Teapots, Tests, and Teachers
“Is ‘teapotting’ something you do outside?” I look up from my journal to determine the source of the curious question I’d just overheard from one of my fellow trainees. Five of us are standing in a narrow hallway making valiant efforts to pass the time with a game, the purpose of which is to guess a certain activity concealed by the term “teapot”. As I said...passing the time while waiting (reluctantly) to receive either or both Hep A and Hep B vaccinations from one of our Peace Corps doctors. This process has become pretty routine. We have a medical session followed by another shot from the full battery of vaccines we are required to have as foreign residents of Rwanda. Normally there’s a mad dash from the main training classroom to the makeshift medical offices in the adjacent building as the only thing between us and our lunch break is being poked, patched, or pardoned (in the instance that one brought documentation of having received a particular vaccine previously).
Today I didn’t have the strength to fight the horde so I resigned myself to the back of the line with the consolation of being able to catch up on my journaling for the week. Pre-teapot discussion, I found myself sitting at an outdoor table partially hidden behind a steel wall of Berkefield water filters so I began jotting down a few thoughts from the day. Absorbed in the activity I was caught by surprise when someone addressed me in Kinyarwanda. Subiramo (repeat) I looked up while employing my favorite default phrase in Kinyarwanda. The inquirer obliged and I was relieved that the combination of vowels and consonants coalesced into a phrase that I understood. “What am I writing?” I restated the question in English for verification. “Yego” smiled Claudine, one of my unofficial Kinyarwanda teachers. Leaning over the journal, Claudine’s brows furrow as she points to the date I’ve written in the top left corner of the page 10/16/18. “Cuminakarindwi” (17) she offers the correction pointing to the middle number. Seventeen! Today is the seventeenth!That means tomorrow makes one month since leaving the United States. Cliché as it may sound a whirlwind seems to be an apt description of how the past 30 days have felt. If you’re willing to subscribe to this notion than I will continue with weather-related analogies to say that the past few days, in the best possible way, have been the eye of the storm.
Like most undergraduate students I took a general psychology course to check a box on a required list of classes to be eligible for graduation. Despite its status as a “required class” I drew numerous insights from that class including being able to put a name to a phenomenon everyone experiences; eustress, that is, stress resulting from positive events in life. The last few days have been an ongoing case study on eustress beginning with preparation for our first language test also known as the LPI. There ought to be a dramatic sound effect accompanying that acronym to get a real sense of its impact on us trainees. The anticipated (by some), dreaded (by others), inescapable (by all) LPI!
A glance at our training schedule reveals a rainbow of colors with various blocks representing different types of training sessions such as health, cross cultural, safety, etc. Yellow is the designated color for language. The Friday before the LPI the schedule revealed four yellow blocks; language sessions All. Day. Long. That’s a lot of language even though I enjoy it! Fortunately my teacher is a pro and her instruction style made the day go by relatively quickly as we simultaneously crammed new information in our already oversaturated brains and reviewed previously learnt material.
That afternoon, our whole cohort reunited in the courtyard in front of the few buildings together affectionately dubbed “the hub”. Exhausted from a day of non stop language we wandered around in the early stages of zombification bemoaning our minimized brain power and laughing at our attempts to remain coherent in spite of it.
To ease (read: heighten to the maximum) our sense of anxiety we were treated to an hour session on what exactly is the LPI, the expected level we needed to achieve at this stage in the game and finally a brief mock LPI with Ésperance, our language and cross cultural facilitator. “Who would like to volunteer for the mock LPI?” Ésperance scanned the beleaguered faces for any sign of a hand. In this group of typically eager trainees, an immense stillness had settled over the group. Not a single hand could be detected. Behind my usual seat on the front row, I hear two or three whispers “Raise your hand, Bethany!” “Get up there, girl” “You should do it”. I glanced back to see the eager and encouraging expressions of some friends pointing to me and gesturing toward the front of the classroom. Why not? My hand went up and as though my extended appendage were a cell tower instantly a wave of nervous energy shot through me. I stood and suddenly realized what it was I had agreed to; being tested on my language skills in front of all 43 of my fellow trainees, all of the language instructors including my own sitting on the front row staring me with a look that I interpreted as “don’t embarrass me”, most of the LPI testers and the language and cross cultural facilitator (my teacher’s boss). Noooooo pressure. It’s not as though I’m an introvert to the nth degree. Okay Beth, pep talk time! Block everything else out and focus on—“how do I conjugate the verb ‘to have’ in the third person singular again?” A stray thought interrupted my pep talk which was promptly banished. In the distance I hear Ésperance giving some final remarks which I should probably be paying attention to but this is my last chance at preparing for this totally unexpected exhibition. Okay Beth, it’s you and Ésperance. Be in a bubble. Focus. Just use words you know. Don’t worry about— “Are we ready?” This time Ésperance is directly addressing me. “Yego!” I smiled nervously. And I was. We sat. We talked. She asked me questions I could answer and definitely a few that I couldn’t. I kept my eyes on my conversation partner only faintly hearing someone shush the audience at one point (Bless you unknown trainee). And after five agonizing hours (okay, it was about five minutes) I was saying “urakoze” and standing up to fairly hearty accolades from my cohort, my crew, my Peace Corps family. I was grateful, deeply grateful, for so many things simultaneously; for the expression on my teacher’s face which I interpreted as Congratulations...you didn’t embarrass me; for the genuine unaffected support from my cohort; for the sense of relief that three weeks of Kinyarwanda lessons had produced the ability to navigate my way through a five minute conversation; but most of all for the warm and welcome feeling of belonging-the realization that I can actually do this, not just keep pushing through another eight weeks of intensive Kinyarwanda lessons but embracing the prospect of 26 months of Peace Corps Service.
Even with all of that goodwill and joy...the actual LPI was still before me. The weekend slipped away with remarkable speed and suddenly it was Tuesday afternoon. Half of my cohort had taken the language test but were still far from achieving emotional equilibrium because they, like the rest of us, had another looming hurdle to surmount. We were about to find out where in Rwanda we are going to live for the next two years of our lives.
There they were. Six velum banners buffeted by the wind bearing the names of the regions in Rwanda. Southwest, West, Northern, Central Kigali, Eastern, Southern. There we were. Forty-four Peace Corps trainees anxiously awaiting our fate. Several staff members emerged from behind the banners taking center stage and instantly capturing the attention and anticipation of the rest of us. “I’d like to say a few words” our training director grins knowingly at the disappointed looks on our faces but then proceeds to say, indeed, a few words and very important words. As she spoke my subconscious connected her statement to previously offered advice. “Don’t have low expectations” Kim reminded us fervently “have no expectations”. I glanced at the banners. No expectations, Beth, no expectations...except...I really don’t want to end up in...NO EXPECTATIONS BETH! Kim stepped aside and one by one, Harry Potter style, trainees were called to a sit on a precariously situated wooden stool as we were told, in reverse order the name of our future school, village, sector, district, and finally province. The latter locale was the only one most of us were familiar with so there were about ten seconds of held breath and then an attempt to conceal the exhalation of relief upon assignment to a desired province. Given my last name I was hopeful the assignments would be read out in alphabetical order but alas, it was not the case. About 12 minutes in to our ‘sorting’, I heard my name. I took my seat nearly falling over but managing to stay upright in time to hear a series of words that meant not a lot and finally “Eastern Province!” My brain grasped at the proclamation and began searching for words to connect with it even as I walked over to the map to find out my exact location: Eastern Province- close to the training center, not too far from Kigali, hottest region, bordering Tanzania, close to Akagera National Park, Pineapples!They had me at pineapples! Genuinely happy with my placement, I was eager to discover which volunteer I would be replacing from two cohorts prior. I’m surprised WhatsApp didn’t shut down with the volume of messages that were traded on site announcement day. In a frenzy, I began texting and trading info and forwarding contacts with volunteers from three or four different cohorts and fields (education and health). I hastened to send the details of my placement to two volunteers who had offered to assist in connecting us with the volunteers we would replace. My phone buzzed and I glanced down to see the response “Congratulations, you’re at a new site!”
Meet & Greet
A new site has a lot of implications for a Peace Corps Volunteer including that you don’t have a current volunteer to give you the run down on your future boss. So as I made the walk from our training center to a nearby hotel, once again “no expectations” was the mental banner I carried. A few minutes passed as we anxiously awaited the start of what would surely be many awkward introductions and attempts on both sides to correctly pronounce names. We chatted amongst ourselves as we heard signs of the supervisor session ending in the adjacent conference room to the porch where we were gathered. A tall, broad chested man stepped out of the room wearing a bright red dress shirt with a bold pattern accompanied by a corresponding maroon hat. He cut a striking figure and drawing attention from the chatting trainees. “That’s my head teacher”, I joked to a nearby friend. More school administrators made their way between us casting curious glances and speaking with low tones in rapid Kinyarwanda. As the man in the red hat moved past me I caught sight of his name and the name of his school. The name of MY school. “Mwiriwe.” I dove in with a greeting and shared that I would be teaching at his school. “My school?” He responded in Kinyarwanda seeming confused. Yego! I hoped my deliberate enthusiasm would effectively supplement any deficiencies in verbal communication.
The real fun began when nearly 100 of us assembled in a less than well ventilated conference room and we trainees were instructed to introduce our supervisors in Kinyarwanda. One by one my colleagues stood and waxed eloquent about their new head teachers while mine nodded approvingly. My turn. “This is my head teacher. He is from *such and such and lives in so and so. He has three grown children and he enjoys visiting them. Considering that my head teacher claimed me as his daughter I presume he was pleased with the introduction. Steering me toward one of the staff members after our session my head teacher asked her to explain something which he said in Kinyarwanda. “You’re going to one of the neediest schools”, she told me. “You’re at a brand new site because your head teacher came to us over and over requesting a Peace Corps volunteer”. What a declaration and what a mandate!
After a week of official and unofficial tests I was simultaneously elated and exhausted; emotional states which I imagine will be often coupled over the next two years.