Monday, February 4, 2013

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!

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