend. We were heading toward a small rural village where she had visited a youth enrichment program that provided additional classes to children who were in risk of failing the national secondary school exams. They had requested that she do teacher training workshops, for which she had recruited me. I was happy to see another corner of Rwanda, especially one so far from city civilization. Her moto was long gone, disappeared in a cloud of sienna-toned dust as we slowed, the motor choking and finally cutting.

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I wanted to whack the moto driver on the head. Are we out of gas? It didn’t need to be said: it was quite obvious. I looked around as the children emerging from the small houses that dotted the side of the road, began to appear. This is the true bush: no petrol station for miles. I tried my phone to call my friend and let her know what happened: out of gas. Middle of nowhere. What happens next? I ponder my options for a moment. I could start walking up the road. I could stay here and move into one of the houses and become the weird muzungu auntie to this wonderful group of smiling children who can teach me the water-pump dance, a strange hip shaking, up-and-down movement needed to efficiently operate the see-saw like water pumps. It will all be fabulous. I looked back at the moto driver, still wearing his Sunday church clothes with a yellow MTN piney over his oxford button-down. He was shaking the bike with his hands still clutching the handlebars.

Moto drivers are the engine of Rwanda: they can get you anywhere, as this journey suggests. It’s not uncommon to see business men in full suits and Italian wingtips clutching their briefcases while riding through Kigali or pregnant women in full katenga wraps straddling the back of a Suzuki racing down the road in Musanze. And before someone chides me for unsafe behavior like slinging myself onto the back of a motorcycle captained by a stranger who talks while driving by shoving his cell phone into his helmet, please know that the options for transport in Rwanda are profoundly limited. When your options are sardine-packing yourself into a combi van with at least 20 other people, the moto looks pretty fabulous. Fabulous, windy, dusty, and free of the sweat of other humans smeared all over you.

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Apparently the shaking was not doing the trick, so my driver did something that made all of the children squeal and cheer: He picked up the bike above the back tire as if picking up a large dog, and shook the entire bike forward, willing the remnants of gas to trickle down. He did this several times, one of the children laughing so hard she was fell onto the ground, and then righted the vehicle and kicked the motor into starting. They clapped and cried things at him in Kinyarwanda, to which he gave them a cross look and motioned for me to hurry up and get on the bike before his luck—and the fumes—ran out. We puffed up the road a spell, the children running along side for a few moments, and met up again with my friend and her more conscientious, gas-tank-observant driver, waiting for us on the other side of the hill. A man emerged from one of the small shops with a water bottle filled with yellow liquid: fuel.

And then we chugged on, winding in between eroded canyons, further and further into the bush, passing children and mud-stucco homes and fields of banana trees. Everything, for those moments, was strangely perfect.

How it is to be Colored White

“Teacher,” he said with his hand partway in the air. He wore a very Rwandan suit of beige plaid with a white shirt and a cherry-red satin tie underneath: very smart. In a classroom full of teachers, he was on the only businessman. His question caught me off guard for a moment. “Can you tell us how it is for you to teach about African-Americans and their history in the United States. You have told us about how whites enslaved blacks in America, and now you, a white person, are teaching black people in Rwanda about this.” His voice was not accusatory, simply curious.

It’s my American Literature class, a group of 100+ students gathered in small desks close to my laptop and projector in a cavernous hall. I’m an English teacher, not an African-American scholar or critical race theorist, and my students began today’s class very new to the topic of African-American literary voices. We were winding our way through the basic elements of the civil rights movement, with the PowerPoint presentation frozen on a page with the NAACP and KKK juxtaposed.

I paused for a moment, dissecting his question in my mind. To be white, the color of the oppressor in this history/literature lesson on slavery, reconstruction and civil rights, teaching black students about black writers. It called to notions that whirl in my head every day. My corner of Rwanda (the top leftish corner, to be exact) is a place where I am confronted by race every day. Each morning, I say goodbye to the guard beside my gate and walk out to the street. On the main road, I can go right or left; right leads into Musanze, a good-sized town with a revolving tourist population here for gorilla and golden monkey trekking. To the left, my more common direction during intensive teaching weeks, is my university, a fifteen minute walk along the road and a rocky path to the back entrance of the school. It’s this walk that reminds me that I will not, and cannot, really blend in here. Even though I walk this road four times a day, to school and back home for lunch and to school and back again, people stare at me. They watch me as I make my way down the road, laptop bag bumping on my leg, looking quite American in pants and a sweater and sunglasses, often with headphone buds in my ears. I will pass people talking and I will hear, even as I walk away with my back toward the pair, their heads turn and voices follow me. People tend stare at me. Everyday. On the road. At my university. Little children call out at me or run to touch my hand. Most often, they greet me with a common cry: “Muzungu! Muzungu!”

Swahili for white person (although I’m told it originally meant “wanderer,” and was assigned to German and British colonialists in the late nineteenth century since they seemed to always be passing through), muzungu is an easy word to pick out of a Kinyarwanda conversation. Children in school uniforms exclaim it gleefully when I walk past, announcing my presence to the neighborhood. It’s not a mean-spirited cry, but one of interest. A white person! How strange! Why is she walking down this road? The road doesn’t see many white people, especially not thirty-year-old females walking to their university lecturer jobs.

But it is strange to be a white person in those moments. I feel an uneasy spotlight on me, the gleaming sun and the cries of children pointing out that I am different from those around me. I’m an introvert, through and through, and have little appreciation or comfort with unwarranted attention. Once in  while, children come up to practice their few English words. Sometimes, the conversation turns to this: “Good morning muzungu! Money?” They giggle when I smile at them and wave them away. But it’s true, I am white, and I have money.

And now I am standing in front of a classroom, lecturing about the Harlem Renaissance, a movement which “urged black artists to reclaim their ancestral heritage as a means of strengthening their own expression” in the years following the legacy of slavery and subsequent reconstruction. We began with Langston Hughes’ short poem from 1923, “My People.”

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

The class read it along with me, for the first time in two days of challenging literature able to understand, connect to, and internalize every word: my hope when teaching transformational literature like this. They read it again to themselves, their voices scattering and fragmenting, out of sync, to fill the large lecture hall with a cacophony of sound. When I tried to change the slide to introduce the author, they stopped me—I didn’t put this poem in their reading packet and they wanted to write it down. “Hughes,” I told the class when we began again, “championed the idea that black people could, and should, take pride in themselves as a people with a culture and ancestry in their own right, separate from the white experience.”

We moved slowly through Zora Neale Hurston’s excellent “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” an essay in which she notes that she didn’t know she was “colored” until she left the comfort of her small town and entered the outside world, getting on a boat as “Zora” and getting off in Orlando as a “little colored girl.” As we read through the essay itself, I felt for the first time as I really understood, in some strange parallel,  what she had lived in this moment. When she went to Orlando, people began to assign her to something different than she had known for her whole life. Instead of just being “Zora,” she now had a label: she was not just a regular, label-less person, she was a colored person. In Rwanda, I too have a label—yet the spirit behind it is not equivalent to that of the label given to Zora nearly a hundred years ago. My label, muzungu, still belays the privilege of my racial inheritance. I am not better than people here, nor am I more valuable or important simply because I am a teacher and I am here with the purpose to work to improve the capacity of other educational professionals. But being white, I stand out and, even more, I represent something, something born in colonialism (or even before) and continued in this era of postcolonialism. I come from a country of wealth, where even the middle classes out-earn 90% of the remaining world. While my family doesn’t live in luxury, at least compared to the wealthiest in the U.S., they are a safety net that can comfortably catch me if I falter. To be white here is to demonstrate something: I am different, and I have access to more. When people see me, this is what many assume: you are white, and you have money. And they assume this because it is true. We have money. We have access to upward mobility and education. We have the ability to choose to come to a developing nation. Or, conversely, we have the ability to choose not to come to a developing nation. But I struggle with this: this privilege isn’t just about money and opportunity; it’s something apart from this, and that is something I struggle to adequately express. It’s about power.

After Hurston, Martin Luther King, Jr. was ahead in the day’s lesson plan. Before we moved to the MLK background explanation, the hand went up and the question: my whiteness in the midst of a lesson (and a classroom) of blackness.

I unwhirled my thoughts, two months in the making, and tried to answer him. “I am very honest,” I told the class, “About the sins of my country, lead by white people, people like me. We enslaved thousands of people and treated them as if they were possessions.” I referenced the board, where I had written “3/5 Compromise” when we discussed the inclusion of black people in the Constitution: each worth 3/5 of a person. “And racism is very much alive in the United States today. We have been imperialists and we have used our power to make ourselves rich through the oppression of other people. I think as white people, we need to be honest about this. We need to be honest about our position of power. I wasn’t those people, but I am connected to them and to their legacy. So, I don’t know how to explain how it feels to be a white person teaching this. I can only tell you that when I read these authors, and I see their passion and their desire to change society, it inspires me to want to do the same.”

He nodded and thanked me for my response. It didn’t completely say what I wanted to—but I still cannot find the proper words. To be confronted, every day, with your race is a challenge that many are able to ignore, especially when your race enjoys a position of majority and dominance. In the United States, I am Leanne. In Rwanda, to some, I am Leanne, the American teacher and slightly odd person who recently fell into a ditch and gets a little bit too Socratic during lectures. To many others, I am a white lady, whatever meaning that has or demonstrates. While this discussion of race and privilege rattles and challenges my critical consciousness daily without giving me adequate words to address it, it makes me realize that I can understand so much better the experience of those who do not share my skin color in the whiter regions of the United States: what it is to stand out, to be in the racial spotlight, to be different. Even if my differentness is apart from Hurston’s.

Thankfully, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, not my own, faulty, stumbling attempts to explain a complex situation, finished the day. We ended with “I Have a Dream,” the crackle of the old recording of his voice filling the room.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

This is English Club

The words were scrawled onto the blackboard, probably not meaning to reference Fight Club and Tyler Durden or that film I saw a few years back, This Is England, which followed a story of thuggish neo-Nazi during the Falklands War and Thacherite years. “Welcome!” exclaimed Israel, one of the student organizers, his face overtaken by a wide, infectious grin.  I have met Israel about a dozen times now, and I’m certain that’s a perma-grin; it never fails to improve my mood. INES English Club was a few minutes from starting: the borrowed classroom was full of Rwandan students and not a skinhead in sight.

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Although, as I looked around the classroom the particular day, I noticed that English Club was indeed full- but of male students. Even Nadia, one of the three organizers, was not there. “Fellas,” I said to Israel and Stevenson, the Haitian exchange student who could oscillate between fluent English and even more fluent French in the same sentence, “Where are the ladies?” They shrugged. For no reason, it was Dude Day in English Club.

I was happily roped into English Club a few weeks ago when Nadia, Israel, and Stevenson showed up at my office hours, Israel grinning (of course) and Nadia with a head full of tiny red braids. They had so many ideas for activities in the club, wanting to create a comfortable and fun space for their classmates to practice their English. We brainstormed for an hour and made a schedule. I was happy to begin to build long-term relationships with students, a challenging task with my current one-week intensive classes.

For this particular day, the second meeting, Stevenson was in charge, and he chose to show a video with a simple conversation about using politeness cues when talking. As the clip began, five very pretty girls walked in, causing the group of eleven gentlemen present to perk up almost in unison, pretending to very seriously focused on the video, all while sneaking glances at the girls who slipped into seats in the back of the room. Stevenson didn’t miss a beat; at the end of the video, he the club launched into a discussion about why it was important to be polite. I’m pretty certain a mandate for politeness is written into the Rwandan constitution, so the discussion went well. I watched the boys, chuckling to myself inside, reminded ever so slightly of high school. One of them, a very tall, broad-shouldered young man whose physical adjustment to the girls’ appearance was the most obvious, stood up and took on the air of a politician as he expressed his opinion. I forced myself to look out the window and think serious thoughts to keep from laughing as he offered boisterous, deep-voiced thanks to Stevenson and all who were participating in the discussion, all while staring at the girls. The five newcomers all looked back at him a little saucily, heads leaned to the side and exchanging pointed looks between themselves.

As the discussion *cough* pontifications *cough* closed, Stevenson asked me if I would add anything, being the great authority that I am on politeness (his words). I told them a little about hedging: using phrases like “would you mind if I sat here” to make a request more polite and give the receiver an easy way to say no, if desired. I asked the club to practice. Immediately our politician jumped to his feet, ready to try. He walked across the room and dropped coolly into one of the seats next to a girl with an elaborate asymmetrical weave of braids and twists. “Hi.” I imagined Joey from the TV show Friends, half hoping that his next words would be “how you doing?” But, instead, he intoned, his chin cocked up a little as he spoke: “Would you mind if I kissed you?”

Without hesitation, she scoffed and replied, “would you mind if I slapped you?”

This is English Club.