Dec 14, 2015

A Walk with the Gorillas.

There are only 880 mountain gorillas left in the wild. 
Last week my friend and I got to hang out with 19 of them. 

Mountain gorillas can only be found in one jungle area in the world that spans three countries: DR Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Gorilla treks can be done in all 3 countries, though DR Congo is a bit of a mess right now and is more concerned with protecting the park than fostering tourism. (watch the Netflix documentary VIRUNGA for an inspiring, heart wrenching perspective of the Congo side of the park). 

Here in controlled, peace time Rwanda, gorilla treks are an important part of the conservation process (think: $$$) and are a major draw for tourists to this tiny African country. I watched the documentary before coming to Rwanda and knew that gorillas would be a "must-do" for my time here. I didn't really think about what it would be like to be so close to gorillas or what a gorilla trek actually was, I just knew that when I was in Rwanda I had to take part in the major tourist draw and see an endangered species in its natural habitat. I guess what I am saying is: I was interested in the experience from a political and conservation standpoint but did not contemplate that I would actually be standing next to giant mountain gorillas. 

Leanne, my fantastic co-worker/co-traveler/co-human and I set out to the north of Rwanda on a bus that zigged and zagged through Rwanda's famous hills. The north looks more like mountains than the south where I live, it is incredible how the terrain of this country can change in such a small amount of time. Where I live has red dirt and low lying hills. The north has potting-soil-like volcanic soil and volcanic rock at the base of giant hills and volcanoes. Just driving through the country is awe-inspiring. 

The morning of the trek we woke up early and packed backpacks of water, rain jackets, candies, and a packed lunch of a sandwich, mini-bananas, and boiled eggs. We hired a car to drive us to the Rwanda Development Board where we signed in and were greeted by traditional intore dancing. After being sized up by the trekkers and placed into groups of 8, we met with our 2 guides who described the gorilla family we would be trekking to see. We were assigned the Hirwa gorilla family who resides in the bamboo forest foothills of Mount Sabyinyo.

Hire means "lucky" in kinyarwanda and the family is aptly named. They have a set of baby twins which is rare in the gorilla universe. usually a mom abandons one of the twins because it is difficult to care for two babies, but this mother in the Hirwa family kept both babies! They were so cute and playful with the other "teenagers" in the family. There is one dominant silverback male who broke away from his former family in 2006 to create his own tribe because he wanted to be the breeder. The papa silver back is 450 pounds and over 5 feet tall! (I am glad that we only saw him sitting. I was really skittish around the gorillas. If he would have stood and walked towards us I probably would have pooped my pants.)

We drove about 30 minutes to the base of the mountain and began our hike through gorgeous fields of  white pyrethrum flowers. Once we reached the bamboo forest, a trekker with a gun met us to walk with us. I have been told, though, that the gun was not to protect us, it was to protect the gorillas. And I totally believe it. We trekked behind a guy with a machete for about 2 hours through the jungle. I was in running shoes and not hiking boots (boo) so I was slipping and sliding and holding onto bamboo for dear life. Just when I didn't know how much longer I could march uphill in the jungle, our guide told us the great news, we had reached the gorillas! Finding the gorillas was impressively organized. In the morning, trekkers go out in search of each family and report back via walkie talkie where they are located that particular morning. The walkie talkie action continues until each tourist groups reaches the trekkers and the gorillas.

We were taught how gorillas communicate and what to do if a gorilla approached us, then we left our bags on the side of the mountain and entered the clearing where the Hirwa family was chilling out. We were given one hour to take pictures, watch in awe, and just hang out near the gorillas. I don't think I'll ever forget the first time I saw one - I was so spellbound! I kept saying, "Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!" to the other hikers. Gorillas are majestic. They are huge. They are gentle and curious, and have beady black eyes that pierce through you. They do what they want, they don't know the rules. We were on their turf and they were in charge. I felt like a visitor in a very important home - don't touch, be quiet, be polite, know your role.

We stood in little pack as the gorillas walked around us, approached us, walked right by us, lounged in front of us, swung from trees above us, and wrestled less than 10 feet from us. The whole time pap silverback was just watching while his brood entertained us. They didn't seem to mind that we were there, they get a visitor group every week day for an hour and it showed that they have been accustomed to humans hanging out near them. The moms and teenagers would grunt and talk and our guides would grunt and talk back, letting them know that we were friendly and not an enemy. This was incredible. Humans talking with the gorillas. Gorillas talking with the humans.

Quicker than we wished, the hour was over and it was time to trudge through the mud and bamboo back down the mountain - a different way than we hiked up, thank goodness. When we were passing back through the field of flowers I kept thinking to myself how thankful I am that this is my life. All the heartbreak and sadness and disappointment that led to me choosing to move to Rwanda was totally worth it. I'm thankful for all the twists and turns that added up to me gorilla trekking in Rwanda on a random Wednesday morning. It was an experience I will carry with me forever - being in the presence of endangered mountain gorillas, in their home. I feel so thankful.

Let's hope these beauties can continue to be conserved by the local forces in Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo. Props to Rwanda for the excellent, safe, mesmerizing experience.

walk slow. xoxo. 

Dec 2, 2015

Combating Africa Time. The Never-ending Saga.

You know those events, the ones that warm your heart and rekindle your faith in humanity? 

Today I had one of those. 

Let's chat about it. 

Yesterday morning was bad. Not super bad, but the normal kind of bad that happens when you live in rural Rwanda and teach at a university that is run by ... non-logic thought. Normal, non-surprising, bad. 

It was the first day of my week long "Seminar in American Literature" where I was slated to teach 90 level 5 French/English majors without any curriculum guidelines or technology. The lack of guidelines is something I have gotten over, as well as the lack of a steady classroom space - we just wander until we find an open room. Lack of technology is not ideal, but also manageable. What is not manageable, however, is a lack of students. 

Now, mind you, I am not newcomer to the idea of "Africa Time." The notion that everything is slower (yes), later, (yes), and takes longer (YES) in Africa. If you have a meeting at 8, expect it to start at 9 and last until whenever. Because "Africa Time." This is not new to me (looking at you, chronically late ex-boyfriends of the African variety). But for some reason, perhaps the grating of the lumber yard near my house that robs my sleep, or the lack of diet coke in my veins, yesterday Africa Time was not going to fly. 

I arrived to an open classroom at 7:50 and began to set up my teacher area (a desk in the front). Then I straightened my kitenge skirt, fixed my lipstick while looking in my phone, and waited for students. And waited. And waited. By 8:10 there were still no students. This is odd, as there are usually a few eager beavers, especially on the first day of class. SOMEONE usually wants to see the white teacher. 8:20 rolled around and I could feel my blood starting to boil. I am at the number 1 ranked private school in rwanda and these turds can't even come to class onetime. This is a waste of my life. I heard myself thinking. (Dramatic, I know. I'm an ENFP). I took a photo, posted it in a rant to Instagram, and headed back to my house in a big red-headed fit. 

Empty room = 25 instagram likes. Score! 
On the way back to my classroom, I ran into a student, Sister Mary, who I see all the time and have become close with. She is a nun so I think of her like a character in my Rwanda play. Sister Mary told me, "be patient, it's raining." Ohhhhh. I thought. I had completely forgotten that Rwandans do not go outside in the rain. They are made of sugar, or something like that. "Well, yes, patience is important," I said, wondering why I was about to debate the importance of patience with a nun. "But I expect my students to have high standards for themselves. This is disrespecting our class." She nodded in a kind way, as you would expect from a Sister, and told me to go home and wait for the class president to call. So I did.

Well, Sister Mary knows what's up. Around 8:50 the class president called me and informed me that the class was ready now, I should go back. By now I was livid with the entire system of incompetence and I trudged my moody bum back over to the class ready to give them my mind. And that I did. I gave a speech about respect and having high standards and not having any pity on them. "I don't care if it's raining, you come to class on time because that is what an employer will expect of you," I heard myself saying. Then it came time to pull out the packet that I had emailed to the dean to pass out over 2 weeks ago. The packet the dean had assured me had already been distributed to students so they could read for the first day (a 5 day literature course requires preparedness). But low and behold - no students had the packet nor had heard of the packet.

Bloody hell.

I was an angry redheaded woman giving it to a class of Rwandans who were looking at me like they were watching a weird sci-fi film. A weird look of misunderstanding, confusion, and humor.

I told them to go, print the packet, do the work, and come back the next day on time and prepared. I packed up my pink tote and stomped my way out of the class. I had had enough. In my logic, being late was one thing, but being late and having not done the pre-reading nor having the packet was just completely unacceptable (it would have made our class impossible, in my defense).

This morning, I was not entirely excited to face the students and conjure up enough goodwill to mend the fences and have a productive course. I had my coffee, said a few thankful prayers to get my brain and heart in the right place so I didn't get emotionally jostled again, and walked out into the foggy campus toward the classroom.

And then...the best thing in the world happened.

I walked into the class, at 7:50am to a full classroom of students who laughed and clapped when I walked in. 

It was amazing. I'll never forget it. (ok maybe one day, but not for a long, long time.) In Africa, an entire group of 90 students showing up 10 minutes before class is a legitimate miracle.

And I smiled. And they smiled. And I was so ticked. And they were so humored with themselves.

And we had a fabulous 4 hour class on the Enlightenment Period and early American themes.

My faith in humanity was encouraged. Perhaps my high standards are rubbing off? Or maybe they just don't want to upset the white teacher? Who knows. It was such a sweet morning. I wonder if they will all be there early tomorrow? :) 

Here are some other pics: 

Mushu being famous. I'm now calling myself his Momager. 

Goat on a leash. 

King of Kibungo

I found 7 coke zeros in a store in town and bought them all! This is JACKPOT!

walk slow. xoxo.

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.

Oct 31, 2015

On Being Alone. And House Tour.

It's a conversation that has happened multiple times in the short time I've lived in Rwanda. Always going a little something like this...

Random Human: "Are you married?" 
Me: "No." 
Random Human: "Oh, I'm sorry." 
Me: "I'm not sorry." 
Random Human: "You have someone to take care of you?" 
Me: "I live with my cat." *pulls out phone to show pictures of cat*
Random Human: "You are......alone?!?!?!" *cue shock*

The truth is, I don't really think of myself as alone. Sure, I get lonely. That's different. Everyone gets lonely, whether you live in a random town in Rwanda or a huge city in America. It's life. Sometimes we are lonely and sometimes we are not. I don't need anyone to "take care of me." I am perfectly functional on my own. 

But being alone. That is something I keep contemplating thanks to the daily reminders from Rwandans that I am in fact...a single woman living in a house alone with her cat in the heart of Africa. 

Truth is, I've lived "alone" for 8 years. But it hasn't felt like it. In China I was either in a dorm or in a relationship or had such a tight knit community that I never felt "alone." I had my space, but I was not an island trying to make my way through life. 

Here in Rwanda, I did not come alone either. There are 3 fellows in Rwanda, the most of any African country who hosts fellows. The other two are 2.5 hours away in the capitol, and I am here in the boonies. They are never more than a whats app message away and I see them all the time. I talk to my family every day and keep up with friends in China via We Chat. I really don't feel alone at all. I woke up this morning lonely as hell, but then some kids came to my window and hollered at Mushu and it made me laugh and I was reminded I am part of a community. However challenging that community is. I get to be the white lady with a white cat who is entertaining to children. That's cool. 

The not being married bit is a little harder to swallow and incredibly irritating. Unlike many single women my age who make the life choices I have to live abroad and become invested in foreign communities for various reasons - I have dreams of a family. Before leaving China, I was in a relationship that was quickly heading towards marriage. He is an incredible man who loved me dearly and I wish the best for him. But, I left him for many reasons, one of which was to come to Rwanda. I want to tell these Rwandans who inquire about my marital status, "I could be married if I wanted to be, but I chose to come here to you instead, so be kind and stop judging." The truth is, I want the best for myself (and all the women in my life). And right now the best for myself is living in Rwanda, overcoming new challenges, observing a new continent/country/culture/way of life, being the best teacher I can be, alone while doing it. I can do this alone. Because I'm really not alone at all. 

The idea of "being alone" is something I have been contemplating. It's fascinating to have a whole culture describe me as something I don't describe myself as. 

In the same vein, here are some photos of my newly improved house. I feel much better, though not great, about the situation. It is hard not to compare to fellows who have much nicer accommodation than I do. I'd do almost anything for a hot water heater, some cabinets, no rats, clean walls and some privacy. But - I've gotta let some things go about what I think I deserve and be thankful for my cute (and free) house. 

new fence to keep all the friends back a few feet

Bao Bei likes his home

Front room, table for cooking/laundry/everything

art bought at Inema Studio in Kigali, done by street children

guest bedroom with a giant Florida on the wall

my bedroom (cat included) 

my favorite part of the house - my "vanity" area with woven basket and necklaces from Rwanda

other side of my bedroom - laundry hamper and books on the floor, red pattern on the wall from China 

my bathroom - buckets of water and a bucket for my showers (I boil water and pour into the bucket then pour on my head)

new Africa panel

more street kid art 

lots of friends visiting Mushu 

gas stove, spices from america on the window ledge

"kitchen" area, more water buckets on the ground for washing dishes (no sink)

And that, my friends, is how the lucky single ladies (ok, just me) live in Eastern Province, Rwanda. 

walk slow. xoxo.