Friday, February 19, 2010

Redefining life

I am here at my site in Nyakarambi, Rwanda. After three weeks of training (with a great group of volunteers I must say) we were all sent our separate ways, dropped off in a strange new land of rolling green hills and incredibly starry nights. I've been in Nyakarambi for five weeks now and, while I am enjoying the experience, I am realizing how different life is here than what i have experienced in my previous 23 years. Imagine. You have no car - a symbol of freedom and independence in America. You are surrounded by a new language and what normally takes 10 seconds to communicate can now take up to 10 minutes. Your washing machine is gone, so is your shower, tap water, and electricity for a stove, oven, microwave, or toaster. You have an ishoka (ax) and igibiriti (matches) at your disposal for cooking meals and boiling your water. Cold drinks are a luxury, and the idea of Italian food for dinner or M&Ms for a snack is a joke among volunteers. This is just the beginning, but it is good and well worth it. I am slowly learning to redefine my life and expectations of Rwanda. In the following posts i will try to describe this process in three areas of life: culture, home, and school. Here's the first...

Redefining life: culture
I came to Rwanda expecting to see a country deeply scarred and struggling to get back on its feet after the 1994 genocide. In some ways this is true, and quite literally so; I often pass people whose arms or legs are crippled or missing, and last month I tried to avoid watching a man with no legs and flip flops on his hands carry himself up the same hill that had winded me. And once in awhile you will see a "Prisons" vehicle pass by with men in neatly pressed pink garb, indicating those who are on trial for crimes of genocide. But, for the most part, people go on living their everyday ordinary lives and I find myself having to remind myself that the events in 1994 actually happenned. This is the point of view of a naive outsider, someone who could never understand how the genocide has really affected every family in Rwanda. While I struggle to see the impact on their culture, I believe it is there; it's just not always obvious. Take for example my friend Venuste, who told me about his job in the district education office, his studies at university degree, and how he lost both of his parents in the genocide when he was 15.

On a lighter note, last week I went to a wedding!!! One of our teachers got getting and I guess anyone and everyone is invited to a wedding in Rwanda, including me... and the cows. The groom gave the brides father a 2 liter bottle of coke, a bottle if wine, and 2 cows as a gift in exchange for the bride's hand in marriage. I'm totally going to give my bride's family a bunch of cows on my wedding day. The wedding was very long... It took all day and started with a couple hours where the brides father tried to convince the grooms father for his son to take a different wife... Basically bartering. The decorations consisted of tarps hung over banana trees and wrapped in toilet paper. :)

In preparation for the wedding, I learned that there are many cultural differences when it comes to relationships and marriage in Rwanda. My friend and fellow teacher Kirisa explained to me today that finding a wife can be a very long process here. In his preparations for marriage, he first completed university and worked in order to save enough money to buy a plot of land. Now that he has the land, he is saving to build his own house in which he and his future wife can live. With land and a house, he will search for a wife, meanwhile, saving enough for the cost of a wedding. When he finds a girl to date, they will date in secret, not telling their families. When they are ready to make arrangements for marriage, they will introduce each other to their families for the first time. Ha! Amazing!

When it comes to finding that special someone, Rwandans can be the most suave creatures on the planet. For example, when introducing themselves they will say something along the lines of "Hello, my name is Ben, I am from Kigali, Rwanda, and I am single." In fact, many times when introducing myself for the first time, people (both guys and girls) will flat out ask me if I am single. It's just customary. The truly sly ones, with a little more class, will ask, "How are your wife and kids doing?"

While Rwandans can be closed off emotionally at first, they have no problem expressing themselves as they get to know you. Yesterday my friend Evereste came up to me during lunch and said, "Kyle, I am going to sit next to you because I love you." In fact, in kinyarwanda the word for love and like are the same. Yesterday, during a staff meeting, a guy held my hand while stroking my arm. It's incredibly awkward but completely normal here to express your love/like for a friend like that, whether it's a guy or a girl.

Surprisingly, one of the things I miss the most about culture at home is the variety of arts and food. In America you can go to the cinema for a movie or an art gallery to see famous paintings and sculptures, or listen to a symphony orchestra, or a rock concert, or go the theater for a play or musical. Or you can just wander around town and find an infinite variety of restaurants ranging from hole in the wall coffee shops to international foods, wines, or local brews.

Well that's all for now... More to come on the community/home and the school later!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Stereotype Me

This morning I went shopping at the local market, which runs every Tuesday and Friday and is literally 300 feet from my house. I was looking at metal hangers for my dress shirts. Like anything and everything at the market you should barter or else you'll end up paying way too much. I tried to barter for five hangers. I started at 200 francs (about 30 cents), but they refused to go any lower than 500 francs (just under a dollar), which was their starting price. I tried several stands and each time I was baffled because they wouldn't budge. I knew that I was being ripped off because I am a white foreigner, and apparently skin color determines economic status. One lady was even blunt enough to say, "you are rich; you can afford it." I can't tell if I am annoyed because of the stereotype or because it's is true.

There are many things I am loving about the culture here, but this stereotype that all whites seemingly have an infinite supply of money at their disposal is not one of them. I walk down the road and little boys stick out their hands and demand "amafaranga!" ("money" in kinyarwanda). Teenagers and even adults stare at me for literally minutes on end as if dollar signs are hovering over my head. Countless people want to be your friend and they will tell you there stories of how they cannot go to school because they do not have any money and are looking for a sponsor. I realize this comes with the territory of being a volunteer from a country whose GNI is $41,400 in a country whose GNI is $220 (2004 figures, per person). But, it can be difficult sometimes to build friendships because it's hard to distinguish those who genuinely want to know me from those who are more interested in my stereotype. I must remember that not all Africans, not all Rwandans, label me and judge me by the color of my skin. Many have a genuine interest in my work here, my life, and me as a person; it would unfair, afterall, for me to cling to my own stereotypes of them.   

On a deeper note, if I'm here to promote global understanding and mutual respect between cultures, then what should my reaction be to this stereotype and how should I represent Americans in my conversations with people? I guess the question I am getting at is, "Am I really rich?" When i am talking to people here about American finances I try to explain that there actually are people who struggle to get by in America and that 10% of the population do not have jobs and that I myself am not a wealthy person, but live a regular middle class life, according to American standards. Obviously the middle class in America has much more financial opportunity than the middle class in Rwanda, and obviously the income is greater, but the cost of living is much higher too. So, I am back to the question of how does one define "rich?" Maybe the best way is not by absolute income, but by purchasing power, or the opportunity to purchase "stuff." I don't know but I would be open to suggestions, thoughts, and advice. Thanks for reading my little vent here and for thinking about the issue with me.

P.S. I finally got 4 hangers for 300 francs.                            

Monday, February 1, 2010

The "first" day

NOTE: I may publish multiple posts per day, which were written on different days because of my limited Internet connection. So be sure to check previous posts. Also, more posts are in the works so check back shortly (I hope)!

Today was the first day of school for Rwanda, according to the original plan laid out by the ministry of education. However, it also happened to coincide with a national holiday: veterans day. So, welcome kids to your first day of school... here, have the first day off! In typical Rwandan fashion, the ministry of education announced over the radio yesterday that school would actually start tomorrow and that those going to boarding schools (my kids) should travel today so they can begin their studies bright and early on Tuesday. 

Now, the teachers at my school had a meeting today. I was a bit nervous, it being the first time that I would meet everyone I'd be working with for the next year and possibly longer. I arrived ten minutes early to the meeting that my headmaster said was to start at eight. I was the first one there, which was good and gave me some time to look at my schedule (I am teaching a full day on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, a half day on Wednesday and Friday I have off)!!! Sounds great, although it is still about 25 hrs per week, so I will be keeping busy. More to come on what I am teaching in an upcoming post (coming soon). Other teachers started trickling in and by 10:30 the meeting started. I can't complain about the delay... The extra time gave me a chance to get to know the teachers, and what an amazing, energetic, enthusiastic and friendly group they are!!! I was very impressed, and relieved, by their ability to speak English, but I was mist surprised by their genuine sense of humor, which made for a very warm welcome. This is so encouraging and I have a feeling that we will all make a very good team for teaching. 

I wish I could be so excited for the meeting that followed. It lasted for four straight hours. No breaks, no standing up, no lunch, no water or tea. 95% of the conversation was in kinyarwanda because, understandably, that is the easiest for a majority. I did have a translator, but for the most part it was a very long and drawn out meeting. It is truly remarkable how Rwandans can sit in one place, on wooden chairs or crunched 5 people to a couch, for so long. I've noticed this in many situations like at church, which lasted for 3.5 hrs and in buses, or in my classrooms, which some are scheduled for 2.5 hrs long, all teaching, no labs. In America, this would never fly, especially with students... We are encouraged to give them frequent breaks and to keep things brief and concise in order to keep peoples attention. Yes, taking breaks may be a more effective teaching method, however I think one of the reasons for our short attention span can be attributed the fast food, on demand, instant culture in which we are brought up. 

After the meeting, two of the teachers kindly took me to their home and said I was welcome anytime to hang out, eat, or even sleep. Then we all went out for coke and biscuits and enjoyed good conversation and of course, laughter. A good start to the first day of school!        
"We must learn to prefer quality over quantity, service over profit, neighborliness over competition, people and other creatures over machines, health over wealth... economic health over economic growth... If we are to have such an economy, we must repair our country and our society... We must end waste and pollution. We must renew our urban and rural communities. We must remake family life and neighborhood. We must reduce indebtedness, poverty, homelessness, violence... We must take proper care of our children. We must quit treating them as commodities for the "job market" and teach them to be good neighbors and citizens and to do good work." - Wendell Berry, Peaceableness Toward Enemies

As I think about and prepare for the first day of my teaching stint here in Rwanda, I am beginning to realize the significance of education beyond that of just teaching the material. My "job" is to teach math and physics by completing the curriculum laid out for me before the year's end. It seems straightforward enough: prepare the notes in advance, organize labs and homework assignments, mix in some quizes and diagnostic testing for evaluation, and add a dash of class discussion here and there. But as I read Berry's essay, I am challenged to do more. Education is more than relaying information and making kids into successful adults ("successful" usually refering to economic status). Education is vital not only in teaching students the material, but also how to use the material to benefit our world and communities now while ensuring our health tomorrow.

This is especially true in Rwanda. Here, the focus is on becoming a technological hub for East Africa and there is a strong incentive to move from a subsistence agricultural economy to a "knowledge based economy." And this change is evident in Rwanda's rapid economic growth, the value of higher education, the 2010 mandate that all classes be taught in English (not French or Kinyarwanda), the recruitment of international math and science teachers, and the improvements in infrastructure enabling an industry-based economy. With these changes in mind, may I reemphisize Berry's thoughts: education must be guided by a practical care for the world and a respect for morals. Science must be accompanied by ethics. Technology must be rooted in an awareness of our neighbors' needs and our future resources. Kids must become good neighbors before they can become good engineers, politicians, or doctors.