…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,