Home Is

Wildfires in the further reaches of El Dorado county mean that the sky is dusty, with the mountains of the Sierra Nevada obscured; so the beginning and end of each day are a symphony of watercolor. John Muir described this range as “so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city” (p 35). I wake up early each morning, often with the sun, a layered pastel sunrise over the Range of Light, far in the distance, as my jetlagged brain bolts awake. It’s usually an hour of reverie before my nephew wakes up, sometimes just a pitter-patter beeline to his parents’ room; other times he snuggles next to me on the sofa and I read to him, usually mixing up words and receiving his corrections. After nearly two years in Rwanda, I’m home, and not sure when I’ll be back in the Land of a Thousand [Much Greener] Hills.

Home is a strange word for me to process. I’ve never lived in my brother and sister-in-law’s foothill house, where I’m currently staying – for my purposes here, I would define “lived” as a place where I’ve passed a definitive period of time. I spent two weeks on this sofa in December, but they had only been in the house for a short time at that point, having moved here a week before I left last year for my second stint in East Africa. Thus, stay is more apropos than live for my current existence as a middle-class vagabond. When you ask Rwandans, and indeed many other Africans, where they live, they often respond with stay – “I stay in Kimihurura.” I grew up in another town, a vastly different environment an hour away, but it’s a place that now tends to feel like anything but home; so, I stay here.

Home isn’t adventurous, but home is good. It’s mornings with my sister-in-law and the kids, watching my niece feed milky Cheerios to the dog. I argue with my brother on the porch, drinking Sierra Nevada pale ales to an evening cicada chorus. Janice and I talk ad nauseam about Myers Briggs; Alex and I get Thai food and he explains Pokemon Go and Snapchat; Janette knows to buy Mission tortilla chips and nuclear orange nacho cheese sauce; my grandmother hugs me with tears in the inner corners of her eyes. Home for me is people – a small group of them, a weirdly constructed tribe. It’s no longer a place.


I can already feel the creep of wanderlust to go back out, coupled in the exact instant with intense relief to be home again.”No one had forewarned me, however, that if you live abroad for any good while, the notion of home is permanently compromised. You will always be missing another place, and no national logic will ever again seem fully obvious to you” (Solomon, 2016, p 15).  It’s a contradiction of sorts, that I can both miss being in Rwanda and be relieved to be free of the experience.

And maybe this is an essential step in the travel experience, the final step: going home after rewriting who you are, what you know, what you think, even what you believe, based on what you have undergone while outside of your literal and geographic comfort zones. “Travel is an exercise in partly broadening yourself and partly in defining your own limits. Travel distills you to a decontextualized existence. You never see yourself more clearly than when immersed in an entirely foreign place” (p 20). And coming home makes all of this obvious, slams you in the face with reverse culture shock and a churning mass of emotions that I can’t pick apart. In equal measure, it allows distance so you can start to process, to pick apart, to better understand.

Andrew Solomon, in his recent book recounting twenty-five years travelling as a writer focused on art and culture, struggled with this idea of change, preferring to believe that travel hadn’t shifted his values, but made him hone in more vividly on those he found to be the most meaningful: “travel taught me how to relate to disparate people with incongruent values, and, thereby, how to be contradictory myself” (p. 33).

It’s hard to explain all of this to people at home; it’s even harder to answer questions about your experience. It’s impossible to refine months or even years of life to a few sentences, especially for me, long-winded, overly reliant on dry history, and not always able to tell if I’m being asked questions out of interest or obligation. You realize too that people often don’t know what questions to ask you – a shared awkwardness that seems to often result in people saying, “so, how was Africa” and my response being clipped into platitudes – because how do you respond? Maybe this is the aspect that can become the most separating and alienating – most dramatically in the first weeks after you get home, before you’ve again acclimated. To see your country, your home from outside: and then return and be among people who haven’t necessarily had that privilege (and I do think it is a privilege). You coil back into the comfort of communicating with people who understand your experience: what Solomon terms displacement, the “forgiving homeland, a thing held in common with others” who understand your personal contradictions (p. 11).

Muir advocated a different form of travel – through mountain passes, rather than foreign countries, claiming rocky corridors and “mountain mansions” will cure whatever ails you as they “kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” He dramatically claims that “few places in this world are more dangerous than home” (p.113). While I understand his point – that we can become complacent, remaining only in our homes and never venturing forth – I can’t quite agree. True, after traveling, to come back and expect that who you as left is what you return as – ultimately, this can’t be possible. But to see yourself, and see how you’ve changed, I would argue that you must come home to see yourself back in your initial context. Live large, Muir – let those of us who can’t process in the moment some time to process on a porch in your mountain proximity.

Whatever it is, whatever I’ve become, whatever I’ve lost, whatever I’ve learned, it is good to be home. Because when I travel, I find more value for what my home is and who my home is: defining it more specifically and allowing those details like images to lodge in my brain for recall on future adventures.


Muir, J. (1985). The mountains of California (originally published 1893). New York: Penguin.

Solomon, A. (2016). Far and away: Reporting from the brink of change: Seven continents, twenty-five years. New York: Scribner.



Brazier on the Floor: Mekelle, Ethiopia



Brizaf isn’t home when we arrive at the compound: an oblong-shaped courtyard with rooms that open onto a grapevine and brick pile, a cooker for injera housed in a sheltered corner. Hannah is greeted by Meron with a bright, luminous face and twin braids that begin at her widow’s peak and wind back around her scalp. It has been months – Hannah has been in another part of Ethiopia, and her Mekelle family has missed her dearly. We take a seat in the house – one room, but not so cramped – and wait for Brizaf to arrive.


Meron fanning the flames of the brazier, gomen (cabbage) cooking 

This is my second trip to Ethiopia this year; the first was for the Fellow program’s midyear conference held in Addis Ababa in March. This time, I’m on Hannah’s farewell tour, saying goodbye to the disparate places where she worked during the 2014-2016 fellowship cycles. First to Arba Minch, found in Ethiopia’s deep southlands, green crags of the Western edge of the Great Rift Valley; followed by a night in Addis and a flight to the opposite pole of the country, Mekelle (also spelled Makele or Mek’ele, among others) far closer to the contentious border with Eritrea, once unioned with Ethiopia.

Brizaf has come back home, her son Unael beside her. She greets Hannah with effusive hugs and kisses, shakes my hand and kisses me four times – double the Italian style – and forces me into a seat on the sofa. We are banned from any form of work to help her in preparing the food: thus, today is a lesson in Ethiopian cooking and hospitality, to watch the food that I’ve eaten for a week be prepared in front of me, with the loving cook squatting in front of a charcoal brazier on the house floor.

We brought cabbage, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes – the base of the cuisine. Meron works from a cutting board, a worn object with a deep center divot, chopping the cabbage into strips, her knees on either side. On the brazier, a two-tiered cooker with fire in the lower cavern heating an open, upper bowl where a pot is nestled among black and grey charcoal chips, everything is smoldering. In the pot, an inch of oil bubbles with pinches of chopped garlic, tomato, and onion – Brizaf, the overseeing chef, checks Meron’s work and stirs in the gomen (cabbage), settles the lid on top, and sets her daughter to the task of fanning the brazier fire.

In Ethiopian cooking, there seem to be two primary spice foundations – red or yellow. It reminds me of New Mexico roadtrips, where every dish ordered requires either red or green peppers, and waiter follow your request with that question, “red or green?” For today’s gomen, the base will be yellow: alicha, a mix of tumeric, cumin, and ginger, enflamed as needed with hot peppers.


Alicha, a spice blend of tumeric, cumin, and ginger

The second base – red – is found in another dish for today’s lunch: silsi, an oily, oniony fire blended with pulped tomato, garlic, and Ethiopian magic. The red is berbere, a mix of spices that lies at the root of nearly every dish. Each cook has his or her own berbere blend, consisting of dried and ground chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and basil, and a collection of spices local to the Horn: korarima, rue, nigella, and fenugreek.

Today’s meal could be a fasting one – in Ethiopia, fasting refers to vegan food, instead of absolute abstinence. Sudan might be the most Muslim place I have visited, but Ethiopia is the most Christian – practiced in the orthodox variety, with dogma infiltrating everyday aspects of life (the definition, after all, of Orthodoxy). Menus list “fasting” items separate – always the vegan accommodation. When the gomen is finished, Brizaf starts the shiro, spooning the ochre-colored powder from a Quaker oats can. Shiro is ground chickpea and spices, a powder mixed with water and oil and sometimes, if you have the means, onions and tomatoes. She mixes it slowly with oil and berbere, scrapping the powder from the edges of the pot as it boils and bubbles, thickening like like an orange edible lava. Americans, sometimes we forget – oil is not just for taste but needed calories, especially when your diet consists of injera and gomen and berbere. In my photographs, the finished shiro comes out smooth, silken, deep orange.


I follow Hannah to arrange my plate: unroll injera, the bread base. Injera is made from tef, a local grain, mixed with water and allowed to ferment for a period before being cooked on a smooth, hot surface – the cooker from the yard, with a space beneath the griddle surface for open flame. The result is a vehicle for both arranging food and a getting that food to your mouth – no utensils, just torn strips of injera to pick up gomen and shiro.


Lunch plate: injera base, with shiro, gomen, and silsi, clockwise from 12


Brizaf continues her hospitable chores as we eat. She is a woman of the village, now settled in one of the largest Ethiopian cities. Her forehead sweeps back from her brows, crossed by a thread-like braid, Tigryan style. A chain from one side of her forehead to the other, gathered at the middle, demonstrates her status as a married woman. She is tattooed as well: a faint circle between her brows and spaced chains on her neck. Meron makes a plate to split with her brother, and gives the first bite – a pocket of injera with shiro, silsi, and gomen in a happy mass – to her mother. Brizaf’s hands are busy – she’s begun the coffee ceremony, roasting green and pale brown coffee beans in a small pot. She shakes them like popcorn, popping and darkening and calls after her daughter, who roots through the curio cabinet for fancier cups – a  prerogative for guests.

Coffee ceremony, beans roasting

As with Ethiopian coffee tradition, a full spread is laid: beans roasting in a pot on the brazier, a smaller incense burner pipping with charcoal and a stick of incense, small china cups and saucers that resemble espresso cups. Coffee is an ancient ceremony in Ethiopia, outpacing the Italian occupation and the West’s obsession with the beans. She shakes the smoking pot, beans now roasted black, for us to smell – the beans almost oiled black and deep brown. She puts the jebena – the round bottom traditional coffee pot – onto the brazier coals as we finish our lunch, the oil of silsi coating our fingers.

We drink cups of coffee, three in total, stirred with sugar. Throughout, Hannah uses her Tigrinya and Brizaf speaks to us – sometimes through her older son, able to translate, often through smiles and phrases we cannot understand.


Cup Number Three

There are moments, though, that we speak the same language. She laughs as Hannah takes photos of her son and shows them to him, his bashful smiles becoming peals of laughter. I show her pictures of my niece and nephew, 4 and 2, dressed in their Easter best and she smiles and kisses my phone. It’s the universality of the human experience, that we don’t always need the same language to communicate. She speaks to us with her food, we speak to her by our enjoyment of it: the heart of hospitality.

Much love to Hannah for always explaining Ethiopian ways to me.




Agents of Resilience: Bukavu, DR Congo


The bridge that divides Rwanda and DR Congo’s South Kivu capital, Bukavu, belongs in a fairy tale: a rickety, wood-hewn span, deserving of a goat-hating troll guard. Perhaps thirty feet long, planks spaced so you could catch the rush of the Rusizi River below, the official demarkation between two countries with a convoluted recent past. As we crossed, three English Language Fellows and two Fulbright professors, an SUV cut past on the middle planks, spaced for a car, the bridge groaning and all of us pressing into the rails and away from the vehicle. The bridge conjures images from 1994 and the directly following years, a second river of refugees streaming from Rwanda into the Congo. Today, no refugees: guards on either side, women passing with bags on their heads, stacks of eggs in cartons, a more rural envisioning of the protagonist from the classic children’s story Caps for Sale.

The five us were in the country at the end of May to assist with a two-day conference that Steve, the EL Fellow stationed in Bukavu, had planned – the first of its kind in area, focused on teacher professionalism and gleaning participants from primary and secondary schools throughout Buakvu, and further afield: Idjwi Island, in the middle of Lake Kivu (the primary Western border between DR Congo and Rwanda), Goma (North Kivu) and even south, closer to the Burundi border. One professor from Lubumbashi; others from local institutions in Bukavu – it was a veritable Richard Scarry picture book of transport: people coming by bus, moto, ferry, plane. For us, we traveled by car to the border, about six hours winding through Nyungwe Forest and the western provinces, then crossed by foot and met Steve at immigration.


Kivu Lak from one of the five “fingers” or peninsulas of Bukavu that extend into the lake; photo taken from a small cafe on a hill where we had breakfast 

Crossing into a new country is commonly done by plane, at least for Western travellers – first steps in the country taken after disembarking are passing through an airport, greeting an immigration officer, and processing through customs and baggage claim before emerging from the building in the new land. The plane provide the air bridge, moving you from one city to another, via the most sterilized ports available. Crossing on foot through borderlands is a more stark contrast, the visceral transition from one nation and another. Between Cynagugu, Rwanda, and Bukavu, DRC, the change is immediate, visible from either side of the river: two different worlds. The paved road quite literally ends on the Rwandan side, a smooth tarmac butting into the lot that opens to the wood bridge. You look out on the opposite side of the river: red dirt earth roads, dust, disintegration.


En route to the lake, hedged by bamboo, eucalyptus, and dense green

I wrote about crossing between Gisenyi and Goma before, and the stark stratification that exists even among developing nations like Rwanda and DRC, betraying recent history. In 1994, refugees fled into Bukavu and Goma from Rwanda, and were gathered into squalid refugee camps that eventually became anarchical kingdoms of fleeing genocidaires, wracked by cholera and the litany of diseases found in cramped, unsanitary quarters. Many returned to Rwanda after several years in these camps, but few talk about it. Students last year would tell me that they had “stayed” in Congo after the genocide – one horrible tragedy abutting another: in 1994, “the Rusizi plain became white like snow with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tents,” Benjamin Serukiza, vice governor of South Kivu, told Jason Stearns in Dancing in the Glory of the Monster (p.98).

What follows is a gross simplification of a complex web of events (read Dancing in the Glory for complete account): the region was heaved into a second, long-lasting conflict that began in 1996, Africa’s Great War – the First and Second Congo Wars, in which Kivu region became a crucible for rebel armies backed by African powers looking for a piece of the rich Congo and direct access to power following thirty years of the kleptocratic dictator propped up by the U.S. in the name of “communist containment” – Mobutu Sese Seko. The conflict(s) lasted from 1996 to 2004, claiming more than 5.4 million lives and permanently, it seems, sewing seeds of instability in the region. As the country closes in on coming elections, in which the current president Joseph Kabila seeks a third term as the thief in chief, the region continues to rock toward instability: Steve talks about police tear gassing crowds outside of his university – and second-hand gassing leaking into hallways, mass demonstrations, grenade attacks, dissidents disappearances and imprisonments, reports of more serious rebel movements outside of the city itself. The undercurrent is that another conflict will break and again decimate the region. The whispered question seems not to be if it will happen – but when.


Kivu Lak, a boat (which doubles as an emergency contingency plan) in the distance

Conflict is written on buildings, marked on faces, almost palpable in the air of a place. In Bukavu, the physical form is most striking: poorly constructed roads that dissolve into eroded canyons with the rains, pocked buildings, some completely toppled or decimated. Police are constant – under or unpaid, like so many employees of a failed government state, so they supplement by shaking down drivers with defective paperwork – perhaps even the wrong stamp will result in a fine. Development requires stability- and in this country and especially this place, stability is a luxury. It is the problem of living in a vacuum, a place where opportunity only exists if you are connected by blood to more powerful people. For EL Fellows, who already work in developing contexts with poorly-developed education systems, the challenges are magnified tenfold. Our mandate is often to help improve systems and work toward professionalization, but how do you convince teachers of the value of developing themselves as more aware professionals when there are no monetary gains, few opportunities for advancement, overcrowded classrooms and never-ending workloads – little or nothing beyond personal, internal satisfaction? In a broken state like DRC – which provides a stark contrast to Rwanda’s forward-leaning, bright-eyed future, where change occurs, however slow – you often cannot blame people for doing what they must just to survive. In Stringer, Anjan Sundaram encapsulates this notion well, something that a Westerner with a safety net can hardly understand: there is “a futility to worrying in such a place: the threats were too many” (p. 15). IMG_1718

Congolese teachers compiling a list of ten qualities of a leader and answering the question: “how do we impart these to our students?”

It’s not only a challenge in Congo: teachers in developing nations face professional and personal hardships which consistently demotivate and result in deteriorated performance, factors among them “increasing workloads due to education reform, low and infrequent compensation, lack of professional recognition and development opportunities, lack of accountability, and lack of voice” (Wolf et al, 2015, p. 717). Wolf et al, in a study of cumulative risk as related to teacher well-being in DR Congo (essentially, the “accumulation of risk” experienced by a person which eventually overwhelms their built-in capacity to adapt or cope), explains toxic stress  as “one explanation for how and why cumulative risks may overwhelm teachers’ capacities and ‘get under the skin’ to affect well-being and disrupt their abilities to effectively interact with and teach in the class- room” (p. 717). Essentially, the researcher sought to investigate if cumulative risk, when manifested without a positive, supporting environment to counteract the physiological impact of this toxic stress, predicted diminished teacher well-being and motivation in within the DRC. It is challenging to imagine an environment even more difficult for a teacher than what is faced there.

This is what I knew before we began our first day of the conference – a bleak foundation of history, politics, and comparative education research. I’ve known Congolese and worked with teachers from DRC throughout my time in Rwanda. The newness of the experience was to work within the context, on the ground, surrounded by Congolese teachers and actively negotiating with them: to deliver the content I decided appropriate, to work with them to massage it into their context and experience to find its value.


Men and babies: Richard and Steve with the next generation

However, as has happened time and again in my work on this continent, the reality of what is in front of me and what I hear and what I experience cuts deeper than what I have learned from reading and research. I saw teachers, eager to increase their knowledge and modify their practice, asking questions, debating, sometimes grandstanding – but ultimately engaging in professional development and the early stages of making PD a self-driven, personal practice.

A handful of university students served as volunteers – helping to arrange the chairs (which, in a darkly comic fashion, continued to break throughout the presentations, hapless victims falling to the floor, sometimes one after the other), setting up technology, herding the teachers toward the concurrent sessions, or just sitting in the back of the room and chat with us. Conversations oscillated around career goals, travel dreams, relationships – most often coming back to weave politics throughout – uncertainty about the future continually tempered by optimism.

During one exercise, I sat with groups of teachers and asked them to choose the top ten leadership qualities that they felt were most important for a leader – not confined to an education leader, but any leader. On their own, they wrote their top ten, then sat with partners and melded their lists together. Over and over again, I could see the same words show up: optimistic, humble, good listener, connected to their people. I asked them to discuss questions connected to their lists: Which characteristic is your strength? Which would you like to develop? Which are most essential for a teacher? Which are most essential for an academic administrator? And – the one I thought to be most essential – How do we impart these qualities to our students? 


Maggie, alight in fantastic Congolese dress, working with two other teachers during a leadership panel.

Their lists – and their discussed responses – clashed violently with the examples of leadership too often found in Congo. Humility, listening to your people, being responsible to their needs and wants – not words often used to describe dictators, but instead, the words we use to describe those teachers whose impact and memory stick with us through the years. And this is what the toxic stress of an environment like Bukavu, the possible burnout from the myriad of challenges facing teachers in the region, cannot always destroy: continued belief that people are able to see and make change in their worlds, either in classrooms or at higher political planes.

Earlier in May, Facebook CFO and author of Lean In Sheryl Sandburg delivered the commencement address at UC Berkeley, speaking for the first time about the tragic death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, from a cardiac arrhythmia in 2015. In expressing her journey of loss, she connected with the work of psychologist Martin Seligman and his three P’s – personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence – “that are critical to how we bounce back from hardship.” She calls these the “seeds of resilience” – essentially, that when faced with hardship, if we work through these three steps, we are able to strengthen our defenses for dealing with future challenges. One thought, near the end of her talk, resonated loudly:

“You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle,               you can build it up, draw on it when you need it.” 

Perhaps it is trite to link the survivors of Africa’s Great War and Bukavu’s continued tumult with the widowing of a wealthy tech executive, but as I have been realizing with trauma, there is a line that is drawn through our experiences, that even with disparate geography, economic status, race or culture or religion, we can find commonalities in our shared experiences as humans. That what we survive is not the greatest predictor of who we are and who we will be – it does not dictate our capability.

Professionalization, is, after all, a form of resilience: Hoyle (2008)  identifies one aspect of professionalization in the teaching field as “able to function effectively in uncertain and indeterminate situation.” (p. 285). Like the “muscle” of resilience, professionalism builds as a teacher is able to access education, consider their own pedagogical practice, apply what they have learned, evaluate the effectiveness of the practice, innovate, and complete the cycle through sharing their experience. 

Wolf et al in their study of cumulative risk and teacher well-being in DRC found that that “burnout decreases as teachers become more experienced” (p. 735) – congruent with similar Western studies, the highest rates of teacher burnout occur among younger and less experienced teachers. As teachers age and deepen their knowledge and experience, they are able to cope with the challenges of the classroom and balance the stressors of the outside life with their classroom existences. As they view themselves as professionals, and continually work toward that goal (one, I would argue, is never truly attainable, as it is the journey not the destination). Interestingly, the study found that not the challenges of the classrooms (such as a lack of materials or classroom sizes) but the interactions and relationship built in educational environments were most essential in coping with stress and mitigating burnout: “efforts to improve the nature of interactions among staff within a school, such as school management and supervision, may be more important at this stage” (p. 737).

Like operating in an uncertain and indeterminate situation, perhaps like South Kivu, Kabul, or a refugee camp in Lebanon, it requires an equal measure of optimism: resilience teaches that something better and brighter is possible.

For me, personally, I am inching toward the close of this chapter: I’m 25 days from returning home after two stints with the English Language Fellows program, twenty months in total in Rwanda. But each day, considering what I see in front of me, I wonder if I am moving toward a similar frame: that maybe I am an optimist; maybe, ultimately, optimism is the required substance for resilience and the required grit for surviving a career in education, especially work in education in a developing context. But ultimately, they are thoughts for a different day, perhaps 25 from now, so I will end with Seligman:

Optimism is invaluable for the meaningful life. With a firm belief in a positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are.



Hoyle, E. (2008). Changing conceptions of teaching as a profession: personal reflections. In D. Johnson and R. Maclean (Eds.) Teaching: professionalization, development, and leadership. Dordrecht: Springer, 285-304.

Stearns, J. (2011) Dancing in the glory of monsters: The collapse of the Congo and the great war of Africa. New York: Public Affairs.

Sundaram, A. (2013) Stringer: A reporter’s journey in the Congo. New York: Doubleday.

Wolf, S., et al (2015). Cumulative risk and teacher well-being in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Comparative Education Review, 59(4), 717-742.

May Dispatches: Khartoum, Sudan

There are places in this world that you never imagine you will set foot – the forbidden list, taboo for cultural, religious, or diplomatic reasons. For Americans, Sudan figures high on that list, a response to the strict economic sanctions leveled against the country in response to President Omar Al-Bashir’s war against his own people and perpetration of genocide in the Darfur region. This mean that few Americans will be able to get a visa to visit or work, and American businesses are strictly prohibited from conducting operations in the country. This doesn’t just mean no McDonalds –  it’s a country without ATMs (Visa and Mastercard can’t do business there) and after logging into Upwork while in Khartoum, I received a probationary message that my freelance contracts would be suspended until I could prove that I was not in Sudan as the online portal would not risk retribution for paying someone working in Sudan.

This is to say – it is not a country you visit flippantly, offhand for a weekend adventure. In May, I spent ten days in Sudan, joined by the other two Rwanda ELFs to help the EL Fellow in Khartoum to conduct a five-day teacher training workshop. It’s hard to write about places like this – those that have had such a significant impact on me, that have left me with such overwhelming positivity. It comes as a happy burden to attempt to illustrate the vast difference between Sudanese politics and Sudanese people – that Sudanese people are not their politics, that I left feeling blessed to have been a receiver of their warmth and generosity. So here, among a few frames, are my observations from this place.



Wandering the streets of Khartoum

Sudan straddles the Sahara, the bridge between Muslim north Africa and the sub-saharan subcontinent, somewhere between our visions of the middle east and the heart of darkness. The bottom swath of the country transitioned to statehood as South Sudan in 2011; it’s independence indicated below on a large map at the National Museum in Khartoum. This means that the country is a diverse spectrum of skintones and cultures.


Sudan: Bordered by Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, C.A.R., Chad, and Libya.

The country is under a form of Sharia law (since there is not one sharia law and it looks different in each country where it is implemented). Basically, and most pertinent to my own life, this meant no alcohol and keeping covered. Western women and Christian women, I was told, were not expected to cover their hair, but needed to remain respectfully covered: legs and shoulders under wraps. Not all women covered: in our classes, we saw everything from full niqab (face covered) to hair flowing free. Wandering through shops demonstrated  Budweiser is imported through some grey supply chains to be sold in the stores: NA, of course, stands for non-alcoholic, somehow making already awful beer even more horrific, a sort of oatmeal-piss flavour.


Probably imported from Saudi Arabia, another no-go zone for alcohol

Sudan is my first Islamic nation to visit for more than a few hours (thanks to an unplanned layover in Istanbul). This means corner mosques, quite a bit less touching in busy market situations, and foot washing stations at the school where we conducted the training.


Beyond these ultimately cosmetic differences, people are people – and even before landing on the ground in Khartoum, I was impressed by the kind, openness of the Sudanese people with whom I flew, worked, ate: a bright, gentle spirit that permeated the entire experience. I felt welcomed at once, appreciated for my work, engaged and connected with participants, one with the teachers there: the international camaraderie and motley brotherhood of educators worldwide.



Participants working on an activity with the beast swamp cooler in the background: a necessity in 120 degree desert heat

After work and on the weekend (Friday-Saturday given that Friday is the holy day) we experienced some of the city. In a country where Embassy employees take armored cars, we hopped bajaj taxis, those three-wheeled tripod-looking minicabs, better at the bob and weave of trafficked roads – never sensing danger for being four khuawaja teachers wandering the city streets.



We visited the market where Denise dropped down on a plastic stool for tea and we wandered in search of beads and Darfur baskets.


Tea station – tea, the national pastime


Dark alleys of the Omdurman market, the souq

An ideal Sudanese evening is spent sipping tea from glasses next to the Nile – Khartoum lies at the convergence of the Blue and White Niles. Boats motor by, spitting diesel fumes and young men line the bridges, laughing and chatting.


Given it’s geographic positioning, Sudan is made of ancient stuff. A walk through the National Museum tunnels back through time, a waltz through the kingdoms that populated my African civilizations classes: the Kerma, the Kush, the Meroë. Pyramids, sarcophagi, rough hewn bowls and more detailed scarabs – what I experienced in fourth grade at the San Jose Egyptian Museum, just closer to its source, directly outside the capital. Entire buildings are housed in wide warehouses, allowing you to walk through, to trace your fingers against the carved hieroglyphics, to inspect up close the painted reliefs.



From a museum to reality: on the final day, we trekked outside of the city with papers in hand to stop at four police checkpoints in search of ancient earthed from the sand.



Next up, down the road and one stop for Fantas and afternoon prayers (for our Sudanese companions) later, were the Nubian pyramids, the remainders of 255 structures constructed 800 years after their more famous Egyptian cousins.


Panoramic of the full site, with some pyramids reconstructed (middle)

The sand was so hot it melted my companions shoes: Jessica pealed off the sole of her Chakos, one of the Sudanese women watched her New Balance sole flap along. I drank three liters of water and still had a hangover-style headache; sweat evaporated off of me as soon as it appeared. And then Bob rode a camel, and the week in Sudan was complete.


Bob: glorious, wild and free

So there it is, my attempt to demystify this place, to maybe replace in your head the image of Sudan from starvation and massacre in Darfur, a smirking Bashir, sanctions and sharia: a place of scorched, impossible landscape, genuine people of kindness, a hot beating heart in the north of this continent that consistently, daily surprises me.


Love & salam


In the Flicker: Nyiragongo, DRC

In the past few years, I’ve probably read a dozen books starring the Democratic Republic of Congo: King Leopold, Dancing in the Glory, Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Stringer – and a dozen more where it features heavily in a supporting role. I joke that when I can’t handle reading about Rwanda and its accompanying canon of genocide reporting presented from a diversity of perspectives, I read about the DRC. It isn’t really true; there’s just much more on DRC, from a diversity of time periods, a diversity of places, and diversity of players. A country the size of Western Europe that looms over “Lilliputian” Rwanda’s western doorstep (Stearns, 2011, p. 148).

To write about the DRC and its history, whose “complexity has thwarted journalists and diplomats alike,” requires adherence to Jason Stearns’ (2011) warning: “beware of oversimplification, it will get you in trouble” (p. 16). It’s a country of incredible natural resources and an accompanying, convoluted history of double-crosses and dark players seeking the riches those resources bring. Kinshasa, the capital, is a long flight over jungle (amusing described as “broccoli fields” in the documentary Blood in the Mobile) from the east-bound Kivu provinces (Nord and Sud) which abut Lake Kivu, the divider between Rwanda and DRC. The east played host for Africa’s Great War, triggered by the Rwandan genocide in 1994, not simply one war “but at least forty or fifty different, interlocking wars” (Stearns, 2011, p. 100) which resulted in up to five million dead, depending on estimates. Without simplifying a decade-long conflict to a paragraph, today a shaky peace remains, which, “many diplomats and locals say, is more important than justice especially when the government is full of yesterday’s military leaders” (p. 146).

Today, Kivu’s unstable past is hardly a deterrent for those seeking minerals used throughout global industry. Within the past decade, rebel groups such as the Mai Mai, RCD-Goma, and FDLR (which are, by the way, Rwandan Hutu rebels) have been reported as controlling and “regulating” mining sectors within the region, skimming a revenue from the sale of the minerals and channeling that money back into the literal magazines of their causes. Blood in the Mobile (2010) purports that this mining for coltan, cassiterite, tin, and gold finds its way into “legitimate” supply chains; phone companies are reticent to admit that the admirable piece of technology, probably in your pocket or near you now, contains a little piece of Kivu.

Joseph Conrad, wrote in his seminal Heart of Darkness, “Like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling.” DRC: perhaps living in the flicker, or just outside it.


Gran Barrier, Rwanda side

A thousand pages later, this past weekend, I crossed the border into DRC. My 24-hour trip, hardly a genuine attempt to experience the country, that began at the Gran Barrier. The barrier is the foot/auto border between Rubavu on the Rwandan side and Goma on the Congolese side, conjoined sister cities situated on the shores of placid Lake Kivu, sliced by the dividers of an international border and a vast economic divide. Even the developing world has these class divides: the reality for those who live on $4 a day, in relative stability and security (Rwanda) and those who survive, caught between rebels and resource pillagers, on $1.80 a day (DRC, both from UN Human Development Report, 2015).

On the DRC side, officials page through my passport and stamp my travel documents as I struggle through pidgin French, then point my friend and I to a closet of a room stuck to the side of the immigration building, where a nurse sits under a few Ebola and cholera posters pealing from the walls. We flash our yellow fever cards and the nurse uses an electronic thermometer held to our throats to take our temperature and then slowly copies our names, passport numbers, gender, and temperature into the ubiquitous graph-paged blue books, beloved by border guards this continent over. We are quickly released as legal entrants and climb into windowless Land Rovers, Indian Jones style, to wind through Goma proper and north of the city to our destination, settled in the heart of Virunga National Park: Nyiragongo volcano.


Phone charge station: example of micro business at its finest

Writers love to anthropomorphize this country, with cities that become the humans they contain as they hum and throb and pulse. Sundaram (2013)  writes of his Kinshasa neighbourhood Victoire, at night, “the vitality would resurge…almost pure pleasure and excitement…dancers would move like water: slow hips, tempting” (p.9). Frenzy, chaos, humanity: from nearly two years in Rwanda, I can perceive the difference – disordered order, raw, open. Rwanda is a grid; Congo is a spiral, or ten spirals bouncing off each other, fractals spinning and churning.

The Rover cuts quickly down the road, Goma flying past the open sides of the truck. I was struck by the darkness – not the people, not the buildings painted bright with jewel tones and murals, not even the landscape, electric green under a brilliant blue sky – but the amount of igneous rock present, as if the city was blanketed in a charcoal-coloured snow. In 2002, Nyiragongo erupted and two rivers of lava sluiced through the city, a blaze of destruction that hardened into the dark volcanic rock that now lines this place, darkening its color pallete. You see inhabitants’ ingenuity, co-opting the rock for fences, walls, or even just stacked up between houses and buildings to clear it from the roads and gardens. Though it’s been fourteen years since the eruption, it still lies in massive heaps, haphazard hills when not methodically stacked and woven into walls. It’s continued presence belays the hand-hewn reality of this place; I can’t imagine bulldozers doing this clearing; the lava flows were most certainly broken up and moved by hand, one irregular crenelated rock at a time.

And then, the city falls away and we are bordered by Virunga on my left side, the volcano emerging from behind a curtain of cloud. A park on the edge of this civilisation, fighting a different battle but with the same objective: survival.  Virunga National Park was established in 1925 under Belgian colonial rule and originally called Prince Albert’s Park. The park is one of only three places left in the world where mountain gorillas can be found in their natural habitat: the other two are Rwanda and Uganda, within this verdant triangle of forest area. The park’s cadre of Park Rangers protect these animals and other wildlife from poachers and violent conflict, and the edges of the park from the encroachment of groups who would seek to destroy its natural beauty and incredible biodiversity for the sake of oil, minerals, or land, illustrated in the 2014 Netflix documentary Virunga.


Signs for the Nyiragongo trailhead: Prince Albert was the name under colonial rule (hence the bullet holes – opinions expressed in violent form) 

We – myself and sixteen others from the U.S., Canada, and parts of Europe – begin our trek with Virunga rangers at the front, middle, and end of the group. They are dressed in proud uniforms, emblazoned with the park logo, and are slung with packs on their backs and AK-47s across their chests. To hike with armed guards is standard this part of the world: here in DRC, it is to protect you from poachers and rebels.

They are very quiet and succinct in their directions to us. Only a week ago, two of their colleagues were brutally murdered in a conflict between the rangers and the Mai Mai rebel group: two rangers, Fidèle Mulonga Mulegalega and Venant Mumbler Muvesevese, were killed, and another is missing.


One of our rangers, Kalashnikov in hand

But when you are in a group of peers, hiking toward an open lava lake that inspires a multitude of Lord of the Rings jokes (“to Mount Doom, Frodo!”), it’s easy to forget all of these layers of context – poverty, war, conflict minerals, poaching. It all disappears in the quiet of the place, only the laboured breathing of hikers, the igneous rocks crushing together as you move across them, the wind and later driving rain among the tree branches, the occasional far-off helicopter.

I’m no outdoors adventure writer and haven’t the skill to electrify the sweaty, rain-soaked, sometimes painful details of the hike (and sometimes full body clamber) to the top. The route was long – five hours, broken into five segments, each progressively more challenging with incline and condition of the path. The final segment, up the side of the volcano to the crater summit, was taken a few steps at a time, neck down and eyes constantly forced a step ahead, the sharp 45 degree angle of the mountain in the peripheral vision. But at the top, the moment of glory: freeing myself from my backpack, adding extra layers against the biting cold, and surveying the view from the edge of the crater.

IMG_0741 (1)

The crater with the lava lake in the middle 

Within the past month, reports came of a new vent in the crate – but no “lateral movement” of lava, meaning it isn’t looking to erupt yet. The lake is a depression within the crater’s ledge, and the new lava vents form pools (or so we can observe) on the higher ledge above the depression. They shift and change, the top cooling and then the edges lighting fire and churning, pulling the cooled sections back into the lava to reheat and recool again – fifth grade science, before our eyes. In photographs, it appears as a shimmering, neon red puddle that inhales and exhales, expands and decreases.


Virunga Mist, a Rwandan beer, with a background of Virunga Smoke

We stayed the night and woke early to see the lake blaze in the dark, an epic campfire with the same mesmerising quality. From a bench on the edge of the crater, the cold permeating all of my layers, I watched the crust form and disintegrate, occasional flares and splashes of molten orange. The smoke rose above it, a ruby glow in the darkness. Behind our back, the sun rose over the mountain range, slowly unveiling the layers of mountaintops, the clouds forming a blanket and obscuring the valley below us. The lights of Goma and the edge of Kivu was visible, a sprinkling far in the distance.


Before sunrise on Nyiragongo

An hour after sunrise, we begin the descent, a much quicker pace than the laborious climb. The impact of each downward step, across often loose volcanic rock, resonates in my knees and thighs. We move along the path from the open low scrub near the summit to the sparse cover of trees and bushes then finally the dense forest as the ground levels out. We are packed back into trucks, snaked again down dirt roads and through Goma, and deposited at our starting point: the Gran Barrier. No injuries, no eruptions, no attacks, nothing real to fear in the end.

Places like this, seeking an identity beyond the one that history has hoisted upon them, need tourists. Ultimately, you should visit this place. The danger risk for tourists is low – and perhaps more is at stake if the tourism dries up: if no one visits, if no one cares, is there a reason to live and die for the protection of this place?

The reward is high: to see the earth opened up, the stuff that is at the very centre of our world smoke in an open pit. To see this: another, brighter perspective on this wide, vast continent in itself, the DRC.

Sources/Stuff Worth Watching

Blood in the Mobile: Danish 2010 documentary on the connections between smartphones and the conflict minerals sourced from East DRC.

Stearns, J. (2011) Dancing in the glory of monsters: The collapse of the Congo and the great war of Africa. New York: Public Affairs.

Sundaram, A. (2013) Stringer: A reporter’s journey in the Congo. New York: Doubleday.

Virunga: British 2014 documentary available through Netflix which details Virunga National Park’s conservation efforts in the face of continued rebel violence and exploitation by Western oil companies.

A Grief Abroad

For Elaine. 


It came at the close of our second day trekking into the Ethiopian wilderness. Covered in a second skin of dust, blisters rubbing between my toes in the wide box of too-new hiking boots, sweat – everywhere. We are lodged on rickety benches of stretched animal skins that shifted right and left as we shifted off of sore legs and backs, overlooking a wide panorama of cliff edge in the Ethiopian highlands: rolling hills, a jagged spectrum of browns and greens and reds like the painted backdrop of a Western. 

There’s a message from my cousin, the red notification leaping up as I moved my phone out of power-saving airplane mode and it connects to EthioTelecom.

Leanne, have you heard. Grandma passed away this morning.

The first moment is disorientation, counting back eleven hours, realising that “this morning” is still “this morning” in California, despite it being “this evening” in Ethiopia, the sunset subsiding into an inky blackness falling around us on our clifftop.

I’ve been abroad on and off in stints since 19, and always, lurking in the back of my head, was this fear: that being abroad, I would miss something truly memorable, truly important, in pursuit of what is (at its most disparaging) my “wandering” or (at its most respectful) my pursuit of a career and life outside of the usual bounds. A birth, a dozen weddings, and, this year, two deaths: first, my mother’s sister from cancer, and now, my father’s stepmother, Grandma Elaine, at 87.

Grief, at this distance, is sharpened by geography and that creeping guilt that I should have been there at the end. It doesn’t help that I knew it was coming, that at some point, my “abroad luck” would run dry and I would be 6000 miles and a $3000 flight away from jubilation or tragedy. There’s no comfort in the knowledge that it was inevitable, to be away and unable to return home, to be a part of the funeral, to hug my cousins and aunts and uncles, to sit next to my brother instead of crying to him over WhatsApp. It was impossible, in that moment, to walk back to my friends, laughing over cool beers, and share the news.

Even a week later, grief in this form – far away – is a funny thing: when it hits, what it does, what I do. What sets me off: sitting in a conference meeting as my colleagues talk, opening a link to an obituary, seeing condolences from thirty, forty years of her acquaintance added to the bottom. It’s strange how death – and distance – illuminate in those moments, somehow rattling me and making me proud of the woman I knew. 

My grandmother, the second wife of my father’s father, and more a part of my formative years than my biological grandmother, who passed too early and left me a few pieces of art and a perhaps a few creative bones, was named Elaine. We called her Grandma Elaine, or sometimes just her first name, and she lived in Riverside, part of the San Bernardino valley, a desert that will forever bring nostalgia at the sight of the R carved into the Box Springs Mountains or the rolling, dusty brownness – perhaps not so different from my perch in these African highlands. 

She was Scandinavian, and proud, with a careful, platinum bob. She drank refrigerated Franzia with ice cubes, a habit very separate from my family’s conservatism. Her fingers carried a collection of rings, big, bold gold pieces and diamonds, collected from her lifetime. She retired when I was a child and managed to travel swaths of the world – often on cruises. She once told me a story of her cruise boat being held up by some sort of pirates and she put her rings in her mouth to keep them from being stolen.

But, as I realised only recently, she was my role model: a strong woman who survived the deaths of two husbands and a son, who raised four boys, who beat cancer and lived with unapologetic vivacity. I remember one of my last conversations with her, her too far away to speak and me doing all the talking,  at the start of the summer only a few days after I’d arrived home following ten months in Rwanda, holding her hand and telling her how she had been so influential to me – even from a distance, from her home in Riverside to my ordinary (and now past) life in Northern California.

She was a teacher. I am a teacher. She travelled the world – I’m working on that one. She was brash, brave, ballsy – I’m working on those, too. But she was a woman of great depth, great compassion, great understanding. She knew what to tell me when it was something I needed to hear – to tell me I was strong, I was capable, that I wasn’t those other things that people would say about me. That I could do something different, that I was enough.

A few days after hearing that she had passed, deep into Saturday night as I was in another hotel, sitting with friends and looking out not over a cliff face but the lights of Addis Ababa, my phone blipped again with another text, this time from my brother, telling me that my grandmother’s best friend told him that Elaine relived her life through me.

I guess this is the job of a eulogy: to allow you to organise your thoughts, find a direction in your grief, to remember. C.S. Lewis found solace following the death of his wife in this task, “by writing it all down ... I believe I get a little outside of it” (p. 10). And so this is a eulogy to my grandmother: to put into words both grief and thankfulness, for what she imparted to me, even from a distance. It isn’t bad luck, to experience loss and grief while far away, it’s life: a thing better lived than fretted over.

Lewis, C.S. (1961) A Grief Observed. Harper: San Francisco.

Capability (n): power and ability

To describe a culture, a place, a country, an environment – it’s the job of a writer, but never an easy task; entire fields of academic inquiry have emerged in its pursuit. When asked tell me about where you live or tell me about Rwanda, I —we— tend toward two modes for response.

Last Friday evening, during a Google Hangout with an American high school, both were in full effect. The event was an interesting concept, engineered by Steve, my friend/colleague just across the border in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo: discussing our experiences in DRC and Rwanda to a group of high schoolers studying the Rwandan Genocide. Six thousand miles, I joked, is the most effective amount of distance between myself and one hundred high school juniors. The event took place in an auditorium and the teacher set up smartphones around the room, streaming video to the Hangout link so we could move between the feeds, seeing either the main projection of our own video transmissions or the kids themselves, hunched over their notebooks. Flipping between feeds triggered flashbacks of my own high school: a rainbow of coloured hoodies, eye liner, persistent adolescent acne. 

It’s a peculiar feeling, to talk without having the interpersonal signals of turn-taking, present in a conversation or judged facing the audience from the centre lectern of a university hall. Talking into a chat, answering a question that you’ve rehearsed earlier in the day, skimming notes. Here, the mild discomfort of public speaking is exacerbated by distance, time difference, and the continual finger-crossing that your internet connection wouldn’t fail.

What is it really like to live there? I listened to Steve answer that seminal question, relating his observations of the state of the country to the earlier discussion of DRC’s history as King Leopold’s private colony. Today: broken roads, broken buildings, broken economy, broken society. I think we always want to understand why – why is the DRC so seemingly broken – is it the years of stress, the trickle down depression of a lack of opportunity: why strive when there is nothing to strive to? This is what happens when power, money, and opportunity are so heavily concentrated with a small elite, leaving the rest of the country to fend for themselves.


Sambaza fishing boats at dusk on Lake Kivu, the primary border between Rwanda and DRC

I glanced down at my own notes to prepare for my response. Thinkers, we gravitate toward statistics to flesh out the background or foundation of the environment: something cold, hard, empirical about listing numbers, even if math was forever my poorest subject and statistics even more dismal. For Rwanda, when talking about the past, it’s a bleak numeric parade: of those who lived through the Genocide, 99.9% witnessed violence, 69% witnessed someone being killed, 87.5% saw dead bodies (UNICEF, National Trauma Survey, 1995). Earlier in the week I’d calculated brighter statistics – completing my program’s midyear report with its requirement for quantifying five months’ work to produce statistics – how many served, how many trainings ran, how many additional projects – the language that Congress requires when determining the efficacy and value of English Language Programs and whether it merits continued operation.

These are the two descriptive tendencies: to list what is wrong, or to rely on numbers. The first is a natural tendency, especially for Americans, with our cultural orientation that — problems can be surmounted, challenges can be fixed, so we quite naturally focus on what is wrong, what is not “right.” Tell me what is wrong, and I will know what I can work to fix. Give me the numbers, and I will drive them down to a more reasonable rate. 70% illiteracy? The right band aid, and we can make that 40%.

When describing our work in our respective countries, we do this constantly, especially for those of us working in Africa, where the challenges often appear insurmountable, the proverbial hummingbird transporting droplets of water to quell a raging inferno (see: Wangari Maathai). It’s a problem of orientation and focus: what if we flipped the orientation, instead of finding the negatives, look for the places where opportunity exists?

This describes, in a poorly constructed nutshell, the framework for evaluating well-being proposed by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen: Capabilities Approach (CA), the evolving effort of his lengthy career which has been co-opted within the past decades for its significance in education in low-income or developing contexts. CA involves a comprehensive framework for conceptualising – describing, to borrow my earlier word – what he terms “functionings” achieved by individual persons and translated into capabilities that indicate well-being and freedom (Sen, 1990). Actual capabilities are many, and functionings can be decided according to the context, possibly including “the ability to be well nourished, to avoid escapable mortality, to read, write and communicate, to take part in the community, to appear in public without shame” (p. 126). Instead of measuring a country’s position by their GDP, CA focuses on their well-being and capacity to “bring about changes that they value” within their communities (Tikly & Barrett, 2014, p. 7).

At its simplest, CA looks to change the language that we use and see how it automatically disempowers a people, to focus on the disadvantages that emerge when compared to a wealthier group. It’s not just political correctness at work – it mirrors the word choice with handicapped and disabled, focusing on what they don’t have, now reframed to different-abled and handicap able. It’s returning power to people, returning their sense of ownership over their persons and possibilities.

For my work and my context, CA requires understanding of the environment and forcing my perspective away from the continued parade of what “isn’t” there. I have to ask myself, instead of filling holes, does the EL Fellow Factor broaden a person’s capabilities within their context? What are my students able to access after they have left my class?  How does my work, the work of every Fellow in their unique and separate context, hoping that we operate in ways that value and promote our teacher trainees and language learners’ existing capabilities and enables them to channel this into the improvement of their communities. How do I report on this community in a way that demonstrates what they can accomplish, instead of what they lack?

Steve, in closing his response about life in the DRC, gravitated, CA style, to the humanity of people he encountered, those with materially little but an unending supply of hospitality, grace, gratitude, compassion. Westerns often report being shocked by how those in developing countries will share their last food with you – how we are shocked by the kindness of strangers, how we think of the selfishness we might have if we faced their daily challenges of feeding their families and escaping commonplace violence. So, we already do this: we end with the positive.

So that’s my goal, moving forward. To look for the potential positive, to understand what Rwandans do that we Westerners don’t have even the ingenuity to enact, to evaluate and reflect, to think in terms of capabilities instead of disabilities, to figure out how to present this to the world … or even just to American high school students on the other side of video feed.

Sen, A. K. (1999) Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, A. K. (1990) Gender and cooperative conflict. In: I. Tinker (ed.) Persistent inequalities. New York: Oxford University Press, 123-149.

Tikly, L., and Barrett, A. M. (2011) Social justice, capabilities and the quality of education in low income countries. International Journal of Educational Development, 31 (1), 3-14.