Monthly Archives: November 2011

a life of purpose (teaching) and an inconvenient truth (being sick)

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It’s a nice change to have my days filled with lesson planning and teaching instead of advice on malaria and over 5 hours of lessons in Kinyarwanda. Granted, medical information and practice in Kinyarwanda is essential to my stay here, but it feels good to finally be applying what I have learnt in tech sessions with Peace Corps staff and also what I have learnt from so many other experiences in my life.
Getting started was kind of hard, I definitely will admit that. The classroom that I am doing “model school” in (model school is a 3 week practicum that all Peace Corps trainees have to do to get ready to teach at their respective sites) is a large room made of brick that has two large blackboards at each ends of the room. The desks are benches with an attached desk to write; there are probably enough desks/benches to accomodate as many as 70 or so students. For the last week, on average, I have been teaching around 50 students which is rather difficult! The first day of teaching (and the first three days also) I team taught with my friend Alyssa. Alyssa and I work really well together; we are both energetic, like to move around, and can be loud, especially when leading our classes. Our first lesson was aimed to teach students about introducing themselves and telling other people about who they are…and I’ll just say that it really didn’t work. Rwandan students aren’t used to teachers who will engage them; they aren’t used to student-centered activities. Really, they aren’t even used to activities from what we have been told. Most of their education is about copying notes on a board and following the teacher’s lead. I definitely want something different in my classroom. As altruistic as it may sound, I absolutely want my classroom to be a place where students can be engaged with myself and their classmates, and a place where they can explore their own capabilities. To give you an example of how hard achieving this might be, I will tell you that the concept of learning doesn’t really exist in Rwanda. You can study but can you really learn? Students don’t understand that term, and so it’s going to be an uphill battle to teach and provide understanding to what that really means. Anyway, I went into the first day hoping to integrate these ideas right away, and I walked away from the first day realizing that when it comes to teaching, change is going to have come little by little. And I think that’s totally okay.
The rest of the days have come much easier. This week we are teaching S2 (like 9th grade in America) and the students want to be there and they want to learn. It’s so much easier to handle a classroom when you have students who simply want to be educated and to learn as much as they can. We have been teaching different tenses and have tried to implement a variety of themes to learn about different, more abstract concepts as well. For example, today I taught the past tense and also lead a conversation about different facts about Rwanda. It was fun to hear what the students know about their country, and I even learnt today that the sun on the Rwandan flag stands for ‘development’. Who knew? It’s always nice to learn something new from students.
So, apparently, I can actually teach (a relief) and maybe the students could actually learn something? I honestly feel SO much better about being here and becoming a successful volunteer if I can do well in the classroom. Teaching gives me a purpose, a reason, and confidence that I can do a good job here, and that this is the right place for me to be. It’s a relief, and I can only hope that I have this kind of momentum when I move to my site next month (!!!!) and I swear in as an official Peace Corps volunteer on December 15th.
On a slightly less sappy note, I’ve been pretty sick the last 24 hours. I’m doing better now (after spending the night in the Peace Corps infirmary at the “hub” where we have some of our trainings in our district) but it was really rough the night before. I’m going to go ahead and say that the following should have a graphic disclaimer. I wasnt’ going to share this story, however, my friend Suzi says that it’s too hilarious to pass up. So. Here we go.
I came home a couple nights ago not feeling well. I felt pretty crummy and decided to go to the bathroom. I went to the latrine (without a phone…so it was even more dark than normal) and ended up having explosive diarehea. Ew. It was pretty awful. However, it was significantly more awful when I realized I missed the hole in the latrine by quite a lot. Think of basketball and when a basketball player makes an awful shot and it becomes an airball. This was like my experience in the latrine. The wash room is next door to the latrine (split by a tin fence thing) and so when I went to bathe after going to the bathroom, I had the unfortunate experience of seeing my diareaha all over the floor. Again, ew. I washed it as best as I could, but I obviously must have missed a couple spots as later in the evening my host father brought me to the latrine and proceeded to demonstrate proper latrine form when going to the bathroom in Rwanda (as if I didn’t already know, it’s not like I have been using a latrine for the past two months…) Yeah, I think this will definitely be a top ten most embarrasing moment. It’s destiny.
Like I said, I am feeling a lot better after a day with my friend Suzi (who was also sick and also unfortunately ‘celebrating’ her birthday) and lots of watching of “Friends” and talking about our time here. I had a fever and really bad body aches, but all of that has dissipated so I am certainly on the mend. We have one more day of teaching tomorrow (it’s FRIDAY!) and then will use the weekend to plan for another week of teaching and formulating lesson plans. I may hit up the market, watch a movie, and I also have my interview with our country director, Mary Abrams. It’s more of a just let-me-learn-about you type thing, so it’s relatively low key.
I’m doing really good, I’m feeling connected here, and I also feel like I have a purpose which is KEY.
On a sidenote: congrats to the Hendrix field hockey team for an amazing season, thanks for the mail to everyone who has sent some, and greetings to all my friends and family! I love you all and miss you dearly.

dinner on a box

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Cast your bread upon the waters for after many days you will find it again. -Ecclesiastes 11:1

It’s easy to forget why you do anything in your life. In fact, often, it is so much easier to get caught up in the fleeting emotions of a situation–why something upset you, why this or that unnerves you, etc. Essentally, seeing the bigger picture becomes a bit of a challenge when your vision is narrowed and you only see what is right in front of you. And sometimes (most times, even), you have every right to feel what you feel. And you should. But, you have to careful that you don’t drown in that very emotion; that you don’t become blindsided and forget the very reason you are doing what you are doing.

I kind of realized all of this thoughout last week. Training has been rather difficult lately. Sometimes, things can be disorganized to the point where it’s simply a huge mess (after all, Peace Corps is still a relatively new program in Rwanda, having only reentered in 2009) and after long days of class, it is frusturating to continually be called “umuzungo” after over 6 weeks of living in this community. On top of that, I feel like I have little control over most things in my life right now. I don’t manage my days which I can definitely adjust to, but a lot of the time I lose control over little tasks too. I am not alllowed to leave my house until I have had my chai tea in the morning (which I do appreciate greatly from my family) but it is often ready late so I’m usually late for our “hub days” where all volunteers have class together at the Peace Corps office (about a 35ish minute walk from my house). When I wash my shoes and clothes, they are often taken away from me because I’m doing it “wrong”. I get laughed at when I try to help and cook in the community. When I use Kinyarwanda that I’ve learnt, I get laughed at like 70% of the time. The stresses all here, I think, are totally valid. On top of all of this, I’m still continually adjusting to living in Rwanda, trying to prepare to be a teacher in this country, enjoying my limited free time, keeping up with my loved ones back home, AND trying to immerse myself as much as possible. That’s a lot to keep up on! All of this stress culminated last week. I found myself (along with most other trainees) stressed, annoyed, and frankly, pissed off a great deal of the time.

I know myself better than that though, and to stay emotionally healthy, I have to be as positive as much as I can. By no means do this entail ignoring perfectly “normal” feelings that we are told all Peace Corps trainees/volunteers go through, however, I know that once you get sucked into negativity it can be immensely challenging to find your way out. My fear when it comes to negative emotions here in this experience is that I could be unable to find a way out and one bad day will turn into a bad week, then a bad month…and I could find myself incredibly unhappy. Negativity spreads like wildfire too; I had to take a step back from some of our sessions and realize that responding to disorganization with more and more frusturation doesn’t even really help the situation in the first place. I took the weekend to relax, decompress, and remain open to better things that could come my way. I spent hours just talking and hanging out with some other trainees, doing chores with my host mom, and I went on two really wonderful runs to get some much needed alone time. I miss having a regular exercise regime, especially weight lifting, and so I’m working on making a workout for when I get to site to get me back in shape! I’m even considering running a half marathon early next summer in Kigali…however, that’s another blog for another day.

While there are a great deal of challenges here, believe me when I tell you that most of the time, the positives outweigh the bad. I also think once I’m in the classroom actually doing the job I came here to do, I will become more settled in my role and place in this country.

Last night after coming home from a long training day, Christine (one of my host parents’ nieces and the only person related to my host family that knows just a little English) took me next door to hang out with Marita (the grandmother of my host dad). Oh my goodness, she is OLD! But she’s incredibly sweet and a calming presence to be around. Often, she talks in Kinyarwanda to me for minutes at a time and I have NO clue what she’s talking about. I just smile and nod and maybe say “yego” (yes in English) here and there and that keeps her satisfied. While sitting in her very small home, perspective managed to hit me right in the face. I realized Christine had made us dinner (ubugari (this dough like cassava stuff) and bean soup) and that I was going to share a meal with them. We ate over a box. Marita and Christine don’t own a table. The house I live in (which just next door; many families in Rwanda live in very close proximity to each other if not already under the same roof) is extraordinarly nice compared to the home Marita and Christine live in. Her home is made of two rooms, has a dirt floor, and an outdoor kitchen. I just sat in that small little room in that small home in the middle of Rwanda thinking that it was moments such as this that make this experience far more than just worth it. This was exactly why I wanted to be here in the first place; I wanted to share my life with others, but I wanted other people to share their lives too. I wanted to be a part of a community, I wanted just to be here and exist in whatever way that required. I am continually baffled by some of the people here. Certainly, there are the people who laugh, the people who can’t quite understand what we are doing here…but then there are the people who just embrace us as people. Marita and Christine are just two of those people.

There are a lot of stories like that. Just today on our walk home (after our first day of model school) we were greeted my a lot of really old women, none of the adults yelled out “umuzungu” and when I reached my side of town, the kids yelled out my Kinyarwanda name (‘Impano’ — meaning gift from God, given to me by one of my Kinyarwanda teachers; also useful because ‘Heather’ is a ridiculously hard name for Rwandans). It was kind of like coming home? Maybe things are getting better? Or maybe, I’m just getting a little better each day at trying to keep things in perspective and realize that in the grand scheme of things, I’m here. And I’m making friends, building relationships, and immersing myself in Rwandan culture every single day. Soon, down the road, I’m going to have the opportunity to work in a classroom and continue to build relationships in the context of education, which I could really not be more excited about. We started model school today (where we teach 2 hours a day to get practice at a local secondary school…the students are currently on holiday and so the students that are coming are doing so voluntarily) and it certainly wasn’t perfect, but it felt right. It felt like I was where I should be. And after so much turmoil from last week, I couldn’t have asked for much more. Pairing that with my dinner with Christine and Marita from earlier this week, then I would certainly say things are looking up.

I’m almost two months in to this experience, and what a difference a week makes. Last week, I was unsure if I would be losing my sanity…and while I’m still dealing with a lot of the same stress and difficulties, this week I just feel fresh, new, and ready to take it on. I know that if you’re doing what your supposed to, then getting through all the nitty-gritty is just small bump on a really wonderful and incredible adventure.