The Project that Failed (and the Lesson that Succeeded)

I am sitting at the National Curriculum Development Center waiting for the Inspectorate General. My appointment was at 2:00 PM. I got here at 1:00 PM. It is now 3:00 PM. I have a class to teach at 4:00 PM.

Am I disappointed? Yes, very much so. Am I surprised? No, not particularly.

This is only one more instance out of a series of failed attempts to obtain information about primary education from the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC). As I mentioned at the beginning of the summer, I hoped to research primary education in Rwanda to examine the ways in which the government has implemented policies to reach its goal of universal primary education. I started researching in June but quickly discovered that: 1) there is almost no published information about primary education in Rwanda, 2) the MINEDUC website does not work and I have no one to contact for more information.


So clearly, I could not begin my research until I arrived in Rwanda.

Fast forward to my first week in Rwanda. I meet with an adviser to President Kagame who has several important contacts in the government. He places me in touch with someone in MINEDUC and assures me that she will be able to answer all my questions about primary education. So far, so good. I call the contact and tell her about my project. She tells me to schedule an appointment for the next week. Okay, done.

Second week in Rwanda. First appointment at MINEDUC. I meet the contact and, after reminding her about my project, she tells me that she cannot help me. What? I learn that there is currently no one in charge of primary education at MINEDUC. Instead of providing me information, she gives me a list of more people to contact and shows me the door.

Okay. So not what I expected, but surely one of these people will be able to give me a list of the public primary schools in Rwanda. How difficult could that be?

Very difficult, apparently.

Ministry of Education (MINEDUC)

First person to call: the Permanent Secretary of MINEDUC. If she does not have the information, she will at least know for certain who I need to contact. I dial the number and reach her secretary.


Hi, my name is Lydia,” I say, “I’m a student from the United States and I would like to research primary education. Would it be possible to schedule –”

The line clicks.

I look at my phone. Did she hang up? Must have been a glitch.

I dial the number again and wait. The secretary does not pick up. I try again. No result. I decide that something must have happened at MINEDUC and I will call tomorrow.

I call the next day.


Hi, my name is Lydia and I called yesterday. I’m a student from the United States and I was wondering –”


I glance at my phone. She hung up? That’s when the suspicion starts setting in. I call three more times and no one picks up.

For the next week, I call every day, and every time the same thing happens. I introduce myself and before I even say the words “schedule an appointment,” the woman hangs up.

Well, at least I have other contacts. I call the other two – one at the National Curriculum Development Center, and the other in charge of statistics at MINEDUC – and schedule appointments. Unfortunately, they cannot schedule appointments until two weeks later. Sigh. Nothing I can do about that.

In the meantime, I stay busy with lesson-planning, teaching, and grading. I attend FESPAD, campaign rallies, the elections. I meet the members of the Cinema Centre, visit the construction site for the new movie theatre, and connect them to Africana. One of the teachers at the LC tells me about a school run by her friend. I visit the school (more about Hirondelles later) and interview the director.

Visited one school in Kigali. Check.

Which brings me to week four. Only three and a half more weeks left before I head back to Evanston, and I still don’t even have a list of the primary schools in Kigali. And now, my first appointment has also failed.

How did this happen?

Yesterday, I spoke to another American about my research woes. She has plenty of experience under her belt as a former volunteer and employee for the Rwandan government; now, she works for an NGO. After patiently listening to my long list of grievances against MINEDUC, she tells me to be careful not to extend my negative experience over an entire population. Yes, what happened was extremely frustrating, but it is a special case, not the rule. I bring up “African time” and my frustration with Rwandans who come two hours after they say they will meet you, and when they finally show up, they shrug and say, “Sorry, it’s African time.”

How is this acceptable? I ask. How is it okay to recognize a negative stereotype and reinforce it?

She tells me that if I look more closely, I will see that punctuality is also an issue in the U.S., just maybe in different areas and situations. In Rwanda, it is true that people are often two hours late to social appointments, but the buses always run precisely on the dot and teachers show up to class on time. Do the buses run on time at Northwestern? she asks me. I immediately think of the Intercampus shuttle and the excruciatingly cold half hour that would tick by in December with still no bus in sight. No, I answer.

She’s right. I had taken my frustration with several members of MINEDUC and applied it to the population of an entire country. I was ashamed. So this is how stereotypes start.

At this point, I am fairly certain that my research project has failed and I will be unable to visit all the schools and conduct all the interviews as I had hoped. But, in at least one respect, this failure has turned out to be a success. I have realized my own unconscious inclination to typecast people and take individual failures and apply them to a whole group. I am glad that through these trials, I have been able to learn a lesson that is well worth the failure. To have continued in my thinking without that additional perspective would have been a failure indeed – and a larger one, at that!

August 30, 2010 – UPDATES:

I received an apology from the Inspectorate General and have rescheduled a meeting for tomorrow morning. I also paid MINEDUC another visit and preempted a second failed appointment by giving the Statistics specialist a call in the morning and half an hour before the appointment. He still showed up one hour late – but at least he showed up! It’s so interesting how things work here – the information about primary education is unpublished, but if you track the right people down, they can hand you all the information on a USB. So now, I have all the stats on primary, secondary, and higher education in Rwanda on an Excel spreadsheet. It wasn’t easy to track the specialist down, but I couldn’t believe how easy it was to attain the official information. Also, I paid the Permanent Secretary’s secretary a visit, and introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Lydia. You might remember me – I called every day last week to schedule an appointment?” Yep. Have an appointment scheduled at 11 AM tomorrow. I think I’m starting to get the hang of this…only two weeks left, but we’ll see what I can do 🙂