Sitting on the floor at my house taking notes for language class the next day and something catches my eye. Looking up, I see the 10-month-old baby in my host family making her way across the floor in a rather unique yet somehow familiar way. I suddenly recall that one of my younger sisters used to crawl in the same way. This is my moment, I think to myself. You’re going to use Kinyarwanda and describe to mama (host mom) what you observed. Right. But I only know about ten phrases in Kinyarwanda and most of them have to do with introducing myself and telling people where I’m from (as if the accent and general aura of being perpetually lost doesn’t fulfill the latter obligation). I eye my notebook replete with additional words and phrases from class. No, I’ve got this. Close the notebook. Deep breath.
“Murumuna wanjye (my little sister)”. There’s a pause as all the eyes in the room are trained on me. Great. No pressure.
“Murumana wanjye…she used to crawl like that” I revert to English almost immediately while folding in the language of gestures, pointing to the baby who has also stopped in recognition of the foreign speech pattern. My efforts at communication are met with a blank stare from mama and total silence. Try harder, Beth. I shift my homework papers off my lap and resort to getting down on the rug.
“Murumana wanjye”, I begin again. “She used to crawl…” I begin scooting across the rug “…like this.” “Oya (not)…” I hop up on all fours and move around on the rug in a ‘standard crawl’ “…like this”. Reclining into a seated position I make eye contact again with mama searching her face for a hint of recognition. There it is. Lightbulb. “Ahhh, how old is she?” Mama asks implementing some of her own English vocabulary. Ages? Numbers? Oh wait, I learned a few numbers a couple days ago. Rimwe (one), kabiri (two)…ugh, none of those are right. The time has come for reinforcement. I grab my discarded notebook and flip quickly past my extensive notes on malaria prevention and the Rwandan dress code to where I have written the numbers 1 through 20 in Kinyarwanda. “Cuminikenda (nineteen)” I declare triumphantly answering her question with a 60 second delay but still impressed with my ability to pronounce the word. “And she’s still crawling!” Mama’s shocked response burst my happy bubble and forced the best tool I’ve discovered in learning a new language, laughter.
Today makes two weeks that I’ve been in Rwanda and a week and a half since moving in with my host family. I’m baffled that such a short time period has elapsed given the amount of change that has taken place especially with regards to language learning. Over the past 10 days my fellow volunteers and I have absorbed so many words and phrases in Kinyarwanda (the national language of Rwanda). Our second day in the country, long before our bodies were even aware of being 6-9 hours (respectively) ahead of their accustomed locales, we were grouped into classes to learn the basics of greeting and introductions. There was a lot of nervous laughing and looking around during the initial class but a few hours later we were happily walking around greeting one another animatedly using our newly learned vocabulary (in retrospect; with mostly terrible pronunciation). A few days later we were installed with our host families and one of our first training sessions laid the foundation for how language learning will be facilitated during our 12 weeks of preparation. “Make a personal learning plan for yourselves, set realistic goals, and practice, practice, practice” our trainers instructed. The question may be posed why 46 Anglophone Americans, who have signed up to teach English in Rwanda are learning Kinyarwanda, a language spoken only by…Rwandans. First and foremost, Peace Corps volunteers are compelled to learn the language of their host country by congressional mandate. One of the phrases in the first proposal for the Peace Corps by JFK included volunteers speaking the host language and 51 years later that is still being implemented. The standard set for being accepted as a volunteer is that we will acquire an intermediate-mid level of competency in Kinyarwanda.
The language component, as the foundation of cultural integration, is one of the aspects of the Peace Corps that was most attractive to me researching Peace Corps service. How wonderful, I thought, to learn another language and in the country of origin. Ah yes, those heady days of bliss before any actual Kinyarwanda lessons. I find now that I must daily remind myself of how beneficial it will be to speak the language of my host country because the actual process of learning it is…well, birakomeye (it is hard).
After our first few days living with our respective host families, my cohort came together on Monday to discuss some challenges we had encountered thus far, some of our coping mechanisms and what has helped during this initial phase of transition. Of course communication was one of the most oft cited difficulties. Marie Claire, our homestay coordinator laughed softly informing us it was way to early to be complaining about communication. “For those of you who have host families that only speak Kinyarwanda” Marie Claire emphasized “you will learn Kinyarwanda much faster. If your host families speak English or French, it will be much more difficult”. Around the room were poster papers covered in a rainbow of sticky notes where we had written some of the things that helped us cope. My eyes flickered to my sticky note on the poster answering the question “what are some of the things that help you cope?" Using a combination of English, French, and Kinyarwanda to communicate. Oops. Well, I guess that leaves my only coping mechanism as the stash of chocolate from the Duty Free store in Brussels! “Tell your host families” Marie Claire continued “ikinyarwanda gusa. Kinyarwanda only”.
The Kinyarwanda gusa mandate feels slightly less intimidating in the classroom when our experienced teachers reiterate the same words and phrases again and again until they are satisfied with our ability to reproduce the often elusive sounds. It’s day one of class and we’re reviewing the introductory lessons we had back in Kigali. Mwiriwe, the standard greeting after 12:00pm, looks pretty manageable. "Mwee-ree-way” I chorus along with the other five trainees in my language group. Jeannine smiles patiently and repeats “Mwiriwe” except it sounds more like “Muh-nee-d-ree-way”. “Wait” we all interject at once profoundly confused, “is it muh-gwee-ree-way or muh-dwee-ree-way?” Smiling again, Jeannine leans forward and, slowing the word to align with the pace of coherence, she repeats “muh-nee…d-ree…way”. We all look around to confirm our mutual despair in being able to capture and produce the same sounds. Jeannine begins pointing to my fellow trainees in turn having them repeat the word after her. I retreat into my mind to ponder how I can rearrange the facets of my vocal anatomy to force Mwiriwe to sound the way it is supposed to. I’m so attached to ‘w’ sounding like ‘wuh’ but that is not helpful here. Let go of the ‘wuh’ sound, Beth. Embrace the…other sounds that ‘w’ can evidently make in this language.
Where did Jeannine acquire the ability to make two adjacent consonants sound like four distinct words all squished into one sound? Oh yes, from decades of practicing the words and phrases we are striving to master in a few short weeks. Bolstered by this mental reminder, I look up to see Jeannine’s hand outstretched towards me in an inviting gesture “Muh-nee-d-ree-way” I quickly offer the required word and my heart soars as my teacher beams. “Yego!” Jeannine walks back to the poster paper and begins writing the correct farewell that accompanies an afternoon greeting. She steps away and whatever confusion existed with the greeting has now been multiplied ten times as we see that the farewell is the exact same word as the greeting, Mwirirwe. Oh wait, it isn’t identical. The devious inventor of this language inserted an additional “r” and changed the meaning entirely from “good afternoon” to “goodbye”.
Jeannine points to the first word, Mwiriwe, and intones: Muh-nee-d-ree-way
She points to the second word, Mwirirwe: Muh-nee-d-ree-d-gway giving a vocal emphasis that seems to say “see how distinct these two words are?”
Crikey, learning Kinyarwanda is not for the faint of heart.
The aspect of learning Kinyarwanda as a Peace Corps volunteer that makes it the most difficult, however, is the very thing that makes it the most effective; that is, learning it in Rwanda and using it in our day to day lives. We were told over and over after applying, through our day of staging in DC and the first few days of orientation that Pre Service Training was rigorous and challenging. I’m beginning to appreciate that living life in a foreign language is perhaps the most difficult part of training. On an intellectual level, there’s a need to embrace a feeling of incompetence the majority of the time just to avoid devolving into total frustration.
This morning I am making my trek to the shower room outside and I am greeted cheerfully by my host dad who inquires curiously “Bethany, you don’t get up early?” (Note: this was around 6:40 am in the morning). My brain sped into high gear; at least, the highest gear possible at 6:40 am. I wanted to convey that I’m an extremely light sleeper and that I had actually woken up numerous times during the night and early morning (courtesy of roosters, mosques, and general early morning household activity) and how it is actually a miracle that I’m even upright at the moment however the best I’m able to muster is “Yego” (yes) with that critical addition of a smile.
Fortunately our Peace Corps language trainers are some of the best language teachers within our organization and I’m pretty baffled with how much I’ve been able to absorb over the past two weeks. Even having 8-10 hours of language class in a week, the majority of what I learn comes not from the classroom but from my host family and nearby community. My Rwandan siblings are my best teachers. Even my four year old little brother, Bryant, who knows about 10 words in English will run around the house pointing to different objects saying loudly "THIS IS IKARAMU (pen), THIS IS IDIRISHYA (window) as I dash around behind him with my notebook trying to parse out the correct spelling of each word. Bryant is also the only member of the household that speaks to me constantly in Kinyarwanda. “Bethany, do you understand when Bryant talks to you?” Papa inquires after one of Bryant’s and my odd dual language conversations. “Oya (no), but he doesn’t mind and neither do I. We figure out a way to understand each other”. All of my other siblings make their own contributions as well. Bellise, the oldest, corrects my pronunciation, endearingly repeating the same word multiple times at my bidding until we reach mutual satisfaction in my ability to recreate the word. “Is that right?” I ask over and over. “Yes”, smiles Bellise unfalteringly. Beula’s contributions to my Kinyarwanda education are less frequent but none the less robust. She ducks her head shyly as I inquire about her day “ni iki wakoze uyu munsi” (what did you do today)? “I studied” comes the quiet response. “Uh-uh, Kinyarwanda gusa” I remind her. “Nize imibare. I studied Math”. Then, with a sudden burst of boldness perhaps ushered in by the entrance of her other siblings, Beula continues with an unprompted lesson on how to ask ‘what did you study’ and the names of several school subjects in Kinyarwanda as Bernice writes the words quickly in my notebook. Bernice, though only seven years old, routinely creates homework exercises for me to use for practice. After finishing a word completion exercise complete with a word bank I handed the notebook to Bernice. Completely stoic, she scans the page, pen in hand ready to grade my work. Number one. Check. Number two. Check. Number three…pause…X. Number 4. Check. Number 5. Check. Leaning over the page, my little teacher does a quick recount and assigns a grade: 4/5. Maintaining her instructor’s aura, Bernice turns the notebook back over to me to review my work. Out loud I puzzle over the missed word searching the word bank for the correct one until something clicks and I change my answer looking up hopefully at Bernice. Without a hint of the result, she scratches out the ‘4’ replacing it with a ‘5’ adding “byiza” (good) to my altered grade.
Over the next ten weeks I anticipate Kinyarwanda will become both more difficult and more rewarding as new layers of knowledge are added and my ability to communicate is expanded. A safe haven amidst every challenging or awkward conversation in Kinyarwanda is buhoro buhoro. Slowly, slowly. Be patient. It will come in time.