I am a Teacher: This I Believe

Keynote address delivered at my fellow Fellow’s English language and literature conference at Uganda Christian University (Mukono, Uganda), 28 May 2015. Inspired by another friend, my dear MT.


Conference-goers and the verdant window

Good morning, it’s a pleasure to be with you on this beautiful day. As the first speaker for this conference, I suppose it is my job to launch the festivities and begin the work of calling you to think about what you teach and how you teach it.

So, I will begin with a question.

What do you believe?

We are gathered at a university named Uganda Christian University, so perhaps you will think this is a question about religious beliefs. I’m not here to separate this group between Christian and Muslim, Catholic and Protestant, Evangelical or Methodist.

For some, this question is a personal one. I have found during my time in Rwanda that asking this is far more normal that for Americans, where beliefs, especially those of the religious variety, are held close to the chest and reserved for the time in a relationship or friendship when you know the other person well enough not to offend them. Here, I am asked this often. What is your religion? Maybe East Africans are more comfortable discussing their religion, so let’s transition to a similar idea: belief.

Belief- what does that mean? Sometimes these words that we use so often can be the hardest to define. What you believe, again in the religious context, might be strongly guided by the orthodoxy of your religious group. Outside of religion, what is belief? I have attempted to give a definition here, just a few words: what we believe, what we think, what we do. For me, I see belief as the intersection of knowledge and experience. What we know is married to what we have experienced, just as for teachers: our book learning and academic inquiry, a two-dimensional mental exercise, combine with what we have seen and done in our three-dimensional classrooms. This, then, is what we believe.

The “This I Believe” project

In the United States, on public radio and through a website, a nonprofit organization, committed to storytelling, asks this question everyday. People write their responses, some of which are recorded and posted online or played over the NPR radio waves. Other essays are published in written form. Everyone is asked to write and speak to the same topic: “This I Believe.”

I became interested in this project several years back when a friend and colleague introduced it to me. Answers varied widely, as you can imagine. Bill Gates, brainchild behind Microsoft, wrote about creativity and what he believes about its importance to technology. Another man, anonymous simply due to his lack of fame, wrote about how he believed you should be kind to the man delivering your pizza.

But as I thought of this keynote, and what to present, I cycled back to those essays. What do I believe. I am a teacher: this I believe. But what do I believe? Beyond my long years of study, the thousands of pages of theory digested in my graduate teaching program, what do I believe for myself? And so, I asked myself to finish the thought, this I believe. As teachers, maybe we don’t often think about our beliefs about our work. Is teaching a job? A career? A craft? What do I believe about education, learning, and my purpose?

Maybe nothing I say today will be particularly groundbreaking or original, but it represents my beliefs about my work. So, here I present my answer. In my examination of myself, and who I am as a teacher, I settled upon four responses.

I believe in potential.

First, I believe in potential. Potential is broad. My students’ potential to learn and gain knowledge and overcome the challenges of their own situations. My own potential to continue to learn from my students, my colleagues, my continued study and academic inquiry.

Potential represents what is possible. When we look out at our classrooms full of students, do we see potential, or do we see already existing failure? Have we already decided that our students can’t perform, can’t meet the standards of what we expect, can’t pass their courses? Do we allow them to rise to their potential?

But potential is not a guarantee: we must still work toward something, we must commit and work hard and apply ourselves. Potential is a distant location and the road to reach it. We can have potential, but it’s no free ride. I believe all students have potential, even the ones who seem to have already failed out. Even the ones coming from poverty, rising from illiteracy, from broken homes or violence. Malala Yousevsi survived violence, attacked by those attempting to curtail her potential and the potential of young women in Pakistan, but in vain. She still stands and speaks today, a powerful symbol for the potential of a driven young person.

I believe in vulnerability.

When I was younger, I came to believe that vulnerability was a deficit, that those in authority should appear always strong and always correct. Critique of a leader was always negative, undermining their authority. As a teacher, though, I do not believe this. I believe in vulnerability. I believe that we are allowed to make mistakes and we do not have to be examples of perfection. I believe our students can see us make mistakes, they can see us fumble to find the answer to the question. We are allowed to be human, and we are allowed to show that we are human.

As a language teacher, this vulnerability can be the key to connect with students, to help them open up and try the language that they are learning. When they see that I make errors, sometimes confuse verb tenses or can’t give an answer to a question, they don’t lose respect for me, but realize that the learning of language is a process, and a life-long one that even native speakers haven’t completed 100%.

As teachers, it’s refreshing to be vulnerable. Imagine what you students will do if you admit that you don’t know everything, that you don’t do everything correctly. Will they decide that you are an unfit teacher? Or will it help them cope with their own failures and shortcomings? I believe the later is true. I believe it can instill in them the belief that mistakes can be opportunities to learn and to grow. So, I challenge you: be vulnerable.

I believe in social justice.

I believe in social justice, that our world is a place that is fundamentally unjust and all people must work to correct this balance. And I believe that teaching, and learning, has the possibility to either continue injustice or break from it. What are we teaching? Are we teaching our students to be passive containers of knowledge, to accept the way that things are, to never challenge or as why? Education can be used as a tool for evil, as we have seen throughout history. It can be used to teach people to hate. I come to you from my work in Rwanda, a country where education functioned as an indoctrination tool, dividing the country into Hutus and Tutsis and teaching them to hate and revile each other, culminating in the genocide of 1994. Education played a terrible role there, with teachers and textbooks perpetuating and encouraging racial violence.

But I believe that the classroom, and the learning experience, should do the opposite: it should make communities and countries more just. We have the potential as educators to create a microcosm of society in the walls of our classrooms, to teach tolerance of opposing opinions when students debate. We can help them see the value of differences, just as students of different religions, colors, and beliefs populate our rooms. We can teach them to stand up for those who do not have a voice, to advocate for the silent.

When we teach language, we have the capability to teach them to express themselves and participate in this larger language group. Language, especially in East Africa with speaking English or French, allows not only participation in the economic community but the globalized knowledge community. When you speak English, you can advocate and educate others about your group and your experience. This is the power of language with social justice, and maybe we need to be reminded of this more often. I believe that we have the potential to be educators for social justice, or the opposite- but I hope for the former.

I believe in transformation.

Transformation, I would argue, is the final stage of potential, when potential is realized, followed, made alive. So, finally, I believe in transformation. I believe that the experience of education can transform lives. In my own life, it was my university education that sparked something within me, a genuine desire to never stop learning. And even for me, it didn’t begin until I was 20. This spark can happen any time – your primary students, someone in secondary, even university. Education can transform hatred into peace, it can empower voices in places where women and minorities are denied that right. It can offer opportunities previously unavailable; it can bring lasting peace.

I’ve taught for nearly ten years; it was only recently that I completed this activity and saw what I believe. Not how to teach, not what pedagogy I follow, but what characteristics I truly believe as necessary to my work. I would encourage you to do the same.

  • Ask yourself and give yourself time to answer
  • Check what you write against what you do
  • Make this a yearly activity
  • Encourage others to do the same

And finally, I will leave you with the words of Jim Henson. “Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” What are the beliefs that make you who you are as a teacher? What will your students, be they kids or adults, remember about you?

Thank you.


Africa Runs on Cellular

My house sits at the top of a small hill, a short upward climb from a gas station, where moto drivers in yellow numbered pinnie vests wash their vehicles on sunny afternoons, and rows of shops, identical to those that line nearly every road in Rwanda. The country is both densely populated and still mostly agrarian, resulting in what I have come to call “rural sprawl.” On the road, you are never more than five minutes from one of these rows, and you will always see the same thing: a line of concrete-block shops with pre-fab barred windows and a roof that pitches back like half of a A-frame. The shops are nearly always painted, and this paint is their defining characteristic.

“Where did you get the good avocados?” I ask my neighbor.

“The shop down the road. The Blue Tigo one- I think,” he tells me.

Tigo is a cellular carrier, and he wasn’t directing me to buy produce from a phone company. As anyone who has spent a day in Africa knows, many buildings act as square concrete billboards: companies paint the building for free, but require the addition of their logo and slogan, also painted. It works for both parties: the shop owner (or home owner, as it often happens) gets a free coat of paint to help protect his or her building from the elements, and the company gets a building-sized advertisement. And we come to describe the shops that way: Blue Tigo, next to Lime Green Tigo, next to Beige Kilimanjaro Cement next to (a different) Blue Primus Beer. Shops don’t often have large, blinking neon signs. Instead, they have signs where half the space is dedicated to the sponsor and the other half lists the name of the store. Again, a clever arrangement: the company gets an advertisement and the store owner gets a free sign.


Shops across the street from my university brought to you by Primus

Dayo Olopade writes about apparent symbiosis in her book, The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, labeling this relationship, along with dozens more examples, as kanju: “a specific creativity born from African difficulty” (p. 20). Basically, kanju, Olopade’s one word thesis for the book, is how African systems evolve and adapt when “traditional” (aka common in Western countries) methods don’t work.

If painted buildings are one example of kanju at work, there are a thousand others to be noticed on a daily basis here. Houses here don’t have addresses, for example, and the systems which rely on a mailing address wouldn’t work- there’s no post service. If you need one, you get a post office box, and you check it regularly (or befriend the post master and convince him to text you whenever you have a package). Few people have PO boxes, so mailed bills don’t exist. Bills are paid up front: pay as you go.

There’s a box on the back of my house- it’s not a circuit breaker but the system for “topping up” power. When it gets low, down to one or two megawatts, I get a voucher code for cash power with 16 numbers to dial into the box. 2000 Rwandan francs buys two days of cold refrigerator, a working stove, and juice for computer and phone.

Phones work the same. I first experienced this in Europe, and have now come to the conclusion that Americans are the only people who don’t get to use the “I was out of credit!” excuse for not calling someone back. You put credit on again, via a voucher, or by giving money to a cellular rep who has a cell phone and sends a message to give you credit. Thus, Tigo, and its local competitors, MTN (whose name is splashed across the aforementioned yellow pinnies) and Airtel (who painted two entire blocks of Musanze town shops Airtel Red), are ubiquitous. On every corner in town and every other corner outside of it are small wooden tables shaded by wide colored umbrellas: company representatives who sell credit for calling and data use. Unlike the U.S., where one and two year contracts and free or discounted phones are the norm, everything here is done on spec. 200 francs will get you a handful of text messages or ten minutes of calling, and once the credit is gone, you are cut off until you load more. These corner representatives typically do more than just sell credit. Many of their stands are connected to a power source in a nearby building, and a heavily-burdened power strip charges ten or fifteen cheap “dumb” phones at a time, often for the nearby moto drivers who congregate and wait for someone who needs a lift.


Shops foregrounded by volcanoes (L-R): Sabyinyo, Gahinga, and Muhabura

Prior to cellular networks, few people in Africa had phones. Landlines were hard to put in, especially in rural areas where cable would be strung across hundreds of miles. In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda’s western neighbor, the rugged terrain of jungle prevents roads from connecting the eastern and western sides. Phone lines? Out of the question. When cellular technology arrived on the continent, and slowly became affordable for the common man, it sparked a revolution. It’s like Africa skipped a step, going straight to cellular, but phones aren’t as much a luxury here as a requirement for life, love, and business. The price has dropped from the thousand-dollar brick phones of the 90s to cheap, almost disposable Made-in-China options that start at $5 and are nearly indestructible.

Most people have more than one- you can buy a basic phone for $5 and a SIM card with a phone number for $.50. The more important you are, the more phones are spread out in front of you at meetings.There is a cost to this access: Olopade reported that the average African spends 10% of their wages on phone access. But, as she notes, there is an “economic rationale” for this seeming extravagance: you NEED a phone. She cites research by Stefan Klonner and Patrick Nolan, who demonstrated that “phone coverage correlated to a 15 percent increase in employment- and women are the chief beneficiaries” (p. 99). Phone equals job.

Maybe the ownership of a phone isn’t necessarily kanju, but the way Africans use their phones demonstrates it. Phones here serve a dozen purposes. Back in February, I sent an email to a printing company in Kigali and asked them to send me 200 business cards based on an attached template. I sent the payment via mobile money services and my business cards arrived two days later, wrapped in brown paper and waiting for me at the Musanze bus station- sent via the bus courier service, the secondary service of bus companies who fill the void left by the lack of a postal service. They had come through my regular bus company, Virunga. Mobile money, the transferring funds between mobile customers using only the name and phone number, costs a pittance and allows a country nearly devoid of credit cards to avoid the hassle and possible concerns of passing around bags of cash. Your phone becomes your bank, and corner representatives are your tellers and wire transfer service, all in one- but for $.25 instead of $25.00.

Smartphones, in place of traditional computers, are allowing more access to the internet. Ericsson, the phone giant, recently did a continent-wide survey and found that 70% of internet users access with a smartphone, and only 6% via a traditional desktop computer. Rwandans, like many Africans, have taken to smartphones and the accompanying applications, like WhatsApp, which allow groups to share information easily using data connections instead of one text message at a time. My co-Fellow Renee, who until recently was stationed in Burundi, saw the collective function of WhatsApp groups: these groups can fill the gaps in media coverage. Before BBC was reporting on it, people were tossing around information from Bujumbura- a protest here, an attack by police there. I’m on a few Rwandan teacher WhatsApp groups, where teachers pass news from their schools and rumblings and gossip from the Ministry of Education. The phone then becomes the newspaper service, allowing individuals to transform into reporters.

These solutions demonstrate what Olopade drives home in her book: Africa might be different than the Western world, but don’t conflate difference with ineptitude. This continent is full of examples of what she calls “bold opportunism” – people “coming up with a different game” (p. 31). So, Africa runs on cellular. And banks on cellular. And you better make sure you always have credit on your phone.

Olopade, D. (2014). The bright continent: Breaking rules and making change in modern Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Great Lakes Literary Playlist

Until coming to Rwanda, I violently resisted the notion of buying an eReader: a book is not a book unless you can crack the spine, write notes in the margins, get high on binding glue and the aroma of ancient pages, and dutifully display said book in your living room to show how smart you are- or so my brother teases me. Reading is often a solitary event, an act occurring between the reader and the text, but a book jacket and a public bench can make it a more social one: books start conversations, attract potential mates, even encapsulate and broadcast some part of your identity. Books have long been a crucial part of my own identity, confining me happily to solitary corners, but have even forced me from my introverted bubble, one Victorian/Edwardian/Georgian serial at a time. I used to read on the bus in London, commuting from my neighborhood of Wood Green (tenderly nicknamed “Stabbing Corners”) to my university in Tottenham (home of the the Spurs, glory, glory, Tottenham Hotspur). This simple act embroiled Shy Leanne in more than one George Eliot-oriented discussion.

An eReader, with its slim design, keeps your reading material anonymous. It is significantly less impressive to read the wrist-breaking epic tomes of the Russian Literary Gods in electronic form; there’s less of a sense of accomplishment. And yet, when you have to physically lug all of your earthly possessions through airports and onto packed buses and apologize for your backpack dealing a right hook to the baby next to you, the eReader starts to look quite attractive. All of this esoteric introductory babbling is to say that with the help of my Kindle, I can knock back a lot more books than normal, even in Rwanda – and easily access them, via wifi, instead of traveling to Kigali to find an actual bookstore (and then getting irritated at the stock of too much Harlan Coben and not enough Everything Else). I await the day I can cuddle with my library, currently stored in boxes in my garage back home, but until then, I have my iPod in grapheme form, brimming with knowledge/distraction.

2015 know thy context 1

Great Lakes Literary Playlist, “Know Thy Context” Edition

Today’s TracksKing Leopold’s Ghost (Adam Hochschild), Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (Jared K. Stearns), & Strength in What Remains (Tracy Kidder, who by now owes me royalties for all the shoutouts) “The Great Lakes” can refer to either that region of the north-central United States with Lakes Superior, Erie, etc., or, in the African context, the Rwanda-Burundi-Congo (and kind of Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, due to Victoria) triangulation around Lake Kivu and Tanganyika, the region that was the locus of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the resulting refugee flight into Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, and (at that time, to a lesser extent), Uganda and is now an economic sub-region. For travel to Burundi and Congo, I have a CEPGL: Communauté Économique des Pays des Grand Lacs, the Great Lakes visa for Rwandan residents. Thus, these three books center around this region, where guarded borders and national demarkation lines fail to contain ethnic, political, and social spillover.

First up. Some history: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin; Reprint edition, 1999), basically explores the period when King Leopold II of Belgium ran the Congo Free State as his own personal colony. Along the way, Hochschild describes the mass atrocities committed against the people of the area, a swath of country in sub-Saharan Africa the size of Western Europe which included extensive use of forced labor in horrific work conditions. In describing the penal system, in which work deemed insufficient would result in Congolese losing hands, being raped, or outright murdered, Hochschild outlines the evil of colonialism in Africa, resulting in theft of billions of dollars in resources, and crippling the social and political structures of a chunk of continent the size of Western Europe.

In telling this story, meticulously researched and well-received by the historical community, the author presents vignettes mottled by humidity, the dense environment of Congo a constant context for Hochschild’s prose. He provides detailed portraits of the men behind colonialism emboldened by ego and manufactured identity (in the case of both King Leopold II himself and the “famed” explorer, Henry Stanley, who practiced “indiscriminate cruelty” against the Africans he encountered), effectively erasing the popular myth of the wordly man of science colonial Indiana Jones. Instead, in clear juxtaposition, Hochschild profiles the men we should revere, those names we should devote the space in our memory and knowledge to: George Washington Williams, William Henry Shepherd, Edward Morel, and Roger Casement, all influential in uncovering, reporting, and protesting Leopold’s abuses.

The story of Edward Morel, a shipping clerk, was the most poignant to me, perhaps because of a visit I made to Antwerp at New Year’s of this year. It’s a beautiful city, marked by tall row buildings trimmed like gingerbread houses, winding around cobbled streets.  We spent a day wandering around this place, and made out way to the dock area, now a museum to the history of the city with a heavy emphasis on its diamond heritage, and I stood at the place where Morel mentally put the pieces together. The clerk had begun to notice a trend: to the Congo, the ships carried instruments of war and slavery: weapons, chains, clubs, whips. On return, they carried riches: gold, precious minerals, rubber. The math, according to Morel, did not add up: never was their an adequate payment leaving Europe, bound for the colonies.


The Bonaparte Docks where Edward Morel had his “flash of moral recognition” 

Hochschild calls this the “flash of moral recognition,” in continuing to uncover, like several men before him, the atrocities being committed, resulting in a massacred people that the author calculates at nearly 10 million, though an exact number can never be known. According to Wikipedia, when Leopold transferred his personal colony to the Belgian state, the castle furnaces burned for a week, destroying evidence.

Jump forward to the 1990s for post-independence Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason K. Stearns (PublicAffairs; Reprint edition, 2012). The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, previously called Zaire) is still a place of extreme wealth, poverty, and violence, “blessed” the wealth of natural resources that other nations demand for production. I often compare the situation in Congo to Syria: there seem to be a dozen external players, each propping up a militia or revolutionary group. In the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, the genocidaires fled the border to (then-called) Zaire, mingling with the million plus refugees who fled the country itself, intertwining the fates of not only of those two nations but many others in Africa. Rwanda’s new leadership, the army called the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which had taken over control and effectively ended the 100-day genocidal slaughter, sought out a “partner” who would help overturn the long-standing Zairian kleptocrat, Mobutu Sese Seko, under who rife corruption had taken the should-be-prosperous nation to a state of near collapse. It gets more complicated from there, and Stearns attempts to unpack and unravel the situation, identifying the players and the organizations and countries that backed them up: Uganda, Chad, Burundi, Angola… and, of course, the United States and the West. Everyone wants a piece of the DRC: the diamonds, the minerals, the environmental wealth.

Much of this great war stemmed from Zaire’s tiny neighbor: though small, the Rwandan army is known for its rigid discipline, which bolstered Laurent Kabila until ethnic tensions erupted and the relationship soured after Kabila took power and dethroned Mobutu. And that’s the twenty-second version…which only gets us to the later 1990s. The conflict still blazes today, with tensions high between DRC and Rwanda. DRC accuses Rwanda of apprehending and exporting minerals like diamonds during those years (Rwanda doesn’t have diamonds but somehow exported them in the 2000s. Magic!) and continuing to manipulate regional power to gain more control of the Great Lakes. Rwanda hurls many accusations against the DRC, including continuing to harbor 1994 rebels who should be repatriated and stand trial for their crimes. For an American reader, who craves black and white and simple, Hitler-esque villains, the entire crisis is a lesson in frustration. “The entire population,” Stearns writes, “was involved in the drama, either as an organizer, a perpetrator, a victim, or a witness.”

But, of course, the last two, the victims and witnesses, they are the ones for whom this conflict is the most real. Stearns records evidence of massacres of Rwandan refugees, by Rwanda soldiers, perpetuating the Tutsi/Hutu conflict, and others committed by marauding ragtag bands of Congolese, Ugandans, and Burundians, augmented by soldiers of fortune. It’s the too-oft told story of this region, and I see the effects around me still. People struggle to survive as politicians make war. This is a poor review of a complex situation… for which I would refer you to read the book itself.

Finally, in a book drawing the political to the personal, Tracy Kidder presents the biography of Deogratias Niyizonkiza in Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembering and Forgiving by Tracy Kidder (Random House; 2009), most of the action happening concurrently with Dancing. Instead of reporting on troop movements and who funded who, Kidder tells the regional story from an intesely personal perspective: that of a common man, caught in between. Niyizonkiza, a Burundian medical student-turned-doctor founded the Village Health Works complex that I had the absolute pleasure to visit in March, sees his life disrupted by the events of 1994 and 1995, the unraveling of the region through the genocide, the Congo wars, and Burundi’s political conflicts that emerged as 30 years of internal war. He escapes to America, the land of milk and honey in his estimation, to the life of a poor undocumented immigrant- shuttling between tenement housing and his under-paying jobs, where abusive supervisors prey on his fear of deportation. He, like many in America today, has no voice: until he reaches out and someone reaches back. He builds relationships that give him a foundation for rebuilding his life, attending university, and eventually returning to his country to start a health clinic.

What’s the takeaway from these three books, connected to this greater region? For me, it’s this: those without power will continue to be abused if no one stands for them, if no one fights for them. In the colonial Congo days, there were men like Morel. In more recent history, this involved organizations like Human Rights Watch and the International Rescue Committee documenting and reporting crimes against humanity, often putting their researchers and staff in danger for the sake of informing the rest of the world and acting as a voice for refugees and innocent bystanders whose lives were interrupted, and too often ended, due to the violence.

But on a more positive note, we see hope with Deogratias, the strength and perseverance of people who survive and act on their conscience. Hope always remains, and the actions of individuals can indeed have impact: just ask (and spend some time reading about) Edward Morel, George Washington Williams, and Deogratias Niyizonkiza.