Friday, June 25, 2010

Keep Dancing Through

Good Morning!!

Actually I’m not sure what time it will be when you read this but I am currently writing this as strands of light begin pouring through my bedroom window. I would call them rays of sun but on this chilly June morning there is nothing but white for miles around, masking the hills and casting an unusual pall over everything. This is interesting when compared to the rather clear sky I was gazing at a few short hours earlier. As a volunteer and more significantly, a foreigner, you become more and more accustomed to a change in your sleeping patterns; sometimes they adjust to the local time and develop a familiar rhythm but sometimes they just continue to be out of whack.

After months of hearing a suspiciously loud clanging noise every morning around 5 a.m I decided to investigate. As it turns out, this is the alarm at which the students leave the warmth of their beds to go on a brisk jog every dawn. So that was what all the yelling and hollering was about. Not only do they undergo the usual cardio workout that accompanies the activity of running but they also like to chant and sing during their workout, building up their lung capacity and undoubtedly alerting the sleeping villagers’ to their presence. I can’t decide if it reminds me more of the chorus from “Old McDonald had a farm” or that stereotypical cry that kids yell when they play cowboys and Indians, the latter being the character that my students (sound like they) are imitating. The melody of the moment was momentarily lost on me when I was reminded of something else: rocks. Sadly I became caught up in the moment and forgot about the terrain around here, ending up a scramble on the ground while the others continued on their merry, well-seen way. There must be some trick to seeing when it is pitch dark outside, no need for night vision goggles here, they’ve got it down pat! When I return from the quick jaunt I feel refreshed and rejuvenated, whether that’s from the anonymity of going unseen outdoors or the girls’ singing I’m not sure but it sure gets me up in the morning.

This does not mean that I’ve given up my other extracurricular activities because I’m still playing basketball with some of my students. Even though they are not practicing for the championship any longer, having lost at the district finals, they still get together after lessons are over for a game of pick-up. It is such a riot-there’s me yelling this and that in English and occasionally I’ll throw in the random Kinyarwanda word, for example, “oh, that’s totally hanze!” meaning out of bounds and the girls are scampering about, a constant stream of dialogue I have yet to completely decipher but can grasp the gist of. The funniest part was when Solage, or Mitsy as I have nicknamed her, became insistent upon attracting her teammate’s attention by calling her name, “OBAMA, OBAMAAAAA!!” Yep, the girl’s name is Obama. Never before have I heard that name yelled with such ferocity and consternation! It was hysterical. But even better is when Mitsy and I go up for the same rebound and, as if in slow motion, end up sprawled on the ground, neither one of us with the ball, and the others bent over from laughter with tears in their eyes at the sight of us.

Irony of ironies, it pours for a whole day and a half and the following week there is no water ANYWHERE, in fact, yesterday morning I was walking into town when I saw a parade of my students coming back from fetching water. This scene has yet to take place around here and it put into perspective the short dialogue that my students like to perform, “How to Found Water.” Excepting the incorrect verb tense, this is a pretty relevant topic.

Following the typhoon was the Procession of Jesus which had to be the hottest, stickiest, loudest and most uncomfortable experience since my high school graduation, which, for those of you who were fortunate enough not to have gone through such a hellish event, it felt like a sauna that busted a valve and nobody wanted to open a door for fear of catching cold….ok, so this parade was not that bad but I’m quickly realizing that I have a very short tolerance for being still and maintaining some semblance of mature behavior when I find myself in a crowd of hundreds, standing backs to stomachs in the blaring sun with priests in the foreground speaking a foreign language into a microphone full of static. As I said, the procession was not so bad, and before I was calmly dragged into it by Sister Victoire (who also happens to be the school director, my boss) who had to shush me when I giggled from uncertainty and nerves, I was enjoying the experience from the sidelines. The students had come out, singing (they do that a lot) and clapping next to the line of drummers who set up camp right beside where I was standing. All morning, since 7 a.m or so, I thought there might be an army marching its way down the mountain ridge and about to storm the school. No, just a group of 6 young drummers banging as hard as they could on instruments half their size. Powerful stuff. Multi-colored umbrellas, flags strung across the pathway, hearts and fish sculpted in sand along the ground. This is what welcomes you as you enter the village of Muramba from such public ceremonies events in my community.

Something unusual did happen a few weeks ago. Just the usual theft in the market which led to a village-wide search and impromptu criminal court that then led to the admission of guilt but no evidence of keys…the technician had to break open my door! The keys have since been located by some local cultivators (what they call farmers) and returned to my possession but the cute little Burt’s Bee pouch I foolishly stuck in the back zipper pocket of my already stuffed backpack is still out there in the wild. That, or they are being hostage at the police station in the next town over as part of the investigatory process. As you can see, I am not certain what happened after the initial snatch, it was all such a blur. I think I was incredulous that not only did I just get robbed in my village but that I had been so careless to let it happen. Thankfully the response from others was not so dumbfounded and they quickly set into motion the minute I complained. People came together and worked to find the perpetrators and once that was accomplished they put them on the stand so harshly that afterward even I viewed the two adolescents with a sense of pity. It was all very political and complicated but I gleaned enough from the action that unfolded and the loose translation from some of my counterparts (people I work with in the community, who really came through on helping me) that the boys did not want to divulge any information. They were promptly led from the room and an elderly man entered. He sat, propped his cane against the table, and began to regale us about how the boys came into a bar he had also been in where they proceeded to enjoy their winnings with eager anticipation by spreading the money out in front of them (ah, the powerful sense of arrogant youth that leads one to foolishly think he or she is impervious….sounds close to home). Needless to say, the boys unabashedly announced that they had suddenly struck it big and before they could buy another bottle the chase was on. The police followed them, asking their whereabouts and activities, discovering that the boys planned on heading to the next town over. Little did they expect to be ambushed and caught, but only a few hours after the theft was declared, they were brought into the impromptu court set up by the executive secretary of the town.

I don’t know if I’m entering into some kind of stupid streak but I wouldn’t discount the possibility. Last weekend while I was visiting some friends at the lake house where two fellow volunteers live, I managed to fall into the same hole of misfortune. At a bar, watching the U.S barely hold their own against England, I was swept away with the tide of the sporting spirit and neglected my bag in the corner. Yeah, not only the newly purchased toilet paper and tea biscuits but the purse I keep EVERYTHING in were swiped. Pfffftttttaahrrrggggeeeeeeeerrrrrdddddd. (sound playing in mind at just the memory of that misstep) When I bemoaned that I shouldn’t have gotten up to dance to the post game concert, the others cried out, exclaiming that I should never regret dancing. True, one should never quit dancing. Ok, so now that the reality has sunk in, I have come to appreciate what I still do have and the fact that I can learn from such an experience, as always, just truckin’ through. I am the unwilling, if not unwitting giver of things. Well, maybe somebody can gain from all the goodies I kept stowed away in the little black bag. Oh, and my camera was in there too so these pictures will most likely have to suffice for awhile to come since I luckily had the eerie foresight to update my files before the camera got jacked. Yes, well, this is the beginning of a beautiful life, resplendent in simplicity.

Before all the turmoil happened, I was happily ambling about the lakeside town with friends, feeling as though I had entered a flashback scene of college. There were about 30 or more volunteers all gathered for a birthday celebration. We went to a nice restaurant where the pizza more closely resembled American-style pizza than anything I’ve tasted before in Rwanda and the T.V was programmed to the World Cup games! Bets, cheering, and laughter could be heard from inside as one slipped out to enjoy the terrace that overlooked the lake below. Oh, the lake was amazing. The next day I enjoyed a swim in the cool, methane-filled waters of Kivu. Although it’s the same lake all along the western side of the country, it appears differently at various angles and edges, sometimes giving you the feel of a beach, at other times, a lake similar to one in the U.S, and finally, a scene I could never imagine back home, sun tipped waves rippling towards the mountains of the neighboring D.R.C, hovering in the distance. Afterward I came back to the house where a zillion pizzas were baking… a couple of others had started cooking in the early morning to contrive what was some of the best pizza I’ve EVER had, American or otherwise! The consensus was that they should seriously contemplate opening up a restaurant. T.V+ music+ pizza+ soccer+ swimming+ friends -- the pesky theft at the end, makes for a very pleasant weekend.

When the excitement of those few days was over I transformed back into…. super teacher!! Or the wacky, foreign teacher as my students probably refer to me. I guess I’m still speaking in esoteric terms but I am also making strides in the department of speaking deliberately slow but trying not to sound patronizing at the same time. I like it so much when I am dictating something and because I have yet to perfect the art of slow dictation to foreign speakers, I end up over-enunciating a simple sentence of “she goes to the market” to sound something like, “ssshe goeze TOO thuh market,” ending on an unusually high note towards the end. Of course, I only notice this when I hear it played back to me by my students who have remarkable abilities in “parroting” someone (hehe, I make myself chuckle). And yet, they still have some trouble understanding me, complaining that, “we catch nothing.” Argh. The very first day of lessons I instructed the students to create nametags on which they wrote their Christian names, not Kinyarwanda since that is way too difficult to pronounce for me without invoking a huge uproar from the girls. I’ve noticed that on the back of some of tags they’ve included nicknames, “Jaja,” “Jojo,”“Fofo,” and my favorite, “Gaga.”

There is an unnerving sense of “give me, give me” mentality that exists here. It may derive from the nonexistence of the word “please” in their daily conversation but it does give me cause to pause. I am trying to teach my Senior 6 classes the concept of advertising and to say that it is a rocky process is generous. However, my frustration after having spent a half hour in the attempt to explain what target audience means, only accelerated when I took a t-shirt from my bag to show them the advertisement written on the front and before I could finish forming the question, “what does this say?” I was bombarded with a rush of “give me, give me’s” that I had to throw the towel in (or the t-shirt in this case). I am teaching girls only a couple of years younger than me how to say please when they ask for something…makes me feel a little out of place. Still, I should not complain too much since my school has been declared the best in our district, by the Minister of Education no less.

This behavior may also be explained by the idea that people share what they have without asking or offering. It is a habit that often brings me to an impasse of conscience. I would like to extend the offer to share my food or watch my movies or lend the awesome amount of magazines I’ve seemed to amass lately but without the confidence that I may receive any of it back creates a wall of unwillingness in me. If you have something then it is best to share it or do not bring it out into the open. There is the unspoken rule that we picked up during training not to eat food while out in public and although I feel very conscious of that most of the time, I must confess that it can be difficult at times to enforce when my stomach is grumbling angrily in response.

Part of my responsibilities as an Education volunteer is to help train the teachers at my school. During the first term of school this was virtually nonexistent but now that we’ve gotten a certain rhythm down, it has become more of a reality. Fortunately I was given the more advanced group of speakers and we usually just debate over some topic or get together and talk about one of the magazines I have from the states. During one session I sat with Julienne, a teacher from the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C), he read the various headlines and captions in the TIME magazine I had brought with me until he came upon one that included a skull and bones symbol. The article was about the decision to divorce a spouse while on your deathbed. The title read: “Making the difficult decision after Life” which was not as interesting as Julienne’s interpretation of it, “life is not difficult, it’s just complicated.” For someone who considers himself a poor English speaker, I thought he made a very well articulated observation. The other day I was charged with heading the entire English club meeting, both beginners and the advanced, and because I was trained to focus on student-centered teaching I decided to throw the lesson their way. Honestly, I had no idea what to do that would help both groups so I had them mingle, asking each other important questions like their favorite food, color and people…yeah, I was worried they would feel like children but instead I received some surprising feedback—good methodology and good idea to have people get up and interact. Yay!

I enjoy spending time in the company of the other teachers. Just a few months ago we had a ceremony to welcome the newcomers, including me, and at the end the stereos were set up. Naturally, I got into but when I looked up I noticed the entire male staff sharing my enthusiasm while the women had already gone, leaving me with all of my male colleagues. Whew, dancing fiends! I had a dance-off competition with one and it was a close call who pulled the best moves to Rihanna and Medi, a popular Rwandan singer. I found it so peculiar that the women did not want to join in because I have seen my students get down at their concerts and I know that is not something that evaporates with age (personal experience aside). Every Saturday evening there is a theater, a cabaret that the girls put on for their peers and teachers. They dance the “modern” dance, this means that they groove their hips and curl their bodies to the sounds of some of the current pop and R&B hits. Whew, they know how to get down! To change things up I introduced Film night a couple of weeks ago. It was under the pretense of being part of dance club because the film in question was “Bride and Prejudice”! My objective was to expose them to a different culture and show how others dance and sing throughout the world. The sound quality was not very impressive but I think they enjoyed it, if their deafening laughter was any indication. This also happens during some of the student-run productions which of course, based on my poor Kinyarwanda skills, I don’t understand but with the help of context clues I am able to grasp that their dramas are about HIV/AIDS but the part that loses me is the sound of their maniacal laughter—is it supposed to be a comedy after all?

Electricity has arrived to Muramba!! And with it, high hopes and the expectation that things will change. All 4 schools in the surrounding area will now be able to better cater to their students’ needs. The sudden appearance of the triangular towers and the overhead wires connecting them across the hills has been astounding, or at least, eye-catching. Now I know what it must be like for the villagers who go about their normal lives and bam—this white person shows up in town who doesn’t seem to be going away. Yeah, I guess I would stare and wonder too. But it can be tiresome when it seems as if they will never become accustomed to my presence. The children are the worst at this game, scuffling behind me and giggling at whatever slightest movement or sound I make, they never seem to tire from my toy-like characteristics: alien skin color, bug-shaped sunglasses, topped with an excess of puffy hair. And then there’s the winning act of calling after me, once I’ve disentangled myself from the swarming tentacles, “msungu kuruhu, gusa!” This literally means that I am white of skin only, and therefore do not carry around a fat wallet, bulging with bundles of cash. Now, I like my village, as I can attest to the assistance I received on the day of the stolen keys and certain, individuals who I find really nice and considerate but this part of the experience really burns me up. Of course, it’s always a process, a slow, step-by-step process. “Slow by slow” or buhuro, buhuro, as they say here. And I’ll take that expression over the explanation that that’s just their culture and I should get used to it. Just the other day, as I entered a shop where I buy tomatoes and eggs, the woman behind the counter addressed me as, “inshuti zanjye,” meaning “my friend.” WOW, I was ecstatic. Not only didn’t she call me the M word but instead a term of familiarity!!

Things are bound to change in the coming months due to the fact that I’M MOVING!! For the past couple of months I have been contemplating moving my current place of residence and finally built up the courage to ask if it would be possible. Courage was needed because superficially my place is a very ideal location and to the outsider, one would wonder why I would want to give up such comfort and ease. I was originally placed here for safety reasons—there are thieves in the area… I can attest to that! Now that most of my stuff has been thieved I feel more adequately prepared to embrace what will come. In fact, I am not all that sure what to expect other than the objective reasons I am moving; I am really looking forward to having access to my own kitchen and the space to do laundry where 300 girls and some odd 10 workers aren’t passing through, not to mention the backyard in which my future roommates (two fellow female teachers) take the table and do their work! Sigh, I cannot wait. The move itself will be an exciting experience since I’ve managed to accumulate a lot of stuff and the room I’m going to is 1/3 the size of the guest apartment I’ve been in. I’m looking forward to inviting people over to try some alternative cuisine and somewhere to start a garden (finally! My last two attempts proved rather fruitless…) even though I have struck up a sweet deal with my guy, Patrice, up at Escom, another secondary school on the hill. We have a nice trade system going- I give him seeds and in return he loads my Whole Foods recyclable grocery bag to the brim with green peppers, corn and other sundry veggies. Speaking of the garden, the corn that I helped plant back in February is looking tall and proud!!! At least something has taken root that I had my hand in—the basil and oregano I attempted to plant in the corner space of the school’s kitchen garden was an awesome failure. I looked around and saw that the lilac bushes outside my door had grown, been cut down and re-sprouted in the same time it took for my germlings to do… nothing.

Anyway, back to the move. I absolutely adore my new house and my roommates, Eugenie and Vestine, teachers of entrepreneurship and math, respectively. They have been very welcoming in opening their home to me and in turn, I have provided them with much cause for laughter, from propping my under-used bicycle against the wall to the burnt omelet I offered to share with them. The look of utter fear on Vestine’s face was enough to remind me that I really don’t know how to cook and what I’ve been doing all these years was haphazardly serving myself some experimental dishes that I alone could eat. Well, had to find out sooner or later. And now there’s room to learn and modify my current approach to culinary activities. Plus, there’s a ton of space to fix up a garden! I can tell, this is going to be just terrific. Within less than a week I found myself outside in front of my neighbors’ house, playing football with the kids and just the other day, coming back from lessons, one called me the dreaded M word but before I could correct him, his friend interrupted and informed him, “yitwa Evra” which is probably the closest pronunciation of my name I’ve heard thus far. Success!

Well, I hope you are all fine and were able to catch something from all that!!


  1. Hi Lovely Niece,
    The "gimme, gimme" is alive and well in my school here in the states. They ask me for everything, my lip balm (as I apply it - trying to be surreptitious), my pen, my lunch, etc. I suggest a doctorate thesis on the topic.
    The newest brain research in teaching dictates that subjects/topics should change every 15 to 20 minutes and during that short time span an idea should be introduced and modeled and practiced using all modalities (visual, auditory, kinesthetic). Whew! So your getting people up and moving was spot on.
    Sorry to hear about the thefts. The camera, most specifically, as I love the pictures.
    We will miss you at FamVac, but will send you lots of love and pics, etc.

  2. Great posting, full of verve and pep!
    As for the jigs, I'd be dancing, too, if I could have whatever is in the bottle the dancing man is holding! Whoa, whee, wahoo!
    Seriously, though, you're just now realizing why people use recipes????

  3. AVERY! So fantastic to hear from you. I'm moving as well, and have a bit of down time during the month of July and I would like to use it to write you a nice long letter. What is your new mailing address? I love and miss you, and Kenan and I think about you all the time. I'm not the praying type but I spend a lot of time wishing you luck, happiness, and safety. Your writing is beautiful, by the way! Get me your address soon and I PROMISE I'll get a letter off to you. :D Love, Liz