Thursday, January 12, 2012

Iminsi Myinshi

…Which means many days in Kinyarwanda literally or in other words, it’s been a while. First of all, I’d like to apologize for my absence from this blog and my silence. 

I recently finished what in the US would have been my summer break from school.  The break went by very quickly and I was much busier than I thought I would be.  It was very enjoyable. 

Although I had a break from school, I had different responsibilities for Peace Corps.  I spent one week and a half at PST (Pre-Service Training) for the new Education group that arrived to Rwanda in September.  I mainly observed the trainees in model school helped provide feedback on their teaching.  It was a good opportunity to be involved in the training and I was happy to be there. 

Another week, I was a facilitator in Camp GLOW- Girls Leading Our World.  I would say that up until now this has been the highlight of my service.  After an application and interview process, we selected 48 students from various schools in the surrounding area.  The main purpose of the camp was to teach girls from ages 14-18 about HIV/AIDS, SGBV- sexual and gender based violence, STIs- sexually transmitted infections, and leadership.  To do this we had various classes about goal setting, self esteem, condom use, saying no to sex, to name a few.  In addition to serious topics, we also took time to share and exchange cultures.  We tried to re-create an American camp by doing things like a talent show, dance, bonfire, eating s’mores and afternoon activities like zumba, yoga, salsa (taught by me), crafts, pilates, etc.  It was encouraging to see my shy students take more risks and participate more than I had expected.  Female students in Rwanda rarely participate in the classroom, so it was great to have a female only camp and hear more of what they have to say.  I was really impressed with the campers and Rwandans who helped us to facilitate and touched when the girls cried on the last day as we were concluding camp. 

A few PCVs in my area were invited to participate in a conference about volunteerism in Rwanda organized by United Nations Volunteers (UNV).  This was another great experience for me.  We helped with some of the logistics like registration, photography, set- up, note taking, etc.  Something that I enjoyed but is somewhat silly, is that the conference had simultaneous interpretation with headphones for nearly every participant.  This is to say that if the speaker was speaking Kinyarwanda, you could listen to the headphones to hear English and which was being interpreted by a person sitting in a glass box in the back of the room.  Also, since Peace Corps is still new in Rwanda, it was a good networking opportunity.  More importantly, the conference gave me the chance to meet some interesting and kind people.

Some of the Health PCVs in Rwanda have recently received assignments as teachers, but very little of their training was related to education.  To help them to be more comfortable with their new positions, another volunteer and I organized and lead a conference about teaching English.  The volunteer is one of my closest friends in the country, so it was nice to be able to work together. 

Since my training class has spent almost 15 months in Rwanda, we had a Mid-Service Conference last week.  It was held in Musanze which is near Volcano National Park.  This park is one of the last places in the world where you can see gorillas in their natural habitat and where Dian Fossey did the majority of her research.  The conference was organized in part by volunteers and I was pleased to see more small group activities.  It’s always nice to see all of my training class at once since it only happens every few months. 

Interspersed with work, I was able to explore some also.  Most exciting for me was going to Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. It was my first time seeing a country in Africa besides Rwanda.  To get to Zanzibar my friends and I took a 30-35 hour bus from Kigali, Rwanda to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and then a few hour ferry ride to Zanzibar.  There are planes that go to Tanzania, but we were operating on a Peace Corps budget.  I loved Zanzibar.  It’s a very interesting place.  The society is mainly Muslim and it was an important location in the spice trade.  Due to this, the food is flavorful and the culture is an Indian, African, and Middle Eastern fusion.  The center, Stone Town, has really interesting architecture.  The beaches in Zanzibar are beautiful with white sand and bight blue water.  My friends and I went snorkeling and the ride ended as we watched the sunset from the boat and ate fresh fruit.  Another day we got massages.  I went to Zanzibar with five friends- four PCVs and one American who is not a PCV.  We enjoyed great food, drinks, and scenery.  I met people from different countries, mainly from Europe- Italians, Irish, German, English, and Swiss, but also a few people from South Sudan, Canada, and the US (including a girl from UW- Madison who was studying abroad in Zanzibar).  Our trip concluded with one night in Dar es Salaam before our bus back to Rwanda.  My friends and I were kindly welcomed into the home of my friend from college’s parents. They were incredibly hospitable and we are grateful for the food, conversations, showers, and beds.  I would highly recommend visiting Zanzibar. Although it is far, it was an affordable and worthwhile vacation.  The trip was short because I had to return to Rwanda, but it was packed with fun.  My five friends and I traveled well together and I really enjoyed their company. 

Also over vacation, I went on my first safari.  I went with another PCV and her friend from American who was visiting.  We took a day trip to Akagera National Park in the Eastern Province of Rwanda.  During this day we saw giraffe, hippopotamus, zebra, wart hog, impala, crocodile, water buffalo, baboon, beautiful bird, turtle, topi, waterbuck, monkey, antelope, bush buck, etc.  We saw many African animals I had only seen previously in zoos, except elephant and lion (elephants are rare in Rwanda and I think lions no longer live in the country).  Throughout the trip, I thought of The Lion King and occasionally was the voice for the inner dialogues of the animals.  Thanks to Kim and Sera for inviting me along!

Happy belated holidays! My holidays were different from last year when I was in training with 70 other Americans, but they were enjoyable all the same.  For Thanksgiving, I gathered with 5 other female PCVs. We ate delicious food and I am thankful for each of their friendships.  I consider them all to be strong women with admirable traits.  We did not roast turkeys in a pit or have all the traditional Thanksgiving fare, but I liked to be with a small and caring group of friends. 

I celebrated Christmas with about 16 other PCVs. I helped with the shopping and some of the preparations.  We spent two nights celebrating, the nights of the 24th and 25th.  We ate great food (mainly Cuban and American), danced, played some games, and relaxed by a hotel pool on Christmas day.  There was a live band playing near the pool and I was happy to hear them play “La Bamba.”

For New Year’s I spent time with American and Rwandan friends.  We welcomed in the New Year by dancing for hours at a party called Happy People. 

I recently celebrated a second birthday in Rwanda. I had lunch with two friends, went to school, and had dinner with some of my neighbors. 

My holidays were enjoyable in a large part because of the other Peace Corps Volunteers. Many went to the US, but those of us that were here made the days memorable. 

I’m back in my village and back in school. It’s a slow start because students are still arriving, but hopefully by next week the school will not feel so empty. 

I hope you have had a joyful holiday season and a good start to 2012! 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

September grass is the sweetest kind…

According to James Taylor in his song September Grass. 

Service in the Peace Corps, and living abroad in general, has undoubtedly changed in the 50 years that volunteers have been working abroad. Technology and globalization have been the main catalysts for this change.  For example, my fellow PCVs and I have cell phone, internet access, blogs, facebook, etc. Also more and more countries have increased exposure to the US through what I think is our largest and most influential export: music, movies, and pop culture. Improved communication makes it easier for friends and family to understand our experiences through more frequent contact.  Additionally, we PCVs don’t have to wait months for news from loved ones. While I enjoy snail mail, I am glad that if I need to communicate more quickly, there are other options available to me. I think when people discuss these changes, they normally focus on how it might have simplified or improved our experiences. And while that might be true, I’ve wondered if there might be a counter argument. Perhaps this improved communication makes it more difficult for volunteers to immerse themselves in their country of service because their ties to the US are still strong. Do others have opinions on this? 

While I was traveling from Rwanda to the US and back, I appreciated the journey for multiple reasons. Many people I’ve met have never left their country of origin or flown on an airplane. Travel is a privilege and I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to travel and be exposed to different places. Also, I love meeting people. During the flights or at the airports, I met interesting people from Spain, Mexico, Rwanda, England, Canada, US, etc. I enjoy exchanging stories and experiences.  I think that time in airports and airplanes can also help somewhat with the transition. Spending a couple hours in the airport in Amsterdam helped prepare me for the US where, PCVs joke, the streets are paved in gold. It’s almost as if an airport can serve as a neutral space between cultures, although arguably it is a better representation for a highly developed, capitalistic culture. 

My opinions differ greatly from my co-workers in regards to corporal punishment. I think there are other ways to discipline and that corporal punishment can lead to increased violence in a society because students are learning it’s acceptable. Those who don’t use corporal punishment might be considered weak hearted, not strict, and as someone who doesn’t understand discipline. I’d like to hear from other people (including educators or people who have witnessed/experienced corporal punishment). Do you think it still serves a purpose in the school setting?  Can it teach a lesson better than other forms of punishment or what lessons is it teaching?  Can students learn in an environment where they do not feel safe? 

In some ways the Rwandan public transportation system is ahead of the US. The country can be traveled by buses. For example, in my nearest town Nyamata, there are buses every half hour or more going to Kigali, the capital.  In other ways, the US public transportation system can provide a more enjoyable experience. The majority of buses I take would probably fit about 15 people in the US, 4 rows of 3 people and 2 people in the front. To increase profit, these buses carry 19 plus passengers, 4 rows of 4 people, and 3 people in the front. Children are not normally included in this count. So one day, I sat in a row with 3 mothers and 3 babies. Fortunately, my personal bubble is small, but regardless it can be a tight squeeze. Many times designated stops are not respected, so when people knock on the window, the bus stops. It can require multiple people exiting and re-loading if someone in the back needs to get out. Let’s just say these rides are a journey for the senses: babies, live chickens at my feet at times, religious music, the occasional person/ baby vomiting, interesting smells- most unpleasant, and in the experience of another PCV: a birth.  Despite that sometimes a bus ride can result in discomfort, I’ve met some nice people and have had some particularly funny rides. Also, the almost hour ride from Nyamata to Kigali costs around one dollar. 

In Rwanda, I’ve been reading quite a few books. It serves as a good way to relax and an escape. PCVs share books and our collection adds up to a small library. I haven’t been reading books that are too depressing.  If you have any books that you’d recommend, I’d like to hear your suggestions. 

For many people in the States receiving mail might mean a mail carrier arriving at your door causing your dog to bark or in the country you may have a mailbox that gets hit by snow plows.  Now I receive my mail at PO box in Nyamata. I take a motorcycle for about a half hour to reach the post office and whatever box or letters I receive will join me on the return motorcycle ride.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear if I’m the only person in my village to use the post office. I share the PO box with 5 other volunteers. 

I’ve noticed in Rwanda that relationships between men and women are different that relationships between men and women in the States.  It’s easier for me to have a friendship with an American male without being as concerned as to how my actions are being interpreted.  Here I am more distant in my relationships with men because I don’t want my intentions to be misunderstood.  This can prove to be challenging since men are more educated, so most of my daily interactions are with men. At my school, for example, I am one of two female teachers.  Male PCVs can choose to integrate in their communities by sharing a beer with co-workers, community leaders, etc. That’s not to say I want to spend my time drinking, but I think being a male could make some encounters easier.

Rwandans like to pray (or as some students say- play to God since they confuse ls and rs).  My community has 4 churches: one Seventh Day Adventist, two Pentecostal, and one Catholic.  Church normally last 4 hours and I’ve never been to a church where the benches have backs. Since church is in Kinyarwanda, I’m not able to understand a large percentage of what is being said.  I realized recently that praying with my students at school is more enjoyable for me. The school is close to my house and students don’t feel the need to stare at me because they are accustomed to my presence. Besides school, I enjoy the Pentecostal church because there are around 4 choirs and good amount of time is spent singing. The Catholic church has the shortest service and the Adventist church feels familiar because they sing some hymns that I know. 

Some songs mean more to me since coming to Rwanda, especially Shed a Little Light by James Taylor.  I’d recommend listening to it and paying attention to the lyrics. I sang a portion of this song to my students after we studied the “I Have a Dream” speech my Martin Luther King Jr.  Although Rwanda is still in the process of reconciliation, I hope they can focus on their shared humanity and identity.

“ Oh let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women living on the Earth
Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together in our desire to see the world become
A place in which out children can grow free and strong
We are bound together by the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead
We are bound and we are bound”

As the leaves are changing colors and the temperature is cooling, eat an apple for me. My favorites are crisp Cortlands or McIntosh. Speaking of weather, the rainy season has returned which I enjoy. Happy fall to the US and spring to my friends in the far South. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011


...Which is one of my favorite words in Swahili, but used very frequently in Rwanda. I think it would translate as ok or good.

I’d like to encourage you all to have an “African night” where you use no lights except flashlights, candles, or a kerosene lamp (if you have one).  Don’t use electronics except a phone, radio, or computer (for about 2 hours or until the battery dies). I won’t ask you to unplug your fridge or anything. I’d recommend you read and write, possibly a letter for someone in Rwanda ; ). My address is BP 28 Nyamata, Rwanda, Africa.  The whole water thing we can try another time if you want. Honestly though, amenities aren’t as difficult for me as the distance from my language, culture, and many people I care about. It gets dark here around 6 pm, so this would be more accurate to try in the fall when the sun goes down earlier.  Although, I don’t have electricity or running water, I would guess more PCVs in Rwanda have electricity than those who don’t. 

Running in Rwanda is, as many things are, an experience. I think people in my village think it’s somewhat strange, but I do it occasionally regardless.  Sometimes as I’m running, people want to shake my hand, invite me to come sit down to eat or drink something, and bicyclists offer me a ride. I don’t think what I’m trying to do is fully understood.

The US Educational system has its critics, but I would like to compliment it on a couple practices. The US Public Educational system is inclusive; I grew up studying with people of many different ability levels so I’m more aware of people with special needs. The Rwandan Educational system is rarely inclusive, national exams can impact if and where students are able to continue studying. The US acknowledges that there are many different learning styles. Most likely related to the exclusivity in Rwandan schools, teaching does not cater to many different learning styles.

Although I talk about conservation, I’d like you to know that I think conservation is much easier in my environment. It makes it difficult to conserve when every time you flip a switch there is light or turn a faucet there is water. When water is scare, you think much more before using large quantities. 

In order for me to drink my water, there are a few things I need to do. First, I try to only drink the water that comes from the spicket across the street. Peace Corps gave us all water filters, so I put the water in the filter and add a small amount of bleach, as recommended by our doctors. At the beginning the taste bothered me, but now I don’t really notice. American water is also treated with different chemicals. 

I recently returned from my trip to the US. I was very grateful to see family and friends and to receive so much love.  I really enjoyed seeing so many people that I care about. Thank you for taking the time to see me. When I returned to Rwanda, two of my friends, also PCVs, were waiting for me at the airport. It was great to be greeted by familiar faces. People in my village were welcoming, saying that they had missed me. A few days after returning, I had another Peace Corps conference in Kibuye, Rwanda. This conference was focused on HIV/AIDS and PCVs came with our counterparts, or Rwandan colleagues. It was my colleague’s first time seeing Lake Kivu, so on the last day we took a boat ride on the lake. The most interesting day of the conference, in my opinion, was the day we discussed Gender Based Violence. The conference came at a good time for me because I was able to be around many people I enjoy and hadn’t seen in months. Most of the PCVs traveled in Africa during the break, to South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania (Zanzibar), etc. Some had family and friends visit, so it was fun to hear their stories.

My third trimester started recently and in English we’ll be studying Vision 2020, which are Rwanda’s goals for development. Last trimester, we studied magazines, newspapers, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. My students were excited to use reading materials in class.  

Please let me know if you have questions, so I can write about topics that interest you. 


Friday, July 15, 2011


...Meaning be patient in Kinyarwanda and also used as an apology.

I have to admit that while I appreciate those of you who follow my blog every month, I identify more with those of you who follow sparingly. Regardless of how often you read, by reading you are helping me accomplish the third goal of the Peace Corps which some rephrase as “bring the world back home.” You are taking an interest in my experience and also an interest in Rwanda. If you ever have questions or want to share my blog with others, please feel free. Before leaving the US, I didn’t expect to enjoy writing the blog as much as I do. Throughout the month I try to think of different topics and I think it’s a great way for me to process and remember different experiences. 

The 4th of July did not go unnoticed in Rwanda.  A little before the 4th of July, I attended a party at the US Embassy in Kigali.  It included all sorts of American treats like hamburgers, hot dogs, popcorn, brownies, ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, cold beer, potato salad, pizza, etc.  It was interesting to meet a few more Americans since I mainly know Peace Corps Volunteers.  There was also a dunk tank, face painting, and even a blow up screen that played fireworks at the end of the party. Not as good as the real thing, but it was creative.  The actual 4th of July is also a holiday in Rwanda. It is Liberation Day which celebrates the end of the 1994 genocide. Most holidays in Rwanda are celebrated with a meeting that can include song, dance, and speeches. Like a few other meetings, the leader of my area asked me, during the meeting, to give a speech in Kinyarwanda. Public speaking in a foreign language intimidates me, but I spoke briefly how the US received its independence 235 years prior and that I hope Rwanda can continue to enjoy peace and independence.  The radio station, Voice of America, played some good music and I felt proud that we have had so many consecutive years of freedom. I hope the same for Rwanda. I ended the day eating some roasted corn with my Ugandan co-workers while processing. 

When we think of Africa, we normally think elephants, monkeys, and lions, yes?  And while I have seen monkeys on two occasions (once in Nyungwe National Park and the second time riding a motorcycle to visit a friend) the majority of my interactions with animals are with the non-exotic type. These include goats, sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, birds, bats, cockroaches (did you know that some can fly?), one snake, a toad, lizards, and maybe mice or rats (at least I think I hear them). Having pets is not really part of Rwanda culture, perhaps because feeding your family takes precedence, but some of my Peace Corps friends are introducing Rwandans to that part of our culture. Unlike some parts of Latin America, you don’t see stray dogs on the streets. Motorcycle Diaries is one of my favorite books and movies. Sometimes as I’m leaving my home on the back of a motorcycle and cows, chickens, or goats cross in front of me, I feel a little like Che Guevara.  But unlike Che Guevara, I am not a revolutionary and fortunately I have not had an accident on a motorcycle.  Like some other cultures, cows are highly valued in Rwandan culture.  Milk is important and I have been served many different kinds of milk.   Cows are also a sign of wealth and the most desired dowry. Traditional Rwandan dancing involves extending your arms to resemble the horns of a cow.  Although I don’t see exciting animals on a daily basis, Rwanda does have some excellent animals to see. Before I leave I would like to visit the other two National Parks: Volcanoes National Park and Akagera National Park.  The first is one of the only places in the world where you can view gorillas in their natural habitat and the second is a place where you can take a safari and see giraffes, hippopotamus, zebras, etc.

Most Rwandans have two names. One is a Kinyarwanda name that normally has a meaning, like praise God or pray to God, Imanishimwe and Musengimana. This is given to a child maybe a week after they are born at a baby naming ceremony. The second name is normally a Christian name in French or English and I think it is given at baptism. There is not a family name like in the US.  It is difficult for me to learn names because if you ask someone what their name is, normally they respond with their Kinyarwanda name followed by their French/English name all in one breath.  Sometimes I can’t tell where one name stops and the other starts. 

I know not everyone has the opportunity to learn a foreign language, but it is my opinion that it can enrich your life.  I think that knowing a different language gives you a different lens to see a situation because you are viewing from the perspective of another culture. For example, Rwandans often use the phrase ihangane which means be patient.  I don’t think in America we hear the words be patient everyday, possibly because patience is not as valued or not as necessary in our culture.  Things take much longer in Rwanda, something like going to a restaurant can easily take 2 hours.  This is not a drive-through, fast food culture. Being able to speak a foreign language can make traveling a more comfortable experience and allows for more impactful interactions with foreigners.  Even if it’s taking a community Spanish class or watching foreign films, I’d encourage everyone to try to learn a few words in a different language and increase your exposure to other languages. 

Shortly I will be visiting the US to attend a good friend’s wedding and to see some family and friends. I’m excited, but also somewhat nervous about the culture shock and readjustment process.  My time is limited, so I do not think I will be able to see all the people I care about. Know that if I don’t get to see you, it’s not because I don’t want to. I would love to hear from you if you want to try to get together.

Peace and love,

Thursday, June 9, 2011


…Which means strength in Kinyarwanda and is a common greeting.  Children normally greet me by yelling Komera Allisoni (or Arisoni) multiple times. 

A brief history on Peace Corps and Peace Corps Rwanda: Peace Corps has been present in 139 countries.  In order for there to be PCVs in a country, it has to be considered safe and the country’s government has to have an interest in having volunteers.  Rwanda was open from 1975-1993, then the program was closed because of the 1994 genocide, and recently re-opened with the first volunteers coming in February 2009.  Since re-opening, PC Rwanda has had five groups:  the first health group, first education group, second health group, second education group, and now the third health group.  I am part of the second education group (the largest group with over 60 volunteers).  The first health group recently finished their 27 months of service in late March 2011 and the third health group just arrived in May and are currently in training.  There are around 150 volunteers serving in Rwanda currently.  As far as Peace Corps goes, Rwanda is a new country.  While that means that few people in Rwanda understand or know what Peace Corps is, I think it is a good opportunity.  For example, I am the first Peace Corps Volunteer in my community which means I get to set the standard for myself instead of following someone else’s footsteps. I don’t have to hear, “Well, the last volunteer did this.”  Some volunteers get tired with having to explain why we are here and what we are doing. I’ve decided to show rather than tell in most cases.  So instead of having a conversation about how I’m here to learn about their culture and teach them about mine, hopefully people will observe that we are exchanging culture and knowledge.

Within our health and education groups, we have some transfer volunteers, meaning that they have served in other countries.  In Rwanda we have a few transfers from Mauritania and Niger.  I’d like to recognize the strength and dedication it must take to go through training in one country, try to learn a new language, and make new friendships, only to have to start much of this process again because of safety concerns in the previous place. 

Most Peace Corps Volunteers serve alone, so in most communities we are the only American or the only foreigner.  There are a few exceptions to this in Rwanda, most being married couples.  Sometimes I think about how it would be nice to serve with someone else.  When there are two people, you can encourage, support, and motivate one another. 

Some fun facts about Rwanda: Rwanda has one of the highest percentages of female representation in the government of any country. Pretty cool, right?  Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, which leads to space concerns. They are trying to encourage family planning due to this concern.  Kinyarwanda is one of the most natively spoken languages in Africa.  This is due to the fact that some countries have many languages, where as almost everyone in Rwanda speaks Kinyarwanda (as well as French, English, Swahili, etc. in many cases). 

Too often, developing countries put developed countries on a pedestal.  I frequently have conversations with people who believe that everyone is rich in America and everything is perfect. I am trying to dispel these myths.  In my opinion, not all development is necessarily for the best.  Another PCV likes to refer to the song that says, “Pave paradise and put up a parking light.”  I was really happy the other day to hear Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame say that money is not the solution to their problems. So often, people see money as the only solution, when there are other creative solutions.  Some Rwandans I know attended a conference about being green recently.  It kind of made me chuckle because a community without running water and electricity already has ideas about water conservation, solar energy, etc.  Misusing resources is not really an option. As the dry season begins, I’m trying to be more creative with my water usage.  For example, the water I used to wash my hands can later be used to wash the floors. 

The dry season has begun and it will be the first of my life.  Funny how in Wisconsin on Lake Superior we don’t have a dry season. Although, we also do understand the importance of water for our crops and how valuable clean water is as a natural resource from living near such a large body of freshwater.  Recently, there wasn’t running water in my community for 4 or 5 days.  The water was turned on one night, so people were fetching water about 3:00 in the morning. 

I don’t think I ever fully appreciated buckets before I came to Rwanda. Since appliances are very rare, a bucket in Africa can serve as a pseudo sink, washing machine, shower, etc.  Buckets are very helpful and they add color to the outside of my house. 

Live to eat or eat to live?  In the US, I would have probably answered live to eat. I love food and I love eating with others.  Rwanda has much less of a food culture than I had hoped for, but with poverty and food scarcity issues it makes sense.  For example, like Japan, it is not good to eat in public maybe because others might be hungry. One day in my staff room teachers were having an informal debate.  The hypothetical situation was that your family did not have enough food for the entire family.  Who would eat first the children or the father?  My opinion was the children since they are still developing and being well nourished is important for their growth.  I do not think that would be a topic of conversation during an American lunch hour. 

I’d like to talk about school and school culture.  All students in Rwanda wear school uniforms. I wish I had grown up wearing school uniforms.  Although youth still can tell who has more money and kids can always find something to pick on each other for, I think uniforms reduce some of these problems.  Rwandan culture likes and respects hierarchy.  Even within my classrooms, there is a hierarchy and each class has a class chief who helps with some discipline issues and is the leader in the classroom.  I have not seen substitute teachers in Rwanda.  Instead, teachers normally leave notes for students to take and I’m very impressed when I walk past a quiet room that has no teachers. I think students in the US would not stay quietly on task without a teacher. Students barely respect substitute teachers and try to take advantage of them. Good behavior is highly valued and bad behavior is not ignored.  Punishments vary from kicking students out of class, making students do physical labor like cut grass, reducing their grade for behavior, suspending students and making them return with a parent for a meeting, and occasionally corporal punishment (although I think officially it is not allowed).  I personally do not agree with corporal punishment at school and have witnessed it happening.  Most of the teachers at my school teach with only chalk and a chalkboard.  We are acquiring some textbooks for the school, but most students treat their notebooks like a textbook. They keep very neat notes and like to change pen colors for titles and underlining.  Students at my school are boarding and non-boarding students. 

I’ve noticed some similarities between schools in Argentina and schools in Rwanda.  Teachers move from class to class and students do not move, there is a school assembly in the mornings, high school are normally specialized (my school is MEG: Mathematics, Economics, and Geography), schools have more liberty to talk about God, students wear uniforms, etc.  There is no passing period between classes in Rwanda. One class ends and the next should theoretically begin. 

I’m enjoying certain things about teaching. I love when interested students ask questions and I enjoy seeing a look of understanding or interest in a student’s eyes, rather than a blank stare of indifference or confusion.  I try to keep a good energy level in my classes so students are encouraged to learn. 

I’m sorry about the delay on this blog! Hope you are enjoying summer or winter if you are in the southern hemisphere! 

Take and give care,

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Which means what's up in Kinyarwanda, not what you want fish to do to a hook. I recently celebrated my 6th month in Rwanda which I think is an accomplishment.  Half a year! I’m sorry that my ideas aren’t always connected since I try to cover a variety of topics. 

Development in Rwanda is happening at a rapid rate. Roads are improving, new building are being built; the infrastructure is quickly improving.  But as someone pointed out to me, although infrastructure can change quickly, development in the realm of education and medicine takes much more time. 

There are some specific challenges that PCVs face in Rwanda and in the schools.  When getting to know someone, it is natural to want to ask questions to learn more about them.  In Rwanda sometimes I am hesitant to ask certain questions because of the underlying questions or the answers I might receive.  For example, questions about family may lead to hearing that the person lost their parents or siblings. A question like where are your from may result in learning that the person has lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, or Burundi because they sought refuge in nearby countries.  Like I said, things are changing quickly in Rwanda.  Up until a few years ago, Rwandan students studied all subjects in French. Recently because English is a global language and Rwanda is part of the East African Community which uses English, English was adopted as the new system. More specifically, recently means this is the second year English is being used for most students and the first year for Senior 4 and Senior 6.  This has led to challenges for both teachers and students.  Teachers who completed all of their studies in French are now required to teach in English regardless of their ability level.  Students must complete National Exams in English and some struggle because of the language barrier.  I think now is an important time for PCVs to be in the Rwandan schools in order to help with this transition.  Class sizes are also challenging, but I know this issue is not Rwanda specific.  My class sizes vary from about 40-60 students. I want to learn all of my students’ names, but I find it difficult with the amount of students I teach.  Sometimes the amount of students in my classes reminds me of a small college lecture hall. 

Before I came to Rwanda, I heard that people dressed conservatively. I thought that my sources may have exaggerated, but it turns out they did not.  Women mainly wear skirts or dresses past the knees.  I find myself being shocked when I see someone’s knees now.  Rwandans are well dressed.  In the US dress is viewed as a form of self-expression, but here the way someone dresses reflects the respect they have for others.  I try to dress well here to respect Rwandan culture.  Around my house sometimes I wear shorts, but throw on a wrap around skirt if there is a knock on my door. 

I have noticed that as I’m learning more Kinyarwanda, the number of people telling me I should marry a Rwandan has increased. I don’t entirely understand the logic.  If I speak Icelandic, must I marry someone from Iceland?  People have also been telling me I’m Rwandan when I speak Kinyarwanda. Surprisingly my nationality has not changed, I’m just taking an interest in a new culture and language.  Regardless, it is encouraging sometimes to hear I’m Rwandan. 

I came upon an interesting quote in a book I read while here in Rwanda.  “They’re disciplined and they’re straight and they have an impossible task.  It’s as if Jews who survived the Holocaust formed a government after the war, not in Israel but in Germany.  And then they had to figure out how to arrest and prosecute the Nazis in their midst.” Reading a quote like this reminds me of how much Rwanda has accomplished in less than two decades despite their painful history. 

For the most part I’m doing well here in Rwanda, but there are several things I need to attribute this to.  1. A sense of humor.  Being able to laugh has been very helpful.  2. My cell phone. It has a flashlight, an alarm clock (which I haven’t needed as much as in the US), and allows me to be able to communicate with other volunteers and my family.  Texting about funny circumstances or frustrations is a good release.  3. My journal.  I have been journaling most days here and I think it helps me to process the day.
4. Flexibility. Things don’t always happen the way I may want. For example, when traveling occasionally it takes longer because of rain, unforeseen circumstances, etc. I just try to think of it as an adventure because otherwise it’s too easy to get frustrated. 
5. The internet.  Although it is slow and not as reliable, I appreciate having internet access.  6. Supportive friends and family and other PCVs.  Thank you. I am blessed to have supportive and encouraging people in my life. 

One of my favorite things about travel is putting a face to a country.  Before coming to Rwanda, the continent of Africa was almost entirely faceless to me (as it is for many).  I still don’t know many people outside of Rwanda, but as time passes I am gaining connections to different places.  I think it’s very valuable that in the future if I hear news about Uganda, I will think of my two Ugandan co-workers and their well-being.  I think interconnectedness can make for a more caring world.

If you would like to learn more about Rwanda, I would recommend watching the movie Sometimes in April.  It is a sad movie, but most think it is much more accurate than Hotel Rwanda.   A book that would be good to read is Land of a Thousand Hills. It is about a woman who lives in Rwanda for many years. I enjoyed that the book only speaks for a little about the genocide and mainly focuses on other aspects of her life in Africa. If you do read this book, I urge you to be wary of the historical accuracy of some of her accounts. I did not always like the way she described the genocide. 

For those of you who have the opportunity to learn a language through immersion, I have a few strategies that have made it easier for me.  Treat everyone as your teacher.  Whether it be my moto driver, a bus driver, a fellow bus passenger, a child, I try to speak with them and ask questions when I do not understand.  Learning a language requires humility, especially when you realize you are linguistically limited to the age of a 3 year old.  Being outgoing has helped me in my effort to learn Kinyarwanda.  Learning involves taking risks and making mistakes.  My funniest blunder being me asking at what I thought was a doughnut store (they’re not actually doughnuts, but they are somewhat similar) for what I thought was the word for doughnuts.  Instead I asked for socks and was confused when they said they didn’t have them.  Patience also seems key.  I have to be patient with myself as well as the people I’m trying to talk with. I think learning a language through immersion is the easiest way, but I understand not everyone gets the opportunity. 

April is Genocide Memorial Month, the week of April 7th being the most important part.  The 1994 Genocide began on April 7th, so that is the significance of the day.  Most villages had daily meetings remembering what happened. I attended a few meetings, but found it challenging since I’m not able to understand what’s being said and I’m unable to comfort those suffering. One of my closest friends was crying during the first meeting and there wasn’t very much I could do or say.  It’s difficult to comprehend because I have not experienced anything like it.  I also went to another Genocide Memorial during the week.  This one is located in Nyamata (which is a 20-30 motorcycle ride away).  It is a church where 10,000 people sought refuge and were killed.  The pews where people should be sitting are covered with the victims’ clothing.  Overall, Rwanda was much more quiet and serious throughout the week and I had to consciously keep my radio at a low volume. 

Those who know me, will be surprised to hear that my sleeping schedule is changing here in Rwanda.  I normally go to bed between 9-10 pm and wake up around 6 am.  Maybe you could say I’m becoming more of a morning person. Craziness. 
Eating without electricity is like a race I don’t always win. I don’t like throwing away food, but some things go bad quickly. Eating is also somewhat dangerous in Rwanda.  I sometimes bite down on a surprise rock in my rice or beans.  Not the most pleasant, but I guess it makes eating little bit like a sport. 

I just returned from my In-Service Training (IST) Confernce in Kibuye.  It was the most beautiful place I’ve visited in Rwanda.  Kibuye is located on the shores of Lake Kivu, the largest lake in Rwanda that separates Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. You can see the Congo in the distance and on clear nights you can see a volcano glowing.  We saw some colorful sunsets, lightning shows, and the moon was also bright while we were there.  I find nature very refreshing so it was good for me to be in such a lovely place.  We also had really delicious food.  Everyday we had sessions from about 8 am- 5:30 pm.  We talked about our successes, challenges, teaching strategies, secondary projects, how we are taking care of ourselves, etc.  It was really nice to see other volunteers, share stories, and enjoy each other’s company. 

Break was enjoyable and went by very quickly.  Between visits with other volunteers, IST, Genocide Memorial Week, and so on the vacation is almost over.  I start my second trimester on Monday.  Back to school! 
Sending lots of love your way! 

Monday, March 21, 2011

I'm Singing in the Rain...

Hola! I’m surprised another month has gone by! Fun fact: in Kinyarwanda the word for month and moon are the same. That makes sense, unlike the hours of the day which still cause me trouble.  You must start counting at 7:00 am which is considered 1, 8 is 2, 9 is 3, etc.  Also the words have for time have been borrowed from Swahili which adds an extra challenge.  So, I can’t just look at the time and see a 3 and say, “It’s 3” because you actually say it’s 9. 

I’ve posted a couple pictures on facebook. For those of you who don’t have facebook, I hope this link works for you:

I thought I could describe my house for you all.  My favorite part of my house is that I have a gate surrounding it.  Being a foreigner, I tend to get stared at quite a bit, so it’s nice to have a private space.  Granted, children do occasionally get curious and peak under the doors of my gate or bang on the doors, but for the most part they behave.  They are especially curious if I have visitors at my house.  My house is made up of three rooms: my bedroom, my living room, and a spare room.  My bedroom has my bed (surprise) with a green mosquito net, a blue chest that Peace Corps gave to us, and a bookshelf I had made for my things.  My living room has a coffee table and seating for six: three individual chairs and one larger chair that seats three.  I didn’t realize at the time that seating for six might be somewhat excessive, but I guess I’m ready to entertain if (and when, hopefully) you come to visit.  My extra room was potentially going to be for a roommate, but now I think I will continue using it for storage.  I keep some pots, dishes, and other odds and ends there.  When I first saw the house, it was all gray. Thankfully they’ve painted it since then which adds a good touch. My living room is a light yellow, my bedroom is white, my spare room is a calm red, and the doors and window trims are a bright blue.  Within my gate there is another building, I’m not sure what I should call it.  There are four small rooms: two for storage (where I have my charcoal and charcoal stove), my shower which is a room with a drain, and my latrine aka squat toilet. I’m pretty sure in my village, I have one of the nicest houses because only a few houses have gates. 

I have a name in Kinyarwanda! It was given to me by my closest friends in the village (the family with two adorable children).  They were choosing between two names: Umutoni (which means beloved) or Inyenyeri (which means star). I love stars and I love the word for stars in Kinyarwanda.  Hint: the ny combination sounds like the Spanish ñ.  A couple days later, I was riding in a bus from Nyamata to Kigali and getting proposed to.  I just take it as a joke and comment that I want 100 cows, since there is still a dowry in Rwanda and cows are very important. One hundred cows is an unreasonably high dowry, so it’s a safe number and causes some laughs.  So some people on the bus, who I’ve never met before, say your name is Umutoni. That made the decision easy- my friends and some strangers who I hadn’t told my new name to thought that Umutoni was fitting for me.  Most people still call me Allison (pronounced Arisoni), but Rwandans are happy to hear I have a Kinyarwanda name. 

I’m a leader in the Black is Beautiful Movement, Rwandan Chapter.  Unexpected, yes?  I understand that in the US people receive skewed standards of beauty from the media: TV, movies, magazines, the internet, etc. It surprised me, however, that in my village where there is not access to TV, magazines, internet (unless you have a modem), they also have some strange standards of beauty.  It saddens me when a mother of a 6 month old baby says to me, “your hair is beautiful, my baby’s hair is not” or “your skin is beautiful, my baby’s skin is not.” Since many people here believe in God, I try to respond saying, “We are all children of God, right?” Well if we are all children of God, he loves us and created us all to be beautiful.  Sometimes I say my skin is milk and their skin is chocolate, but that analogy doesn’t work as well since chocolate is more expensive and not everyone likes or eats it.  I wonder where these inaccurate messages of what’s hot and what’s not are coming from and arriving to the Rwandan countryside. 

It’s currently the rainy season in Rwanda.  I kind of miss having four seasons, now I only have two: rainy or dry.  It hasn’t been raining everyday, but maybe that is yet to come.  The sound of rain really does amplify when you only have a tin roof, like at my house and at school. It makes it challenging to teach if it’s raining hard because listening and speaking activities are not feasible.  Something I like about the rain is that it cools things down and makes it possible for me to sleep with a blanket or wear socks!

I had a difficult week in the middle of Febraury.  I found out that my grandma was not doing well and then my cell phone was stolen which made it difficult for my family to contact me. My grandma passed away and although it was hard for me to be so far away from family, I had peace knowing that she had lived a good life.  My grandmother had really severe Alzheimer’s and had lost to ability to speak. Her quality of life was really poor at the end and as my mom reminded me, we had said goodbye quite a while ago.  I did feel blessed with the love I received from Rwandans, PCVs, and people back home. My Rwandan co-workers did not want me to be alone very much, so they kept me company.  That same week, I found out that the only other English teacher at school was leaving to continue his studies. I was sad because I enjoyed working with him. It has increased my workload somewhat because they haven’t hired a new teacher yet.  Another teacher and I have been sharing the hours.  Hopefully they will hire a new teacher before next trimester. It was a difficult week, but I hung in there and tried to remind myself that most things happen for a reason. (Or at least that is my belief in most cases.)

I’ve almost completed my first trimester at school which is hard to believe, maybe because we started a week late for Senior 3 and 5 and a month late for Senior 4.  There were also days off for elections, Women’s Day, and Hero’s Day.  Regardless, I’m looking forward to the break. The break lasts for 3 weeks. April is Genocide Memorial Month because the genocide started in April and lasted 100 days. There will be events in my community and I also think it is important to visit some of the nearby genocide memorials.  During break, I will also have In-Service-Training with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. I haven’t seen most of my training class since the beginning of January, so it will be great to see each other and share stories.  We also had a language training scheduled in April that has been canceled; I hope it gets rescheduled because I would enjoy studying more Kinyarwanda. Although I’m looking forward to break, I’m not as excited for testing and grading, but I guess that’s part of being a teacher. 

If any of my teaching friends have ideas of successful lesson plans for English as a foreign language, I would greatly appreciate the input.  I have the challenge of teaching a computers course without computers (since we do not have electricity or computers).  My students ask for practical or application based activities which are difficult to give them without computers.  I’ve had them make paper keyboards but they seemed to think that was funny. 

Happy spring to all of you in the US! My family tapped trees last weekend for making maple syrup, so you know that the seasons are changing.  
Take care!