Nov 29, 2015

Rainer Maria Rilke and Bathtime.

“It is clear that we must trust what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.” 

_Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Today's philosophical thought: Bucket bath time makes me cuss like a sailor. But I also think it makes me a better person. Things serve their purpose. What was once perceived as annoying or difficult can be adapted to. It just matters how much you allow yourself to be molded and how much of your perceived "rights" you are willing to let go of. 

I might bathe more often and life would be more convenient with a hot water shower. But I wouldn't have this time to reflect on my own first world desires and have the chance to work on changing my perception of needs. 

If something is difficult for us, it is more reason to do it. (repeat to self) 

where the water lives. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Nov 23, 2015

Scenes from the Classroom.

Entering into a new culture means a lot of observation, listening, and putting puzzle pieces together to figure out slivers of what is going on. I love this part of living abroad and it's been fun/exciting/strange/weird to become immersed in Rwandan post-genocidal culture after spending 1/4 of my life in China.

So much of my observation has occurred with my students in the classroom. For example, during a game of Scattergories last week I was given many answers that would never have made their way onto lists in America or China. It was an opportunity for amusement as well as a lesson for me, the teacher!

Excuses for being late

Culturally interesting answers given by students:
It's raining (Rwandans do not do anything when it rains)
There is no electricity/water in the house
The road is too muddy


Culturally interesting answers given by students:
lice (Rwandans mix up the L and R sounds and when writing use them interchangeably - so this meant 'RICE')

Things found in a home

Culturally interesting answers given by students:
Cattle (they meant kettle)
jerrycans (for water)
mosquito net

The game was a fun and interesting reminder to me, the newcomer, that so much of our existence here revolves around water and electricity and mosquitos.

I'm continuing to watch, listen, and observe to get to know this new culture. My classroom is just as educational for me as it is my students.

Here are some photos of my students playing "Activate" games that have been developed and distributed by the American English Program of the US State Department. Fun, fun for all. Before students go home to cattle in their house and eat lice. (jk jk haha).

walk slow. xoxo.

Nov 20, 2015

An Evening at the Ball.

Time for a moment of truth. 

When an invitation came in the mail to attend the 240th Marine Ball at the Hotel Mille Collines (also known as it's movie monicker for it's controversial place in history - "Hotel Rwanda") one of the first things I selfishly thought was - I'm going to wash my hair and wear all of my makeup! All I thought about was the chance to be clean and pretty for once. But really, the event was so much more than a chance to bathe and wear contacts.

The Marine Ball is held across the world every year to celebrate the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. There is a formal ceremony including cutting a cake with a sword, watching a Marine Corps video, and reading a statement from Secretary of State John Kerry. We had an incredible dinner of chicken (chicken is not usually very meat-y in Rwanda) and lots and lots of wine thanks to our Embassy boss who threw a pack of drink tickets onto our table. (awesome boss credit!) After dinner came dancing, and our table of Fulbrights and Fellows took the opportunity to let loose after a few months of hard work in our host institutions. 

It was like being in another land. I was eating well, drinking copious amounts of red wine, wearing a fabulous dress (with crocs sandals underneath hahaha), dancing with my friends to a DJ, and not concerned the least bit with the hardship of my daily routine. I kept telling myself to take it all in - to "fill up my tank" with this goodness of food and fun so that it would sustain me a few more months in Kibungo. 

It worked. My tank is full. I had enough good times to last me awhile. It was patriotic, fun, and great to spend time with the awesome people who are part of these English Language Programs. We really lucked out in the colleague department this year. I am (usually - not while checking Facebook these days) really proud to be an American and to be working in some capacity for the betterment of the world under the American flag. I am thankful our government sponsors programs like mine with a focus on outreach and soft-diplomacy. I am also thankful to come from a country where we have Marine Balls. What a fun home culture to have! 

Several times I had to take a moment and breathe it all in - somehow my life landed me in Rwanda working under the Embassy, at a Marine Ball in "Hotel Rwanda." How did I land here? I'm just random girl Jessica from suburban Florida who speaks Chinese - how did this happen? Just a testament to following the flow of life and keeping your heart open to new adventures/opportunities. (cheesy, yet true). 

Have some pics and enjoy the Ball with me... and as always, thanks to our armed forces for serving so regular folk like me can celebrate their achievements and live in relative safety...

Marines getting' down 

Party in the USA (or Rwanda) 

beautifully done table setting 

Cutting of the cake 

I may smell bad sometimes, but I've got great hair 

Beauty and Brains from the US Embassy 

I love my co-workers. 

Rwanda Fellows 

my grandmother's eel skin purse from South Korea

walk slow. xoxo 

Nov 18, 2015

Mama Mushu: The Cutest Cultural Lesson.

It began a few weeks ago in my classes on campus.

A student looked at me, giggled, and said, "Mama Mushu." I thought it was super cute. Laughed. And was like, 'yup, Mushu is my baby!' and didn't think about it again. Until a few days later when the day guard's wife called me, 'Mama Mushu!' when I returned home from the market. 'Mama Mushu, Dushaka, Mushu!' (bring me Mushu), she said. I was like, "Ok," and grabbed the cat to go see her. (He's really the greatest sport ever in the history of cats).

Then it became everyday. Cleaning ladies, people in the market, was like 'Mama Mushu' had caught on and I had no idea how. Amusing, yes. But still super random.

Last week in Gisenyi I was laying on the hotel bed reading a book about Rwandan history. And then I saw it! The author described his mother as, "Mama Joseph." I threw the book down and excitedly explained to Leanne, my co-worker/friend/co-traveler, that Rwandans in Kibungo have been referring to be as 'Mama Mushu' and here was someone in my book being referred to as her oldest sons name, 'Mama Joseph."

"Oh ya, that's normal," she said. She then told me of a woman she knew last year who was referred to as 'Mama John,' whose name she never got, because that's just what people called her - 'Mama John.'

Mystery solved. I am being called after my first son. 'Mama Mushu.'

If that doesn't endear you to Rwandan culture, I don't know what will. How hilarious that they have joined me in the personification of my cat. It's cute, it's sweet, it's hilarious, and it is a piece of their culture I get to play along with!

I've been missing being able to play along in another culture. In China I had jokes I could pull out for any situation. Here, my Chinese jokes don't work well in English or aren't culturally funny and I don't know enough Kinyarwanda to do anything really, much less be funny in the language. So now I have my opportunity to be funny in Rwandan culture! I can call myself 'Mama Mushu' and make people laugh.


All the context clues came together and I get it now. I'm Mama Mushu.

Mu on our new kitenge quilt. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Nov 16, 2015

Thatched Roof Ranting: A Rebuttal to a Stranger.

Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: 
it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling. 
_Henry David Thoreau

There's one in every hostel. No matter where you find yourself laying your head in the youth hostelling world - you are sure to encounter one "round-the-worlder." He or she is usually upper 20's, spent the beginning of their 20's working a decent job and saving money before being disenfranchised, deciding to search for meaning in the big, wide world, buying a backpack, and a one-way ticket to Asia (if they are a hippy and like elephant-print clothing), Europe (if they forgot to study abroad in college and want to re-live their youth), or Africa (if they don't mind growing body hair and paying exorbitant amounts of money to go on safari). 

This "round the worlder" can be genuinely inquisitive and good hearted, raucous and independent, super fun and friendly, or the worse kind - a narcissistic soul who thinks because they have seen one city in a country that they "know" that place and can make sweeping generalizations about a culture.

Last weekend my friend/colleague and I went 6 hours northwest of my small town and visited the border town between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda: Gisenyi. It was an incredibly beautiful place. I wish we could have turned our 2 nights into 5 or 6. It had a different energy than the places I have been in Rwanda so far - this could possibly be attributed to the proximity to Congo. We ate goat brochettes by Lake Kivu and got to visit our friend who is a Fulbright teacher in the town. I took two hot showers! The whole experience in Gisenyi was loveliness. 

We stayed in a private room at the youth hostel in town and spent the evenings chatting with the other traveler patrons. That's when we met him. The "round the worlder."

We had a great chat about his 1.5 years outside his native Canada. He started in Europe, made his way to Asia, and has spent the last 11 months traversing Africa on a motorbike. Cool, right? 

Then he said it. And I haven't been able to take it out of my head. We asked him how he viewed Rwanda after visiting other East African countries. I am very proud of Rwanda and I guess I was anticipating something along the lines of "It's very clean," "People are friendly," "The food is boring," etc. Instead we got...

"Where are the huts? Where are the thatched roofs?" in a disappointed voice. 

I was like......what? 

That's what you are here looking for? Thatched roofs? This place is somehow not the vision of Africa in your head because people who live off the main roads (which is the only place you have been in this country) sleep in homes that are covered with sheets of tin? 

It felt like he was disappointed by not encountering extreme poverty. Like his Rwanda experience didn't meet his expectations because the people live too nicely. With tin roofs

When I think about that question I am sent down a rabbit hole of philosophical reasoning and anger at backpacking culture and the notion that travelers paint the picture they want to see in their heads, rather than encountering reality. I saw this in China quite often. My Chinese friends would go to America and come back and complain about mundane things. New York City has too many homeless people, a bus broke down in Vegas (therefore all transportation in America was bad), etc. Meanwhile I would be asking them, "What about the amazing salads! Blue skies! Customer service!" Nope. They didn't notice any of these things. Just the things they wanted to see to confirm to themselves that China is better than America. 

Our Canadian counterpart's statement puts him in this same category, in my opinion. He is looking for a narrative of Africa that he has been fed by Western media and is disappointed that he isn't finding it. He has a picture of what Rwanda should be - and because people do not live in thatched huts along the main roads, (surely they do in more rural areas he will never see), then he is not getting his utmost satisfaction. 

Traveling in Rwanda can be stunning in many ways. The landscape is gorgeous no matter where in the country you find yourself, while on the opposite end of the stimulation spectrum - recent history is shocking and heartbreaking. There is a dichotomy of positive and negative that feels at war with itself. It's a country moving forward - with a government that is working against poverty in vivacious ways. Rwanda has been one of the most economically successful countries in recent times thanks to a one party system that values order and growth over personal freedoms. (Can we blame them?) 

Rwanda is 83% rural. My province is 99% agriculture. Yet, real GDP grew 7% in 2014. Part of this growth has been the housing project planned by the government to move citizens into planned and economically viable settlements (think: commerce). Citizens in "settlements" rose over 20% from 2012-2014. This is huge. (source: 

Part of this project is a plan to eradicate thatched roofs so that people are not living in mud. It rains often in Rwanda, and thatched roofs bring in water, need constant and expensive upkeep, and contribute to disease, rodents, and other economically disastrous conditions. The government is smart, and in 2008 started a plan to end thatched roof housing. Of course, as with any government mandate anywhere, there have been some issues. ( But the overall success of the project has led to greater economic advantages for families in rural areas. 

This is great news. 

I do not want my Rwandan friends to live in thatched roof housing. I want all Rwandans to live comfortably. They deserve the same life that I have had by luck of the "where you are born" draw. I want my Rwandan friends to be dressed well, to eat well, to sleep well, and to have access to health care and education. Do they not deserve the same as me? Or should economic growth not be celebrated because it impedes the small-minded notion that this is not "Africa" as we have been told it should be? If I return to Rwanda in 20 years and find it's housing/education/health systems developed to Western standards I will celebrate, not bemoan the loss of the National Geographic photo in my mind. 

Ancient, indigenous, and historical cultural ways should be preserved, cultivated, and celebrated. But also, modern advancements should be as equal as possible across the globe. Rwanda can stay Rwanda while also allowing it's children to sleep in a dry, clean home under a tin roof. 

It's unfortunate our "round the worlder" didn't take the time to learn about Rwanda. To celebrate it's economic achievements in the wake of horrendous atrocity. He didn't pause to think about the actual people who live in the houses along the road and consider their well-being rather than the portrait in his head of "Africa." There is a depth to the answer of, "Where are the thatched huts?" 

They're not here, dude. Have a safe trip.

look, roofs!

walk slow. xoxo. 

Nov 13, 2015

Mushu, goat boy, and the goats.

This is a story of surprising friendship. 

Somehow in the last few weeks, the town goat boy, his goats, and my cat have become friends. I would include myself in the mix, but really I am just the cookie-giver, photo-taker, and giggling observer to this motley crew. 

Each day in the afternoon, goat boy takes his 12 goats on a walk through town to graze. I know enough kinyarwanda to have discovered his age: 7, and that he goes to school in the mornings over the hill. He knows that I am the white lady who showed up in the house at the crossroads with a cat. This is our extent of knowledge and conversation capacity. But none of that matters. What matters is that Mushu is here and goes out to say, "hello," each afternoon when goat boy and the goats graze by. 

Sometimes we sit outside for hours. (Because honestly, there's not much else to do in this town but talk to a cat and goats and smile at a little boy). It makes my heart so full and gives me so much entertainment to watch this trio of living beings interact. 

First, goat boy comes running to the gate and yells into my windows, "hello!" or, "ipusi!" (cat). I hear him, and go to the back of the house to get the cookies that I keep just for him. I grab Mushu from wherever he is sleeping, and head out to the gate to pass cookies through the chains and set Mushu down in the grass to see his friends. 

The goats slowly realize that Mushu and I have entered our yard, and when they see us, they start to make their way closer. There are a few of the bigger goats who are particularly entranced by Mushu and watch him for long periods of time. I giggle. Goat boy giggles. Mushu stares. The goats stare.

Sometimes Mushu gets close enough to the gate that goat boy can reach through and pet him. He now knows that if he touches Mushu's paws that Mushu might back up out of reach, so he should pet his head or back. Mushu is so friendly and sociable (thankfully) and really likes the attention from goat boy, though he doesn't take his gaze from the goats for very long. 

It's our little afternoon routine of friendship. 
It's pure and it's sweet and it's one of my favorite things about living in my town. 

About once a day, I feel overwhelmed or exasperated by living here at the proverbial semi-end of the earth. Usually when I hear the rats in my ceiling or need to boil water to bathe and get cranky. But then, I remember that if I was placed in a fellowship in a city, Mushu and I wouldn't have goat boy and the goats. And goat boy and the goats wouldn't have us. 

Tri-species friendship. It's a thing. Come see us in Eastern Rwanda and laugh and eat cookies with us. No language requirement necessary. Just curiosity and a free afternoon. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Nov 3, 2015

Stickergate 2015.

Here in the land of goats, electricity outages, and never-ending plates of boiled bananas, my first teaching module has come to an end. It was meant to be Speaking and Listening class but then the night before I was told it was changed to Reading and Writing. The freaking night before. 

C'est la Rwanda. 

It was challenging. I cried in class my second day when the projector didn't work, my throat hurt from yelling so all 103 students could hear (but not understand) me, and after discussing how to write a summary for 45 minutes a student raised his hand and asked, "What is a sentence?" And then a teacher came to tell me they would be taking over my classroom for a government meeting and couldn't tell me when I could start class again. I didn't know where to find chalk, and when I did find it, was told to take it home between my classes so other teachers didn't steal it. Um, ok. It was a wild ride. And I'll get to ride this rollercoaster every weekend until my contract is over or until I can find a way to get the powers that be to schedule me in the weekday classes rather than the "16 hours a weekend" modules. 

For now, I have the same students for 16 hours a weekend for two weekends, and then get all new students. It's a rotation that is not efficient or built to foster actual learning. It's just moving them through the modules so they can get a certificate in the end. It seems the end goal is not true learning, but just having had been there and survived. 

In the midst of the educational chaos, there were some truly sweet moments. It is very true that small victories abound in even the most disheartening circumstances. There were also some hilarious times. 

Like when I found out the hard way that my students don't know what stickers are. 

I had my students write summaries of their "Happiest days," and turn them in for credit. Before coming to Rwanda, I went to the teacher's store in Tampa and stocked up on tons of stickers for use in class, orphanages, and to give to random kids. I have some cute little elephant chart stickers that I decided to stick onto each happiest day summary as proof that I had been there and seen their work and approved. 

This turned out to be a bad/funny idea. 

Because after giving back 103 essays, I had 103 people literally FREAKING OUT. 

"What does this mean?" 
"Teacher what is this?"
"Why is this animal a cow and his is an elephant?"
"Why is this blue and hers is red?" 
"Why is this on my paper?" 

Oh good Lord. 

After answering maybe the 20th time that the stickers all mean, "good," I just stood and laughed. It had never dawned on me that my students had never seen a sticker before. I took the opportunity to have a teachable moment and pulled the pack of stickers from my bag. I wrote STICKER on the board and described that these little pictures are used in America to say, "yay good job," from teachers to students. I explained there was no difference between a blue elephant and a red cow - they all mean, "good." And I showed them how stickers work, you peel off the sheet and it can stick to things. 

They nodded their heads and made sounds of understanding, "ohhhhhh." Then, feeling really amused at life, I let the students go. 

And then, after having explained what a sticker is for over 3 minutes, a male student approached me and asked, "Miss, what does this mean?" pointing to his sticker. 

God help us. 

I'm never sticking another sticker on a Rwandan student's work. It's not worth the 45 minute chaos. And I thought I was being cute. hahaha. Lesson learned - never take for granted that another culture/people group has been exposed to what you know. Nothing is learned by osmosis, we must encounter and then process the knowledge. If you've never seen a sticker, a blue elephant on your paper might freak you out! 


Have some pics of my first module...

can you tell I haven't washed my hair in 2 weeks? 

"Take pictures of teacher" time. 


*the* stickers

group work time

wore my new kitenge to our last class 

group shot

love bugs getting their reading on 

I knew this whole experience would be a trip. And it is not disappointing. haha. Next time you see a sticker, don't take for granted that you have a life that has stickers in it! 

walk slow. xoxo.