Friday, June 28, 2013

Random Reminisces of a PCV

Part of my job as a Peace Corps Volunteer is facilitating clubs at the school where I teach. This has required a lot of persistence. The goal of Peace Corps is sustainable development. That means that the work that I do should continue to have an impact even after I leave Rwanda. We want to enable host country nationals to develop skills that they can continue to use throughout their lives rather than make them dependent on foreign aid. So when I run club meetings, I always try to imagine how things will continue once I leave the school where I teach. Will the students continue to meet? Will they be able to continue doing the same kinds of activities that I prepare for them?

The most successful club so far that I am facilitating is the English club called Club SPEAK. We do many different activities to promote the improvement of English speaking and writing skills, but by far the most popular activity is debate. Rwandan students love to organize debates. Every time Club SPEAK holds a debate you can find a classroom packed beyond capacity and students crowding outside the windows to listen in. It's a great way for students to practice speaking English and it promotes critical thinking. And the topics have even matured over time. While the first few debates were over topics like "Fire is better than water", this year my students have debated more serious topics like the outsourcing of jobs and gender equality in education. I am proud to say that my students are scheduled to travel to another school to debate the students there next weekend. This debate has been suggested and organized primarily by students as I try to do as little of the required work as possible in order to push the students to take initiative. It has been incredible to see some of these students step up and take on leadership.

Another activity that has been widely praised is the school newspaper. All students in the school, and even the teachers and administrators really enjoy reading the school newspaper. However, this activity has its own unique problems, including the amount of time required which takes time out of other activities, addressing plagiarism, writing quality reports over gossip, and trying to ensure the sustainability of the project. As I said before, the goal is for this club to continue operating after I leave the country. This means that I have been making fewer revisions before publication and giving more control to students throughout the entire process. I have embedded the three issues released so far below. You can see the shift in quality over time, but I would say that it is still a very good student-run newspaper.






Now for some photos!

In Rwanda, students like to write messages to the teacher at the end of a quiz. I photographed some of the messages and posted them below. Picasa now uploads to Google Plus, so I am no longer able to make slideshows. Guess I should start using Flickr?















Ubugari is a staple food in Rwanda made from cassava flour. The cassava root is dried and pounded into a flour. The flour is then added to boiling water and stirred until it forms into a ball of paste. If you have ever had tapioca pudding or boba (bubble tea), you have had cassava root.

Ubugari is usually eaten with some type of sauce, usually beans or a vegetable cooked with peanut flour. I like to spice up my sauces. This sauce is made with intorgi (small, bitter eggplants), peanut flour and curry. To eat, you pull off a small piece of ubugari, roll it between your fingers, flatten it and use it to scoop up some sauce.

The cell office next door put up a Rwandan flag. It adds a nice touch to the already beautiful view at the end of the road leading to my house.

When you stay in a hotel in Rwanda they usually provide you with flip-flops (which they call slippers) for walking from your room to the shower rooms. These are the mismatched slippers that were in one of the rooms that I stayed in. I'm pretty sure they were made for little girls.

Some items from a care package. Yes, I know it's ironic to get alcohol, pretzels and M&M's in the same package with protein powder!

Well, I hope you enjoyed this post. It's been a long time, so I tried to pack it with as much as I could!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

Do the students ever lie to you? The question came from one of the Korean volunteers who I work with at school. "Of course! All the time!" I answered. She was surprised that the students lie so much, and yet you will always find them praying and singing hymns in the afternoon. I believe lying is actually an integral part of Rwandan culture.

Can lying be cultural? And if it is, how could it possibly benefit a society for its members to deceive each other? It doesn't seem so strange of an idea when we consider the geography of Rwanda.

In my last post, I mentioned how Rwandans are very passive. They tend to be closed off and secretive. I'm no sociologist, but I believe this not only has to do with Rwanda's past genocide, but also to do with its geography. Rwanda is known as the Land of One Thousand Hills. And it's a fair description. All those hills make Rwanda difficult to travel through. A journey of just a couple of dozen kilometers can take several hours. It would take an entire day to travel from east to west without stopping. This terrain has made Rwanda pretty secluded from its neighbors. This is why I think Rwandans, despite being very communal, can also be very passive and closed off.

So what does this have to do with lying? Privacy. Rwanda contains 11 million people all living within a space the size of Maryland. It has one of the highest population densities in Africa. And it can be seen; not only on the streets of Kigali, but even in the countryside. It's nearly impossible to find a hill that isn't being cultivated or used to grow trees for fuel. I have wandered through the hills near my village, thinking I was alone, but every five minutes ran into children out searching for firewood.

The lying in Rwanda is usually not capricious. It is a mechanism that is used to be evasive, especially when asked personal questions. "Where are you going?" "Nowhere." "What do you have?" "Nothing." In a village where everyone knows your every move, there has to be some way to create a hedge of privacy. But it doesn't end with being vague. I have heard people make completely false statements about themselves and others in order to create a perception that they want others to take on. The secretary at my school, for example, tells other people that I have a lot of money and many girlfriends, despite the fact that I constantly refute both claims and there is no evidence to support either.

Concerns over privacy are why I'm thankful for the latest development in my Peace Corps service: I got a house! And my crib is ballin'. I already feel more motivated to work hard and I feel more rested and at ease with the increased privacy that I have compared to my former location within the school gates. I will put up photos soon so you all can see how sweet my house is (despite the lack of furniture). Until next time, amahoro.

Navigating a Passive Culture as an American in Rwanda

There are many cultural differences between Americans and Rwandans. This sometimes makes working in Rwanda as an American very difficult. Rwandans are very passive. Extremely passive. Expats who I have spoken with who have been in other African countries usually comment on how passive Rwandans are comparatively. It can take a long time to get to know a Rwandan, and it can be very difficult to read through the cultural context that is not so familiar to outsiders.

Most Westerners take for granted that usually we will directly say what we mean. When a Rwandan says something, it could possibly have an alternate meaning. When asked a direct question, it might be deflected by changing the subject or offering a vague answer. Sometimes lying even comes into play. These cultural cues can be nearly impossible to pick up unless they are explained to you.

I had my own frustrating experience today from communication break-down. For the last month, I have been talking with the Dean of Studies and the Headmaster at my school about changing the way that I teach this year by using a textbook. I compiled the textbook myself, using copies from several different sources and many of my own self-created examples. The books, I argued, would help us use classroom time more efficiently because students would have to spend less time copying long sections of notes from the blackboard. It would also help students to develop study skills for University--something which simply isn't taught in Rwandan secondary schools. I explained the idea to the Dean of Studies and told him that I would only need enough copies for every five students and that they could work in groups that would share the books. Once I got him on board, I asked the bursar for some reams of paper. The bursar was hesitant, but the Dean of Studies had my back and I got the paper.

I started making the copies today when the secretary told me that I couldn't make that many copies. He was concerned that the copier would run out of toner and he would not be able to continue his work. I explained that the school just had the technician come to work on the copier specifically so that I could make these copies and I had permission to do so. The secretary ran out to talk to the bursar, then returned and told me that it was too many copies. I repeated that I had permission and that the bursar knew beforehand exactly how many copies I wanted to make. He had just given me the paper to make the copies a few minutes prior.

Then the Dean of Discipline came into the office and tried to mediate. I explained the situation to him and we tried to figure out exactly how many copies I could make. I asked the secretary how many copies could be made with one toner cartridge. He couldn't tell me. So I asked him how many cartridges he uses when he copies exams for the entire school at the end of every term. He told me it was one cartridge. I asked him how many copies that is. He couldn't tell me. I asked again and he tried changing the subject. So I did the math and figured out there would be enough toner for me to complete my job with some left over. But he wouldn't have it.

The Dean of Discipline, still trying to mediate in the matter, asked me how many copies I needed. I told him how many and that it was for four classes. He asked me if I could do copies for only one class and make all of the students from every class share. I really didn't want to do that because it defeated the idea of increasing the efficiency of teaching. He asked me if I could just tell the students which books to read in the library. I declined because I took most of the information from books not available in the school library, and many of the pages included my own examples. I also didn't see how more than 200 students were going to access the same book from the library in a respectable amount of time. Finally, we compromised when I accepted to make the copies for only one class. A few copies were better than none, I reasoned.

Perhaps it was because it was in the afternoon and I was hungry and irritable that I became so frustrated. I had coffee in the morning, so my blood pressure was elevated. I found myself grinding my teeth, which I noticed because the dentist recently pointed out the damage on one of my teeth from the habit. The words popped into my head, "Forget you, forget this school, and forget this country!" - except it was more explicit in my head. I wanted to just walk out and leave everything right there for the secretary to deal with.

But I'm glad that we came to a compromise. I kept my cool because I remembered my students, which is the whole reason I was undertaking the project in the first place. The Peace Corps experience can be difficult and frustrating many times, but the pain is well worth it. I enjoy teaching, and whenever I feel like giving up and going home, I just think about my students and how much I will miss out on if I leave. I feel like if I give up, then it also means that I am giving up on my students.

What bothers me so much about the situation is that it makes me feel used and unappreciated. I understand that the amount of copies I wanted to make seems like so many, and I understand the secretary's concern that he would not be able to do any work if I used up the toner. But I had the permission to make the copies beforehand and everyone knew exactly how many copies I wanted to make. The bursar himself handed me the reams of paper just minutes before! No objections came until I was in the process of making the copies! But here's why I feel used and unappreciated: this school has consistently asked me what I can get for them monetarily without fulfilling their obligations of what is supposed to be provided for a volunteer coming into their community. My headmaster tells me I have to bring some sort of gift for the school, meaning he wants me to find funding for new buildings. Because I won't do so (because putting up buildings is beyond grant funding constraints anyway) I'm treated as worthless, despite all I do for the school (which is a lot!).

The school can be really stingy when it comes to purchasing teaching resources. I know that the school has many expenses and the budget has to be kept tight. But when the school will pay for beer and fanta at teachers' meetings, but they can't pay for one toner cartridge, there's a problem. A toner cartridge can be had from the school fees of one or two students from a single term. There are more than 600 students in the school. Somehow, the budget priorities just don't seem straight to me.

But I digress. It can be easy to complain, especially when coming out of a frustrating confrontation. For every problem there is a redeeming quality. After all, if things were only terrible then I wouldn't still be here. And the secretary tried to make up just as passively as he had offended me by saying out loud to someone that I'm very kind.

What I'm learning from being a PCV is how to take initiative, to be assertive, and to resist the temptation to run away and give up when facing difficult challenges. These are developments that I hope will go a long way in my future. Peace Corps's slogan is "It's the toughest job you'll ever love." As cliche as it sounds, so far it has been true. Here's to nine more months in Africa!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Romping 'round the Savannah



map of Akagera
It was December 31st, a beautiful warm morning in Kigali. The driver we hired to take us, six Peace Corps Volunteers, to Akagera National Park picked us up in front of our hotel, and we were soon on our way across the country, heading east. Akagera lies on Rwanda’s border with Tanzania, but Rwanda is a small country, so we were within the park’s boundaries in a matter of a few hours.

Almost immediately we began to see animals. It started with sightings of impala and monkeys in the brush not far from the road. Then we began to see more and more birds—Akagera contains 525 species of birds. But we hadn’t seen anything yet compared to what was coming.

We entered a small savannah surrounded by mountains. There were groups of zebras, different types of antelope and water buffalo interspersed. We even saw some giraffes off in the far distance. I was surprised by how close to the road some of the animals stayed. Some of them would be in the road as we approached them, and then they would run away as we got close. When they got about 50 meters away, they would stop, turn around and stare at us.

The road leading out of the valley reached a low point where it became flooded. Our driver told us that this was the deadly part of the road. He wasn’t kidding. He backed up to get a running start, then gunned the engine and plowed through the bushes on the side of the road, trying to avoid the muddy bog. But somehow we managed to drift back onto the road anyway and get stuck. I have a great video of everyone screaming as we sunk into a rut.

stuck in the mud
We ended up being stuck there for at least a couple hours. The driver said we needed big sticks to help us get unstuck, so we went off into the bush to search for some. Luckily we didn’t find any lions while we were out! (Big cats are rare to see in Akagera) Our driver had a nice large jack, but it seemed to be missing a part and so it was unusable. It seemed to me that he had never used it before and was just discovering this fact. He also had a smaller jack that worked, so we tried to shove one of the spare tires under the vehicle to give a support for it. There wasn’t enough space. The car was up to the axle in mud.

Two other vehicles came along in the meantime and people came out to help us. After trying many strategies to get unstuck, the driver finally did what we had been saying all along. A group of us pushed at the front of the vehicle while he tried to ease it back out of the rut. It was at this point that we discovered the four wheel drive was not functioning; only the rear wheels were spinning. It took a lot of effort and we ended up covered in mud, but we finally managed to get out and continue our tour.

Hippos are the deadliest mammal in Africa.
The next area we entered took us by a lake where many hippos were floating near the shore. Our driver parked us very close to the bank and killed the engine. He didn’t take notice when we pointed out that hippos are the deadliest mammal in Africa. After a few minutes we moved on to search for crocodiles. We never saw any crocodiles clearly because they move very quickly and go into the water when they hear vehicles coming. But there were many wart hogs and water buffaloes wandering around. There were also some beautiful large birds near the lake.

As we pulled away from the lake we came across an elephant in the road. It was standing under a tree in a small pool of water, washing itself. We stopped 50 meters away and watched it for awhile. When we decided it was time to pass, the driver started revving the engine. The elephant took a few steps backward, as if conceding that we could pass. But it was still very close to the road, so the driver crept us forward a little and revved the engine some more. The elephant got the hint and started to walk away. But it was a clever elephant! It walked a few meters until it was out of view behind a tree, then stopped and waited. We could still see it trying to hide there, so we waited until we saw it move a bit farther.

Although young, this elephant was enormous!
We continued on around a cluster of trees. The elephant went around the cluster and met us on the other side. It must have been about 15 meters away from the vehicle when it stamped its feet and trumpeted at us! It was very scary, but exhilarating! We watched it eat some leaves, then continued on when it acted like it was going to charge again, thankful that it let us pass through its home without tipping us on our side.

On the remaining stretch of road we did not see very many animals. There were a few antelope and monkeys here and there, but the foliage had become too thick to spot much. This stretch took a couple hours to traverse. For a while the only animal that seemed to present itself were these horse flies that would bite us even through our clothes. Most of the animals are in the north part of the park where we had entered. But as we got closer to the southern border of the park we started to see baboons again.

Pants are optional. Let it all hang out!
Finally, we reached the lodge, located inside the park, in the evening, tired and caked with mud. We were greeted in the lobby with glasses of ice cold apple juice, which really hit the spot. We headed to our rooms and washed up before we went to see what kind of damage we could do to the buffet. After dinner, we found a table and started to enjoy the various bottles of alcohol we had brought along. As we expected, the hotel staff did not appreciate us drinking beverages that we did not buy from their bar, so we headed back to one of the rooms. But the day had exhausted us, so after a large meal and a few drinks, we all fell asleep before midnight and entered the New Year happy and well rested.

Although we had mixed feelings about our driver (it was irresponsible to enter the park without tools or four wheel drive, but he did know where to go to find elephants) we all had a lot of fun. After seeing almost all of Rwanda, I would argue that Akagera is the prettiest part of the country. Visiting was a great way to bring in a New Year. And I hope that all of you have a joyful and prosperous New Year as well!

I don't know what I was pointing at.

I think these are a type of rhebok.

Adult African buffalo horns have a fused base, called a "boss"

These zebras are fat because of their large guts which allow them to digest dry grasses during the dry season.

Impala is Zulu for "gazelle"

Elands are the largest antelope in the world. These guys were the size of horses.

My shoes looked like this after spending some time stuck in the mud.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Climbing Volcanoes

"Come on, Michael! You can do it! Keep climbing!" I looked up the bright orange tube at my cheering parents. I was trying to climb up a slide at the park around the corner from where I grew up. I was about three or four years old. This is one of my earliest memories and it came back to me as I slowly fought my way up Mount Muhabura.

Just as I never made it up that slide that day, I was not able to summit Muhabura--not for lack of trying. It was not a matter of will, but rather a lack of preparation. I'm a bit mad at myself for not bringing proper equipment and attire on the hike, which put me in physical danger.

The group I hiked with consisted of nine other PCVs. We reached the bottom of the volcano late in the morning. We hiked at a determined pace, aware that we would be turned around if we didn't summit by 1:00. As we trekked the steep hill through the rain forest we joked that we were on the master of stair masters. Muhabura is only the second-tallest volcano in Rwanda behind Kalisimbi, but our guides told us it is the most difficult to hike up. I can believe it!

At about 10,000 feet, we came out of the rain forest and into sparse trees and rocks. Then there was a section of waist-high grass. Then the grass disappeared into more rocks. The higher we got, the steeper and rockier the mountain got. We were all definitely feeling the effects of altitude sickness--light-headed, dizzy, nauseous, weak.

Then a lightning storm hit. The bolts were striking the mountain very close to us. The thunder roared almost simultaneously with the flashes of light. Without a rain coat, my clothes were soaked. I felt like I stepped into the shower for 30 minutes with my clothes on. Delirious and tired, I started to suck the water out of my sleeves and drink it. "Is that all you got?!" I cried out as I continued to stumble up the mountain. It was a mistake to provoke Muhabura, that vicious mountain.

The rain turned to hail. Frozen drops of rain pelted our faces. The mountain turned white and the trail vanished. It was at this point that I turned back, realizing that my body temperature was dropping too much for me to continue. When I came upon those who were behind me, I shoved my hands into my buddy's pockets and we huddled together for a minute. One of them advised me to retreat down the mountain as quickly as possible, saying that the temperature rises three degrees every 1,000 feet. I did as he told me and went down quickly and carefully.

Coming down was both difficult and easy. The altitude sickness went away almost immediately. But now the trail was muddy and hard to see covered in hail. I slipped at one point and my walking stick snapped in half. I'm glad I didn't impale myself on it! Luckily I came across a metal walking stick that someone left in the middle of the trail for fear of being struck by lightning during the storm.

I came down the mountain so quickly that I eventually lost the trail. Fortunately I saw the last guy making his way up the trail at a distance. I made my way back over to the trail, forging my own path through thick foliage and sharp rocks. I was able to meet up with my buddy Mike who was also making his way down.

My body was shaking uncontrollably. Mike told me to take off my soaked shirt and he gave me a spare T-shirt he had in his bag. I was grateful to run into Mike, who not only helped me to get warm, but gave me trail mix and water throughout the whole hike. One of my best buds here in Rwanda, he is someone who I will always call a friend.

Mike and I made our way the rest of the way down the mountain. We realized how far we had gone when it took several hours just to come down the mountain. When everyone reached the car, we all shared the experience from our personal perspectives. One guy said it was the hardest thing he's done in his life. That says a lot coming from a PCV!

Now it has been one week since the hike and the soreness is fading in my legs. One of my fingers is still numb from frost nip. Another might be broken (I thought it was just swelling, but it's a little crooked!). My camera is broken from water damage. Now that I know what it takes to climb Muhabura I am motivated to try climbing it again to reach the summit. If I do, I will remember the cheers of my parents, who have always supported me in all of my life's events. I love you Mom and Dad.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Photoless

Hey, folks! I just wanted to say that I would like to post more photos, but the slow Internet connection where I live does not always allow me to do so. But don't give up hope! I might get some of these photos uploaded one day -- possibly before I return to America...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Teaching in Rwanda

Teaching in Rwanda comes with many challenges. Teachers are given a curriculum for their subject, which is an outline of what must be taught throughout the year. These curricula are usually unintelligible, contain outdated or non-existent terms and phrases, or ask the teacher to teach about things that are not at all pertinent to the subject being taught. Teachers have few resources to draw information from and they often resort to copying sections of text from a book and giving that as notes to the students. The time in the classroom is split between copying notes and giving explanation of the notes to the students. The students are then given quizzes to test how well they have memorized the information given to them. No creative thought. Just minds being treated as photo copiers.

As much as I am frustrated by the Rwandan education system, I sympathize with the teachers. No, even more than that, I empathize with them. These teachers usually teach several subjects with little or no resources to use for creating lesson plans. The information in the curricula is sometimes so unintelligible that they often have to study the topic they are teaching just before teaching it. I'm certain that they really want to do more learner-centered teaching, but they are expected to get through so much information throughout the term that it is difficult to do anything besides hand over a bunch of notes and then give an explanation. I find myself often taking on the same teaching strategy and only throwing in a fun activity when I think of a good idea to try or I deem that I have enough time to have the students put their notebooks away and actually do something besides copy off of the blackboard.

Even though the education system in Rwanda needs a lot of help, I see no shortage of intelligent young people in this country. I am so proud of my students for the work that they put out when I push them to think their own original thoughts. Take my Senior 5 class as an example. Yesterday they had a debate during class. Rwandan students love doing debates. One of the students told me after class that we should hold a debate in class every week. I was happy to see that the students tried to involve everyone in the debate and they gave very reasoned arguments for their ideas.

After the debate I asked the students to hand in their homework. I had asked them to write five questions that they would ask their president, Paul Kagame, in an interview. I was surprised to see that very few of the questions were about personal things, such as hobbies and favorite things. Most of the questions were about current issues like: the conflict in DRC involving a group that the Rwandan government was accused of supporting; the recent creation of the Agaciro Development Fund, and how the government plans to spend that money - and why some people were told that contributions are mandatory when the government described it as voluntary; and how the president plans to utilize his final five years in office and who he thinks will run during the next election.

I get the feeling that I had an impact on the questions that were written. This term I gave this Senior 5 class very few notes. I assigned them one large project to work on throughout the term, which was to write and to give a speech. The speech is to be about what their dream is for Rwanda (after watching clips of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech). Throughout the term I helped them shape their ideas by asking them questions like "What problems does your country face right now and how can you fix them?" or "What is important to you? What issue do you care about most?" It was very rewarding to see these minds open up, beginning with only giving a history of what they know about Rwanda, progressing to what their own creative ideas are for solutions to the issues the world currently faces. I am very excited as the end of the term draws near and I get to hear all of the wonderful speeches that these students worked so hard to put together.

At the beginning of the term, when I assigned the speech project, some of my students told me that it is so difficult. I explained to them that challenges are important for personal progress. After seeing some of the excellent work that these students have put together, I can't wait to ask those students after they give their speeches if it was worth it that I challenged them. Sometimes I feel somewhat useless here in Rwanda because I don't have several secondary projects under my belt like some volunteers. But then I realize the impact that I am having on these young minds by helping them to think critically. The next step is to share some of these teaching strategies to the other teachers so that the impact is sustainable. It is going to be challenging, but I know it will be worth it.