Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sloppy Start to a Messy March

Welcome, welcome!!

Come in out of the cold, wet rain! Oh wait, it’s dry season, why would it be raining--pouring in fact-- when it’s supposed to be dry?!? After nearly 18 months here I have only successfully concluded that: Dry season is only a slightly modified rainy season. There is no consistency except for the perpetual awareness that must accompany you wherever you go, lest you want to trap yourself in a monsoon. It’s funny how I still don’t own an umbrella; for five hot minutes I had my hands on one but it slipped through my grip and I haven’t felt the need to replace it.

Does my surprise, surprise you? It may seem odd that I would still exclaim over my inability to know the weather by now but then again, I’m still surprised at the arrival of exams--stressed even. By taking myself out of the game, I did myself a disservice, and let my students down. It was a rash decision and one that I wish I had seen through. However, it is done and there is no sense in whining and pining. Instead, I am planning on undertaking my duties next term to the fullest: 17 hours, 700+ students and my mind on the matter. Regardless of their status as first in the district, my school does need assistance in English. The students are bright and dedicated and after much reflection, I feel lucky to have been placed in such a motivated school. It comes as a reassurance to me to realize this because, after 4 terms, I think I may have finally reached a point of recognition; if my students need to gain confidence in speaking English I should muster up the confidence in teaching English.

Who would’ve thought I’d come clear across the ocean to listen to stories about the babysitters’ club and Scooby doo? As I sat listening to the oral summaries (about books the students chose from the school library which ironically were books I used to read as a kid) that Senior 5 and 6 were assigned to give for their final marks, it was incredible how clear the solution was: I need to implement more exercises that emphasize public speaking! If I were 10 years younger and back in high school I would have hated myself for forcing my students to do this; it’s so unfair to pressure people into speaking in front of a crowd. Heart racing, heat rising to my face, hands fluttering and eyes whipping back and forth in the futile effort to transport myself from this spot. Yeah, I know the feeling all too well. As a former shy person, I understand that fear and agony exceptionally well BUT I am 99% certain that it would be the smartest approach to start the girls practicing this awful but necessary skill. The plan is to set up a calm atmosphere in which they can gain confidence while speaking in front of a group of people IN ENGLISH!! In addition to the public speaking element, I am quite aware of how daunting it can be to communicate in a foreign language when you can barely string a sentence together.

A couple of weeks ago I began to explore the interwoven intricacies of one of the most beautiful (not to mention, practical) languages in the world. Ever since arriving to this country I have felt that it would be wise and useful to pick up French, as everyone already assumes that is what I speak as the white foreigner and it also happens to be a major lingua franca. Felix Masemo (awesome name) has been a very helpful and friendly colleague of mine and just last autumn he married his lovely wife, Solange, bringing her from their native home in Rubavu, DRC to reside in Muramba. As happy as they seem together, joking and smiling at one another, that time spent together is limited to the hours he is not teaching, which are about 30. So, after much talk and promises, I finally hauled myself out of my cozy dwelling and stopped over to say bon jour. She was very pleased to see me and instantly we began conversing (well, me bumbling and mumbling phrases she would have me recite) and I could feel that familiar sensation that comes when I’m learning a language. Unfortunately and uncharacteristically I never managed to pick up Kinyarwanda; whether due to the lack of opportunity to practice or a general unwillingness to speak since it conflicts with my primary assignment here, I have not improved in any way since training so many months ago. It has deteriorated to the point that I stare slack-jawed and blinking when Vestine asks me a question or when Claude the cook answers me in his rapid-fire parlance. I would like to state for the record that Kinyarwanda is a very difficult language to grasp, maybe not to the degree of Korean or Chinese but it is terribly complicated with its 19 different noun classes and 500 million verbs! However, I should not try to acquit myself so easily—there is a certain level of voluntary activity that comes with the price of trying to learn a foreign language. And that brings us back to French. This is something that I can apply myself to and gain something valuable in the process; not only will I be able to take the PC LPI at the end of year but now I can easily empathize with my poor students as they sit there staring at me slack-jawed and struggling to gurgle up a phrase or two so I won’t lash out in yet another rant about how they don’t try and understand me. It’s definitely a clue into the labyrinth of teaching ESL!!

And the teaching does not end once I step outside of the library. Every Monday is club day at my school. Last year I mentioned how difficult it was to mark a steady pace for meeting with the students but that was nothing compared to this year’s scramble to create a media club. From dawn until dusk, the students are herded from dormitory to cafeteria to classroom to church and then back again. It’s amazing that they even have time to study in between all their rigorous activities. But study they do. And pray. And play (remember to distinguish between the l and the r). And eat. And study some more. Needless to say, there is some difficulty in trying to coordinate a time and place to meet for a club—forget about your multiple and diverse interests, the school’s structure only allows for one day to hold club meetings. In theory, I am part of the English club, basketball team, Media/Drama club, as well as the GLOW club. But I can only meet for one of them so I chose Media/Drama (some of the girls want to turn it into a drama club, while others want to learn the real art of journalism…I got my work cut out for me!!) I’m thinking: one half will be dedicated to reviewing news articles while the other will be allocated strictly for Glee time! This past term was disturbingly devoid of any Glee, thus, next term I will be devoting myself wholeheartedly to the Glee Project, catchphrase: glee, it’s the way to be.

In other news: Compared to the lighthearted diatribe in last blog entry, I would like to report that the situation with my roommates has much improved. Or maybe it’s just my attitude towards them. In any event, I can safely say that I am becoming more and more at ease with my domestic life. I think it began to change when I got sick one night and they unquestioningly and without hesitation, took care of me. Then my appreciation for them was sealed last week while I was marking some exams in my room, shrouded by my mosquito net, listening to Harry Potter and the gang save the wizarding world. I heard a knock at the door and a hand extended holding a plate of steaming rice and beans. Before I could disentangle myself from the shelves of paper around me, Eugenie calmly ambled over and lifted the net to deliver me food!! I must admit, it feels very comforting, as if I am part of a family. However, I do spend money on the electro-gas which I deem as an equal match to all the food they share with me, seeing as I haven’t shown any inclination to repay the favor in the form of any of my famous culinary delicacies (mashed-up cocoa flour patties or cheese-smeared popcorn balls, anyone?)

For some reason I have not cooked much this past term. That, and the profound stage of laziness I seem to find myself in has led me to sign up for the annual marathon that will take place in May. In Kigali. Up steep hills, at the beginning of the dry season. And I have not run in 2 weeks! Ha, I won’t be surprised if I pass out before finishing one K of the 10 that comprises the relay I registered for. While my intentions may be pure (bikini season) I’m not sure they are realistic. Unfortunately, the weather has not been cooperating in the least bit. I swear it probably got down to 15 degrees on some nights!! Needless to say, rolling out of bed at 5 a.m to stumble onto the soggy, rock-ridden road, breathing in the frosty air and trying to make out the vague shadows looming in front of me is not as easy as it seems in those moments of ultimate resolution. By the time the alarm buzzes near my head, I weigh the options and choose health over being healthy. It doesn’t seem worth it to kill myself over a couple of pounds gained. While I may live in the mountains, I have not successfully stayed in shape while I’ve been living here. It’s so easy to complacently lounge back and enjoy the soft cushion of my bed. However, I do manage to get out for some things.

Over the past few months, I’ve been heavily involved in putting together a community library in my village. Along with several other colleagues and in partnership with Books for Africa, I have been working to collect funds to bring books over from the U.S to Rwanda. This is a major project that requires a load of money in order to ship the books. Once here, my counterpart and I will pick them up and bring them back to the white-faced building in the center of town where we will establish the first Muramba Community Library!! I hope it will provide the village with an invaluable tool to educate and engage all members of the community. Students, teachers, and school directors alike will benefit from the resources provided by the library and everyone will enjoy the opportunity to learn about the world around them. They will be able to improve their proficiency in English, enhance their knowledge of math and science as well as engage in the rewarding experience of reading. Ok, and that’s my plug for the library project I’ve been painstakingly working on for the past several months and will continue to do so for as long as it takes to happen!! When I’m not scampering around trying to make this library a reality I’m in Kigali teaching English to judges. It’s lucky for my adult students that I am fully capable of using legal jargon in everyday life, “I object!” Elle Woods would be so proud of me. I joke but in all seriousness, it does feel great to be a part of a new program between Peace Corps and the Rwandan Judicial System. Compared to the 15 and 16 year olds I’m accustomed to teaching, the adults provide a distinct range of interest and motivation. Maybe that’s due in part to the fact that they are mature and not still in the development stages of their life; they’ve already been molded and are aware of what they want. Regardless of that somewhat obvious observation, I still notice a mixture of voiced intent to improve their speaking and a relative hesitancy to actually do so….guess we’ll see next lesson when I have them huddle around my mini speakers to listen to some VOA special English. Oh well, every little bit counts for something and it’s keeping me active during my service.

Speaking of service, I’m going on18 months now!! At the beginning of Peace Corps I was one of the first of about 70 volunteers to serve in Rwanda after 15 years. Now, we have nearly 140 and are rapidly expanding. While it is exciting to be a part of an incipient program, it can also be very taxing and challenging. Well, duh, Avery, did you expect to receive a detailed instruction manual that led you through this step by step? No, but at times you do wonder what you’re doing…alone out in the vast countryside of a developing country: naïve, uncertain and constantly questioning your place and your role. And on top of all that, you are the first to exist in your village, strange in everything you do, unaware of how to proceed or fulfill your responsibilities. But that is all changing! Well, at least the part about increasing our numbers and the opportunities for working together on projects. We are now in the process of creating a more peer-based network of volunteers in this country; by setting up monthly regional meetings where volunteers from different training classes can come together to meet one another. Last weekend was the debut meeting in my region and it was a total success! It will be even better when the new volunteers become more acclimated and are able to engage in secondary projects.

Another addition is my site mate. She moved to Muramba a couple of months back and I think it’s funny that she specifically requested not to be placed near another volunteer and they put her right down the street from me...whoops!! But it has been pleasant getting to know somebody new and fresh to Rwanda. I enjoy listening to her ingenuously sophisticated insights as we meet for tea at the local café-resto --it’s tres charmont.

After months of patience and hope, my cucumber plants managed to sprout through the soggy soil. As I’ve retired my chef-no-tell cap, I maintained a strict regimen of eating the vegetables raw and a good thing too. Not too many people can brag that their cucumbers are the best in the district but I think if I had gone into business, “I coulda been a true contenda!” Alas, the planting window is gone, not to mention, all of the cucumbers, so I will just have to find another outlet. And fortunately enough, one just bounced into my lap recently. In place of a glowing green thumb, I am now a proud pet owner of 4 lovable bunnies! A fellow PCV has finished her service and not wanting to leave her beloved rabbits behind, she bestowed them onto me! Soft, fluffy, doe-eyed, with twitching noses, they love munching on biscuits and MY FLOWERS!! Can’t seem to stop them from bee-lining it for my precious daisies but that’s the price you pay for healthy rabbits. They are a handful trying to watch and prevent from springing through the gaps in the fence. I really do feel like a proud mama and I’m going to be really anxious when I leave them for two and a half weeks. In T-3 days I shall find myself scrunched up on a bus seat heading for the border of Tanzania. And for the following 30+ hours my friends and I will take in the passing landscape as it zooms by our windows, hopefully not leading to any bout of motion sickness.

I’ll take loads of pictures! Have fun in the approaching spring!


  1. Avery, I have a great idea for helping your students practice speaking without all the trauma.....Reader's theatre! Look at readerstheaterallyear.com ...free plays, scripts. Ideas....you get reading, drama, fun, oral practice, fluency, etc. Love, Aunt Van

  2. You are such an amazing writer Avery!!!! You make me miss Rwanda sooo much and I am so happy that you are having a great time...i really wish i could visit! keep the great stories coming, i love reading about your adventures :-) Take care!!