There and Back Again: A Week at Site
Looking over my Kinyarwanda homework for learning the past tense, I saw a question it took me a moment to decipher. Reviewing each word individually then reassembling the sentence, I drew out the meaning: describe what happened during your site visit.
One Week Before
“Who has the best site?” Our training director posed the question to our somewhat scattered group of trainees after we had each received our site placement.
“I have the best site!”, we chorused, repeating back the sentiment we had been encouraged with prior to site announcements. Of course the sentiment was meant to be inspirational rather than informational because the piece of paper with a few names, numbers, and locations was insufficient to satisfy my curiosity on the place designated as my future workplace and home. As a volunteer moving to a new site (a site where no previous Peace Corps volunteers have worked) my resources were especially limited for knowledge gathering and after an exhaustive search (well, really, after a quick and fruitless google search), I resigned myself to waiting the three additional days to learn first hand what places I would see, people I would meet, and questions they might ask.
One Week Later
“Does America have the Illuminati?” A dozen thoughts crossed my mind as I met the eyes of the brave junior high student who had just posed this surprising question. Why did I invite them to ask me ANYTHING? Whose idea was this Q&A session? My answer is going to be THE answer they remember as a representative from America. Hmm, does America have the Illuminati? I glanced sideways at the teacher who had invited me to speak with his students. He waited, unflinchingly, along with the students to hear my response. Nervous, I smiled again and delivered my safe answer. “I don’t know”. I raised my arms, crooked at the elbow, palms upraised, to accompany my unsatisfactory answer with an apologetic gesture.
I had been at my site for three days and each day brought a plethora of new discoveries by me and a plethora of questions from my future students, co-workers and community members. “Are you married?” “What church do you go to?” “Who is your favorite musician?” “Compare Rwanda and America. Which do you see as better?” The curiosity on both our parts fueled a fun week of getting to know one another, explaining away some misconceptions, and laughing, a lot of laughing. This enjoyment was far from what I expected upon initially arriving in K-town. Arriving at site provoked an emotion more akin to absolute terror.
Traveling to my site from the training location was simple. It involved one ride in a small bus into which a remarkable number of people managed to squeeze themselves. In fact, these small buses are called “twege” which literally means to squeeze together. My hulk of a head teacher looked especially uncomfortable but didn’t show it as he engaged me in conversation. Although I’m the first volunteer at my school, my head teacher had worked with four previous volunteers. “Before I could not speak one word in English but now I speak very well because of volunteers! You will help the students improve very much” he informed me to which I offered my hearty agreement. We then had different versions of the same conversation throughout the entire trip stretching our respective language skills in English and Kinyarwanda to their limits.
The twege trip of roughly an hour was succeeded by a ride on one of the moto-taxis ubiquitous to Rwanda. It’s generally considered bad form to hold onto a moto driver and most Rwandans don’t hold onto anything (perhaps because their hands are otherwise occupied by children sacks of potatoes, or goats [true story!]). That level of confidence is professional passenger status and, not having ridden a motorcycle in over five years, I self-relegated back to novice. Thus, my fingers received quite the workout as I clung to the metal rack under my seat while we zipped around holes, swerved to avoid rocks, and bounced over wooden bridges all the way to the front door of my soon-to-be landlady and neighbor.
“Muraho neza! Karibu!”
The greetings and introductions continued until my four weeks of Kinyarwanda lessons were exhausted and I was exhorted to eat amandazi (an East African distant cousin of the beignet) and drink Fanta (both standard guest fare) while the others continued the discussion occasionally making efforts to engage their silent guest with short questions in English. Once alone, I was suddenly struck with the reality of my situation. I was away from everyone I’d seen every day for the past 30-plus days, in a strange place with unknown people and the mandate to get to know them. It was a new kind of challenge from those encountered thus far in training. I stretched my confidence and my legs by embarking on a solo tour of K-town a few hours after my arrival.
My new surroundings consisted of a town mostly situated on either side of a single road. This road features a few boutiques (small convenience shops), numerous houses, churches, a mosque, and of course the secondary school where I will be teaching. I thought to scope out the school and easily located it only to discover a gathering of people filling a large part of the lawn between the classroom buildings. Not being dressed or otherwise prepared for a party, I turned to head home and nearly ran into my landlady who had just appeared alongside a friend. They swept me onto the school grounds despite my low protests of being under dressed for whatever event was obviously taking place. My plastic sandals, blue jeans, and BU fleece were ostensibly out of place among the crowd of smartly dressed people. At least I could find an out of the way seat and remain unnoticed, right? Wrong. Either my attire or general visage of being out of place betrayed me and soon a well-dressed student guided me to a seat in an area evidently occupied by staff in the front of the semi-circle arranged around a makeshift outdoor stage. I relaxed as I assumed the role of an audience member. Students performed several skits one after another, the words of which I didn’t understand but the meanings I somehow caught from time to time. As the evening appeared to be winding down I thought to seize the moment for my retreat but once again I was maneuvered to another area for taking pictures and abandoning my attempts to leave, I took advantage of this time to meet a few of the teachers present.
Back at school two days later, dressed smartly this time, it was time to have a proper meet and greet. I learned the names of all my fellow teachers and promptly forgot most of them but fortunately a second round of introductions occurred when our head teacher called a staff meeting. It went something like this:
Head Teacher: The teachers are going to introduce themselves and the subjects they teach.
Teacher 1: My name is Fred and I teach History
Teacher 2: My name is...
Head Teacher (*turns suddenly to me*): Bethany, are you single or married?
Me: Oh, wow, well, uh, no, I’m not married.
This response acted as a kind of catalyst and thereafter the introductions took on a different dynamic.
Teacher 2: My name is Jean Paul. I teach physics and mathematics. I am single.
And so it went until, along with multi-syllabic names and numerous school subjects, I learned the marital status of each of my colleagues. Looking pleased, the head teacher swept his arm around the room in a magnanimous gesture and adjured me to choose any of the single men in the room to marry and settle down in Rwanda with. It was certainly the most unique start to a staff meeting I’ve ever been apart of.
Having successfully (I think) met the teachers, the next quest: the students.
“Teacher, come and visit us in S2B”. A precocious girl grabs my arm and steers me toward the open door of an elevated brick building, the windows of which were filled with the curious faces of her classmates. I willingly oblige and enter the class. As my eyes quickly adjust to the low lighting, I take in the scattered benches, two dozen or so students, and a lengthy blackboard featuring mathematical equations not within my realm of my comprehension.
A quick reshuffling takes place as the window watchers rush to take seats in the benches; some striving to be near the front, others lingering cautiously near the back but all silent, intrigued, and watching my every move with an unexpected intensity. My student-guide prompted me in her unabashed manner that I should teach them something. A simple enough request. I was, after all, merely two months away from being installed there as a teacher, as their teacher. But the dusty chalkboard and silently watching students didn’t offer ready inspiration for an impromptu lesson. I decided to start simple and see what came naturally. It went something like this:
Me: Good morning
Class: GOOD MORNING, TEACHER!
Me: How are you?
Class: WE ARE FINE, THANK YOU, TEACHER!
Me: What did you do today?
Bingo! I had found my inroad. Someone produced some chalk and we spent the next several minutes reviewing how to ask and respond to questions in the past tense. Eager students volunteered to respond to my inquiries; hesitant students were called on and coaxed into participation. The initial awkwardness melted away replaced by the single minded mission of engaging this crowd (which grew rapidly as passing students joined the class) in implementing the knowledge they had already acquired. Soon we had outgrown the chalkboard and the lesson concluded with a round of charades which, as calculated, resulted in plenty of laughter.
Later the same day I caught up with the school staff in the library /computer lab where most were typing or writing out exams. To my surprise and delight I noticed a dusty and evidently unused digital piano in a corner which, when tested, proved functional. With their consent I accompanied the teachers’ work with a few songs enjoying some minutes of repose before re-entering the fray of students waiting outside.
I was pleased that everyone seemed disappointed my visit came so quickly to an end. My last day at site I stayed at school until sunset saying farewell to all the students as they returned home and realizing sadly that the ones who had just graduated I was unlikely to see again.
“Teacher, when are you coming back?” I was plied with the question from numerous students.”
“Soon”, I promised. And, I found myself happy to deliver this promise. In that moment I felt like my return couldn’t be soon enough.
At the end of the week, one moto and bus trip later I was back at our training site and congregating with the other trainees from my region. We traded stories from our unique but often similar experiences alternatively congratulating or commiserating with one another. After indulging in a lengthy conversation, a subtle silence fell and with it a sense of the reality of what lay ahead and a mutual determination to be prepared for it.