The Chalkboard

 

When I was a child, I played with dust.

The unwiped surfaces of our family furniture provided powder canvases for sketches and secret messages, and when I was finished drawing, poof! – with a single breath, I sent the symbols into the air, watched as they ephemerally glittered in the sunshine and then, just as quickly, vanished.

My mother scolded me. She handed me a cloth rag and instructed me to wipe the bookshelves and counter tops. I obliged, but not without still drawing patterns and secrets before carefully erasing them away. I imagined that somehow dust was a magical medium of preservation – that, far away, perhaps in another universe, someone was receiving and cataloging away all these thoughts and messages.

Then, one day in science class, I learned that dust was composed of particles of soil and dead human skin.

When I got home, I drew a circle on top of the piano.

For the first time, I lifted my finger – and I saw that the dust had turned it black.

 

 

“It is very bad this place,” the driver mumbled. He looked uneasy as he pulled into the driveway. It was nearing dusk, and I could see the solitary structure ahead, illuminated by fading light at the peak of the hill.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “We won’t be long.”

After two days in the beautiful wilderness of Nyungwe Forest, my friend and I were on our way back to Kigali when I asked the driver to make one more stop – at Murambi, the genocide memorial in Gikongoro.

The driver adamantly shook his head. “That is a very bad way to finish the trip,” he said. But when we insisted and assured him that we wanted to visit the memorial site, he relented and said he’d wait in the car.

 

My friend and I walk up the long pebbled walkway. At the entrance, a guide greets us and explains that he will take us to the classrooms after we finish a self-tour of the main building. It is almost closing hours.

Inside, panels in English, French, and Kinyarwanda narrate the events that occurred at the site during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide.

The audio recorded voices of survivors speak of April 1994, when the genocidal campaign arrived in Gikongoro and Tutsi fled to the church for sanctuary. There, they were told by local authorities as well as the bishop to seek refuge instead at the technical school in Murambi. An estimated 65,000 Tutsi ran to Murambi, but at the school, the situation quickly deteriorated. Water and electricity were cut off.  For five days, thousands languished without food as the buildings of the technical school were repeatedly attacked. Many died in the initial massacres.

Then, on the night of April 21, Interahamwe militia arrived. Armed with machetes and spiked clubs, they killed over 40,000 Tutsi at the school; Tutsi who managed to escape to a nearby church were killed the next day.

Today, Murambi Memorial Centre is one of the more known and visited genocide memorials in Rwanda not only because of its horrific historical context, but also because of its graphic means of commemoration.

As our guide leads us outside of the main building, he explains that when the mass graves were exhumed post-genocide, many of the bodies had been buried so tightly together that they had barely decomposed. 848 of these bodies were covered in lime (Calcium Carbonate) and laid on wooden tables within the former classrooms of the Murambi Technical School.

Even before we enter the first classroom, the stench is overwhelming.

genocidememorials.cga.harvard

At first, I only see the contours, the dusty, chalky outlines of corpses mummified by lime. But when my eyes adjust and focus on the bodies, I begin to see stories in the dust – I see gender and age, machete cuts to the skulls, hacked arms and legs, torn clothing; I see contorted fingers, twisted torsos, screaming mouths.

The guide beckons us to the next classroom. We enter – more mutilated bodies, more stricken faces – the final moments of hundreds frozen since April 21, 1994.

genocidememorials.cga.harvard.edu

Then another classroom, and another, and another, and another.

Two classrooms are filled with the small bodies of children. Many are curled into fetal positions, seemingly asleep, but others have expressions of terror permanently etched onto their faces.

It is a nightmare punctuated only by gasps of air between the rooms.

I ask the guide about the process of preservation. He explains that, every year, the corpses are washed and repainted with lime, which prevents the bodies from further decomposing.

“But lime only slows down the process of decomposition, right?” I say, “So these bodies and this memorial centre cannot be preserved like this forever?”

The guide picked a twig up from the ground. “Look,” he said. He bent down beside one of the corpses and began scratching at the contorted arm with the twig.

A flurry of dust falls.

“See? Do you see?” he says, pointing at the scratched arm, “Look, the skin is still there. Do you see? It is brown.”

My friend’s arm is suddenly supporting me.

“You all right?” my friend asks.

I run out the door.

Outside, I shut my eyes. Breathe. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.

Then, I look down.

There, scattered over my pants and shoes – is a layer of dust.

 

**

She rarely spoke in class, and when she did, Adeodatte’s voice was barely louder than a whisper.

She was the secretary at the Rwamagana School of Nursing & Midwifery, the first face I saw every morning in the copy room, the last face I saw while waiting for the classroom door to be locked. She carried herself with that quiet dignity so prized by Rwandese women, and sashayed down the school corridors in robes of intricately embroidered kitenge with the elegance of a queen. She was thirty-three years old, a proud wife and mother of four.

On the surface, Adeodatte was one of my best students – always punctual, always prepared, always attentive, always seated at the front of the class – but it was her defiant stare, her unmasked disdain and perpetual scrutiny of my age, my clothing, my credentials that told me from day one that she, of all my students, would be the most difficult to reach.

On the first day of class, I introduced myself as the school’s new Fulbright English teacher. I wrote out my name “Lydia Hsu” and stood back from the chalkboard. The lines were crooked and shaky – the penmanship of a child.

“Okay everybody, let’s practice speaking English by introducing ourselves,” I said. I asked each student to give a self-introduction and explain his or her reasons for learning English.

Bosco volunteered to go first. “Hello, my name is Bosco. Teacher, I want to learn English because it is important for me and for my country. In order for me to succeed and for Rwanda to develop, we must improve in our English.”

Next, Adeodatte.

“Why do you want to learn English, Adeodatte?” I asked.

Adeodatte muttered something in Kinyarwanda and shook her head. Elisabeth, who sat beside her, nudged her; Bosco whispered something in Kinyarwanda.

Adeodatte looked up. Her gaze was defiant. “Teacher,” she said, “I learn English only because it is a requirement.”

“Okay, well that is certainly a reason to learn English,” I replied, not oblivious to the exchange of murmurs and nervous glances among the students, “I understand that this class is a requirement for all faculty and staff, but hopefully you will also find that English is useful beyond this classroom.”

“Teacher,” said Adeodatte, “Do you speak Kinyarwanda?”

“Not well,” I said, “I know some of the basics.” I listed off a few words – mwaramutse, mwirire, murakoze, Fanta ikonge, umva, amakuru, ni meza

“Teacher, you must learn Kinyarwanda,” she said.

“You are right,” I said, “I should learn. And all of you can be my teachers. At the end of the year, if we both teach each other well, maybe you will all be English teachers, and I will be a teacher of Kinyarwanda.”

 

 

Over the next 9 months, as I sought to help my students improve in their English proficiency, my daily encounters with Adeodatte challenged me to not only demonstrate the utility of mastering the English language, but also prove my capacity to teach it.

I lay awake many nights trying to conceptualize lesson plans that would address the needs of all my students. Every morning, I came to the classroom with new ideas and activities; every afternoon, I left dejected and disheveled, a fine layer of white and yellow chalk dust over my books, my clothes, my laptop, my hair.

But over time, as I learned to write legibly on the chalkboard and I grew to know my students, I stopped fighting. I gave my students the classroom, and designed a curriculum that stemmed from learning and understanding their needs and interests.

Just as my first trip to Rwanda had taught me to accept the red soil that would never leave my shoes, I embraced the chalk dust that had become a part of the fabric of my life.

 

A few of my students at the Rwamagana School of Nursing & Midwifery (Adeodatte is second from the left)

 

Halfway into the semester, I finally reached Adeodatte.

In an attempt to simultaneously tackle attendance issues and improve English proficiency, I designed a two-week project that required students to select a current newspaper article, present it to the class and facilitate a classroom discussion.

Since most of my students were also teachers (medical practitioners and lecturers) at the school, I realized that – given the right guidance and resources – they were naturally better teachers and more effective at relaying and explaining new concepts to their colleagues. Plus, given the culture of respect for coworkers and superiors, my students were necessarily obliged to attend the presentations of their peers – which effectively improved attendance.

The project worked wonders in the classroom, and prompted students to discuss topics ranging from the conflict in DRC, to the recent UN report condemning President Kagame, the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of NGOs, the role of religion in Rwanda’s development, homosexuality and gay marriage, abortion, child-rearing, family values, the future of Rwanda post-Kagame.

Adeodatte’s stony silence vanished when we touched on topics pertaining to politics or religion, and she was vocal about her views – her staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage, her devotion to the church, her worship of President Paul Kagame.

However, when it was her turn to present an article, she balked.

Unaccustomed to speaking in class (much less in English), she stumbled through her presentation in a mixture of English, French, and Kinyarwanda and did not finish leading the class in a discussion. After class, I offered her an opportunity to present again. She accepted, and stated that she wanted to present the following week.

The second time around, it was as if a new student had entered my class — Adeodatte fully utilized the chalkboard and gave a thoughtful and well-prepared summary – entirely in English – about the NGO, Transparency International. Her classmates actively participated in a discussion on the pros and cons of for-profit versus non-profit organizations. It was one of the most engaging presentations we had all year.

I gave Adeodatte a big hug after class. “Wonderful presentation,” I said, “See you on Monday.”

 

***

There were already hundreds of people scattered in small groups across the parking lot when I arrived at the Rwamagana Church on September 9. I saw conversations pause and heads turn as I walked toward the entrance. I steadied the basket of white lilies in my arms and kept my eyes focused on the sanctuary door.

Inside, a choir was rehearsing by the pulpit and I saw Sister Stephanie, smoothing out the altar cloth, neatening the floral arrangements. I set the flowers on a pew, and was about to sit down when Justine appeared by my side.

“Teacher, welcome,” she said. “Come, we must go to the school.”

Earlier that morning, I had stopped by the Umubano Hotel in Kigali for flowers. “For a funeral,” I said. The florist nodded, and I watched as she deftly selected and arranged lilies, trimmed white and purple ribbons – the colors of mourning in Rwanda – and expertly tied large bows around the veiled basket. The agility of her fingers nauseated me.

Justine led me across the street to the school’s staff room, where all the female lecturers and staff members were putting on mushanana, the traditional formal dress of Rwanda. Justine pulled out three pieces – the shirt, the robe, the skirt – and handed them to me.

“I don’t understand,” I said, “Justine, why am I wearing mushanana?”

Her eyes opened wide. “Oh, nobody told you?” she said.

As she helped to get me dressed, Justine explained to me what had happened.

On September 7, just two days before, Adeodatte’s aunt (mother’s sister) had passed away. The funeral was scheduled for the following day, so Adeodatte joined her immediate family – her mother, brother, and sister – to drive to Uganda, where the aunt had resided.

“Already such a great loss to the family,” said Justine, shaking her head.

The tragedy of the aunt’s death was magnified by the immense loss Adeodatte’s family had already endured. Adeodatte’s father and all of his relatives were killed during the 1994 genocide, and the aunt was the only surviving member of her mother’s family.

“But the brother of Adeodatte, he was driving, and he made a mistake,” said Justine, “You know, in Rwanda, we drive on the right, and in Uganda, the cars drive on the left.”

When Adeodatte’s brother steered the car across the Rwanda-Uganda border, the vehicle collided head-on with a cargo truck. Adeodatte, her sister, and mother died immediately. The brother was at a hospital in Uganda but was not expected to survive.

Justine slipped the final piece of mushanana over my head and adjusted the fabric on my shoulder.

“So, now, you understand,” she said, “The staff and lecturers at the Rwamagana nursing school — we are Adeodatte’s family.”

Adeodatte, with her husband and children.

 

***

Class was canceled for two weeks after Adeodatte’s death.

The first week, I joined my colleagues to plan and coordinate various parts of the funeral proceedings. We organized efforts to collect financial support for Adeodatte’s husband and four children, and made sure that the children had sufficient funds to continue studying. The staff and lecturers planned a visit to Adeodatte’s home in the village; I said I would attend, but when the day arrived, I turned off my phone and remained in Kigali.

I could not cry. And, for days, I could not sleep.

The school director called – she said classes would resume on September 24. My last day as a Fulbright English Teacher had originally been scheduled for September 19. But I told her I would be there.

What was I going to teach? I had prepared a final exam and review sheets, but now an exam seemed neither appropriate nor relevant.

On September 24, my students filed into class and sat down.

“Good morning, class,” I said, “First, I want you to know that there are some changes to the curriculum. We will no longer have a final exam; instead, the last assignment will be a composition. I will explain more about this assignment later.”

I passed out the lesson for the day. “Today we are going to do a reading comprehension exercise. Please read the passage three times. Underline the words you do not know, and when you are finished, you can put your pen on the table.”

The students began reading and I turned to the chalkboard.

My heart clenched.

There, scrawled across the length of the chalkboard, was an unmistakable penmanship. The memory of the last class came back to me – Adeodatte’s impressive presentation, the hug, the moment of feeling Yes, I had finally reached her.

I could feel my students’ eyes watching as I picked up the eraser and walked over to the chalkboard.

I began to erase the words, each wipe producing a flurry of dust that flew into my face, over my hands, onto my clothes.

Is this the farewell – the final act? the letting go?

 

For one year, I have struggled to write.

I left Rwanda in November 2012. First, I traveled back to the States; I passed through Chicago, Boston, New York, and DC. Then, I flew across the world to Asia and meandered through Taipei, Tainan, Hong Kong, Bali, Bangkok, and Singapore. I spent one month in Berlin, and then, the past 6 months, I have worked and resided in NYC.

In all of these cities, I have tried over and over to write. But I could not write.

Then, today, I returned to Rwamagana.

Justine invited me to the school for her graduation ceremony. It was to be a surprise for my former students. I boarded the Stella Express bus in Remera and I began the familiar trip down the winding roads through the countryside.

For one year, I had wondered what it all meant.

At the school, Sister Epiphanie runs to me and cannot stop shaking my arm. Elisabeth is there too, and so is Bosco, and Augustin, and Donata, and Lambert, and Regine.

So little has changed.

And yet, when I step back into the classroom, I look for the marks on the chalkboard. The dust may have been erased, but perhaps the scratches are still there.

One year later, the tears come.

One year later, I can finally write.

And I hear my students reading aloud the final passage:

 

…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.